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Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

America’s Long Hangover

Good morning, America. Are you hungover? Honestly, I think I’ve been hungover since the 2000 election, which was a whopping 16 years ago. Two timelines diverged in a wood, and lo, we took the darker one, and here we are, America, perpetually drunk or hungover.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why nobody cared to show up to that election. We’d come off the prosperity of  Bill Clinton’s 90’s, artificially created by the deregulation of the banks that would eventually undo us all. While the Silicon Valley bubble had already burst, credit was still cheap and easy to come by (and would be until the great crash of 2008).  I know someone who was able to consolidate their student loans during this period at a 1% interest rate. I didn’t have a credit card with more than an 8% interest rate, with most of them coming in at 3-6%. It was a freewheeling time to be alive in America if you could get access to credit. But that bubble was set to burst. And when it did burst, we’d be at war, a war that still wages today.

When everything fell apart we didn’t have somebody at the helm smart enough to figure out what to do. War, instead, would have to solve everything for eight long years. No president is perfect, but Obama helped many of us dig out of that hole. Are things better for everyone? Well. They are better than they were in 2009, say, and they are better for pretty much everyone, though they may not remember it. At the very least, every American now has access to health insurance, whether they have pursued it or not. We are no longer barred from it for financial or medical reasons. But the war continues under Obama, as well as the nefarious spying on Americans, the dubious “war on terror” fought at home at abroad, blowing up kids in foreign countries and inciting anti-Muslim sentiment from coast to coast.

There continue to be “no more manufacturing jobs” which really, we haven’t had since the early 80’s, but my god, so many people continue to mourn them. There are far too many cities trying to woo them back instead of investing in something else. Invest in cell phone towers, IT startups, solar plants, fucking anything but fucking dead manufacturing jobs. We want an America that our grandparents had without the 90% tax rate on the rich that made that America possible. How do you think they paid for World War II? Taxes. It was still patriotic to pay taxes, then. We want that idea of America without making anyone pay for it.

Drunk or hungover, that’s America.

Many elections are characterized, in truth, by a lackluster amount of emotion. Nobody got excited about Bush or Kerry, or Bush or Gore (in part because Gore never talked about things he was passionate about but also see: false sense of prosperity. When you are mostly comfortable, what’s there to get excited about?). The second round Bush made, he was able to drum up the “war on terror” fear-mongering, and hey, that works. But so does Obama’s tact of going with hope. He ran on hope, and he won twice (legitimately, without having to call his brother in Florida to ask him to call the race for him). Hope can win, too. It’s why it’s so aggravating to watch an incompetent bankrupt narcissist run on fear, the oldest playbook, and use that emotion to pull so many people into his orbit. Worse is to watch him go up against the most qualified presidential candidate – maybe ever – who has been knocked down so many times she should not have kept going, but who is going anyway, and fuck you for getting in the way.

We forget that it was Hillary Clinton who was heading that first tentative effort at universal healthcare in the 90’s. And the GOP destroyed her for it. After that failed bid, she went back to safer “first lady” type things, like doing stuff for kids. Even though the very best thing anyone could have done for children and families in America was create universal healthcare (they did manage to expand coverage to cover a lot of kids). So she backed off, but she was not out. She was never out.

Grit.

Hillary Clinton’s dogged perseverance is a thing to behold. Whenever I’m feeling shit about my own life, and my own challenges, I remember that she’s fucking 68 years old, and has weathered the very worst that an entire political party can throw at her, and here she is, still going. The fact that she had to share a stage with some mediocre white man after literally dedicating her life to political service and the political game to prepare her for this moment is fucking insulting to women everywhere. Like, everywhere. Everywhere. Because we have all been in that place, where we’re more qualified than the dude talking over us, where we have better ideas, better work ethic, where we are simply better in every way, and we keep waiting for folks to see it while he froths and gesticulates and jacks off at a meeting, and you can’t lose your shit, even though he is, because while he will be called “passionate” for spitting angry shit at everyone, you’ll be called “emotional.” So you sit on your hands, and you wait for him to wear himself out, and you start again with reason and logic, even knowing that it’s emotion that wins arguments, not logic. And you do all this knowing that no matter how smart and logical you are, it’s very possible he could still win out, because people are fucking stupid. People are emotional. And yes, “People” includes men, there (a VP at a company I worked for threw a cup at a woman once. He was not fired, suspended, anything. Zilch).

That’s America, too, and that’s my own long hangover. Trying not to yell in meetings. Performance reviews where I’m told I’m, “too smart” and come across as “arrogant,” and all I could think was, “Shit, if I was a dude I’d be getting a huge raise right now.” Oh, certainly, things have worked out for me, too, as they have for Clinton. She’s a fucking major presidential nominee, after all. You don’t get there without moving some large mountains. But you remember the bullshit that wouldn’t be in your way if you were a dude. And she and I would have had a greater mountain of bullshit if we weren’t white, or cis.

Yet there is hope, here, for me and for her and for many of us, because even if this turns into some squalling nightmare, the dark-er, darkest-er, timeline… no, stop. Let’s not even go there.

THE DARK TIMELINE STOPS HERE.

AS KC Green says:

this-is-not-fine-004-4f0492

(updated comic here)

This is not fucking fine. Not one bit of this. Our perpetual drunken hangover is not fine. It’s no way to live. Being angry and scared all the time when we live in an era of unprecedented technological and social change, with a lower crime and murder rate than pretty much ever, is not fine. Falling for the same old fear-mongering bullshit, in every era, is not fine. Repeating the same old far-right hatemongering decade after decade, even and especially when people are still ALIVE who remember fighting against a people whose far-right xenophobia made it possible for them to systematically murder over 6 million people is not fine (and people are still ALIVE who were PART of this murdering).

As a student of history, I find that watching the same historical wheel turn again and again, watching humanity make the same mistakes again and again, really tiring. I get that Hillary Clinton does not represent a passionate positive emotion for people. She is not hopey-changey stuff. She is a tough politician. She will give us a continuation of Obama’s policies. We are voting in the current status quo. Which is SUPER better than the status quo of 2008, yeah. But the status quo is not super exciting. Sure, the path we’re on now is messy and taking forever and change is hard and mean and exhausting, but it’s happening. Because I’ll tell you what’s WORSE than the road we’re on, and that’s the road that leads to murderball, The Handmaid’s Tale, nuclear war with Russia, and internment camps.

Are we living in a dystopia? Sure. We are living in the 80’s Robocop future where corporations control everything because the government is too afraid to tax them and use the money on infrastructure, which would in turn create tons of jobs and improve not only the economy, but working class morale, too. Regan put us on this road in the 80’s, and we’ve never truly jumped back and realized the error of our ways. Deregulation, busting up unions, closing mental health facilities… none of those things was great for the middle class. They were great for rich people.

Yet strangest of all (or not, if you know history) we are living in a Robocop future where dissatisfied white people, in particular, put the blame for this future on immigrants, welfare fraud, and uppity non-white people instead of people like the millionaire running against Clinton who hasn’t paid his taxes in 14 years. I know how we got here, because it’s how we’ve always gotten here. What I want to understand is how we fix it, and how we fix it is the same way we did before:

We pitch hope instead of fear. Change instead of nostalgia.

Sure, the world is a big, scary place. Shit is moving incredibly fast. Snapchat has sunglasses that you can use to record things now, and it will succeed where Google Glass failed because the glasses actually look cool (also you can call them “specs” or “snap specs” and how cool is that). Also there are no more jobs with pensions and no job security but you can freelance any old fucking thing and telecommute from almost anywhere. Healthcare is expensive and can still put you into debt, but everyone can be insured now, which means you won’t get turned away. Also, we don’t have hookworms or other parasites anymore, most of us, and that’s pretty cool.

I mean, take what you can get.

But I’m not going to pitch more fear of the DARKER-EST timeline here, America. Instead, I’m going to tell you to stop drinking and wake the fuck back up (especially you, fellow white people). Wake the fuck up and start doing shit,and be brave, like these folks and these folks and her and fucking her, for God’s sake. And if you can’t fucking DO shit, then at least vote for an actual future. Show up and do the bare minimum and cancel the apocalypse.

There is a better world out there, but achieving it requires good people to actually do something. All it takes for the worst to come out in all of us is for good people to do nothing, and just keep drinking.

