Film writers Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch are covering the New York Film Festival this year as a series of conversations about the festival and its programming. The third dispatch includes David Fincher's Gone Girl, Josh and Ben Safdie's What Heaven Knows and Nick Broomfield's Tales of the Grim Sleeper.
Fariha: This week we've got another girl-centric dispatch from NYFF. We'll be talking about the highly anticipated adaptation of Gone Girl directed by David Fincher, starring Ben—he has risen again—Affleck as Nick Dunne, alongside a terrifying performance by Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. For those of you who don't know (I mean, really?) Gone Girl is a confusing thriller focusing on the disappearance of Amy, when soon after her disappearance, the spotlight quickly turns to Nick, who is under suspicion for the murder of his wife. It's confusing because it's a layered look at female vengeance and rape narratives, as it's simultaneously compelling and problematic.
Next we have Heaven Knows What by Josh and Ben Safdie, a faux-fictionalized documentary about Harley (played by Arielle Holmes, who also wrote this story initially), a homeless teen in love with a psychopathic boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), and their lives in a ghettoized, drug-induced trauma with New York as its harrowing background.
Lastly, we have the most menacing documentary I have watched as of late, Tales of the Grim Sleeper by Nick Broomfield. The documentary focuses on Lonnie Franklin Jr., who is the accused Grim Sleeper, and is a critical look at the lack of effort by the LAPD to safeguard the lives of over a hundred and fifty women that were murdered by Franklin. Broomfield focuses on the crack epidemic as a reason for their disregard, but there is an undoubted undercurrent of race (all the victims were women, and nobody cares about black women).
Sara, let's start with Gone Girl. Also, if you don't already know—spoilers ahead!
Sara: One of the wonderful things a Fincher film does to you is suck you into the world he's created. I was so immersed in this film that I forgot the date and time and that's exactly what I want/need in a movie sometimes. Personal preferences aside, Fincher is so skilled with suspense—or at least with building it. Here we have an unreliable narrator who fools everyone by creating a narrative of her own—of abuse, of her own death, and, eventually, her return. We also get insight into what was driving her motivations. Amy is a "crazy bitch," as Nick and his sister often call her, but she's also been raised to have these high, unrealistic expectations.
So, Fariha, I wanted to really get into this with you, because, I still don't know exactly how to feel about a female narrator who has been duping everyone for the sake of revenge. I mean, I believe in revenge, and I love a good revenge story, but this is obviously a very different situation. I wanted to know how you felt about her portrayal? I'm still so torn. I'm still trying to process this entire film. Everyone in this story is so complex and morally ambiguous.
Fariha: I love female revenge narratives. Earlier this year I was a part of an amazing programming event at BAM in conjunction with n+1 and that really cemented my love for female vengeance films. You know so many of these women have been brutalized by life, they're hardened by the horrific disappointments they've experienced, so they retaliate—and that's exciting to me! But when you finally get Nick's narrative in the second half of Gone Girl—and of course he's not innocent—you do begin to feel for the guy. So readily I escaped to this "crazy bitch" trope where I was intoxicated by this idea that Amy was inherently evil, or menacing, because she wanted to see Nick burn. This was primarily because Nick also, to me, seemed relatively faultless. He was an adulterer, but who in this day in age, especially in Hollywood, isn't? So, I felt pretty unattached to, and by, her anger. This tormented me, though. I badly wanted to be on her side, but I wasn't. This is probably a good time to admit that I haven't read the books, so I don't really know what happens. But, irrespective—Amy annoyed the shit out of me, and that's really disappointing as a female viewer. How about you, Sara?
Sara: I remember with movies like Double Jeopardy or Enough, the women plot these elaborate revenge schemes in order to survive. Here, we root for the women because their plots are retributive. But with Gone Girl, we want so badly to root for Amy until we find out more and more about why she did all this—why she killed herself off to prove a point. In essence, she killed off someone who wasn't alive anymore—she says this!—so we're so conflicted. The more and more she kept explaining, the more and more I saw myself siding with Nick.
Here, we have a woman who drew out the torture—she didn't just frame Nick, but brought his sister down with him too. And yet, we somehow understand her logic—I didn't agree with it, but it felt less polarized than, say, Hungry Hearts, because at least we got her side of things. I'm wondering if we get swept up into this world because we get swept up in her world; like she's controlling us too, she wants us to live up to her expectations. There's a change in tone once she resurfaces—I mean once she abandons her role as narrator. She takes on a new life and wreaks more havoc. She becomes an icy blonde again. She starts wearing whites and pastels. The typical David Fincher coloring changes when she begins plotting a way to get back to Nick. Did you notice this too? Like here, it looks less like a David Fincher film/story? It feels like she's taken the reigns of the entire movie, let alone story.
