Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fido: Racism, (Hetero)sexism, and Zombie-ism

Isn’t Willard a perfect town? The houses are big, the lawns are immaculate, and the zombies hardly ever kill anyone. This is the setting for Andrew Currie’s 2006 film, Fido, the story of a little boy named Timmy and his trusty zombie. In this world, America (or perhaps Canada, as the film is Canadian) has emerged victorious from the apocalyptic 1940s Zombie Wars, giving rise to a booming new era of suburban 1950s wholesomeness, with the zombie population safely contained and controlled to be used as unpaid labor.

The film has been described as hitting “an authentic sociopolitical nerve,” and in her essay “Imitations of Life: Zombies and the Suburban Gothic,” Bernice Murphy argues that the Fido makes “pertinent points about the containment culture of both [the ‘50s] and our own [era].” Indeed, there is no ignoring the strong racial overtones and prominent presence of ‘50s values in the way the world of Fido is portrayed. And yet, in many ways, these questionable values are left unchallenged. The film fully embraces the tradition of simplistic ‘50s family films, and when examining parallels to social issues in the film, one quickly sees inconsistency of symbolism, leading to a confusing and unsatisfying resolution for an audience member hoping for the characters to challenge their culture. Is this a case of a good premise poorly developed? Or, by presenting the skewed values of the 1950s unchallenged, are the filmmakers pushing us to do what the film and its characters never quite do, and challenge society? Whichever is the case, Fido presents a grotesque reflection of our own society, bringing to light our culture’s deep-rooted injustice through an unusual mixture of two very different genres.

Perhaps most obvious among the film’s social parallels are the significant racial undertones. In a community of all-white, upper-class suburbanites exploiting a population of gray-skinned zombie laborers, it isn’t a far leap to suggest that the zombies represent a racial minority. The divide between these two groups echoes both 1950s segregation and the treatment of the “cheap migrant labor” (as Murphy puts it) which is relied upon to support modern-day suburbia. This latter comparison can be extended further; the zombies’ inability to speak could be seen as mirroring the language barrier obstructing many recent immigrants from achieving the legendary American Dream. More than anything, what ties the zombies’ treatment to that of a racial minority is the overwhelming sense of being the Other; fences, physical restraints, and social taboos are firmly in place to prevent the gray-skinned second-class citizens from mixing with the wholesome white humans.

However, beyond this point, racial parallels become more ambiguous. Murphy mentions “containment culture” and the Bush administration’s “much criticized” obsession with security as subjects of commentary by the film, yet here is a fundamental difference between our world and the world of Fido: whereas in the real world, the social justice-minded person would oppose discrimination in the name of security, in Willard, it’s a necessity. This is because a zombie is truly not quite human. Even though a handful of zombies in the film are presented as emotional, humanlike individuals, if they escape their electric collars, they are monsters, ruled by animalistic bloodlust. Even at the end, after Fido has proven himself capable of restraining his urge to bite, the electric collars must remain. This seeming injustice combined with the film’s tonally sugary happy ending suggest that the “containment culture” is, in fact, necessary to somehow protect the white suburban community, creating a thematically muddled ending.

Another antiquated ideology that found its way into Fido is the 1950s’ patriarchal, heterosexist idea of gender roles and what a family should be. In keeping with the film’s fifties-ish style, any story element that would have been considered unsuitable under the Motion Picture Production Code is dealt with subtextually. While watching, I felt the film was hinting (as would’ve been done under the Production Code) that the father was secretly gay. He never responds to his wife’s amorous advances (in fact, they make him very uncomfortable), enjoys spending time with his close male friend far more than with his family, is squeamish about violence, and talks about being Timmy’s age and having had a lot of feelings that needed to be controlled and suppressed. With the film’s already established theme of restrictive “containment culture,” I was expecting the father to at some point challenge the confines of the heterosexist society, or at least for the film to acknowledge the issue in some way. Instead, the father’s implied queerness is never explored, and all the ways in which he doesn’t fit society’s gender expectations are treated as character flaws to be overcome. His final action—to protect Timmy—redeems him as a character for his poor parenting, but it is also is a restoration of conventional gender roles. He asserts dominance over his wife (who’s been in charge of the family throughout the film), and violently protects his family (displaying aggression, the lack of which previously made others consider him less of a man). The conflation of his redemption as a father and his reassertion of traditional gender roles equates goodness with heteronormativity and patriarchy, adding to the thematic confusion of the film’s resolution.

The zombie genre is known for using the zombie symbolically to critique society, while films of the 1950s are notorious for being worthy of critique for their political incorrectness. By mixing these two genres and playing with sociopolitically charged imagery and storytelling conventions without offering a clear commentary, Fido is overall ambiguous.

Bugsy Malone

Bugsy Malone is a unique mĂ©lange of disparate components. Not only is it a gangster-film / musical hybrid, but the film blends childhood and adulthood, creating a hard-boiled adult world inhabited solely by singing children. All the typical gangster genre themes of greed, violence, and power are present, but the unique twists on the style and world infuse the themes with hope; these are children, they’re not actually killing each other, and it isn’t too late for them to change.

One thematically notable scene is when Bugsy goes to a soup kitchen in search of people to aid him in his gun-stealing mission. This scene combines the gangster genre’s  economic/class themes with the film’s overall hopeful message. Bugsy exhorts the downtrodden people to not give up just because they’re down on their luck, but to persevere and make changes in their lives. “You don’t have to sit around complaining ‘bout the way your life has wound up,” he says. It’s a questionable assertion that those at a soup kitchen are sitting around and complaining, and Bugsy’s proposed solution—becoming involved in crime—is even more dubious, but the song does fit with the idea that it isn’t too late to change your life. It can be understood as an exhortation to adults who feel their lives have reached a dead end, encouraging them to reject whatever misfortune or stasis plagues them, and not be afraid to start anew. In this way, we can begin to understand the full significance of an all-child cast playing adult roles; children are constantly growing and changing and full of hope for the future, so by making a world inhabited by children, the film seems to be saying that everyone is capable of hope and change, a significant departure from gangster films in which criminal characters (including protagonists) do not change for the better, letting their greed and violence ultimately destroy them.

Bugsy Malone clearly plays with the time period of the classical era gangster movies, but by including “backstage” musical numbers, it also makes reference to the spectacular escapist musicals of the same era. The dancing girls in the speakeasy evoke the iconic choreography of Busby Berkeley which offered Depression-era audiences relief from their troubles. The fact that cynical gangster films and hopeful musicals had their golden ages at the same time, and the way that Bugsy Malone presents both genres in one filmic world suggests that it isn’t a question of circumstance so much as outlook which determines the course of an individual’s life, supporting the film’s overall themes of choice and change.

 In a story with two battling ideologies or mindsets, the overall theme can be thought of as whichever idea wins. In Bugsy Malone, the two opposing thematic forces are cynicism about a seemingly insurmountably corrupt present (represented by the gangster genre), and childlike hope for the future and capacity to change (represented by the musical genre). By ending the film with an upbeat, hopeful song, hope is the clear winner. Indeed, the spine which has been present throughout the film is overtly articulated in the final song’s lyrics: “We could’ve been anything that we wanted to be. And it isn’t too late to change. … You give a little love and it all comes back to you.”