Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorites From 2011

It seems like every New Year's I find myself reflecting on the more grueling aspects of the past twelve months and looking forward with a cautious hope that the next twelve will take a sharp upturn.  This proves more about my disposition than the events of the average year, but even in the midst of everything as it was happening I was aware that by and large, 2011 has been a particularly crappy year for me and most of the people I know.  There have been some good things, of course, and my classes and education have been a large part of that.  Even as much as I will be more than happy to see the end of this particular year, there's a part of me that remembers all the past years I've said the same thing (including the end of 2010) only to have the following year be worse than the previous one in pretty monumental ways.  Still, nothing lasts forever, including the disappointments, embarrassments, failures and personal tragedies, so one of these years my oath to have a better year will finally come to fruition.  That's the thing about this holiday; it's all about optimism and hoping that the big wheel you're on will swing around again and give you a break from the mire you've been working so hard to slog through.  So here's hoping that 2012 turns out to be a little kinder than its predecessor was.  Or if nothing else, that it'll still give us some great moments in the midst of it all.

In the meantime, I'd like to close out this year remembering my favorite movies and shows from the past go around the sun.  Not necessarily the best or most innovative things, just my favorites, for whatever reason.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Halfway Out of the Dark

The holiday season is once more upon us, prompting much retrospective contemplation over the events and the media from the past year.  Once again I feel ill-equipped to provide any sort of educated list of the best movies that have come out as there are so many people providing them that have had much more opportunity to see a great variety.  The majority of the things I've seen have been through classes or my Netflix account so I'm pretty out of the loop in terms of what's current.  Instead I've decided to brush off a few of my favorite old chestnuts and take a look at a few things I'm looking forward to seeing in the coming year.  (Hopefully I'll see them, at any rate.  I still haven't seen many of the films on my "looking forward to it" list from the last time I did this exercise.)

First off, it just wouldn't be the holiday season if I weren't nose-deep in Christopher Moore's hilariously blasphemous novel The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.  Having read nearly all of Moore's writing (save for his last few books I've been too buried under school work to get to), this one shot to the top of my favorites for two reasons: it's one of his funniest and it's a giant crossover.  I love crossovers to the pit of my sickly fangirl heart and this is a doozy.  Taking place in Pine Cove, CA it combines at least one character from nearly every book he'd written up until that point, save for a few that just wouldn't fit in.  It stands well enough on its own legs, providing enough back story for everyone so new readers wouldn't be too lost without bogging things down for the people already familiar with them.  It's the one book I go out of my way to re-read every year-- eggnog just doesn't taste the same unless I'm reading about a broadsword-slinging former B-movie actress, her stoner constable husband, an angel who wants to be Spider-Man, a pilot with a talking fruit bat, and a group of zombies obsessed with DIY Swedish furniture.  Like everything Moore writes, there's a biting ribbon of dark humor underlying the surface-level silliness-- there's considerably more homicide, cover-up, blackmail, mental illness, recreational drug use, middle-aged romance and zombie attacks than your traditional Christmas story-- so it's more like an interesting cross between black comedy and broad slapstick.  If it sounds like your cup of tea, I'd highly recommend picking a copy up if your shopping takes you anywhere near a bookstore.

There also seems to be talk of a movie adaptation in the works which might be interesting provided they can get that pesky tone right.  According to Movie Insider the cast includes Milla Jovovich, Crispin Glover and Cloris Leachman so it sounds like they're on the right track.  (Personally I think Alex Skarsgard would have made a pretty good Archangel Raziel since he's tall, blond, ridiculously gorgeous and able to do mind-bendingly stupid and uncomfortably inhuman with a straight face.  But that's just me.)

The Doctor Who Christmas Special from 2010 is a recent but most likely permanent addition to my annual tradition.  The title of this blog entry is taken from the opening and closing narration of Michael Gambon in this very cleverly self-conscious retelling of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, only in addition to the familiar bah-humbugging miser learning how to not be miserable it also features time travel, a crashing spaceship, a frozen opera singer, the most sympathetic celluloid shark possibly ever, and a very cool bow tie.  Setting aside my ardent adoration for anything that shows a shark to be anything other than evil or terrifying, this is still a really smart, witty, funny, touching production that I cannot recommend highly enough.  But seriously, sharks and time travel, come on.

The Hudsucker Proxy isn't one of the Coens' more highly praised movies but it's definitely one of my favorites.  It's a tip of the hat to Frank Capra and the screwball comedies of the 30s, featuring some beautiful cinematography, a snappy script and some fantastic performances from Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman.  Also keep an eye out for John Mahoney, Bruce Campbell, Peter Gallagher and the late Anna Nicole Smith.  Considering the economic climate over the past few years, maybe a good laugh at the antics of big corporations shooting themselves in the foot is something everyone could use.  I've seen this movie too many times to count over the years and it never ceases to be fun.  It's also currently streaming on Netflix, so if you have an account check it out.

Tokyo Godfathers, along with anything else the late (and still sorely missed) Satoshi Kon ever did, has been written about several times on this blog already, but it's still very much a holiday tradition for me to pop this in the DVD player at least once a December.  Not many holiday movies-- or non-holiday movies, for that matter-- feature three homeless people in a dysfunctional surrogate family as the three protagonists and as funny as this movie is it also doesn't pull its punches when it comes to showing some of the harsher realities of being homeless and of life in general.  As grim as the reality can be, this is a film that is unflinchingly optimistic, at times even over the top in terms of the sheer number of coincidences that occur on this quixotic quest to return an abandoned baby to her mother.  It's heartwarming without being cloying or too treacly which can be nice this time of year.

