Showing posts with label films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label films. Show all posts

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reboots, sf, and history

In response to my last post, which was in part on the latest version of Captain America, Bellebonnesage pointed out that Marvel had played a part in the Civil Rights movement, and in fact, The Howling Commandos were always an interracial unit. Even while watching the film, I did think about the Dirty Dozen, which had a less savory plot device for bringing Jim Brown into the film. I think this is specifically where the current reboot lets us down: there is no explanation. In fact, I think this is one of the joys and problems of reboots in general. Reboots are deliberate erasures of story lines and attempts to take a story along a different timeline in the way that sf has played with for years.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I liked the Star Trek reboot, despite having been a fairly serious Trekkie in my much younger days (Yes, there was a time when I could probably have told you the name of an episode based on a couple of hints, but not the episode number!). The reason why the reboot worked for me was that I was able to assume multiple parallel universes in which things play out differently. Also, I think it needs pointing out that, although the original Star Trek is part of my history, it is set in the future. It's not actually history, and very little of it takes place in our historical past. "City on the Edge of Forever" may play with the time paradox and the effects of one slight alteration, but it's always a 'what if' sort of episode. It's also, incidentally, interesting in that it reinforces the idea of Big Events and stuff that doesn't matter. If Kirk and McCoy save Edith Keeler, Hitler wins: see how one intervention in the timeline can have huge ripple effects? But what about the guy who sees Spock's ears? How does that affect him, and his family? Still, the big picture is clear: we shouldn't alter the past.

One might argue that the current Avengers movies are much like the Star Trek reboot. They are fantastic, they are pop culture, and they are clearly not history. This is one of the reasons that casting Idris Elba as Heimdall worked just fine for me -- the Marvel Aesir aren't gods, they're just guys with better technology who got treated like gods. Not that some people could figure that out. But it is because some people can't figure it out that I think Captain America's producers goofed.

Captain America is a superhero. He's sf -- after all, super-strength imparted through an experimental serum and Stark technology? But he's also set in the historical past. Obviously, not entirely historical, because the Hydra is totally Marvel, and even there, this is a reboot of the organization.* But yes, our past, and our historical past. The Second World War is, with the Civil War, one of the few historical events/periods that modern US audiences (and given what I've seen of the UK A-Level exams, UK audiences) can get a grip on, in the sense that they know something about it. But what they know is often wrong. What they know is often misinformed, and leaves out things like Japanese internment camps, or segregation. So when an audience that doesn't know the history of the comic, or the comic's place in history -- and I think most people who see the films won't, because the numbers of people who learn about comic book characters via tv series and films as opposed to actual comic books (and they'd have to go digging backwards to get all of the original story line, which is only available via huge reprint volumes that cost a fortune) -- when they don't know, they are not likely to think about it. A couple of lines of exposition introducing the Howling Commandos could have made a big difference. In leaving out those lines, the reboot cut itself off from an important part of its own history, and rewrote ours.

*Also, despite the coolness of the Hydra logo, it's not a hydra, it's a skull-headed octopus! Hydra, people, NINE heads. If a villain is going to tell us that two heads grow back where you cut off one, then perhaps there should be multiple heads?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Is Captain America Supposed to Make Scared White Men Less Scared?

[There are small spoilers.]

One of the things I've done since Leeds is catch up a little with friends I haven't seen for a month or more. So the other day, a few of us went to see Captain America. As a superhero film, I have to say, it was one of the better ones I've seen -- at least for a Marvel-based film. It was exciting, the script and acting were really good, the casting was great... and it was surprisingly not jingoistic. I think it escaped it by being mostly set during the Second World War, and by having a villain who was a breakaway from Hitler's special arcane & tech forces unit. I loved the odd sort of nostalgia, and the way that Captain America was clearly part of the war effort, but in a 'real guy embodying an emblem' sort of way.

There were really weird moments, though. Weird because, while the evocations of the period often felt real (inasmuch as comics can evoke historical feelings), there was just stuff that was wrong. Once Cap is in Europe, united with the 107th, he's got a multicultural band of brothers. I realize that there are lots of things in the film that aren't real, duh -- secret powers of the Aesir? References to Raiders of the Lost Ark? But when I saw the African-American GI, my initial thought was, "but aren't you supposed to be in a segregated unit? or a cook?" And when the Asian (presumably Japanese) guy says,"Hey, I'm from Fresno!" How could I not think, "Dude, then you'd be in Manzanar or the 442nd!" Better writers on race in America have already commented on this, and how it helps to erase the Civil Rights Movement, so I'm not going there. Yet?

