Archive for ‘movies’

March 10, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Great Wall

You knew I wasn’t going to let something this silly and this spectacular pass.

 

  • I’m fascinated by how this film negotiates its multiple audiences and contexts. I’ve (you may have heard!) spent a lot of time with adventure narratives, the genre in which where a white man travels into the unknown East, gets embroiled in a native battle and proves himself the most capable person there, probably romances a hot local girl, and eventually returns to his homeland wiser and better, having done important character development out over there. The Great Wall is this story all over again. It’s also a story about gormless foreigners who show up and gape at everything. It’s more the former, because William (Damon) is the character through whose eyes we see most of the action.
  • We also see some stuff from the perspective of his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal, a joy forever). There are … two? scenes that I can think of (maybe three if you count one very brief moment) where we see the Chinese characters doing anything without a European observer.
  • (I don’t know enough [or indeed anything] about Chinese cinema’s conventions for representing Europeans in cinema, or whether such conventions are in fact established, so I’m probably missing a lot)
  • Damon’s William is taken out onto the wall by Jing Tian’s Commander Lin. William has already seen Lin and the rest of her Crane Troops bungee jump harnessed from the wall (I know), armed with spears, in order to attack the invading army. Lin invites him to try the harness, even as one of the other women asks if they’ll be able to pull someone so heavy back up (we can see the English subtitles; William can’t). Lin “translates” her companion’s words as something complimentary and completely false; William grins fatuously. The audience giggles, of course this arrogant man thinks everyone’s saying nice things about him. Then: “I don’t think that’s what she said,” says William, still grinning, and we’re wrongfooted, suddenly we’re being laughed at (or, I suppose, have switched allegiance, depending on who the audience is and who they’re already more able to identify with).
  • William refuses to do the bungee jumping thing; Lin berates him for lacking (a word she translates as) faith, a quality which is important for working with other people (and raises the possibility that the Crane troops’ training is a series of corporate trust-building exercises). Later in the film, however, he does risk his life and jump off the wall (ziplining down a chain, so not quite the same extreme sport). When asked why, he throws Lin’s word back at her.
  • Or does he? The subtitles don’t suggest that there’s anything weird going on. I don’t have any faith in my recollection of the sound of a word heard only a couple of times in a language I don’t know to have a clear opinion here–and the two characters obviously have very different accents. But on one viewing I imagined William’s pronunciation sounded off enough to be something else entirely, and if that had been the case (it was probably not!) the film’s choice not to draw attention to it and to have Lin hear it with a straight face would be an interesting one–essentially putting the anglophone viewer in the position that we thought William was occupying in the earlier scene. Even if William has got the word broadly correct, given the number of cinematic traditions in which foreigners mangle language with their funny accents this scene feels notable for … not doing that? (Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Lagaan.)

 

