Elephant (2003)

Elephant is a drama film directed by Gus Van Sant that is based on the events surrounding the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The film follows an ordinary school day, introducing us to many different characters along the way. We meet Alex and Eric entering the building with weapons in the middle of the day and, due to the film’s non-linear narrative, see a flashback to the day prior and see what a normal day at school is like for them. Alex and Eric are two outcasted students who are mistreated by their peers. They become infatuated with the fantasy of killing those in their path in order to escape the reality of being rejected.

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Alex and Eric entering school before the shooting.

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The students about to begin looking for those left in the building.

While there are many interesting plot lines within the film, it is important to focus on the experimental nature of how the movie was produced. It is composed of many tracking shots of students going about their everyday lives, but also tracking shots of Alex and Eric running around the school with their guns. There is no narration of thought, which is extremely frustrating as a viewer, however the particular filming draws parallels to the graphics of a violent video game. As we see Alex and Eric walk through the halls from behind, it is very familiar to controlling a video game character. This only enhances the fantasy of the situation, leading us to believe that committing this massacre was an escape from their reality.

This idea of escaping reality is also found in Willa Cather’s story Pauls Case: A Study in Temperament. Paul was also a student who struggled to fit in at school and at home, so he made the decision to leave Pittsburgh and run away to New York to live out a new life “entirely rid of his nervous misgivings, of his forced aggressiveness, of the imperative desire to show himself different from his surroundings”. Paul played up the part of his character, building his perfect fantasy by dressing how he pleased and spending money on fancy dinners and alcohol and thinking that he would finally be happy. However, this all changed when Paul realized his father was coming for him. His fantasy was coming to a close. In the end, Paul took his life in order to permanently escape the reality of the trouble he would endure at home.

While Paul’s fantasy ended with him taking his own life, Alex and Eric ended theirs by taking the lives of others (in addition to Eric also being shot by Alex). Their sexualities can be linked to their desire to escape what life had been for them, as Paul was outwardly homosexual. While we don’t know Alex and Eric’s sexualities, they do share a kiss in the shower together the morning of the massacre, which can at least be considered non-normative. An interesting concept to note from both the story and the film is that neither piece ends concretely: we do not know what comes of Paul’s death or of the massacre, however lives were certainly taken under unnecessary and unfortunate circumstances.

Tipping the Velvet: The Lesbian Underground

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Tipping the Velvet is a historical fiction novel written by Sarah Waters, and published in 1998. I chose to review the three-episode film adaptation released in 2002.

The story takes place in Victorian England during the 1890s and follows the life of Nan Astley as she starts to recognize her sexuality. She falls madly in love with a woman named Kitty Butler who poses as a man in theatre. They develop a close and fun love that goes sour. Nan is shattered, leaves their apartment and tries to make a life of her own. She encounters numerous situations that leave her worse off than the last (there is not much a woman in the 1890’s can do as an independent) until she has nothing left to sustain her – injured, homeless, and hungry. She finds a woman from two years prior that she was developing feelings for, asks to stay with her, and they fall in love.

I chose to add this to the archive because throughout Nan’s entire experience, not much judgment is placed on her. There are few short scenes which do serve to show the overall intolerance of female-female sexual relations of that era. She was completely rejected by her sister after revealing her love for Kitty Butler. A prominent man in Kitty’s life dismissed the idea that women could have real sex together, saying, “You need a man for that, I think you’ll find.” highlighting the idea that penile-vaginal intercourse is the only proper, and legitimate, act of sexual behavior. In another scene, a few drunken men in an alley tried to attack Nan and her girlfriend after Nan stood up to their crude remarks.

It’s important to highlight, however; that while the story in Tipping the Velvet is a created history, Nan found social environments that supported her own identity. She frequented spaces that were comprised of women dressed like men and accompanied by their “wives.” She was in a relationship (though abusive) with a woman that heavily centered her life around this social environment.
I draw a relation between the underground scene in Tipping the Velvet to that of the gay world mentioned in George Chauncey’s introduction to Gay New York. Though same sex sexual relationships were heavily frowned upon, individuals who identified with those interests were able to create a thriving counterculture that suited their needs of expression, search for partners, and validation. They weren’t forced into feeling that they must completely shut themselves away in isolation because of the harsh judgments and regulations of the dominant culture – one of the three “myths” Chauncey introduces in his text.

