Review: Notes on "Oceans 8" and cinematic reparations

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 7/13/18 2:05am

 “Ocean’s 8” stars Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, sister of George Clooney’s roguish con man Danny Ocean from Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy. Criminality, as it turns out, runs in this family. Once released from prison, Debbie reconnects with her old partner, Cate Blanchett’s wonderfully cynical Lou Miller, and together they scheme to steal a necklace worth $150 million from the Met Gala. To this end, they assemble a cohort of six accomplices played by the likes of Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna and Helena Bonham Carter.

The end result is a perfectly diverting two hours of entertainment. Each of these eight actresses — with the notable exception of Bonham Carter — is impeccably cast. Bullock lends the film a steely confidence, Hathaway proves surprisingly adept at navigating the nuances of her character and Rihanna steals the show on charisma alone. Likewise, Gary Ross, of “Seabiscuit” and “The Hunger Games” fame, directs the film with unobtrusive competence. His screenplay, co-written with Olivia Milch, never truly thrills, but it is replete with plenty of engaging ingredients. The editing, although occasionally a little too stylized, creates a suave, slick sensibility that serves the film especially well during the major heist set piece. To put it simply, “Ocean’s 8” is neither spectacular nor dreadful; it is perfectly adequate. As such, I have little constructive to say about it.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that films like this present a quandary to people invested in the application of feminist film theory. In its essence, “Ocean’s 8” is an all-female led rendition of one of Soderbergh’s aforementioned “Ocean’s” adventures. You might argue that such a simplification of the film is not merely reductive, but perhaps even sexist. And you would most certainly be right. But to speak the language of Hollywood is to speak the language of reductionism. Film executives want a pitch they can put on a poster, and “An ‘Ocean’s’ film, but with women” suffices as a viable starting point.

Of course, “Ocean’s 8” is not alone. 2016’s “Ghostbusters,” the upcoming female-led “21 Jump Street” spin-off and various other examples are all predicated on the same pitch. Indeed, I need not narrow myself to new iterations of pre-existing, male-led franchises. It often seems that any number of genres and subgenres “but with women” qualifies as a compelling and progressive premise in Hollywood. Ostensibly, films of this nature are meant to be empowering. For feminists and leftists alike, they are meant to be taken as a sign of encouragement. Yet is the patriarchal odor of Hollywood cinema not intrinsically imprinted on them? “Ocean’s 8,” after all, is not just a female-led version of the “Ocean’s” films; it is a direct reaction to those films and thus inherently cannot exist without them. The former is dependent on the latter and the latter perpetually haunts the former.

If one follows this train of thought long enough, one is liable to think like Laura Mulvey, the preeminent scholar of feminist film theory. At the most basic level, Mulvey contends in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” that almost all cinema is inherently patriarchal. After all, as an art form, the codified rules and techniques were constructed by men, for men.

While Mulvey’s work is both indelible and endlessly useful, it still possesses its limitations. Perhaps most cinema is indeed innately patriarchal, but such a sweeping generalization fails to account for the enjoyment that so many women have at the movie theater. What entry points and resistant readings might exist for these female spectators? Likewise, Mulvey’s solution — the creation of avant-garde films that deny the innate visual pleasure of the medium — is theoretically and conceptually compelling. But such a solution is ultimately untenable in a media landscape that continues to be dominated by the classical stylings of Hollywood narratives. People aren’t liable to make an art-house, feminist masterpiece a blockbuster if they don’t understand or enjoy it, especially if the newest big superhero flick is playing one theater over. To be clear, that isn’t a value judgement — it’s just reality.

So what options are left for us? Personally, I have always found the notion of cinematic reparations intriguing when it comes to films like “Ocean’s 8.” As Mulvey and her contemporaries have documented, the history of Hollywood is a history of placing women in the role of spectacle and men in the role of spectator. Is actively reversing that essential paradigm not a start? Might it not provide at least some form of satisfaction for a group of people who have historically been relegated to the cinematic margins?

As an example from a radically different context, cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued that policy in America for decades has actively aimed to benefit white people and detrimentally impact those who are not. He argues against “color-blind” policy because it ignores this crucial historical factor. To address this country’s ongoing history of white supremacy, racial violence and discrimination, we must enact policy that aims to actively benefit people of color first and foremost. Might not similar logic apply to cinema?

None of this, of course, negates the fact that Soderbergh’s trilogy and its incumbent patriarchal implications are intrinsically inscribed onto “Ocean’s 8.” Yet it is also worth noting that the latter film’s connection to that immensely popular trilogy is precisely why so many people will pay for a ticket to bear witness to this act of cinematic reparations. And that is genuinely valuable, considering that Hollywood is driven by money; to infiltrate the system, one might first need to play by its capitalist rules.

Of course, some might question labeling “Ocean’s 8” as a legitimate form of reparations when it is, as I mentioned earlier, only decent. Others might simply be disappointed. And that impulse is entirely understandable. If we are to view these films as cinematic reparations, then naturally we want every one of them to be the female-led equivalent of “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather” and “Raging Bull” all rolled into one. And while “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Lady Bird” and “Daughters of the Dust” all exist, to create such expectations is also to create a double standard. To allow overtly feminist cinema to succeed is to permit it to stumble and occasionally even fall. Thus, to appreciate the radical potential in the feminism of a film like “Ocean’s 8” is to permit it to revel in its absolute adequacy.