cloaks

  • I’ve seen “silkpunk” used to describe China-influenced (usually partly-Western) fantasy, and I have various quibbles with the term. However, this film really does have cause to claim the genre, if it wants it. It begins with Damon and Pedro Pascal’s characters, William and Tovar, on their way to attempt to trade (or steal) “black powder”–though they’re not, as far as I can tell, travelling along any of the silk routes there’s probably still a valid connection to be made re. trade, and it’s as traders that they first appear before the Chinese army. There’s a moment, late in the film, where the invading army are chased via the still-imperfect technology of (silk, presumably) hot air balloons. More than this, though, it’s a film filled with people in lightweight silk cloaks. Now, I’m aware that silk moves differently to the fantasy cloaks you see flapping dismally about in Northern Europe analogues–perhaps it’s because some of said Europeans were present, still in their sad thick cloaks, that I was constantly aware of that difference in movement.
  • I didn’t really know how to date this film, in part because it’s Not My Period, and in part because I suspect its own relationship to chronology is somewhat suspect. Better informed reviews have said it’s set during a version of the Song dynasty– possibly basing this conclusion on the fact that the capital city here is Bianliang and/or the widespread use of gunpowder (you can tell I’m getting all this off wikipedia, can’t you). Matters in Europe seem a bit more murky; William appears to have fought for “Harold versus the Danes” (cue comedy sound effect from a Danish friend to whom I subjected this), against the Franks, but also “for Spain”, which last suggests a rather 19th century understanding of European nationhood. (This is not the only oddly anachronistic thing about these characters–they also appear to have maps you can actually navigate with.) I enjoy this, in a way, because it feels like a way of treating European history with the cavalier, no research required, attitude that is so frequently applied to the rest of the world.
  • The plot: our protagonist and his companions, gormless, as I say, but good at fighting, are off Eastwards to find some of this magical black powder of which they have heard rumour. As they camp one night, a monster of some sort attacks them. They manage to sever an arm–it’s green and scaly. Some days later, they arrive at a (the) Great Wall, where they are imprisoned, and where everyone is alarmed to see the severed arm. It turns out a swarm* of giant telepathic lizards has been attacking North China every 60 years for the last two millennia. The current army has been preparing for this attack for decades, and the wall itself has been an integral part of its defence. William and Tovar have to decide whether to join this army and fight off the threat or steal all the gunpowder they can and get rich in Europe.
  • *We will be discussing my use of “swarm”.
  • Technology on the wall includes: hydraulic lifts, giant earhorns, giant scissors built into the walls.
  • After the first battle, the two Europeans arrive in the hall where lunch is being served freshly bathed, shaved and dressed. The entire room applauds–it’s not clear whether for the men’s prowess in battle or because their guests have discovered hygiene and should be encouraged to continue along this path.
  • At one point during the battle, Tovar (who is from Spain) uses a red cloak like a bullfighter to distract one of the taotei.
  • So, swarms. Early in the film we see the taotei dragging with them the corpses of their fallen companions as they retreat. My first thought, obviously, is “oh right, sentient beings with social structures and bonds.”And perhaps they do have these things. But very soon we learn that the whole army communicates telepathically with its queen, and to kill the queen is to immobilise the whole army. The taotei therefore are presented to us as a vast number of ancillaries to one queen, even though when severed from the link with her they seem to still be alive. I was feeling dubious about this presentation of vast numbers of people as undifferentiated hordes, and then saw that Max Brooks had been credited with some of the writing, and ah, right. Zombies.
  • So: monsters, opportunities for mass slaughter, and the sense that one isn’t killing an independently sentient thing. (Good monsters, though.)
  • Apparently the kingdom has been keeping several centuries of scholarship about the taotei–the scroll which they consult, we’re told, is 900 years old. This is pleasing.
  • The scroll adds further weight to a hypothesis–that magnets affect lizard telepathy. It’s not clear why they’ve waited centuries to try this out. But it’s a useful reminder that of course the writers of the scroll knew what magnets were, because otherwise they’re only mentioned in the context of William’s compassmaking skills. (He has maps, so a mere compass isn’t that impressive.)
    • My standards have been driven absurdly low, but I was pleased that no one in the film seemed in any way surprised when Commander Lin is put in charge of the Nameless Order, following the death of General Shao. I’m not sure how I feel about the movie’s more general treatment of gender–there are women in the army, and no one but Tovar seems particularly surprised to see them there, but they work only in the Crane troops (as killer trapeze artists/bungee jumpers) or as the drummers who communicate military commands along the wall. Only General Lin gets any actual speaking time, as far as I can remember, (apart from the one fellow soldier who speculates about William’s weight) and none of the other women are invited to the important meetings where decisions are made. Lin’s breastplate is, of course, the only one of the commanders’ to be breast-shaped. And yet, and yet. We’re left with the possibility of reading her relationship with William as entirely platonic (only Tovar’s reactions make it otherwise, and frankly I’m more interested in shipping Tovar/William), she’s a good fighter because she’s trained to be, she takes the final shot because she’s best qualified to do so.

great wall boob armour

  • The crane troop seems to be all women, and it’s implied that this is because they’re lighter than men on average. The women who spread information via drums are probably not subjected to this restriction, and it’s nice to know that the film leaves a niche for fat girls and it involves hitting things and making a loud noise.

 

September 10, 2016

Bulletpoints: Mohenjo Daro

Here are several thoughts on Mohenjo Daro, which was a cheesy, terrible mess which I loved.

I mean:

hats of mohenjo daro

 

  • The headgear. I will come back to this, but it’s a delight. Watching the trailer some months ago, I suggested that the prevalence of horns in the various headpieces on display were obviously the result of someone associated with the film having a vague memory (this is something I learnt in primary school) that animism of some sort was a big part of the Indus Valley civilisation. This was unfair; I’m sure researchers of some description were consulted. I’m not sure it matters though.

