Welcome to Esther on Film!

Hey! I’d like to welcome you to my new website. My name is Esther Rosenfield, and I’ve been writing about film, television, and video games for over ten years. I’ve drifted through various websites and blogs, most recently publishing my work through Medium. I decided it was time to make a permanent, serious home for my work. So here we are! This site currently features all the work I’ve published on Medium over the past two years. I may eventually add even older pieces from since-shuttered outlets. All my future work will be published here. Thank you for reading me, and for supporting my work!

Let’s Talk About The Gay Stuff in ‘It Chapter Two’

This article contains spoilers for It Chapter Two as well as the preceding film and the original novel.

Like the Stephen King novel on which it’s based, It Chapter Two opens with a hate crime. Adrian Mellon (here played terribly by former director of note Xavier Dolan) kisses his boyfriend at a Derry carnival, and the two are followed out of it by a gang of homophobic hoodlums. The two are viciously beaten, and a barely-conscious Adrian is thrown over the side of a bridge into a rushing river. He’s pulled out and eaten by Pennywise. The crime alerts Mike Hanlon to It’s resurgence, spurring him to reunite his friends to battle it again.

So, there’s gay stuff in It Chapter Two. Queer shit. There is Homosexual Content TM. If you read Stephen King’s novel, you knew it was coming. If you’re like me, you were dreading the film’s handling of the Adrian Mellon scene. We were right to do so. The scene is exceedingly brutal, seeming to relish the seeping blood covering Adrian’s now unrecognizable face the same way the film delights in the outlandish gore inflicted by Pennywise. In King’s book, homophobia in Derry is implicitly tied to the presence of It, both evils feeding off of and into one another. In the film, homophobic violence is no different than Pennywise’s fantastical “kills.” We’re meant to be horrified by both, but with the whispered suggestion that it’s still fun to watch.

This is where the queerness ends in the book. Not so in the film. Seemingly by way of apology for the Adrian Mellon scene, the filmmakers have added just a dash of gay to their main cast. Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard as a child and Bill Hader as an adult) is heavily implied to be gay. I say “heavily implied” because it’s never outright stated. There’s no coming-out moment. Still, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.

The film’s lengthy middle portion is taken up by new flashbacks which take place during an unseen part of the first film, when the friends briefly split up after wounding and escaping from It. Each character has a new jump-scare setpiece encounter with It during this time. Richie’s begins at an arcade, where he’s playing Street Fighter with another unnamed boy. The game ends, and the boy slaps Richie’s hand, lingering just a half-second longer on the gesture than expected. The camera notes the physical contact. Richie responds by asking, a bit too desperately, for the boy to play another round with him. At this point, the bully Henry Bowers and his gang appear. The boy is Henry’s little cousin, and he instantly turns on Richie. The bullies call Richie a faggot and a fairy and chase him out of the arcade.

A frustrated Richie wanders to a nearby park, at the center of which is a massive statue of Paul Bunyon. Naturally, the statue comes alive, but its taunt of Richie is of particular interest. “Wanna kiss, Richie?” it asks him, before transforming into a garish CGI monster and chasing him across the park. The illusion vanishes and Richie is spared, and the film cuts to adult Richie in the same park, staring at the same statue. Then Pennywise appears to him and starts to tease him about his “dirty little secret.”

So at this point it should be obvious what the film is getting at. Richie is gay, he’s closeted, and this is the deep-seated fear that Pennywise is picking on. The problem is that there’s a clear divide in the film between the treatment of this idea in the child segments and in the adult segments. When Richie is a child, the depiction of his burgeoning sexuality is depicted with shocking subtlety and tenderness. As an adult, it’s nonsensical and heavy-handed.

The centerpiece of Richie’s sexuality is his relationship with fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak. The new flashbacks to the Losers as children have a new focus on the playful antagonism between the two. They tease each other and bicker in the way only close friends can. It’s never the primary focus, but it’s conspicuously present.

At one point, the two argue in the background of a scene over whose turn it is to lie in the clubhouse hammock. Eventually Eddie just gets in with Richie and they lie there together. Eddie gently kicks Richie’s face with his foot, knocking his glasses off. There’s something sweetly familiar to this detail, that moment of physical contact that meant nothing to Eddie but something more to Richie, a gesture with significance Richie couldn’t decode at the time. It’s, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually recognizable to my own experience of being a young queer person who had no idea who she was. You carry these little totems with you, tiny pinpricks in your heart. The details may drift away, but the way the moments made you feel never will. Is it great queer cinema? Not hardly. But it’s far better than anyone should have expected from a film like this.