(skip to 7:30 to see an example of social gatherings of the quest community, and to avoid spoilers)

Nan extensively challenged societal norms. She regularly passed as a man in her day-to-day life, or went on as a woman whenever she felt. While this idea ties into the concepts of gender (as we interpret it today), many people of the time would have labeled such a person an invert.  There are several mentions of the unnaturalness of the lives of women who love women. I think that the reverse gender presentation of many of the characters in the show highlight the idea that crossing gender boundaries is wrong, and contribute to thinking homosexual activity to be unnatural. Choosing to adorn oneself in men’s attire transgressed cultural expectations of females, and this sort of behavior was typical among the female homosexual community in Tipping the Velvet. Sigmund Freud (while his work appears later than the time of this story) considered inversion to be a deviation, but not innate – so essentially unnatural, and this show presents that idea.
The TV adaptation of Tipping the Velvet is a drama, based off of historical fiction, and produces a story of some seemingly unrealistic encounters. Yet, it offers a representation of the resilience of the female homosexual community, much like what is offered in George Chauncey’s true historical analysis of the gay male world in New York. Tipping the Velvet serves to create a history where one is lacking, and offers representation of a historical community to those that need one – the lesbian world.

Fried Green Tomatoes

DVD Cover of Fried Green TomatoesOn January 24th, 1992, Universal Movie’s “Fried Green Tomatoes” opened in 673 movie theatres across the nation. Directed by Jon Avnet, the movie was a silver screen adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s 1987 novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. While Flagg was (and still is) generally credited with writing the screenplay for the film, the director, Jon Avnet, actually composed the majority of the script.

To follow the narrative of “Fried Green Tomatoes”, one needs to understand that the movie is really the composite of two stories. Set in southern Alabama, the film vacillates between the present day (or, what was the present day in the early 90s) and the early 20th century. While visiting a member of the family at a nursing name, Evelyn Couch meets 82-year-old Ninny Threadgoode. Rather open with strangers, Ninny begins sharing with Evelyn the life of Idgie Threadgoode, a woman who grew up in Whistle Stop, a neighboring town, nearly sixty years ago. From there, the past begins to chronologically weave itself into the present, and Idgie’s world becomes just as real as Evelyn’s. From the death of her brother to train side cafes to cancer, the audience follows the cultivation of a relationship between Idgie and Ruth Jamison. As Evelyn learns more about these women’s lives, she is inspired to take charge of her own and concurrently develops a profound friendship with Ninny, the present-day Idgie.

Marketed as a tale of friendship and how it can transcend across time to unite mere strangers, the film (to this day) seems to be largely written off by the public as innocuous in content and significance. Anyone with a keen eye, however, can immediately recognize that Ruth and Idgie’s relationship can’t fully be conceptualized by heteronormative standards of female interaction.

Sprinkled throughout the film, there are subtle interactions between Ruth and Idgie that lend themselves to suggest something more between them. These range from word choices, to tonality, to facial expression, etc. In an earlier scene where honey is retrieved and shared, Idgie’s imploration for Ruth to taste the honey and the looks they exchange almost bespeak of allegorical sexual exchange. Later, when Ruth announces she’s getting married and then pecks Idgie on the cheek, Idgie looks off in what can only be described as wounded and confused.

After she is married, Ruth quickly becomes the victim of domestic violence and the first person she turns to is Idgie. She then moves in with Idgie and the two open a café together. It is also during this time that Ruth has a child and Idgie along with another female character, Sipsey, help her raise the boy. When Frank, Ruth’s husband, shows up vowing to bring his wife and child home, he also intimidates the household with his ties to the Klan. Subsequently following these threats, Ruth asks Idgie whether she should “move on” to let Idgie settle down. Without a beat, Idgie replies that she’s “as settled as [she’d] ever hope to be”.

After Frank is killed and Idgie is on trial for his murder, Ruth is called to testify. Upon being asked why she moved in with Idgie, she replies, “Because she’s my best friend and I love her”.

From my perspective, the Ruth-Idgie dyad is best understood in Rich’s terms “lesbian continuum” and “lesbian existence”. Ruth and Idgie do many things together without or with minimal assistance from men, particularly jointly living and working together (lesbian continuum). While evidence of sexual desire between the two women might be disputable in the eyes to some, we can say with certainty that they do lead a voluntarily chosen life together where men do not dictate their movements and where they are economically independent (lesbian existence).

Drawing on the erotic, I think one could argue that Ruth and Idgie derive a sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction from each other. Before they began spending time with each other, each woman was constricted to some degree by a sense of powerlessness; Idgie perpetually grieving for her brother and Ruth checked by scripture and the expectations of her gender role. Once they truly embraced each other, however, those personal limitations melted away and they became unwilling to allow themselves to concede to that position of vacuous living ever again. And, while Ruth did suffer at the hands of her husband for three years, I’m not sure she would have ever left if it hadn’t been for the personal agency she cultivated in her relationship with Idgie. Indeed, Ruth and Idgie are truly women-identified women.