Then last night, I was watching Luther, a BBC crime drama with the amazing Idris Elba. It's good, gritty, and dark. And one of the episodes I watched concerned a white guy who may or may not have been racially motivated. There was a scene where the killer, a skinny white man who was clearly into RPG stuff, went into a shop run by a South Asian man. He blatantly stuffed his bag from the shelves, watching the shopkeeper watch him and do nothing. And it made me think of all the astoundingly offensive and insane commentary surrounding Breivik, the mass murderer in Norway (short roundup here, because I will not link to assholes at Fox), whose ideas of jihad-by-migration have also been defended (although not linked to Breivik there at all) on an academic listserv I read and in fact more directly on that scholar's own blog. No, I'm not linking there, either. This came at a time where yet again, a bunch of misogynist comments were made, and then dismissed by senior male scholars when women complained about them.

The one thing that comes to mind over and over again is how scared and threatened a very large segment of the population must be. Where does this phenomenon of the scared white guy come from? Because that's what it is, isn't it? Beck, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, and all the people who buy into their fear and hatred, and want to channel it back into attacking women and people of other races (and I don't really believe Islamophobia is as much about religion as it is about race -- Sharia law supports a lot of the sorts of positions Michelle Bachman does, after all...) -- how does that work? How is it that, when we look at who truly has power in Western society, we can see that it's mostly plutocratic power, and those who hold it are primarily white and primarily male. Actually, that should be reversed. Male and white. Male is still the biggest conveyer of privilege. In the West, white and straight and Christian are also up there. And yes, there are going to be trade-offs, and within certain communities, the balance will be different. A senior colleague and friend pointed out to me that one of the people who irritates me most on the list serv because he seems so entirely unable to recognize his male privilege, or even his academic privilege, probably can't see it that way because his self-perception is based on being a Jew and being held back by those with white privilege.

But back to the fear: why is it that we live in a world where there is a perception that power is a zero-sum game, and if it is shared, i.e., if we actually live in a world where people of color, people of other religions, people with other sexualities -- and, by the way, women -- share in the running of that world, it means something bad for white guys who think of themselves as Christian? And why is it that the people who fear (because I think we need to include the partners and families of these scared white men -- there are lots of women in the Tea Party, after all) cannot see that they have far more in common with the rest of us folks who live from paycheck to paycheck in multicultural land than they do with the people running things and asking us to pay the bills?

I expect in some ways it all comes down to entitlement, and not the good sort provided by the NHS, or Social Security. If you're used to privilege, and that privilege seems threatened, then all you have to fall back on is a feeling of entitlement. And if power is not a zero-sum game, then privilege kind of is. At least, once privilege -- something that is grounded only by means of historically having power without thinking about where it comes from -- is challenged, then people have to compete for the same jobs, places at university, etc. In fact, a level playing field doesn't feel all that level when it means you don't have the up-hill advantage. When you've never had to share, even giving away a small portion can feel like a huge loss. Being accustomed to privilege, especially the unrecognized kind, leads to feelings of entitlement that don't hold water for me. And I guess entitlement means not having to be scared, or think about one's own responsibilities to others. So a world in which a token African-American or Nisei soldier helps to show that, hey, we've always got along together just fine is a world that says, "see? you don't have to think about reality or question your privilege." It's a world where you don't have to be scared white men.

Of course, lots of us already live in a world where you don't have to be scared white men. It's full of interesting people with different ideas about life and nature and how the world works, and conversations that include bits of different languages, and really, a lot better food. And you know? the doors aren't always wide open, because sometimes assholes with guns show up. But if you are willing to live here with the rest of us, it's a pretty nice place.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

NaBloPoMo 2010 -6

NaBloPoMo 2010 -6 Movie day

Despite having much to do, today was a good day for yard work and a matinee. saw RED, which was fun and funny. Lightweight entertainment provided by heavyweight actors. Tonight, an extra hour of sleep (or really, just the ability to get up at 8 and have it be back to being 7.

Hey -- it's a post, at least.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

On Avatar

On Avatar

I saw Avatar last night. There's a lot to say about it. First, let me get the whole race thing out of the way. Not because it's unimportant -- it's not, and the critics are right and correct in their complaints. It is sort of Dances With Wolves or any other film where the white folks are evil colonialists and the blue folks are going to teach them something. And it is told through the POV of the Earth person, rather than the people who adopt him. And yeah, he saves them all. Even more importantly, though, is that this particular trope is included mindlessly in the service of another one, that of technology and modern values against pastoralism and valuing the natural world. I think that this is really the kernel of all the race issues people have noticed, but haven't mentioned. For me the real problem is that, in setting up the dichotomy of 'people in touch with nature' vs. 'people who have destroyed their world through greed and technology,' Cameron et al. have clearly not considered that race and questions of race will exist in the minds of the audience. TO me, that's something worse.