That’s the kid scenes, though. The adult scenes are much, much different, presenting some pressing questions of coherency. Chief among them: Why is Richie still closeted in 2016? He lives in New York City, he’s a successful stand-up comedian, he has no family ties to speak of. Why can’t he just be out? Had the film’s timeline adhered to the novel’s, with the adult half playing out in the 1980s, this may have made more sense. It certainly does for the child Richie. I thought of the scene in the first film where Eddie, ever the hypochondriac, rants about the terrifying possibility of AIDS infection. What must young Richie have thought of that?

This isn’t to say, of course, that homophobia doesn’t exist in 2016. The film makes a point of this with the Adrian Mellon scene. Still, the film can conceive of no reason why Richie should have remained in the closet all these years beyond a general sense of shame and internalized homophobia, neither of which is ever actually depicted. We have no idea how Richie feels about being gay. There’s no sense of his life or personality as they relate to his queerness. Him being gay is just another Dark Secret for Pennywise to pick on. It’s Ben’s shame over being formerly obese, it’s Beverly’s fear of her abusive father, it’s Bill’s guilt over his brother’s death. It’s just another hanging thread to be tugged on, a board hung around the neck headlined “This Is My Trauma.” It’s cheap, it’s ugly, it’s borderline offensive.

And yet….there’s an “and yet.”

At some point in the film, we see a flashback to young Richie carving “R +” into a wooden fence. The camera obscures the final initial. The last we see of adult Richie is him returning to that fence, where we see that he carved “R + E,” and he gets to work digging out those same old lines, making the mark new again. Eddie didn’t survive the final battle with It, and Richie was more affected by this than his friends. As I watched him re-carve those letters, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny spark of warmth, remembering the look on young Richie’s face as young Eddie lightly kicked it. Hader and Wolfhard turn a deeply lame character rewrite into something gentle and tender. They find a queerness that feels familiar in a script to which queerness is alien. It Chapter Two is not queer cinema. Its depiction of gay characters is largely trashy and pointless and incoherent. But in these performances, there’s something more. There’s real queer life. If only the movie was good. If only, if only, if only.

‘The End of Evangelion’ and Stan Brakhage

The film The End of Evangelion doesn’t open with the normal logo of production house Studio Gainax. Their typically unremarkable, austere card is replaced by the studio’s name briefly appearing in a lower corner of the screen, scratchy and erratically vibrating. Most people won’t think anything of this change (especially not considering the film that follows it) but it immediately put me in mind of a filmmaker whose influence is felt throughout the rest of the runtime. Studio Gainax and directors Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki make conscious reference to an icon of American experimental film. I’d like to break down how The End of Evangelion pays homage to the work of Stan Brakhage.

Brakhage’s artistic output (somewhere in the realm of hundreds of films created over the course of a half-century) covered a wide variety of formal and aesthetic ideas. Many of his best-known works share little obvious common ground beyond an impulse towards what, were the term not in use for a completely different purpose, I would call a direct cinema. Brakhage used the film strip not as a mere tool, but as a canvas unto itself. One of his most recognizable films, Mothlight, was famously created without using a camera. He collected elements of nature like moth wings and blades of grass, stuck them to a strip of film, and ran it through a projector. The celluloid became itself a physical element of the film’s creation and presentation, rather than merely a conduit for the images it conveyed. Brakhage was fascinated by the way film itself could be manipulated to create visual art. He stuck objects to it, he painted on it, and perhaps most famously, he scratched it.

Most of Brakhage’s films begin or end with the familiar signature “By Brakhage,” but in his mid-late period the title tends to appear scrawled by hand directly onto the film strip. The text is always wildly shaky, a product of the technique’s imprecision, and a fitting companion to Brakhage’s typical quick cutting and zippy movement. It’s this signature that The End of Evangelion calls back to with its production company logo. It’s a tribute to a man who was a clear forerunner not just for this film, but for experimental animation at large.

The film itself uses Brakhage’s scratching technique at key moments, to accentuate the characters’ emotional turmoil and suggest a frenetic, suffering mind. Brakhage was never quite so literal in connecting the tone conveyed by his aesthetic to the conveyance of any narrative feeling. That’s the nature of making a narrative film like The End of Evangelion, though.

I don’t know if Brakhage ever called himself an animator, or if he would have considered his film strip experiments animation. The case can be made, though, that he fits neatly into that category. His painted works in particular are the most obvious candidates, and all his non-camera films may technically qualify. Surely if stop-motion animation exists, the manipulation of real-life elements to create the illusion of motivated physical action, then Mothlight or its companion The Garden of Earthly Delights can be called a kind of animation. Was Brakhage a pioneer in a medium he never considered himself a part of? If you ask Hideaki Anno, I’m sure he’d say yes.

