As promised, here is part two of my dissection of Rogue One and how, if I were given a magic wand to reshape the story, I would have done it. Spoilers ahoy, mateys! If you missed part one (all three thousand words or so of it), you can find that here.
I wanted to make this post weeks ago, but I was in a cast and not typing much. So instead you get it now — which might be better, since at this point I imagine that most people who intended to see Rogue One in theatres have already done so. This post and its sequel will be spoileriffic, so don’t click through unless you’ve either watched the movie or don’t care if I talk about what happens.
Outside the cut, I will say that I enjoyed Rogue One . . . but it also frustrated me immensely, because I felt like it had so much excellent narrative potential that it just left on the table. In the comments on several friends’ posts, I said that it could have really punched me in the gut, but instead it just kind of socked me in the shoulder. I wound up seeing it twice, because we went again with my parents, and on the second pass Writer Brain kept niggling at things and going aw man, if only you’d . . . I know there were extensive reshoots, and I’m pretty sure I can see the fingerprints all over the film, though I can’t be sure which underdeveloped bits were shoehorned in by the revisions, and which ones are the leftover fragments of material that got cut. (The trailers offer only tantalizing clues: apparently none of the footage from the first two wound up in the actual film. You can definitely see different characterization for Jyn, but the rest is mere guesswork.) I just know there are all these loose ends sticking out throughout the film, and since story is not only my job but my favorite pastime, I can’t help but think about what I would have done to clean it up.
There will be two posts because my thoughts are extensive enough that I think they’ll go better if split up. First I’m going to talk about the good guys — what worked for me, what didn’t, and how the latter could have become the former — and then I’ll talk about the villains.
It came to me while I was sitting through the interminable final action sequence:
Macho masturbatory bullshit.
Because the action scenes were generally half again as long as they needed to be (and full of obnoxious, over-used shaky cam), I had plenty of time to contemplate how done I am with The Adventures of Scowly McScowlface and His Total Awesomeness*. Matt Damon is a good actor, but this film gave him bugger-all to work with; I imagine the direction he received consisted of “look intense!” and pretty much nothing else. And although there was supposed to be an interesting character conflict at the heart of it all, the script basically just nodded in that direction and then went back to the tired old formula of evil cover-ups and revenge. Round about the point at which a SWAT truck started slamming through other cars at an improbable rate, I mentally checked out for good, with the three words given above.
It is perhaps unfair to dismiss the entire film as macho masturbatory bullshit. The most engaging parts had nothing to do with Bourne at all; they were about Nicki Parsons and Heather Lee, who are the actual drivers of the plot. (For a movie titled Jason Bourne, he was a remarkably reactive character, basically just punching bad guys and engaging in vehicle chases when somebody else gives him a reason to.) Even they couldn’t really save the story from its essential blandness; Lee, who’s got a better claim to the title of “protagonist” than anybody else there, spends quite a lot of her time staring at screens and talking into a microphone, telling other people what to do. And contrary to what the director seemed to think, rapid intercuts of people walking places very intently doesn’t really build tension. But quite frankly, watching a straight white dude go around inflicting mayhem has gotten boring enough that even the simple expedient of swapping him out for a straight white woman looks interesting by comparison. My days of needing nothing more than fistfights and explosions to engage my attention are long gone.
I prefer the new Ghostbusters. And Wonder Woman. And that remake they’re planning of The Rocketeer, with a black woman as the lead. Or, y’know, anything with actual characterization and depth. Anything other than The Adventures of Scowly McScowlface and His Total Awesomeness.
*So why did I see the movie? Free ticket, via my husband’s company, which had bought out the entire auditorium for a preview. In hindsight, there were better uses for my evening.
There are many things I liked about Captain America: Civil War, but probably the best aspect of the whole movie is the fact that I keep thinking about it, and about the arguments it presents. Just the other night I got into a discussion about it again, which prompted me to dust off this half-finished entry and post it.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, first: from what little we know about the Sokovia Accords, it sounds like they’re a steaming pile of badly-thought-out crap. (Not to mention wildly unrealistic in so, so many ways; as one of my friends pointed out, the most implausible thing in this film isn’t super soldier serum or Iron Man’s suit or anything like that, but the idea that the Accords could spring into being so quickly, with so many countries on board, without three years of very public argument first.) So when I say I’m increasingly sympathetic to Tony’s side of the argument, I don’t mean its specific manifestation — nor his INCREDIBLY naive brush-off that “laws can be amended” after the fact — but rather the underlying principle that some kind of oversight and accountability is needed.
Because the more I think about the underlying principles on Steve’s side, the more they bother me.
I understand his starting point. He accepted oversight and followed orders; the organization giving those orders turned out to be a Hydra sock-puppet. Now he’s exceedingly leery of the potential for corruption — or even just so much bureaucratic red tape that nothing winds up getting done. And he’s presumably reluctant to sign a legal document saying he’ll follow orders when he already knows he’ll break his word the moment he feels his own moral compass requires him to do so. That part, I understand and sympathize with.