So which will you do?

future

 

Comedy is Hard: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 2

Spoilers for both seasons.

The first season of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt knocked my socks off. It was a show about women recovering from abuse, but this was no Jessica Jones. This was funny, irreverent, and clever without being nihilistic about it. One of the things I’ve loved about television recently is that we get to have so many different kinds of female heroes. It’s not just Supergirl OR Jessica Jones. It’s not just Buffy out there swinging by herself. We get a full range of female characters.

And this is what I loved so much about Kimmy Schmidt. It was unapologetically feminist and fun while hitting you right in the feels. When Kimmy fishes a rat out of a garbage can and tells her kidnapper he will never break her in episode one, you are all-in.

The season ended on a high note, with the inevitable showdown trial with the kidnapper who held Kimmy and several other women underground for fifteen years. Her budding romance with fellow GED-student Dong is on the rocks. Her employer has gotten a divorce from the jerk she was using for his money. And Titus’s wife shows up to confront him about why he left her.

It was a great season ending. I was looking forward to what happened next.

It didn’t take long, unfortunately, to see that Kimmy Schmidt season 2 was going to be a VERY bumpy ride.

I’m not sure what happened here. Part of me thinks there was a writing room shake up between seasons, and the second writing team spent the first half of the season trying to tie up all the loose ends laid down by the first writing team, clumsily going for easy gags and stuff that was… just not funny. It was weird to be watching the first couple episodes and realizing… wow, this is… just not funny.

The characters all wander around getting new jobs – Kimmy works at a Christmas store for awhile, then becomes an Uber driver. Her former boss, Jacqueline, bounces from trying to get back her old life by marrying rich to actually doing some fundraising for a good cause. There’s a lot of back-and-forth with Kimmy’s beau Dong which seems to go nowhere. Smartly, they no longer required Dong to speak in his embarrassing accent, which makes me think one or both of the showrunners watched Master of None and realized how rude it was to ask an actor to do that.  Worse, while I kept expecting them to finally handwave the Jacqueline storyline (a white actor playing a Native American? Really?) by saying she was adopted, they instead totally doubled down on that one, giving her vision quests and putting her on the road to demand reparations through fundraising. There’s also an incredibly weird episode where Titus gives a play in yellow face as a geisha, and “angry Asians from the internet” show up and act… like a parody of people on the internet. There’s a jibe at the Black Lives Matter movement. It falls horribly flat. The worst part is that they could have pulled this episode into the realm of relevance if they had the main protester be like, “Hey, Titus, clearly you did your research and your song and story really moved me. But the problem with black actors playing Asians is that it reduces the roles of real Asians in media, so all we end up getting to play are immigrants with horrible accents who have to get into sham marriages to keep their green cards, and angry Asian social justice warriors from the internet.” They could have made this funnier while pointing back at themselves and going, “Yes, hey, we got that wrong! We get it. We’re going to do better.” But they didn’t. If you’re a white feminist and don’t get this, imagine it as about gender instead of race – a straight cis man doing a show about being a woman, and angry stereotyped feminists coming to protest the event, citing stats about female representation in plays and film. I had a feeling the showrunners would get exactly why writing this episode this way would be problematic.

In truth, there were several times over the season where I was like, “This show needs some not-white women in that writers’ room cause my god. My god.” If you understand misogyny, you should understand racism, but outside of Titus’s storylines, the show just continually fell flat there.

Speaking of Titus, his storyline was probably the most successful throughout the whole show. The scene between him and new boyfriend Mikey (the catcalling construction worker from season 1) were just adorable. The scene where they geek out and bond over the Lion King was about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Any episode with Mikey was an episode I could forgive for being fall-down unfunny elsewhere.

There’s the introduction of a soldier with PTSD as a possible romance for Kimmy, where they start to bond over their shared PTSD, but that goes nowhere. I thought, “Oh, this is great! This season is about overcoming trauma.” But it took a third of the season to get there, and then that got dropped and he never showed up again and I was like, “THAT WAS GOING TO BE GOLD! KIMMY AND A SOLDIER!” But it moved on, and Kimmy got lost in the show amid Titus’s engaging romance and Jacqueline’s increasingly bizarre attempts to rebuild her life (I enjoyed the episode with the mistresses). It kept bouncing from one thing to another, and I couldn’t figure out where it was going.

The show was also missing a lot of the ongoing/recurring gags that made it feel more linked last season (the ridiculous Bubreeze commercials, for instance). While there were a couple episodes in the middle that were all right once Tina Fey showed up as Kimmy’s therapist and we circled back to the “yes, this is a season about addressing trauma!” I still found myself less than eager to click “play” on the next episode, and it took me awhile to get to the last two episodes.

What’s funny is that the season actually finally comes together in those last two episodes, and makes it look like the show knew where it was going all along, it just didn’t know how to tell us it knew how to get there. There’s a hilarious gag where Kimmy goes to Universal Studios and is mistaken for a character. Titus goes to Titusville and works out his fear of failure among astronauts. We find out why Kimmy is afraid of velcro, and she confronts her mom while realizing that she is not going to get the closure she needs from her terrible mother, and she comes to peace with that. Jacqueline falls in love with a do-gooder lawyer and they decide to take down the Washington Redskins. Their landlady decides to fight the hipsters coming into the neighborhood by running for office (which will be great). Finally, all the things that they were muddling around with all season long came to a head, and I breathed a sigh of relief, because the final show cliffhanger had me hooked again and ready for season 3.

As a storyteller, though, I found myself endlessly fascinated with why the season was so muddled compared to last. And it reminded me that comedy is fucking hard. I could see why they wanted to have Jacqueline do a ton of weird, different things. They didn’t want her to just hook up with a lawyer and fall in love immediately after getting her independence. She needed to explore other options first (still no excuse for not going the “you’re adopted” route, which I STILL hope they’ll do in season 3). The Kimmy storyline, I don’t know. The actress was really being earnest with the material she had, and it felt so strained in those first few episodes. There was gold here, but I’m wondering if it was just uncomfortable to go where they needed to go with it. I’m currently working on a book which involves two very abusive relationships, and to be dead honest, the subject matter itself does create a lot of resistance when I’m writing it. Writing about trauma, abuse, PTSD, and overcoming bullshit is hard to do. I can’t imagine trying to do it in a funny way. The episode about the internet mob was just bad all around, but I think if they could have reframed the ending as a lesson to Titus about representation (and indirectly, a lesson to themselves) it would have worked (Sam Means is credited as the writer of this episode, but also wrote the very funny Kimmy Finds Her Mom episode, so you know, you win some you lose some).

I give the season 3 stars out of 5, because it figured out what it was doing in the end, and promises some gold in season three. If nothing else, watching this season reminded me that making comedy look effortless is really fucking hard. It was a rough season, but so is life. I’ve reached a point as a creator where I understand that sometimes shit goes wrong. Sometimes the best intentions create really problematic stuff. If I was running the show, I’d bring in some women writers who aren’t white feminists (and yes, I say that as a white feminist. This is a serious problem), or at least have some consult on the show. There was some amazing stuff they could have done this year in smart, heartfelt ways if not for the myopia, there.

Criticism aside, this is a brave show doing brave things. I would rather it continue trying to push the envelope – writing a comedy show about abuse and overcoming trauma! – and fail at it than go back to doing the safe, boring, tried and true stuff that so many other shows rely on. I salute you in your efforts. Keep doing better.

And keep on trucking, Kimmy.

Why You Should Be Watching The Man in the High Castle

If you’ve read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, you know the Big Idea, here: World War II is over, and Germany and its allies won. The world has been carved up between Japan and Germany. What was once the United States is divided between the Japanese Pacific States and the Greater Reich, with a “neutral zone” around the Rocky Mountain region.

The year is 1962, and a subversive film is making the rounds in revolutionary circles: it’s a film that shows the allies winning World War II. Our world. It’s said the film is created by someone who calls himself “the man in the high castle,” and nobody can figure out how he’s created these films. They’re scary because they look so real. Keep in mind there’s no CGI or photoshop here, and everyone has to share these movies on reels – it’s impossible to fake this level of “real” in this 1962 (or ours). Where did the film come from? Why is it such a touchstone for revolutionaries? Can the Reich and Japanese Empire squash out dissent before being drawn into a war with one another?