The End of Evangelion was produced using largely traditional animation techniques, a far cry from the level of experimentation on which Brakhage operated. Still, one can see more than a shadow of his work throughout the film. The use of quick cuts in the film’s scenes of heightened drama and action, while nothing new for fight-oriented mecha anime, in this context recall Brakhage’s editing style. Brakhage made frequent use of in-camera editing — that is to say, a lack of post-production editing, wherein shots are laid in sequence exactly as they were shot.

While this is absolutely not how The End of Evangelion was produced, its editing still recalls the rapid cuts of, for example, Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. It’s to the same effect, as well. Brakhage cut so quickly to blend his images together, an aggressive counterpoint to classic Soviet montage. His films are a miasma of light and color without many distinct “shots” in the way we typically think of them. Everything in a Brakhage film is meant to be part of one whole. The End of Evangelion similarly concocts a coherent “whole” image out of relative incoherence.

The other way it achieves this is through another familiar Brakhage technique: superimposition. It’s used in a majority of his films to some degree; one might call it his signature move. It’s all over Dog Star Man and most of what are considered his major works, like The Wonder Ring and Window Water Baby Moving. Brakhage used it to a similar purpose as his editing, that being the melding of discrete images to create something new. Superimposition allowed this more directly. Images could be combined through transparency to communicate something that they could not on their own, or even in edited sequence. Brakhage often used superimposition to suggest the resurgence of memory, which is exactly how The End of Evangelion uses it towards the end of the film. An extended montage of clips from episodes of the television show as well as other evocative imagery are laid on top of each other and rapidly cycled through, creating a visual experience akin wherein no one component is visible or even comprehensible. They all contribute to the whole. As far as the film’s narrative goes, what is Instrumentality if not the superimposition of billions of souls, all seen through one another as a single being of warm orange goo?

The End of Evangelion actually goes further than Brakhage and extends this technique to audio. Almost all of Brakhage’s work was silent, so concerned was he with the visual element that he rarely gave a moment’s thought to the audible. The End of Evangelion uses his visual principles in audio, overlaying multiple tracks of dialogue and sound effects so that they comprise a barely distinguishable whole, that whole being protagonist Shinji’s tattered mind. The voices of various characters swirl through his subconscious, mocking him and pleading with him and rejecting him and hating him. It’s at once a thousand thoughts and a single thought, as the images are numerous and singular, as the people of Evangelion’s Earth are individuals and one being.

Even The End of Evangelion’s brief break towards live-action makes one think of Brakhage’s The Wold-Shadow, a three-minute short wherein a still shot of a forest gives way to abstract paintings which recall the treeline imagery, as well as the found footage elements of Murder Psalm. It’s Brakhage in reverse, the “real” and “unreal” colliding. These live-action shots otherwise feel very Brakhage in their intimate sweep, their gentle movement, their vague sense of unease. The small montage of crayon drawings is also reminiscent of Brakhage’s scratching as well as his paint work. Brakhage is all over this film. You may as well call him co-director for the influence he exerts over it. In paying homage to Stan Brakhage, Evangelion shows its skill at iterating on the past rather than reinventing. Brakhage would have been proud, and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have been a little jealous too.

Performance and Selfhood in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’

“Whose body is this?”

Amnesiac cyborg warrior Alita asks it of her adopted father Ido. Her unfamiliarity and discomfort with it has become to much to bear. Salvaged from a scrapyard as a disembodied head and given a new shell, Alita knows instinctively that this body doesn’t belong to her. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t fit. She can’t be her fullest self while using it. She learns that this body was designed for Ido’s late daughter. Alita’s body is not her own.

When Alita wakes up in Ido’s clinic, she has no memory of her former life. Aside from the ability to speak, she has no memory of anything at all. She is as much a blank slate as a person can be, taking in every tiny experience for the first time. She has no real understanding of herself or the world around her.

And yet she knows that her body is wrong. This is perhaps the only thing she knows. She knows it because she doesn’t have to know it. She feels it somewhere deep within herself, some part she can’t access but only feel its reverberations thrumming arrhythmically through her mind. Something is wrong with my body. My body is not my body.

“Whose body is that?”