But here’s the thing. It sounds like he wants all the freedom of a private citizen to do what he wants . . . without any of the consequences of acting as a private citizen. Soldiers don’t get personally sued when they destroy people’s cars and houses or civic infrastructure; private individuals do. Is Steve prepared to pay restitution for all the damage he causes? (Or are the insurance companies supposed to classify him as an act of God, no different from a tornado or a hailstorm?) Would Steve accept it as just and fair if the Nigerian government arrested him for entering the country illegally? It sure didn’t sound like the Avengers came in through the Lagos airport and declared the purpose of their trip to officials there. Based on what we’ve seen, it looks like Steve wants all the upside, none of the downside, to acting wholly on his own.
And this gets especially troubling when you drill down into him acting that way in other countries. I’m sure he thinks that petitioning the Nigerian government for permission to chase Rumlow there would eat up too much precious time — and what if they refused permission? Does he trust them to deal with the problem themselves? No, of course not — Steve gives the strong impression of not trusting anybody else to deal with the problem, be they Nigerian or German or American. To him, it’s a moral question: will he stand by while there’s danger, just because a government told him not to get involved? Of course he won’t. And this is the part in my mental argument with him where I started saying, “right, I forgot that you slept through the end of the colonial era. Let me assemble a postcolonial reading list for you about the host of problems inherent in that kind of paternalistic ‘I know better than you do and will ride roughshod over your self-determination for your own good’ attitude.”
Captain America is, for better or for worse, the embodiment of the United States’ ideals circa 1942. Which means that along with the Boy Scout nobility, there’s also a streak of paternalism a mile wide.
Mind you, Tony’s side of the argument is also massively flawed. Taken to its extreme, it would recreate the dynamics of the Winter Soldier: that guy went where he was told and killed who his bosses wanted him to, without question, without exercising his own ethical judgment. And anything done by multinational committee will inherently fail to have the kind of flexibility and quick reaction time that’s needed for the kind of work the Avengers are expected to do. The politics of it would be a nightmare, you know that some countries will get the upper hand and this will exacerbate tensions between them and the rest of the world, and the potential for a re-creation of Steve’s Hydra problem is huge. Plus, how are they going to handle people who opt out of the program? What’s going to govern the use of their powers — or do the authors of the Accords intend to forbid that use, without government approval? That’s a civil rights nightmare right there.
But in the end, I come around to the side that says, there needs to be supervision and accountability. It’s all well and good that Steve feels bad when he fails to save people, but he wreaks a lot of havoc in the course of trying, and feeling bad about it doesn’t make the people he damages whole. (If memory serves, almost all of the destruction at the airport is caused by Steve’s allies, until Vision slices the top of that tower off: I doubt that was a narrative accident.) Is setting up that supervision and accountability going to be difficult? Hell yes. But there has to be some, because otherwise . . .
. . . well, otherwise we wind up with a larger-scale version of the problems we have right now with police violence. Which is a separate post, but I’ll see if I can’t get that one done soon.
Last year I talked about “girlcotting” Star Wars — supporting with my money and my attention a movie that gives me a female hero. So along comes Ghostbusters, a whole pack of women kicking spectral ass: of course I went to see it, on opening weekend.
I loved it.
Not in the same way that I love the original film. They’re different decades, different flavors. It took me a little while to let go of the 1984 version, to see this one for itself; there are parallels between them (on a variety of levels), but the 2016 film is coming at those things from a different angle. You can certainly line up this crew against that one (Erin = Peter, Abi = Ray, Holtz = Egon, Patty = Winston), but they aren’t the same people in drag. They go through a different arc and arrive at a different place.
And can we just stop for a moment to talk about Holtz? Jillian Holtzmann, the Ghostbuster played by Kate Mckinnon. This movie is basically the Holtzmann Show Featuring Holtz and Her Toys — and not because everybody else is boring; it’s just that Mckinnon walks away with nearly every scene she’s in. It is also apparently canon that she’s a lesbian: Sony seems to have instructed the director not to say so, but he’s not saying so in a way that makes the message pretty clear. If this isn’t the breakaway favorite for Yuletide 2016, I suspect that will be because it’s already too big for the exchange.
If you watched the original trailer and cringed, rest assured: that trailer was a terrible representation of the movie. The best lines aren’t in there. The characters’ nuances don’t come through. Patty, the character played by Leslie Jones, is not the one-note stereotype the trailer would have you believe: when she says “I know New York,” she isn’t talking about “urban street smarts” or anything like that. She’s talking about the stack of books she’s read that make her a walking encyclopedia of New York history.
(And dear god Chris Hemsworth’s character makes fence posts look like beacons of intelligence. It’s kind of amazing.)
It isn’t flawless. Neither is the original. But I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, and if I don’t go see it again in the theatres, it will only be because I’m still busy moving house.
I don’t have the link, but my husband recently read me bits from an interview with or article by one of the screenwriters for the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, wherein the screenwriter referred to the character of the Ancient One as “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru.” This is, of course, the character that recently got whitewashed by casting Tilda Swinton in the role; the screenwriter’s piece argued that it’s a situation in which there is no good solution. To wit:
1) The Ancient One is, right out of the gate, kind of a horrible racist stereotype. Mystical Asian master teaches white man the ways of magic! Yyyyyyeah, when that’s your starting point, you’re already in trouble.
