Saving And Harming; Is A Star Is Born A Film About Abuse?

There’s a theory often quoted that when it comes to plots of stories there are only seven (some people come up with a different, but similar, number). Every story ever told falls into one of the seven templates, maybe with subtle differences to others versions – but recognisable all the same. Originality has not always been seen as a virtue; much of what Shakespeare wrote was predictable in terms of the template of the stories; what was unique about his plays was the beauty of the language and the way he extracted profound and universal themes from old material.

Even so, it’s rare that unoriginality is so clearly signalled as it is in A Star Is Born, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper and co-starring Lady Gaga. This story has been made into a film four times under this title (including this one); I haven’t seen any of them until now, but it was no less predictable for that. It’s a story that has been told and retold in countless versions with different titles and variation over the years. That’s not to criticise it; simply to say that if you’ve seen a few films, there won’t be many surprises here – although the gasp from the row of young adults behind me at one major development which I saw coming before I’d even seen the film, indicated that something is always new to someone. Bradley Cooper is an ageing rock star whose career has passed its peak; he meets part-time singer Lady Gaga in a club where she’s performing. He takes her under his wing as lover and protegé; the rest … well either you can guess it, or you’re like one of those young adults.

The film has much to recommend it. Bradley Cooper’s direction is deft, telling the story engagingly and compellingly. His own performance is excellent; and he’s clearly a more than able musician, able to convince as a genuine rock star. Wherever you stand on Lady Gaga, you can’t deny the power of her voice – and she shows it off here to its full capacity. Hearing her sing on a big screen with a big sound system is a treat indeed – hers is a voice to truly stop the listener in his tracks. She can act too – her gradual ascent is believable, her nervousness and discomfort palpable. She’s a proper star; one of those people who I suspect, rather annyoingly, can put her mind to most things successfully. To make it even worse she’s probably a nice person to boot.

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There’s a big question hanging over it all, that I can’t find a satisfying answer to. It hinges on this: is the film portraying something and critiquing it, or is it indulging it? The ‘it’ here is the endemically patriarchal music industry, expressed through the abuse, control and manipulation of a young woman by powerful men. There are moments throughout the film where Ally (Lady Gaga) appears to have a choice, but in reality doesn’t; Bradley Cooper’s character – who has had her privately flown backstage to his gig – introduces one of her songs to the crowd and invites her out. She’s free to decline, of course … but who could possibly do that? Quickly she becomes essential to his fading glory; and as her star ascends and her career takes off, his jealousy and incapability of coping without her is writ large. He slips into bouts of substance abuse and depression; she keeps boomeranging  back. In one disturbing moment, he ends an angry, drunk tirade at Ally (vulnerable, naked, in the bath) by calling her ugly (amongst much else). She stands up to him, for a time. All the time, her (male) manager makes choices for her and controls her career; some of which she eschews anyway (and gets an angry response, of course), some of them she submits to. Her music is changed; from piano or guitar led (she reminded me almost of Tori Amos in the beginning) to making the sort of music that (almost all) white, male critics deem insubstantial and empty; dance-pop, appealing to girls and young women.

Of course, it’s all about Bradley Cooper’s character’s redemption; she brings meaning to him; she reawakens his songwriting gift. From the end of the film, it’s clear that her career will for ever be defined by the man who spotted her and married her.

I’ve no doubt the music industry is deeply patriarchal and abusive towards women; the question for this film to answer is if it is giving us an honest portrayal to interrogate and critique; or is the film sinking into the same morass it shows us on screen? As #metoo has shown us, the movie industry is no different to any other in the way powerful men abuse, manipulate and control women – especially women at the start of their careers.

Lady Gaga’s Ally wouldn’t have a career without men; and we leave her at the film’s end still in a man’s shadow. She has bought him a measure of redemption – but that’s the point, I think. Her career is about him; it’s for him, heals him, remakes him. She seems to be doing her masters’ bidding all this time.

I left having enjoyed the film, been gripped and moved by it. It left me deeply troubled also. I am only now in the process of identifying and understanding my own abuse twenty-five years ago; I felt reminded of my own past that I can’t yet name fully. Not in a good way, but in a way that seemed to excuse the abuse because of what happened in Ally’s career. I wonder what a woman currently in an abusive relationship might make of this.

I’m sure Bradley Cooper never intended this; therein, though, is the point. We’re so inured to the trope of the (young) woman being ‘saved’ by an older man, who takes advantage of her in such a way as she can never leave, that we expect it to be like this. We’ve forgotten how to tell this story differently, where the young woman has vibrancy and agency that doesn’t depend on a man calling it out of her and keeping her at his beck and call, healing him even as he wounds her. It’s an old story, that for all its pleasures deserves a better, newer telling than this if the wounds of many are to receive some measure of healing.

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Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons

Precious

It’s not unusual for films of critical acclaim to be on the receiving end of a backlash; but for it to be happening within a week of the UK release strikes me as unusual. Precious is the Oprah anointed novel adaptation (the word ‘novel’ is important) of the life of Precious, a young girl from Harlem growing up in the midst of abuse at the hands of her absent dad and her physically present mother. It’s certain for Oscar glory – most likely  for the début performance of Gabourey Sidibe, and is being seen as tale of how to brave in the face adversity and evil. Well some people are starting to call it patronising, offensive and insulting to the poor. Which is it?

Well it’s not a comedy. The girl in question is, when we meet her, pregnant for the second time – by her own father. The abuse she suffers from her mother is at times unwatchable, and when it gets too much we, with Precious escape into a fantasy world of res carpets, expensive dresses and polished soundtracks. But it’s only ever fantasy. She ends up in a special school, and in what’s a cliché of this type of story a teacher takes an interest in her….

Spoilers prevent saying more. I haven’t read the book, but there’s a real danger of this sort of thing becoming the ‘poverty porn’ the anti-brigade are complaining about. But it is fiction, and it’s fiction that feels painfully familiar. I’ve worked with the victims of abuse like that depicted and worse. The flights of fantasy of Precious are so horribly similar to the ones I’ve had relayed to me. When it all breaks down, we all need to escape. Sometimes fantasy is all you have. Some make it out, some crash. Precious’ story is convincing – those complaining need to remember it’s only one story; those in awe of it need to remember the same. It’s fiction that rings horribly true.

Precious is far from perfect, but the performances are brilliant; and I’ll never forget it.Watching it, I wept for people I know, and their stories and abuse ran on the film screen of my mind. It still will when I go to sleep tonight.