On Safe Schools

There’s a lot that can be said about the Safe Schools program. I know that, because there’s a lot being said about it. A lot of things that are warm and encouraging, at all levels of our social and political lives, and of course the things that are as far away from warm and encouraging as you can get.

It’s very easy to react emotionally on these things. It’s tempting, and it’s almost effortless, because your gut reaction can speak loudly and clearly when you feel passionately; but despite the ease with which you can do this, it very rarely does more than adds your voice to the howl of other voices doing the same thing, whatever side of the argument that may fall on. You’ll find others who share your opinion, and you’ll be dismayed at the voices arguing against you.

And while it’s often the case that the loudest and most noticeable voices go the furthest – the politicians, the high-profile campaigners, the decision makers and so on – there’s still a common area where either side of the argument falls down, and that’s in the case of the information on which said voices base their opinion.

My emotional reaction is simple: I’m 100% behind the Safe Schools program and stand for everything it supports. I’d happily howl that into the wind if I thought enough people were blindly adhering to my opinions and it would make a change, but I know that’s not the case.

Instead, I want to address the thing that I think is playing a big part of the debate on Safe Schools that doesn’t get addressed much.

That thing is the notion of heteronormativity.

Break down the word, and its definition is clear – the idea that “heterosexuality” is “normal”. Most academic views consider that heteronormativity is a structure of beliefs that are held to view the world in, and that attitudes such as sexism, transphobia and homophobia stem from heteronormativity.

I’d pare it back a little and say that in general, we function in a heteronormative society. I hate to use a term as potentially loaded as “normal” in that context, but if you were to state that heterosexuality is the assumed default status of most people you meet, it’d be hard to argue against that.

A simple way to highlight this – when you meet someone new, you might wonder if they’re gay/bi/asexual – you’d rarely wonder if someone was straight. This happens because the characteristics or mannerisms or the way they dress or something else raises a question (could they be gay/bi/asexual?) and what you’re questioning is how much does this person deviate from the “norm” or the societal default.

Now what you then do with your assessment of that person speaks to your character.

“Could they be gay? Either way, their glass is empty and I’m going to buy them a beer” probably indicates you’re a cool individual.

“Could they be gay? I’d best douse the kids in holy water and move to another state” – probably not so cool.

But the simple fact that the question came into your mind at all is what highlights the idea of heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity pervades our society in a lot of ways, to varying degrees of intent and reason, from people actively reinforcing it, to those who simply operate from within it or because of it. A social construct does not need to be actively participated in for it to still exist, but it certainly doesn’t stop people from actively participating in it.

When it comes to something like the Safe Schools program, it becomes an issue because people define what’s acceptable material for schoolkids based on what they perceive to be in line with the norm, or in this case the heteronorm. The conservative view is that the material is unsuitable for children because of how it might sway their thinking or warp their minds. The progressive view is that this material is essential for kids who have questions and need guidance.

If you take Tony Abbott’s reprehensible statement that the Safe Schools program was a “social engineering” program, you might counter with the fact that all children are socially engineered while they grow up in a heteronormative society. The values we see promoted on a wide-scale, the marriages between men and women, the stories we see on TV, in movies, in books, the notion of distinct categories of entertainment, colours and activities for boys and girls – they all contribute to a heteronormative world view.

Does that make them bad? No, of course not. No one is a monster because they’re straight, or because they identify as a girl and like girly things or because they identify as a boy and like boyish things. Is a cutesy-romance movie bad because it’s straight? Knowing romance movies, it’s probably bad, but not because of the makeup of the relationship. But do these things have visibility in a way that reinforces the idea of heterosexuality being normal? Yes. They might not actively be setting out to do that, but it does.

And it doesn’t seem like too big a deal at all, until you see what happens to people who deviate from that norm, who don’t function in the default setting. Let’s consider something very high-level and return to the romance movie. If its two leads are a man and a woman, it’s a “romance” or “romantic comedy” or a “romantic drama”. If its two leads are the same sex, it can be any of those things, but it also becomes a “queer film”. There’s a point of deviation, and it’s highlighted as such.

In school, you can be an athlete, an academic, the class-clown, the drama kid or any other number of identities. The second that you’re identified as “the queer kid”, it’s hard to overcome that being the main thing people assess you with. There’s a point of deviation. And how that’s highlighted can vary drastically and dangerously.