2) Okay, say you don’t whitewash the role; you cast an Asian actor and just accept the fact that you’re going to perpetuate the Mystical Asian Master stereotype. The character is canonically Tibetan; you cast a Tibetan actor. Congratulations: you have just walked into a minefield, and its name is “Tibetan/Chinese politics.” China says “screw you, we’re not showing that film in this country,” and you lose out on one of the biggest markets in the entire world — a market which is pretty much necessary to make a film of this kind profitable.
3) Okay, okay, so no Tibetan actor. Cast a Chinese man instead! China’s happy! . . . at the cost of supporting China’s imperialist attitudes toward Tibet and erasing Tibetan identity.
Each one of us probably has an opinion as to which of those three options (whitewash the role and dilute the Asian stereotype; cast a Tibetan actor and eat the massive financial and political hit; cast a Chinese actor and erase Tibet) is the least of the available evils. But the fact remains that none of them are straight-up good options; up to that point, I agree with the screenwriter’s argument.
But I also look at that, and then think about the Kobayashi Maru scenario.
If you can’t win, then change the rules of the game.
For example: I’ve been told that in some versions of the Doctor Strange canon, the hero is Asian instead of white. I haven’t been able to track down a citation for that, but it doesn’t have to be previously true to be an option now; instead of whitewashing the Ancient One, racebend Doctor Strange himself. Then you may still have your Mystical Asian Master, but he’s not teaching a white man his secret ways, and you have a headlining superhero who’s a man of color. It doesn’t solve your Tibetan/Chinese political problem — plus you have to decide what ethnicity your Doctor Strange will be, which potentially carries its own complications — but it does help mitigate the problematic nature of the Ancient One himself, and his relationship with Doctor Strange.
Or my sister’s suggestion: cast a Tibetan actor as the Ancient One . . . and then re-film those scenes with a Chinese actor for the Chinese market. Sure, it’ll cost some money, but not nearly as much as losing out on the Chinese market. You’re still kind of complicit in China’s relations with Tibet, and you haven’t solved your “Asian master teaches a white man” problem (unless you combine this with the above), but it’s a potential compromise.
Or — and this is my preferred solution — get rid of the problem entirely, by getting rid of the Ancient One.
Jettison the inherently problematic baggage you inherited from previous versions of canon and come up with something better. Sure, the fanboys will wail and gnash their teeth — but whatever, they can suck it up. They already understand that there can be multiple different canons, sometimes with wildly divergent stories for how the hero got his powers; let this be another. Give Doctor Strange a different origin story, one that isn’t founded on a horrible racist stereotype. Change the rules of the game. Play something better.
I think the screenwriter did a good job of outlining the dimensions of the box they were stuck in. I just wish he and the director and the producer had realized that they didn’t have to be in the box — that they had the power to bust out of it entirely. It would have been better than the route they went.
(And Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi? There is no goddamned excuse.)
A while ago on Twitter I said I want to read the fanfic where Miss Scarlet (of the Clue movie) is actually Phryne Fisher (of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), undercover.
Tonight this led to us casting the entire film with people from MFMM. Please disregard how many of these characters would therefore wind up murdering one another. :-P
WADSWORTH – Jack Robinson
MISS SCARLET – Phryne Fisher
MRS. PEACOCK – Prudence Stanley
MRS. WHITE – Rosie Sanderson, nee Robinson
PROFESSOR PLUM – Dr. Macmillan, cross-dressing
MR. GREEN – Hugh Collins
COLONEL MUSTARD – Baron Henry Fisher
MR. BODDY – Murdoch Foyle
THE COOK – Mr. Butler
YVETTE – Dorothy Williams
THE MOTORIST – Bert/Cec
THE COP – Neville Martin
SINGING TELEGRAM – Janey
THE CHIEF – Commissioner George Sanderson
Anybody want to write that for me? ^_^
We had our usual Oscar party the other night, and at one point during all the interviewing (which I mostly don’t listen to, because I’m there to enjoy the fashion), I caught Faye Dunaway saying something about how Brie Larson is an amazing actress.
And it got me thinking: I would love to watch something that involves one or more actors sitting around discussing clips from different performances, talking about what makes them so awesome. What little touches of timing or intonation really bring the character to life, what techniques are being used, etc — basically, the kind of thing I sometimes get up to with fellow writers, when we let our professional squee flags fly and really dig into the craft aspects of our job. I genuinely don’t know what a craft-based appreciation of acting would look like, what kinds of things an actor notices and admires while the rest of us are just sitting there going, “that was a really great scene.” Tony Zhou’s “Every Frame a Painting” series gets into this from the standpoint of cinematography and directing, but not acting; I’d love to get that angle as well.
Can anybody recommend examples of this? A YouTube series, a commentary track on a DVD, anything like that.
(Minor spoilers ahead, but no major ones.)
I went yesterday to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a 3D IMAX screen, because really, there are some things that are just kind of cool to go virtually flying through. But lest you think I’m way behind the curve, this was not the first time I’d seen it, nor even the second; it was the third.