  • Tarsem Singh is in many ways a good reference point for my feelings about this film. It’s not as beautiful, or as visually sumptuous (now that the brilliant Eiko Ishioka is dead, are Singh’s films that beautiful? I haven’t seen the most recent), but at times it feels like it’s working in a similar register, and with a similar visual language. (It’s also less beautiful because the cgi is not exactly great–the flying crocodile in the trailer is hilarious. On the other hand, the mystical unicorn looks, as the friend with whom I watched it pointed out, like a goat drawn by Lisa Frank, which is surely enough to make the whole film worthwhile.) This is also one of the reasons I find attempts to read it from a viewpoint of historical accuracy rather po-faced–surely it’s missing the point to try and map this onto a solid historical narrative. It occupies a space between history, myth and fantasy, and its job is not to Accurately Represent The Past. The film’s title is a good example of this–with the opening credits we get a disclaimer about how obviously the real name of this city wasn’t Mohenjo Daro, but rather than make up a name that its residents might have called it, we’re going with the one that is familiar and that we all acknowledge is wrong. Likewise, the use of language: the movie opens with Sarman and his friends speaking a completely unfamiliar tongue (though they’re mostly yelling each other’s names while trying to fight a crocodile) before zooming in on one character’s mouth, and zooming out again to have him speak a form of Hindi–comprehensible to the audience, but with enough differences to prevent immersion, to remind us that we’re at an extra remove from reality. Or at least, that appears to me to be the intent–how successful it is is another matter entirely.
  • Having said all of which, the film’s gestures towards Real history, though obviously dubious af, are sometimes very satisfying. I genuinely enjoyed the sense of the city as a point of contact for multiple ancient cultures. The Sumerians (whose fault everything here is; also it’s capitalism’s fault), but also all the other names I half-recognised and have to look up. Various people have commented on the presence of horses in the film, but even there they’re presented as strange and foreign–the sort of exotic beast you might find if you travelled to a marketplace like this one, where strange things from strange lands that were previously unimaginable are suddenly here. In a recent conversation with Samira Nadkarni about another myth/fantasy film, I described a marketplace scene as something that might fit into Xena, Warrior Princess (this is not a bad thing, obviously) and I think that’s true here too, but we’re also presented with a vision of an interconnected ancient world, full of trade and travel and stories and material goods being exchanged across vast distances, rather than the rather isolationist view of the subcontinent that is about as far as a lot of school history goes. 
  • I’ve said that the film rests at the intersection of history, myth and fantasy. Particularly considering it’s directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who also made Lagaan, it’s worth thinking about its mythic aspects, and what story it’s trying to tell. There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that denies any sort of political agenda, and refuses to take a stance on the historical questions of the Aryan invasion theory or connections between the Indus Valley and what we know as Hinduism. Fair enough, that’s a lot to burden a film with (and can only end in riots). The problem is, that it then goes on to tell what is pretty straightforwardly a Hindu origin myth. The movie ends with Mohenjo Daro destroyed, and its survivors, led by our two heroes, wander the earth North India until they find and settle on the banks of the Ganga, guided in this decision by Sarman’s vision of the unicorn that originally led him to Mohenjo Daro. There’s even religious continuity, if one wants it–our other hero is Chaani, blessed by the river goddess and destined to save her people. We’ve moved from Tarsem Singh to Cecil B. DeMille. Nationalist and religious-nationalist myths may have their place (though they’re always suspicious), but when that place is a 21st century India, where Hindutva has state sanction, they’re particularly alarming. It’s worth, also, looking again at the trailer which insists that we’re in a time “Before the British Raj / Before the Mughals / Before Christ / Before Buddha”– with the puzzling exception of Buddhism, all of these are routinely positioned as corrupting outside influences, and their invocation here feels like a pretty blatant sort of nativism.
  • In a forthcoming review of A Flying Jatt (and what a joy to be able to type that phrase), Samira Nadkarni talks about a similar beleagured-natives-vs-invaders framing of national history in that film as well; and I suspect a wider survey would show these aren’t isolated instances.
