Thursday, February 24, 2011

Masks in Movies Pt 6

Who was that masked woman?

Because of the visual nature of film and storytelling, masked women play an intriguing part of film history. Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, women in Western culture were rarely the villain in stories and film. Men were the heroes and villains, the women often helpless characters that had to be rescued, or worse, property that was simply a part of the show. Whether a love interest, damsel in distress, or simply “eye candy”, women didn’t really get an opportunity to rule or save the world. They were seen as to be the “weaker sex”. Because of the nature of film, the portrayal of masked women in cinema would become one of empowerment; strong females, hero, villain or somewhere in between, would show other women that anything could be done. These women showed that sisters, indeed, could do it for themselves.

In horror films, masked women are considered relatively new. Horror fans would say Pamela Voorhees, Jason’s mother, was one of original “bad girls”, yet she wore no mask. The mother and daughter in “The Strangers” wore masks as terrorized the family. In one of the scream movies there is a female killer. “Curtains” has a spurned female killer. A vengeful female hunts young girls in “Alice, Sweet Alice”. Part of the interest in the unmasking of a killer is when it is a female, particularly a brutal killer; the shock value is much higher. The term “Hell Hath no fury as a woman scorned” certainly applies to these ladies.

Hero films tend to have more masked women characters, both hero and villain. In 1966’s “Batman” Julie Newmar laid down a memorable performance as “Cat woman”. Cat woman almost has her own history. Created in 1940 by Bob Kane, a number of women on the big and small screens have played her. Besides Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt have played the femme fatale on the small screen version of the show. Michelle Pfeiffer played the role in “Batman Returns” and Halle Berry played in a standalone “Cat woman” film (though it was only loosely based on the Batman character, and was box offices flop). Even today, with rumours about of a third instalment of the current “Batman” franchise, Cat woman’s character has been suggested, with names like Angelia Jolie, Megan Fox and even Cher being connected to the film, though all can show is, after the failure of Halle Berry’s version, the film audience longs for a return of “The Cat”.

Also in the Batman universe, “Batgirl” was a big part of the 1960s program. “Poison Ivy” was introduced to the big screen, along with Batgirl in “Batman and Robin”, the fourth and final film of the previous Batman movie franchise, which also received negatively due to its campy theme. Outside of the Batman universe, masked female heroes and villain are hard to find in film. It could be suggested that Hollywood doesn’t want to cover up “that pretty face”.Heist films are an interesting place look, particularly if there is an espionage element. The comedy “Sugar and Spice” featured a group of cheerleaders wearing “Barbie” masks to hold up banks to help their fellow pregnant cheerleader. “Lady in the cage” had women with stockings over their head as they robbed a bank. In the original 1966 “Mission Impossible” television series series, there are a number of women who are unmasked during the series, both villains and heroes alike. In Disney’s “The Witches”, the lead witch hides her true, rodent-like face with a mask of a beautiful woman. In the movie “Return to Oz”, the villainess goes so far as to wear different women’s heads, as she takes them off and puts them on depending on what suits her in this dark “sequel” to “The Wizard of Oz”. Women are slowly getting their due in regards to masks and movies, though it has taken awhile. Perhaps culture is still not used to the idea of women being strong, assertive characters. Maybe it’s the “pretty face” effect. For whatever reason, Hollywood doesn’t like to mask women

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Masks in Movies Pt 5

Yet through all the horror of the 70’s and 80’s, something happened as we approached the 90’s. Our heroes would start to return, yet almost as dark as the villains they encountered. In 1989, “Batman”, directed by Tim Burton, returned the hero to the screen. However, this was not the campy Batman of the 1960’s. This batman was in black, he prowled a gothic Gotham City, and he meant business. His nemesis, The Joker, was not the Sid Cesar of old, but a psychotic Jack Nicholson, who was possibly more liked than the hero! Dark, twisted humor was the order of the day. And fans flocked to the cinema, raking in over 200 million dollars domestic box office, which back in 1989 was almost unheard of, an era where “Star Wars” was at the top of the fox office records with over 300 million. The franchise would spawn one sequel under Burton (Batman Returns), with a latex clad Catwoman in Michelle Pfeiffer, before being turned over to Joel Shumacher for two rather underwhelming sequels. But the idea of heroes being as dark as their villains started to take hold.