Fariha: Yeah, for sure! I mean, Amy Dunne is a complete sentence. You know? She's an all-encompassing entity, unlike male-dominated stories—she was the thread that linked all stories, she is/was the main character. So she's totally controlling us, we're under her spell—and Fincher is wielding it for her. So in this instance, Gone Girl is "feminist" in whatever loose way, however she's so disruptive that I felt sick whenever she was on screen. Her presence was analogous to a male character you don't like—I found her too annoying, too snarky, too everything.
Elif Batuman articulated really perfectly in her article for the New Yorker that Gone Girl re-stages "marriage as a violent crime—an abduction." That really resonated with me. There were so many things that felt so right about the film, Amu was this outwardly intelligent, articulate, well-rounded woman, and yet in the end, ultimately, she's triggered by jealousy and a compulsion to ruin. That felt like such a copout for her character. It's so reductive. It's almost as if to insinuate no matter how smart women are, in the end they are always vindictive. I hated that. The book is in many ways misandrist, but it's digestible misandry—because ultimately the woman has no perceptible raison d'etre, if she did then maybe she'd be more appealing as a character.
Sara: Right! In the end, Nick is essentially trapped because the public is on Amy's side: if he leaves her, he looks bad. The public will turn on him and he's left powerless. Her only misstep is when she lets go and celebrates a mini-golf win. Her thick money belt falls out and the two other runaways notice its thickness. ("That's a lot of bills," the girl remarks.) That misstep costs her. And that's when she has to phone her obsessive ex-boyfriend.
As for the stories and tropes she plays up: she is a beautiful, accomplished, successful white woman who is abducted and disfigured (by her own hand, no less). Amy plays up expected identities—in marriage, in abduction, in abuse—but Amy isn't a victim. Amy is agentic in her own success and her own narrative and in the plotting of her own death. "Kill self?" she scribbles on Post-it notes. Does she mean her "wife" self? Does she mean her "Amazing Amy" self? Her old life? What was all this for?
Fariha: Before I answer the question, I wonder if it's just dissatisfaction? As for Nick, Amy's "lessons" were mainly to hurt him for cheating, so he gets the ultimate death. As for Amy planning her own death, I don't really have an idea, and maybe that's why Amy is ultimately unidentifiable to me, at a certain point her humanity is lost. I had chills of anger when she was crawling to the security camera, pretending to have been raped, pretending as if she was bleeding. I mean, also, again, Amy is playing the victim when she's not—she's assaulting the image of abused women, she's misusing another trope, using it to her advantage, distorting the image—centering it around her own anger, perpetuating the girl who cries rape mythology that exists in society. Society is in favor of that mythology, it supports their fantasies of women being a certain way.
I kept thinking as I watched this, "How many bros are going to use this as an example of 'crazy women lie about rape'?" So that irked me, but then again, there is an undeniable power to Amy. She is not the result of any of our imaginations, she just is—complicated, vindictive, but ultimately powerful. She controls her husband, she controls her parents, she controls the susceptible minions around her—like the stupid soccer mom who she befriends so she can be on her side. That kind of control is fascinating, and in fact you don't see a woman in film that's so fleshed out and imperfect. As women, we want the portrayals of women to be honest, especially when concerning rape, but is Amy's portrayal dishonest? There is a weird magnetism Amy has that we're drawn to her, despite it all. Despite her annoying sensibilities I was pulled to her. Women like her have a right to exist, because they're women. Women's stories contain multitudes.
There is a fragility that lies in Rosamund Pike's characterization of Amy, it's not just there when she's robbed, it's also there when she comes home—in Nick's embrace there is a need on her part, to be loved, and so there's moments of vulnerabilities—as he tucks her in bed, or even as they're in the shower together. Her manipulation is coded. This is not a story for a woman—but this is a woman's story, and there is a difference in those two things. I think Fincher did a beautiful job of matching Amy in her power, he was her counterpart in her game. Marriage is a performance, and Amy is doing her part. Fincher's able to bring out the complexities of her, and still realize the undercurrent of susceptibility that exists. It's there, you just have to really look for it sometimes.
Sara: In a lot of ways, she's playing the game by the rules—the rules and roles assigned to her by society. I think that's what bothered me so much too—that despite being this brilliant, accomplished, ambitious woman, she still plays by these rules. But also, she's a product of all the rules and privilege: she's white, attractive, slim, and she has a trust fund. She knows this and it's why she knows that her abduction is going to be all over the news and covered widely.
