Can’t un-ring a bell and why would we want to? But we must stop the pendulum swings–or at the very least, address them.
While “literary devices” aren’t necessarily film-related, both mediums attempt to tell stories and “storytelling devices” in film simply amount to “plot.”
But I’m not addressing plot. I’m addressing the use of the same devices used in literature (tension, pacing, character development, character arcs) to illustrate how two excellent, but vastly different films, address sexual power and the abuse of that power.
Promising Young Woman (2020) (spoiler alert)
The story centers on Cassandra (Cassie), played by Carrie Mulligan, who lives at home and works, barely, in a coffee shop. But what she does in her off hours, she describes in the film’s trailer:
“Every week, I go to a club, I act like I’m too drunk to stand, and every week, a ‘nice guy’ comes over to see if I’m okay.”
What ensues is a crack in the armor of the #notallmen rebuttal.
These ‘nice guys’ are, for all intents and purposes… nice. What the film does beautifully is show, in a (granted) slightly misandrist way, how ‘nice guys’ are really quite helpless/hopeless when it comes to pretty girls who are sloppy drunk.
And while I’m not going to discuss the implications of that assertion here, I have to make the observation about how the film explores the subject matter and characters.
Cassie had been in med school, still a real-world Boy’s Club, and we learn that her best friend was also attending the same school. During their time there, her friend was sexually assaulted by a group of male students. Subsequently, this girl took her own life.
Because of this, Cassie dropped out of med school and spent her nights finding ways to teach men a lesson or two about exploiting drunk females.
As a character, Cassie is compelling. We see a crack in her ‘cracked’ veneer when she begins dating a former classmate, a pediatrician at the local hospital. Yes, a ‘nice guy.’
I found myself cheering for Cassie to go on with her life, go back to school, even, settle down with this good guy… but the movie doesn’t allow you to hope for long, since along her revenge path, Cassie stirs up an old video, one taken at the party where her friend had been raped.
Sadly, Mr. Pediatrician was there, maybe even filming it. We hear his protestations, but based on the way the film’s trajectory went, it was clear there was no future for him and Cassie because he was as culpable as the rest of them. There was no redemption for any of them.
Interestingly, Cassie visits the dead girl’s mother, and she tells Cassie to move on. Let it go. Get on with her life. That scene, in and of itself, shows how obsessed Cassie had become, and how the ruination of her own life was based on deliberate choices.
Yes, these guys got away with it and yes, there is nothing more infuriating than seeing someone get away with bad behavior.
But she had to make the prediction no one would believe, didn’t she?
In the final scene, Cassie poses as a “Naughty Nurse” stripper at the former-classmate’s bachelor party. This doctor, the film indicated, was the main perpetrator of her friend’s assault. She drugs all the men and pulls the young doctor upstairs and handcuffs him to the bed.
At this point in the film, the viewer knows the groom-to-be will free himself, which he does. And out of fear, desperation, and a lack of any sort of moral compass, obviously, he kills Cassie as she screams for help.
But she’d planned for that. It was sort of her plan all along.
And as the police cars pull up to the wedding, with all her old classmates getting arrested, the feeling isn’t sweet or even bittersweet. It was just “ugh” and at the same time, a feeling of loss so overwhelming, it boggled my mind.
The fact is, not every victim of sexual assault takes their own life. Not every best friend is that tenacious at payback.
What interests me about this film is the way the story pulls us alternately into feelings of compassion, pity, outrage, then back again with every character, including ancillary ‘nice guys.’ But there are plenty of guys who are clearly predators.
This film was disturbing but superbly executed. Cassandra’s arc got chopped off at a sharp angle. And as she slid back, we, the audience, are given a few moments to remove ourselves from her. We also get that opportunity with many of the bad actors (not “actors” but…. you know what I mean) like her pediatrician boyfriend.
What this film attempts, and accomplishes, is illuminating the gray areas of how we judge “good” v. “bad” people, and yet it maintains the blurry lines between personal responsibility, accountability, and the ever-present American worship of the almighty dollar and its meritocracy.
As Cassie speaks to the dean of students, (above), the dean asks Cassie if her friend reported the assault. She had. The dean asks Cassie if she knows who her friend spoke to.
“You,” Cassie predictably says. Yes, women are complicit in the assault of other women when it comes, surprisingly, to their livelihoods. See? We’re not all that different.
