Sunday, 13 March 2011

'F' (2010)

Exams approach apace. I've got my dates, so in only a couple of months I will be sat in a room lost in an equal mix of terror and concentration. I am a little behind - there is a seminar, which officially ends today, in which I have not yet contributed. So why am I writing here? What could possibly be so important that I take time away from study?

Well, yesterday, as I was resting, I watched a film. And I think it ranks as the worst film I have ever seen because it was both the least well constructed and potentially the most damaging. And so I wanted to warn the world.

Firstly, I must admit that I quite like 'bad' fiction. I've watched Neighbours for a very long time. I like soap opera narrative. In some ways it is the most life-like narrative in its sheer daftness. There's lots of scope for people to be silly, cowardly and to procrastinate about subjects they should just get on and deal with. So very much like our daily lives.

I also like horror. I believe that Zombie films (especially the work of George A Romero) are a very useful and uplifting thing to watch. Indeed, on the evening after my grandmother's funeral I chose to watch Dawn of the Dead (1978). In the Zombie world things are broken down a bit - responsibilities are quite clear. And what's more, Romero zombies are relatively benign - it is always human frailty, greed and selfishness which leads to destruction.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is a great film. It was partly inspired by Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), but it's definitely not a zombie film. The forces bearing down on the beleaguered police station are anything but benign. It takes a concerted effort to fight off the violent Street Thunder gang members. But at the same time, they have to keep a unified front in their defending group of police officials and previously incarcerated criminals. The silenced weapons used by the Street Thunder gang and the blood oath they've sworn in vengeance, not to mention the creepy way they're shot moving outside the station, gives a slightly supernatural feeling. It is unsettling, exciting and, like Zombie films, to me at least, very uplifting.

So yesterday, in part because it uses a similar premise to AoP13, I watched the British film 'F' (2010).

The basic idea is that a teacher, traumatised by a brief but violent assault by a child, then has to deal with a mass assault of faceless 'hoodies' on a school whilst trying to keep his wayward daughter safe.

Part of me was wary - school violence is a tricky subject, especially in the UK where there have been far fewer acts of extreme violence than, say, the US. My father was an OFSTED inspector and worked in some problem schools, so I know a lot about the issue of student assaults on teachers. He would get injury lists with some of the rougher schools. So I remember distinctly reading about teachers being kneecapped etc.

But here's my first issue with the film - reasons and consequences. It is true that in life not everything that happens has an easily definable reason. People are assaulted in the street for no reason. It happens a lot around here.

They are *always* carried out by one or two people off their heads on something. They are always done to a single person on their own or a couple (hetero/homosexual). And there still is a reason to this - the reason being that the attacker is a bit of a psycho-loser.

In 'F' we see only two bits of violence with any kind of reason to them - one is the original assault on the teacher, triggered by an 'F' grade and accompanying sarcastic comment. In doing this, the teacher breaches official policy. This is made into a PC Health and Safety style rant. Why can't the teacher give an 'F'? And why can't he say these things? Well, these are very important questions - but they're not really addressed. All we see is a grumpy old man getting a head-but.

The other act of reasoned violence is the slapping of the wayward daughter by her alcoholic, teacher father. This is reasoned away as being appropriate because she was mouthing off in a disrespectful manner. More (much much much more) on this later.

The rest of the violence is reasonless. One review I read of this film (in the Guardian, no less) said that the gang assault on the school was led by the child who assaulted the teacher at the beginning of the film. This is never ever shown. We never see the faces of the 'hoodies'. They are deliberately blacked out. No one says anything. No 'this'll teach you for doing x'. No motive. Nothing. Now, as I said, this is fine if you're dealing with a few psycho-losers, as that psycho-loseriness is their motivation. But this group of hoodies is silently coordinated, acting with great grace, speed and purpose. To do this they'd need a lot of planning, equipment and communication.

The other option would have been to make them supernatural enemies. Indeed, I think they were trying to suggest this (a little like the subtle supernatural feel of the enemy in AoP13). It fails completely. Whenever they're on screen there is a truly annoying distorted playground 'lalala' music. You never see their deliberately blacked out faces. They are silent and graceful. And their violence is extreme and also apparently lacking a motive. In this way they'd make a great supernatural force. But in order for that to work you'd need to have some hint to solidify them as a supernatural force. Maybe some question as to their reality (a lack of reflection, say - or someone not being able to see them). Indeed, at one point I wondered whether the big reveal would be that the violence had all been carried out by the alchie teacher and the faceless force had all been in his head. But no. No subtlety, no explanation, no reason.