I'm not sure how I feel about this film, because there's a lot more to it, or maybe I'm just wanting to read more into it. At any rate, I'm going to go through it point by point, so if you don't want to read about the film, stop here.

Still here?

First -- The Na'vi are just really cool looking. Giant blue stripey vaguely feline people. I can see how people complain about the whole Native American look, but honestly, I wasn't so much bothered with that, if only because their clothing and hair could have been just as much Native American, but from South America -- with a touch of Aborigine, really. So if there is a complaint here, it really should be that Cameron and his team picked and chose traits that seemed to go with people who live in a tropical rainforest, and then tweaked them a bit for the Na'vi who live on the plains and near the sea. In some ways, this was distracting, but it also made sense, in that a pastiche of different looks and traits pulled from a lifetime of reading National Geographic (that's what it felt like, at least) may have been as much about trying to extrapolate from what we know of Earth, and applying it to another planet. So in a way, you can reverse engineer this to a conversation where the filmmakers said to each other, "So we want pastoral people, hunter-gatherers, with an animistic belief system -- what can we take from Earth?"

Thus, what we learn of Na'vi custom is pretty much derivative/imitation: for example, the Na'vi thank their prey when they make a kill, and try to make the kills as clean as possible. They don't kill unless it's necessary, but they certainly aren't peaceful. There are snippets of dialogue that tell us that there have been wars between the different Na'vi people, and we know they will defend their territory. They can also tap into the spirit of their world, and to the spirits of all the dead. But when it comes down to it, we do have the eternal conflict between colonizers and colonized, and one of the real problems in this film is that that's really secondary to the plot. As far as I can tell, the filmmakers really weren't thinking about race or colonialism at all. The Na'vi are less a people, and more caricatures who serve as foils in a cautionary tale about not appreciating Nature.

Nature, or rather, the planet Pandora, is one of the stars of the film. The depictions of the planet are stunning, and really, I think it's worth seeing the film if only to see the world-building. It's amazing and gorgeous. We mostly see the rainforest parts of the planet. It's like, and not like, every rainforest we've ever seen. The plants are gorgeous and huge, and many of them phosphorescent and beautifully coloured. There are misty mpuntains that float. This was problematic for me. That much disbelief I have trouble suspending. Having said that, they are sooo cool! The animals are pretty cool -- there are canine-like hunters, hammer-headed-rhino-like giant critters, something vaguely huge and feline, and dragon-things. It's as if the filmmakers took examples from both dinosaurs and early mammals, and combined them to make something new. I think it's pretty effective. For me, though, the best, and most creative part of the animals is that all of them have appendages that can be joined to a set of feelers in the tails of the Na'vi. Joining appendages allows the animals to join thoughts. It's a bit of a jar to realize that only the Na'vi seem to be able to jack in and impose their will on others; in a planet where everything is clearly very interconnected, there is still a clear hierarchy, and the anthropoid critters are on top. The Dragon-things are pretty high up the chain, too, it seems. Unlike the six-legged horse-critters, who can bond temporarily with any rider, the dragon-things bond only with one Na'vi, and for life. Still, easier than on Pern, due to the lack of telepathy needed, harder 'cos they try to kill the person who wants to bond with them. (yeah, problems with number in that last sentence -- sue me!)

Enter into this pristine landscape People from Earth. It seems to be the same Earth that spawned the Alien films, an Earth where man has destroyed most of the environment through greed and warfare, and giant corporation(s?) with mercenary armies have led expansion further out into space. This particular group is searching for Unobtainium, an element that exists to take the piss. And the corporation will do anything for it. Enter our Avatars, Na'vi versions of humans who can link into their empty brains and drive the bodies from comfy (not if you're claustrophobic) couches that have some sort of embedded psi-links. I'm not even going to go into how bad the science here is, because it's a cool idea, after all. But there's also a huge plot hole. Our hero, Jake, is supposed to gain the trust of the Na'vi by joining their group, which he does, and trying to negotiate a peaceful move of their homes away from the larges source of snipe nests unobtainium. So he's there long enough to gain trust, live with them learn their ways, and become one of them ... and never bothers to tell them why the Earth folk are there??? Really? Really? You'd think if he cared, he might have warned them somewhere in the process.