Moving past the nagging certainty that I've left something important off this list, it's time to look ahead to the movies I'm anticipating in the coming year.  Not all of them, of course, just the ones that have trailers up.  Some of them are already out but I haven't seen them yet, so on the list they go.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why Can't I Read Jane Austen?

Two years ago I bought a copy of Pride and Prejudice-- the novel-- with the full intent to get over my inability to read Jane Austen's writing. I'd just finished watching some PBS miniseries adaptation of Emma and had found it so charming and delightful that I had to give her writing another chance.

Now bear in mind here that I'm not writing this as someone who doesn't like reading or classic literature or even old prose. I've been an avid reader my entire life, who voluntarily picked up some Shakespeare when I was twelve and never stopped reading it, who burned through The Iliad and The Odyssey in three days apiece in college (and have been itching to do an adaptation of the latter ever since), and who counts e e cummings as her favorite poet in the whole world, followed closely by good ol' Edgar Allan Poe. Old writing doesn't bore me, heightened prose is like music in my brain, and subtext is one of my most favorite things in the entire world.

So why can't I get past the prologue in this book?

It isn't the story or the characters, since I'm still stuck on page five after two years. No, it's the language. I can't get past the language it's written in and it isn't that it's too old or stuffy or full of subtext and subtlety, it's the simple aesthetics of the words in my head. I have the same problem with most writing from the nineteenth century and I'm not enough of a writer or a linguist to put my finger on what it is. Maybe it's the amount of lingering detail over what I consider to be passing background images-- I love well-described scenery as much as the next person but Nathaniel Hawthorne's pages-long descriptions of the shrubbery Young Goodman Brown is passing on his way through the forest on the way to the whole point of the story make me want to gnaw off my own arm. Maybe that's an unfair characterization of the story, since I only read it once in my early twenties. It's what I remember of it, though, and with The Scarlet Letter, which I couldn't finish despite having checked it out to read of my own volition. There is something in the aesthetics of the language used in English and American literature from this time frame that turns me off completely from stories I would otherwise enjoy very much, which is a source of considerable frustration.

And ten minutes later, blah.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to use this as an excuse for why I'll just content myself with TV and movie adaptations of these stories. Far too often I've found myself on the opposite end of the argument, defending something I love from someone who isn't turned off by the story or the message but by the surface level aesthetics of it. Eiichiro Oda's manga series One Piece was the only bit of Japanese pop culture I payed any attention for nearly a decade, and did so with the kind of joy and adoration that comes along once in a blue moon. I'd go on and on to my friends about everything that I found so amazing about it, the things that moved me and why that series is pretty much the Japanese equivalent of (pre-prequel) Star Wars here or Doctor Who in the UK. Some would give it a try, but most of them couldn't get past the art. Oda's brilliant, unique, quirky art was one of the initial selling points for me because it was so different from anything I'd seen out of Japan. His character designs were and still are some of the most inventive, creative, and out of the ordinary that I've seen; it's part of what attracted me to the series. To many other people, the art is what keeps them from embracing it. This has bothered me considerably over the years, since the story and characters are so wonderful it always seemed a shame to miss out on them simply because of an issue with how "not pretty" the art is. I'd find myself wanting to tell them to just get over it and adjust their aesthetics to something less conventional, but then my thoughts would drift back to that copy of Emma I was unable to finish in high school and I felt too hypocritical to say anything.

This, to me, IS pretty.

Granted, we all have things that don't appeal to us for one reason or another and who's to decide what reasons are more valid than others? "It's not pretty enough" versus "I don't like how she writes" boil down to the same essential argument when you get down to it, and maybe that's why it bothers me so much. I don't understand why it is I don't like it, I just know that I don't. I went through the same thing with movies for years and being unable to articulate why I did or didn't like something bothered me tremendously. Learning about film and how to read it helped me learn to appreciate the entire medium more because I started to understand how deeply it can affect us and how complex it is. I may never enjoy Jane Austen's prose, just like some people might never enjoy the art of Picasso or any movie made before 1989, but that doesn't mean I can't still try to appreciate what other people see in it or what the artists in question were attempting to do. Some of my now favorite things were things I once despised as a kid; pepper, baked salmon, pink and orange together, black and white movies, subtitles, the ornateness of traditional Asian art, tea without sugar, and so on. Over time, with curiosity and sometimes even with effort, I adapted to the idea of them and learned to appreciate them in new and more complex ways. Hopefully one day I'll be able to look back and shake my head in sad wonder that I was unable to appreciate her style for so long. Who knows, by then I might have developed an appreciation for mayonnaise and/or tofu by then, too. You never know.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween Already?

It's that time of year again, when we turn our thoughts to the macabre and spooky, dress up as the things that frighten us, and carve images into large gourds. Horror movies come out of the woodwork, even though they tend to be a constant trend these days. As always, some are bad, some are good, and some are so bad they're good if you're into that sort of thing. Here are some of my favorites that linger at the back of my mind long after the credits have stopped. Not all are supernatural or fantastical in some way; most are about the real life sorts of monsters since those scare me more than the boogeymen tend to. They aren't really fun “party” movies, more the curl up on the couch with a blanket and all the lights off sort. Some are truly horrifying, but it's the poignant melancholy and underlying exploration of human nature that keep me coming back to them. Horror isn't about gore or a momentary startle, per se, that's just momentary viscera. Horror at its core is what the name implies: the things that horrify us. So here's mine.