This is dangerous. The entire point of this kind of film filters back to the stuff I'm studying. Tragedy has a reason. People do the wrong thing. They exceed mortal bounds. They strike out at the gods. They transgress and are punished. All of the (sometimes just as extreme) violence is justified by, what can be an unfair, set of rules and regulations. By watching the tragedy unfold, we the audience learn a lesson. This is what makes great tragedy.

What AoP13 does which is so clever is that the violence is due to police action which has relatively nothing to do with those trapped inside. They are innocent parties caught up in the responsibilities of others. And they fight against it. This makes them heroes. Bringing in another classical reference - they are Hectors, fighting for Troy when the reason for the battle is Paris' abduction of Helen.

The story, lacking a reason, completely loses track of the audience. There is nothing to be fought against, nothing to be overcome. There can be no climactic boss battle between Alcoholic Teacher and Violent Pupil where the violence is reversed (indeed, he does kill a 'hoodie', but this is lacking any emotional content due to the eternally faceless nature of the enemy - he might as well have stabbed a hat stand). Likewise, as there is no link between teacher and hoodies, there can be no growth for the teacher - he cannot apologise for his actions or gain forgiveness.

Much more interesting would have been an attack on a teacher who had been abusive (possibly sexually) against a group of boys who then get together to get excessive revenge. Alternatively, the faceless assault on the school could have been shorter and led to them being tracked down and punished by the aggrieved teacher. But no luck. There is no resolution. The teacher leaves the school with his injured daughter, leaving his wife to die. Everyone else gets got. It is pointless.

But my biggest problem by far was its misogynistic nature. I've been made more aware of this kind of thing by doing my Women in Ancient History degree. But I have always been quite smug because no matter how silly Aristotle was, he's been dead for quite a while now and we've evolved.

Apparently not.

There are five female characters;

Head Teacher
Gym Teacher?

Oh, and I've just remembered - there was a male/female pairing of police officers. Guess what happened to them?

The librarian is a caring character who tries to look after the alcoholic teacher. I like her character and can't complain - but her death is anonymous and nameless and lost.

The Head Teacher seems to earn her death by not heeding the warning given to her by the alcoholic teacher about the downed telephone lines. She also pays for not supporting him after the initial assault and effectively 'siding' with the parents of the boy who want to sue. Confronted by the boys she's not even capable of calling the police - she just waves her phone at them.

Now, I am not 100% certain, but I guess that the character who hardly looked long out of college herself was a gym teacher. When I first saw her, I expected her to become a rape victim. Jogging on the treadmill? Sure sign that someone's going to rip some of your clothes off. But I hadn't realised that these characters would have no apparent motivation. So no rape, but the most extreme violence is still kept for her (a word was cut into her exposed stomach, more cuts are inflicted on her thighs, and the lower part of her face is removed) and left crawling away from the toilets in which she was attacked).

The Daughter,as well as being slapped by her father, is stabbed in the stomach whilst trying to save him.

The Mother is left alone in the school, presumably, we are left to believe, to be killed in an horrific way.

Women are nothing but victims. They have no chance. Admittedly three men are also killed (one burnt to death, but the other two we don't see dead, just on the way to it), but less screen time is taken over this. The violence against women is glorified in. There is no chance that any of them will be proactive. They don't get angry. They just crumble and weep.

What's more (much much much more) the slapping of the daughter is effectively explained away through her bad behaviour. She's then shown willing on a bruise so she can then use this against her father. But everything is forgiven when he comes to find her and she effectively gives up her life saving him from the knife attack. He then tries to save her, but in so doing, sacrifices his wife.

So violence against a child is ok if they're being really mouthy and you save them after. No repercussions for the teacher in any way. Other than the death of his ex who's already left him. No sign of guilt from him...but then as there's no apparent link to him, there wouldn't need to be.

So all the potential power of the plot is lost. The humanity of the hoodies being removed (and by the way, the exclusively white cast vs the blacked out faces of the hoodies? The racial element, though never actually said, was equally worrying). No supernatural basis to compensate for this. No responsibility, consequence or explanation. And no resolution. Just the teacher driving away with his wounded daughter. An over-long look into his eyes from the rear-view mirror. A scene which would work wonderfully well in a film respecting the psychological process of character and narrative. But here it just exposes everything that was weak and shallow. I.E. the entire thing.

No, that's unfair - some of the shots of the school and the people were beautifully done. The shallow depth of field was very nice and I liked some of the colour tones.

So really, do yourself a favour and don't ever watch it. Spend the 80 minutes. or whatever it was, contemplating the nature of responsibility and consequences in life. It'll be better for your soul.