Partly this is because of a quasi-joke I made a while ago about “girlcotting Star Wars.” If staying away from something or refusing to buy it for political reasons is a boycott, then, I reasoned, actively going out to support or purchase it for political reasons should be called a girlcott. (Yes, I know the etymology doesn’t remotely work that way.) A Star Wars movie with a white woman, a black man, and a Latino man in leading roles? Yes please. A Star Wars movie whose crawl text blazes with the words GENERAL LEIA ORGANA(1), one where there are women taking up blasters to defend their village and female X-wing pilots running around the Resistance base and Gwendolen Christie as a Stormtrooper captain? Yes, yes, yes. I would have gone to see it even if it were terrible; I might have gone to see it twice. Fortunately, Abrams gave me something much better than terrible — he gave me Star Wars.
Because I’ll be honest: in hindsight, the prequel trilogy just doesn’t even feel like Star Wars to me. Sure, it has Jedi and Sith and lightsabers and spaceships and so on. But the opening crawl text of The Phantom Menace is all about a Trade Federation and frickin’ taxation. Where’s the EVIL EMPIRE? Where’s the noble REBELLION? Not here yet, I know, I know . . . but that’s part of the problem. Star Wars is supposed to be sweeping and epic. When its crawl text sounds petty and mundane, you’re off to a bad start. But right from the opening lines of this movie, and then the beautiful shot of the Star Destroyer eclipsing the planet . . . it felt right. And it continued to feel right the whole way through, so that I walked out of the theatre energized and excited, and the spoiler-free review I gave to people in the following days consisted of clasping my hands in front of my chest, going starry-eyed, and bouncing on the tips of my toes.
With more distance and further reflection, writer-brain is fascinated by the relationship between this movie and the source material. I disagree with those who say, eh, boring, it’s just a retelling of A New Hope. Does it use many of the same elements? Yep: desert planet, rescuing a prisoner from the bad guys, a bar filled with colorful aliens, a big scary weapon that has to be destroyed(2). But those elements get used like Lego blocks: you can build lots of things out of them. One of the things I love about it is the way that, although you can find points of correspondence between this and A New Hope, none of those points become a line that runs all the way through. Poe feels like Han Solo (hotshot pilot), but he’s also Leia (dedicated member of the Resistance, captured by the bad guys and then rescued), and as Todd Alcott points out, he’s also kind of a high-speed Obi-Wan to Finn (from a political rather than mystical angle). Rey may look like Luke — orphan on a desert planet — but she doesn’t dream of getting off the planet and doing something cool; she wants to stay on her planet (and get back to it once she leaves) because she’s waiting for something important there. Maz Kanata’s bar is not where our heroes come together; it’s where they split apart, and Maz herself is one of two Obi-Wans to Rey (the other being, from a backward angle, Kylo Ren). And there’s just zero precedent for Finn: a humanized Stormtrooper, a “bad guy” who face-turns right out of the gate and offers the other heroes an insider’s perspective on how the faceless masses operate.
To discount all of the deeper changes just because the surface looks familiar is, in my opinion, a mistake. Sure, maybe you could have had this plot with Rey growing up on a jungle planet and other such superficial changes. But that would have jettisoned the psychological effect I can’t help but think Abrams intended: “look, guys, we’re getting back to basics. Forget about the prequel trilogy. Remember what you loved about Star Wars. I’m going to give you that experience, and take it in a new direction.”
I’ll admit that I was apprehensive about Abrams directing. I’m fine with his Star Trek movies; they’re not brilliant, but as somebody who has zero emotional investment in the franchise, I found his films very enjoyable. My concern here wasn’t so much that he would screw Star Wars up as, it would now feel the same as Star Trek. As it turns out, that fear was unfounded: I think Abrams successfully poured himself into the mold of this franchise. Because it really is true that my immediate reaction upon walking out of my first viewing was a satisfied sigh of “now THAT was Star Wars.” Better than that — it was Star Wars plus, where there’s more than one woman, and not everybody is white, and the characters speak dialogue you can imagine coming out of the mouth of an actual human being.
I can’t wait for the next one. <clasps hands, starries eyes, bounces on toes>
(1) While waiting in line at a coffee shop over Christmas, I picked up and idly flipped through a Star Wars: The Force Awakens book written for very young children. The first page I flipped to began with the line, “General Leia is a princess.” Which might possibly be the most awesome sentence in the history of children’s literature.
(2) I will grant that I could have done with a bit more variety on the whole super-weapon thing, because it really is an Even Bigger Death Star. But I would have been satisfied with a single change: if you’re going to call it Starkiller Base, in homage to Luke’s first-draft name, then have it kill stars! Not by draining them, but by BLOWING THEM UP. Send the Hosnian sun supernova. That would have been awesome.
The new Bond movie is . . . not very good.
I’ve mostly liked the Craig movies, by which I mean Casino Royale and Skyfall. I basically remember nothing of Quantum of Solace, and the only reason the same won’t be true of Spectre is that I’m bothering to post about its shortcomings.