These are the big questions in the book and the series now streaming on Amazon (two episode are up now; all 10 will be up on the 20th of this month), but it’s about so much more than that.

I’m not sure when I realized that this wasn’t a story about the Nazis and Japanese Empire laying waste to the happy United States we have in our happy memories. I think it was when the Japanese Empire raids a Jewish man’s house, seemingly for no reason, and I realized it looked a lot like a swatting raid, or a raid on some innocent brown man with an Arab-sounding name, or the FBI raid on an innocent professor accused of sending sensitive material to the Chinese. And in that moment I realized the entire world I’d been presented thus in the show far wasn’t so much different from the United States in 2015, and that in fact the show was very much aware of that. If you’re brown, or black, or Muslim, or have a non-white sounding name, or you look at a TSA agent funny, or say something about supporting terrorism online (threatening to murder a woman is still OK! But I digress), get ready to get raided, detained, tortured, thrown into prison, or disappeared. I thought about our creepy no-fly lists, about police throwing students to the floor in classrooms, about minor traffic violations that end with somebody strangling you to death in prison and pretending you totally hung yourself with a plastic bag. I thought of this whole world we’ve built, post-World War II, and realized this show wasn’t saying, “Wouldn’t things be so different?” but instead, “Are things really as different as we think?”

And when a loyal-to-the-Japanese-Empire Jewish man is detained and tortured in episode two, meets a revolutionary in prison, and is released without being charged, I immediately knew where his arc was going, though it hasn’t even played out yet, because we have seen it endlessly in our own torture and detention camps, the ones we’re running all across the world. We detain and torture people, many of whom have no interest in extremism, and in this zealous performance of power, we end up creating the very thing we say we’re fighting against. Applying the boot makes more people who want to burn the boot.

The very subversively important thing about this show is that you want the revolutionary dissident extremists who are blowing things up and shooting people in the street to win.

Wrap your head around that, America.

I write complex fiction, because the world itself is a messy, angry, tangled place. We want a good vs. bad narratives. We want simplicity. The world is none of those things. The fact is that Nelson Mandela was labeled a terrorist, and the ANC – now the ruling party of South Africa – was considered a terrorist organization, is a True Fact. Osama bin Laden was trained by the CIA. The United States holds people indefinitely in foreign prisons and tortures them. History is a bloody field of horror. The bombs that obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed about 250,000 people just within the first four months of the blasts. No, that is not millions of people exterminated, but where do we draw our Line of Evil? One death? One thousand? One million? A billion? Or is it just a matter of who’s doing IMG_0108the murdering? And I say that as someone whose grandfather told stories about hauling bodies out of concentration camps. I know evil. I also know that fighting evil with evil can turn you into the very thing you hated and feared.

In an age of relentless acts of brutality committed by revolutionary groups that are, increasingly, met by even worse acts of brutality on the part of large states, one has to sit back and ask why we’re so committed to feeding the terror machine. A brutal and repressive regime serves only to create the very revolutionaries it fights so hard to put down. Meeting violence with violence doesn’t show strength: it inspires more violence.

It’s this uncomfortable truth that makes The Man in the High Castle such a compelling narrative – then and now.

The wheels keep turning. They won’t stop until we do.

 

The unBREAKable Kimmy Schmidt

It’s the Netflix original series with the most catchy theme song around, and the most unapologetically feminist comedy series I’ve seen since… I don’t even know when.

I would like to tell you that the backlash is officially getting pushback here in 2015, with shows like this sneaking onto the air, but let’s be real about how The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt finally saw daylight. Tina Fey is co-helming this one, and NBC ordered a bunch of episodes initially, but when they got the final product, they balked. Like The Middle Man, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a weird, quirky show that really has no business being on a Big Four network, alas. What makes The Big Bang Theory OK is that it actually makes fun of nerds and plays into nerd stereotypes.

But the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt tells you to go fuck yourself, and you laugh along with it.

kimmy-schmidt-netflix

Unbreakable is about three teen women and one thirty-something woman who were kidnapped and held in an underground bunker for fifteen years by a madman (a literal Mad Man, played by our friend Jon Hamm). They are eventually rescued in the here and now, and featured in a mad media blitz. Called “Mole Women” by the media, they are invited to New York City to be on a talk show where they are treated in about the way you’d expect, even giving one woman a “surprise” makeover because of course, that’s how you can prove that you’ve fixed someone’s life, with a haircut and some makeup. The titular Kimmy Schmidt, on the ride back to the airport, decides she isn’t going back to live the rest of her life in small town Indiana after living in a bunker for 15 years, and jumps out of the van and decides to try and make her living in New York. It had been her dream, back in the bunker, to get her education and see the world, and she didn’t feel she’d be able to do that in Indiana where everyone would know her as a Mole Woman.

The entire concept of the show is pretty ridiculous, right? When my husband pitched this show to me, I looked at him with my Dubious Face, because I’ve seen a lot of what passes for comedy on TV these days, and it’s all How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory, which feel so scripted lowest common denominator funny that I just get bored. I tend to like British comedy better because it can be far more absurd, and most importantly – dark. The comedy Absolutely Fabulous was one of my favorites, about two older women who selfishly booze away their lives while the nerdy daughter of one of them tries to deal with having a ridiculous, fucked-up home life while building her own future. My mom loved this show too, and more than a few times said, “I know you really like this show because you totally identify with the daughter, and I’m totally like her mother.” And I just smiled and nodded and then we settled in to laugh. Because that’s how we deal with the darkness of life – we laugh at it.

This is what Unbreakable gets so, so right, and it’s the laughing in the face of darkness that hooked me from the first episode. This absurd situation this girl finds herself in isn’t all that absurd, really – it’s not far from where I live where two brothers kidnapped young women and held them in their house for ten years as slaves. Yeah. This is something that actually happens. It’s not absurdist in the least. And on a grander scale, women living under the boot of men, of men’s ideas of them, enslaved by men’s fantasies of what they should be, happens at one point or another to nearly every woman in our society. We deal with it in our relationships, in the workplace, walking down the street.

I knew the show had me when Kimmy is getting ready to get on a bus to go back to Indiana in the first episode, feeling life in New York is just impossible for her. She has no skills, no job, all her references and technical knowledge are out of date, and she decides to give in and go back and live the way people expect her to. It’s at this point that she sees a rat in the trash can, and she flashes back to the bunker where she is holding up a rat in front of the Reverend who kidnapped them and tried to convince them the world had ended and he kept them locked up for their own protection, and says to him that if what he’s saying is true, and the world has ended and everything was dead, then how did this rat get into the air duct? And he says, “Dammit, Kimmy I WILL break you,” and she says, very simply, “No you won’t.”

Folks who have been following this blog a long time know that it’s not been easy for me to get to this point in my life. I spent three years trying to untangle myself from an abusive relationship in high school. I ran away to Alaska. I lived in South Africa. I got a chronic illness that means I’m just one missed shot of synthetic drugs away from dying every day. I ended up laid off, homeless, and unemployed in 2007, living in a friend’s spare bedroom in Ohio and trying to shovel myself out of extreme medical debt while I lived on expired drugs and scraped by on temp jobs that barely had me keeping my head above water, paying minimum payments on the credit cards I was using to buy my meds and food while deferring and deferring and deferring student loan payments.

There are a lot of opportunities for a person to break, in there. A lot. A LOT. There are times you want to give up writing, give up life, pack it all in. But you keep going because there is something inside of you that will not be broken, that will not go back to live the life everyone says you should accept. You go on no matter how bad things are, because the alternative is so much worse.

And here’s the thing about shows like this, and why they exist, because here you are watching this ostensibly funny show about someone who has been through something so vastly worse (“I know what you’re going to ask,” Kimmy bubbles off at one point, “was there weird sexual stuff in the bunker? Well, yeah,” and “we still haven’t figured out why you’re afraid of Velcro” and how she attacks anyone who comes up behind her and grabs her, reflexively), and you sit there and you go, “Yeah, you know, sometimes life is hard. But here is someone who has been through far worse, and they persevere, and they thrive, and they go on. And if they can, I can too.” That’s the magic of stories, there. The magic of comedy is positioning it in such a way that you can laugh at that darkness, too.

The show has missteps, of course. For all its feminist sensibilities, smartly giving us recurring women characters who are 15, 30, 43 and 60+ in the same show (I admit I can’t watch a lot of shows exclusively about teenagers anymore; as I get older, I want to see, more and more, characters who are tackling the same problems I am), it falls down a lot on race.

