Recently I seem to have got into the habit of watching films that I loved as a child. Maybe it’s a bit of denial about actually being an adult, or maybe it’s because there just aren’t that many good films around these days (“back in my day!”). Or maybe, and this is probably the truth, we often remember films from our childhood through rose tinted glasses. We weren’t old enough to see their flaws, and we only remember how they made us laugh or cry.
Since I seem to have developed this habit, I’ve decided to write a short piece of each of my ‘childhood’ films – seeing whether they match up to my expectations of films today and whether I’m just remembering the good parts. Personally, I know I am definitely far more aware of social and political representation and messages within cinema these days, so it will be interesting to see how certain things may have changed for me, and you too. Here goes…
Holes (Andrew Davis, 2003)
Can I just begin by saying that 11 year old me lived, breathed and probably dreamt about Holes. I probably watched the film once a week, read the book at least 6 times and sobbed my heart out every time Sam died. It’s a film that holds a really special place in my heart, and I wasn’t surprised to find that I can still quote every line off by heart when I watched it last week. So, how does it fare in 2015?
Holes is a simple film with a simple premise that has an extraordinary twist. The satisfying way in which every single character ties together is still a very strong detail, one that hasn’t decayed at all over time. It still feels very fresh; there’s enough there to challenge the audience (it still took me a while to work out Stanley’s family tree) but it’s also incredibly relatable. It’s a story of mistaken identity, family curses, love and most importantly friendship. Holes has got something for everyone. As a kid, I remember being completely in awe of the love story between Kissin Kate Barlow and Sam the Onion man and primarily being slightly bored by the scenes at Camp Green Lake. Funnily enough, on my re-watch, it was the reverse. The chemistry between the detainees at Camp Green Lake is just phenomenal; the very young Shia Lebeouf and co. are believable as a group of degenerates stuck in the desert. As it is a childrens film, there is very little focus on how horrific it must be for real life young offenders. Instead the film focuses on the hierarchy within the camp, and the unfair regimes that The Warden, Dr Pendanski and Mr Sir set upon them. Like the boys, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Nelson and Jon Voight are equally superb as the guardians of Camp Green Lake. Weaver, particularly, is the perfect mix of crazy and authoritative. I will never forget the triumphant feeling of knowing that The Warden was actually a woman, and the feeling came back three-fold on my rewatch.
Which leads me onto one of the most interesting aspects of Holes, which my younger self had never really taken notice of. I am not the biggest fan of films which feature predominantly white male casts and Holes’ does seem to fit the bill on that front. There are only 3 key female characters within the film; ‘Kissin’ Kate Barlow, Madame Zeroni and The Warden. It’s true that the women are not the forefront of the primary narrative of Holes, and that they seem to be situated on the peripheral of each timeline. However, these three women are all directly responsible for setting Stanley Yelnats story into motion. It was Madame Zeroni who placed the curse on Stanley’s great-great Grandfather, it was Kate Barlow who stole the treasures which Stanley’s great Grandfather had procured in America and The Warden opened Camp Green Lake to dig for the lost treasure – the very reason why Stanley himself ended up there. The story itself is incredibly neat, but you can’t help marveling at the women who stand as figureheads in the narrative. The men, in comparison, are all incredibly incompetent. Whilst I’m not sure that we can call Holes a feminist triumph, it definitely highlights women as strong decision makers who are not to be messed with but who are also capable of love and emotion. There are many films today that can’t claim even that.
As expected, there were certain aspects of Holes which I had forgotten, or had never noticed in the first place. For example, the stereotypical and frankly quite racist way which Eastern Europeans are represented. It is not explained explicitly where Elya Yelnats came from, but the accent hints heavily towards Eastern Europe. Elya himself appears to be, if a bit stupid, a hard working and optimistic individual. However, the representation of the other villagers (particularly Elya’s prospective lover and Elya’s opponent) are incredibly offensive. The film seems to resort to primitive stereotypes and lazy cliches to provide humour – something which is not entirely unexpected but very disappointing. There also seems to be a slight ‘white saviour’ theme towards the end of the film – Stanley gives Zero a handout to help find his mother. Instead of investigating issues of race – the very reason why Zero ended up at Camp Green Lake – Holes skips neatly to the happy ending. As much as it is a childrens film, there are clearly racially motivated events that occur, and it wouldn’t be difficult to at least attempt to address these.
Overall though, Holes is a pretty damn good film even today.
The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999)
Like a knock-off Indiana Jones, The Mummy is the story of an archaeology enthusiast who accidentally uncovers an ancient curse which has lain dormant for years. It’s got all the makings of an Indiana Jones style action film; ancient landscapes, scary monsters, creepy crawlies and a whirlwind romance but without the backing of a formidable franchise. So, The Mummy relies on comedy and impressive special effects to keep the audience watching.
Interestingly, our archaeological protagonist is actually a woman – Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). She’s actually an aspiring Egyptologist. Geeky, librarian and incredibly awkward, she teams up with her bro Jonathan (John Hannah) and soldier-come-ragamuffin Rick (Brendan Fraser). Despite Evelyn being the brains of the operation, it is Rick who is our hero throughout the film. The Mummy is a standard ‘save the world, get the girl’ type of film meaning that the love story between Evelyn and Rick is incredibly predictable. What The Mummy lacks in originality though, it makes up for in humour. It is incredibly funny, mostly to the credit of Brendan Fraser, and provides some memorable moments that I still remembered today. The special effects also stand the test of time – the scarab beetles will have you itching your skin throughout. The CGI doesn’t feel too dated, which is surprising since they make up a lot of the film – especially Imhoteps’s transition from dead to pretty much alive again.
The thing is though, The Mummy isn’t actually that good.. Re watching it, I found myself exasperated by the Evelyn/Rick dynamic and Imhotep’s obsession with Evelyn. In Imhotep’s bid to become ‘human’ again, he decides he wants to resurrect Anck-su-Namun (his former lover) and he is hell bent on sacrificing Evelyn to do so. This was a bit confusing. Is Evelyn the only woman in the whole of Egypt? The film doesn’t state that it needs to be a particular woman who Imhotep sacrifices, so why does he spend a great deal of effort tracking down Evelyn for the task? Instead of Evelyn taking an active part in sending Imhotep to the underworld for good, she juggled around in a undead-style Pass the Parcel. Evelyn is the parcel. It’s a bit annoying, as she comes across as an intelligent (though hopelessly naive) woman who had the potential to save herself. Then there is the race issue again. Don’t get me wrong, Omid Djalili is amazing but the representation of the Egyptians was completely racist. There is even a line of dialogue whereby the Egyptians are described as ‘smelly arabs’. It’s all written in jest, of course, as is the nature of the film. However, when the three protagonists are all white and either American or British – there isn’t much opportunity to prove the stereotype wrong. In fact it is Imhotep’s sniveling servant that leaves a lasting impression of what the film-makers think of Arabs – greed driven. Beni, the servant, becomes trapped in the pyramids after choosing to attempt to steal mountains of gold instead of saving himself.
Much like many films of the time, the Egyptian characters are completely othered, and exist only to play into Westernized concepts of the Arabic world. It is my one huge criticism of the film, and an element that really prevented me from enjoying it as much as I did when I was young. The Mummy, whilst enjoyable on a superficial level, is pretty formulaic – a very typical Hollywood blockbuster. If you’ve never seen it, I’d stick with Indiana Jones, I think.