Behind the Scenes of Fiddler

I remembered this morning that Fiddler on the Roof exists. Although it’s one of my favourite movie musicals, and a few years ago I got to see it on stage and obviously I loved it on stage too, it’s one of those movies I occasionally forget about and then remember and watch over and over for a couple of months.

I did a google image search and this photograph of Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Elaine Edwards, and Candy Bonstein goofing off on set came up:

daughters

And it’s great.

And this reminded me of my other permanent Fiddler on the Roof opinions, such as: can we agree that Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Sphrintze, and Bielke are the best names ever?

I also think a Disney version of Fiddler would be cool, mainly because I’ve always linked up Tevye’s daughters with various Disney ladies in my mind. They’re stubborn and strong and the three oldest ones manage to tell a phenomenal story just by falling in love with increasingly “inappropriate” men.

And unlike some people I think Disney movies do a really good job of tackling unpleasant aspects of humanity – when they try, at least. If they did a straight adaptation of the stage show it would probably be fantastic but even if they updated it a little, I can imagine it being very good.

Also Tevye is one of the best characters ever and he should be animated.

You can’t tell me Disney wouldn’t kill this.

But it won’t happen – mainly I think because this story focuses on the older generation and Disney movies are, rightly, aimed at kids – the fact that I loved this as a kid probably wouldn’t sway too many Disney greenlighters.

It’s fine, though. The 1971 movie is perfect.

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Infinity War Gripes

It’s been 24 hours since I’ve seen Infinity War and I’d just like to say that I didn’t… really… like it.

I sent a rant to my sister afterwards and I’m posting it here.

Spoilers follow.

The very simplistic morality here: sacrificing half the population for big ideas is bad, and, the more morally gray version is that sacrificing individual players to save the entire universe is also bad. But the one… doesn’t follow the other, sorry.

I’m sure there will be some major solution that involves using the stones rather than destroying them, like how Harry uses the hallows rather than just stealing them and whatnot, and the lesson will be that intent is important which is a good simplistic moral. but like, the amount of time both teams wasted not destroying the stones was stupid. Especially in Wanda/Captain America’s case, where Dr. Strange wasn’t there to be omnipotent. Like the point is that the superheroes are fighting this fascist who thinks killing half the people saves the rest but here are these elites who think killing their friend to save half the universe is a bummer. There’s no complexity there. The only good part was when Quill was going to kill Gamora but Thanos stopped him. That Wanda eventually tried but didn’t do it right away is stupid.

Quill getting mad and ruining Tony’s plan is perfectly fine, that’s human. Wanda being like “but my robot boyfriend” is human too, but she had time to deal with it and come to terms with it. And WAY WORSE was Dr. Strange, deciding at the last second to let Thanos do his thing by giving him the time stone in exchange for Tony’s life.

I’m assuming he knows that somehow this course of events will lead to righting everything but if that’s the case then:

  1. a) He hasn’t learned to be a team player, which is what his arc was supposed to be, since he starts out on their space adventure by saying, “I’m not saving you or the kid over the stone,” and now he’s saving Tony over the stone. But he isn’t really sparing Tony’s life and sacrificing the stone and half the universe. He’s just letting this play out so that everything gets undone. The theme of putting individuals above the more lofty goals is meaningless because he isn’t really doing that, he’s just doing lousy comic book time reverse stuff. If the point is that to ultimately save the universe they need Tony so for now they sacrifice the stone and the universe to save Tony so that he can later save the universe and, I guess, the stone, that’s… not the theme. Or I guess in some stupid convoluted Randian way it is, but, it’s really bad.
  2. b) If you’re going to be an avenger you put the rest of the universe above yourself. Which is what Thanos did for his stupid goals and he’s bad. Soooooo… The Avengers is just about a group of people who never have to make hard sacrifices because plot conveniences get them out of it and they generally don’t even consider those sacrifices for more than half a second because “that would be vaguely evil,” and they get to just do whatever they want with literally no guiding principles. That’s stupid.

There is no moral complexity here. No one is examining good versus evil or heroism as a thing to question and be careful with. It’s just sort of spectacle.

I only liked the Guardians’ parts and Thor. Thor’s lightning moment was good, I thought, though it could have been much stronger with better focus. Also now that Rocket is alone, and every one of his friends is dead, that random set up between him and Thor about how Thor has lost everyone but Rockt hasn’t now means that the two of them are BFFs and work through their feelings together and in doing so save all their friends, right? Because if that’s a subplot in the sequel then I’ll bother watching it.

But so. Is anyone going to stay dead? And if not, what’s the point? Where is the tension? Why did I watch all of this play out, where really only Starlord learned anything (and not really, he’s dealt with grief before), if it’s all going to get erased in the end? Why isn’t the next going further than just presenting Captain America’s lack of an arc and instead cutting him and the other boring ones out entirely and just being called God of Thunder and the Rabbit Save the Universe because honestly, you could make an excellent movie out of that, focusing in on things that are interesting, and just having everyone else be there as cameos.

The Polar Expressay

Anecdote time.

A few years ago, my younger cousin was beginning to doubt, so one day, finally, he went to his mother for reassurance.

“Mom? Do you believe in Santa?”

This is a tough situation because, first of all, the kid has trusted you with one of his innermost fears, a sneaking doubt that he wishes would just evaporate, a sneaking doubt that he never used to experience when he was younger. Now you have to answer properly because this is a big deal question and it has taken a lot of courage for him to trust you with it.

Next, it’s hard because he’s at the age where it’s too early to just rip the band-aid off and admit the truth, but at the same time, he’s too old for a bald-faced lie because he’s going to remember asking this question and that you bald-face lied and he won’t trust you ever again.

So what do you do?

My aunt, thinking quickly (and amazingly), said, “… I believe… in the… spirit… of Santa.”

And he nodded sagely and said, “Yeah, I believe in the spirit of Santa too.”


Belief is a pretty big deal this time of year – not necessarily in Santa, or even in the religious aspects. I always try to believe in the spirit of the season, and the importance of family and friends, or whatever. The inherent gentleness inside all of us. The potential for peace. That stuff is what all of the songs are about, anyway.

This year I’m in a bit of a funk. It’s not down to any one thing, but these days it seems like it’s a little difficult to believe in all of that in general. Due to that, I wanted to look at the Christmas animated movie that is entirely about belief, but that also leaves me with too many questions to be comfortable.

If you want to be an awful cynic about it, you can do a surface reading of The Polar Express (the movie, anyway – I haven’t read the book and I don’t know if or how it differs) that goes like this:

  • The Pol Ex tells kids it’s a buzzkill to be skeptical
  • No, really. Main Boy is always questioning Main Girl and it’s depicted as if Main Boy is a huge buzzkill and Main Girl is always right anyway and all his questioning does is make her doubt herself, but what if she one day is wrong? Is she really not supposed to listen to criticism or “sober second judgement” ever? So when her ticket says “LEAD” at the end, what, is she supposed to be a dictator?
  • Billy is told to just buy into Christmas™ because everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t matter what his lived experiences are
  • Billy is told to trust some elves and a magical gift dude who has never given him a present before because everyone else is doing it, it doesn’t matter what his lived experiences are, and also, all of those previous Christmases that didn’t work out were… his fault?
  • There’s a ghost on this train
  • No, really, there’s a ghost and he’s extremely creepy, and there’s also a room full of terrifying marionettes and the ghost makes one of Scrooge move and yell existentially terrifying things at Main Boy for kicks
  • There are so many potentially child-murdering fuckups on this magical journey, and the conductor, engineers, and all of the elves should get fired

But I’m not an awful cynic. All of the “don’t be skeptical” messaging that seems to be going on is rather undercut by Fourth, Arrogant Kid’s entire existence. It’s not that you shouldn’t be skeptical or curious or even self-conscious and doubtful – all of those are essential things. It’s just that there are times, such as when you’re about to die for the fifth time in a row on this bullshit train journey, that you need to kind of just trust yourself. And your friends. And, I guess, God, or something. Whatever your guiding light is. And on Christmas Eve at 5 minutes to midnight, your guiding light is “The Spirit of Christmas.”

Billy’s subplot is strange, though. If you’ve got nothing productive to say about poverty or neglect or whatever is going on with Billy, then, um, maybe don’t include it and give it a simplistic magical solution.

As for the ghost and the terrifying stuff, I really like it. I find it quite comforting, actually. Whenever the ghost shows up I feel inexplicably safe (yes, even when he’s marionetting Scrooge). It’s likely because the ghost’s entire existence is to mock the kid for being skeptical. Sometimes skepticism needs to be mocked (because you’re being a dick, Declan), and the times to mock skepticicm are basically Christmas time.

I also like all of the almost-death because it’s fun to watch, so sue me. I’m not a fan of “In the real world these people would be so fired” criticisms in general because, first of all, duh, this is a movie, if you meant to watch real life for an hour and a half you took a wrong turn somewhere, and second of all, IDK, have you seen the White House lately aidhfjsdnkandcka

But here’s some less awful cynical critique.

The culmination of Main Boy’s doubt vs belief conflict has him turn away from struggling to see Santa behind columns of elves, and turn away from reindeer anxiously trying to fly while their bells jingle absolutely silently, and close his eyes. “OK. OK. I believe. I… believe…”

It’d be a pretty shallow movie if just seeing Santa confirmed Santa’s existence. It’d be pretty shallow too if the sound of the sleigh bells is what did it. But no, it’s neither of those things. Main Boy can’t hear the bell until he lets himself believe, tells himself he believes, insists that he believes. It’s more about the fear of believing in something in case it turns out to not be true, or if it turns out to not be all you imagined, and you get hurt.

The sound of the bell becomes concrete evidence of Main Boy’s belief, instead of being concrete evidence of the existence of Santa and all of the magic around him. This is all well and good, because although concrete evidence of the magic is what Main Boy has been looking for this whole time, finding that evidence can’t possibly give him what he needs. The problem is, once you prove something with concrete evidence, you can’t really believe it anymore, not truthfully, because then it’s just a fact. “The Spirit of Christmas” is something you believe in, not something you prove.

What I don’t like about the sound of the bell is what’s said about it at the very end of the movie. Main Boy, having grown up into Tom Hanks (like everyone else in this universe), talks about how his friends and even his sister all one by one found that a year finally came around when they could no longer hear the sound of the bell, but Main Boy always could. That’s the part that just doesn’t work for me, because if it’s supposed to be a point about kids having a specific way of believing as opposed to adults, then Main Boy Who is Now Tom Hanks should really not be able to hear it as an adult. And if instead it’s supposed to be about how the Polar Express experience itself was a lasting thing that ensured he would always be a little bit more childlike and believey than everyone else, I’m not a fan of that either, because that’s weird, and the train almost fell through ice and went down a roller coaster, and, I don’t know, it just doesn’t work for me.

Maybe they just didn’t know how to end it otherwise, so they went with, “Our parents couldn’t hear it but we could but then all the other kids grew up and couldn’t and while I grew up into Tom Hanks I still could, TA-DAAAA.”

(that has nothing whatsoever to do with this, nothing at all, but I can’t even think the “word” “ta-da” without thinking about this so)

I’d rather think about the duality of what’s strictly, factually real here, and what’s not but still kind of is. All of that junk is firmly on my playlist: magical realism, Life of Pi, etc. When Main Boy wakes up on Christmas morning, he rips his pocket, even though at 5 to midnight the night before he already ripped his pocket as he made his way outside to see the train. There’s some concrete evidence that the polar experience was a dream.

But then his sister finds the bell wrapped under the tree, with a note from Santa referencing that he lost it the previous night.

Two pieces of evidence, proving two different and conflicting realities.

Their mom comes over and asks what he’s got, and asks who it’s from.

“Santa!” they tell her, and her “Santa, really?” answer sounds really skeptical. I don’t know how it’s possible to instruct an actress to read that short little line and somehow convey that she knows Santa isn’t real while humouring her kids and being a little bit confused but not overly worried about it, but, they did it. Or maybe I’m just reading that into it, but it really does sound like she’s doing double duty there.

And if she doesn’t believe in Santa, and if it’s her and her husband who are putting the gifts under the tree and pretending they’re from Santa, and if the bell is not from her and her husband, then Santa is both real and not real in this universe, which is… interesting.

Belief is a tricky little abstract concept. The duality of “Santa is real!” and “But he’s not, actually!” and then again “But he still kind of is, ultimately!” is interesting but it doesn’t have much to contribute on the subject. It probably comes back to the important climactic moment where Main Boy decides to believe. Deciding to believe in something is big, important, crucial, but in this movie, it also happens right before Main Boy sees Santa up close and actually talks to him. Metaphorically it’s nice I guess; it grants catharsis. But choosing to believe in something, even if it’s “The Spirit of Christmas,” is not a thing that you do one time and then that’s it, you’re set. Faith gets shaken. Time moves on, you get older, you lose people, unexplained things happen in “free and fair” elections, and it takes near-constant work to remain believey, no matter what it is you happen to choose to believe in.

I’m of two minds, fittingly. I like that The Polar Express illustrates belief the way that it does, but I also think its conclusion is a little too simplistic for the big concepts it’s trying to discuss. It’s why I prefer A Christmas Carol and Arthur Christmas – both of those have pretty simplistic ideas at their hearts. A Christmas Carol meshes generosity of spirit (and wealth) with the Christmas season, and Arthur Christmas is about doing your job for the right reasons and very much masculinity all day with the masculinity oh my God it’s entirely about masculinity. Simple ideas expanded with detailed stories and characters. Pol Ex is more about simple characters grappling with big ideas, and, maybe it’s just me, but I like the “simple ideas, complex characters/exploration” type better. They seem neater, cleaner, and ultimately more satisfying.

But there’s really nothing like the train materializing out of the mist.

The Essential Halloween Accessory

is a savvy, scrawny, old, torn-eared black cat.

I wanted to write a whole thing about this animated cat to end all animated cats and how he’s like the Cheshire Cat if the Cheshire Cat had been on Alice’s side but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without just stating facts.

Instead, here are some of my favourite caps of the Coraline cat. They’re from Disney Screencaps once again, the site which, apparently, doesn’t stop at Disney.

coraline catcoraline cat 2coraline cat 3coraline cat 4coraline cat 5coraline cat 6cat can talkcat is a bastion of wisdomi've seen that lookmy cat would never do thatcoraline cat 7

Get you a cat in case of other-dimension monsters with nefarious intentions for your eyes.

Itttttttttt (first thoughts)

In brief: I have some notes, but I loved it.

Spoilers, for movie. And book.

the losers

“they all float” by Mark Englert

Creepy enough, Bill Skarsgård was awesome, the kids were amazing, the highlights were the Losers in all of their glory which is as it should be. So yeah, I loved it.

I’m going to go ahead and say that I think I prefer Skarsgård as Pennywise to Tim Curry. I know I’m in the minority but this new version worked better for me. I think it was those little moments where he’d be doing his thing and then something would go off, like when he was laughing way too much with Georgie, or when he’s about to kill Eddie but then Bill sees through his tricks upstairs at Neibolt Street. That was truer to book It than Curry’s version – but I mean. They’re both really good at evil galactic clown, in the end.