Joon Ho Bong is one of my favorite directors working today; he also directed The Host and Mother but this is, in my opinion, his best movie to date. Memories of Murder is based around the first actual recorded serial murders in South Korea, events from the mid-80s. The film's atmosphere swings from actually comical in the beginning, when the small-town police force is dealing with something so far beyond their training that they can't even see what's going on. It's often funny but in a sad, uncomfortable way as they fake evidence, torture suspects for confessions, and generally blunder around in such ineptitude you can't help but laugh at the tragedy of it all. They honestly, earnestly think they know what they're doing. It isn't until a cop from Seoul joins the investigation that they make headway, inevitably along with clashing egos and territoriality, but even then it isn't enough. No matter how much they figure out, there are bigger issues at work than their small-town murders. The conflict with North Korea is playing havoc with the resources they need, more and more women are turning up not just dead but mutilated, and the cops begin to realize how deep in over their heads they are. The ugliness of the killer's hatred for his victims is evident in the increasingly upsetting things he does to them. Upsetting in part because we know he doesn't hate them for who they are but simply what they are. We need to believe there are answers just as desperately as the cops do, but there's no way we can be sure of any of it. How many leads were real and how many are we clinging to simply because we so desperately want to believe them?

Le Boucher is probably Claude Chabrol's most well-known film and it lives up to its reputation. Chabrol is often cited as the French Hitchcock and it's clear the two filmmakers influenced each other, as they both play in the same arenas using many similar techniques and comparable levels of skill. They both made movies that are about much more than whatever the plot is and this film is absolutely no exception. It is a murder mystery, a romance, and a fascinating waltz with the dark sides of our own psyches that repel and attract us. The mystery is not what you think it is, and if you go into it expecting a who-done-it, you will be disappointed. That isn't what's going on here at all. We know who did it, we even know why; the mystery is not with the killer at all. Watch it very carefully, especially Stephane Audran as Helene because that knockout performance is the whole reason why this film works. I'd even go so far as to say it is the entire point of the story at all. Watch the scene with the long drive more than once and tell me I'm wrong.

(Chabrol's film The Bridesmaid is currently streaming on Netflix, and is also worth watching. Again, surprise isn't the point of it, but rather knowing what's inevitably coming and simply watching it unfold.)

Of course everyone knows the shocking twist to this film, and most of us have probably seen it at least once. But it's one you can watch over and over because like with Le Boucher, the point isn't the story itself-- it's about something much bigger and quieter and unspoken. Possibly the only true horror film Hitchcock ever directed, the horror doesn't lie in what happens onscreen; it's in the things we never really see happen at all. How many answers do we really have about the whys of Norman Bates? Are monsters born with their monstrosity or are they created from love and innocence and ignorance? How much can we really trust the answers the film tries to give us? How much does the film want us to believe the doctor at the end of the film? How much can we trust anyone's account of the Bates family and what went on in it? Norman's house gives us the only facts we can really trust and even then we're only guessing. But the real question is how much does it matter when we realize the only person there we really love is the villain?

A woman who doesn't know who she is, lost in the city of dreams and new beginnings. She's running from something; she doesn't know what it is, but she knows it's terrible and it's catching up to her. There is nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time, when we were earnest and good, where everyone got what they deserved and mysteries were meant to be solved to put our fears to rest. We forget that sometimes it's worse to know what it is looking back at us from the dark. We knew the whole time it wasn't real-- we bought the ticket, after all-- but sitting there in the dark we forgot about the real world and who we're sitting next to and even who we are. There are moments when we remember it's all an illusion but we want so badly to forget the real world that the winks from the person behind the curtain are jarring and unsettling. We have invented our own fantasy, but we're so busy enjoying the dream that we don't want to wake up. The monsters are scarier in the daylight because we know what they really are.

The distinction between reality and fantasy is drawn much more distinctly in this film than in Lynch's, but there's still plenty of ambiguity left. However, trying to decipher if Ofelia's encounters with the Faun and other creatures is actually happening is a bit beside the point. We'll all have our own opinions on the ending, of course, and that's how del Toro wants it. There is no "right" answer for it. The real meat of the film is in the relationship between innocence and, for lack of a better word, "evil," and how in some ways they are each others' doppelganger. The palate del Toro works with seems stark on the surface but the darks are rich and complex, with the lights serving primarily as a contrast. Sergei Lopez's performance as Vidal is terrifying and utterly riveting.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Thoughts on Catwoman, Noir and Nolan

I'm going to say up front that I am not an aficionado in the Batman comics and in fact have not read them in many years. My opinions are based largely on The Animated Series, the second volume of the Catwoman comic series and the issues of Batman comics I collected back when I still cared. If I say something that seems out of line with things that have been happening in current comics continuity, that's why. I also don't really care since this is essentially about why I liked the things I paid attention to.

Having finally seen a full photo of Anne Hathaway in the Catwoman costume from Nolan's upcoming Batman movie, my feelings are a bit mixed. Not so much about the costume which I'm pretty happy with, but about this film in general. Expectations are so high for it after the success of The Dark Knight and fandom can get itself worked up into a froth over their own versions of what they want the film to be and reality, even if a well-made film, will often be a disappointment by comparison. With so much grumbling about the casting and the costume already starting I don't want any potential disappointment of failure pinned on her for the sake of scapegoating something. It's possible I won't like what they do with her character, or that she'll wind up like Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2-- set dressing with no necessity to the plot whatsoever. I think Nolan is much smarter and more talented than that, but not having seen it I have no idea what he has planned for her.

