FilmWeekend

On ‘Amy’ and ‘Ex Machina’ 

Amy Winehouse performing at Somerset House, July 2007 (© Rex Features, courtesy Mongrel Media)

Why do we desire to die so much? Because we desire to say so much.

—Helene Cixous

Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy reconstructs the late singer, Amy Winehouse, by giving the viewer the full story, Amy’s entire life from girlhood until her death. And by doing this he complicates the story, telling it through her own words and the words of those close to her. Constructing the film from 100 interviews, archival footage and home videos, the result gives the sense of actually sitting with the singer — the gaze is near, that of a loved one, rather than the more voyeuristic images shot by the paparazzi.

Kapadia grew up in the same neighborhood as Winehouse. In an interview with American Vogue he said, “She wasn’t like this person from another planet or the other side of the world. She literally walked down the streets I walked down. For me it was about taking her off the pedestal and humanizing her. I didn’t want her to be grouped with all those other people who died young. I just wanted her to be herself.” Amy Winehouse came from a Jewish, working class family. When she was nine her parents divorced. Also, when she was nine her grandmother suggested she attend the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School to further her vocal skills. While at the school Amy founded her first band, a short-lived rap group called Sweet ‘n’ Sour with her friend, Juliette Ashby. Many of Winehouse’s uncles on her mother’s side of the family were jazz musicians, and she grew up listening to jazz — taking, as Winehouse said herself in an interview with Dazed Magazine, “Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan. They were always there, in my house.”

Nick Shymansky, Winehouse’s first manager, learned of her when one of his clients, Tyler James, a friend of Winehouse, sent him a demo:

I got this package through the post with a demo tape with two songs on, and the Jiffy bag was covered in stickers and hearts and kisses, and it had, “Amy”scribbled over it about 100 times. It didn’t fit with the girl who didn’t want to be noticed. I put it on in my car and it blew my mind. As soon as producers heard her they were in.

In the film, one gets the sense, from the very start, just how much larger than life Winehouse was: animated and clever, smart, flirtatious and when she opens her mouth to sing, the world stops. To watch the film is to witness an energy, an incredible source of life that draws everyone in and then, just as quickly, is snuffed out.

Amy Winehouse with Juliette Ashby at the Jamon Jamon restaurant, Camden Town, 2003 © Juliette Ashby, courtesy Mongrel Media)

Amy Winehouse’s first album, Frank, (named after her idol, Frank Sinatra) was released in 2003. Back to Black, the album that catapulted Winehouse into the spotlight, was released only three years later. Her first album drew from her roots in jazz, while her second, was a tribute to the girl bands she loved and the Ronettes in particular.

In photographs, and more strikingly in the film, one can see the drastic change in Winehouse from a healthy young girl, smiling as she performs, to the person we all remember: tiny, frightened, her face frozen before the camera. The story circulating over and around Winehouse before and after her death is that she was an addict, that she died of an overdose. And while there is no disputing her history of addiction, she was clean from drugs when she died. She died, in fact, in her sleep. The coroner report states that she died from alcohol poisoning. Death by alcohol poisoning actually refers to several causes of death, one of which is a heart attack. But it is as likely that she died from a heart attack during her sleep as the result of her lifelong battle with anorexia and bulimia, or even a combination of both: that the lifelong damage her body had suffered as the result of starving, bingeing and purging had weakened her and made her more vulnerable.

In fact, her close friends from childhood and her brother have stated publicly in interviews that though she struggled with alcohol and drugs, it was her eating disorder that killed her. Winehouse herself was never shy about her struggles with anorexia and bulimia, saying in one interview, “A little bit of anorexia, a little bit of bulimia. I’m not totally okay now but I don’t think any woman is.” In an interview with National Public Radio, Kapadia stated:

We found out that bulimia was an issue from a young age, from, like, her teens, mid-teens…A lot of different people…noticed it but they didn’t realize it was a big deal, or they thought it was a passing phase or just nervousness, and that was a massive part of Amy’s kind of illness over the years, which mixed with alcohol, and, obviously, there was period of heavy drugs. But that was a problem for her—there was an eating disorder that continued all the way through, and really people started to notice it more and more. What I founds was that lots of different people would notice it, but nobody was talking to one another.