Aaaaand so the notes.

Things I’m disappointed by but completely in vain because this is a movie and it can’t do things the way the book does them:

  • I just really wish it had been set in ’58. I get why that would be a terrible choice for the movie but
  • All of the details that got cut or that were breezed over. Obviously there wasn’t room for that here.
  • I wish Stan and Mike got more hero moments. Even Ben got the shaft a bit, which surprised me. Again, that’s time constraints for you.
  • Bowers wasn’t as much of a threat as he was in the book – even in the TV movie he was a more constant, threatening presence. That’s another one that’s probably down to time constraints.

Changes I like:

  • Yaaaaay Hocksetter died early and we never learned any of the horrific details of his past and present
  • Not that I like Mike as a slaughterhouse worker now (I mean come on) but at least we traded the wanton animal cruelty of the Bowers/Hocksetter dream team for “humane slaughter” for meat consumption. I guess.
  • I don’t like that Bev’s dad is an actual rapist in this version but at least that way we don’t have to see an adult physically assaulting a child

Changes I didn’t like:

  • I get it, but having Georgie pulled into the sewers rather than just outright killed in the gutter is a bit of a gruesome change and I prefer it the other way. Poor Georgie.
  • Mike’s parents are dead now. Horrifically. Um. Why. They were the best parents of the group.
  • The movie is a lot more upfront about Bev’s being sexually abused than it is about Bowers being a racist dick towards Mike. The implications are there, and I’m not saying we need Bowers screaming racial slurs at Mike nonstop as he tries to beat him to a pulp the way he does in the book, but I do think there was space to be a little more specific about the racism and the movie (and we all) would have benefited from it.
  • Also Mike was the history buff of the group – I get that making it Ben is an efficient thing to do but I’m really, really hoping that part 2 doesn’t open on Mike the 40-year-old slaughterhouse worker. I need him to be a librarian and amateur historian still.
  • Bill/Bev/Ben was too much of a thing and can we talk about it for a second

I really didn’t like that Bev was pulled into the sewers to be rescued by her friends. It works for the narrative but it makes her a bit of a damsel in distress. The saving grace here may be that she’s the one to figure out not being afraid of Pennywise, but it’s still a big set up for a Sleeping Beauty moment.

I was sitting there in the theatre thinking, “Oh god, she’s going into the deadlights. Just so that Ben can kiss her and wake her up.” And that is literally what happened.

Don’t get me wrong.

I am a huge fan of Bev/Ben.

But.

Why.

Here’s a treat for you: a chunk of It by Stephen King.

Finally, unaware she was going to say it at all (and certainly not because it had any discernible bearing on the situation), Beverly said: “Thank you for the poem, Ben.”

Ben stopped laughing all at once and regarded her gravely, cautiously. He took a dirty handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face with it slowly. “Poem?”

“The haiku. The haiku on the postcard. You sent it, didn’t you?”

“No,” Ben said. “I didn’t send you any haiku. Cause if a kid like me – a fat kid like me – did something like that, the girl would probably laugh at him.”

“I didn’t laugh. I thought it was beautiful.”

“I could never write anything beautiful. Bill, maybe. Not me.”

“Bill will write,” she agreed. “But he’ll never write anything as nice as that…”

“How did you know it was me?” he asked finally.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just did.”

Ben’s throat worked convulsively. He looked down at his hands. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

She looked at him gravely. “You better not mean that,” she said. “If you do, it’s really going to spoil my day, and let me tell you, it’s going downhill already.”

He continued to look down at his hands and spoke at last in a voice she could barely hear. “Well, I mean I love you, Beverly, but I don’t want it to spoil anything.”

“It won’t,” she said, and hugged him. “I need all the love I can get right now.”

“But you specially like Bill.”

“Maybe I do,” she said, “but that doesn’t matter. If we were grownups, maybe it would, a little. But I like you all specially. You’re the only friends I have. I love you too, Ben.”

“Thank you,” he said. He paused, trying, and brought it out. He was even able to look at her as he said it. “I wrote the poem.”

Annnnnnnd I get that you can’t really do that, at least not easily, especially with kid actors, in a movie. But it’s just so much better and I reserve the right to be annoyed about it.

I also got the feeling that the part of Bill/Bev/Ben that was Bev having a major crush on Bill was kind of sidetracked, which tends to happen in love triangles such as these. There’s never enough focus on what the girl in the middle of the whole thing actually wants, because the movie is more intent on what both dudes want and how they go about getting it and how she responds to their attempts. So if this triangle had to be as front and center as it was, I would have preferred if Bev got to have an actual, relatable crush and wasn’t just responding to the boys’ feelings most of the time. But maybe that’s something that I can go on endlessly about once this comes out on DVD, and I can compare Bev’s crush in the TV version, this new version, and the book version, because that actually sounds like the most fun I’ll have next year.

Siiiiigh. But I liked this movie. Eddie Kaspbrak was the fucking MVP, though. Wow. Didn’t see that one coming.

PS: There was. A lego. Turtle. A lego. Turtle.

Does that mean.

The turtle.

Is going.

To be.

In part 2.

Because.

If so.

Then.

sokka suki 9

❤ erm

Magic is Might

I remember watching Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in theatres for the first time. I thought it was a step up, quality-wise, from the other movies in the series (I’ll always love Prisoner of Azkaban, though; that one is interesting to look at). I liked the animation sequence for the fairy tale.

I liked how quiet and thoughtful it often was, and I found everything at the Ministry of Magic really impressive.

I do remember thinking, “But why Nazis?”

The Nazi imagery is pretty unmistakable in this movie. I thought it was well done, but I also thought comparing the tyranny of Voldie and like-minded wizards to Nazis was a little bit reductive since, oh, I don’t know, it had been decades since the Nazis were defeated. Comparing everything to Nazis, I thought, was a pretty unchallenging thing to do. Everyone knows Nazis are bad, I thought, and it’s been so long since they’ve had any real power and influence that it would probably be better to make some other, fresher connection with a prejudice story like Harry Potter.

So. I’ve changed my mind.

Let’s not dwell on the empowerment of idiot Nazis all over the globe because of the idiot president, though. I just wanted to take a look at the statues at the Ministry to see how Rowling makes her fantasy society all flawed and oppressive and stuff by degrees and it’s awesome.

The Fountain of Magical Brethren

ministry statue 1

I spent happy hours staring at this illustration on the back of Order of the Phoenix. Yeah, I was that guy.

belle with a book

(That guy, but actually reading the book and not staring at the cover ^^^)

This statue simply shows magical people/creatures being happy and getting along in a fountain of magic. When Harry sees it, he’s a stressed out fifteen-year-old and promises to put 10 galleons in the fountain (it’s for St. Mungo’s) if he doesn’t get expelled.

He doesn’t get expelled and dumps all his money in it, but he also makes this observation:

He looked up into the handsome wizard’s face, but up close, Harry thought he looked rather weak and foolish. The witch was wearing a vapid smile like a beauty contestant, and from what Harry knew of goblins and centaurs, they were most unlikely to be caught staring so soppily at humans of any description. Only the house-elf’s attitude of creeping servility looked convincing. With a grin at the thought of what Hermione would say if she could see the statue of the elf, Harry turned his moneybag upside-down and emptied not just ten Galleons, but the whole contents into the pool at the statues’ feet.

Lookit Harry making wry socio-political observations. I love him.

The fountain gets destroyed because Dumbledore and Voldemort have a huge fight (I am also a big fan of the movie-fight), and then Dumbledore states things a lot more plainly:

The fountain we destroyed tonight told a lie. We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.

Before the full and open return of Voldemort, the magical community is still prejudiced and awful. The Fountain of Magical Brethren is kind of like the magical community’s version of a microaggression, in that it presents a version of reality through art that, intentional or not, doesn’t challenge anyone to rethink the status quo and probably contributes in its own way to the misguided thinking that human magical folk should be the only ones allowed wands, and that the whole house-elf thing is still a good idea, and so on.

It gets replaced with the Magic is Might statue.

magic is might 1magic is might 2

“Muggles, in their rightful place,” Hermione explains.

It’s just slightly different in the book.

Now a gigantic statue of black stone dominated the scene. It was rather frightening, this vast sculpture of a witch and wizard sitting on ornately carved thrones, looking down at the Ministry workers toppling out of fireplaces below them. Engraved in foot-high letters at the base of the statue were the words: MAGIC IS MIGHT….

Harry looked more closely and realised that what he had thought were decoratively carved thrones were actually mounds of carved humans: hundreds and hundreds of naked bodies, men, women and children, all with rather stupid, ugly faces, twisted and pressed together to support the weight of the handsomely robed wizards.

Still awful, still Nazi.

Now that a Death Eater is Minister for Magic, they can come right out and display this crap. Such a statue would not have been tolerated previously, but because of how problematic the Fountain of Magical Brethren was, it’s clear that in the wizarding world the prejudice against everyone who isn’t a witch or wizard has already been brewing for a long time. Voldemort is a product of it, he exploits it, he empowers it; it was already there before his birth and it remains after he dies.

It’s nice to take a minute and not hate the Harry Potter movies. They’re pretty decent, actually, even if they despise my favourite character. Poor Ron, no one appreciates him.

❤ erm

The Life of Pi Movie Misinterprets Itself

So Life of Pi. I’m talking about the very end of both the movie and the book today so it is fully a spoiler fest on here.

Hi there, you. Whoever you are. I’d read Life of Pi, if I were you and the me/you person I/you am/are haven’t read it already. The movie will do in a pinch but the book is seriously good.

There’s a scene near the end of Life of Pi in which the movie very helpfully tells you what the meaning is behind the whole thing. I get it, sort of. We live in such times as apparently nobody wants to have to think ever. It’s probably also because the selling point of this book and movie has always been, “This is a story that will make you believe in God.” I think that’s the bigger problem in need of a “explain the meaning during the runtime” solution right there. That’s a pretty bold statement, and in the book, there’s no outright “aha” moment. Never fear, though, it’s in the movie.

Also, it gets the whole thing 100% wrong.

We return, near the end of the movie, to grown-up Pi lamenting to his narrator friend that he never got to say goodbye to Richard Parker (that would be the tiger). By and by narrator friend says, “… that was an amazing story, but, a little hard to believe?” So grown-up Pi tells another story. This time, we don’t flashback to teenage Pi. We just watch grown-up Pi tell the story in the present day.

In this one, there’s Pi, an evil cannibal chef, a Buddhist sailor, and Pi’s mom. The chef amputates the sailor’s leg to be “helpful” but actually so that they can eat some meat (the chef is a big advocate of meat-eating), the sailor dies, Pi’s mom flips out at/physically attacks the chef for being evil, and the chef kills Pi’s mom, right in front of him. Not long afterwards, Pi kills the chef, who doesn’t resist his own murder. Pi survives on the lifeboat alone and gets to Mexico.

Gross.

So then grown-up Pi asks narrator friend, “Which story did you prefer?” And narrator friend says, “The one with the animals.” And grown-up Pi says, “And so it is with God.”

Sigh.

No, movie. No.

Grown-up Pi’s statement is pretty vague, so it’s not exactly entirely wrong, but the easy interpretation of said statement is, “It’s nicer and funner and more interesting and more comforting and less horrific to think that there’s a God/the sacred texts have some/lots of truth to them, so that’s why we believe that stuff.” And that’s pretty nihilistic, if you ask me. Also the book did it much differently and it’s better.

In the book, the story proper completely ends with Pi lamenting never saying goodbye to Richard Parker. He was devastated. RP meant a lot to him and he would like to have believed that he meant something to RP in turn, but RP never looked back at him. That’s sad. The end.

On the next page, we’re informed that the narrator found a transcript of a conversation between Pi and two guys from the insurance company for the ship. They wanted him to tell them the whole story to try to understand why the ship sank and also lifeboats, I guess.

The transcript starts right after Pi has told them the animal story. They, like movie narrator friend, don’t believe it. They want to be nice (somehow that gets conveyed even though there’s seemingly no artistry to this part; it’s a straight transcript), but they prod him to tell them the real story. “There’s no way you survived on that lifeboat with a tiger. And the flesh-eating island full of meerkats? Come on.”

So eventually he tells them the other story. It’s the same as the one in the movie. At the end of it, there’s silence. Then I think teenage transcript Pi asks them which one they prefer (I can’t find my copy of the book to check), and they of course say they like the animal one. This time, his “Which story do you prefer” isn’t a question of friendly interest, many years after his horrific experience. This time, it seems more pointed, as though he’s saying, “See? I told you the better story but you weren’t satisfied with it, well now look how that turned out for you!”

After the transcript ends, there is a news article about Pi that has used the insurance men as sources. The story of how Pi survived the shipwreck those men have told the journalists is the one with the animals. And that is the end of the book.

We end the book with two very strong notions of what just happened: The story with the humans and no animals is what actually happened, and that the story with the animals is better. But give it some thought, and there’s one conclusion that brings everything together.

The stories are the same.

The same things happen in both stories. The same players are there. Richard Parker is Pi. The chef is the hyena – and in the book, the french man does show up as an actual human being as well, so that even that disgusting man is portrayed as fully human and that is a different discussion – the Buddhist sailor is the zebra, and Orange Juice is Pi’s mom. He even says, during the animal story’s telling, that he’d always thought of Orange Juice as a maternal figure. She has lost her baby in the shipwreck, just as Pi’s mom had lost her other son.

There are key differences, obviously. Maternal though she may be, there’s a big difference between watching a hyena kill an orangutan and watching a horrible person kill your mother. There’s a difference also between a boy murdering his mother’s murderer and a tiger killing a hyena out of primal kill-need.

But… not that much of a difference. At least, I would argue that.

I think the fact that I’m inclined to view animals as being more or less identical to humans in most of the ways that matter means that I view both versions of this story as horrific. In the human version, as awful as all of the killing is, at least it makes sense. There are reasons and motivations for it all that I can relate to. The hyena is unnecessarily cruel with the zebra (and although Martel tries to claim that a hyena would indeed act like that in this situation, I’m calling bullshit), and on meerkat island it’s pointed out that RP kills way more meerkats than he can eat. He just kills them to kill them. It’s a thing about cats I will never understand.

Pi’s mother being murdered is awful. But because Orange Juice is an innocent, her death is, I think, just as awful, but in a different way. Orange Juice didn’t need to object to the hyena’s treatment of the zebra. She didn’t need to put herself in danger, but her compassion and righteous fury compelled her to do so and it’s just really sad that she couldn’t save herself. It’s a different kind of sad and I’ll be forever at pains to explain that being just as sad about bad things to happen to animals as I am about bad things that happen to humans is not a moral failing on my part (or, like, everyone else who feels that way). We can be equally sad about both things in different ways or similar ways depending on the situation, so deal with it. Also this is just fiction but OMG I hate fictional depiction of animal cruelty. I can’t separate it from the real things that happen everyday.

Here.

It’s super sad at first but then there’s a bunch of baby orangs in a wheelbarrow so. You know.