The main thing that disappointed me with Skyfall was the feeling that, at the end, we had returned to the usual classic Bond status quo. Craig’s Bond didn’t have gadgets, didn’t have Q, didn’t have Moneypenny, and M was a woman. By the time Skyfall ended, you had gadgets (albeit minor ones compared to past films), Q, Moneypenny, and a male M. The whole film was explicitly about looking back to history, both of the franchise and of the characters in it, and so as an ending to the story I think I would have been okay with it. But then we got Spectre.
Which is an utterly conventional Bond movie that fails to be anything more than the sum of its parts. One villain is so obvious that I assumed, the minute he showed up, that the script was doing that as a red herring and the real situation would turn out to be more interesting. Alas, no. The plot is phenomenally stupid; it hinges on the idea that nine countries have decided to share 100% of their intelligence information — and those nine countries include the UK, Russia, and China. I’m sorry, what? Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but the notion that those three countries would be peachy keen with sharing all their secrets because surely they’ll be BFFs forever and never end up in conflict with one another is so far outside the bounds of reality, I lack the words to describe it. (And I write fantasy.) Nothing gets explained enough to have any impact: Monica Bellucci shows up for long enough to babble something about how she hated her husband but her marriage was the only thing protecting her from being killed by nevermind we’ve run out of infodump time GET TO THE MAKEOUTS. And then she vanishes from the film, with nothing about her entire situation having any relevance to the story whatsoever, except that we’re twenty minutes into the movie and the schedule says Bond has to get into bed with somebody. The main villain is clearly supposed to have all this personal resonance for Bond, but unless he came up in Quantum of Solace and I forgot it (entirely possible), we don’t know anything about that personal resonance until the last third or so of the movie, which is far too late for it to mean anything to the audience. Bond commits inexplicably stupid errors: we see him notice a not-at-all hidden security camera, but apparently he decides there’s no point in wiping it before he leaves, just so there can be a later scene where somebody else is horrified to see what it recorded.
Skyfall, though not perfect, was in every way a better movie. It had the personal weight this one seems to think it has, but doesn’t. It had a thematic argument about human intelligence vs. the technology of the new age, which gets stuck in a microwave for Spectre and does not reheat well. It had a meaningful relationship between Bond and M, instead of a Bond girl who almost manages to be interesting but again, her backstory is not explored very well and somehow I’m supposed to believe Bond retires and settles down with her or something? It had genuine tension; I’m not a filmmaker, but even I can tell this movie dragged stuff out for too long, kept the score at too THRILLING! EXCITEMENT! of a level with insufficient dynamics, made things more complicated than they had to be so I’m wondering why there are all these string things set up instead of worrying about the characters’ lives. It had entertaining moments, but they added up to nothing whatsoever.
It turns out the best part of Spectre was Daniel Craig’s press tour.
One thing that comes up a fair bit in discussions of diversity and so forth is the accusation that liberal types are only buying/watching/otherwise supporting particular books/movies/tv shows/etc because those things promote a particular agenda: racial inclusiveness, gender equality, queer acceptance, and so forth.
It occurred to me today, after reading this excellent post by Jim Hines, that we seem to have no problem with boycotting things because we disagree with their political agenda and wish to not support it. That is, in fact, a time-honored and widespread tactic for registering your displeasure with a situation. So why is it wrong to do the opposite?
And clearly, if “boycotting” is avoidance for the sake of protest, then participation for the sake of support ought to be called “girlcotting.”
(Yes, I know that isn’t the actual etymology of the word. Hush you with your logic.)
So I say, those who feel that science fiction has room for bug-eyed aliens of all kinds but not women or black dudes as protagonists should feel free to boycott the new Star Wars movie. Me, I’m going to girlcott it. I’m going to try to see it opening weekend, and if it’s good, I’ll go see it again. Because sometimes you need to throw your toys out of the pram . . . but sometimes you need to grab hold of them and say, yes. mine.
A couple of hours ago I asked on Twitter how women react when they see something terrible. My proximate reason for asking was that I’ve discovered Netflix has Murder, She Wrote available streaming; in watching it, I’ve been reminded of the standard-issue scream uttered by women in TV and movies when they find a dead body. You know the one: hands to the cheeks, mouth and eyes wide in horror, a high-pitched and wordless shriek coming from her mouth.
It’s always seemed weird to me because I don’t do that. Okay, to be fair, I’ve never come across a dead body. But I have accidentally lit myself on fire — my clothing, anyway — and my reaction at the time was to bellow “FUCK!” at the top of my lungs while beating at the flames with my other sleeve until they went out. The top of my lungs . . . but not the top of my range. Same thing when my husband accidentally kicked my badly-sprained toe, causing me no small amount of pain. I don’t scream so much as yell, often with a great deal of profanity.
So I posted on Twitter because I wanted to know: how many women out there do scream at such things? Is it the majority, and I’m a weird outlier, or is that just a convention of media that doesn’t happen so much in real life? Twitter anecdata thus far suggests a moderately even split; there are definitely women who do the high-pitched wordless shriek thing, but not an overwhelming majority by any means. (Also, at least one guy has testified to uttering a scream of his own when subjected to sudden pain.) It seems the trope isn’t unfounded, then, but it’s also not universal. Which, because I’m an anthropologist at heart, means I’m now wondering whether that reaction has become less common over time (as women are no longer socialized in the same way as thirty or fifty years ago) and whether our media depictions have changed as well.