There are some great, insightful things, yes: there’s a powerful episode about Kimmy’s best friend and roommate, Titus, who finds that when he dresses up as a werewolf for a gig that he’s treated far better by strangers as a werewolf than he ever was as a black man. There’s Carol Kane playing an older white liberal hippie who purports to be an ally at every turn while saying the most racist things in the show; a searing skewering of white allies. But then there’s the bizarre subplot for Kimmy’s employer, who is played by a white woman but purportedly from a Native American family, a family portrayed in one of the most stereotypical ways imaginable, and has her howling like a wolf at the end to get back her power? Yeah, just squint and say la-la-la through all that. Dong, a Vietnamese immigrant, starts out promising and then quickly regresses to an amalgam of Asian Guy Stereotypes as things progress. I actually winced in sympathy for the actor who had to play him, it was so bad. I have hope that these will improve as fans point out where these fall down. There’s also a weird awareness of the Hispanic characters in the story without actually… telling their stories, if that makes sense. “Isn’t it funny we are ignoring the stories of the Hispanic characters just like the media and their employers do!” is the same True Detective problem of “See us showing all this misogyny while being misogynist.” The writers did such a great job making the primary characters complex and well-rounded that the Stereotype Brigade in the background grates all the more. Fingers crossed they fix this, as the show’s been approved for a second season.

If you can squint through the grating parts, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a show with a lot of promise and a lot to say about current media culture, the class divide, and the struggles of being who you are in a world that wants to label you with just one narrative (hopefully for ALL the characters, going forward).

The supporting cast here is fabulous, too, with Tituss Burgess playing a man from Mississippi who came to New York to pursues his dreams, and has since been ground down by the odds of achieving those dreams. Jane Krakowski is the rich housewife you love to hate, who delivers all the ridiculous privilege of the 1% without a filter. And Carol Kane is your favorite matronly slumlord. Jon Hamm’s performance as the charismatic Reverend who convinces everyone that he’s right because he’s handsome and ridiculous will both delight and chill you.

Highly recommended.

One Bloke to Rule Us All: Depictions of Hegemony in Snowpiercer vs. Guardians of the Galaxy

Note: Contains All the Spoilers for both films

I had the surreal experience of watching Snowpiercer and Guardians of the Galaxy within a week of each other. I can hear the cries now: but what the hell does a dystopic train apocalypse movie have to do with a MacGuffin-plot galaxy romp with a wise cracking team of misfits?

What actually fascinated me most in watching these two films so closely together is noticing how differently they treated the depiction of the status quo of patriarchal white leadership. Oh yeah, I went there!

Golf clap and move on, if this isn’t your bag.

So in Snowpiercer we have, surprise, a white male lead being pushed on ahead of a rag-tag band of misfits stuck at the back of a train hurtling through a lifeless environment: the only way to live is to be on the train, but what constitutes “living” is pretty grim. We’ll learn later that folks at the back of the train resorted to murdering each other and chopping off each other’s limbs and eating them to survive (let’s handwave the reality of this. This movie is an allegory – in truth, by the time you’re starving enough to start eating each other, you’re not going to have a lot of energy left to murder one another. It’s far easier to subsist on people already dead. And chopping off limbs with no proper medical care around means many of those folks would die from shock. But that doesn’t make for a good body horror film. Hand wave, hand wave we are on a magic train hurtling through an Ice Planet, after all). What these folks resorted to was following the leadership of an old white man, who is grooming another white man to take his place. As we’ll learn as we run up through the train, this grooming of Our Hero isn’t even just for the folks at the back of the train. The old white guy at the head of the train has, in fact, been grooming him to take over the whole broken, fucked up train system – a perfect microcosm of our own 1% to rule them all society, with clear depictions of all it’s broken, brutal ways writ large.

imagesWhen Our Hero is faced with the choice of taking the helm of the front of the train or blowing it up, he actually hesitates. He hesitates as many of those Groomed White Male Leaders hesitate here in real life, on being confronted with the fact that they are basically now being asked to perpetuate the very system they say they were fighting against. They have become The Man. They are The Problem.

As with Looper, Our Hero accurately susses out that he’s the problem, though it takes our clairvoyant secondary heroine to yank up the floor of the train and point to the child now in service to a broken system to convince him to make the choice. Much has been said about Snowpiercer being smart or revolutionary or something, but really, at the end of the day, it’s Our Hero who must make the choice between perpetuating the system or blowing it up – the most revolutionary part of this film is that no women are sexually assaulted, and not all the people of color die. Yet it’s not the women or people of color on the train who are given the ultimate agency in this film. They can point to it and say it’s broken, but he’s in the place of power. He has to come to the realization that he’s the problem, and end it.

I like Snowpiercer, for all that it was obviously aimed at these white men in power, poking sticks at their discomfort in perpetuating broken systems. I was clear this was not a movie telling me to rise up and smash the system. There are, as ever, two ways to change a system: bloody revolution or changing a system from the inside. For bloody revolution, one doesn’tt need the folks in power to make any decision. We at the bottom don’t need to change their minds. But if you want change from the inside, you have to reach these guys. Women who wanted the right to vote? The deciding vote cast that gave women the right to vote in the US was given by a politician who, when asked why he voted to give women the right to vote, said, anecdotally, “Because my mother told me to.”

We can push men in power to change things, but at the end of the day, unless that change is blowing up the whole system, as Snowpiercer ultimately does, the power structure itself never changes.

I admired Snowpiercer for blowing up the whole goddamn system. It could have gone with “benevolent ruler.” He could have stepped out onto the ice to lead everyone and kept the existing hegemony. It could have been a different story. Instead, he blew it up. And though I certainly would have preferred our secondary heroine or one of the children to get some agency in this matter, I will take my cookies when they’re offered.

If I hated everything I’d never watch another piece of media.

This leads us to the ending of Guardians of the Galaxy, which, after an enjoyable romp about misfits and friendship, ended rather hollowly for me. I saw, quite literally, the same exact language used to get Our Hero in Snowpiercer to the front of the train employed again here, and again given to a female character to say: “You need to lead us now/lead us.”

imagesCW8Q70Z8I failed to see anything at all in the course of the two hour movie of mostly fun and explosions that would lead me to believe me our wise-cracking Han-Solo-lite could or should lead anyone at all. In fact, in looking at the entire theme of the film – about friendship, and the power of working together – the “one man to rule us all” conclusion fell seriously flat. You can’t take a movie about the power of friendship and shared goals and working together and make it all about upholding the proper order of the universe: Star Lord should always be an ironic flippery, not something that becomes literal. Because if there is only One True Hero then fuck the power of friendship, and why does anyone need to work together? Declaring a One True Hero undermined the whole point of the film, and put all those other characters’ stories in service to the hero’s story.

It’s funny that a whole film can fall apart for me with one line, but after the terribly powerfully syrupy Friendship is Magic moment with Groot (“We Are Groot”) that was the emotional heart of the story squeezing your insides, reverting to, “You must lead us now,” was a weird whiplash of a moment, a shocking turn about in favor of the old hierarchical system that they were all supposedly living outside. Here they were replicating it again, and putting the Our Hero at center stage again, just like in every other movie, without interrogating, at least (as Snowpiercer did) if that was a good idea or not.

At the end of the day, I’m a little exhausted with One Bloke to Rule Them All films, but seeing these films both so close together made it clear that if I’m going to be forced to see one, I’d like to see one that interrogates this idea instead of telling a big, loud story with heart that turns out to be, in the end, merely a return to the status quo.

(P.S. Lest you think I hate everything, I enjoyed both films for different reasons. But there will be plenty of ink spilled on the good parts of these movies, and in truth, it’s the interrogation, or not, of monstrous masculinity here that really interests me. I’m not even going to get into the “whore” thing in GotG)

Movie Roundup: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The upside to a nine-hour flight is that I got to catch up on a lot of movies on the way back. Here’s a round-up of what I saw, with rec’s as necessary:

Good Fun

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
I wasn’t going to touch this movie with a ten foot pole, but a lot of people recommended it as good, campy fun. I suspect that this movie is what Bloodrayne should have been – a fun, silly romp that didn’t take itself too seriously. The script was silly, the premise was silly, and the actors all knew it was silly, but dammit, they had a lot of fun doing it. Points for passing the Bechdel test; points subtracted for badass female witch hunter who somehow gets one-upped in a scrap with a couple of dudes. Lots of witty dialogue and ridiculous “sugar sickness” that left me snickering.