Sorry, fellow humans. It seems that the greatest ape is the orangutan.

Anyway. There are clear differences in how the personal trauma will affect Pi depending on whether it’s his mother and humans or his zoo animals, but other than that, it’s the same story.

Life of Pi doesn’t endeavour to make you believe in God. It’s just showing you how sacred texts work.

A religious story may bend the truth or completely fabricate it. We have no way of knowing. Jesus of Nazareth, who was probably one of the most influential people to walk the planet ever, only has one piece of historical evidence to call his own. Something about how James is his brother and they called him “Christ.” That’s it. There’re the gospels but those weren’t written down until hundreds of years post crucifixion. At least some of that stuff isn’t true. Maybe a lot of it isn’t. What Life of Pi is suggesting is that it doesn’t matter what specifically is factually true, because the point of the story is to make meaning which is a different kind of truth.

The animals on the lifeboat, RP moreso than the others, are there to give Pi’s experience meaning. Without them, it’s just another story about people doing awful things in awful circumstances. And with RP especially, Pi’s struggle for survival isn’t just a boy being resourceful and almost starving or dying of thirst and eventually making it. His relationship with RP makes his survival story something more. It’s about having compassion for that part of yourself that you are ashamed of, the more animalistic, enraged, violent side of you. Pi has to keep RP fed and watered for his own sanity, and RP needs Pi to care for him because he’s just a tiger on a lifeboat. He can’t do that himself. They befriend each other, but Pi can never communicate with RP the way he would like to. And RP, excepting those moments when he really is dying, is always a gigantic threat to Pi, if he lets his guard down.

Having the tiger there makes it a really entertaining, easy to understand story about the human condition and human nature and internal darkness and lizard brains and stuff. Everything that happens with RP is truthful, if the human version of the story is the “real” one, even though there is no tiger. Because the tiger just represents an element of Pi that shows up when he needs it to and disappears once he’s back in civilization.

About the God stuff, then. I like to think you can interpret this in both ways. In Life of Pi terms, believing in God is the same as not believing in God, it’s just that believing in God adds metaphorical meaning to the question of why we’re even here. In God’s absence, we should still probably be trying to help each other out but everything is messy and uncertain. In God’s presence that idea of radical love/kindness is made a little clearer (only for people who don’t use their faith to be cowards and bigots, of course, but still), and a little more artfully. On the other hand, because Richard Parker is real whether or not he’s actually a tiger, the book does seem to edge further towards the “believing in God” side of the spectrum, which is fine. Pi would approve; he’s a God fan.

While the ending of the movie annoys me, I do really like this one scene:

Because:

  • Pi looks at RP, who is looking at the stars
  • RP looks at the water, and his reflection
  • Pi looks at RP looking at his reflection
  • Pi looks at his own reflection
  • RP reflecting while looking at his reflection
  • Images of Pi’s and RP’s past and the shipwreck
  • Pi looking at Pi’s reflection
  • RP looking at Pi looking his reflection

AHHH! It’s so cool. And you can’t do that in a book.

Also, the flesh-eating island that looks like a tomb? That was brilliant.

The fact that they used a real tiger for some scenes and at one point he almost drowned? Not brilliant.

Superheroes, Lately

Let’s talk about three superhero movies that came out this year and the important things they did that superhero movies haven’t previously done in my opinion which is a good opinion and is a very informed opinion as always. (Hint – no, it’s not the latter and probably not the former either. But I think I’m on to a couple of things, at least.)

I’d watch Wonder WomanGuardians of the Galaxy 2, and Lego Batman before reading. Also I’d just watch all of those movies in general. So.

In brief:

Wonder Woman

Well, it’s about a female superhero. That alone isn’t new, but it’s also actually critically and financially successful, which is new for a woman-led superhero movie. It gives the love interest really important things to do, which makes it unique among the superhero movies I’ve seen. It’s also clearly actually about something, morality-wise. I’d argue that most of them aren’t, apart from maybe the responsibilities of power – and only if it’s one of the good Spider-Man movies. Most of them present some sort of simplistic good vs evil conflict that we’re supposed to just take at face value, because if we start questioning it it all starts to fall apart (why is Bruce Wayne so rich and can he please just stop, for example). They’re also more interested in being character-driven and all about the spectacle, which would be more than fine usually (superheroes are supposed to be fun, otherwise what’s the point). But with Marvel producing a billion a minute and with DC producing a bunch that are pretty impressively not entertaining or fun in the slightest, it’s getting super boring up in here without even basic introspection or bigger attempts to shake things up. But yeah, this one is about stuff. Pretty basic stuff but stuff nonetheless, and I’m interested to see if future Wonder Woman movies are also actually about stuff in more ways than this first one is.

Guardians of the Galaxy

This one paired up all of the characters (except Groot) and they all discussed their flaws and past mistakes and vulnerability with each other, to varying degrees. For me, the most intriguing pairs were Gamora/Nebula and Rocket/Yondu. Quill/Dickface was more important to the plot than it was important for character development (if I’m remembering correctly) and Drax/Mantis was comic-reliefy. But either way, I found it really engaging, and it meant that I liked this one waaaaay better than the first one, which I think is a minority opinion but I’m thrilled to have it even if I have to be alone.

Lego Batman

Finally, Batman is deservedly, deservedlydeservedly being mocked. Catharsis, at long last.

Also Voldemort was in it a lot. I told everyone who asked me how it was after I saw it that he was prominently featured and the reaction to that was, universally, “… what?”

Now, in length:

Superheroes are weird, and also Pixar movies make me feel all sorts of things

“Superhero movies aren’t about anything,” I just said, cruelly. I do understand why it has to be that way. There are lots of reasons but I think the main and obvious and boring one is that if you make a story be entirely about morality, it’s not going to be a good story. It doesn’t need to be said because it is pretty obvious, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: you need to strike a balance. Characters and the small, specific plot that they have to work their way through need to be at the forefront – but some sort of morality should be behind it and will be there whether you try to put it there or not – especially if it’s a story about powerful people trying to protect vulnerable people from other powerful people, which is supposedly what all superhero stories are.

My problem then is not that there isn’t morality in these movies, it’s more that I think these movies specifically would lend themselves to important morality discussions, but they tend to waste that opportunity. So now let’s talk about Pixar movies for a while.

I have what I suspect are silly problems with Wall-E that resemble my probably silly problems with superhero movies in general. But at the risk of sounding like a humorless moralist, I’ll go into it anyway. I think Wall-E has a moral that doesn’t go along with its plot. The moral is that you shouldn’t just do boring, repetitive things or you’ll miss out on life. And that’s fine, but there’s also the pesky thing where they have a plant, which, as far as anyone knows throughout the entire movie, is the only plant on earth. But the plant is treated as incidental. It’s why Eve shows up on earth and it’s what the captain, who is the best character, is invested in, but is otherwise unimportant. Wall-E and Eve’s love story is what’s centered, and the return to earth is just the subplot, as it should be. But the moment that Auto crushes Wall-E is the moment the moral plot gets swallowed by the love story, because now they aren’t going home to start taking responsibility for destroying it, but rather because the stupid robot needs to be repaired. Because the plant has previously been Eve’s sole directive but now Wall-E is and blaaaaaaah I don’t care, I’m too worried about the plant starting to wilt to care about the robot.

At this point I become a reluctant viewer. Because the entire moral of Wall-E is to forget about your job. Just, toss it aside in complete abandon so that you can do what’s important to you personally instead. For Mo, it’s cleaning Wall-E. For all of the broken robots, it’s being completely useless and somewhat dangerous, let’s be real. For Wall-E and Eve it’s holding hands.

BUT OMG EVE THE PLANT!!!!! THE WHOLE WORLD IS DEAD AND NOW YOU ALL HAVE A CHANCE TO CLEAN IT UP I DON’T CARE THAT YOU WANT TO HOLD HANDS YOU’RE JUST ROBOTS AND SOMETIMES YOUR JOBS ARE ACTUALLY VITAL AND YOU NEED TO DO THEM PROPERLY I MEAN GET THAT MASSAGE THERAPY ROBOT REPAIRED BEFORE THEY KILL SOMEBODY WHY DO I HAVE TO EXPLAIN THIS

Maybe I have a heart of stone but Wall-E could have actually died and I wouldn’t have cared at all. I was way more invested in the return to earth for sake of, just, earth. That’s probably because seeing endless piles of garbage everywhere made me actually upset and I stopped being a passive audience-member and started being an environmentalist. But the sort of sentimentality they were going for with Wall-E and Eve works like a charm on me if the story meshes character and moral flawlessly, which Pixar does with Inside Out. The moral is that sadness is a good thing and that being relentlessly happy in every context can be thoroughly damaging, which is pretty revolutionary. I think Bing Bong’s death is… let’s just say it’s sad. Very sad. I care about that one. And that’s coming from me, the person who thought, as soon as Bing Bong showed up on screen, “OMG that character has to die before the end or this movie will have no integrity.” And I stand by that opinion.

Sorry. As well as being more likely to get attached to a plant in a shoe than a personified romance robot, I have a major problem with Pixar relentlessly valuing the infantilizing of female characters. I hate – HATE – the Jessie/Emily scene in TS2. I hate it so much. I shouldn’t hate it as much as I do but by golly I hate that scene. To be fair, they do this with male characters too and I hate it then also, but I find it particularly insidious when it’s girls. I liked my childhood; I look back on it fondly. But I’m also super glad that I got to grow up and I get really mad when people treat me like a child despite the fact that I achieved adulthood and it’s a thing that happens to women all the time. So Pixar needs to stop. And they did when Bing Bong died and Riley gets to experience new, complicated, reaching-age-of-maturity emotions without clinging to things that were only relevant to her as a toddler, and it’s amazing that he recognizes this and that he can still be helpful to her by sacrificing himself to get Joy back to where she belongs, but his death is still really, really sad.

To summarize: meshing character/plot/morality is crucial and easy to get wrong and it’s going to make different people respond differently to different movies because your mileage may vary, of course. But I think that this sort of thing should, in theory, be easy in superhero stories, maybe even easier in superhero movies than Pixar films. Superheroes are effortlessly cool, and they also kind of have to be about the good/evil binary, so, really they should just write themselves.

And yet, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I’m only going by recent movies, though. I’m sure the old Superman movies did a reasonably good job with this. I’ve heard of the one that tries to take on the nuke issue and does a kind of naive job of it, but at least, as far as I’m concerned, it took on that issue. Because lately I haven’t seen actual morality discussed in superhero movies and I think they could use those discussions. And what I mean by that starts at Superhero Ethics 101: Should You Even Be Doing This At All I Mean Really You Can So Easily Kill So Many People Just By Doing This Stuff Please Think About it Carefully at Least Once in the Run Time. And then there’s Superhero Ethics 102: What to do When “Some Lunatic Comes Along with a Sadistic Choice.” We’ll get to that one in a minute.

Uncle Ben’s “With great power comes great responsibility,” is the closest thing recent superhero movies come to examining what responsibilities superheroes have. Peter learns the lesson on a very personal level, since his spite is indirectly responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, and then I guess he vows to fight crime, because he can, being a wall-climber. I’d like to see a little more focus on the commitment to do-goodery. It’s often taken as a given, and goes unquestioned. It stops at that one quote. “With great power comes great responsibility.” But I have no idea what that means to any of these dudes personally, beyond, “Let’s fight petty crime in this city and wait around for a supervillain to show up and then fight that guy too.” What are their values, these superdudes? Why petty crime, specifically? And why is it so passive, the hanging out fighting petty crime until some other costumed dude shows up? Why are superheroes not more proactive about any of this stuff? How exactly are they committed to making the world a better place, other than stopping crimes that are conveniently in progress right when they show up?

Focusing on Spider-Man, I could ask: are spider powers really the best way to protect New Yorkers from crime? I get that spider powers are the coolest visual way to fight crime in New York, but is it really just car chases and muggings and bank robberies and fires and back alley rapists that Peter should be focusing on, to live up to Uncle Ben’s expectations about taking responsibility? There’s other stuff going on, too, like police brutality. Or homelessness. Has – has a superhero ever done something for a homeless person, in a movie? Maybe some self-reflection would be nice, occasionally. Part of the reason that doesn’t happen is the supervillains, who apart from being super villainous, are also super convenient. The heroes are just out and about, doing small-time hero work, stopping cliché crime people, and I assume they go home and contemplate their strategies and maybe look into ways to get rid of the causes of petty crime rather than just whipping around putting bank robbers in huge spiderwebs, because Peter needs to pay the rent and also eventually he’s going to get older and he won’t be able to do this anymore so maybe trying to make the crime rate go down in ways that don’t require his physical presence and prowess would be prudent, and then maybe poverty-stricken Peter Parker starts thinking about different ways he could try to use his powers to shelter homeless people or to combat crimes that don’t generally get treated like crimes because society is annoying – like what are the superhero ethics of going against the police to stop them hurting people they’re arresting, whether they’re arresting them rightly or wrongly, and not just going against the police because it looks cool (TBF it probably shouldn’t be a white character who does that but Miles Morales – I’m just saying)? I really want to see all of that stuff explored, but inevitably right at that point in all of these movies is when the supervillain shows up and all of the interesting stuff that could have happened just doesn’t happen.

Also I know Watchmen exists but it doesn’t count. It’s too cynical to be included in this discussion. I strongly believe that superhero stories don’t have to be cynical in order to take on interesting, thought-provoking, real-world relevant morality issues. Not to disparage Watchmen because it is very good, but it isn’t useful here.

Speaking of cynicism, the first Guardians movie briefly does a thing in which the characters debate whether they should risk their lives to literally save the galaxy – the big scene about this is probably the best scene in there. This happens on and off throughout the movie but when it comes right down to it, they barely even contemplate the possibility of trying to run, because despite how cynical most of them are, they believe in friendship and stuff – shockingly, it has to be said. And it is the power of friendship that both saves their lives, and then the galaxy, in the span of maybe five or ten minutes.

But there isn’t really any commentary there about making a tough choice because it’s the right one. There probably shouldn’t be, because the movie is supposed to be mostly comedic but then sincere at the end, so it has to remain comedic enough throughout to allow for the sincerity of the climax to actually work without coming across as being as stupid and insincere as everything else these characters do. But that still means they aren’t really saying much about this stuff.

wonder woman

Wonder Woman doesn’t say all of the sophisticated and complex things it could have said about WWI or war in general. When Steve says, “I’m one of the good guys… those are the bad guys,” he’s not wrong, because those guys are specifically trying to return stolen plans for a devastating gas attack, an attack that would kill people on both sides, but the futility of the Allies/Central Powers conflict, and how a lot of posturing and egomania led to millions of deaths and plenty of devastation (not to mention that twenty years later an even worse one broke out that was directly a consequence of how badly the first one’s end was managed) is one heck of a discussion that could have happened and does not happen. It’s hard to have that discussion and still root for… anyone, to be fair. But because Wonder Woman does a broader thing at the end where she declares that she’s going to try, and keep trying, whether humanity deserves her labour or not, it still is sort of making a point about war. Despite how banal and commonplace and empowered real evil is during wars and leading up to them, she’s committed to trying to influence the world towards eventual peace. That makes her one of a kind, recently, and previously I do suspect it’s only Superman and the Naive Cold War Stuff that has tried to take on a cause worthy of a freaking superhero. I mean really.