But obviously, he can't, because that would ruin the whole Evil Corporate Interests Ruining Nature For Fun And Profit &tm; theme. Because really, the crazed colonel in charge of the mercs wants to kill all the Na'vi, just because. He is that mean. He doesn't even care about the snipe unobtainium, just doing the soldier thing and killing blue cat-people and mocking the scientists.

And so we come to the end of the film where the bad guys look to be winning, until lo and behold, a plucky Latina pilot helps to rally the scientists to get Jake into his Avatar so that he can lead the Na'vi against his own kind. But will they trust him? And why should they listen? they have a war leader, after all. Ah, but Jake listened to his teacher and mate when she told him about how, in times of crisis, the Na'vi had been brought together by the rider of the super-dragon-thing...

Yeah, he dumps his dragon for a better model, rallies all the Na'vi, and prays to the planet to help. And the planet answers, but not till Cameron has killed off the plucky Latina and a bunch of Na'vi, not to mention the leader of the scientists (Sigourney Weaver, who is as good as ever). And then, in a terribly written ending, Jake tells us that "the aliens" were forced to leave Pandora, and the planet, or its deity, Eywa, uses its super-special "jack into the planet's energy" powers to transfer Jake's mind to his avatar's body forever and ever.

This is the one thing that I think could really have made an interesting film. The ability to truly change from one thing to another, to place a mind and soul into another body -- can that make a person that thing? One of the chief issues whenever we speak of race, and especially of racism and white allies, is that the white person can never truly know what it is like to be Other. Jake becomes Other, but in a world where there is no one but the Na'vi. Moreover, he never can lose the Earth marine that he was. The Na'vi have accepted him as one of them, but he didn't start out that way. There are so many interesting questions that the film could have asked, but didn't. But then really, should I have expected more?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

That's Hedley

That's Hedley

There's a documentary on right now I'd really like to watch. Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood. I'd always known about people like Peter Lorre and Billy Wilder, but I hadn't realised just how many others had come over. Apparently, most of the cast of Casablanca, for example. And there's lots of interesting stuff on Ernst Lubitsch and how influential he was, really an important node in the network of emigrés and exiles. Must try to catch this sometime.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Prince Caspian (2008)

Again, in lieu of the identities post and a post on AHA ...

Prince Caspian (2008)

I did not like this movie. It was very disappointing. Prince Caspian is one of the better Narnia books, I think -- or it least, it's one of my favourites. The book has interesting characters, and opens up all kinds of questions about Narnia for people who like to pick at such things. The book has moments of real tension, and moments of wonder. The movie? Not so much.

From the beginning, it's clear that there will be little loyalty to the book. Peter is cast as the kind of boy who gets into fights for no apparent reason. He's still a boy, not someone who has grown up and ruled Narnia as High King. Susan is treated similarly -- the unnecessary scene where Susan blows a geeky student from another school off seems silly in all kinds of ways. Fortunately, Edmund and Lucy remain relatively unscathed, at least; Caspian does not. One of the best things about the Caspian in the book is that he is close to pure of heart. We know from the beginning that Caspian will eventually be king, because he loves Narnia and he acts like a Narnian. But he's too young, and helpless. The film Caspian is not too bright, seems petulant, and cares much more about himself -- and revenge -- than Narnia. Part of this is that the makers of the film have decided to accentuate the details of Miraz's usurpation. Lewis tells us about the regicide (and fratricide, for that matter), but as though to reinforce what a thorough bad guy Miraz is. Caspian is at first driven more for survival, and then later by his need to save Narnia. Being king isn't a goal, but a burden, or perhaps a means to a more important goal.

The meetings between Miraz and his council are additions, but in some ways, they are sensible. The allow the audience to see that there is conflict among the Telmarine nobles and, should the series continue, help to lay the ground for the search for the 12 lords in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. On the other hand, they distract from the overall flow of the story, as well as from the message. One of the things I never really liked about Prince Caspian was the Christian message, which in part is that one should keep believing in a benevolent God even when he seems to have abandoned us, in part is that even the meekest of us should stand against friends and family for our faith, just as the early martyrs did (although Lewis doesn't really obviously consign anyone to a martyr's fate). Since the film was presented by Walden Media, I was surprised by the change. I was also surprised at how disappointed I was. Christian message or not, Lucy's Aslan sightings are an important part of the story, if only because they increase the tension, expose the physical and social changes wrought by time and the Telmarines, and give us a chance to learn more about both Edmund and Trumpkin. It might have been much better had the section been left out altogether, rather than limiting it to one vague sighting and a nonsensical chiding by the lion much later. It also means that much of the film is taken up with events that never happen in the book, 'action' inserted to make up for the fact that the trip back from Cair Paravel takes up 2/3 of the book, more or less.

