Wednesday, 29 December 2010

ALEX: {7} Years of Manic Pixie Dream Girls

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Okay, folks, we’re going on a journey here. It’s not going to be quick and it’s not going to be easy. But this is probably one of the most in-depth, heartfelt things I’ve ever written for this site. Hey, you might even learn something! ...And if that doesn’t entice you, I promise you’ll get to see at least one of these lovely ladies’ crotches by the time we’re through.

A Zoo of Deschanels

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition.”

-Nathan Rabin, The Bataan Death March of Whimsy

{2010}
Ramona Flowers

M.E.W.

  • Ever-changing hair-colour
  • Funny name
  • Kickass fighting moves

Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl at the beginning of 2007, in relation to Kirsten Dunst’s character in a film made in 2005 (Elizabethtown). Like any phrase-coining, this was already a bit after the event: even by 2005, the M.P.D.G. had started to irreversibly infect 21st Century pop-culture.

So we begin, quirky as the Pixie Girl herself, at the end. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the most recently-released film I’ve seen in dialogue with the M.P.D.G.. Ramona Flowers is a Bad Girl With A Dark History And, like, Complex Emotions. But as many hair colours as the hipster rainbow. Ramona is Scott Pilgrim’s dream-girl, and she pulls him by the hand into a mysterious new world.

Subspace

In the interests of fairness, it has to be said that hanging the M.P.D.G. sandwich-board around her neck is to do some disservice to Edgar Wright’s film and, especially, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s original comic version, which ran (from 2004 to 2010) alongside the development of this phenomenon, spends a lot of its later volumes unpicking these idealised notions. Any M.P.D.G.-ness is projected onto her by Scott’s skewed worldview. She emphatically doesn’t like the same music, and is hardly the ball of energy you’d expect from a straight-up example of the trope.

O’Malley’s Ramona is at least partly a deconstruction of the M.P.D.G.; Wright’s Ramona is a bit more of an embrace. The film follows the narrative arc of Rabin’s definition perfectly: movie-Scott has more Serious Brooding Young Man (S.B.Y.M. being the inevitable mirror-image and result of M.P.D.G.) about him, and in either version, Ramona leads to him discovering the wider world. With kung-fu!

Ramona is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that men decided was a Manic Pixie. The Girl they decided you’ve got to fight for to win. But those men were all Evil, right?

{2009}
Summer Finn

"I can see my fringe!"
  • Encyclopaedic knowledge of indie-rock
  • Dresses like she fell through a vintage shop
  • is played by Zooey Deschanel

Summer, meanwhile, is the kind of girl you lose by fighting.

{500} Days of Summer is by far at its weakest (and it is half-really-good and half-really-rubbish) as Summer ticks off the M.P.D.G. boxes. The magic begins when she says she likes The Smiths. The Smiths! And Belle & Sebastian. An unusual taste in Beatles records. She has, like, the quirkiest apartment! And before you know it, our hero is throwing himself into life with a new vigour...

At its best, the film makes a consistent argument for tearing the archetype apart. The key, best scene contrasts ‘Expectations’ and ‘Reality’, pitching the hopes of that brooding young man against reality. For a couple of minutes, it rails against the whole misguided fantasy of Tom and every other sensitive music-loving guy with a fringe he stands for. It’s one of the times the film rings really, really true, and it provides the only moment that drove that great big icicle into my heart.


…But most of the time it doesn’t do that thing. {500} Days of Summer warns you from the start that this isn’t your standard-issue love story, but its targets are too scattered to mean that the film approaches any convincing realism or scathing satire. Most of the time, it just attacks the classic Hollywood romcom. And that’s hardly new: right here we’ve got a history of alt-romcoms in the early 21st Century. Which have developed their own conventions and though the film makes occasional warning shots in this direction, it doesn’t have the conviction – or, to be fair, the time – to subvert these conventions. And so we get the most straight-down-the-line M.P.G.D. of recent years. And she is hateful.

Summer as she exists in this film – and it’s probably important to note that it is The Boy’s film – is pure Expectations. Maybe that’s all within the film’s intention: when those expectations are broken, hearts are too. But she’s also an absolute wank-fantasy of a girl.

And so, if you’re me, you spend a lot of time sighing and wondering if this is really the only female character this kind of lifestyle produces: you know, drunk karaoke, quirky traditions, indie records and good films. Is this the only kind of girl boys with a great collection of band t-shirts can fancy?

Oooh, pretty!

{2007}
Juno MacGuff

Sherlock.

  • Speaks in pop-culture references
  • Owns a hamburger-phone
  • Pregnant

…Because who doesn’t fancy Juno?

Okay, she’s not a true M.P.D.G. in that she doesn’t take her boy on a journey of infinite wonderful discovery. Which is mostly because: this isn’t Paulie Bleeker’s film, it’s Juno’s - clue’s in the title, dummy - and so she gets to control the viewpoint. It’s possible that an entirely hypothetical other film exists within this one, where we see it from Bleeker’s viewpoint and Juno is that girl.

But that doesn’t matter too much, because I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that as the trope has grown and seeped into reality, the cloud of traits around the M.P.D.G. begins to condense into solid totems, around which a generation of girls lay tribute. M.P.D.G. isn’t just a stock character anymore, it’s a series of tics and signifiers. It’s a lifestyle you can choose.

And if they’re doing that because it’s them, or they’re wearing an identity that works while they develop, cool. I mean, I’m an indie kid and I worship at the altar of Phonogram, how could I not be down with that?

It’s just … a lot of the time, it feels like ticking boxes.