Importantly – I don’t want to see superheroes taking on the Holocaust, or anything like that, because that would be in pretty bad taste and would be way more naive than Superman vs the Nukes. I just think that the movies set in modern times could stand to say something bold and useful about what people in various places of privilege should maybe sort of try to do with their privilege, since we have it.

But. Diana is proactive. She believes, fiercely, in her responsibility to the entire freaking world. She believes in protecting mankind even though she isn’t one of them. And the final decision she makes is to continue to pursue her goal of peace for everyone despite the fact that people are flawed. Her determination and belief are presented as naive and occasionally reckless, but ultimately she succeeds. Because, sure, Ares wasn’t disguised as that German guy, but he does exist and he does show up and she does have to kill him. And then there’s that no-man’s land scene where her idealism turns out to be perfectly fine, because she can back it up with superpowers. I’ve also seen a bit of griping about how Diana is constantly set up to learn things from Steve, but I actually think that they learn from each other fairly evenly. Sure, her boldness messes things up a couple of times, but he follows her into situations he declares are too risky like a billion times (OK fine, it’s maybe once or twice, but shut up) and it turns out to be fine, and she was right after all. Also this has nothing to do with superhero ethics but early on there’s this perfect moment where he tries to set himself up as a potential educator for her, since she’s a woman from an island filled only with women, and therefore obviously she wouldn’t know anything about this, on the subject of sexual pleasure. I think that’s what he’s trying to do, anyway. He says he’s virile because he’s a spy (lol?). And she’s like, “Dude, please.”

Later when they do have sex, it’s preceded by her explicitly asking him to tell her what typical long-term committed heteronormative romantic relationships are like and he says he has no idea, which I think is a good summary of who’s teaching who what. They’re both in extraordinary circumstances and are constantly having their ideas about what they and the people around them should or shouldn’t or can or can’t do challenged which is EXACTLY what superhero movies need more of. I think the reason this movie seems to achieve this so effortlessly is that it necessarily has to confront gender roles throughout the run time, so all of the not-specifically-gender-role-related things just naturally get the same treatment because they’re already conscious of and trying to challenge norms.

At the end as Diana battles her supervillain, the literal god of war, it’s not really him that’s the danger to her, or, crucially, to the people around her who she is supposed to be protecting, and influencing. She’s just battling herself. She has believed for most of the movie that guiding humanity toward peace is her job, so now that she has discovered that it’s going to be a lot harder for her to accomplish than she thought, and it might be impossible, does she want to do difficult work for people who may not be inherently good without an external evil influence after all? And then she decides that, yes, she does, and then that’s that.

She’s not only committed to physically ending war but to being an influential figure for the good, always. The influential figure part of her identity is also an aspect of superheroes that doesn’t get highlighted enough. There are some kids in Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and those parts are always really good, and I know Gotham-Joffrey is in Batman Begins and wannabe-Batmans are in The Dark Knight and there are orphans (or at least, a discussion about orphans) in The Dark Knight Rises, so it does happen, but it’s a thing that should happen more. Superheroes should more often actually reflect on the fact that their actions will inspire lots of people. If they make a mistake, they may unintentionally endorse a lot of terrible stuff and that’s a story line I already know I’d like better than “oh no Doc Oc has robot arms and stuff.” It’s also much, much better than another type of story that tends to emerge: “oh no, all of the ordinary people hate and fear these massively overpowered metahumans among them and they’re trying to stop them waaaah.” Sometimes that can be OK, like in any given X-men story, but personally I don’t think “superpowers as stand-ins for marginalization” works very well for good discussions about what marginalization is and how it works and why it needs to stop. It’s better for making marginalized people feel empowered, which is no small thing. But if your identity is marginalized because you can move all the metal around you at will, well, maybe you’re actually the privileged one, now. And they attempt to explore that with Magneto but it’s never a clear exploration of these ideas because they never fully own that the X-men literally are extremely dangerous to everyone else, if they choose to be, and that even the hatemongering rises out of an actually legitimate concern. They can’t. It would ruin the whole thing. So.

Also sometimes it isn’t OK. That part of the story in The Incredibles is important for setting up the plot and raising the stakes, but it’s also kind of uncomfortable, if you think about it long enough. And everyone who ever expressed a concern over Batman’s vigilantism was right and I hope they’re eventually vindicated. What Bruce needs is a good therapist.

I haven’t seen the most recent Captain America movie but I heard that it was about Iron Man deciding that maybe the Avengers need to be more careful about the things they do and the unintentional damage they cause, but the movie seems to think that’s silly and takes Cap’s side, which is, weirdly, “Nah.” So if I’d watched it I could go into more detail but that seems like it’s close to what I’m looking for – introspection-wise, at least. But it also sounds like it’s a clear rejection of the premise that maybe superheroes need to take several steps back in every situation, because they are way too powerful for comfort.

Someone on twitter talked briefly about how weird it is that superheroes are actually pretty fascist, if you think about it, and that no one talks about this. Well, hey, I think the movies themselves should talk about it. I think that might make an interesting superhero movie. Take just one conflict that often arises in these movies: the, “oh no, the supervillain is going to make the hero choose between x and the screaming female love interest because he can only save one in time!” And the hero always is actually able to save both. Here’s a thought: have the hero choose the love interest. Have the hero really own that selfish choice, and have to live with how they made a selfish choice that benefits only them and the person they love at the expense of others and they made the choice because they can. And if the hero chooses whatever x is? Well that isn’t much better. Why did the hero knowingly place a vulnerable person in a dangerous situation? Why didn’t they just make like Don Quixote and choose “to love, pure and chaste, from afar?” (I know that isn’t fair for Peter in the first movie because MJ being in danger is all Harry’s fault but still, even having lived through this experience, in the later movies he decides that it’s worth the risk to be with her, so…) Why do these movies always make it really easy on these characters – why do they get to have it both ways? Why are they never responsible for the actual damage they cause? Why are they not responsible for the conflicts they choose not to try to get involved with?

Beeeeecause superhero movies are, to a one, uniformly morally dull. It’s enough to make a marxist critic out of me, honestly. Why are we celebrating all of these silly-costumed ubermensches anyway, if they can’t even be bothered to do something about homelessness?

The stuff in Wonder Woman is definitely not as complex as I would have liked – and it doesn’t address the fascism thing, I mean, she’s literally a god – but I did write this paragraph once when I was talking about how Starkid keeps scooping mainstream popular culture:

My thing is a Harley Quinn movie where she dumps the Joker for good and that’s all. Throw some Batman cameos in there, maybe have Poison Ivy be the love interest, Catwoman cameos too because Catwoman is my queen. My thing is live-action Kim PossibleTeen Titans and literally no one is white. Superheroes fight grassroots battles too, like Beast Boy fights against the meat industry or Cyborg joins BLM. Superheroes literally stop wars. Those are the things I want.”

It seems to me that Wonder Woman is the closest thing to that last thing that I’ll be getting. And right now, I’m OK with that. It ever-so-slightly began a conversation about superhero responsibility and it took on a real, actual, gigantic issue that isn’t the stupid Joker again. And while sure, there’s never a discussion about “Hey Diana, use your powers judiciously maybe, people are delicate,” the entire final conflict is her clearly stating her intention to fight for people rather than ignore them because they aren’t perfect. I think this clear statement is kinder than the sorts of things that happen in movies like The Incredibles or The Dark Knight or whatever went on in Batman V Superman. It does highlight Diana’s decision to not drop a tank on Dr. Poison, even though she is awful. That’s promising, as far as I’m concerned.

And of course it centers a woman doing superhero things, and just like when I saw The Force Awakens, I hadn’t realized until I actually saw it happening how big of a deal it is, letting female characters be centered in the sorts of stories where previously only male characters have been centered.

So also, we need to start doing that with people of colour. It’s happening a little bit, but it needs to happen more. Stat. In Wonder Woman there are black Amazons which is great, but unfortunately because there’s only so much time we can spend on Amazon island it’s only Diana’s mother and aunt who get to say and do plot and thematically important things, and that’s too bad. Sameer is also a bit of a stereotype, which seems extremely unnecessary. This movie could have done a better job with this stuff, too, but what’s really important is those movies that will center superheroes who are POC. Black Panther looks good, eh? But that doesn’t excuse Marvel for not just having Miles Morales be their Spider-Man because we have enough Peter Parker movies, and some of them are really good. Come on.

One little side note before I move on: Big Hero 6 and Megamind both have better, more clearly stated, and more thematically relevant examinations of what it means to be a superhero and the responsibilities inherent in it than most (… all?) live action superhero movies do (I hesitate to say that maybe Wonder Woman does this pretty flawlessly too, because I think it does, but I’ve only seen it once and it’s still too fresh). And sure, a lot of that is that the better family films always more clearly state their moral while still embedding it nicely in the surrounding plot, and the morals are usually a lot simpler, but still.

Lego Zatana, is what I’m thinking. I don’t know much about Zatana but I’m willing to learn, people who make the Lego movies. And Disney animated women of colour Marvel superheroines that I don’t know the names of because I’m unfamiliar with comics generally and we don’t have any of those in the movie Marvelverse despite having an Ant Man, a Doctor Strange, and three Thor movies. I’m not nearly the first to point that out and yet it’s still 100% true.

One other little side note: a story where an ubermensch uses their mystical, magical powers ALWAYS with the greater good and responsibilities of power in mind and front and center is Avatar, both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Which is part of why this blog is going to be clogged with posts about it for most of the summer. But yeah, Avatars are the true heroes that Gotham needs, and deserves. To be perfectly honest I have no fucking clue what that “hero that Gotham needs right now vs hero that Gotham deserves” thing even means, and I don’t even know how the sentence actually goes, and I don’t think I ever will.

All right I won’t write as much about Guardians 2

When I saw the first Guardians movie I was really annoyed about how it used Nebula. I thought she had an interesting backstory because it was exactly the same as Gamora’s, except with a bit of an inferiority complex thrown in, and I wanted to see some sympathy thrown her way but she just propped up the boring villain, got shot at by Drax, and then she took off. So then I saw the second Guardians movie.

Boy howdy.

I don’t even think that the Nebula/Gamora thing was that prominent, but it was actually satisfyingly addressed. I honestly didn’t think it would be until it actually started happening, but it was! Look at me, getting what I want out of a Marvel movie for once.

What the Gamora/Nebula pairing up also accomplishes is that it takes Gamora away from Quill for a bit. Their relationship is all right, but it’s also kind of really not. She’s humorless, he’s not, she doesn’t dance, he does, but also she’s much more of an idealist than he is, or at least, it seems that way because of his performative carefree carelessness, whoo, haven’t seen that one before. She’s both a melting ice queen and the inspiration he needs to give a damn. It’s fine, it’s just also really predictable and hard to care about. Gamora in the first movie does interact with the other Guardians besides Quill, but not in any meaningful way. Her character development happens solely around him, whereas he gets to have deeper discussions with Yondu and he’s the one who sees Rocket’s back all mutilated and nonverbally reacts with at least some sympathy. Not to mention his whole backstory with his mom, which we see happen onscreen at the beginning of the movie, whereas Gamora’s childhood/adolescence is just stated in a heated conversation. Rocket and Drax also don’t have their backstories depicted onscreen, but they do get into a huge, violent fight about it and later sort of make up. Gamora is just there, supposedly feeling a lot of things but not sharing them with anyone, except, reluctantly, with Quill sometimes.

But now that her sister shows up, Gamora has someone else to open up to and feel sympathy for. They provide each other with the opportunity for character development that isn’t tied up in a heteronormative romance subplot. Bechdel for the win, guys.

Can we have superhero movies about a team-up of sisters? Or mother-daughter team-ups? Or girlfriends, or girl friend-friends?

Then there’s the Yondu and Rocket pairing. Both of these dudes are in some serious pain in this movie. Rocket cries again. It’s important to me that Rocket cries in both movies. Yondu actually says things that are supposed to be supportive to Quill. I might argue that Yondu and Rocket are the most hypermasculine characters here (let’s set Drax aside, he’s just here for the ride in this movie). Yondu gets all stoicly quiet-defeated-sad (… I would too, what happens to him is pretty horrific), and Rocket just relentlessly lashes out at everyone around him, but then they help each other deal and then they express their feelings in ways that are still a little muted, but at least they’re expressing their feelings.

Yeah I liked this movie.

And finally, making fun of Batman because he is the worst

I think Batman is officially the world’s most popular superhero. I get it. He used to be my favourite, too. Mostly that was because he was closely associated with Catwoman but I did like him on his own as well.

My love for Batman started to ebb away because I thought the politics of The Dark Knight Rises were stupid, and not even the magnificent fact that Catwoman appears in that movie could fix that. There are also a lot of internet personalities who I followed who were beginning to lament how cold and macho and unfun Batman had become in the Nolan movies, and I sort of agreed.

Then Holy Musical B@man! happened. Here are some lyrics:

I was seeing a girl for a while.
A couple days, anyway, and I told her I loved her.
She said, “You’re such a good friend, that rash is bad.
You should probably go see a doctor.”

Then she just disappeared, sent me some text
About bad timing and my love being selfish. [Pout]
Then my doctor called up, and the blood came back,
and as it turned out, I’m allergic to peanuts and shellfish.
(I loved peanuts and shellfish, once.)

I’m falling apart, I’m lacking punch.
I can barely eat. This morning I BARELY TOUCHED MY BRUNCH.
Two spoons of oatmeal, a couple of nuts, and half a banana.
And like my soul, the banana was bruised and black.

Those are from a song where Batman is talking about how he wants a friend, for a lot of reasons but chief among them is that he needs a co-captain for the Friendship Ship (or maybe just the Friend Ship). Later Robin shows up. Honestly, this story is almost exactly like Lego Batman in everything including random, not-officially Batman-related characters showing up.

I can’t exactly remember but I think Lego Batman makes at least sort of a point about Batman’s violence being a little over the top and in need of some introspection. I do know that the musical does this explicitly. There’s a cutesy song about Batman and Robin’s budding friendship that keeps taking pauses so that they can scream a lot and beat criminals into submission. So.

But where Lego Batman goes beyond even Holy Musical B@man! is that part near the beginning where Barbara Gordon declares that they should try a new approach to dealing with crime, because the typical “let Batman handle it by beating people up” approach has become kind of unnecessary. That is so cool. I’m pretty sure that even the comics haven’t done a “what would happen if Bruce just tried *not* doing it the ultraviolence-in-the-backalleys-of-Gotham way” story, and I’m pretty sure the comics have done a lot of different, incredibly wacky things, to the point where maybe they’ve exhausted all of the wacky premises for Batman stories and maybe they should try to re-imagine how a superhero story might work and be revolutionary, for a change.