One of the things that kept me firmly closeted in high school (I’ve known I’m bi for as long as I can remember, but only talked openly about it within recent years) was the fear of what might happen if I were to say anything. It was the fear of not knowing if it was acceptance or torment that laid ahead that caused me anxiety. It is the fear of knowing how people have reacted in the past in different settings that makes it easier – not comfortable – but easier to stay silent.

It certainly didn’t help that my school was surprisingly apathetic towards bullying despite having quite a strongly written anti-harassment policy. Girls in my sisters’ grades were felt up in the locker rooms against their will, and “boys will be boys” was offered as an explanation. A girl in my grade was humiliated in one of the most vindictive ways high school is capable of (and ten years later is too late to say it, but if you’re reading this, I’m sorry (and still sorry) that I didn’t have your back when it happened) and the teachers by and large donated 0% of their fucks about it.

But that’s school. Made up of flawed individuals, going about their days and surviving, in a system that’s chaotic beneath its exterior, and harder to control when it breaks loose. Something like Safe Schools wouldn’t eradicate the fear, and being realistic it wouldn’t have stopped any bullying if I’d said anything, but I would’ve had some comfort knowing that I wasn’t isolated by it.

If it’s still a hard concept to grasp, and I understand that living it is a very different beast from observing it, than this music video may go someway to conceptualising what the fear is like (it’s exaggerated/explicit but gets the emotive punches right):

And for the kids at school these days, they get the mired joy of going to school under those same conditions but with the growing pervasiveness of the internet in their lives, where they have so much more access to the wide and public debates about issues that affect them directly, and get to hear moral grandstanding about what is right and appropriate and, most damagingly, what is considered normal, even if its not termed as such.

It’s a damaging debate, because the morals and opinions of the program’s detractors are founded in their heteronormativity, and without them realising this as such, turns their argument not into a case of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” but “right and wrong”.

More to the point, the braying and outcrying from a bunch of Straight White Men™ in parliament is so far removed from the actual lived experience of the kids who are having to go through the torment of highschool with the added fear/anxiety/pressure of not fitting into the heteronormative model that it’s completely pointless to have such vicious conjecture about something that does not affect them.

The Safe Schools program is not a miracle cure for bullying. It would not eradicate bullying, it would not stop kids being awful to each other, and it most certainly does not “socially engineer” impressionable kids into a way of life. It promotes acceptance and tolerance and understanding. It doesn’t guarantee them. It helps well-intentioned-but-clueless school administrations have a starting point to relate to these kids whose lived experiences are so different from their own. It helps to bridge the gap between the known and unknown.

But if the George Christensens, Cory Bernardies, Tony Abbotts have their way and the program is eradicated entirely, it’s not going to stop queer kids existing, or going to school and being tormented, or (hopefully) going to school and finding groups of friends who love them and accept them however they are. The biggest opportunity for the Straight White Men™ opposing Safe Schools is that they need to learn that the people and effective school initiatives that don’t fit the heteronormative mold are simply different from their view – not dangerous.

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Short Reviews: Weekend (2011)

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Weekend tells the story of Russel (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), two men who meet in a bar one night and end up spending a weekend together. I’m hesitant to call it a love story only because it seems the characters themselves would baulk at the suggestion that they’re in love after such a short timeframe. Weekend is, however, a very romantic and very intimate film that grounds itself in reality and is all the better for it.

Russel is a decent-looking, adequately-employed and suitably-social (albeit a bit awkward) man who nevertheless seems to be wandering around in a state of semipermanent ennui. He’s immediately drawn to Glen – handsome, confident, vivacious, and what starts as a one-night stand goes a slightly different route the next morning, where you get the sense that both of them feel like they should be making themselves scarce but neither really wants to.

Weekend is a triumph of character. As much as he fits the “nice, quiet guy” bill, Russel has his flaws – he’s presumptuous and stubborn, and a bit of a layabout (his ennui is almost certainly self-inflicted). It’s much more evident in Glen – equal parts charming and cavalier as he is brash and obnoxious. But lest they sound unlikeable, the movie’s success is that they’re not only likeable characters, they’re real and relatable. Much of the growing connection between the two of them comes from both being ever so mildly irritated with the other one, but happy that they pushed through the irritation and got to know them a bit better.