I have no idea. But it’s interesting to think about, because the standard-issue scream has always felt so very fake to me.
By which I mean, two pieces of media that focus on sensory experience in one way or another.
Perfect Sense did not, in the trailer I saw, bill itself as a science fiction movie, and in a lot of ways it isn’t. The focus is primarily on how the relationship between two people (a chef at a restaurant, and an epidemiologist who lives in an apartment overlooking the restaurant alley) is affected by an unexplained (and inexplicable) global epidemic that begins with people losing their sense of smell. But the epidemic doesn’t stop there: next they lose taste, then hearing, then sight. What makes it SFnal is the exploration of how individuals and society adapt to these changes. Eva Green’s epidemiologist never does figure out what’s causing the change, but at the restaurant where Ewan MacGregor’s chef works, they keep looking for ways to pursue their art even as the basis for it is pulled out from under them. Smell is a huge part of how we experience food, so when that goes away, they begin putting together the most strongly-flavored dishes they can. When taste goes, they turn to sound and texture: crunch, squish, softness, grittiness. (There’s a great scene where the restaurant manager reads out a glowing review of their work.) The transitions are bad; they’re always preceded by some kind of huge emotional swing, and many of these are extremely destructive. But after hearing fades, you see a table full of people at the restaurant carrying on a cheerful, animated conversation in sign language. Since the characters we’ve been following are still communicating through written notes and a handful of very rudimentary signs, there’s an unspoken implication that the people at those table were deaf long before this began: what the viewer has been encouraged to see as a calamitous loss is ordinary life for them, and that life can still be good.
I usually like my SFnal exploration more front and center, rather than squeezed in around the edges. But the anthropologist in me quite enjoyed this one.
Sadly, I was not as enthused by Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer.
They did a great job setting up the cast. Our main characters are eight individuals linked by telepathy, and it’s obvious the writers had a mission statement to represent a broad cross-section of the world: the cop from Chicago and the hacker from San Francisco might seem like standard issue, the DJ from Iceland and the thief from Berlin a little less so — but then you get the banker from Seoul, the film star from Mexico City, the privileged young woman from Mumbai, and the bus driver from Nairobi. Four are women, four are men; one of the men (the film star) is gay, and one of the women (the hacker) is a transgender lesbian. I’m sure some people have sneered at this as “diversity for diversity’s sake” (as if that’s a bad thing), but it also matters to the story — because one of the important things going on here is that they have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different assumptions about the world. And it’s fun to watch those things collide. The “sensates” can project their spirits out so they see each other’s surroundings, and then they learn to possess each other’s bodies. It means they can give one another comfort and advice and, in a pinch, solve their problems for them: the Korean banker is also a participant in underground fighting rings, and kicks the asses of people threatening other members of her cluster. The Kenyan driver winds up behind the wheel of more than a few getaway vehicles. The Mexican movie star lies like a rug to get the German thief out of trouble, etc.
So why didn’t I like it more?
In a nutshell: too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby. In the first episode of the series, it becomes obvious that (of course) there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. By the end of the twelve-episode first season, we know that . . . there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. We can put some faces and names to individuals involved, and we know there’s a doctor who specializes in lobotomizing them — but we don’t know why, or what makes sensate clusters come into existence, or really anything of great substance about the metaplot. Most of the show’s attention is devoted to the lives of the sensates in this cluster and how they interact with one another. This means you’re tracking eight different plotlines at once: there are hints that some of them may connect, but even after twelve episodes, it’s little more than hints. And however much I may enjoy some parts of the character development (like the horrific encounter between Nomi and her family, or the hilarity of the kind-of threesome Lito ends up in), ultimately, I was really frustrated that the show seemed mostly content to wander around in the characters’ lives without really tying the whole group together and going somewhere with them.
Really, the opening credit sequence perfectly represents the problem. It’s a montage of shots from all around the world: famous sites, scenes of daily life, brief little snippets from Nairobi and Seoul and San Francisco and Mexico City and all the other places the characters are from. But there’s no arc to it, no coherent thread other than “hi, our show takes place all over the world!” It is, to use the old description of history, just one damn thing after another. Individually the bits may be lovely, but I want the whole to add up to more. And while it’s entirely possible the show will get there eventually . . . I’m not sure I’m willing to wait around for “eventually” to happen. I gave it one season to hook me; I don’t know that I’ll give it more.
