Sunday, 4 March 2012

There's A New Sheriff In Town...

"It's one thing to want someone out of your life, but it's another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer."

"How very."

The moral of Michael Lehmann's 1988 indie masterpiece "Heathers" must be 'be careful what you wish for'.

In the film, Winona Ryder's "Veronica" hates her bitchy, controlling high school friends, and when she teams up with new bad-boy in town J.D., he presents her with a solution: Kill your friends, make it look like suicide.

I LOVE THIS FILM. One of my all-time favourites. It hits the nail on the head with its depiction of school life, but presents the story with a fairy-tale sheen that, somehow, makes you believe that two teenagers CAN murder their friends/enemies, make it look like suicide and get away with it. CSI it is not. It operates in an exaggerated reality which hits home its valid points because it doesn't have to get hung up on the details.

Corn nuts!
I recently entered a script of mine into a new screenwriting initiative which is searching for fresh new female characters that don't resort to the usual roles like housewife, prostitute, kick-ass babe or whatever. Fantastic! Anything that seeks to broaden the horizons of film makers in order to create less-obvious fare will always get my vote. 

My screenplay depicts a female lead character who wants the perfect lifestyle. The big house. The handsome rich husband - mostly in order to appease her judgmental parents and friends. She achieves these things early on in the story, but when her relationship with her fiance falls apart, her closest friends move in with her in order to pay the rent. Then her fiance turns up dead in the house. The story then progresses with how far the friends will cover up murders in order to sustain their 'perfect existence'.

Chaos killed the dinosaurs, darling!
The essence of the story is - be careful what you wish for. The lead character is many things - good and bad. She knows what she wants, she's sharp, witty, determined, but also manipulative, shallow at times, and looks after number one first. 

The script initially received good feedback - the first 10 pages described at 'entertaining' and 'intriguing', which is always great to hear. The second round of (more detailed) feedback - not good. Flatly rejected, seemingly due to the main character 'relying on male love interests for attention and support', and 'she often goes along with what other people want'. "A passive character" was the conclusion. The point that she was actually manipulating most, if not all of the men seemed to be missed. As for being passive, the main thrust of the story and character is 'How far do you go before you sell your soul to get what you want'. Eventually, she realises what she THOUGHT she wanted was not going to bring her any happiness (i.e. what her parents/friends wanted for her). The supporting characters are all living a lie; wanting a particular thing in order to achieve their perception of happiness.

Teenage suicide: Don't do it.
So the negative feedback got me thinking about the films that I like, and most of all, what female characters do I like. Which brings us to "Heathers".

I know for a lot of people, 'Veronica Sawyer' is an anti-hero icon. But if you take a good look at the choices she makes in the film, it all begins to look, well, a bit flimsy. 

1) She hangs out with the top 3 girls in the school whom she hates, but goes along with it because to achieve anything in life, you have to be top dog. Seemingly the 'Heathers' only hang out with her because she can copy other people's hand-writing. *This implies she is shallow and easily led.

2) Her psycho new boyfriend is the one that plants the seed to kill her friends. She rejects the idea initially, but ends up being implicated in the murders. *Fooled/easily led by a teenage boy, but goes along with more of his 'plans'.

3) When she realises the truth behind J.D.'s plotting i.e. to blow up the school, she doesn't tell her parents or go to the police - she tries, albeit successfully, to stop J.D. herself. *Self-preservation? 

4) Ultimately, J.D. 'wipes the slate clean', removing any personal responsibility for Veronica. *Her 'freedom' is given to her by J.D. taking the fall.

Now this may not seem like I like 'Heathers', but I do. I really, truly do. Why? Because Veronica is far from perfect. She makes bad choices. She isn't all-knowing and consistently strong. She sells out her childhood best friend in order to hang out with a nasty, vindictive clique. The genius of her character is - she IS imperfect. She is contrary. You can relate to her.

Lick it up, baby! Lick-it-up!
I've been inspired to check out a few feminist movie websites, to try and understand what, in their mind, makes a good female character. A large percentage of what I read was negative opinion. Yes, I agree 100% that the female roles in 'Inception' were bland and nothing (so was the film itself, why break tradition?); it is wrong that women should be side-lined into housewife roles, forever agreeing with the dominant husband.

But then I read negatives about the likes of 'Wall-E', slating 'Eve' for looking sleek and appealing; a man's depiction of a 'pretty robot', and that she is only in the story to help the male robot i.e. Wall-e.

And so it goes on. Now if we're to believe and agree with all of this, you would never see a film in which "a boy meets a girl/boy falls for girl..." OR "Girl meets boy/girl falls for boy.." because it is either objectifying the girl as something to be 'won', or she believes her happiness lies in falling in love with the boy of her dreams.

There would never be another love story ever again.

Veronica: Wholesome teen and accomplice to murder...
Now I'm not looking for a war on feminism, nor is this sour grapes. But looking at the DVD's on my shelf, I would have to throw out half of my dvd's. Groundhog Day, Splash, Pretty In Pink, Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, Big, The Truman Show, Heathers, Ghost World, Roxanne, Eternal Sunshine, Amelie... Are these poor excuses for films? I like them a lot, I enjoy watching them and they are entertaining because I can relate to them on an emotional level. Is 'The Thing' sexist because there are no female roles? (Admittedly unsuccessfully 'rectified' by the recent prequel). Again, I read a review criticising 'The Hurt Locker' (directed by Kathryn Bigelow) because the only female role was 'the wife/mother back home in the U.S.'. 

When I think about great female roles, I think of Pam Grier in "Jackie Brown": She's edging towards a lonely, penniless life and she chooses to do something about it. Sigourney Weaver in "Alien": The reason why she survives is because SHE IS NOT STUPID. Kane is too eager, Brett's an idiot, Dallas is foolish, Ash is a robot, Parker and Lambert sod about staring instead of running. Both characters are flawed - Jackie Brown seems to be screwed over by life at the start of the film, and Ripley is presented as somewhat hard-nosed and not well-liked.
Are these characters somehow better because they are women? I would argue that a good character is a good character - be it male or female - and that whether they are male or female doesn't make their character better or worse. Of course there are instances where you have 'woman in a man's world' or even 'man in a woman's world', but they make their points respectively (if successfully done).

The Heathers. And a Veronica.
Ultimately, I've been left wondering what the screenwriting initiative wanted. Did they want a flawless female character that always leads the way and comes out on top? Upon reflection, it would have been helpful to have an idea of what they wanted, as opposed to what they didn't want, and perhaps seize this great opportunity to inform and dare I say it, educate writers in creating these elusive, rounded female characters. We all want to write interesting, complex characters, but is this achieved at the expense of any realism or simply wanting to entertain?
"Y'know what I want? Cool guys like you out of my life!"