It comes about that Glen is actually set to leave for the US to study at an art school at the end of the weekend. This of course puts a time limit on the budding romance, and causes things to intensify a little between them. But refreshingly, the film doesn’t end with Glen changing his entire plan on a whim, and the stock-standard mad-rush-to-the-train-station-before-the-loved-one-leaves is really just Russel getting a lift with a friend so that he and Glen can have a bit more time together.

And at the film’s end, who can really say if they’re in love or not? Glen and Russel certainly (probably) wouldn’t, but it’s clear there’s a connection that’s been made, a hell of a lot of feeling involved, and both of them would be thinking about the other for a long time. It’s to the film’s credit that it manages this without being overly-sentimental or dramatic, which makes it feel all the more real and potent.

It’s also to the films’ credit that it doesn’t try to do more than tell its story. There is no moralising or speechifying from the characters; neither Glen nor Russel serve as metaphors for LGBT issues at a larger surface – they’re just two guys who meet and have a weekend’s worth of story together, and the film just lets you in on what’s happening. It’s not necessarily a love story, but it’s certainly incredibly romantic.

Short Reviews: The Hunter (2011)

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Sweeping vistas of forested mountains! Stunning imagery of rivers, roads, snowy peaks, trails! Places I have been to and can recognise!

The Hunter is something of a curio for me, having been shot entirely in my home state. As such, it comes with an added layer of “spot the location” which is always fun to play, but given that the last film I got to do that with was Arctic Blast, it’s a welcome relief to have a movie that’s actually, y’know, good to play it with.

Willem Dafoe plays a shady mercenary named (or codenamed) Martin, hired by a shady organisation to hunt down the last surviving Tasmanian Tiger. Under the pretence of studying Tasmanian Devils for the university (I enjoyed that it’s simply “The” university), he travels to Tasmania to begin the hunt, but not without his fair share of setbacks: the house he’s staying in has no power, the landlady Lucy (Frances O’Connor) is catatonic, her insufferable kids seem to have no boundaries, and to cap it off, he’s mistaken for a Greenie by the local logging community who turn their hostility towards him almost instantly.

After some initial help from a local named Jack (Sam Neill), Martin sets out on his hunt, isolated in the uninhabited mountain range for days at a time, returning to Lucy’s homestead periodically to resupply. Over time, he begins warming up to the kids and helping Lucy recover from her catatonia; warmth develops in their relationship and he starts feeling conflicted between his shady task and the connections he’s made with Lucy and her children. But lest that sound like the beginnings of a rom-com, remember it’s Willem Dafoe we’re talking about – this is the beginning of a very quiet and understated, but solidly effective thriller.

The Hunter is many things – beautifully shot, wonderfully performed (Dafoe’s intensity is captivating, O’Connor’s warmth and determination an absolute comfort), incredibly atmospheric, and very much off the beaten track of your usual thriller. It’s not without its flaws – a shocking turn of events towards the end of the film seems either cruel or shoehorned in (or both) – but it’s put together so well it can overcome its shortcomings.

There is also the added fun/pride in the movie being filmed entirely in Tasmania. Perhaps it’s an insider’s bias, but watching this was almost a tactile sensory experience too – you can practically smell the forests, or what Lucy’s ramshackle-but-intimate house would feel like as you step over the threshold.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is its emotional and atmospheric resonance. One shot in particular (the shot of the movie, if you will) was done so quietly and sensitively that it was absolutely gut wrenching It’s a movie where not much is said, not much really happens – but it’s incredibly moving and thrilling all the same. And that is owed almost entirely to Willem Dafoe continuing his chameleonic career and Frances O’Connor anchoring in juxtaposition to his intensity and knocking it out of the park.

Holy Motors (2012)

So of the many strange films one can come across, Holy Motors is among the strangest. It’s stunningly incomprehensible, yet immensely watchable – a treat for the eyes and a fuck for the mind.

The plot, as much as one can attempt to describe it, follows a man named Monsieur Oscar as he’s driven to various “appointments” in a limousine, escorted by his driver Celine. These “appointments” vary wildly – performing (?) as a beggar on the street, a motion-capture actor for a bizarre mermaid-snake-alien sex scene, a mobster assassinating his own twin, a parent picking his daughter up from a party, an old man on his deathbed, and others aside.