I don’t know how to conclude so here are some pictures of Nigel dressed as Wonder Woman

nige and gender

The only push back I got on that was, “But does he like wearing any clothes?” Which is fair enough. He doesn’t. But he likes to go outside and clothes mean he gets to go outside so he’s fine.

Erm Watches Paper Towns to the Chagrin of Probably No One

I’m going to watch Paper Towns while making occasional comments like I did for Pinocchio, but first, a long-winded (and probably reductive anyway) discussion about contentious things like manic pixie dream girls, female characters in general, and John Green.

I’ve never read a John Green novel. I’ve seen the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars, and I don’t want to talk about it (mostly because I don’t want to seem heartless because I didn’t like it I’m so sorry). I’ve also seen some of his YouTube videos and he seems lovely. And I’m glad he’s as successful as he is, and I hope he keeps writing novels that are successful as his current novels are. Because when people, especially young people, are excited about and enjoying reading, everyone wins. But.

So.

I’m under the impression, perhaps (probably?) unfairly, that… well… doesn’t he write a lot of MPDGs?

It’s unfair of me to make that claim having never read his books. And I’m not getting into my thoughts on TFiOS, especially because I’ve only seen the movie. And also MPDGs are a contentious issue anyway, with the coiner of the term abandoning it because he now feels it’s reductive and often used incorrectly because of misogyny. And I’m probably using it wrong here anyway. And the reality is, as annoying as I might find this character archetype when she’s a woman, isn’t Jack Dawson in Titanic sort of the same thing, only male?

OK fine, one thing about TFiOS the movie: Gus, I think, is also a manic pixie dream girl, but a guy. But there’s more to him than the effect he has on Hazel, and in Titanic Jack isn’t really just there for Rose, but rather for the entire tragedy of the historical event the movie is based on. So sure, I’m going to agree that the term is reductive, because if the story in question uses the archetype well, then it’ll probably be fine.

I still think it’s harder for stories to get it right with the female versions, though. Female characters are always harder to get right, and it’s probably because there’s still a decent chunk of the population who think women are somehow less capable, adult, interesting, worthwhile, and human than men, whether they’re aware of those feelings or not. And media tends to sort of agree, at times. I’ve watched many a movie/read many a book in which the female love interest exists only as something for the male lead to obtain/have/enjoy or whatever. There’s the Bechdel Test (a movie must have more than one named female character, and they have to have a conversation that isn’t about a man) and the Sexy Lamp Test (where if your female character can basically be replaced by a sexy lamp because she has no agency or relevance to the story, you’re bad at writing). The Bechdel Test is reductive if you use it against individual movies – it’s mostly about showing just how seldom those three things happen in any given story, which, you know, means something. And the Sexy Lamp Test isn’t about complaining about female characters being attractive – it’s about them being irrelevant to the movie apart from their attractiveness.

There isn’t a name, or I haven’t come across it yet, for when a romance subplot is mainly about making the male lead seem cool – or if it takes a detour to make the male lead seem cool, but recently I watched two minutes each of two Chris Pratt movies: Jurassic World, and Passengers. In both moments I happened to catch before scoffing and changing the channel, Chris Pratt does something that I guess is supposed to be impressive (without context it’s hard to say), and then his love interest does a bit of swooning. In Jurassic World there are kids involved. “Your boyfriend is awesome.” Yeah. I noped right out of there.

I should hasten to add: it’s fine for characters to swoon over their love interests. Probably they should, in fact. But there’s something about the “male lead shows off while female love interest swoons” thing that makes me nope. I think filmmakers just have to be careful about it, so that the indulgence of “I get to be cool while the girl I like watches” is palatable and not just painfully obvious. For example, I don’t mind it when it’s Kirsten Dunst in Spider Man, because everyone stares at Spider Man when he swoops off like that, but it’s just extra special when she does it because he likes her. And who knows, maybe the rest of those movies add context that makes those scenes palatable if I’d been watching them properly (hahahaha I know they don’t but whatever).

I don’t remember what J Law’s character’s swoon moment in Passengers did to bother me. Probably nothing. I just know how that movie’s story goes so her swooning at all for him was enough to gross me out.

My point is that female characters often don’t get to do a whole lot, so even when they’re very important to the plot, and to the emotions, and to the themes that the main character has to engage with, like in a MPDG-type story, I think it’s probably easy for filmmakers to just allow the characters to serve a purpose solely about the male lead and not treat them like dynamic, flawed, interesting people in their own right.

With that said, I’m going to watch Paper Towns. Because I saw a couple of minutes of it, thought it looked like garbage, and now I’d like to either confirm or deny that theory.

(Can I just ingratiate myself to you, whoever you may be, whether you’re a Paper Towns fan or not, whether you like the odd MPDG or swooning female love interest or not, right now: I like plenty of garbage. Like Spice World. I LOVE Spice World. So. It’s fine. Whatever happens, I’m still the person who loves Spice World knowing it’s terrible and I’m still the person who will passionately defend its existence because of its depictions of female friendships or something. Also I don’t really like Beauty and the Beast. What I’m essentially saying is, feel free to not listen to anything I ever say, ever.)

10:26 pm. I’m just home from seeing Lego Batman so this movie is going to pale in comparison, even if it’s good.

10:28: He fell in love instantly, and they became friends as kids. They find a dead guy.

10:30: “It’s a shame, don’t you think? All the strings inside him broke.” I know it’s Green’s thing, but come on. Kids don’t talk like that. No one does.

10:31: She sneaks out the window all the time. They drifted apart and he still thinks about her and wants a second chance. What was your first chance, man? Investigating a suicide at Sea World in the middle of the night as kids?

10:32: Her life is epic. Toured with a band, and a circus, among other things. Leaves clues in alphabet soup for her sister as to where she’s going next.

10:33: This “I want to have sex with your mom” bit is one of the most obnoxious ones I’ve seen. Which, you know, is saying a lot.

10:35: His friends have weird quirks too. Radar’s parents have too many Black Santas. Ben is plagued by rumours that his bloody urine caused by a kidney infection was actually caused by chronic masturbation. K.

10:37: Senior year Margo is still making obnoxious demands but it’s less cute now that she isn’t a kid. Has a stupid name for her “goddamn dog” who “despises” her.

10:38: I’m trying, I really am. I don’t want to hate her. I don’t know anything about her. But UGH.

10:39: All right she’s criticizing his plans that will make him happy in the future and thinks he should find something that makes him happy now. She’s not wrong. But. Why are they talking about this?

10:43: This would be more interesting if he weren’t whining about everything she does as she does it. Just go with it, Quentin or you should have stayed home.

10:44: They got shot at.

10:45: Oh. He progressed. He’s spray painting a saran-wrapped car.

10:47: In 6th grade at the dance this particular guy they’re getting revenge on told all the girls not to dance with Quentin and they went along with it and she’s really sorry. And now she’s talked him into removing the guy’s eyebrow.

10:49: She’s very invested in Quentin’s new ability to have fun for a girl who’s supposedly fixated on revenge against her cheating boyfriend and disloyal friends.

10:52: Title drop. She’s being deep about how shallow everything and everyone else is.

10:53: She regrets not being friends with him this whole time.

10:55: I still think she’s too invested in how he feels about things instead of focusing on her own stuff for either of them to be worthwhile characters. But maybe it’s just early.

10:57: Now he’s threatening to release the nude picture of the ex-boyfriend to avoid getting beaten up.

10:59: She disappeared.

11:00: Margo’s parents suck.

11:02: Oh nice, a gay joke.

11:11: K they’re going to find her and I’m reading my twitter feed.

11:15: Ooh, the title now has an alternative, mysterious meaning. Moby Dick reference ftw.

11:24: “No one ever looks at me and thinks that I’m smart or interesting or clever.” Lacey’s saying this, because the first word people use to describe her is “beautiful.” Had chlamydia at one point. I actually liked that little moment between her and Quentin. Can’t this movie be about her instead?

11:29: Oh good, Lacey’s here now.

11:40: The Gus cameo was worth looking up from the kindle for.

12:01: Aaaand here’s the deconstruction.

12:09: I’m glad it ended like that. It very much redeemed itself.

So yes, I was being unfair to John Green. Paper Towns seems like it’s an attempt to write the manic pixie dream girl as if she’s a real person, with actual flaws, and criticizes the male lead for “being in love with her” when he doesn’t even know her, and she doesn’t even know herself. Margo still helps Quentin get in touch with his own sense of happiness and living in the moment, though, because she sets him on the path of going back to his friends and enjoying prom with them. It was a nice little story, worth the watch.

I wish I’d read the book rather than just watching the movie, because I think it would have been a lot better as a book. But maybe now I’ll read the Alaska one, or the too many Karens one. Katherine, I mean. Abundance of Katherines.

I Think Movie Aliens All Look Like Animals

And it’s probably because their designs are based on animals. Shocking, I know. Observant, I am. But redundant or not, let’s look at a couple.

BUT WAIT!!

Have you seen Arrival yet? If not, then go and do that immediately. I put some screencaps in here from the movie that show the aliens, but the movie is really clever about hiding them even while showing them, and the build up to their reveal is really effective, so if you don’t know what they look like yet just watch the movie. Now.

Let’s start with District 9.

prawn1

Awww.

This is a “Prawn” from District 9. I hope never to see this movie again; it was too real, and too upsetting. Prawn are named after an animal they sort of resemble.

sea-prawn

Awwwwww.

But I think they look a little more like beetles. Maybe cockroaches.

cockroach

Awwwwww.

I’m sorry for putting a picture of a cockroach here but I honestly don’t mind them. Maybe I would if they were infesting my house, but as far as terrifying insects go they’re too big to freak me out too much. If I can see how they operate, I’m less scared.

Also if you follow the link on that image, the article you’ll find which is where the image is from talks about how to try to get people to be less afraid of and hateful towards cockroaches, they have cockroach petting sessions at a zoo in Japan. Cockroach petting sessions. I legitimately want to do that. I want to pet a cockroach. I don’t know, OK, I just do.

So the Harvesters from Independence Day, which I also hope to never see again but only because it’s silly, look like this:

independence-day-alien-2independence-day-alien-1

So these look like a mesh of insect and see creature, just like the Prawn. Their boniness reminds me of exoskeletons, and their giant black eyes remind me both of the stupid centipede that’s wandering around inside this house at present, and of fish. And yes, I wish it was a cockroach in here with me instead.

Their faces are pretty human, though. They have nice eyebrow structure, and noses, so, OK.

Maybe this:

squidward

Arrival, though, has aliens that clearly resemble a certain type of animal.

heptapod1heptapod2

Here they remind me of spiders, but the way they move and the way they write pretty strongly suggest squid.

heptapod4heptapod5

Look at the glistening on that… foot? Hand? I know aliens always glisten, but so do animals who live in the ocean.

Anyway later Louise ends up behind the glass with Abbott, and sees what they actually look like. Sort of. It’s still pretty misty in there.

heptapod6

Yyyyup. That’s a giant squid.

As far as we ever see, they don’t have eyes or mouths. From the alien movies I’ve seen, I think this is pretty unique. Usually in movies they seem to imagine aliens as having mostly the same faculties that we do, but as Arrival is all about the major communication challenges that would arise if an alien species were to show up tomorrow, this time around they get to be a little less recognizable.

squidsquid3

Still, they look like squid.

I find this all really interesting. I like how we use insects and sea life to imagine what it might be like to see an alien life form, as if insects and sea life aren’t familiar, fellow Earth-dwellers like us. I think in some ways these movies are confronting a couple of truths we could use periodic reminders of: we’re not really that different, us Earthlings. And we could try to understand our most bizarre roommates on this planet a little better.

(Stitch is a Koala.)

No Day But Today: I Made a Horrible Mistake

So I messed up and put Rent on. It’s Christmas Eve Eve (at least, while writing this it is) and Rent is Christmassy, and Netflix has nothing else. So.

Let’s see if I can articulate all of my thoughts about this silly musical/movie. First, the good stuff.

Diversity, sort of

Rent is pretty diverse. Three leads are white and the other four are POC. Three leads are straight (as far as we know – they could all be bi), and the other four are not. There’s a trans woman.

On the other hand, Mimi, the female romantic lead (K real quick there are three couples but Roger and Mimi are clearly the main couple, most unfortunately), is kind of a manic pixie dream girl. Some evidence for this claim:

  • reminds Roger of his girlfriend who killed herself. Has AIDS, is a drug addict, smiles the same, etc.
  • ^^ thus, she needs saving. Roger has to help her quit the heroin and it doesn’t work.
  • of course, despite being a drug addict getting steadily sicker, she’s vibrant and full of life and gives Roger the will to live again, *sigh*
  • almost dies but returns from the brink because Roger sings his stupid song at her

I think there’s some depth to her but because of how dull and blah Roger is, it’s hard to shake the need to label her as the manic pixie dream girl.

(on the other hand, the stage version of this relationship just kind of works. Watch.)

(as much as these two fictional people make me roll my eyes, this version of this song makes me smile) (it’s probably the actors)

More problematically, there’s Angel as the magical trans character. Angel is flawless (except that she’ll take money to commit dog murder, but that’s a later point and also the show seems to think that this is hilarious, and not in fact awful) and she “helped [them] [you know, the group of friends] believe in love.” She dies near the end from AIDS and everything falls apart with the group because she’s the love expert. When Mark hilariously quits his job it’s because he gets a message from Angel while he’s singing about consumerism in America. (-.-) Also, Angel is at the pearly gates and tells Mimi to go back when Mimi almost dies.

There isn’t much trans rep that doesn’t just use “trans” as a punchline, but the implication of how Angel is portrayed is that she’s just there, living and dying, in order to teach her cis friends some life lessons. Which is not cool.

OK something it actually does right:

The AIDS support group stuff

“No Day But Today” and “Will I Lose My Dignity” are probably the two most beautiful songs in the show. Also:

The music in general

Rent’s music is good. Just, sometimes we sing along and start laughing because it’s stupid.

Maureen? Maybe?

I just claimed that Mimi is a manic pixie dream girl, at least where Roger is concerned, but Maureen is actually the character that most fits that label. She’s outgoing to the point of being incredibly obnoxious, everyone stares at her, she’s artistic and bold, and she dates the two most grounded characters in the show who are in agony because they’re pretty sure she doesn’t belong to them entirely and can’t ever belong to them because of her enormous personality.

What I like is that I don’t think the show lets her get away with it. In “Take Me or Leave Me” Maureen brags about how everyone wants her and Joanne should just learn to not be jealous, but Joanne tells her not to take her for granted because she’s also pretty great. Mark couldn’t have pulled those bold statements off but Joanne obviously can.

When Benny says that Maureen’s protest is more about her losing her performance space than it is about kicking homeless people out of their tent city, I’m pretty sure he’s right, and I’m pretty sure the show also knows this. This makes her the most three-dimensional character here, and in a different movie she’d definitely be just another inexplicable dream girl.

In spite of everything, it probably made me a better person

I was young and impressionable when I watched Rent for the first time, and though I now look back and shake my head at younger me, I also suspect that in spite of it’s major flaws, it made me a more tolerant person. And I don’t think I’m alone. You could call it “Baby’s first SJW movie musical” I guess.