In one scene in the film, Janis Winehouse, Amy’s mother, confesses that her daughter had told her and her husband about her bulimia when she was fifteen: how she would binge on foods and then vomit them back up. In another scene in a music studio, Winehouse is described as having binged on an enormous plateful of food then vanishing to the bathroom. Again, in another interview, Kapadia adds:

Bulimia ravaged her body. […] That unfortunately led to her downfall, it was there from when she was very young until the very end. People said she just didn’t eat. And at least five different people at different times told me they witnessed her gorging herself on way too much food for someone her size and then vanishing.

In the film her friend Mos Def says of her, “This is someone who is trying to disappear.” About Winehouse, the music writer Jude Rogers said “Her size got me first. She was tiny, a doll under a huge beehive, which threatened to topple her over. Tottering across the stage in a baby-pink, acid-blue and neon-yellow dress, she sang ‘Love Is a Losing Game’ like none of us imagined she’d be able to sing it.”

Amy Winehouse performs “Rehab” during 2007 MTV Movie Awards (photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, courtesy Mongrel Media)

Despite her ascendence into pop stardom, Winehouse never forgot where she came from. In fact, from the very beginning of the film, Winehouse is a fighter; always proud of her working class roots. A punk priestess, she refuses to give in or otherwise sugarcoat the truth, never censoring herself regardless of the costs (scoffing, for example, when an interviewer tries to compare her to Dido).

Rock, punk, jazz, the blues, and folk all have their roots in the working class and the working poor. Yet, the general public and the media have a long history of rejecting and, in fact, destroying performers who refuse to play into the rags-to-riches myth (or the Cinderella myth). Winehouse fought to the end to preserve who she was and where she came from, donning the look of the Ronettes, acquiring tattoos, and speaking bluntly and honestly in interviews. (In addition, she had a fondness for and later, a partnership with the Fred Perry label, a British clothing company affiliated with the working class and, specifically, the working class music scene.)

The derogatory names Winehouse was, and continues to be, called by the media are almost always entirely connected to class: comparing her with prostitutes, referring to her as ugly or “dirty,” were all ways of keeping her in her place as well as punishing her for not conforming, not abandoning her class background.

When Winehouse was healthy the media called her fat, and later when she had slid deep into her eating disorder, visibly emaciated by anorexia, the media ridiculed her for being too skinny. No one criticized her for her music, for her singing and her incredible voice because, as she said herself, in that regard she was untouchable. A smart, talented woman can’t be attacked for her intelligence or her talent. But she can be attacked for her looks.

The way we look is, in essence, who we are; it is where we come from. It wasn’t enough for Amy Winehouse to sing, to write extraordinary songs, to be beautiful and bring her charisma to the stage. She also needed to be “graceful.” The meaning of the word graceful is “full of (divine) grace,” and also “pleasant, sweet.” Winehouse might have been petite, but she was far more punk rock than “pleasant” and “sweet.”

What can we do in a world that won’t accept us, that won’t take us in? We could try in vain, nearly killing ourselves in the process, to become what the world wants us to be: meek, graceful, young, “perfect.” Or, we can do the best that we can to turn our head away. Sometimes this means isolating ourselves from the world and sometimes this means rebelling, which often means using one’s body as language.

The anorexic changes her body into a symbol — thinking, wrongly, that this symbol will be read universally for what it is, what it represents to her. But the mistake here is that those who truly understand what the symbol represents will be the members of her tribe. Outsiders will mistake her thin, ravished body as a desire to be beautiful, to be slim, to be liked. They see thinness for what it means to them: conformity to the culture’s norms, instead of the remaking of one’s body into a language of No — a fierce and powerful rebellion against one’s culture, against the violent forces that insist she turn her will over to that culture’s ideals. The force and determination of an anorexic’s will is unrelenting. It is the kind of power that allows her not to eat for days, to then run fifteen miles through rain or snow or tremendous heat, with no source of power inside her body. The sheer force of will it takes to transform a healthy body to what amounts to a cadaver is something to be reckoned with.