Except I suspect at some point she rides a motorcycle.

Up front I feel like I should mention that Catwoman is, far and away, my favorite comic book character ever and she has been since before I hit puberty. I recognize that I am very biased when it comes to her and that there is very little probability that I will ever be completely happy with how she's handled from writer to writer because in my head I've taken bits and pieces from her various incarnations and fused them into my personal idea of her most interesting self. Everyone is going to have different views on her and different degrees of investment in her as a character and I try not to let my own ideas color my expectations too much. Doesn't mean it won't happen, but I'm trying to be self-aware about my issues. I'm not going to waste energy fretting about the costume and will reserve my judgement for how they've handled her character.

As much as I enjoyed the campier portrayal in Burton's Batman Returns, I'm very ready for a more complex and grounded view of her; something more than just a mish-mash of tacked-on, superficially "feminist" ideas which must, by decree of the Hollywood formula, be stripped of validity by the end of the film. It's something the crew on Batman: The Animated Series tried to do back in the '90s, although they were severely hampered by broadcast standards and really didn't seem to know what to do with her at all until the end of the series. Judging from her first solo comic book series starring the mediocre art of Jim Balent and the downright crappy movie starring Halle Berry, most people really didn't know what to do with her beyond making her sexy in the laziest ways possible. The Animated Series couldn't even get away with that much, reduced to head-slappingly bad plotlines about animal rights and sexless flirting, with everyone being so darned earnest about everything. They tried, but they just didn't flesh her out as a full enough character, which is too bad considering the amazing things they did with characters like Mr Freeze, Two-Face and the Mad Hatter. They were much more successful with Poison Ivy, whose sexuality came across more easily and whose eco-terrorism was more compelling than Selina's animal rights crusade which just came off as preachy. The show that gave us the wonderfully complex Harley Quinn could only muster a half-hearted effort for the mythos's most well-known and longest-standing female character.

However badly they fumbled her character, I still give props to that show for doing some pretty fine noir for an animated kid's TV show. It wasn't just the dark palate they used (they painted most of the backgrounds on black paper for what they termed the "dark deco" look), the 1940s flavor to the show's design, the heavy use of gangsters and crime plots, or the other superficial elements that leap to mind with film noir; you can have a noir film without the lighting or the mobsters. What they nailed was the moral ambiguity, the fatalism, and the dance with one's own dark urges and criminality that are at the core of the noir genre. For all its stunning black and white cinematography, true noir is all about shades of grey and that's where the Animated Series and Nolan's movies really work for this concept. They get noir. So does Ed Brubaker.

Pretty good example of noir's atmosphere and philosophy.

In 2001, Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke relaunched the Catwoman comic book title with the intent to bring Selina back to this idea, as well as to try and establish a concrete world and back story for her. Too many writers over the decades never seemed to know who she was at her core or what to do with her. Sure she'd been nicknamed the Feline Fatale but at her core she's never been a killer; as a villain she was never on par with the Joker or Two Face since she's never been homicidally insane, or even a zealot like Poison Ivy or Ras al Ghul. So why her staying power? What is it about her that has made her so enduring and iconic? It can't be simply sex appeal since comics have always been brimming with sexy women characters. Why her continued place as a femme fatale when she's never been very ruthless and never been known for killing anyone? Because the very idea of the femme fatale is rooted in male anxiety-- she's dangerous not necessarily because of her intentions or her actions but because of the effect she has on the male protagonist. She is the temptation that leads him to his downfall, either spiritually or physically, whether she did it on purpose or not. She's too alluring and beguiling for him to refuse even though he knows he should, and that's exactly what Selina is to Bruce.
Out of the Past from Kathy's perspective is more like a Lifetime movie of the week.

She isn't insane, she isn't out to hurt anybody, and in many ways they're very similar. They're just compatible enough to be compelling but just different enough in their ideologies and methods to not be able to cross that thin line that divides them. The danger isn't so much that Bruce will go dark and become more ruthless, it's that he'll forget his past and everything that set him on his personal mission, settle down and try his best to be normal. As healthy as it would probably be for him to let go of his inner demons, it's the thing he's built his whole life around (and the whole reason anyone gives a crap about all those comic books, TV shows and movies he's in). There's nothing standing between them except their own issues, so the tension is always there under the surface as they each walk with one foot on that line without ever fully crossing over.

For my money, nobody got that better than Brubaker in his short stint on her book. Not only did he do his best to take what he felt worked for Selina from the different back stories that had been tossed out there after Frank Miller's Year One comic, but he also did his best to ground her character in something more concrete than just a vague idea of sexiness, heist capers and being attracted to Batman. He brought her back to Gotham, gave her a purpose more compelling than just elaborate adventures in exotic locations, and rooted her in something solid and believable. A lot of people take umbrage at the idea of her having been a prostitute in her younger days; admittedly it wasn't my favorite choice and it's one of my many issues with Frank Miller's take on her character (or most of his female characters). But Brubaker took it and gave it a purpose in her overall story instead of letting it exist simply for the sake of being dark or titillating. This gave her much higher personal stakes than if she'd been a bored socialite or the daughter of a crime boss or even a runaway orphan. It explains why she can't see the world in black and white the way Bruce does, why she can't bring herself to cross that line between them and why we should care about what she's managed to build from her life. Bruce is a character that has defined himself by one incident and built his life around it using all the advantages he had at his disposal. Selina doesn't have one single character-defining moment in her history and what she has was built by herself from nothing. She understands criminality and the things people will do to survive in ways Bruce never has because he has never been completely alone or without privilege, respect and pride. For her to cross that dividing line into Bruce's more lawful idea of heroism would take a kind of hypocritical self-denial that Selina's too savvy to trick herself into believing. She can never see the lowest people on society's totem pole as just criminals because she was one of them. She can never work strictly by the law or believe in the criminal justice system because she knows they often fail. For all their similarities and mutual respect and attraction, Bruce and Selina see the world in very different ways. Because of that, they also humanize each other.

