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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.

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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.

Looper: On What Makes a Hero

 

Note: Post contains ALL THE SPOILERS for this film.

The shift to gritty fantasy over the last couple decades has been a long time coming. I’d argue that those of us who grew up watching heroes like Snake Pliskin and Mad Max and Ellen Ripley but reading about smarmy do-good boys with birthmarks and wilting heroines were inspired to spice up the old tropes with a bit of grimdark ourselves mainly because we’d watched too many 80’s movies and wanted our novels to look more like our films.

But for me, it’s also much more than that. See, I started to figure out that the myth of the hero I’d been fed wasn’t actually as do-good nice guy as I always thought it was. Old-school heroes are the self-sacrificing types, the ones unafraid to lay down their lives for a better world. But I started to notice that we saw fewer and fewer of those. Instead, what we saw was the rise of the “nice guy” hero – the guy who, on the face of it, does something heroic, but he does it to win something (and yes, it’s generally always a guy) – to get the girl, or achieve fame among his peers, or win a lot of money, or a great job. And, often, to simply “be a hero.” Guys were expected to do these heroic things not so much because they were right and just and best for the world, but because people would see them as heroic. It was for the recognition and fame, not because it was intrinsically right.

I would argue that there’s a huge difference between doing something because it’s right and doing something because it’s what people expect of you. Heroic people do things because they’re right, not because somebody is watching. Not because it’s what their parents or peers or anybody else would expect.

I tend to identify with non-heroic people pretty strongly. My moral compass is absolutely determined by who’s watching, and I’ll be the first to admit that. Maybe it’s why I’m so obsessed with the idea of heroes, and how to be heroic, and what it means to do the right thing even when you’d rather be a selfish jerk. It’s something I constantly battle with. I was raised to be an absolutely selfish person, and though that has safeguarded me somewhat in a world that values selfishness, in order to have relationships with actual humans I had to take a hard look at how much harm my selfishness was doing to the world in relation to the actual benefit it was supposedly giving me.

Looper is a film about a selfish jerk whose greatest opponent is, literally, himself. There are all sorts of smart things about this movie, and moderately fresh things, like setting a film about time travel in our future instead of our present. The opening hook of the film – 30 years from the movie’s present day (about 30 years from our present) time travel is invented, and since bodies are so difficult to dispose of in the future of our future, people are sent back to the past to be killed by young men called Loopers (yes, all men. ::sigh::). They’re neatly murdered with blunderbusses, which we’re told early on have a killing range of only about 15 yards. This becomes important later.

In fact, pretty much every detail you’re given up front becomes important later. There’s not a wasted beat. The writer in me was jumping up and down the whole time in glee at the experience of watching a smartly-written film

The twist here is that because what the Loopers do is kill people, which is a crime, at some point in the future they’re also going to be sent back and killed. As a sort of grim reward, they’re assigned to be killed by themselves, at which point they receive a big pay day and retire at 25 with a bunch of money – knowing they only have about 30 more years to live, and knowing exactly when and how they’ll die… at their own hand. This is called “closing your loop.”

People always want to talk about the Time Travel when they talk about Looper, but as somebody who writes hand-wavey fiction myself, I’ll tell you now that the logistics of that didn’t interest me all that much. Which is why I appreciated the throw away, “I’m not going to sit here and explain time travel to you” line that Bruce Willis delivers in the film (I laughed out loud at this).

Instead, what I’m really interested in here is the deconstruction/construction of the Hero that Looper plays with.

When we meet our Young Hero, he’s initially faced with a very tricky dilemma. One of his Looper friends has been tasked with killing his future self, but instead of killing him, he let him go. Our Young Hero initially agrees to hide him, and stows his friend away in his floor safe with the stash of silver bars he’s received from his killing work.

But when his boss confronts our Young Hero and asks him to give up his friend in return for keeping whatever’s in his safe… our Young Hero gives up his friend.

The friend isn’t killed, but is horribly, horribly maimed and mutilated in a very inventive and awesome way.

It’s this giving up of his buddy that’s really important here, because it shows the priorities of this particular Hero – life is about looking out for yourself, about money and power. There’s a scene, later, when he offers his favorite prostitute a bunch of money, and she steadfastly refuses it – “Money comes with strings,” she tells him, “and expectations.” She knows he’s not being altruistic. She knows he’s out for something, to buy something, to own something, and she refuses to be owned (though I was annoyed about having a prostitute in the movie, she was a real, clever person here, and I appreciated that – her eyeing the clock was also a nice touch).

We get two versions of the Hero finally confronting his older self – the one where his future self gets away, and the one where his young self kills his old self (because of course you can’t have the first future without the second). In the version where the Young Hero does kill the Old Hero we get the Life Montage, where we see our Hero being his anti-Hero self, acting as a hired gun in China, killing folks, doing drugs, and just generally fucking his life away as his 30 year clock ticks down.