  • As alarming as it is, this origin myth is at least coherent (is that good, though?). One of the several problems with Mohenjo Daro is the muddled-ness of most of its plot. Nothing that is confusing in and of itself happens, but the whole is so trope-y that individual plot elements end up standing in for larger story structures, and those larger structures simply cannot co-exist together. So we have Sarman, the village boy of mysterious parentage, who comes to the city, feels a strong emotional connection to it, learns that he’s the son of the deposed ruler, and confronts the tyrant. And we also have Chaani, the Chosen One blessed by a goddess, who is destined to change the future of the city and save its people. And we also have the proud city whose citizens angered nature and which was lost underwater. Essentially, then, we have two saviours and a city that can’t be saved. To no one’s surprise Chaani’s story is the one that gets shortchanged–the big moment that will change the future of the city is taken out of her hands. What makes it the more glaring is that Sarman also very clearly (see next bullet) doesn’t know what he’s doing, most of the time. There’s a possible version of this story in which Chaani, knowing the city and its problems better because that is her job, steps into her father’s role of kingmaker, and uses Sarman’s parentage to get things done. It’s not the version this film gave us.
  • There are moments in this film where Sarman’s bumbling, tongue-tied, dazed demeanour is clearly deliberate and meant to signify how out of his depth he is–most of these moments are when he’s interacting with Chaani (and Pooja Hegde is astonishingly pretty, I’d probably gawp awkwardly at her too). At other times, I’m genuinely unsure whether it’s Sarman’s bewilderment I’m looking at, or if Hrithik Roshan just has a really gormless resting face. It’s an important distinction, I feel, because if we’re really meant to view the hero of the film as  lost and incompetent (as opposed to just smitten by the pretty girl), that’s … quite a bold narrative choice, and rather makes you wonder if Mohenjo Daro is deliberately undercutting some of its tropes.
  • Because, as I’ve said, the film is multiple contradictory stories at once; it’s Return of the King and the Akallabeth and displaced people founding a new homeland. And I’m curious about the possibilities of juxtaposing those subgenres–what happens to the (for want of a better term) beats of the story? Twice in the film there are dramatic moments where characters (Maham and Jakhiro) are cut off mid-speech, and I find myself wondering if this narrative KLPD is something fundamental to the film; whether in refusing to let the comforting restoration-of-order story play out, cutting it off with Suddenly, the Flood!, that sense of interruption is enacted on a larger scale.
  • (I mean, I know it probably isn’t, but “this is a shit film” is so boring, and this film was so interesting)
  • The language thing has been much mocked, but I think if the film had been able to commit to that genuine sense of alterity throughout it might have worked. The not-quite-Hindi  does frequently remind you that it’s not-quite-Hindi with some added vowels (and the frequency with which everyone says “कदाचित,” for some reason), but it doesn’t feel like enough. I enjoyed the choice not to translate when, frequently, travellers to the city spoke different languages, though it hits a low point when Sarman has to gladiatorially fight two cannibals from (as far as we can tell?) Tajikistan, who for some reason wear animal skins, and whose conversation to each other the subtitles rendered as “tribal language”.
  • No, really. One of the moments of genuine weirdness about the film is this one, when we learn that two humans are just kept, and possibly starved, under the city, to be brought out when a dramatic fight scene is needed; suddenly we’re in this horrific Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas scenario and no one seems particularly bothered. Maham’s persecution of Sarman is clearly bad, but the fact that he has enslaved and unhumaned these two men, Bakar and Zokar, is just left there. Their attempts to fight Sarman (or die), their lack of (to the viewer) language mean that this casual unpersoning belongs to the film itself, not just Maham.
  • It’s a pity because in its own way, and rather too blatantly, this is trying to be an ethical film in the way something like Jupiter Ascending tries. Informed that he’s the new rightful ruler of the city, Sarman denies the role and suggests trying democracy. In the earlier gladiatorial scene, he refuses to kill the second of his two victims because he has won and can’t bring himself to commit a murder. The film commits itself to evacuating all of the residents of the city, other than Jakhiro, who refuses to leave, and Maham. (Maham is tied to a stake and left to drown. He manages to almost work himself free, just as the deluge comes.) At surface-level this is a film that wants to insist that the lives of people not its heroes are important. It’s a pity that it forgets this whenever those lives cease to be sufficiently Indian. 
  • Those final scenes. when the dam breaks and the city is flooded, are some of the best in the film. Jakhiro’s dancing about and welcoming death, Maham has just begun to think he might get out alive; everyone else is lined up on a hill watching and waiting. I know I said above that the final scenes and the Hindu origin myth they suggest made the film coherent, but they also rob this scene of much of its power. Imagine if mohenjo daro artichokeGowariker had ended it here–had ended this story of heroes and chosen ones on Sarman’s traumatised, shivering face as he watches the city drown.
  • And here, a final reminder of all that glorious headgear. Watching this with a friend was very rewarding–we couldn’t work out what Moonja’s hat reminded us of until she whispered “Jamiroquai!” Later, as Chaani had replaced her usual headdress for a gold one, she turned to me and asked, “is she wearing an artichoke?” Reader, I think she was. —>
January 13, 2016