Brubaker wrote their relationship as a tantalizing dance between two people who knew each other's secrets, who understood each other in ways no one else did, but who didn't have to come out and say any of it because they liked the dance too much to ruin it with the obvious. It was sexier than any double entendre or moonlit make out scene because he understood that the things that aren't said are far more tantalizing than the things that are. When done right, an exchanged glance or a charged silence can be far sexier than any graphic love scene. He also went out of his way to toss out Bruce's emotionless Machiavellian wish-fulfillment badass persona in favor of writing him as a human damn being, which practically no one else was doing at the time. (See above link for examples.)

That isn't to say Brubaker's run was perfect, there were plenty of things in it I thought could have been improved or were unnecessary. But what he did right, he did damned well, especially in paying attention to the characters, making them unique, flawed, likable people you wanted to read about every month. It didn't feel like a superhero book so much as a mystery/crime story with a few eccentricities. For the first time since the 90s, Selina seemed like a real person, not some idealized, self-obsessed sex goddess who floated through life on her tiptoes. She was someone who was learning from her past mistakes, growing as a character, weighed down by her history and a new sense of maturity and responsibility. She was someone with close emotional ties to people, who remembered where she came from but who had a sense of purpose for the future. They finally let her grow as a person in a way that was believable and made sense with her past. She was someone I could understand at last, and ultimately that's really all I ask for.

Do I think Nolan will use this rather dark personal history for her? Not really, and I'm all right with that. Not sure how the public would take to seeing a less romanticized version of Pretty Woman in their superhero crime thriller, and it seems more likely they'll go with the subplot from The Long Halloween and have her being tied to the Falcone crime family. So long as she's not just some personification of an idea with no further depth beyond her physicality, bad cat jokes and reminding the audience that our hero is an angst-ridden, tragic heterosexual man, I'll be fine with whatever back story they give her. I just want to know there's a real character in there. If they can do that much, then I'll be satisfied.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Welcome back to another installment of I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means, where I bust out my love of semantics all over a word that I feel has been misappropriated, misunderstood, or maybe not understood at all because no one's ever heard of it. Today's word is well-known to most people, even outside Hindu and Buddhist circles, and while most people get the general gist of it, there's a certain nuance to the concept that tends to get shoved aside.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "action." As in, to act upon something in a physical manner. That's the literal translation, feel free to pass that around at parties as a cool piece of trivia. However, in relation to religious/philosophical meaning, we understand it to mean "what goes around comes around" or "you get what's coming to you." It's the right idea, sure, and I think most cultures around the world have a similar concept, but "karma" sounds cool and gets the point across in one word.

The thing most of us forget or never learn in the first place about it is that at its core it's not a super judgmental term. A lot of us, because we're human and by nature we like feeling better than other people, use it as a way to basically call other people stupid, mean, or just inferior in some way, even though all of us have probably done stupid, mean things ourselves... like, say, scoffing at other people's unhappiness and misfortune. Karma, in its basic sense, is not about cosmic judgement for doing something wrong, like we tend to think of it. It's more like the principle in physics that states "every action has an equal and opposite reaction." Karma isn't a punishment from a sentient being to put us in our place when we get out of line, it's a universal force that acts essentially like a swing: when it gets pushed in one direction, it naturally swings back the other direction. A match catches on fire when it's struck with enough friction to light it-- the burning is the karma of the act of striking it, it's the natural end result of the action.
Like this, only the ball is that thing you said to your boss's wife at the Christmas party.

Now that isn't to say that there aren't moral judgments involved in the religious/philosophical teachings of the word; the ideas of "good karma" and "bad karma" are central to Hindu and Buddhist teachings. In Hinduism, it's one's actions that determine what becomes of them in their next life-- reincarnation runs on karma, so that the more good karma one collects during their life the higher they ascend in the cosmic hierarchy; this is also where the caste system comes into play. One is born into their position because of the actions they took in their past life. Their only way out is to perform the duties of one's position to the best of their abilities and lead a moral life so that they'll be reborn into a higher position in the next life, and so on. I hesitate to use the caste system as an example since a) it's very complex and I'm hardly an expert in it, and b) it's changed significantly over the course of Indian history, particularly in the wake of British colonialism, and again in the modern age where its significance is decreasing. But I did want to illustrate that the idea of what we call "instant karma," where the effect of one's action takes
place immediately afterward isn't really what the concept was originally about. It was more about long-term repercussions that may not take effect immediately during this lifetime, but that collect over time and affect one's next life drastically.
Makes you wish we thought about the long-term view a little more often.