It’s a question the audience must ask when we look at Alita. Her eyes are not actress Rosa Salazar’s eyes, her arms and legs and torso are not Rosa Salazar’s. But her body clearly isn’t entirely a digital creation. The Alita we see on screen is as much a blend of Salazar’s physicality and computer-generated artistry as the character herself is a combination of a human brain and cybernetic body. Alita the fictional character is no one thing. Alita the constructed image isn’t either.

“Does it bother you,” Alita asks her love interest, “that I’m not completely human?” She’s asking the viewer as well. A supposed “over-reliance” on CG effects tends to be considered a negative, and some academics will tell you that such digital enhancement compromises the integrity of a performance. After all, how much can we attribute to the actor when every detail we see on screen may be the result of interfering animation? Alita: Battle Angel made me wonder: Does it matter?

Salazar’s performance (and I’ll call it hers for the sake of brevity) is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film, period. She is fearlessly emotive, every muscle in her face engaged in a way so many actors are trained to avoid. She’s not restrained by outmoded notions of acting “realism,” and thus she lacks the overcooked stiffness of so many so-called “great” performances. Every movement feels entirely natural and yet (in her first body, and we’ll get to that in a bit) faintly labored, betraying that feeling of unfamiliarity with this form that doesn’t belong to her. Salazar’s Alita is a fully human creation, even in its supposed inhumanity. It doesn’t matter if the physical nuances I’ve noted come from Salazar’s intentions or an effects artist’s. Alita is the product of collaboration, of human mind and digital engineering. She belongs to no one person.

Some time after learning the truth about the body she inhabits, Alita finds a new one. She can’t explain why she’s drawn to it. It’s a subconscious thread suddenly pulled taut. This body she’s found can belong to her. She can live inside it. She can make sense inside it. It can be hers.

She asks Ido to put her inside this new body. He refuses. He doesn’t trust this found form, recognizing it as the shell of an old enemy. Why, he asks Alita, can’t she be happy the way he made her? Why can’t she accept the body he gave her? It doesn’t matter to him that this new body is the right body for her. He won’t let her make that decision for herself.

It’s only after a reckless (one might call it suicidal) decision destroys the body Ido gave her that he agrees to put her in the new one. And when he does, the new one begins to change. It reshapes and reforms itself to, as he puts it, “match her subconscious image of herself.” She doesn’t look like his daughter anymore. For the first time, she looks like herself.

Alita shows off her new body to her friends, celebrating that she finally feels comfortable in her own metal skin. “It’s much more me,” she says. Finally, she achieves symbiosis between her self and her physical form. She is not two separate things, a mind and a body. She is a whole person.

Once Alita gets her new body, Salazar’s performance shifts ever so slightly. Her movement is more graceful, losing the slightly jerky quality she had in her first form. In addition to the righteousness she always radiates, there is now confidence. In addition to her strength, there is control. But it’s not just one big change. There’s an astonishing subtlety to how Salazar’s performance evolves over the course of the film. This is probably as much a testament to the editing as it is to Salazar and the CG team’s skill in creating the character, but that’s another conversation. This performance is constantly in flux, always moving and wavering in ways you may not consciously pick up on until you notice how different she seems from a half-hour prior.

It’s also notable how, as Alita becomes more comfortable with herself, she becomes a performer in her own right. It turns out that Alita’s truest self performs toughness, bravery, and heroism based on the buried memories of her military training. They come back to her in flashes, devoid of context, and she integrates them into her physicality and dialogue on the fly. The film calls into question the notion of a “true self” in this way. When Alita is being “herself,” she is performing, whereas when she doesn’t know herself she is much less guarded and more easygoing. Selfhood, says Alita: Battle Angel, is itself performance. To always act “naturally” is to not have a self at all.

Our selves are what we show to other people. They are how we choose to express, the decisions (or lack of decisions) we make about the physical forms we reside within. Alita becomes Alita over the course of the film. It takes the acquisition of a more fitting body for her to fully realize who she is, and who she wants to be. For Alita to be Alita, she must present herself the way she feels she must. She can’t be herself in the wrong body. Alita: Battle Angel is as moving an exploration of body dysphoria as I’ve ever seen. Salazar’s performance so profoundly understands the awkwardness and pain that come from being disassociated from your physical form, and the euphoria that comes when your body begins to match how you feel about yourself for the first time.

It’s not a wholly natural performance, but this isn’t a film about being comfortable in a natural, unadjusted form. It’s about the joy and necessity of changing yourself, whether with cybernetic tools or computer-generated effects. Alita: Battle Angel is an ode to artificiality for people who must become themselves through active construction. It’s a film for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and asked themselves Alita’s question: “Whose body is this?”