The friendship between Mark and Joanne

It’s beautiful. And there isn’t enough of it.

The best moment in the show

12 seconds in up until 1:14; 1:23 if you want to include Angel fixing everything (which is also great).

I could probably go on about this moment, but let’s just leave it at: this is the show’s moment of clarity. Supposedly we’re here because the tent city is jeopardized, but really we’re here to watch a bunch of spoiled brats refuse to get jobs while they work on their art. Or at least, that’s how I see it. Because now it’s time to talk about the bad.

Parents

Mark sings in “La Vie Boheme:” “Not to mention, of course, hating dear old mom and dad.” And early in the show he jokes that when he’s freezing and hungry he sometimes wonders what he’s still doing in alphabet city and then his parents call, and he remembers.

For the record, his parents call to say “Merry Christmas” and to send their love; Mark’s mom hopes he likes his hotplate, and Mark’s dad is sorry to hear that Maureen broke up with him.

Terrible.

Sure, Mark’s dad says “Let her be a lesbian” of Maureen but there’s much worse he could have said. He doesn’t try to go all “toxic masculinity” on him or anything over the fact that he’s been dumped for a woman (although the show gets a couple of laughs out if it), and he doesn’t use any slurs.

In the stage version, Mark’s mom is a bit more grating, but there’s also an entire mini song in which the parents of all of our wayward young Bohemians are calling over and over again to try to reach their kids. Mimi is at this point dying on the street. So. Yeah.

I understand that parents are not universally good and supportive but there really isn’t evidence that these parents are the other sort, so I’m left feeling like these people are all just awful. It must be nice to have supportive parents who would help you if you need it (… it is, I have some, so I know) and isn’t it brave of you to choose to ignore them when they reach out. So edgy, so artistic.

Muffy

To that point. Benny is a former friend of the group’s, and a former lover of Mimi’s, but he’s living the rich life now because he married an heiress who we never see. At one point Roger calls her “Muffy” and everyone chuckles. Hilarious.

All we know about her is that she’s married to Benny, her father wants to build stuff on a tent city, she’s rich, and she’s grieving her dog that Angel murdered. Those four things don’t automatically make me hate her enough to chuckle along with these silly, silly people, so once again I end up assuming that they’re being callous for no reason.

The Cat Scratch Club

This is only in the movie version, but there’s a scene of Mimi dancing at her S&M club and it’s kind of embarrassingly tame. None of this is at all my thing, but even I know that what they came up with for the club is boring. Partially, it’s because Columbus wanted the movie to be PG-13 so that kids could see it (which is smart), but partly too I think is that it’s a scene designed by some heterosexual guy. A boring one, too. Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns is still PG-13, dude, come on. The dancers aren’t even wearing fetish wear!

OK I’ll stop because this is definitely not my lane. It’s just that when they’re singing later about how they’re into “anything taboo” it doesn’t ring true, because the Cat Scratch Club will disappoint basically everyone everywhere.

The second half of the show for Roger and Mimi

Mimi dates Benny again? (He’s still married, of course, so now we know a fifth thing about Muffy: she’s being cheated on. God I hate her so much.) This is because Roger is jealous that she dated him before and he doesn’t trust her not to cheat on him. K.

Then he leaves, Mimi almost dies, but she survives because of song, yay. In the movie version it’s fine because the beginning part of their relationship was so boring as well, but in the stage version they filmed it’s a shame because those two actually have chemistry, and even that doesn’t make me care about them in the show’s more contrived moments later on.

Another Day

Mimi barges in on Roger (who is moping alone in the dark, of course), thrusts some heroin in his face and kisses him. Then he yell-sings at her to leave her alone. Partly it’s because he has AIDS and doesn’t want to tell her/try at life anymore, and this is all fine. But the show seems to think he’s in the wrong.

Listen.

Roger can say no. He can say no to the girl (and it doesn’t matter that he likes her, he’s not obligated to have sex with her whenever she climbs through the window) and he can definitely say no to the drugs. He’s a recovering addict. He pretty much told Mimi that when they met.

If he oversteps, and is a bit angrier than he needs to be, fine, as far as I’m concerned. But the show is under the impression that he’s way over the line. I know this because when they see each other again he apologizes to her, and she does not apologize for breaking and entering and for throwing drugs in his face and for trying to coerce him into sex. Also, Mimi’s argument against Roger’s “this would be different in a different context” (which is a FAIR THING FOR HIM TO FEEL) is the life affirmation from the AIDS support group. “There’s only us, there’s only this, forget regret or life is yours to miss. No other road, no other way, no day but today.”

Now I don’t know enough about support groups to have an educated opinion on whether it’s better for Roger to be a part of the support group and to accept its life affirmation as his dogma than it is for him to try to deal with it on his own, but I do think Mimi is… incorrect… to suggest that doing heroin and the sex immediately is the only way to live. The show sort of disagrees. I don’t think it’s pushing the drugs on Roger but it is pushing Mimi on him. That may be the fundamental flaw of their relationship: she’s just here to make Roger care about something so that he can write songs again. It’s a shame, as I said.

Jobs

It’s hard out there. But this show has a weird outlook on income and job-doing that I don’t think anyone politically to the left could possibly agree with. At all.

Five of our leads have/get/had jobs. Joanne is the steadiest of all, being a practicing lawyer. She isn’t mocked for this, which is nice, and kind of surprising.

Collins was a philosophy professor at MIT but they expelled him for his SJW writings about AIDS awareness. Then he gets money by rewiring a bank machine. K.

Mimi is a dancer at an S&M club. She gets a decent amount of flack for this, which is stupid.

Angel takes a lot of money from a wealthy woman to murder Muffy’s dog because it barks too much. This happens off screen, which I assume is the only reason people laugh at it.

Mark gets a job at a tabloid news thing and quits to make a movie that is nothing because Angel told him to from beyond the grave. And apparently he couldn’t make his movie in his spare time.

Also they always go to their favourite cafe, don’t order anything, or if they do order things, they don’t pay. And it’s funny how much they hassle the actual working people at this cafe. Also it’s funnier because on the one night that they go and scream about how great the Bohemian life is, they’re paying with the dog murder money. Ha. Ha.

The movie’s thesis seems to be that earning a living is bad. Mimi is aimless, after all, and uses her earnings to buy drugs. Mark’s job somehow incapacitates him from doing anything during the other 16 hours in his day. We’re cool robbing banks and killing dogs, though, and what Joanne does is fine (probably because a lawyer is a “real job” and she’s being paid well).

I actually think that if our leads had minimum wage jobs the whole show would be a lot better. Get rid of the parent-hate and add in hating bosses, customers, or the mundaneness of the retail industry. There. It’s instantly at least 10% a better show now.

Continue reading “No Day But Today: I Made a Horrible Mistake”

Since Katniss is mine, lemme clear some things up

revolution

In response to the many male critical voices who just don’t get it.

In which Bob Chipman argues that The Hunger Games codes the feminine as evil and the masculine as good, which is a thing movies have been doing for a long time:

The thing is, he’s completely right. He’s also argued recently on Twitter that The Hunger Games’ coding can be interpreted to suggest that the white, rural working class are the true heroes and the true victims of oppression while urban elites and effeminate fashionistas are actually evil. This would at least partially disqualify it from working as one of the cultural touchstone narratives that should have warned people against letting Trump get elected (others include Harry Potter and Star Wars, which are fine, but I seem to recall that Tatooine and Coruscant are making use of some coding and things as well but that doesn’t count apparently).

The Capitol is evil. The fashion and obsession with fashion demonstrated there are not the reasons why the Capitol is evil, but they are a part of the larger problem. The Capitol is evil because of how normal the Games are considered to be there.

Indulge me for a second; it’s shoehorn-in-some-animal-rights-stuff time.

This controversial post from a local Dog Rescue describes normalizing brutality for meat industry animals at Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair:

“What struck us most about the entire day was the sense of normalcy. Thousands of smiling visitors gazed adoringly at groups of tiny piglets, blind to the caged mother who stood in the corner, friends took group photos in front of chained cows while holding steak sandwiches, and crowds laughed and cheered as announcers joked that perhaps the pigs in the auction ring were squealing in terror because of the auctioneer’s bacon costume. It seemed as though none of these animals were viewed by guests as living creatures, but as products, photo-ops, and, in some cases, a joke. Making a spectacle of the suffering of animals and transforming it into a fun-for-the-whole-family event should not be considered a proud Toronto tradition. It should be considered a primitive black mark that a compassionate and civilized society must work together to remove.”

Imagine someone like Plutarch or Cressida, Capitol citizens, watching the Games year after year, knowing them to be wrong, horrified by how the media and average citizens are so willfully blind to the brutality. This could easily be a paragraph either of them would write on the Capitol’s version of Facebook while they watch the festivities leading up to the 74th Hunger Games, if they had been allowed to express a dissenting opinion without having their tongues cut out.

Fashion and obsession with fashion certainly play a role in the Capitol’s normalizing of spectacle child murder. But these things are more like distractions that would be considered completely benign if it weren’t for the Games, the fascism, the poverty, and the oppression Capitol citizens are ignoring and facilitating while they focus on what loud colour to die their hair (or skin) next.

The movies admittedly let the coding do the work for them, but Katniss’s inner monologue reminds us that the real mechanics the Capitol uses to normalize the Games are the celebrity culture and worship, in which Capitol citizens drool over the tributes while they live and drool over them while they die brutal deaths at the hands of other oppressed children.

Celebrity worship is a thing everyone does. When it’s men worshiping sports stars (heterosexually, of course) we don’t really equate it to women (and effeminate men, because you’d have to be an effeminate man if you care about non-sports celebrities, amirite) following whoever in gossip columns, but it’s all the same. The Hunger Games, I tentatively argue, meshes the two together, as everyone sits back and watches in anticipation as the tributes are graded based on their athletic abilities and survival skills. Capitol citizens don’t just love the tributes because of how their stylists dress them, but also because of their physicality. Remember that the two most prosperous Districts have special academies for kids to train in until they’re 18, at which point they volunteer. Their athleticism and weapons-mastery are required to make it a good show.

Of course, the fact that sports-worship is meshed in to the rest of celebrity worship in these stories still doesn’t change how fashion and celebrity worship are considered by culture to be feminine things and therefore perpetual targets for mockery and hatred. Here’s where The Hunger Games changes things up in this regard.

Katniss makes use of both fashion and celebrity worship to become The Mockingjay, beginning the revolution that will end the Capitol’s tyranny. She doesn’t do these things actively, because she’s Katniss. All Katniss wants to do is live in the forest and shoot things with her bow. Unfortunately she has greatness thrust upon her, literally at times, by Cinna, one of the most celebrated stylists in the Capitol.

Yes, Cinna’s clothes are comparatively muted (just look at Effie). But he does wear gold eyeshadow for special occasions, and his work is adored by the excess-loving Capitol citizens as much, and often more than the louder designs by his peers. This is probably because as a highly fashion-conscious people, they can appreciate the beauty in something more simple than what they are used to, they will love something that is to them novel, and they can certainly appreciate the statement of clothing catching fire (even if they don’t see it as a call to arms as the rest of Panem does). I even remember one moment in Catching Fire (the novel) in which Katniss’s prep team listen very respectfully, and even reverently, as her mother teaches them how she does Katniss’s trademark braid. Katniss is impressed by this, and it’s one of those moments that makes it clear that the problem is not how excited these people are about fashion and celebrities, but rather that it’s all they care about. They never consider, because of their privilege, that basic human rights and human dignity are being denied to the people in the Districts. The resentment Katniss and her peers have about their fashion and celebrity culture grows directly out of that real concern. To me, that’s less about slamming American urban culture for being too wrapped up in, well, urban culture to know what the concerns of “real America” are, and more about illustrating through this one particular allegory how the privilege afforded to those with wealth, and, underneath everything else, the privilege afforded to those who were lucky enough to be born in the Capitol, and not in a District being harshly oppressed by the Capitol, requires that people be given spectacles to keep them from thinking too hard about any of the systems that make them so lucky at the expense of others.

The Hunger Games is not deliberately apolitical. It is making a deliberate statement about how privilege works. I’ve seen it argued that it’s an indictment against American imperialism, and I think that’s probably the “most correct” way of reading the Capitol/District dichotomy. That still leaves the coding in the films especially but it’s certainly there in the books too. And if people are going to take advantage of the lack of spectrum politics to declare that their people and way of life are the real ones being oppressed because they dress like Katniss and coal mining is a thing, well, that’s just life imitating art. People are using The Hunger Games, a story about an upper caste using spectacles to distract them from the human cost of their affluence and power, as a spectacle to distract them from how their actions and inactions will hurt those in worse states of vulnerability than them. This is why we need to teach critical thinking in elementary and high schools. And all the time. Always.

So back to fashion and celebrity culture in The Hunger Games: there’s also the fact that Katniss genuinely loves the outfits and costumes that Cinna makes for her Being from District 12, she appreciates both how the Capitol’s citizens will interpret her outfits and how the people at home and in the other districts will. When her wedding dress burns and transforms into a Mockingjay costume, her role as the revolutionary hero is cemented. Fashion, typically a tool used in the Capitol as a distraction from their brutal government, is co-opted and used against them, encouraging people rigidly separated to unite, and people who would rather ignore the underside of the Capitol to face it honestly.

And real quick: the fire is activated by twirling. TWIRLING. There is nothing girlier than twirling.

Celebrity worship is the other part of this, and Katniss and her various handlers certainly makes use of it as well. Katniss believes that there are better contenders for the Mockingjay role. She thinks Johanna would have been great, as she is loud and impossible to ignore. Peeta, though, is the real contender. He can make anyone believe anything and is highly likable. Still, the role has fallen to her, awkward, sort of prudish, constantly deer-in-headlights Katniss. There are layers to why it has to be her:

  • because it all started when she volunteered for Prim
  • and then the riots all started because she stopped playing the role of survivalist competitor in order to grieve for Rue, breaking the illusion of the Games and calling District 7 to action
  • and then she defiantly threatened to commit suicide with Peeta because it was the one act of true rebellion she was actually capable of as well as the only opportunity she has to save her own life as well as someone else’s
  • Cinna put her in a dress that looked like it was on fire
  • Peeta told the entire country that he was in love with her and thus everyone else fell in love with her
  • Snow decided she was his number one target (villains need to stop doing this. I’m looking at you, Voldemort. And the Peacock from Harry Potter and the Kung Fu Panda 2)
  • Cinna put Katniss in the fairy tale wedding dress everyone in the Districts knew to be a lie, only for the country to watch it burn into a Mockingjay costume
  • The alliance of the victors decided Katniss was their priority
  • Plutarch was like, “Yup, she’ll do.” And then he kept insisting.