Bulletpoints: The Borrowers (2011)

Some disconnected notes on the 2011 BBC adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (first published in 1952–the dates are important). Since the book is a) good and b) relevant to my interests (academic and otherwise) I decided drag Erin into watching it with me (and reading the book and thinking about empire–she has some really good stuff about the book here).

  • The plot (book): A couple of frame narratives in, we learn that the Borrowers are tiny, humanoid creatures that live in big houses, stealing borrowing from the “human beans”. Our main characters are a family of three, the Clocks, the only Borrowers left in a declining country house. Arrietty, the adventurous daughter, disobeys her parents, goes outside, and meets a human boy; their subsequent friendship leads him to give the Borrowers a number of things from an old doll’s house, but it also leads to their home under the floorboards being discovered so that they must escape. They end the book as exiles, forced to abandon their home and “emigrate”. borrower2

 

  • I’ve written about the book on this site before, and it forms a biggish chunk of my thesis (which is what Erin’s referring to when she says she’s about to “read Subramanian on this”). Briefly–The Borrowers raises a number of issues around power and dependence; the Borrowers are dependent for their material needs upon humans, whom they dismiss as resources (“Human beans are for Borrowers”), but their names, language, domestic paraphenalia, are all presented as attempts at aping human cultural life, and therefore inauthentic. Through the presentation of human and borrower spaces here it’s easy  (I think) to see how domestic material culture (and national identity–think of the importance of the country house to the heritage industry) is linked to the (declining) empire. And yet the whole thing is appropriately ambivalent; as Erin says in the linked post, it never straightforwardly assigns colonizer-colonized positions. In the human boy, we even have a sort of hybrid figure.

 

  • The plot (film): This is set in the present. The human family here are a boy named James, his unemployed father, and his grandmother Mrs Driver. They live in London and are poor; the dad’s doing all he can to afford a nice family Christmas. Mrs Driver believes her house is infested by tiny creatures who  steal–James and his dad think she drinks too much. James befriends Arrietty, the Borrowers are found out; this is relatively close to the book’s plot but only a small part of the film. Because Stephen Fry plays Richard Dawkins Professor Mildeye, a blustering scientist who is something of a joke; he’s convinced that tiny humanoid creatures exist and that he must catch them (and then display and dissect them) in order to make a name for himself in the scientific world. Pod and Homily are captured (heroically sacrificing themselves for Arrietty’s freedom) and the rest of the film is devoted to Arrietty, another Borrower named Spiller, and James attempting to rescue them before Mildeye can display them at a huge press conference. Toy cars and planes are involved; also chase scenes and Mildeye’s inept attempts at romancing Mrs Driver.

 

  • What does the change in setting do? As Erin noted, the obvious consequence for me is that the immediate colonial context is gone; there’s probably stuff to be said about the ways in which the current economic climate is reflected in the film, but the very specific material relations that constituted (part of) empire are lost. As is Homily Clock’s obsession with perfect housekeeping, but that’s probably a relief. And yet there’s something in Mildeye’s handling of his “specimens”. Granted, this is a made-for-TV children’s movie with a lot of plot and little time to explore nuance, but we were both surprised by the scientists’ unabashed villainy–there’s no attempt to justify to themselves the displaying (like zoo animals), attempted stripping (that was an uncomfortable scene) and planned dissection of sentient beings with whom they’re able to communicate. Of course Europeans displaying or killing colonial subjects for science/curiosity/lulz has a long, proud history–though most of those earlier academics at least made the effort of trying to convince themselves their subjects weren’t fully human. (Coincidentally, we watched this film a few days after the Daily Mail reported on a story about a projected Saartjie Baartman film, referring to Baartman as the “bum woman”.)