Heist films would start to become noted in the cinema for their use of masks in the 90’s. Now heist films had been around for many years, but the masks, often baklavas, or maybe pantyhose, were merely a prop. Certainly Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killers” had the antagonists wearing pig type of masks, but it wasn’t until Point Break caught filmgoers attention. The film, in which the characters wore masks of various presidents, caught filmgoers imagination. The movie is probably more well known for the masks, than for the actual film; Point Break with simple baklavas would come across as “just another Heist film. “ “Heat” is another heist film where the masks, this time hockey masks not unlike “Jason” masks, are worn in the film. This film also has Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro , two of the greatest actors of the generation, in the film which obviously helped. The climactic shootout between the masked gunmen and police is one of the highlights of cinema history. “Sugar And Spice”, a teen comedy heist film, portrays the characters in identical “Barbie” masks. The twist in the film is that the “villains” are all cheerleaders helping out their pregnant fellow cheerleader. More recently, “The Town”, where the characters wear various masks, from monsters, to hockey masks (a tribute to Heat) to elderly nuns(!), and The Dark Knight, where the movie opens to a heist with clown mask clad robbers continue the heist genre. What is notable about all these films, people wish to have replicas of the masks. They empathise as wanting “the big score” and some excitement in their lives. Also notable is the masks are either suggest innocence (nuns, Barbie) or are cynically appropriate (presidents/politicians). So we see that the masks in fact become part of the story, and are often featured prominently on ads for said films (“Heat”, “Sugar and Spice”, “Point Break” and “The Town”).

As movies moved into the 21st Century, the heroes and their masks became more fantastic. At the dawning of the new century, masked heroes have returned, again with a twist. Advances in computer effects now allow for “fantastic” heroes to come forth. “Spiderman” (2001) would be one of the first examples of this. Crawling walls, and swinging from webs, the movie was a comic book brought to life. “Iron Man”(2008) is another example of this-a robot-like suit of armour allows the hero to fly and blast repulsor rays. Yet looking at these fantastic heroes, the masks need noting. The masks are “full face” ones, not exposing any humanity-because possibly they aren’t seen as human. Flying, swinging on webs, crawling on walls-these fantastic elements could be seen as dehumanizing the hero. They are beyond human in their form. Yet these heroes regularly “unmask” during the film, to show us the human side of us. It’s an interesting contrast between the “humble” human and the “fantastic” hero that sets him apart from those he wishes to protect The Batman franchise would restart in 2006 with a return to its darker roots. Christian Bale would take up the lead role as the Caped Crusader “Batman Begins”. A sequel would follow, “The Dark Knight”. This sequel, even darker than the first, starred the late Heath Ledger as The Joker in a performance that was considered by many to rival Nicholson’s. Ledger died shortly after the filming was completed due a drug overdose. “The Dark Knight” was a critical and box office smash, recording over five hundred million at the North American box office alone. Part of the mythology about the Batman stories is about masks that are worn, and the psychological importance of the “alter ego”. Also in 2006, “V for Vendetta” opened. A story about a masked anti-hero who wears a Guy Fawkes mask, the story in unusual in that, unlike most hero movies, we never see an unmasked “V”. The character, played by Hugo Weaving, either is seen on screen with his mask on, or shots without his mask do not show the character’s face. In a symbolic way, the mask is more important than who is wearing it; it is about the ideal that is trying to be communicated. The mask is the symbol of the revolution, and Guy Fawkes is certainly an appropriate image.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egyptian Mask History.

When we think of African masks, Egypt immediately comes to the forefront for their mummies and the beautiful gold masks we are familiar with in Western Culture. What may not be as well known is that not all masks in Egypt started gold and metal. We associate masks with King Tut, but the first appearance of masks in Egypt history goes back much further.

The first images of masks in Egypt appear around 3100 BCE. The painted reliefs appear on pottery and other objects. These images show animal headed figures performing rituals and ceremony. It could be at this time that these figures were seen as deities, however there are some examples that show a very obvious human wearing an animal head, as form of costume-even though they were referred to as a deity. Perhaps there was modelling of a sort for the painted images. So it could be said that these are the first “mask” images in Egypt history.