Just OK

The Adjustment Bureau
A Matt Damon and Emily Blunt feature that reminded me a bit of the Matrix. Damon is a political candidate who discovers the existence of an “adjustment bureau” – people who work behind the scenes for “The Chairman” to engineer the events of our lives so that they stick to the plan written for us. I liked this idea, and it had another Mad Men star working as the antagonist. Blunt and Damon also had some actual chemistry both as people and characters – I actually bought that these two people were falling in love, which, to be dead honest, doesn’t happen in most movies. Despite the interesting premise, it got a little heavy-handed in the end about free will and destiny and True Love, and the way he ends up dragging the heroine around in the latter half of the movie really bothered me.

Recommended

In Time
Excellent SF worldbuilding here – in the future, we’re all equipped with clocks that kick in when we turn 25. We cease to physically age, but we’re forced to barter in time –literally minutes of our lives, which are exchanged through the touching of in-time-posterwrists. So it’s 6 minutes off your life for a cup of coffee, and maybe 30 hours for a day’s work, and seven hours for a hotel stay. Rich people, then, are effectively immortal while the poor are literally(!) getting by day-to-day with minutes to spare. When your time runs out, you die. Yes, really! So folks who are bad at math and budgeting are pretty much fucked in the future. This concept won me over when the protag’s mom goes to pay off a loan worth two days, and her clock only has an hour and a half on it, and she goes to take the bus to meet her son, who’s going to give her twelve more hours from his job that day – but the bus fair has been raised to 2 hours. The walk to get where she’s going is two hours. With just an hour and a half left, she runs the whole way to meet her son. There’s this astonishing scene with them running across the dark pavement toward one another, arms outstretched – you can guess what happens. The movie has some issues with women – they mainly exist to inspire the protagonist to overthrow the world, and I had real problems with the Stockholm-syndrome “romance,” though it was a bit redeemed in the end when the female protag actually started to make some real decisions and show some agency. Would have also preferred a stronger actor to lead this than the rather bland Justin Timberlake. Even Eminem would have been preferable. Cillan Murphy plays a wonderful bad guy, though, and Pete Campbell from Mad Men makes an appearance as one of the immortal rich folks. Absolutely worth watching for the fascinating worldbuilding and dystopian swagger of the thing. You’ll roll your eyes at the underutilization of the women characters, but it’s a fun ride despite its flaws, and got me thinking a lot about the economics of future fictional societies.

Bridesmaids
I put off watching this one for a long time because it was toted as a Judd Apatow production, and… well. Apatow stuff is fun, but tends to treat women as crazy harpies sometimes; and they’re often tangential to the story. Turns out it was produced by Apatow, but written by Kristen Wiig (who also stars) and Annie Mumolo. And, of course, it has everyone’s favorite comedian, Melissa McCarthy. I laughed so hard throughout this entire movie on the plane that my spouse requested that we rent it and watch it again when we came home so he could see what all the laughing was about, so I’ve seen it twice now.

This was a wonderful, funny film about best friends where (surprise!) it’s the dudes this time who are tangential. In fact, the groom and the antagonist’s husband don’t even have any lines, which was actually pretty funny. Kristen Wiig plays a former baker whose bake shop closed during the recession and whose best friend, Lilian, is getting married. Wiig is tapped to be maid of honor, and ends up fucking up everything while her best friend’s new friend Helen tries to usurp her place in Lillian’s heart. Wiig is both funny and heartbreaking. Her slow spiral into depression and near-madness hit a bit close to home for me; I’ve been down and out before, and watching her struggle really connected with me. I also liked how the romance was handled in this one, too. Jon Hamm of Mad Men (lots of Mad Men folks getting bit appearances these days) makes an appearance as her insensitive fuckbuddy, with the lead romance being played by Chris O’Dowd, who does a lovely job of playing the soft-heartened good-guy everyone loves to love.

This was another film that did a good job with the romance. I actually believed these two had a connection and genuinely liked one another. It was also, of course, a film that stood out due to the sheer number of women characters filling the screen at all times. It was a lovely change from the norm, which has genders reversed. Sometimes films that tell women’s stories dumb it down and simplify it, but this movie did a great job of showing women as people, not appendages or sidelined characters or harpy caricatures. Terribly fun, and highly recommended. We need more films like this.

Bridesmaids-Movie

Couldn’t Finish

The Anchor Man
This was the second time I tried to watch The Anchor Man. It’s trying. I know it thinks it’s trying. But it just punched me in the face repeatedly, to the point where I couldn’t go on. Will Farrell plays a 1970s local anchorman in an all-man newsroom which is forced to take on a new woman anchor to “diversify” the station. Played by Christina Applegate, the new anchorwoman is repeatedly objectified and harassed. And it’s real objectification, you know, the sort that makes it clear these guys view her as a thing and not a person. There are shows that present harassment of this sort in order to counter it, or to make a point, and though I felt like this was their intent, I found the constant harassment so distressing that I just couldn’t finish it. What’s worse is that Applegate’s character was, for some bizarre and inexplicable reason, indeed attracted to Ferrell’s character. There was absolutely no reason for their attraction beyond he thinks she has a nice ass and she thinks he’s cute and admires how he can play jazz flute. I needed a lot more heat/connection to buy that a woman who worked that hard to climb the ranks of the newsroom would risk it all by sleeping with this guy, and that just wasn’t there for me.

Crazy, Stupid, Love
I started watching this because it had Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell in it. Sadly, it was just one big mess of dudes getting cuckolded by women and then hitting on women; much of the first thirty or forty minutes is Carell learning The Game playbook from Gosling. So you’ve got this romanticisation of these guys persuading women to sleep with them even when they, effectively, say no – she says no to a drink? Buy her one anyway. She says no to going home with you? Don’t take no for an answer. It was bullying. This was another movie where I felt the ultimate “point” wasn’t in favor of these tactics and the “message” would be love will conquer all, but it felt very pushy and degrading toward women, as if they didn’t know what they wanted and men were there to tell them; women who wanted a divorce, or didn’t go home with you, or didn’t want to go out with you, just needed to be persuaded otherwise. And this is both a totally wrong and incredibly destructive message. Women are, you know, grown women. We know what we want. And if we don’t, we’re not in a place where we should be in a relationship anyway. Probably would have made a better movie if it was just lots of slow pans of Ryan Gosling wandering around saving puppies.

Why Every Storyteller Should Be Watching Orphan Black

Warning: Contains mostly minor spoilers. If you haven’t watched at least to the first few episodes of the season of Orphan Black, stop reading now, go to Amazon Instant, and buy them. Done? Great, now can keep reading.

I love to rant about crap on the Internet. Here’s how this thing I loved fucked up. Here’s how it could be better. Here’s the whitewashing, the sexism, the bullshit. It’s like putting up a dartboard and throwing darts all day. Fun, for awhile, but then it gets tedious. By focusing so much on the shit, you tend to forget to recommend the exceptional stuff. It comes along so rarely that it’s often buried in shit.

It’s a very rare thing for me to recommend a work wholeheartedly, but today I’m going to do that with a little show put out by BBC America called Orphan Black.

Orphan Black is the story of Sarah Manning, a headstrong former foster kid who’s now in her mid twenties, bumbling back into town after nearly a year away. While waiting for her train connection, she sees a woman with her face commit suicide. Doing what this particular punk girl is good at, she assumes the woman’s identity and goes to her house to steal her stuff. Her terrible plan is to collect her five year old daughter from Sarah’s foster mother, who’s been serving as the child’s guardian while Sarah fucks up her life running around with drug dealers and pulling shady con jobs.

Sarah is pretty much the worst possible person to be the hero of this story.art

As Sarah takes over the life of her doppleganger, Beth, she finds herself slowly pulled into a deeper and deeper conspiracy. What was supposed to be a quick and easy con job gets complicated as she starts fucking her doppleganger’s boyfriend, finds out her doppleganger was a cop who shot a civilian, and discovers that her foster mom has no interest in giving her back her daughter.

Oh, and it turns out that doppleganger?