Meanwhile, back in Aslan's Howe, which was much bigger than I ever imagined it, Caspian has assembled an amazingly large contingent of Narnians, some of whom should not have been there -- critters who sided with the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I'm a bit shaky on the continuity of the film (I can't quite remember when the Pevensies show up), but the fact that the Caspian who was at least nominally in charge of the Narnians when the Pevensies arrive at the Howe was much more grown up, and really didn't seem to need the older kings and queens. It's also unclear why they all decide to launch a night attack on the castle. In the scheme of the film, I suppose it makes sense. Peter is a hothead, and seems to be trying to prove himself against Caspian. Caspian is initially motivated by a desire to rescue Dr. Cornelius (what sensible king or commander would go to such risks?? and besides, in the book, he'd already escaped!) and also, possibly, by wishes to impress Susan; finally, he is motivated by revenge. The sequence ends in a horrible defeat for the Narnians, in ways that should have removed any confidence they have in Peter and Caspian. It only gets worse when they return to the Howe, where Nikabrik, the Hag, and the Werewolf convince (sort of) Caspian to conjure the White Witch.

There are many things wrong with this scene. First and foremost, the witch is actually conjered,and tries to convince Caspian and Peter both to release her fully. She plays to a their hopelessness and to their egos. I suppose it shows that they have no faith that Aslan will come, but eh, it really doesn't work. Part of this is that Edmund saves the day by shattering the ice wall that entraps the witch, looks at Peter, and says, "I know. You had it sorted." Any intimation that Peter and Caspian were being tempted by evil or some such thing is gone in that moment -- again, it's all about Peter the hothead, who will take the easy way.

This makes the last part of the film more jarring. All of a sudden, we have Peter the Magnificent, High King, and warrior able to fight against the bigger, more seasoned, and nastier Miraz. Where did he come from? He's certainly more responsible and adult than Caspian, who leaves the scene of an impending battle to rescue Susan from some of Miraz's soldiers. This is a Susan who, up to this point, seems to need very little in the way of rescuing. For the girl who supposedly had no place in battle, she's pretty scary with a bow -- and yet, she needs Caspian to rescue her from the last man of one of Miraz's patrols. Go figure.

Lucy is by this time pretty much an afterthought. She makes her way to Aslan -- we never know how she figures out where to find him, though. And not much happens on that end until he lets the ents know it's all right to be pissed off, and Birnam Wood walks spirits of the trees and the waters loose. Of course, this doesn't happen till there has been much more fighting, first a single combat between Miraz and Peter, then between the forces of Narnia (which include female centaurs, which seems a bit wrong) and the orc Telmarine armies. The fight between Peter and Miraz is interesting. For all that Peter has been shown as anything but a king -- let alone High King, this scene is believable, as is the scene where Edmund delivers Peter's challenge. Again, it's interesting that not only is Edmund much more like the Edmund of the book, but he is simply just more interesting. Not only does he seem more like the Edmund in the book, who at one point is described by one of Miraz's lords as a dangerous knight, but he seems to be the only character who lived through the events in the previous film (and book). To be fair, Edmund is the character who went through the most, but it surprised me that he seemed so strong and steadfast in this film. Given the portrayals of Peter and Caspian, though, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise.

The film ends predictably, given what we've seen to that point. There is an entirely gratuitous and ridiculous goodbye kiss between Susan and Caspian, and then it's back to wartime England for the Pevensies, and Narnia in the hands of some long-haired Telmarine.

Caspian is also a long-haired Telmarine with an accent. All the Telmarines have accents. Who knew that they were swarthy Mediterranean types? Not me. When I read the books, it never occurred to me that the Telmarines were anything but English. Yes, they were supposedly the descendants of brigands and pirates, but it never occurred to me that they weren't English since, well, there are lots of English pirates, and I think I was pretty much thinking of the whole 'shipwrecked till they found a door in a cave' thing as a reference to the folks on Pitcairn Island. But mostly, I just didn't get why they were swarthy and had accents vaguely Iberian. I am really uncomfortable with the 'dark and oily foreigners with thick accents' portrayal, and it grated on me throughout the film.