What I find most ironic about the majority of the people I hear using the word karma in everyday conversation is that the very way they employ it would constitute bad karma. It's usually someone insinuating that another person's misfortune is deserved because that person did something stupid at some point, but looking down on other people for making mistakes is hardly the embodiment of self-awareness. Of course I'm just as guilty of it as anyone is, and writing these sorts of posts helps to remind me to remember that. As my old band teacher used to tell us, "when you point at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself." (Back then I spent an embarrassing amount of time missing the point by trying to devise a way to point ahead while keeping all other fingers aimed away from myself.) Of course she was talking about someone's instrument being out of tune and telling us that we should all check ourselves before assuming it's someone else, but I believe the point stands in a larger context. Or, as one of my favorite movies put it, "you'll never be a first-class human being until you learn to have a little regard for human frailty."
Also, everyone needs to go watch The Philadelphia Story right now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Social Justice Movements and Fantasy Media

There has been a thought bouncing around in my head for a while now and I've never been entirely sure how to approach it. With the opening of X-Men: First Class and the upcoming premiere of the fourth season of True Blood, maybe now is the time to explore it briefly. There won't be any spoilers for First Class since I haven't seen it yet, but I will cover the X-Men as an idea in general, and there might be some spoilers for True Blood, since I have seen that.

Spoiler line just to be safe, la la la.
All right, so Southern-fried vampire soap opera and classic comic book showcasing people with superhuman powers fighting for the good of the very people who hate and fear them. What do they have in common? Well, the X-Men book started back in the 60s when the Civil Rights movement was starting to gear up. Whether or not that was the original intention is a little beside the point since by the time Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum took over in the 70s, that was most definitely the running theme of the book. The vampires in True Blood, as in the book series the show is based on, are also used as allegories for oppressed minorities: in the beginning they have recently "come out of the coffin" and face fear and prejudice from the general population, law enforcement, politicians, and the religious right. Both series mix different obstacles faced by various groups over the course of history, like the Mutant Registration Act from X-Men being analogous to the laws in Nazi Germany requiring the "undesirables" of society to be made identifiable, and the Fellowship of the Sun in True Blood being rather like a combination of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan. So to compare the two series on that front seems pretty fair to me.

From True Blood's opening sequence.

Now, as much as I enjoy both of these series and agree with the spirit of the message, here's the part where I run into a little bit of trouble with the actual practice of using fantasy/science fiction analogies for the real-world oppression of human minority groups: the basis of Civil Rights and of basic human rights is that no matter what the racial, ethnic, class, sexual preference, gender or religious background may be, these differences are superficial and pale in comparison to the similarities inherent to simply being human. There is nothing a person from one group can do to anyone that a person from another group, including the majority group, could not also do. Underneath, we're all fundamentally the same.

This is not the case with mutants and vampires. As soon as you introduce the possibility of a teenager being able to blow one of their classmates' face off with lasers from their eyes, we have gone from "propaganda threat" to "that registration act doesn't seem so unreasonable." A black person being pulled over for driving a car with a white woman in it cannot, in fact, magically hypnotize the police officer into handing over his gun during a very tense confrontation.

The perceived threat from real life minorities becomes a very real and potential threat as soon as the supernatural gets involved, which changes the dynamics of the entire situation. This isn't to say that I think these ideas are stupid, but I do think this fundamental flaw in the message needs to be addressed, which also means that the people writing them need to be aware of it. Otherwise you wind up comparing a gay man who has no greater physical or supernatural abilities than a straight man would have to a man who can physically pull the iron from your blood through your skin in order to escape from prison. As well-intentioned as I think X-Men is, I don't think it gets this.

I do, however, think True Blood understands and has very subtly commented on this over the past several seasons. The imagery of a young gay, black man being chained by the neck in the basement of a blond-haired, blue-eyed vampire who at one point literally rips someone in half with his bare hands speaks to this point, as does the image of a young black woman dressed in an old-fashioned nightgown trying to escape from a plantation mansion where she has been sexually assaulted by an Anglo vampire. There are things the show does that make us uncomfortable this way, and there are simply too many of them for me to believe this is a coincidence. As much as I admire this about the show-- along with its recognizing its own inherent cheesiness, its refusal to take itself too seriously, while also managing to dance along the line between funny and horrifying-- this does raise another issue: because of the very strong overt message of vampires as an allegory for oppressed minorities, what will happen as this story progresses and the subtle commentary about the unfairness of this comparison becomes more noticeable? Will it undermine the legitimate arguments from real life activists who demand equal rights by unintentionally validating the fears of the majority? I certainly hope not, and if I'm right and this commentary is deliberate on the writers' part, I have faith in them to handle this with the intelligence and delicate footwork it will require. In the meantime, it seems like a good idea to bring this subject up and mull it over as we watch our entertaining fantasy versions of the state of civil rights and public attitudes toward The Other.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Help a Friend

Hey all, dropping a note for the sake of friend and co-femme Stacy, who's hitting a big financial brick wall rather suddenly and could really use a hand. She's taking commissions, the details of which are over at Creepy Kitch. If you can't help out, maybe you know someone who can. Thanks muchly.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rambling Post On Film Criticism

Hello out there in internetland, sorry it's been so long. I'm currently in finals week of my last quarter of college (for now), and it's been one nutty ride this year. I have not, as you may have noticed, gotten to the many blog posts I have promised so far, but seeing as how I'll have a lot of free time on my hands soon, I'll probably get to them... eventually.

For the time being, however, I have added massive quantities of links to the right side of this page, which should help fill your time until I can muster the brainpower to write a coherent article.