It’s not a doppleganger.

It’s her clone.

Sarah and Beth are clones, and there are a whole lot more of them, all involved in a tangled web of crazy as they try and uncover who created them, who’s killing them and what they should do next.

What makes this such great television isn’t just the exceptional job Tatiana Maslany, the woman who plays All the Clones does in acting with herself throughout the majority of the show. It’s also the exceptional writing, the dialogue, the storytelling, and the deeply sympathetic, diverse, and well-drawn characters. One of the writers shared a credit on the Canadian movie Cube, another good movie that did a lot with strong actors on a shoestring budget.

The show chooses absolutely the wrong sort of person to be its hero – a down-and-out con artist and sometime drug dealer with a young child she abandoned to her foster mother (abandoned!) and I had a really difficult time connecting with her in the first couple of episodes. How was I supposed to root for this selfish person? Yet, the deeper we went, the clearer it became that Sarah was, in fact, the perfect person to juggle the con artistry involved in pretending to be people she really wasn’t, and telling people the way things were going to be even when they threatened her and her loved ones with violence. There’s a real moment toward the end of the season where she absolutely shines, and I realized that what I loved about her was that she gives orders, she does not take them. Even if sometimes those orders seemed kind of nuts.

Sarah’s confidant is her foster brother Felix, a flamboyant drug-using/dealing artist type who is, by contrast, easy to fall in love with from his first scene. Sarah is also on the run from her abusive ex, Vic, a dude you love to hate and who’s seemingly generic “bad dude ex” character starts to get more teased out and interesting as the season goes on.

As Sarah lives life as Beth, we meet her cop partner Art and his colleague Angela. Then there’s Mrs. S., Sarah’s foster mother, who’s from the UK, as is Sarah herself.

Have I mentioned that only one of these characters I’ve mentioned yet is a straight, white, North American-born person? And yes, they are all amazingly well-drawn, lovable characters who you love to love or love to hate.

And that doesn’t even touch on the clones.

orphan-black-feature

Within a few episodes, you meet Sarah’s family of clones. My favorite family of clones! You’ve got an uptight crazy soccer mom, a spunky lesbian PhD student, a red-headed German with Answers, a loopy avenging angel raised in a convent, a patsy lawyer-business clone, and so many more, I’m sure.

What got me about the clone thing is that at no point do these people feel like clones. They are their own individual people, brought to life by Maslany’s incredible acting and smart dialogue. They’ve got their own foibles, verbal and physical tics, and habits. The most delightful scenes are when the clones are forced into situations where the actress has to act like soccer mom acting like Sarah, or acting like avenging angel acting like Beth. It’s some of the most nuanced and incredible acting I’ve ever witnessed (I even shouted at one point, “THAT’S NOT SARAH!” during one particularly harrowing scene). I had the thought that this is the show Joss Whedon actually wanted to pull off when he created Doll House. But he did it with far lazier storytelling skills and an actress without the ability to pull it off.

There is not a lazy character in this entire show.

As you can imagine, Wacky Clone Hijinks ensue as the clones try and figure out why Beth killed herself, who’s trying to kill them, and who made them.

And as they go down the rabbit hole, things get curiouser and curiouser.

orphanblack_24One of the things I’ve been paying more attention to in my own work in plotting. Where’s everyone at the beginning of the work, and how do they end up? As I watched the last few episodes of Orphan Black, I watched the writers neatly execute the plot arcs for multiple clones while teasing out season finale cliffhangers to keep us ready to read – I mean, watch – season two. Book two. Whatever.

People yak on all the time about how HARD it is to write good shows that don’t insult their heroines. You hear a lot about how the “only” actors perfect for a job were white ones, and how audiences aren’t going to sympathize with a gay character. That’s all bullshit, but this show demonstrates precisely why it’s all bullshit, because instead of perpetuating that bullshit, it simply tells a fucking, rip-roaring amazing story about real people you fall in love with. Instead of showing you the same four white hetero faces clumping through the same old narrative tropes, you get varied, interesting, passionate, messed up people who have to fight their way out of shark infested waters – whether or not they know how to swim.

It’s incredible storytelling, and it’s something we need far more of.

Burt Wonderstone and the Pitfalls of “Ironic” Misogyny

NOTE: some spoilers, sexual assault triggers

I went out last night to see the Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a cute little movie about a couple old-school buddy magicians dueling with Criss-Angel-stand-in Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) for fame and fortune.

It was all right. I’ve lost my patience with people who hate everything. It had some funny moments, and everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun. But there’s this thing about modern stories that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

There is one female character in the entire show. The only people of color are shown as starving people without food or clean water who live in some unnamed foreign village. What’s almost worst here is that the show realized it had one female character, so made obvious attempts to give her something outside of being a love interest or minor bling for someone else’s story, but sadly, just ended up making it even more glaringly obvious that no one considered her human. The the addition of brown people was so they could supply a dues-ex-machina plot device. They were there for the magic, silly. Oh goody.

Burt Wonderstone is a jaded Vegas magician working with his best friend Anton. Together, they do the same old hackneyed tricks they’ve always done. They’ve lost their love and awe of magic, the sort they had as kids. Burt goes out of his way to be an asshole. He’s mean to his friends, mean to his staff, and purposely demeans their magician’s assistant, Nicole, until she leaves in the middle of a performance. He then demands that they disrobe one of the techs and that she stand in as their showgirl for the rest of the show. The woman, Jane, is literally stripped down to her underwear, thrown the old showgirl’s wig, and tossed on stage, where Burt proceeds to hit on her in the most creepy way possible, even after her repeated “no”s.

He ends up taking an audience member to bed instead, whom he has sign a waver where she acknowledges that she in consenting to have sex with him, presumably because women have accused him of rape before, something not at all inconceivable based on his repeated harassment of Jane. Burt is an asshole rapist in the worst way, continually pursuing Jane throughout much the show, and belittling her talent even as he asks her for help after his show is cancelled at Bally’s and his finds himself broke. Even with her hero worship, I could not imagine her putting up with this.

Jane turns out to have literally a few tricks up her sleeve and demonstrates to Burt than she is a passable magician. She even offers to be his partner since he parted ways with Anton, but he refuses based purely on the fact that she’s a woman and women don’t do magic. Now, this is all done tongue-in-cheek. There is an assumption here that, we, the audience, are supposed to acknowledge that Burt is being an idiot dinosaur. But I just could not believe that somebody who was born in 1973 would so seriously and blatantly say the sorts of things that he said. But then, maybe I’m unfamiliar with Hollywood egos. I’ve heard people are pretty outspoken asssholes.

The-Incredible-Burt-Wonderstone_08

The trouble with this entire exchange was that movie conventions had me assuming that Jane was supposed to be Burt’s love interest. I was sitting stiff and uncomfortable through every scene these two people had together, and though I’ve certainly had an abusive boyfriend who coerced me into sex and did indeed speak about women in this way, I haven’t been violently sexually assaulted. I can only imagine what folks with more brutal attacks from these kinds of guys were feeling while watching this kind of set up.

It turns out that Burt and Jane don’t end up getting it on romantically, so there’s a thumbs up for common sense, but the threat was there the whole time, this expectation that I was supposed to feel sympathy for an asshole rapist because he really liked magic and was down on his luck. (NOTE: my partner tells me that they did, in fact, get it on when I got up to go to the bathroom. GAAAAAHHHHH. This is so incredibly fucked up in a show that says “don’t do violent magic because kids might copy you!” but then shows women hooking up with abusive men without a second thought)

Turns out that while down on his luck, he ends up entertaining at a nursing home, and meets his boyhood crush, a famous magician who, through a short montage, apparently teaches him to love magic again. After this montage, Burt also apologizes to Jane for his rude behaviour, and she quite literally forgives him for all of womankind that he’s insulted and assaulted, “On behalf of all the Nicoles, I forgive you.”

I suppose we’re supposed to assume it’s all water under bridge now, and sympathize with him now?

See, here’s the thing. I like asshole characters. I think they’re interesting. I write a lot of them. What squiks me out is this idea of the redemptive asshole. Like, the asshole mass murderer apologizes, finds Jesus, and we’re supposed to forget about and forgive everything that’s come before, even when there has been no real clear journey toward an epiphany. It was just like, “Hey, I’m poor now, so I learned my lesson. Forgive me and sleep with me!”