The dean’s immediate reply gives us a wide-range, panoramic, courtside view of the mentality that’s historically riddled throughout our institutions of higher learning, among other systems.
“You know… we get accusations like this all the time. What would you have me do? Ruin a young man’s life?”
Of course not. A wealthy accomplished young man who is now a doctor is surely more of an asset than a liability to society.
Didn’t we all make mistakes in college? Should that young doctor and his friends be held responsible for Cassie’s friend’s death?
Certainly, they were guilty of sexual assault. But did they drug her, or had she had too much to drink? Should that even matter?
In the end, Cassie represents the enraged ____ manqué, the unrealized potential of individuals who allow their feelings of rage, disillusionment, powerlessness, loss, guilt, and a zillion other factors, to determine their course, or lack, of action.
Her character arc is a shard, a mirror, one we don’t want to look into for very long.
The Assistant (spoiler alert)
In this film, we’re taken through the incredibly tedious day, almost moment by moment, of one of many assistants to a powerful, nameless, faceless “Him/He” in the film/entertainment industry.
Jane, played by Julia Garner, arrives at work when it’s still dark outside. A hurried breakfast of Fruit Loops standing in the office’s kitchen, picking up the trash around the office, making sure everyone’s lights are on, plants watered, placing syringes in the bathroom’s cabinet (injectable medication for ED, fun fact), yes the message is loud and clear: Jane is unimportant in this world.
The way her moment-by-moment day unfolds builds a kind of tension that you almost hope doesn’t end in a climax, no pun intended. Jane watches young girls, coming and going, and she finds tiny clues, earrings in His office. His wife abuses her over the phone. He abuses her over the phone, and it makes you wonder why she doesn’t go wait tables at some bistro in Manhattan.
Oh, that’s why… It turns out, Jane wants to be a producer. She’s a graduate from Northwestern, a fine institution, obviously, with a 3.8 GPA.
We know what that means, don’t we? She’s smart. She knows how to play the game.
What an opportunity, to work for Him.
Jane doesn’t speak throughout the film, not much anyway, only as a personal road-paver to/for Him as He goes to hotels with young girls, meets women out of town in LA, and all the while, Jane paves the way. She has to endure two other assistants, a couple of weanie-boys who give her a not-so-good ribbing now and again, putting her in His crosshairs where she’s berated, called names, and repeatedly told, “They said you were smart.” Then, He demands she writes an apology over email, thanking Him for the “great opportunity” to work there.
This film is not about Harvey Weinstein. This movie is about the many ways we enable the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to do what they do.
And while this movie shows Jane’s lack of importance, she isn’t just mistreated by men. The many tall, statuesque beauties that walk over her, sneering, on their ways to getting casted or casted out after the couch, or on their ways to getting assaulted (we never see it), also paint a picture of the way our society devalues someone without the ideal-American physical beauty and overly values the physical, outer appearances of women, specifically .
The subtle way, the insidious way her entire future is toyed with shows up in an email He sends her, a reply to the apology, giving her a pass.
“I’m hard on you because you’re good. But I can make you great.”
Understand, Jane’s intelligence isn’t what they mean by “smart.” Smart means you work with one eye closed. Smart means you don’t “talk about it” whatever ‘it’ is. Smart means you play the game and you play it well. Smart means you know who your audience is at all times and you wear the appropriate hat, smile, flag, or demeanor for them.
In this film, nothing is clearly laid out for us, so we really don’t know what’s going on, but we also absolutely do, and how terribly inconvenient. How uncomfortable to realize we’d have to make some actual changes in the way we run the world if we want actual changes in how the world works.
And for the record, no. A yard flag isn’t enough. /rant
After all this, Jane accompanies a young (young) woman from Idaho to a hotel in town, His newest assistant, Jane realizes this girl not only believes she’s “special” to Him, she’s getting the same position Jane has with nothing more than her purty, blue eyes. Yes, the poor, dumb girl from Idaho (duh hilt) couldn’t possibly know what’s in store for her in that hotel room, could she?
Jane’s gotten used to the blank-named checks, the beautiful young women sitting alone in the conference room with His attorney, signing away their rights to call “foul.”
Jane’s family back home tells her how proud they are of her, and of course, she is utterly alone and homesick. But finally, Jane decides to act.
She goes into human resources and meets with the head guy, a typecast skeazeball played by Matthew Macfadyen, who is probably very nice, er, decent in real life, but yikes. His character tells her, as she sits down:
“You can tell me anything. That’s what I’m here for.”