An eating disorder can be a means to control how much one takes in of the world. With anorexia, when the body becomes tiny, a child’s, the sufferer vanishes. As a result of chronic anorexia, the sufferer’s mind becomes scattered, her voice becomes scattered, slurred, broken. I have written elsewhere about the stutter in women’s writing and how this stutter enacts the gutter of a woman’s existence, the space between where she exists, as her whole self, and the world — the residue, to use Derrida’s term — that cannot be swallowed. After years of having their true self rejected, and at the same time refusing to acquiesce, writers such as Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector and Ingeborg Bachmann inhabit this stutter, this place of silence. The stutter is, in itself, an enactment of shock in response to the world’s actions. The second part of Amy is the descent. Even now, more than two weeks after watching the feeling, I experience a sense of shock. The things the paparazzi said to her, the words the media wrote about her, the constant prying, the exploitative photographs — it’s no wonder she became speechless, incoherent in interviews, hollow-eyed in photographs. We were on the outside watching, devouring. But she was living it. Not only was her body a symbol we refused to read, her own words were misconstrued, warped, and twisted into one more reason why she wasn’t worthy of the attention she was garnering from her singing.

Coincidentally, the anorexic’s desire or need to say no, to control how much of the world she takes in, is often a response to the world’s having said no to her, to the world’s refusal to take in or digest her. Eating disorders are often, mistakenly, considered to be a white, middle-to-upper-class problem for privileged girls. This is of course just one more myth that works quite well to silence the many older women, the men, the poor and working class and non-white sufferers. But what this myth also does is minimize the suffering of those afflicted with it. Eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia, are both mental illnesses — and the number one killer of all mental illness. To suffer from an eating disorder and come from a working class or poor background is to be caught in a double bind. Amy Winehouse was an incredibly gifted singer, writer and musician, but the world didn’t know what to do with her. Her complexities were too diverse. In an interview she said, “When I was a little kid it was my dream to go to drama school, but it was never something I thought would happen to me. I was a Jewish girl from North London and things like that don’t happen to Jewish girls from North London called Amy Winehouse.”

Alicia Vikander as Ava, in “Ex Machina” (2015) (© Universal Pictures, courtesy Mongrel Media)

In the film Ex Machina, Caleb, a young programer, wins a company lottery that allows him to visit his boss’s home and the corporate headquarters. He arrives by helicopter and is dropped down in the middle of grassy knoll in the middle of nowhere. It takes Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) a while to find the mysterious headquarters, but once he does, a series of boxes within boxes begin to open.

The filmmaker, Alex Garland, a man, has ostensibly made a film about the “perfect woman,” a humanoid robot. In Garland’s film, a man, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has created this “perfect woman.” Caleb has been invited to meet the robot and administer the Turing test, which would gauge the robot’s human attributes. According to USA Today, Alicia Vikander, the actress who plays Ava, the perfect woman, in order to prepare for the audition, “slathered half a bottle of sunscreen on her face, added some weirdly colored eyeliner and channeled her inner machine.” Vikander, who is described by Kathryn Shattuck of The New York Times as having a “whisper-thin physique” and a “ravishing physicality — the gamin bone structure, that sullen pout, those velvety fawn eyes,” still did not feel confident, despite her obvious, spell-binding beauty, that simply showing up as she was would be enough. In other words, as we all know by now, even the most beautiful among us don’t feel beautiful enough.

Ava is tiny and doe-eyed. She listens intently to Caleb. He is the teacher (though they look close in age), she the student. At one point, she even draws him a picture and shows it to him, like a small child showing her parents what she has made, awaiting approval. The power dynamics are clear, a simple system of hierarchy. Nathan is a kind of genius God figure, mentally and physically. His body is a vehicle of power. Throughout the film, he is shown in tank tops and sweats. He lifts weight, drinks too much, and pontificates theory. He is the übermensch, the current hipster male ideal everywhere in Brooklyn: the faux hunter with a gigantic bushy beard and laid-back attire. The ideal Williamsburg dude. In contrast, Caleb is what every man is cautioned against becoming: the nerdy, Asperger-esque, skinny dude. There’s no way he can compete with Nathan.

Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in “Ex Machina” (2015) (© Universal Pictures, courtesy Mongrel Media)

The two actresses who play the main female characters in the film are professional ballerinas in real life. Ballerinas are traditionally thought of as small, delicate and graceful: the very embodiment of the “perfect” female. The irony, of course, is that a ballerina’s body looks the way it does, moves the way it moves, because she has in fact mastered it: spending eight to nine hours a day exercising. Sonoya Mizuno, the actress who plays Nathan’s housemaid, Kyoko, does not speak during the film. In fact, Nathan tells Caleb she cannot speak. Whether Kyoto is human or a robot is unclear, and so the viewer must ask herself this question, administer the Turing test on her. Ava does speak but, as he tells us, Nathan programmed her, which begs the question: how much of who Ava is has been programmed and is there any space remaining for something else?

Of course, the filmmaker chose two actresses whom he hoped would best personify “perfection.” But is this really much different from other Hollywood films where actresses are chosen more often for their looks rather than their ability to evoke character? The word character is defined as “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” And the definition for the word individual is “a single human being as distinct from a group, class, or family.”

In the end, the film is about a man making renditions of the perfect female. Nathan is essentially a stand in for the filmmaker — both men created these near-perfect women. In the case of the former, because he wanted to create the perfect female, but in the latter case, the filmmaker chose the most perfect women he could fine because this is what will sell the film: men make our culture, creating the very systems within which we (as women) must function.

We are every day surrounded by images of the same kind of women featured in Ex Machina — on the television set, in the movies, playing music, working as politicians, the list goes on. At this point in our culture, in order to simply enter the conversation, a woman must pass certain basic aesthetic standards. And so the force at play isn’t just fashion or fashion magazines, it isn’t just the media. Pasted along the walls of the Union Square subway station are advertisements for the American company, Protein World, that feature images of what appears to be a tanned woman with no body fat. The ad states, “Are you beach body ready?” suggesting that unless a woman looks like the model, she isn’t “ready” to step foot on the beach. The ad is particularly eerie because the model looks more like a robot than a human, the idea being that the “perfect” woman is indistinguishable from a machine.

In the final scene of Ex Machina, we get various renditions of the ideal women: all in their twenties, silenced (or dead, hanging like cadavers in Nathan’s closets). The women (the two still living) are afraid of the men, whose power looms over them. But their power doesn’t lie in their ability to lock women inside the walls of the compound. The women have been created by men — their very systems, their organs and minds, and their bodies are fashioned and run by them. And men decide which of them will live.

Alicia Vikander as Ava, in “Ex Machina” (2015) (© Universal Pictures, courtesy Mongrel Media) (click to enlarge)

It is, in fact, a mirror of our current culture: men hold the power. Not just in crude ways but in more complicated, inexplicable ways — the very ways that we, as women, or as nonwhite heterosexual men, are programmed to react at all times. My body, my being, what I say and publish — I am always aware that everything I do is in reaction to this invisible source; one’s every breath becomes a kind of endless series of arguments on behalf of one’s existence.

In the end, Ava kills off both the men but then destroys the women, too. She peels off the skin of other women in order to give herself skin, to become or, more accurately, to pass, as human. In this incredibly chilling scene, the actress is nude, and the camera’s gaze remains on her. It is voracious and gratuitous. But in the final scene, she destroys others in order to look more perfect, more passable as human. Standing before her reflection in many mirrors, as in the mirror scene in All About Eve, she evaluates herself. Will she pass or will she not, once she leaves the compound? Is she beautiful enough? Finally, she dresses herself in a white lace cocktail dress and flees.

In the end, the film becomes a questioning of what exactly the perfect woman is, who created this ideal and why. The look on Ava’s face as she leaves the compound is that of a doe: wide eyes and naive. The ideal woman is apparently, something akin to this? But what if it were possible to exist as if the fall had never occurred? What if, like Winehouse, we could be our true selves but without having to conform or silence ourselves, mute the intensity of who we really are? And not have to pass? It might be science fiction, the perfect world. But God knows it shouldn’t be.

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