Fariha: Well, good point that'll tie in to what we have to say shortly about the Tales of the Grim Sleeper, but before that—Heaven Knows What which was arguably my least favorite film of the whole festival. I found it obnoxious, dishonest, and heartless. Whilst watching this film I kept thinking of Susan Sontag's apt point in Regarding The Pain Of Others: "Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out. But do people want to be horrified? Probably not." There's a way that this story could have been told, and manipulating your actors by letting them live their lives for your benefit, is disgusting. It's their life, their very real lives, fetishisizing it for "a story," is absurd to me. Within the first few moments, like a ticking time bomb, there's a threat that Harley's going to kill herself. Then, in the middle of a park, she does, with a box cutter. We watch her do it, and as she begins to sear through her skin, I really couldn't believe it. I could feel the burn on my skin as I watched it, also.
I want to talk about images that are triggering. I don't think the world has to be PC, but I think it's important to educate ourselves about social and ethical codes. It really is a privileged person's mentality to assume that things are necessary "for the art." I mean violence can be done in art, but with a message—someone like Ana Mendieta, who used violence throughout her art, did it to challenge norms in society—she was a woman of color who was redefining narratives of rape, and violence against women. That kind of art makes sense to me. Or even Francis Bacon, who consistently used violence as a means to talk about social and political issues. I've used Haneke as an example before, there is a conversation that exists in Caché or The White Ribbon (which isn't violent, but always threatening to be) but Haneke's violence is also different to the violence of suicide. Having experienced suicidal violence in my past meant that as I sat there, watching Harley cut herself, there was an immediate abreaction of events. This is not an exaggeration— I thought I was going to pass out. I am confused as to why the filmmakers would want this reaction in me, or you—as I know you were as uncomfortable as I was. Is it for people who have never experienced pain so it's a thrill to watch someone else's? From that moment onwards I couldn't even comprehend why someone would like this film.
I have to point out that I liked the narrative to a certain degree, but I wasn't attached to Harley, or Ilya. I understand the threat of love, and how devastating the demise of a relationship is, but it was never even explained. When she began to cut herself, it was impulsive (as she is, and I understand that's the point) but nothing is established. I could see what they were going for but I thought it was a weak attempt at filmmaking. It was essentially poverty porn, a glorification of drug users, to elucidate how devastatingly destructive their lives are, without any purpose. There was no demystification of storyline, or character. It was a jumble of feelings that is never relieved, or that comes to any organic conclusion. This film was incomprehensible to me.
Sara: During that scene, Isao Tomita's "Clair de Lune No. 3" is playing and it recurs throughout the film too—especially when the kids tell stories. The song sounds spacey and you feel like you're in a trance and I thought that was insulting—that these kids, because they're high all the time, are just space cadets. The song overpowers what a lot of them are trying to say…it felt like a joke. We hear less and less what is that they're saying and we just see them—they're hands in the air as they're telling each other about other people who have screwed them over or tried to cheat them out of money. These are the people we ignore every day or who we just look at without really listening. And it seemed like that was what was happening here. So I wondered what the hell the point was because there was still this distance from them.
The thing about Ilya and Harley, and I mean, they're codependent and for various reasons. All these kids depend on each other for resources: like food, shelter, company, and even a fix. I'm not going to act like I know what that's like, but in a situation with Ilya torturing Harley, and threatening to leave her alone—I don't even think Harley is catastrophizing because she's so young and it's difficult trying to survive alone. But then there's also the way she's portrayed in the film, like she's the only one who is so dependent on other people for help. You're right, too—we get no background, we get no insight into the nature and history of the relationship between Harley and Ilya. In the press conference, the directors had mentioned how Arielle's chapter on Ilya was very long and developed, and that's why they were so drawn to it, so I'm not sure what happened there. I want to know how you felt about the fact that this film was actually a fictionalized version of Arielle's unpublished memoirs.
Fariha: Well I think it's a classic example of taking a woman's story and giving her very little agency in the process of making the film. Throughout the press conference it seemed as though everything pointed towards this appropriation of experience. Even though Arielle was at the press conference, she seemed like a ghost in this story that is ultimately hers. The Safdie brothers mentioned that they wanted to fictionalize her experience, but why? What's the purpose of fictionalizing something, and yet adding in, or keeping horrifying imagery? Supposedly everyone was using during the making of the film—but what was the purpose of that? So it adds to the "reality" of a story that they're purportedly trying to fictionalize? Everything seemed so disconnected, adjuncted, and again—dishonest.
I felt the way in which they used Arielle's story and glorified her experience while simultaneously eradicating her agency from it was disturbing to me as a viewer. You're right, it did seem like a joke—and a highly stylized one at that. The only thing about it to me that was appealing was the color palette, it really worked, this sense of bleakness. I also though Arielle was really easy to watch. She should act more!