If you don’t understand why I’m signal-boosting this, you probably haven’t been reading her reviews. She writes beautifully about film, primarily with an eye toward the performances of the actors: she has a knack I envy, of describing characterization and behavior in a concise, vivid fashion, and showing how characterization is revealed in behavior. She also has wide-ranging tastes; while a good deal of her blogging is about classic or forgotten films from decades ago, she isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a snob. Here is her review of Thor, and here is The Avengers. Both, as you might expect, pay particular attention to Loki:
Marvel can do whatever it likes with gods I don’t have a personal stake in, but I expected to be bleeding from the ears from the reconfigured family relationships alone. Instead I wanted much, much more of him. I love how he has a habit of appearing in mirrors, how you can almost never tell what is calculation and what he really feels; how, black-haired, blue-eyed, feverishly pale, he’s a callback to the icy dark of J├Âtunheim, but the dusk-blue that burns up through his skin at its touch, hel-bl├ír, is the one mask he never knew he was wearing. He has a thin-skinned, transparent look about him, a raw edge under glass. It makes him an effective deceiver: he looks as though you should be able to read him with one level stare, which will only show you what you want to see. And it makes him vulnerable: the incredible, child’s desolation in his face as he lets go of everything that has been his life and falls into Ginnungagap like a collapsing star. Like a good trickster, he is never a single, quantifiable thing. All of his scenes are exactly as they should be.
Or here she is about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the ten minutes of really great movie buried in the middle of an extremely mediocre one.
I love her film-blogging enough that I sent her a complimentary DVD of Seven Souls in Skull Castle, just because I want to know what she might have to say about it. (And by the way, if you want to see that movie for yourself, you can now buy your very own copy.)
So if you want to see more of that, consider supporting her Patreon. More lovely film-blogging for everybody!
The video blogger, Tony Zhou, digs into the art of the director and the cinematographer to talk about how they achieve their effects. For somebody like me, who is a dyed-in-the-wool narrative geek but doesn’t know the first thing about the craft of film, it’s like catnip: a chance to understand how one tells stories with images rather than words.
Mind you, I can’t quite follow everything he says. There are times where he’ll try to draw out a particular point, but its effect is subtle enough or he doesn’t unpack the idea enough or I don’t have enough basic grounding in film craft that I end up shrugging and thinking “okay, if you say so.” But many of them are just great, like “What Is Bayhem?”, wherein he dissects the work of Michael Bay. It isn’t about saying “oh, he’s such a genius” — he isn’t. Zhou’s thesis is that Bay imprinted on a couple of visual tricks and then BEATS THEM TO DEATH in every movie he makes. But it’s possible to identify what those tricks are, and to see he got them from or where other people try to copy him without understanding what he’s actually doing. It’s possible to put your finger on why you don’t like Michael Bay’s films (if indeed you do not like them) . . . because the man uses the same visual tricks without much regard for the material he’s using them on. It’s the equivalent of playing a piece of music all at one volume: there’s no dynamics, no contrast, just EVERYTHING IS EPIC ALL THE TIME. Even when the story itself is not actually being very epic at that moment.
I also loved the video on “Edgar Wright: How to Do Visual Comedy”. It hammered home for me some of the reasons why I find Wright’s movies to be a lot of fun, while a lot of other cinematic comedy bores me stiff. I’ve said before that the issue is one of content, and that’s true: I don’t find humiliation funny, I’m annoyed rather than amused by people acting so stupidly I’m not sure how they can even walk and talk at the same time, gross-out humour is just NO, and I’m very hit-or-miss with physical comedy. I like wittiness, and wittiness tends to be in short supply these days, at least in American comedy films. But it turns out there’s more to it than that. Zhou points out that so many movies have limited themselves to only one channel of humour, which is people standing around talking: they don’t use lighting or well-timed sound effects or matching scene transitions or soundtrack synchronization or things entering and leaving the frame in unexpected ways. (It was interesting, watching Galavant after seeing that video; I found myself noting the places where it employed a broader array of tools.) Using all those channels means you can vary your approach, make your point in different ways depending on the context.
Other particularly good ones: “Jackie Chan: How to Do Action Comedy.” “David Fincher: And the Other Way Is Wrong.” “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film.” All of them are interesting to watch, but I found those five the most comprehensible and eye-opening. If you have any interest in that sort of thing, they’re well worth taking a look at.
Tonight I saw a movie which is probably the most refrackulous thing I’ve watched in ages.
Its Japanese title is Dokuro-jo no shichinin, and it’s actually a recording of a stage production, deliberately intended (so the blurb for it said) to be a blend of cinema with live performance. That much is comprehensible.
But the plot, you guys. The plot.
It just –
These characters –
I — I have no way to describe it that wouldn’t be full of spoilers. Which you probably don’t care about because the number of you who will ever see it is minuscule. But I can’t tell you why Tayu’s crew of prostitutes are so awesome. Or who exactly that one dude turned out to be (though I can say that I turned to my sister about ten minutes prior to that reveal and said “if he turns out to be X, I am going to laugh my ass off.” Of course he was X.) I just –
Okay, look, here’s an example. The story takes place in 1590, eight years after the death of Oda Nobunaga. There’s this guy who’s set up shop in Skull Castle in the Kantou region, calling himself Tenmao, the Demon King of the Sixth Heaven. (This story: it is SUBTLE, yo.) It turns out that he, along with several of the other characters, used to be one of Nobunaga’s retainers, and hasn’t really gotten over his lord’s death. I believe the technical term for his state of mind would be, hmmm, how do they put it, oh yeah — bugfuck crazy. So one of his former comrades-in-arms goes to Skull Castle, and something like the following conversation ensues:
TENMAO: See this mask on my helmet? It was made from the skull of our dead lord!