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As best as it can be described, a series of vignettes where Monsieur Oscar plays different characters in scenes of different stories – perhaps even just different characters of the movie itself or maybe an entirely different movie or movies, but with no connection, no obvious audience, no directors or crew.

The connecting thread of the vignettes is his return to the limousine-cum-change room, where he has some brief moments of introspection about whatever it is that he does for a living, about how it’s different now, and one gets the sense he’s mourning having hit his peak some time before.

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The movie contains an impressive musical interlude where Oscar leads a group of accordionists through a rousing song, a sequence reminiscing on his past with a colleague (played by Kylie Minogue, who offers her own musical number), comedy, nudity, violence, bizarre and pointedly mundane imagery, and all sorts of oddness that can’t be simply described.

Yet for all its nonsense, it somehow seems to make sense. It’s not possible to understand it, but there is some sort of logic to it all; Holy Motors is not just weird shit for the sake of it. This is a film that ends with a garage of limousines discussing their existential crises, and as the credits roll, it seems like the only possible way the film could have ended.

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Key to all of this is a bold and malleable performance from Denis Lavant as Oscar, as both the actor and character completely embody all of the different roles in his “appointments”, both with heart and physicality. He’s able to move from a crippled beggar woman to a nightmarish goblin-man and convince as both, from a dying old man to a beleaguered father and make you believe, if only for a moment, that you’ve been watching a movie with those characters in it the entire time.

One gets the sense that Holy Motors is a deeply personal message from creator Leos Carax, but what that message is exactly is – unsurprisingly – hard to determine. One theme that runs through the film is that everything Oscar does is growing irrelevant, that the meaning behind everything he does has been lost to the past. This is echoed by the vignettes often centring on a moment of loss or disappointment – of particular note is Kylie Minogue’s character: wistful and sad, and their scene together takes place in the abandoned La Samaritaine building, decrepit and past its glory days.

In the Limo

With the most detectable plot elements focusing on Oscar’s performance and adaptability into different roles (and each with their own ostensible genre), it’s not hard to imagine Holy Motors as a paean to the glory days of cinema, or perhaps even Carax’s own career (of which I’ve only seen this film, so I can’t comment in too much depth). What’s interesting is the way that the audience is positioned to see Oscar as an actor performing in his different appointments – we understand (as much as possible) that he’s playing a part each time, and that with these different scenes come different levels of success. It’s hard to feel anything for the esoteric scene of the beggar woman on the streets of Paris, yet the scene where he is a father having an argument with his (or his character’s) teenage daughter after he picks her up from a party feel genuinely part of a larger story of which we’re only catching a glimpse.

At the same time, the film plays just as easily as an absurdist piece of Dada-esque art, incomprehensible at its core but somehow still moving enough to resonate with an audience. It’s undeniably strange, and perhaps the act of seeking out meaning in a film that so wilfully denies offering any meaning of its own is its own form of practical joke.

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At the end of the day, a film as bizarre as Holy Motors doesn’t need any set understanding. There is no right or wrong way to watch it or take it in, as there’s no possible way to prove any response to it is more valid than any other. For all its potential codes and signs that may allude to a greater understanding, it can be enjoyed purely on the superficial level of watching a lot of amazingly shot scenes play out without any way to interpret what you’re seeing. And it is amazingly shot, and stunningly performed, and shocking, and funny, and confusing and incomprehensible, and just so very weird – it’s impossible not to recommend!

Short Reviews: “Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film” by Dominic Lennard

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I opened my review of The Bad Seed with the following words: “So if further evidence was needed that all children everywhere are evil, enter Rhoda Penmark and The Bad Seed”. I’d intended the quip as a pithy little one, relying more on my curmudgeonly ways than any reflection of actual children, but it was still an easy one to make – do we in fact find children a bit creepy and evil?

It’s a subject that’s considered, addressed, refuted, supported, reinterpreted and discussed all throughout Dominic Lennard’s Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film. Charting the depictions of delinquent all the way through to monstrous children in film from (roughly) the post-war era to the modern day, Lennard’s work doesn’t so much say “yes” or “no” to the question, but considers all ways of considering it.