Until he meets a Very Special Lady, of course.

Special Lady Saves him, and they live happily for two whole years while she cleans up his sorry ass. I rolled my eyes at this cliché. I mean, why would she want to be with this guy? She doesn’t even have any speaking lines in the whole movie! And then, of course, she dies horribly, murdered by the people who’ve come to scuttle off the Old Hero back to the Young Hero to get killed.

What the hell, women in refrigerators? I sat on my hands a bit during this one, annoyed but impressed enough with the writing thus far in the film to keep going. Surely this was going somewhere?

It was.

One of my favorite Jeff VanderMeer books is Veniss Underground. What I loved about this book is that there’s this Hero who chooses to go on this epic horrific crazy quest to save the woman he loves – knowing that she does not love him, and he will not “get” her. He knows there is no reward for him at the end. He will not win her love and affection. He just does it because he loves her, and because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t.

Our Old Hero, upon nearly escaping from his death sentence and being forced to go back in time and get shot by Young Hero, decides he will Save his Love from her horrible death by going back in time and destroying the guy who runs the organization that came after him and killed her. So he hops in the time machine anyway, and is confronted with Young Hero.

Young Hero, this time, fumbles, and Old Hero gets away to wreck revenge on his enemies and Save His Lady.

This is the yawn-worthy stuff, here. You know the tired old saw – I’m doing this to revenge my wife and children! This dead lady in the refrigerator will be avenged, damn you! It’s really all about her!

I’ve always been annoyed with the dead women in the refrigerator thing because it was so effing lazy. It’s like people were only putting women into the story to support the men’s stories, and they always had to die horribly. What I didn’t realize, until this movie laid it out explicitly, is the other big reason this is a problematic thing to use to drive your hero….

… avenging dead women in refrigerators isn’t actually heroic.

Old Hero confronts Young Hero to explain that he must kill the head of this organization now, while the man or woman is still a child, in order to prevent his True Love from dying.

Young Hero demands to see the photo of the woman. “You can save her right now,” Young Hero says. “Just show me her picture and when I see her in the future I’ll head the other direction.”

The look Old Hero Bruce Willis delivers here to Young Hero is the reason he’s Bruce Willis. It’s this half-outraged, half-hurt look, and he cups the image of the woman in his hands, instinctively shielding her image from his younger self. “This woman saves you,” he said. “You don’t deserve it. But she’s the one bright, great thing in your life. She saves you.”

“And you can save her,” Young Hero says. “Just show me her picture.”

Dear reader, let me tell you:

He doesn’t show his younger self the photo.

Western civilization in particular has a long history of viewing women and children as men’s property. When you wanted to dishonor a man, you assaulted his property. You murdered and/or abused and/or enslaved his wife and children. And that’s till true today to a large extent. Men are still judged by the beauty and fidelity of their wives, and if they can’t “keep them safe” they’re seen as somehow lesser men. The classic revenge narrative that has led to the women in refrigerators trope is positioned as a heroic narrative, as a man redeeming the memory of his dead family.

But this moment, this moment right here when Old Hero selfishly withholds the photo of his dead wife, exposes that lie for what it is. The revenge narrative is not about women and dead children at all. It’s about a man redeeming his honor and sense of self-worth. This is why the old revenge narrative isn’t heroic in the least. It has nothing to do with helping others or saving the world. The revenge narrative is a story of a man’s redemption built on the bodies of women and children.

By ensuring his wife’s safety by simply handing over her photo instead of killing the people who killed her, Old Hero is also neatly erasing her from his life. It means she will never meet him, and save him, and love him. He must give up her love in order to save her.

It’s a heroic thing, an actual heroic thing, to give up someone you love… but as we’ve seen when he gave up his friend for a few bars of silver, this is not a heroic guy.

So instead of being a real, selfless hero, Old Hero keeps the photo to himself and runs off to hunt down the three 5-year-old kids who share the birthday and birthplace of the person who destroyed his life. He chooses to kill more people to solve a killing (and killing children, of all people!).

Killing to end more killing never ends well.

Young Hero runs after him in an attempt to kill him and wrest back control of his life, and in the course of events we encounter a woman living at the edge of a cornfield, trying to protect her 5-year-old son from the evils of the world with a shotgun and some tough talk.

 

It’s obvious from the get-go that her son is the person that Old Hero is looking for.

I was initially less than impressed with our shotgun wielding heroine, (who, it turns out, isn’t as bloodthirsty as we first thought) until I actually started writing this post and re-evaluated her own journey. We find out that she was a party girl, doing drugs and hanging out with her friends in the city and living, you know, the carefree irresponsible life that one leads in one’s 20’s. When she got pregnant, she dumped off her kid with her sister and went back to partying.