Anybody who’s been in an abusive relationship knows this cycle. The guy (usually a guy) does some horrible thing, then when you threaten to leave he weeps and apologizes and says he won’t do it again and he’s learned his lesson. You might have a good couple weeks after this, but then he does some other horrible thing, and the cycle repeats.

Eventually, Burt and Anton get back together, and with Jane’s help (always help, assistance, never actual “hey I came up with this idea!” just “yes I will help you execute that!”) come up with a pretty ridiculous deus ex machina of a trick that reminds us of why there were any starving brown people at all shown in the movie – to support the telling of somebody else’s story, of course.

I actually had to get up and leave the theater when they came up with this “plan” because I found it so annoyingly appropriating.

Now, I don’t want to hate all over this movie. Back in those wonderful pre-college days when I watched every movie pretending that I was a man and I was, indeed, being talked to and invited to participate as a man in men’s stories, I think this would have annoyed me a lot less. When you grow up telling yourself that you’re not a femme person like THOSE women, it’s easier to watch stories where women are relegated to the sidelines as mere supporters of boys. It’s easier to digest casual misogyny, because you think, well, they’re not talking about ME, but what I learned after going out into the big wide world is that, in fact, the world DID see me as a woman just like in the stories, and it treated me like one. Why? Because these are the stories we watch. Because these are the templates we use to tell people how to act toward one another. It’s how we prioritize stories.

So, you know, it’s a fun little movie about dueling magicians. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments. It was even co-written by John Francis Daley of Freaks and Geeks (and Bones) fame, but then, seeing the other problems that those associated with Apatow have with the portrayal of women and non-white people in their films, I shouldn’t be surprised at these huge blindspots.

You know, I think it was almost worse because this film did a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the audience so that they KNEW what they were doing with lines such as: “I said “no offense” before I told you women can’t be magicians, so you can’t take offense!” and “it turned out starving people wanted food and clean water, not magic.” It knew very well what it was doing. So it acknowledged it and then handwaved it anyway.

That was the worst. I may have preferred unexamined knee-jerk misogyny to intentional misogyny.  At least with unintentional misogyny and racism, you can say you didn’t realize what you did. But putting obvious dialogue flags in there just makes it worse. It’s like, “Yes, I know this is sexist, racist, and problematic and lazy, but I’m going to do it anyway! For laughs!”

The thing was, those were the least funny parts of the whole film, because they were tired. The best parts were between Burt and Anton and the other magicians. You know, all the boys-boys this film was actually about. It’s like, instead of putting in real characters to interact with them, they threw in this stereotypes instead, and it brought the whole movie down.

When you’ve dealt with abusive people, and when every movie you watch has some woman in it being raped or coerced into sex or sold into sex slavery or who’s “just” the wife or girlfriend of the “hero”, seeing it again in yet another movie is exhausting. Everybody says of their film or book or story, “It’s just this ONE story!” But it’s not. It’s this one story and the one before it. And after it. And the 50 before it. And the 100 before that.

As a reader, as a consumer, as a human with female sex parts, I am really tired of this kind of lazy storytelling that absolutely ruins films that could otherwise be pretty enjoyable. If your sexist, rapey protagonist has half your audience frozen up in their seats and excusing themselves to go to the bathroom so they don’t have to put up with what they put up with in real life in their escapist media as well, you’re doing something wrong. You’re a bad storyteller.

Full stop.

Dredd’s Sketchy Homage to a Dead Future

Note: Somewhat spoilery, but nothing you wouldn’t guess at if you read the comic.

Watching Dredd was like stepping into a time machine that took me back to the 80’s and the gloriously apocalyptic, overpopulated, crime-ridden society that the media of the time all insisted we were headed toward.

There are all sorts of theories about why this future never happened, including an uptick in policing and the legalization of abortion (yes, really), and it’s funny because when that future melted away, it was almost anti-climactic, like the falling of the Berlin Wall. Here we’d spent all this time dreading a communist takeover/nuclear winter here in the US and then one day all that hocus pocus freakytime scary future stuff was just… over. You just woke up one day and everything you’d been told about the world and where you were headed wasn’t true anymore.

So Dredd was a throwback to some earlier time, when the ravenous hordes of humanity and blasted apocalypse wasteland felt like a tangible thing. It’s fun.

But, admittedly –  it’s dated.

Dredd has some good stuff going for it, on the face of things. There’s the setting – the massive city blocks, the endemic crime, the wild west style judges. And then there’s the inclusion of Lena Headey as our Big Bad guy, a delightfully terrifying bad guy and perfect choice here (so few good female bad guys). Her facial scar is actually disfiguring, which is a nice change from the old “We’ll give the hot chick a nick on her cheek and talk about how ugly she is now a la the baddie from Red Sonja. But even Red Sonja baddie wasn’t nearly as scary as Lena Headey baddie, who totally had me shaking in my boots, and made me think that maybe seeing Nyx on the big screen someday isn’t too much of a stretch.

Lena Headey will fucking EAT YOU.

That isn’t to say this weird movie is all progressive when it comes to female characters. It had the annoying habit of focusing intently on the sexuality of its female heroines (if this was a not-weird thing, then we’d also have lots of nods to the sexuality of our male characters, too, and that just wasn’t there), so our scary baddie lady is, naturally, a former prostitute. And when we get to our psychic female Judge-in-training, well… well, of course she is blond, finds a hand-wave reason not to wear a helmet (ahaaahaaa And it’s even hand-waved in a pithy bit of dialogue that had me rolling), and is endlessly threatened with rape (and from a dark skinned man, no less).

For one glorious moment at the end of the film, I actually thought this movie might have passed the Bechdel test. The Head Judge is a woman (and not white, even!), and actually has a conversation with our judge-in-training that I thought might have qualified… until I realized that what the Head Judge asks her about is… Dredd. And when the judge-in-training meets up with Lena Headey Badass, they talk about… Dredd.

Oh dear.

I actually went into this appreciating the diversity of the cast and the great character actors in the background (it was filmed in South Africa, I found out later). But then I realized that though all of the background characters were mixed, all of the Judges featured in the film were white except for the Head Judge. It was a little odd. But, OK, we’ll handwave that because at least we’ve got Head Judge. And Ok, Bechdel test ::sigh:::

 

EAT YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is a pretty violent little film, and reminded me a lot of Robocop. It had that over-the-top, comic bookey violence – and also about half a dozen slow-motion scenes that got really, really old the third or fourth time they employ it.  Dredd was a failure of a film, for me, but it was, at least, an entertaining failure. All of the choppy scenes, and the ridiculous violence and over-the-top rapey crap and silly, useless psychic plot and all the rest are basically what happens when you try and directly translate a comic book to a film. All of that stuff that looks really cool in comic panels over several issues starts to look monotonous and over-the-top on film, especially when you’re trying to make an 80’s comic into a 2012 film.

At the end of the film, I realized that though I enjoyed individual parts (handwaving all the rapey bits and lack of explosive fight scene with Lena Headey at the end and mostly-white judges and the endless slow-mo scenes), the actual thing that bothered me the most was that I never connected with any of the characters. We got very little backstory or emotion from anybody, and the judge-in-training was just… so distant, and her “power” so ridiculously useless in practice (she reads minds right up until her captive jumps her. I really hoped this would be shown as a deliberate move on her part in order to infiltrate Bad Lady’s hive of evil, but it turns out she was just taken hostage through her own incompetence).

What the lack of emotion means is that nobody really has an arc. We’re told that psychic-judge-in-training was pushed through judge training, but I never got she really wanted to be a judge, so her non-interest in the position at the end didn’t feel like a progression. Maybe it’s Dredd who shows progression when he decides to “pass” her even though she didn’t follow orders to the letter, but even then… I dunno. I knew so little about Dredd to begin with that I wasn’t so sure this was a huge leap for him. I didn’t feel like I got to know these people, so had very little interest in their outcome. Dredd is simply a throwback to an earlier time, and is very evocative of the comics. Life for women is generally pretty rapey and all men are emotionless, badass Snake Pliskins (this movie reminded me a lot of the issues and set pieces of another 80’s comic, V for Vendetta, actually).

Do I even need to caption this?

I give this one some points for Lena Headey (why did she have to be a former prostitute, though??) and the casting of the Head Judge, but basically it was just foisting an already problematic comic book into another format, without any thought as to how it could be reinterpreted or imagined.