Now, everyone knows what he’s going to do. The sad part? He’s right, based on her lack of evidence. As she tells him her scattered observations about Him, the HR guy pulls the powerplay using some classic emotional-abuse techniques.
Tell me everything.
I’m totally taking this, and you, seriously. Writing it down, see?
Practiced look of concern on my face.
A tiny bit of confusion as I ask her pseudo-clarifying questions clearly meant to muddy the waters.
Tell me where you want to be in 5 years, 10 years from now, Jane. (Practiced look of approval, kindness)
A producer yourself, huh? (and now, this is where he slaps her in the face with a solid block of ice…)
So why do you want to throw it all away over an earring and your stupid, paranoid delusions, oh, and jealousy, you’re jealous, aren’t you? Do you know how many resumes I have of people better than you who would kill for your job? They said you were smart.
One of the most telling—and chilling—lines from the movie was this: “Trust me, she’ll get way more out of it than he will.”
Telling Our Story
We are on the precipice of change, and it’s happening exponentially. We really don’t have a way to conceptualize that. But the story of our human experience, while captured in all manner of media, can’t be contained by a single point of view.
If a young woman takes her own life after being sexually assaulted—something not all young women do after such an event—does that prove the system was right to “side” with the perpetrator?
It’s a question we ask ourselves as a society, but not very well, not very honestly, and every time we hear a new #metoo story, I feel the collective cringe and eyeroll because from the looks of it, many people seem to be motivated by the new social currency of the day: attention.
Not only does this do a huge disservice to the hard-won legitimacy for rape and assault victims, but it calls into question what serves, or could possibly serve, as justice?
Cassandra, the prophetess cursed with visions of the future, but fated to never be believed.
Jane, “plain Jane,” the mousy young woman who keeps her head down, stays quiet and “smart” and hopes to one day provide a safe environment for all young people everywhere in the film and entertainment industry.
At least I think that’s how it goes, because the end of the movie shows her going home after the “typical day,” and we’re not led to believe anything other than that day starts all over again in 6 hours and her character arc?
Well, fade to black.
And yet, the questions raised by these films are now in the collective unconscious and they’ll never be in the unknown or unexplored territory of sexual assault ever again. Just as victims of assault came forward, the film and entertainment industry began capitalizing on it. It could and would have been so easy for these two films to exploit the topic for mass appeal. Thankfully, they didn’t.
The first film begs the question, “Have you ever…?” not just of men, but of women, too. Is there ever a way to redeem past sins if you’ve spent your life trying to be the opposite of who you were in your worst moments?
The second film asks what you would do, or rather, how we justify what we do in the here and now because surely we’ll have the money, power, influence, whatever, to change the way things are later on. Isn’t that what we tell ourselves? Gosh, Jane isn’t going to be able to change the industry if she gets fired and blacklisted.
And at the end of it all, we’re left to wonder about the many missing links in the chain of events that occurred in these films, and the implications they have as foils, and mirrors, for our current socio-cultural ethos.
The staggering theme throughout both movies, while different on many levels, remains constant: Who or what we allow to wield power and why, because money not only talks, it buys a certain level of social credibility that’s baffling.
Yes, surely if someone’s a successful _____, they are also above moral reproach because that’s how it works in the real world. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Take the high road and in the end, everyone will know the truth: that you are a good human being.
Talk about satire.
And in the end, it’s altogether too easy, too simplistic, and myopic to place the onus on any one individual. The uncomfortable piece of it all is that the onus is placed squarely where it must rest: on the shoulders of the individuals who makes up our systems, our society–us.
As writers and artists, we have a solemn duty to eschew the “party line” and reject the convenience of the popular sentiment of the hour, whatever that might be. It’s our job to dig deeper into our humanity and find all the many facets of truth. The nuances that are decidedly inconvenient because they aren’t popular.
Gray is the new social pariah and the most courageous place to stand in this polarized, digital world is in the nuance, the complexity, and the perplexity of human beings with all their good and all their imperfections.
Do it for yourself, your work, the world, and its future inhabitants. We must tell them what we stood for and why, and no, it won’t be a particularly proud moment as I take stock and look around at where we’re at right now.
But as writers, artists, poets, it’s our job to answer those questions by paradoxically leaving them blank, allowing the stories… to speak for themselves.
Peace, and as always –
Je te vois,