Most of these layers have little to do with Katniss herself. Also, those layers that are just Katniss doing things because she must, or because she is self-righteously compelled to, are only as powerful as they are because the Capitol is filming and displaying her every move. Katniss spends most of the trilogy (quadrilogy if we’re talking the movies) deeply traumatized and damaged, sometimes physically as well as mentally. I’ll never forget how the opening of Mockingjay: Part 1 is a traumatized Katniss hiding in the dark, trying to remember what she knows for sure. And Mockingjay: Part 2 begins with the neck brace coming off, and I can’t express how horrifying it was to hear her try to talk for the first time. How many times in Part 2 does the movie pause to zoom in on Katniss’s injuries? Katniss faces the consequences of being made into a myth, which has been a joint effort but mainly the work of other people, more talented, strategic, and charismatic than her.

And thus, by Katniss herself and by other players who are better at the game, celebrity culture and fashion obsession are both co-opted to wreck the Capitol.

To be clear: the coding is still there, and Katniss’s outfits are not quite comparable to the things Effie and the like wear, but The Hunger Games can’t be easily dismissed as having just lazily used the most typical and problematic shortcut to designate good and evil in the book since black hats and white hats.

So the urban versus rural thing.

PSA: I am not an expert in any way, shape, or form. I’m still going to talk about it though because lol

District 12 are coal miners. This fact and the very muted fashion choices 12’s inhabitants have to make really do seem to invoke the city elite versus working class rust belt type disaster that apparently helps to elect Donald Trump.

This is because, yes, that’s what Suzanne Collins is doing.

I can’t really back up that claim because I haven’t asked her personally, but I’m going to assume that because she’s an American, the huge divide between urban and rural is a thing that she is hyper-conscious of. Creating a distopia where people are divided into classes geographically is certainly going to make the rural/urban divide the prudent choice for which obvious real-life class divide your fictional universe will resemble.

On the other hand, the District system is not the only vision of class divides and class warfare that we see in the books (and films, briefly). The Avoxes live among the Capitol citizens, waiting on them silently because their tongues have been cut out. The Capitol has found a way to dehumanize a group of people so as to justify using them as slaves. Some of the most horrific stuff that we see in the books has to do with the Avoxes (I’m recalling Peeta talking about listening to Capitol soldiers torture an Avox for information even though he couldn’t talk), and Katniss herself ponders more than once how horrible it would be to be made into one, empathizing with the Avox waiting on her.

So while poverty more like what we see in urban environments is not the focus of this story, disenfranchisement happens in plain sight in the Capitol. People are not automatically safe in the Capitol just because they’re in the Capitol. In fact, there’s a certain freedom in living in the Districts. Katniss feeds her family by hunting illegally beyond the electric fence. She sells to Peacekeepers who should be turning her in, but they don’t, because otherwise they wouldn’t get their occasional squirrel meat. This kind of liberty couldn’t possibly work in the Capitol.

I’ve read the argument that because these stories are “deliberately apolitical” anyone can decide to identify with the oppressed Districts – for example, a reasonably well-off white person could identify with Katniss’s struggle against those liberal elites in their cities. I actually like the lack of politics here (I am pretty political, but I feel like if you had the chance to defeat your tyrannical President who hosts an annual child murder fest, arguments about whether to set up a capitalist society or a social democracy or something more like communism would be sort of a secondary concern). I would argue that although there isn’t any invoking of the economic spectrum of left vs right, the Capitol is very clearly a fascist regime, and as fascism is about more than money (read: identity), we don’t need the Districts to be clearly identified as poor, oppressed progressives in search of a socialist democracy. We know they’re poor and starving, and we know that every year they face the prospect of their children being taken away for slaughter. We don’t need more than that.

Identity politics do happen in these stories, but it’s a tad subtle and race politics don’t really happen at all. I fully acknowledge that Collins could have been a little more careful with her handling of race and diversity. All of the main players are white in the movies for sure, which does make the larger oppression narrative a little less relevant to the real world it’s supposedly speaking to. In the books, District 12, which is racially homogeneous, could be any number of things: Katniss has dark hair, olive skin, and green eyes. To me, that suggests that 12 is a mix of all sorts of ethnicities. Because all of the Districts are racially homogeneous, racism isn’t really at play. It probably will be after the revolution, when all of these people forced together out of necessity have to start living with each other peacefully, but during the timeline we have it isn’t a thing. Misogyny, too, isn’t really at play. The Capitol is not a nightmare vision of the patriarchy. But identity politics happen nonetheless. And I will show you.

So the thing about woman heroes…

Think about The Lord of the Rings. There aren’t many women. One of the women is actually a spider. There is one woman who gets to do cool, violent things, but she’s also hopelessly in love with some guy who couldn’t care less and then she randomly falls in love with a different version of that guy and declares out loud that she’s giving up shield-maidening to be the wife of a steward. Fun times. (To be clear, I love Faramir, but gah.)

Think about Star Wars (the original three and the prequels. I don’t know what’ll happen in these new ones). Leia is amazing but a huge huge huge part of her story is being in an antagonistic love story with Han. I’d go so far as to say that the part of Han’s story that is being in an antagonistic love story with Leia is comparatively much smaller, because Han has Chewy to be friends with, Luke to disappoint or impress, and his own motivations in life to reconsider. Leia nes pas.

Amidala is my favourite. She deserved better than Padmé and stupid-face’s stupid-faced “love” story. But that’s what she got.

Think about Harry Potter. Hermione is one of the best things in the known universe and the most important female character in the Potterverse, but she’s also one half of the major romance of that series. And I love it. But. Romance.

There is nothing wrong with romance.

But there’s a reason Merida from Brave is so special, and a reason that the ending of Frozen, which, while it does include romance, emphasizes female familial love above all else, is so special. And that is because female characters usually have to do romance things.

Male characters, not so much. Luke kisses his sister and that’s it. Frodo is ace for life, or maybe he’s just hopelessly in love with his straight BFF but we never have to watch him brood about it. Harry and Ginny sure, but that’s barely a thing in the books and even less of a thing in the movies. And when female characters find themselves as protagonists, usually they’re the protagonists in what is, above all else, a love story.

Katniss, who very well may be asexual, is definitely starring in a love story, but the romance takes a back seat. In the first book, Katniss is positive that everything Peeta says to her is for the cameras. That’s why when Seneca Crane announces, “Whoops, you know how we said you could both be the winners if you made it to the end together? Well, never mind,” Katniss immediately whips out her bow. In the movie, I notice, she pulls out her bow at the beginning of the announcement, but in the book she very clearly intends to fight Peeta to the death, because she is naively sure that he intends to do the very same thing.

On the train home she discovers that Peeta actually did love her this whole time. Oops. Double oops, because the next book finds them barely speaking but having to pretend the fairy tale romance is a very real thing because unrest in the Districts. Triple oops, because it turns out Katniss’s BFF Gale actually loves her too. Quadruple oops, because it turns out that Katniss could really use Peeta’s presence and support the whole time so they have to sleep in the same bed for months but she isn’t sure how she feels about any of this because she does like Gale, but she does like Peeta, but she doesn’t like either of them like that (maybe) and she definitely doesn’t want kids because they might end up reaped. Quintuple oops, because the Capitol will basically force a Katniss/Peeta wedding whether they want to or not and can apparently HIJACK HER REPRODUCTIVE ORGANS to ensure that she has a baby and you’d better believe that baby will end up as tribute because the Capitol would just LOVE that. Sextuple oops because while we were worrying about all of that stuff a lot of other things happened and they’re both back in the arena again fighting against each other because they are both bound and determined that the other one is the sole survivor, but this is just platonic, maybe, but now there’s a kiss and it actually makes Katniss feel things she hasn’t felt before. Septule oops, Gale will be sad because Katniss kissed him once out of pity. Octuple oops, the Capitol got Peeta and psychologically tortured him into hating Katniss and now he feels an uncontrollable urge to kill her when all he’s been doing this whole time up until now is trying to protect her. Novuple oops, turns out even that madness can’t stop Peeta being primarily motivated by making out with protecting Katniss. Dicuple oops, they end up together with kids because the war is over. And Gale sucks.

So. Look, I don’t know what to do with that summary of the romance in these books that I just made apart from reiterating that while romance is definitely there, and it is definitely a much bigger thing in the books than in the movies, it is not the defining thing. Katniss’s love triangle choice is not like Bella Swan’s between a freezing cold statuesque douche canoe and a boiling hot statuesque used-to-be-nice-but-is-now-a douche canoe, which is to say that it isn’t the centerpiece of the story, and the choice is a lot more intertwined with the themes. I used to know what Peeta and Gale represented, respectively. I seem to recall that Peeta represented a safe and secure future, and Gale represented an unsafe, unstable present, but those divides are clearer in the books and I haven’t reread them lately. In the films it’s less obvious because the romance was less featured.

What I do know for sure is that Katniss’s inner monologue allows for The Hunger Games to use romance tropes, and it allows us to enjoy them, but it also critiques them. The Capitol is enraptured with the romance between Katniss and Peeta but it’s a complete lie. They don’t actually get together until well after the war is ended. The Districts watch the romance play out and they don’t believe it for a second. It’s only those close to Peeta and Katniss who suspect that there might be a modicum of truth to the romance. Everyone else knows that Katniss didn’t offer Peeta the berries because she would rather die than live without him (cooooooooough New Moon).

forbidenfruitforbidenfruit2

Apart from enduring a love triangle she did not want, pursue, or enjoy, Katniss gets to play out female power fantasies that are really intriguing. Because Peeta makes Katniss desirable by confessing that he’s always loved her on compulsory TV, Katniss becomes something of a sex symbol. Her flaming dresses don’t hurt either in this regard. But she paradoxically reads to others as being “pure.” Johanna apparently strips in the elevator in front of Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch because Johanna knows what kind of a reaction it will get out of pure, incorruptible Katniss. The twirling conveys innocence, the fire conveys lust and power, the offering forbidden fruit to a male love interest conveys original sin but it is revolutionary in exactly how NOT motivated by sex or romance the act is.

Peeta tells everyone Katniss is pregnant in book two as an attempt to get the 75th Games called off, but it doesn’t work. In book three, Katniss and Peeta are pitted against each other in a propaganda war. Charismatic Peeta tells everyone to calm down and stop revolting. Katniss, who has, supposedly, suffered a miscarriage, stands resolute and calls for open rebellion.

In the background, Katniss is described as being moving only when she’s being genuine and empathetic. She’s also described as being psychologically broken and emotionally volatile. She describes herself as being bad at making friends, and not a nice person. But look at her with Prim, and even her mother as she begins to forgive her. She is a gentle and loving nurturer, but she also thinks with her heart (dangerous and impractical in the efficient District 13) and can’t be trusted to follow orders.

She kills animals for food and when it comes down to it, she kills other tributes in the Games. But she is squeamish about wounds, admiring her “delicate” sister and mother because they aren’t bothered by a bit of pus.

In the midst of being offered up as a sacrifice to the bloodthirsty appetites of an oppressive ruling class, she gets a genuine kick out of wearing pretty clothes.

She gets to play a lot of different roles as a woman with power, but it is the innocent, sexless version of herself that wields the most power in the end. What is nice is that even though eventually she always has to return to the inhuman Mockingjay symbol, along the way, she gets to play with fire. Reading the book, it’s almost always clear that the real Katniss is there under the outfit and the makeup. This dichotomy is not new for female characters (the one that immediately springs to mind is Hannah Montana) but The Hunger Games does a lot of interesting things with it, and I rarely see it get credit for that.

It’s been argued that a character like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider is just like any male protagonist, but female. It’s a difficult argument to chew on and I definitely think it has some merit, but the reason I briefly bring it up here is to point out that Katniss Everdeen cannot be honestly read like that. She isn’t a male action hero in female skin. She is very, very clearly a young woman. It is the character’s very rich, complicated performance of her gender that proves that.

Having the female protagonist live through multiple and contradictory female-specific power fantasies and romances that both are and aren’t romantic is huge. Trust me, girls didn’t just love The Hunger Games because Team Gale or Team Peeta and JLaw. Though we did of course enjoy those things.

The ending of The Hunger Games is a lie and pointless and blah blah blah

If you’ve decided that coding the feminine and the urban as evil is disqualifying, and that the setup for class warfare is woefully lacking economic progressive politics, and for reasons relating to identity politics you are less inclined to notice when a female character gets to do new and exciting things beyond romance and also gets to quietly discuss the multiple and contradictory realities of the female existence, you will probably have misread the ending of this series.

Let me help you.

So District 13 shows up in a surprise move at the end of book 2. They’ve been fighting a rebellion for decades – indeed, they’ve never stopped fighting ever since the Capitol nuked them underground. But now, as their reproductive abilities are visibly slowing down and the Mockingjay has stirred up rioting in the Districts, 13 has a chance to unite the other Districts and end the war.

To end the war, President Coin bombs a bunch of Capitol children, swiftly followed by the second, deadlier blast killing the medics and everyone else who rushed in to aid the children, using a Capitol plane. You see, war crimes are OK if your politics are basically utilitarianism gone extreme.

Coin then proposes a democratic vote on one final Hunger Games, this time with Capitol children, because if they do this, then the oppressed Districts will be less inclined to yell and scream for vengeance against every Capitol official ever. 23 Capitol children will die, many more will be spared. She has completely missed the irony of her suggestion, even though Beetee and/or Peeta points it out to her.

So Katniss pretends to go along with it so Coin will let her execute Snow. But Snow is dying and he has lost the war and Katniss knows this. Her real goal is to assassinate Coin.

The misreading of this states that The Hunger Games goes for lazy nuance by suggesting that both sides are equally evil, like any given episode of South Park. The mechanism of the misreading is that you are comparing Coin to Snow.

Snow is a fascist who lost the war, lost power, and is succumbing to a fatal illness. Coin is the utilitarian version of a fascist (… whatever that is). The reason she doesn’t make a lot of sense (besides the fact that the whole apolitical aspect makes her arc rather clunky, admittedly) is that she isn’t really meant as an alternative to Snow. She is instead a foil to the entire revolution.

Recall that Katniss started the revolution simply by volunteering as tribute in Prim’s place. Reinforcing the revolution was Rue’s death. There are plenty of images of older women sacrificing themselves for younger women. Mags volunteers for Annie and then sacrifices herself for Peeta, for Katniss. Johanna puts herself in danger multiple times to save or protect Katniss. Cressida places herself between Jackson’s gun and Katniss. In the movie, the Leeg sister who doesn’t get injured chooses to stay with her injured sister and they die together.

Coin deliberately sends Prim to the front lines, knowing that once the children are bombed, Prim will rush in and be killed in the second blast. Coin kills the younger sister to end all younger sisters, and she does this specifically to psychologically destroy Katniss, another younger woman, so that Katniss will fall in line and support her in the first democratic elections.

We are not supposed to compare Coin and Snow. We are supposed to compare Coin and Katniss.

What Coin will do to secure her own power is exactly the opposite of what Katniss does at the beginning of the uprisings. Katniss sacrifices herself, even though she is the breadwinner of the family, because her little sister is worth doing the impractical and right thing for. The spirit of the rebellion is that little girls are worth sacrificing ourselves to protect, because they are the future we have to safeguard. Practicality and pragmatism are for nothing if we can’t save them. That is bold and naive and beautiful. Coin is a traitor to her little sisters, to her gender, and to the rebellion, and she must die.