When her sister died, she let go of her partying ways and mustered up the gumption to care for her son – just the two of them, all alone in a big house in a cornfield. And, well, her son isn’t exactly the easiest 5-year-old to care for, either. It involved a lot of self-sacrifice.

What I realized is that what she decided to do – give up her carefree life to care for someone else (who, as we learn, is actually also an incredibly dangerous person)– was, in fact, rather heroic. In my perfect Kameron-land, I’d have given her a daughter instead of a son, which would have fixed some of the borderline clichéd roles given to women throughout, but let’s take it for what it is: She decides to care for someone else, after a long adolescence. And though that’s often seen as a cliché in the realm of female characters, I can see the parallels here that the writer may have been driving for.

So B- for effort.

The Young Hero ends up connecting with the woman and her son, and begins to have a more vested interest in keeping them alive than just, “My old self wants them dead.” He admits to the boy that his own mother, like the boy’s, was a selfish drug addict. But unlike this boy’s mom, his own sold him off to some street gangs, starting him onto this bloody life path. He was abandoned by selfish people, and has become a selfish person.

There are some fights, and an amazingly beautiful reveal about why the kid ends up being an organized crime leader in the future (and the image of the little kid crouching in the cornfield, covered in blood and looking miserable, is just… wonderful), and eventually we come to our showdown between Old Hero and Young Hero, which, if you’ve been paying attention, is actually a war between Selfish Anti-Hero/Adolescent and Selfless Heroic Adult.

Old Hero has his killing shot to destroy the kid. He takes it – but Heroic mom steps in front of the bullet, and saves her son.

Young Hero knows, then. This is the Loop. This is how it goes.

Heroic mom takes the bullet. Kid gets away. Angry, abandoned kid becomes crime lord. Old Hero’s wife still dies. Mom dies. Little kids Old Hero has *already* killed still die. And then… all the Loopers die, because the kid grows up to be a crime lord who hates Loopers. And all the other people this little kid kills in the future because he’s angry and abandoned also die.

It’s one big loop. One circle of death and revenge and destruction that serves no one, and destroys everyone.

But Young Hero only has his blunderbuss, which is no good at hitting anything more than 15 yards away, remember? And Old Hero is more than 15 yards away.

But there is only one way to close the loop.

The ending to this film was so perfectly perfect that I wanted to cheer at the end. And I realized, afterward, that it was because of this:

Sometimes the “heroes” in the story aren’t actually the “good” guys. Those revenge stories we hold up as being heroic? Those blustering, murdering heroes who destroy the bad guys who’ve murdered their wives and children?

They aren’t heroes. They’re meeting violence with violence.

They aren’t solving the problem.

They are the problem.

When Young Hero closes the loop by killing himself, he acknowledges the lie of those revenge stories. He’s no longer the same Young Hero who becomes Old Hero – the guy who gave up his friend to be tortured and mutilated in return for a few bars of silver. Instead, he’s the guy who realizes that to save everything, he has to sacrifice himself. He has to give something up, cut something away.

He has to grow up.

So, instead of Heroic mom taking the bullet, Young Hero takes the bullet, thus ending all the death and misery and destruction wrought by his own Future self.

The woman he loved in the future? Saved. The mom? Didn’t have to sacrifice herself. The kid? Saved from a life of crime (presumably). The loopers? Well, we’ll see. And the future? Well, who knows?

All of the loopers eventually close their loop. This one just did it in the way most beneficial to everyone. And he got nothing for it. No monuments. No love. No glory.

Now, astute folks will point out that we’ve saved the lives of many by killing one, and isn’t that effed up, because hey, we shouldn’t be killing people at all. And I’d say, yeah, sure, but how many American heroes do we see trot off to their deaths without “winning” something first or being promised something? How many sacrifice their lives without an audience to witness it? And how many sacrifice their lives without taking anyone else with them in that death?

In the U.S. these days, we have a wildly extended adolescence. It wasn’t until I started spending time with my nephew that I realized just how incredibly selfish we all are from the get-go. Compassion and cooperation, sharing and selflessness are things that must be taught, and these days, they are things we hang onto for an incredibly long time. We celebrate them. We celebrate the self, and getting everything we want at the expense of others. We crush people. Not our enemies, not bad guys, but just… people. And we do it for no better reason than to do otherwise is seen as weak.

Looper, for me, was an old-school hero’s journey about how you grow up (or don’t). You can choose to live like a selfish bastard your whole life, and watch the world burn around you (and take it, burning, with you to the grave), or you can make smarter, less selfish choices, and save a whole lot of people in the process. No, that choice is certainly not always killing yourself for goodness sake (it’s a METAPHOR, people), but when you’re faced with perpetuating violence and selfishness or making the smarter, more diplomatic choice… well.

The selfless, diplomatic choice is far more often the heroic choice.

Going down, guns blazing at your foes, is more often the selfish one.