Sara: The press conference made me feel even more uneasy because everyone just admitted to stylizing this story and didn't seem to have a problem with anything. I'm definitely much more curious about Arielle's depiction of her own life than this version of it. Let's talk about Tales of the Grim Sleeper, shall we?
Fariha: I hope we'll get to see her book. I'd like to read it.
Onto the Tales of the Grim Sleeper. A menacing and overwhelming film that focuses on the murder of black woman in South Central LA. It's not surprising to me to see that Lonnie Franklin, Jr. got away with these murders for so long, as all of the woman in the documentary reiterated one thing throughout the film—"Nobody cares about black women." It reminded me of that Village Voice article on R. Kelly, and how the ritualized ruination and torment of black women, by either sexual abuse, or murder, is accepted as a norm of society, and especially by the police force, because, to them, black women are all prostitutes anyway, so who cares? It was hilarious to see that once the police commissioners had finally arrested Lonnie, they were so self-glorifying and how the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murderers leader, Margaret Prescod, was like, "Nope. We literally came to you with evidence." I loved how defiant Margaret was, she was calling bullshit. I mean it was very obvious that the LAPD seemed to know it was Lonnie for a long time, but what better way to kill off black people? You just let someone else do it.
How did you feel about this film, Sara?
Sara: I really enjoyed and felt as though Broomfield really made an effort to immerse himself into the story and situation. The way the film covered and discussed crime reminded me a lot of David Simon's Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets. Lonnie had such control over his image and yet, we watch as his friends begin to question and remember certain things he said or even a pair of handcuffs in the car. It was interesting watching people question just how much they thought they knew someone. Tales of the Grim Sleeper doesn't just put the blame on the murderer, but the police force who did nothing to stop him.
But then the press conference ruined the experience for me a bit? Someone in the audience asked director Nick Broomfield about the way black women are objectified and regarded by most of the men in the film—and how this feeds into a larger problem. (Lonnie and his friends used to take pictures of the women they slept with in various positions. Some of the photos even include women who look passed out.) And Broomfield said that he thought the major problem in South Central LA was a... crack problem. You and I were discussing how this is more of a race and gender problem—that the cops didn't even warn the community about a serial killer and subsequently, more and more women went missing or were murdered because of this. The thing all of Lonnie's friends kept saying during the interviews was that Lonnie had this insatiable desire for women and sex, and the more and more I heard this, the more it sounded like a justification for the violence. Like, it seems as though a lot of the reasoning was: this man was fucked up by women and this in turn, fucked up his attitude towards women.
Fariha: I mean, how could Broomfield have shots of so many women saying, "I am worthless to society because I am a black woman," and not think that this is a race problem. It's plain and simple—Lonnie would not have been able to kill the amount of women that he killed if these were white women being killed. The fact that people in the neighborhood didn't even know there was a serial murderer around, the fact that the law enforcement didn't even think to go and give warnings so people could be safe, is also emblematic of a larger issue. All in all, it was an eye-opening documentary.
Sara: And once you don't behave the way a man wants you to, you're wrong. There's the larger point made (and we saw this in Gone Girl) by Margaret Prescod, which is that if a white woman went missing, it would be all over the news. If three white women went missing, then we'd have a serial killer on the loose. If these white women attended Ivy League universities and weren't sex workers or doing drugs, then we would not stop hearing about them until justice was served. We'd be hearing about human rights and justice and vengeance. And it was disappointing to hear the filmmaker allude to a drug problem as the source of all this. This is a community that has been left behind and to blame it all on drugs, despite the fact that throughout the film, we keep hearing about about a race and gender problem.
But there were some incredible women in this film. We talked about Prescod, but there is also Pam, whom Bloomfield enlisted as a researcher. She was a former prostitute who knew Lonnie. There are so many instances where Bloomfield asks her these questions about Lonnie's behavior, and she keeps telling him he did these things because he's a sick man. She even explains how some of the things Lonnie asked her to do were just sick, vile and disturbing. I mean, what I thought the film did so well was show us that there was more at play here; a bigger picture; a larger set of issues. And Pam kept reiterating all this, so I'm disappointed that Bloomfield said that.
Fariha: Pam was the heart of the film, and they seem to realize that they couldn't have had this affecting of a film if they didn't have Pam's help. She really alleviated a lot of the issues because also, black people, especially in America, are very rightly mistrusting of white people—so I get that Broomfield had the "right intention" but when you look at the history of the United States, and of course—slavery—America very clearly still has a race problem, and you have learn to be an ally. Pam helped transform their roles and gateway them into a neighborhood so this story could be told. And what a great, important story.
That's it for today. Tune in for our last NYFF dispatch in the next few days!
[Image via Getty]