He puts forward multiple readings and interpretations of a wide array of iconic child-focussed horror films (The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Village of the Damned to name but a few) but also asks the reader to put them in their broader context. Do we actually find children creepy, or is it a reflection of our own assumptions of childhood and societal discourses of innocence that are so easily corrupted and turned against us? Is innocence even a realistic concept, or do we rely on it to channel our own suppositions about childhood into something more meaningful? What is it about a child villain that’s so uniquely unsettling?

Over 9 separate chapters, each with its own focus, Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors presents a multitude of cogent arguments and theories on how we can read child villainy in film, and what our continued fascination with these films might say about us. Lennard takes into account the social context of each film’s creation and release and manages to chart a journey through the last near-century of cinema that not only provides a fascinating insight into the discussed films, but (for me at least) suggests that the social paranoias society has had around its children repeat and take the same form over time.

Of particular note is that this is a piece of academic writing that is incredibly accessible. Although familiarity with the films helps, Lennard is kind enough to provide enough context and synopsis of the films he discusses for the unfamiliar reader. Most importantly though, is that there’s not a wasted word and no needless adjectives to impress. This is not a piece of film writing to prove a point of how good the author is at writing about film – it’s instead a particularly well-written piece about a topic that is normally left to assumptions – either children are creepy or completely innocent. It’s well worth a read for anyone who has even a mild interest in horror cinema, and having waded through impenetrable academia for years, its light touch while still providing a wealth of insight and engaging material is very much welcomed.

 

Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors is available through Amazon and published by SUNY PRESS

 

Now for some full disclosure: Dominic Lennard is a friend of mine and former lecturer at UTAS. He generously provided me with a copy of his book knowing my interest in the subject matter, but didn’t request a review and certainly hasn’t commissioned anything from me (and I don’t have a wide enough readership for that to be worth anything). If my bias is up for question, know that I simply wouldn’t have written anything at all if I wasn’t genuinely impressed with it. Also, it’s really weird referring to someone you know by their surname to indicate authorship. That is all.

Short Reviews: Chappie (2015)

chappieCredit where credit’s due, Neil Blomkamp is inventive enough with his ideas to be able to do something different with an established trope. Into the oeuvre of highly intelligent robots combating their human overseers who want to shut them down, we enter Chappie, a case of Johnny 5 not so much being alive, as he is born and put through an existential storm of crime warfare.

However, as plagued District 9 before it, Blomkamp is a creator of light ideas that don’t support themselves for the run of an entire film. The initial interest generated by the concept peters out and the film is left to devolve into fairly standard fare. In Chappie’s case specifically, the issue is perhaps that there are too many conflicting ideas that interfere with each other, where as delving into one and exploring it – both plotwise and thematically – would have been more beneficial overall.

The concept is that Johannesburg has introduced a robotic police force of “scouts” that have been overwhelmingly successful in assisting police to reduce the rates of crime and established criminal gangs in the city. The scouts’ developer Deon (Dev Patel) is kidnapped by a small gang (led by Die Antwoord, playing odd versions of their outlandish personalities) and forced to program a damaged scout to be at their service, however he programs it with his new AI which enables it to think, feel and learn like a human – the titular Chappie.

The idea is novel, and the execution of Chappie is fantastic, with Sharlto Copley lending a childlike naïveté and tenderness to the advanced AI that quickly endears him as a character, and makes scenes of his battles against the harsh realities of criminal life in Johannesburg very affecting. The juxtaposition of Chappie’s innocence against his gritty surroundings is the movie’s biggest – and perhaps only – strength.

The problem is that the movie tries to do too much – an existential study of what it means to be human with the difference between a soul and a consciousness, the interplay of small gang vs. large gang vs a very efficient police force, the battle between an artistic creator in Deon and the rivalry he faces from a moralistic military man (Hugh Jackman, sporting an awful mullet), and a character study of the dysfunctional “family” Chappie is raised by. The film never adequately explores the ideas presented in these scenarios as it trades off against giving each narrative thread as much time as possible, and it would’ve been a far smarter idea to pick one thread and roll with it deeply, rather than trying to keep too many narrative plates spinning.

Overall it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t better serve its title character, because the potential is there, and he’s a fascinating character in the first two acts, before the film inevitably runs out of narrative steam and devolves into an overplayed shootout. Chappie deserves better than that.