I also want to comment on something that seems to be a topic of interest amongst certain circles at the moment, and that is the nature and public perception of film criticism. Some very smart people have written some very interesting things in the past several days and I thought I'd pass some of them along. Feel more than free to offer opinions and comments, I love hearing from people, even if they disagree with me as long as it's civil and in the spirit of debate-- something that gets touched on in some of these.

There are more out there but these are the three I came across that I found the most thought-provoking. Honestly, I have my own ideas on the topic, and this is something that surfaces now and again as I navigate both the practice of studying film and the social ramifications of being a "movie snob" to people who don't. Let me give you an overview of why I really hate that term, and it isn't just because I hear it in application to myself or to people I happen to agree with, or even to people I may not agree with but whose viewpoint I find interesting. It's because it's a cheap way to invalidate someone else's opinion without having to engage with their actual argument.

Let me tell you a secret that a lot of people don't seem to understand about film: there are very few "right" answers. There seems to be this idea that there's some kernel of absolute "Truth" at the center of anything and that if you whittle it down far enough you'll eventually discover the definitive answer. The problem with this is film is art, and like all art, its meaning and value are totally subjective to the one viewing it. Likewise, are the opinions of those reviewing/critiquing it. For me personally, a good film reviewer is not the person with whom I agree the most often, it's the one who actually thinks about the film and then writes about it in such a way that makes me think about it. There have been numerous films I have watched for a class or on my own that I initially disliked or was confused by, but after reading a thoughtful review or an academic article or even just discussing it with someone else, I learned to appreciate certain aspects of it that I never would have otherwise. They may be things I ultimately disagree with, or they may not be enough to get me to enjoy the film, but I absolutely appreciate having insight into it. That's basically what studying criticism allows you to do: not to arrive at the "right" answer as to whether a movie is objectively good or bad, but to aid in the ability to understand why someone enjoys a film or doesn't.

Another secret: my taste in movies has stayed exactly the same since I started learning about film. There have been a few here and there that I now see in a new light, but by and large, I enjoy the same things I did before and dislike the same things. The only significant change in my discussion of the topic is my ability to articulate why I feel the way I do about a given film. That's it. Well, that and the confidence to actually express my opinion instead of trying to convince myself I like a film when I don't just because I can't figure out why, or I feel obligated to because everyone else likes it. I used to waste a lot of energy trying to justify things in films that I didn't like because I felt I should, for some bizarre reason, and let me tell you, it is such a relief to quit doing that. No, if anything has changed in regards to my movie collection, it's simply the scope. Learning the mechanics of how movies work hasn't "taken the magic out of it," as I hear some people argue, it's actually increased my appreciation for it. The movies I loved before, I enjoy watching even more now than I did when I first saw them because I understand them on a deeper level. I love watching movies. I really love watching good movies, but in all honesty there are so few films out there that I consider worthless; there's usually something I find worthwhile in almost any of them, even if I dislike the end result overall.

But at the end of the day, it's all just opinion. That's all a critic has to offer: the same thing everyone else has, only with better articulated reasons and hopefully some interesting insights. Studying film doesn't teach anyone how to figure out the "right" answer, it helps inform the understanding of why a given person feels the way they do about it. That's it. It doesn't mean you have to agree with it, but hopefully it might make you think a little deeper about why you feel the way you do. Who knows, it might even make you appreciate it more than you might have otherwise, or even interest you in a film you might not have given a chance before. I think one of the greatest things I'm taking away from my film education is the really great movies I've been exposed to that I would never have heard of otherwise. Ultimately, what this blog is doing isn't just providing a platform for my opinions and ideas, but it's a space for me to share these movies with other people.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscars for the Movies of '10

So the Oscars are this Sunday and I just realized I haven't said a single thing about them. Honestly, I'm not terribly hyped up about them this year. The only category I'm that invested in is Best Supporting Actress and that's simply because it's one of the very few that's actually something of a toss-up. Everything else seems pretty cut and dried which isn't very suspenseful and for someone like me who either knows the movie she's rooting for won't win or hasn't seen the vast majority of the movies in question yet, it's pretty anti-climactic. I'll still watch them because I'm a nerd that way and it's one of the very few social things I get to do all year and I look forward to making snide comments MST3K style as I secretly hope for a major upset just for the sake of some drama.

So instead of making a list of predictions about what will/might/should win as everyone else on the internet has already done, I'll just mention briefly what I would like to see win and why it won't. Brace for extreme nerdery.

Best Picture
I'm not very worked up about this category since I've only seen three out of the ten nominees and found two of them to be pretty over-rated. Maybe I've been in a grumpy mood for the past three months but for the life of me I cannot understand the huge fuss over Inception and Toy Story 3. Yeah, you heard me, internet, I didn't think they were that great. They weren't awful but I failed to understand why so many people-- smart people, many of whom I know and am very fond of-- kept going on about how amazing they were. I'd want to watch them again because I feel like I missed something crucial, but frankly I don't really want to. The other one I saw was True Grit and while I did like it a great deal, I was left with that same feeling of empty calories after it was over. I wasn't as vaguely irritated while watching it because it entertained me more than the other two, but I was still left with a feeling of "yeah, and?" when it was over. Maybe it's me, I don't know. But it's pretty much a forgone conclusion that The King's Speech is going to take Best Picture, which makes this category even less interesting since there's really no debate. Does it deserve to win? Probably? I don't have an opinion because I haven't seen it or the other six nominees, so I have no idea what I consider to be the "best" amongst them. What would I like to see win? Winter's Bone would be fun just because it's so different from the rest of them, a true indy film that was a surprise nominee and which I've heard from darn near everyone is a really great film. No way it'll happen, but I'm really glad it's been nominated since it might entice people to actually see it.