(Film)stars & Stripes

And, at least as it seems from my own personal history, Juno was kind of the turning point. It an unexpected success, the quirky classy romcom come good. Of course, it didn’t take long for a backlash, featuring criticisms like people don’t really talk like that, or it’s too clever for it’s own good. Both of which are true, both of which miss the point. Characters in Juno – particularly Juno – act like real human beings. Admittedly, human beings who do things like put thousands of tic-tacs in each others’ mailboxes, but still.

Juno’s not “an all-or-nothing-proposition”, isn’t the kind of fantasy that exists only “in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors”. As far as Mark – Jason Bateman’s character – is convinced, Juno is a M.P.D.G. there to take him away from his boring, real life. But the film very clearly slams that idea shut on his fingers. But does she like the right bands? Yup. Is she a bit twee? Definitely. Is she quirky, and does she talk funny, and is she a bit weirdly sexy? Hell, yes.

What I’m talking about here starts to veer away from the M.P.D.G. as conceived by Nathan Rabin. Maybe we need a new definition. The things which were incidental - the clothes, the music, the quirky behaviour - have become The Thing itself. And Juno MacGuff is our Missing Link.

{2004 1/2}
Sam
AAAAAAH!

  • Loves the Shins
  • Compulsive liar
  • But no, seriously, really, loves the Shins.

“You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear.”

Sam is probably the single most mocked exampe of the M.P.D.G. archetype. She appears in our hero’s life and sweeps him away. Before you know it, the previously lithiumed-to-numbness Largeman (Zach Braff) is shouting unintelligible noises from the tops of burnt-out buses and basking in the glow of life. It’s a 100% straight-down the line portrayal of the M.P.D.G. and follows the Rabin definition precisely.

She’s a much less hateful character than Summer, but as I remember it (and I confess it’s been a while since I saw Garden State) she’s also less dimensioned. Sam is the perfect example of M.P.D.G. as a deus ex machina stock character, a collection of quirks and with a pretty face that pushes the character development of the male lead forward.

{2004}
Clementine Kruczynski

Wonder if she got the from the liberry?

  • Collection of potato-men
  • Funny name
  • Ever-changing hair colour

Sam pulls the boy forward into the world, she’s part of Zach Braff’s proposed ‘second puberty’. With Clementine, it’s nowhere near that simple. Eternal Sunshine, and the relationship it revolves around, is pulling in every direction at once.

I saw Garden State in a flurry of grabbing every film that loosely resembled Eternal Sunshine, after I fell deeply in love with it. For a brief, shining moment, my younger self felt like he’d discovered a whole new genre, the alternative romcom. This narrative begins, unequivocally, with Clementine Kruczynski.

Clementine works because she’s real. She is a Manic Pixie Girl, but she’s also a Woman. She’s bouncing off those all-important Expectations to create herself. There’s more to her than quirks and likes. She’s self-aware, and has a history, and a life outside of Carrey’s Joel. She’s contradictory, something underlined by the sharp cuts between distant timeframes. She is a person.

But no-one knows that better than Clementine:

“Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours.”

Thankyou for sticking with me. I realise it probably wasn’t easy, getting here, and for not bowing to the looming
spectre of tl;dr, I salute you. Hey, even if you’re just here for the crotch, thanks. Speaking of which…

More like Kate BUSH
Daddy don’t break no promises.


About The Author: Alex
About the author:
Alex Spencer likes girls. And
isn't that just so damn complicated?

6 comments:

Christian O. said...

500 Days...'s biggest problem is that it tends to lean towards the simple instead of complex. That's why it has groanworthy moments like Autumn coming after Summer and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype it appeases initially.

However, in defense of 500 Days of Summer:

Much like Scott Pilgrim it's a scanthy accusation against people who seek the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But I take issue with your claim, that it's a movie that depicts Summer in a negative light and tells the viewer to dislike her; the only reason that happens is because it's attempting to lull us into a sense of self-righteous masochism, only to shatter that illusion and show that, hey, Tom Hansen is completely to blame for his own suffering, he's not only an unreliable narrator but he never ever gets past his own projections of Summer. That's where the Manic Pixie Dream Girl attributes come into existence - because that's the only thing Tom sees.

Alex said...

Like 500 Days... itself, this post necessarily leans towards simplicity. 'Cus, like, it's long enough already.

But: the thing is, even after Tom seems to start to become Grown-Up Tom, there's no real undermining of Summer as That Girl.

I dunno, I always read genuine with-Tom sentiment throughout the film, much as it throws out stuff to argue with his position.

Although I actually agree and I think there's a stray sentence that makes that claim when I don't really believe it. I might, if it doesn't make me too much of a wuss, delete.

Christian O. said...

Let it stay and echo into the ages! But seriously, it's a minor thing and I totally get what your say.

Just don't be George Lucas!

Christian O. said...

Saying. Urgh. Now I want to delete my comment. Curse you, Hypocrisy!

Christian O. said...

ARGH, AND A "YOUR"? I GIVE UP. INTERNET TIME OVER.

Alex said...

For posterity: anyone reading the revised version, know that this article once implied that Summer was turned evil post-(SPOILER)breakup.

When our man Christian pointed it out, I knew immediately which sentence was the embarrassing problem and felt annoyed that I'd left it in, as it was part of my rought notes.

I meant that we're meant to reevaluate her as a character rather than her as projection/Tom's fantasies. But I'm not sure about that and it kind of went against the attempted argument. And so it went.

Apologies for Lucasing/Stalining it. (Delete as least-evil applicable)

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.