Sometimes I think our obsession with being faithful to source material is actually really misguided. Reboots are the fan fiction of film – in order to stay relevant, it’s important that we encourage and allow our stories to be remixed and reimagined, or they all come out feeling a bit like Dredd – some kind of clumsy, cliche-ridden homage to a dead future.

 

 

Argo, and the Inconvenient Truth of Sahar

Spoilers: The hostages get away! The boat sinks! Etc.

When I saw the first trailer for Argo, I guffawed at the implausibility of the entire movie. CIA creates SF movie ruse to smuggle people out of Iran? Whatever, Hollywood. I figured it was just a good excuse for the media to fuel itself up for war with Iran (because we don’t have enough wars! And oh, those wacky Arab countries!).

It wasn’t until I looked this up on Wikipedia and saw that it was based on a true story that I realized I had to see the film. The sheer audacity of the idea knocked the breath out of me. How had I missed this story in all my reading about Iran? When I found out it’d only been declassified in the 90’s, I felt a little better about my ignorance, but only just. I still expected this to be a bit of a propaganda film, full of crazy evil terrorists and noble Americas. But SF film to smuggle out hostages! That was an epic plot, right there, and I had to see how it played out.

In fact, I didn’t realize just how much I expected evil-Arab-terrorists until I actually sat down in the theater and realized my whole body was taut and I was clasping my hands tightly, prepared to get through it with some nasty teeth gnashing over the pollution of historic events. There was a reason the Iranian revolution happened. Iranians had every right to be pissed off – we helped out a democratically elected representative and put a fucking tyrant in his place. If Iran had supported the overthrowing of our democratically elected leader, we’d be pretty pissed off at them, too.

But Argo wasn’t going to sugar coat why exactly these Americans were in this situation. The opening of the film set out explicitly why the Iranian people were so angry, and gave a good 50 year history of the events leading up to the storming of the embassy. I was incredibly shocked they did this. I wish I could say it didn’t shock me, but Hollywood can be so saccharin that I was prepared for the “oh those crazy Arab people” handwave.

Now, let’s not pretend this film doesn’t have Issues. Our primary characters are all men, and we focus heavily on the arcs for the men’s stories – Mendez’s wife doesn’t even get any lines- and Sahar, oh Sahar! Sahar about broke my heart. And though Iranians are presented as real people with real grievances, things fall apart there toward the end and we get these crazy foolish terrorist stand-ins waving guns and chasing planes (in actual fact, the embassy workers simply walked onto the plane, without all the Hollywood shenanigans at the end. But, yanno, Hollywood needs its suspense. The Arab-terrorists-chasing-planes-waving-guns thing was over the top even for them, tho).

 

Sahar makes a choice. For all the good it does her.

But this film knew what it was about, and had a good handle on the complexity of the situation. It doesn’t hurt that it was extraordinarily well-written – sometimes I forget Ben Affleck co-wrote an Academy-winning screenplay. The dialogue was punchy and witty, and again, the sheer craziness of this plan was so crazy that I could almost buy that it worked (I know, I know! It really *did* work! But holy crap, crazy). Affleck also brought a certain sadness and melancholy to this role that I’ve never seen him display. I usually can’t stand him because he comes across as some stupid jock, but I bought him in this role. Like others, I was also disappointed that a Hispanic actor didn’t play the part of an actual Hispanic historical figure. If we had a Hispanic guy play, say, Lincoln, can you imagine the shitstorm people would raise? Oh, whitewashing.

There was lots to appreciate in this film, though. I enjoyed how it handled the ineptitude of the CIA. “We’re going to deliver them some bicycles and have them bike out of Iran!” (this was a real plan presented at this meeting, in real life as well as this fictionalized version). It reminded me that our respective governments are full of overwhelmed, exhausted, and sometimes deeply stupid people who dig themselves and their people into deep holes without thinking about how the hell they’ll get them out. I know a few folks whose parents lived in Iran before the revolution, and mapping their experiences onto the ones presented in the film was interesting. I think it captured a lot of the fear and chaos at the time – and importantly, not just the fear and chaos for Americans, but for the Iranians themselves. Iranians who had to deal with the fallout. Foreigners could leave. But if you were Iranian, well… good luck.

Nothing illustrated this better than Sahar, the housekeeper for the Canadian ambassador, who was the only Iranian we got to know at all. When she keeps the secret of the ambassador’s houseguests despite very good reasons to give them up, I thought for sure she was going to get handed a passport and sent to Canada and safety. That would make sense, right? Exile sucks, but you’d help out people who helped you, right?

But Sahar does not get to Canada. Sahar ends the movie heading into Iraq. And if you know anything about history, you know that Iraq and Iran are about to enter a hellish bloody war – a war funded on both sides by the U.S. of A. I do not expect that Sahar’s life got infinitely better because she kept her secret and supported Americans. She just got thrown from one shitty situation created by American foreign policy into yet another shitty situation perpetuated by American foreign policy. I have a vivid memory of a relative of mine telling me nonchalantly that they were among the crews that carted weapons over to both Iraq and Iran during the war. They said it was treated as routine on both ends – both by the people who gave them the orders and by the Iranians and Iraqis who signed for the weapons on the other end.

Bikes! We’ll send them bikes! Your gov at work, kids.

Why does everyone hate Americans? Gee, I wonder. I’ve talked before about how the Iran/Iraq war was some of the inspiration for the conflict in God’s War, and it was that story of my relative’s nonchalant gunrunning that made me realize that wars could be perpetuated almost indefiniately by outsiders, and that this was actually a very common occurence.

So at the end of Argo, when everything else is neatly wrapped up, we still had this image of Sahar fleeing into Iraq, this knowledge of a loose thread, a life undone. And though I lamented this loose thread, I realized it was a purposeful one. Because while all of the hostages are eventually brought home, and yay rah-rah America, there’s Sahar still out there, displaced, walking into a war that will be perpetuated by the very people she chose to shelter.

At the end of the viewing I went to, the audience burst into a loud round of applause. Here was the heroic story American needed right now, and I felt it too – the idea that America was, in fact, still heroic and clever, even if it had to be heroic and clever because it was stupid and invasive in the first place. And it made me think about Carter, and how everybody hated him as a president because he didn’t go to war with Iran. They were angry and upset even though this was the guy who somehow – against all odds – managed to get everyone home safely (Iran-Contra was done under Reagan’s watch, not Carter’s). In fact, after getting that opening about the history of the U.S.’s involvement in Iranian politics, I remained even more astounded that anyone came home at all.

But those applause made me wonder how many people would actually remember Sahar. Did they remember the opening, and why these people were in trouble in the first place? Did they go out thinking, “Man, America should stop doing stupid things so it doesn’t have to create crazy mad movie plots to rescue people”? Like, isn’t it weird that the CIA first trained Osama bin Laden and so it’s maybe not so heroic when, later, they take him out, since they sort of helped make him in the first place?

Likely, they did not. Likely, most folks went home gleefully saying, “Argo fuck yourself!” and feeling good-hearted about all the heroic missions America’s accomplished that we don’t know about. And I won’t lie, that stuff was gleeful for me too. I loved every bit of the Hollywood scenes, of the make-believe, of the sheer audacity of the plan.

But the film itself, I felt, didn’t blindly encourage that rah-rah feeling. The theater of the make-believe film and the theater of the demonstrations and hostage situation are juxtaposed in one very effective scene, and it left me gnawing on a lot more questions than answers. It made me wonder if anything we do makes any sense at all, or if we’re just all caught in this endless cycle of reactionary craziness, acts of heroism – like the storming of the embassy (certainly viewed as heroic by some in Iran, cause hey, these people supported a guy who killed and tortured your family) and the rescue of the hostages – both reactionary, both nuts. There are no easy answers. One country’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. It just depends on what side of history you’re sitting on. And in fact, it’s often our own actions that determine who takes up arms and who doesn’t. All those left on the other side of events can do is react to the mess that’s left behind.

That night, lying in bed, it was still Sahar and her shattered life I thought about, though. Not terrorists or freedom fighters – not who was intrinsically “right” or “wrong,” but the people who had to get up and go on and live in the aftermath of events, of the mess left behind after countries rattle their bloody chessboards.

I hope I wasn’t the only one.