Beastlyby Kavish Chetty / 12.05.2011
When moral platitudes slip into the Hollywood narrative factory, they emerge mangled; brutalised. What strange alchemy occurs on those production assembly lines? Which dollar-scented fingers smear their shit over the product? It is a fact of the most curious repute that the Machine can fuck up the simplest story, mystify the most transparent tale. And it’s at work, all over the place, in Beastly.
Beastly (taking its cues from the novel by Alex Flinn, also known as Stephanie Meyer for Goths on welfare) hijacks the story of Beauty and the Beast and transposes it inelegantly into the 21st-century. There is a semi-handsome young boy called Kyle Kingson. He’s arrogant and unlikeable (and therefore popular with all his classmates) and gruesomely rich. He pisses off a witch (Mary-Kate or Ashley Olsen – who can tell the difference?) in his class when he asks her the school dance or and then humiliates her. She casts a spell on him which goes something like this, “you are condemned to be as ugly on the outside as you are on the inside – and you’ll stay this way forever until you can find someone to say “I love you”. So, he lives out a hermetic existence in a delicious New York apartment, until he develops a stalkerish affection for a girl whom he hopes to seduce. Presumably, along the way, he’s going to learn to play nice and appreciate the meaning of true love.
The first remark of the evening has got to be the absolutely blasé manner in which Kyle accepts this dark largesse. He locks himself up for four months confronting his own hideous appearance, and only then does he track down the witch begging for forgiveness – she gives him a ‘negatory’ and he goes back to moping. Excuse me? Did he think about summoning his father’s immense fortune to lay legal charges against that kohl-smeared sorceror? How about threatening to turn her legs into linguine, or her face into foie gras? The next problem is clearly the relationship between himself and his object of desire. He has a completely vested interest in getting her to love him – she’s the only thing that can make him ‘un-ugly’. So to what extent are his desires motivated by a rehabiliation of his old egoism? She also cuts an average kind of pretty girl figure (Vanessa Hudgens) and she’s clearly not ugly either – he doesn’t strictly need to work around her appearance and love her for anything other than her looks.
Let’s take sub-par acting and atrocious dialogues as necessary evils of this genre (at one point, Kyle is seeking relationship advice from his housekeeper. She tells him to think things through instead of just buying her gifts. Kyle returns later from a triumphal conquest of affection, gleefully shouting, “this thinking thing kills!” I just wish he had added “bru” afterward. You know, to finish the tangent he started on). The final and insurmountable problem with this apparently moral tale is this: once Kyle finds true love, he loses his hideous exterior and returns to his normal handsome form. So what exactly is the moral here for the unhandsome? In order to end the story properly, he had to become pretty again – that’s the only way we’re ending “happily ever after”. Is this not a completely unconscious subversion of what this story set out to achieve in the first place?
The worst part, to spell out the obvious, is that people make life decisions off the basis of this sort of garbage.
A friend recently said something about film which I thought was more poignant than most French theory you read about “simulacra”. Passing judgement on the froth-mouthed bitches who copycat what they see in romantic comedies, he said: “life begins to imitate art, which wasn’t imitating life in the first place.” Somewhere in the middle of all their gestures, films start to resemble life, but in a fantastic mirror-reversal, we realise that life is actually resembling the film and not the other way around. How exactly did this switch take place? We recognise all the tropes in teenage romance cinema because they have a referent to us in real life. But the truth is that at some point – as cultural products undertake their incessant circulation in our imaginations and life – art becomes unanchored from the reality it proposes to represent. And what we get instead is a very ideologically-charged performance of life, which shows us how to behave, what to say, what’s acceptable – in short, it appears to “show us how to live”.
Film is both the stimulated and the stimulus. Think about a parallel in our news media. Editors tell us sucker journalists to curb bold sentences, thresh out higher concept, and neatly order our words to suit our target market. But at the same time that we make our make our writing accessible, we define our target audience. That is to say, by not challenging them, by speaking to a highly abstract vision of what the ideal audience is, we both acknowledge and affirm that audience in one single move. So here in Beastly, the first teenage romantic comedy I’ve had to sit through in goddamn ages, I remark over this same pernicious logic at work. Film that speaks to an audience that it creates at the same time: a passive, delusional, properly stupid audience, and therefore a world which tends toward complete stupidity of the same calibre. Perhaps I’m just projecting, but doesn’t it just give silent vindication to suicide bombers, high-school shooters, kool-aid cultists and serial killers?