The bitter end

And that is where we are. I, an older sister, feminist, and awkward lady, will take my perfect awesome hero girl, thank you. I don’t have that many to choose from, but Katniss is more than enough.

Could You Use a Pick-Me-Up Today?

Well, I’ve got one, in the shape of a feature film.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is pretty much perfect and it’s also inexcusably underrated by pretty much everybody. Maybe it’s because people are too cynical, maybe it’s kind of like a thestral in that only certain people are going to actually recognize it for what it is, but regardless, it’s great and I would go on about it but I’m only doing the short version today.

Mahoney is the best, my favourite part is everything that includes both Henry and Eric, and this is the scene that you need to see today:

❤ erm

No Magic: The Wonder of Modern Disney

We’ve been wanting to write a longform piece about Disney films’ changing attitudes towards dreaming, believing, and proaction. Maybe we still will one day, but for now it’s entirely unnecessary because this amazing post does it all and more.

Check out this examination of how modern Disney films challenge and twist the messages of older Disney. And also, we need to rewatch Meet the Robinsons. And watch Tomorrowland for the first time.

Kids Riding Bicycles

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C Clarke in a famous quote that captures the world-shifting potential of science and discovery. Without wishing to trivilise the quote, it also comes to my mind when I think about Disney’s current era of film. (Yes, I’m being serious.) From 2011’s Tangled to this year’s Zootopia, Disney has earned critical and commercial plaudits for a series of films that have pushed the boundaries in both animation technology and thematic complexity. They’ve adapted their core offering, evolving the magic and wonder we’ve come to expect from them into something both new and old, something distinctly familiar yet undeniably fresh. And it revolves about Clarke’s binary between magic and technology.

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To understand what Disney has become, it’s important to first look back at what it was. Throughout Walt Disney’s life and well beyond his death, Disney films were all about…

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Talking About Zootopia Again

Zootopia came out on DVD, so of course erm bought the most expensive one: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

Once upon a time we wrote a post about Brave in which we wondered what went wrong with the story, but ultimately decided that we’d rather talk about the movie we got than the movie that might have been. But some of the behind-the-scenes stuff for Zootopia made us want to talk about the movie we might have gotten instead. Also, erm already did the other thing.

Continue reading “Talking About Zootopia Again”

Brave

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Last week, we talked about masculinity in Brother Bear, and how the movie manages to have a sincere discussion about masculinity without making a joke out of the whole thing.

This week, in honour of Mother’s Day, we’re going to talk about Brave – which is just as much about womanhood as Brother Bear is about manhood, and, inexplicably, also just as much about bears.

Brave is generally considered to be a Pixar dud, which we think is unfair for our own specific reasons, as well as our more general bias about Pixar films. We like them, don’t get us wrong (excepting the Cars franchise), but while Brave may not have the cleanest plot like some others we could mention, its underlying themes work for us way more than those of some of Pixar’s biggest hits. Mother-daughter relationships, a coming-of-age story that’s realistically about coming-of-age, and the underlying importance of family do it for us. Toys in existential crises about children growing up… don’t.

But we can’t argue that the film doesn’t suffer from story problems. It’s pretty obvious. It had trouble while it was in development with it’s director and writer, Brenda Chapman, fired in the middle of production for creative differences. Erm, who is a sucker for behind-the-scenes stuff, watched everything she could find on the making of this movie and came away still none the wiser about what specifically went wrong, but that’s OK. We’d rather engage with the movie as it is than try to critique the movie it might have been. Let’s start by defending it against some of the more dubious complaints we’ve heard.

Number One: Merida shouldn’t complain/make selfish and irresponsible decisions. Her complaining about being forced into marriage and wanting her freedom is invalid because every once in a while she doesn’t have to be a princess, and also she’s privileged.

Being forced to get married is a good enough reason to do something rash, when you’ve tried arguing and you’re not being listened to. And this is true no matter how privileged you are or how often you get days off.

Number Two: Bears.

Yes.

Number Three: The male characters are exclusively used for comic relief.

… so?

Female characters are typically used only for certain things, like love interests, prizes, goals, villains, temptresses, or simply as naked, dying, or dead bodies. Forgive us if we’re not concerned that the men in this movie are not as integral to the story as Merida and Elinor are – because that’s all that’s happening. The male characters are important, if mostly good for a giggle, and there’s genuine warmth to Fergus at least.

Number Four: Exploitative of Scottish people.

We don’t want to be insensitive because there are certainly some stereotypes here and some jokes that didn’t need to be included. We’ve all seen Pixar movies, yes? We know they’re capable of being smart. Making a joke that is ultimately, “Haaaaaaaaaa Scottish people are Scottish” is beneath their creative capabilities.

But.

Having seen the behind-the-scenes footage we know that there was a lot of research put into this, and it seems as though the filmmakers went into it with a lot of respect. This isn’t the Siamese cats or the black crows or Peter Pan’s Indian tribe. It isn’t even like Aladdin, where the characters and setting are vaguely Middle Eastern but the actors are all white people, who occasionally put on accents. These are lovable, fleshed out characters playing on a beautifully crafted stage, played by Scottish actors. So apart from everyone’s tendency to have cheap laughs at kilts and haggis, we’d argue that the film is for the most part respectful.

The unique things we love about Brave

Mothers, Daughters, Families

Brave is the only Disney or Pixar fairy tale about a family. Everyone loves to complain that each Disney fairy tale hero is missing at least one parent, but Brave is the fairy tale movie that breaks the rule.

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Not only does Brave tell a story about a family that starts together and ends together, which, if you think about it, only makes sense in a genre intended for all ages, but it is the only example we can think of for a fully Mother-Daughter narrative in animation.

Forget animation, actually. While we aren’t entirely lacking mother-daughter films, the ones we can think of that we’d recommend are sparse: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya SisterhoodOne True Thing, Dolores Claiborne, Mermaids, Stepmom, and Freaky Friday. Maybe this is because we need to be watching different movies, but stories about mothers and daughters seem to be in short supply.

Divine is an emotional roller-coaster – worth the ride, but we relate to that Jann Arden song “Good Mother” so while we very much like the movie, it doesn’t get under our skin like Brave does.

One True Thing and Stepmom are about dying mothers, which is a different thing.

Dolores Claiborne is amazing, but it’s more about women than it is about mothers and daughters. Also it’s horrifying.

Mermaids has a lot of angst going on, and someone makes a choice later on in the film with major familial consequences, so it’s a similar story to Brave.

Freaky Friday is the ONLY truly lighthearted one! It’s similar to Brave in its suitability for younger audiences, its exploration of a mother-daughter relationship where they both learn to empathize with each other and communicate properly, and again, angst.

Now there’s at least a smidgen of romance in each of these, except Dolores Claiborne, which again is more about women than it is about mothers and daughters. Brave’s lack of romance means that Merida and Elinor can focus 100% on their relationship with each other.

Like in Brother Bear, the transformation into a bear impedes communication between Elinor and Merida. However, in Brother Bear, it requires a magical transformation back into a human in order for Kenai and Denahi can work things out. In Brave, it’s while Elinor is a bear that she and Merida are able to communicate properly. Merida implores on several occasions for her parents, particularly Elinor, to listen to her, and they don’t. Although Fergus sees eye to eye with Merida on many more issues than Elinor does, it’s not from listening to his daughter, but from their similar personalities. In the climax of the film, he rides off to kill Bear!Elinor, and Merida shouts at him to listen – and he does not. It takes her standing in his way, twice, with weapons, to stop him. In Elinor’s case, their arguments frustrate her because she believes Merida doesn’t listen to her, but in this case “listen” does not mean effective communication, it means compliance with everything she asks her to do. Merida won’t do this, because she does not want to, quite rightly.

When Merida does her speech at the end, successfully ending the brawl without any help from Elinor, this is also Merida finally reaching out to her mother. Elinor, too, is finally listening. She sees Merida about to agree to her betrothal, and even though she can’t speak (or roar), she frantically mimes her way through the rest of the speech – and she and Merida communicate freely for the first time, despite all of their obstacles, and come to a compromise on how to handle the situation.

Ultimately in both films, the bear transformation is an effective metaphor for the challenges people have with communicating in these important relationships. In this movie, it was also the motivation for Merida and Elinor to finally effectively communicate.

Romance Does Not Exist

There was a time when Merida was to be the great lesbian hero of the Disney-Pixar world, but that time has passed and we’ve moved on to Elsa. It’s a good thing, too, because we are in dire need of at least one princess who isn’t interested in who she’s going to marry (or who she’s going to be romantically linked to, for those princesses who don’t decide to get married right away). Merida’s fixation on staying single, keeping her freedom, and her reiterations of, “I’m just not ready” and, of course, “In fact, [the princess] might not ever be ready,” suggest that she could be asexual, or aromantic, or both.

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She does say later, during her pacifying of the Lords speech, that the Queen wants young people to be free to find love in their own time, but as we have learned from Disney movies of late (this one included), love comes in many more forms than just romantic love. In any case, here’s to Merida not getting married. Even though we all liked Young MacGuffin.

The dogs aren’t cute

We suspect they’re instead historically accurate. Which is nice.

The Coming-of-Age Story is more like what growing up actually is like

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Obviously it’s not a completely realistic coming-of-age story, but Merida’s teenage angst and eye-rolling and stubbornness remind us of being teenagers more than Elsa’s character arc in Frozen, for example, or Simba’s in The Lion King. This is probably because some heavy stuff is happening to those characters, so the way they come of age is not going to resemble an ordinarily bumpy transition to adulthood. But Brave is refreshing because of this – despite (and because of) the magic happening around her, Merida has to grow up and take some responsibility.

Brave GETS how coming-of-age and mother-daughter relationships are linked for girls.

If you are a woman who grew up with a mother, at some point or another she probably taught you how to survive as a woman living in a man’s world. Whether we think it’s right or wrong, women have to operate within certain rules, or at least be aware of those rules when we purposefully go on to break them. We learn that from the female role models in our lives, and in Brave, Merida learns from Elinor.

In the throne room, the men get into a brawl. Elinor sends Fergus to deal with it, and he ends up resorting to violence when his attempts to pacify the men fail. Merida and her mother sit there, visibly fed up, as the men fight.

Elinor stands, and walks through the room. The men all stop and stare at her sheepishly. Merida looks up, visibly noticing the power her mother has at this moment.

The lesson here is simple, and familiar: Women are expected to repress every violent or emotional instinct. Men are not.

Elinor teaches Merida this lesson every day – her brothers get away with murder, she doesn’t get away with anything. A princess is a role model. A princess is compassionate. A princess does not chortle. A princess does not stuff her gob. A princess does not place her weapons on the table. A princess should not even have weapons, in Elinor’s opinion.

Before we get all up in arms like the clans here, let’s take a moment to consider whether the movie thinks this is right or wrong.

On one hand, yes, the movie does seem to believe Elinor. Look at what happens when the ladies do resort to violence – Merida hurts her mother by cutting the tapestry, and Elinor hurts Merida in kind by burning her bow.

On the other hand, although Merida is held responsible for nearly causing a war and turning her mother into a bear, she does eventually get what she wanted: Her freedom to break the Woman Rules.

Merida walks through the brawling men just like her mom. And when she can’t make them listen, she takes a note from Fergus, and screams, “SHUT IT.” And it works! Because Merida is not her mother, and she’s not a perfect princess. But she is a powerful, responsible young woman who is capable of simultaneously embracing her role as princess and breaking the rules that prevent her from being who she is- a wild-haired marksman who wants to stay single and let her hair flow in the wind as she rides through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.

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The only problem we have: Bears.

We’re not really sure what’s going on with Mor’du. We understand that he is a legendary prince who ruined himself, his family, and his kingdom by being selfish, and by going to a bear-obsessed witch for help. But we also know that he’s behind the Wisps summoning Merida to the same fate, and later summoning her to mend her own bond and, conveniently, get Mor’du killed and free his spirit.

It seems kind of mean to trick a sixteen year old girl like that just to get a bear killed. Why didn’t he instead go after Fergus if he wanted the bear killed so badly? Was that what he was trying to do all along, but Fergus doesn’t believe in magic so he had to mess with his wife and daughter, who do?

And how is it that he’s both Mor’du and the power behind the Wisps? And why isn’t he just a regular bear? He should have lived out his lifespan by now if it really is an ancient kingdom as the legends say, and at least some of those wounds should have slowed him down. Why does he seek out people to savage and hang around his old throne-room when it’s implied that should Elinor remain a bear forever, she’ll just be a regular bear which will sever the bonds she has to her family?brave-disneyscreencaps.com-9861

When Elinor goes full bear she does become a danger to those around her. First, she attacks Merida, but only when Merida taps her on the back, which you would never want to do to a real bear for obvious reasons. Later she attacks Fergus, who is a real threat to her, but her interactions with Merida are fairly harmless. When she begins to lose herself for the final time, she just lays there letting Merida hug her until eventually she changes back. There isn’t a consistent metaphor about loss of humanity here, because we don’t have a clear definition of a binary. For example, with bear-Elinor’s violence, we only see it twice, and on two occasions we see her tolerate Merida’s presence, which means violence is not linked to the animal, with non-violence linked to the human, as it normally would be.

The only common thread is that bear-Elinor doesn’t know that she is Merida’s mother, or Fergus’s wife. And even this goes both ways: Fergus refuses to listen to Merida when she tries to explain to him that his wife has been transformed into a bear. Elinor remaining a bear is framed as being tragic not because she’ll be a vicious killing machine like Mor’du, but instead because she will lose her family, and her family will lose her.

That makes sense. We still think they could have portrayed this a little better.

We’re asked to take for granted Mor’du’s existence and actions and we suppose that we can – perhaps the bear-witch’s spell was a little bit different for the prince than it was for Merida. But the only information we’re given is that the witch is just inexplicably obsessed by bears, and every time someone asks her for a spell they do so in such a way that, happily, she can just perform the one spell she knows and everybody magics into bears.

We needed Sitka’s silent wisdom or something, so that we could understand what the significance of bears is in particular.

The only thing we can think of is the “mother bear” thing, and Elinor certainly fulfills this stereotype. As much as it’s Fergus who wants to revenge himself against Mor’du, it is ultimately Elinor who kills him, and she only does this to save her daughter.

Ultimately, our only problem with the movie is the bears. Even though it didn’t need to be bears, or they could have more thoroughly explained why it had to be bears, there’s enough depth in their use to excuse their presence in this film, excessive and confusing though it may be. Despite its flaws, this is the first Pixar film with a female lead. The second Pixar film with a female lead is Inside Out, and it’s worth noting that these two movies are also the only Pixar films with a story that would provide catharsis for the audience and not the creators. Not to knock Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, or Ratatouille, but these are stories about parent figures, special people, and prodigies. Although Brave (and Inside Out) has parent figures, the lesson is that they need to give their child room to grow and be themselves – and shouldn’t that be the entire point of children’s literature?