The first mask artifacts show up in Egypt around 2800 BCE, the first intermediate period. The masks were of a simple variety; they were wooden, in two pieces and held together either with pegs, or of stiffened papyrus sheets. These masks were wooden in their mold and had three dimensions features. The eyes were large, the “wigs” were long and wooden. They had the lower chest part painted for both men and women, often with carved beads. Plaster masks were also used during this time., with a very basic mould. The plaster poured and then hardened. Reliefs were painted on the plaster. The moulds were of a basic variety. These masks had less detail and possibly were made for either lower classes, or for those of a “less” status in the hierarchy. What is interesting to note is that men and women were given different colours for their masks; men had a red tone to their painted “skin”, women had a pale yellow. Both sexes often had their status represented on their masks-the more ornate the “jewelry”, the higher the station.

The more well known gold and beaten metal masks appear around 1570 BCE. Probably one of the most well known is the mask of Tutankhamun, or King Tut. His gold mask, was discovered adorned his mummy shrouded body by Howard Carter in 1922. However, masks were just not for the dead; artefacts of masks of Anubis and other Egyptians gods have been found, the masks also appearing on Egyptians hieroglyphs. Masks were important to the Egyptians as a way of preserving their dead: The masks found on sarcophagi help to “hold” the face in place, in order for the deceased to retain in their image into the next world.

There is also some suggestive evidence they were used in ritual for the living as well. Anubis mask artefacts have been found that are big enough to fit over the head, possibly suggesting a clergy use during funeral ceremonies, however this has not been completely confirmed. Mask artifacts of this type are rarer in find. This combined with the painted ritual reliefs seem to indicate that masks were worn by the living for various ceremony.

When the Roman times came to Egypt, in approx 30 BCE a different type of “mask” started to replace the plaster/papyrus/metal three dimensional masks. A painting of the deceased, on the lid of the sarcophagus, found its way into use. The paintings, lifelike images of the deceased, have been found in Roman era burial sites in Egypt. The Romans perhaps liked the masks, but wanted a more “real” interpretation of the deceased, and started the painted mask reliefs. As more Roman influence came into Egypt, the earlier Egyptian values and ritual decreased. The final appearance of mask type aspects were found in the latter part of Roman occupation. Linen shrouds, with an imprinted image of the deceased, were wrapped around the dead, a linen “mask” portraying the deceased. This type of mask is the last known of masking ritual before the end of mummification practices in Egypt.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Masks in Movies ot 4

In 1980, the mask trip would continue in horror with a trip to a summer camp turned into horror for movie goers. “Friday The 13th” entered theatres. Even though Jason Voorhees is now a horror icon, complete with hockey mask, it wasn’t until the third Friday the 13th film that we see the iconic masked Jason; in the first film he wasn’t even the antagonist, and the second film he wasn’t wearing his famous mask but rather a bag over his head. From the third film onward he would keep his famous hockey mask. In the film Jason attacks (and apparently kills) a boy wearing a hockey mask to scare a girl, and puts the mask on. In the modern remake of Friday the 13th, there is a shot of his old bedroom with hockey trophies, insinuating Jason was a hockey player. Jason Voorhees was a child at Crystal Lake Summer Camp (based on a real summer camp in New York by the same name). With Jason at camp, he drowns while swimming. Two counsellors are too busy having sex to pay attention to him and Jason dies. It is someone other than Jason who is the killer in the first film. It is only from the second film onward that Jason is the killer. Jason would hunt down and kill all the counsellors he felt responsible for his death. He then kept the camp as his home, and in subsequent movies would kill those who came to the camp, as a predator would kill others infringing on his territory. The film would spawn many sequels (including a not well received trip into space!) over the decades. The trio of Jason, Michael and Leather face would be the predominant masked killers throughout the eighties and nineties. That isn’t to say film goers were devoid of alternate masked villains. In the film “Alice, Alice”, a killer stalks a Christian boarding school. The killer, dressed in a yellow raincoat and female transparent mask, doesn’t sound frightening at first. The visual works very well, however, as the killer stalks the hallways for both children and adults alike. In “Too Beautiful to Die”, a killer haunts the runways of the fashion industry, wearing a mannequin type mask, hunting down fashion models. In “Happy Birthday to me” the killer wears a latex mask to impersonate another character while she hunts down and kills people at her birthday party.

But as the masks would fill horror films, masks also took a different ride as well in the 1980’s. Masks would start to show up in science fiction films. Movies like “Cocoon”, “Strange Invaders”, and “Dr Alien”, and on television the mini-series “V”, would portray aliens as donning our skin and faces to blend in, or take over our planet.