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There’s this town I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s somewhere on the border of England and Germany, right about where France meets Ireland. This town is deep in the woods–almost more of a settlement–where people live in stone houses with kitchen herb gardens and chickens and goats roam in the town square. In this town it is always between, say 1400 and 1700. Wise old women brew herbal concoctions at the full moon (before they were all burned as witches, of course) and brave young boys and girls explore the woods. Farmers plant in accordance with moon and while there might be a Christian whitewash, this town is definitely pagan. If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed–it’s just the May Queen. In the spring there are maypoles and at yuletide there’s hot stew and divination for the new year with bones and sticks.
Of course, this place doesn’t exist, and it never really did. From what I gather, Ye Olde Europe was never really that cute, and the Druids weren’t necessarily so smart. And while Europe was, surely, pagan, those people burned as witches weren’t necessarily wise women or cunning folk or magicians–they were just the town oddballs, scapegoats, and wackjobs. But despite its lack of actual existence, this little Medieval town looms large in our psyche and our popular culture. Led Zepplin sang about it, Wicker Man took place there, and modern-day witches created a religion (Wicca) after it. This place–and I think most of all, its close proximity to the woods–fills some kind of a hole for us, a fantasy past-future where people lived in harmony with the phases of the moon and understood plants and spoke the language of birds and had yet to be corrupted by citified ways. And for those of us of European ancestry, it’s a way to indulge in these fantasies without any issues of appropriation or cultural theft spoiling the fun, as some of us might indulge in “othering” fantasies about, say, Native Americans. To be clear, though, although it’s an easy thing to make fun of, I think these fantasies are healthy. I think it’s good for us to imagine a way of life different from this one, and I think it’s useful to envision how others might have done it before. We shape our reality around our daydreams, and this is a particularly charming one. I wouldn’t at all mind if it were real.
Which is why I think the critics, as they so often do, completely missed the point of Red Riding Hood, which I saw a few weeks ago and thought was a swell good-bad film. It certainly wasn’t high art, but I enjoy a bad movie that enjoys its badness and lack of pretention. But the critical reaction had a nasty edge to it that seems reserved for movies that hit a nerve (as the wonderful Ray Banks cracked to me on Twitter the other day, “Hope Peeping Tom doesn’t ruin your career like it did Michael Powell’s.”). For example, lot of critics commented on Red Riding Hood’s “unrealistic” sets. “Unrealistic” of what? Not a realistic representation of your fantasy Europe? There’s no “real” to adhere to here. It’s a fantasy of a myth, and the movie should be forgiven for having some fun with that. Likewise, the comparisons to Twilight (same director) completely missed the mark–sure, a young woman with two love interests does suggest a Twilight reference, but are people really that simplistic (I’m referring both to the characters and the critics here)? The real Twilight comparison, if you can come to terms with the fact that all young women are not interchangeable, is Catherine Hardwicke‘s lovely sense of trees, fog, and water, and her understanding of the agency, intelligence, and curiosity of young women, even in a silly, entertaining, fantasy.
Yes, like Wicker Man, it is a movie that enjoys its camp and fantasy. More interesting to me was the psychosexual relationship between Riding Hood and the wolf, who is in this movie a wolfman–a big distinction, especially for Riding Hood! The wolf doesn’t just want to eat Red, he wants to take her away and live with her–and when this comes out, Red is, as us girls often are, put to shame for the sin of being more attractive than we ought to be. In a haunting scene in this admitted fluff-fest, an iron mask is put on Red’s face, her riding cape–now her “harlot’s robe” –over her shoulders. When the true identity of the wolf is revealed it makes a sad, sick kind of sense, one you wish you didn’t recognize but ladies, you will. And when you see who Red ends up with–again, it makes sense in a way you sort of wish it didn’t. “Bad” movies and books (yes, I will again refer to V.C. Andrews!) often seem to be able to sneak this stuff in under the radar in a way that hits home more than “high art” can. And this seems to make critics squirm in their seats and bring out the scalpel.
People smarter than me have commented lately on the strong young women in recent films. When I was a girl, girls and women in movies and on TV often weren’t exactly people. They were deaf, mute, and blind; they were purely passive, receptors of desire with no agency, no hopes, and no backtalk–perhaps one reason so many of us ladies were drawn to the movies of the thirties and forties. Whenever I think of this topic I think of Three’s Company, a TV show I could write a book about (and will someday!)–it was constantly on in reruns when I was a child and I’m sure I’ve seen every episode a few times. Chrissie on Three’s Company (the highly intelligent Suzanne Sommers, who now writes somewhat technical books on alternative cancer treatments) was a pure incarnation of this type of female–people would make comments about her abundant breasts directly in front of her, to her face, and she seemed neither to hear nor understand them (is there some fancy academic/critical name for this phenomena of female deaf-muteness?). it was as if her attractiveness was a physical or mental disability. I’m glad girls in movies and tv shows have sentience now, at least as much as anyone in mass media does. Now, maybe the critics could start trying to tell them apart…