Best Actor
If Colin Firth somehow doesn't win this it may be a sign of the apocalypse. I don't think there's any way that statue's going to anyone else, which frankly is okay with me. I like Firth a lot and I was absolutely blown away by his performance in A Single Man last year (if you haven't seen that movie, go watch it now). I knew he wouldn't win his nomination for that but I was still rooting for him anyway, so I'm glad he gets to take it this year. Having said that, I'm also a fan of Jeff Bridges (have been since the Fabulous Baker Boys so I'm glad he's getting recognized for the huge talent he is), Javier Bardem, and James Franco, so this is really a nice lineup for me. I wouldn't be disappointed with anyone winning, but this is definitely Firth's year.

Best Actress
Natalie Portman's all but got this one in the bag since she's swept darn near every awards ceremony for this role. I haven't seen Black Swan yet so I have no opinion on her performance in it, but I've always liked her so it's nice she's getting recognition for being more than just a pretty face. I suppose I should get snide about how anti-climactic the category is, and it is, but... that is just a damn fine lineup of really amazing actresses in interesting roles. I can't get grumpy about this category this year except that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often. Let's keep this caliber of work going, what do you say? (Also, I do sort of hope Anette Benning wins just because she's never won despite being a really great actress and Hillary Swank isn't up for anything this year. Curse you, Portman and your point shoes.)

Supporting Actor
Christian Bale's pretty much a lock for this one from what I've gleaned and I don't have anything against the guy, so eh, whatever. Once again I find myself in a limbo of indifference since I haven't seen any of the films these guys are in. I will say, however, that I absolutely adore Geoffrey Rush and wish he were in more things, so I wouldn't be a bit sad if he took the statue.

Supporting Actress
Once again, what a really fantastic lineup. Everyone says this is pretty much a toss up between Melissa Leo, Hailee Steinfeld, and Helena Bonham Carter which makes it officially the most exciting category of the evening. Since Steinfeld's is the only performance I've seen yet, and it was far and away my favorite thing about that movie, she's at the top of my list (and yes, like everyone else I agree that she is a lead actress, not a supporting one-- hell she's the main character of the movie which she also narrates). But Carter's been a perennial favorite of mine for a few years now too, so I'd be happy if she won. Frankly, I'm just happy that this category is brimming with such fantastic performances that it's hard to know who to root for. I can't say I'll be disappointed no matter who wins.

Best Director
David Fincher is pretty universally tagged to win this one, especially since The Social Network was the frontrunner for the Best Picture category until The King's Speech came along, so this way they can still honor both films with pretty big awards. This is another category I don't feel very strongly about since it's pretty much a foregone conclusion and I've only seen the Coen Bother's film. Is there anyone who doesn't know they're good directors yet? So yeah, don't really care who wins it.

Animated Film
Toy Story 3, despite being over-rated and incredibly over-sentimentalized in my opinion, is going to win this by a mile. It's up for Best Picture and Best Screenplay for crying out loud. Would I love to see How to Train Your Dragon or The Illusionist cause an upset and take the prize? You bet I would. I'd probably do a cartwheel in the street if that happened and I'm privately cursing the incredibly poor timing that pitted these two films (especially Dragon) up against this juggernaut instead of the upcoming Cars 2 where they might actually stand a chance of winning a very richly deserved award. Could it happen? Ehhhh maybe. Dragon did sweep the Annie Awards (the animation industry's awards ceremony for those who don't know), and has been a classic underdog since it was released, and everyone loves an underdog. Plus, I don't know if I'm the only one who finds it rather tacky that Disney/Pixar made a big show about really pushing for the brass ring of Best Picture to make a statement about the viability of animation as a medium, but when it came down to it they weren't willing to pull out of the Best Animated Feature category. Despite their bluster about respecting the work, they just couldn't bear to put everything on the line for it and give up the sure thing in the animated category, leaving the other two very fine features without Best Picture nominations twisting in the wind. It's a dick move and cheapened an effort to gain respectability that I've been hoping for for a long time. I'm probably the only one that found it tacky for them to do that, but I did, and I'm realizing that I'm starting to edge closer into the Pixar Grinch arena than I thought I ever would. In my vindictive little heart, I'd dance with glee if Dragon took this and left Pixar with nothing for the year. It won't happen, but I can dream for now. In less petty arenas, I'm glad The Illusionist took the third spot in this category since it's a lesser-known film and people might actually watch it now and I'll get a DVD release, plus I always love to see traditional animation represented. It's also very different from the other two films, and from most films that make it into this category, and that too is always welcome. It's good to remind people that animation isn't a genre.

Original Score
Wow, next to Supporting Actress this is the biggest toss up for me. I'm going to guess the King's Speech will probably take this, but what a fantastic variety here. Everything from traditional orchestra to Trent Reznor is in here and they all sound very unique, distinct, and some are downright experimental. That's really cool. Of course I'm rooting for John Powell and How to Train Your Dragon (in and of itself that's a score with a huge variety in it), since that's been on my playlist since the film was released and I'd like the poor thing to win something. But it's the underdog again, and pretty much anything else in the category is more likely to win than it is. Ah well, it's nice just to be nominated.

Anything else I'm not terribly concerned with, at least not enough to write about. So there you go, my much anticipated Oscar predictions. You may all resume your lives now.