FORMER COMRADE IN ARMS: That’s a little crazy, dude.
TENMAO: That’s funny, coming from you. I happen to know those beads you wear are made from our dead lord’s bones!
FCIA: . . . okay, that’s true. <caresses bone necklace>
TENMAO: And this drink in my cup is made from our dead lord’s blood!
Whereupon he drains the cup, kisses his former comrad-in-arms, and spits the blood into his mouth, which turns out to be drugged, so FCIA also goes what you might call bugfuck crazy.
It is kabuki on crack and cranked up to eleventy-one. It also dodges the Smurfette trap (three of the seven heroes facing down Tenmao are women), swings wildly between broad comedy and rather grim drama, features some kind of amazing stage fighting, and has a character who basically figures out how to turn the fact that he can’t make up his mind which side he’s on into his superpower.
I am so buying this the instant it’s available on DVD. And then I am going to inflict it on everybody around me.
Look at Hollywood. Look at TV. Look at how frequently they remake or reboot or sequelize existing narrative properties (for a host of reasons, not all of them terrible, but we won't get into that here). For crying out loud, we've got three separate Sherlock Holmes franchises in progress right now.
If you don't turn Starbuck female -- if you don't cast Lucy Liu as Watson -- if you don't make Idris Elba Heimdall -- if you don't break the mold of those existing texts in ways that will let in under-represented groups -- then your opportunities for having those groups on the screen in the first place drop substantially. You're basically left making them minor new characters, or else cracking the story open to stick in a major new minority character (and people will complain about that, too). Because all those stories we keep retelling? They're mostly about straight white guys. And the stories that are new, the ones that aren't being retold from one or more previous texts, can't pick up all the slack on their own. You make Perry White black, or you make a Superman movie with no black people in it above the level of tertiary character.
Which isn't automatically a problem when it's one movie. But it isn't one movie: it's a whole mass of them. Including most of our blockbusters.
So either we chuck out the old stuff wholesale (and as a folklorist, I entirely understand why we don't do that), or we rewrite it to suit our times. (And as a folklorist, I entirely understand that too -- and I cheer it on. Go, folk process, go!)
(Both that post and the rest of this one discuss sexual violence -- quelle surprise, given the obsession gritty fantasy has with that topic -- so if you don't want to read about them, click away now.)
This is part of a much larger discussion floating around the internet right now, which I keep encountering in unexpected corners. The most recent of those is "The Rape of James Bond," which makes a lot of good points; toward the end, McDougall talks about her own decision-making process where fictional sexual violence is concerned, and whether you agree with her decisions or not, her questions are good ones.
But the part I found the most striking was where she talked about reactions to Skyfall and the first encounter between Silva and Bond.
( Cut in case you haven't seen the movie and want to avoid a spoiler. )
Revenge: A bit muddled here and there, but still interesting, especially because of the extent to which (at least at the beginning) it's framed as this faceoff between two women, both powerful in their own way. Because of the aforementioned muddling, it doesn't quite stay that way, but it was still nifty while it lasted. And I kind of love the relationship between Emily and Nolan -- all the more so because the show is unafraid to make Nolan a physical wimp. When somebody holds him at knifepoint, he gets scared. And then he turns around and calls Emily on her errors, and she generally admits he's right.
kniedzw called it a "soap opera" at one point, which got me thinking about the extent to which a soap opera can be defined as a drama that caters to a female audience. There are other aspects, too -- the daytime slot being a shallow one; the constant plot churn being a more substantial one -- but "soap opera" has a connotation of "ridiculous," and really, I don't think Revenge (at least in its first season) is any more ridiculous than various evening dramas that cater to a male audience. So there's that.
Lost Girl: The werewolf guy is hot, but the tone of the show really doesn't do it for me, and I can't help but roll my eyes at the extent to which the protagonist's nature seems like an excuse to have her make out with people every episode. Not my cup of tea, I think.
The Vampire Diaries: Also not my cup of tea, but I watched the first two episodes out of curiosity (yay Netflix streaming!), and have to applaud the way Stefan goes against the stereotypical grain of the YA paranormal boyfriend. Which is to say, he's not an asshole. In fact, he is an anti-asshole in some ways I can't help but read as a deliberate response to Edward in Twilight, whether that's the case or not. I still don't find him that interesting, but at least I don't want to deck him.
Coriolanus: And now for something that isn't TV. Not one of Shakespeare's better-known tragedies, but after watching this adaptation, I have no idea why. It's been too long since I read the play (my sophomore year of college, I think) for me to recognize whether it's a matter of how they edited the script, or just the bloody fantastic performances from Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler and Brian Cox and James Nesbitt and oh my god Vanessa Redgrave, but it fits all but seamlessly into a run-down, militarized present day, with weary politicians and some conspirators who are, when I think about it, weirdly honest. I think I may have to buy a copy of the movie and add it to my library of Good Shakespeare Adaptations.