 

  • This chimes with other issues of power within the book, and in other, contemporary (with Norton), children’s books. In The Borrowers, the friendship between Arrietty and the boy may be genuine and well-meant, it may give them both wonderful things (they’re both lonely before they meet; she reads to him; he performs tasks she’s too small and vulnerable to do) but good intentions cannot erase that difference in power. When they’re found out, it’s Arrietty and her family who lose everything.

 

  •  I’m thinking as well of T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), which deals with questions of power, tiny people and sentience even more directly. In the book, which is about a girl in a declining English country estate who discovers and befriends the tiny descendants of some Lilliputians (I know; I promise this is a different book), the attempts of various people to capture the Lilliputians for display in circuses are very clearly seen as bad. And yet our ‘good’ characters aren’t immune to these impulses– the kindly Professor fantasises about capturing and displaying a Brobdingnagian before guiltily deciding he would pay the giant, of course. More importantly Maria, who also means well, has to learn to overcome the tendency to treat the Lilliputians like toys just because she can–she learns an important lesson when she puts a Lilliputian in a toy aeroplane and flies it, and he falls out and is badly injured. (The Lilliputians also learn an important lesson, but decide to forgive Maria anyway. I’m not sure that was wise.) Both The Borrowers (book) and Mistress Masham’s Repose demonstrate that  good intentions don’t protect you, if you’re powerful, from causing harm to vulnerable people; MMR further suggests that a disparity of power is going to make it inherently harder for the more powerful party to see the less powerful as fully human (for want of a better word).

 

  • There’s a weird echo of the aeroplane scene in MMR in this film. James shoots Arrietty out of a sling, and I’m wincing and waiting for her to be badly hurt. She doesn’t–conveniently unbreakable, she thanks him for the exciting ride. Later on the plot to rescue her parents has her taking rides in toy aeroplanes and cars. James is Arrietty’s friend; he likes her and so cannot harm her. (Their relationship is presented as even more egalitarian because the Clocks give the human family a rare coin that solves their financial dificulties). It’s the bad people who are a threat to the Borrowers’ personhood–power in and of itself is rendered irrelevant.

 

  • The other possibility, of course, is that issues of personhood and power aren’t raised in any sustained way because practically every man in this film is evil and terrifying. In the book, the Clocks live in isolation because they genuinely don’t know where to find the other Borrowers and it’s too dangerous to go looking; and what if Borrowers are dying out? They might be the last of their kind, holed up in this hiding place, waiting for the end. Pod does plan to teach Arrietty how to Borrow, because this is a basic survival skill she needs to learn. In the film, he refuses to let his daughter go out at all, insisting that he  provides enough for his small family that she shouldn’t need to. This feels like the beginning of a horror story–and when we discover that there are in fact hundreds of Borrowers living communally in London, and that Pod and his family are welcome among them, it gets more suspicious still (and then Pod gets violently protective of the young man flirting with his daughter. This could so easily be a much more sinister story). Eventually we’re given the backstory–Pod is a hero among the other Borrowers but there was one girl he couldn’t save from a disaster–his niece. See? Says the film. We told you there was a reasonable explanation! Except that this is not a reasonable explanation for locking up your wife and child for years and refusing to let them see other people ever, so this backstory hasn’t helped at all. borrower film

 

  • It’s rather a pity that all these other Borrowers exist. One effect is to take away our focus on the isolation of this family–there are moments in the book that feel genuinely apocalyptic (though there’s a wonderful moment in the film [see picture] when all three Clocks hide under their dining table that recalls Cold War era duck and cover drills).There’s a version of this story (it wouldn’t be The Borrowers, but hey) in which film!Pod is aware that the world has ended, and he’s keeping the two women locked up in a misguided attempt to protect them from that knowledge until they all die together. (I think I’ve read that horribly bleak SF short story.)

 

  • About the only bit of Pod’s overprotectiveness that does make sense is his initial distrust of Spiller, the young Borrower boy the family hire to guide them to a safe new home. Spiller is gross. Spiller’s flirtation technique is to sexually harrass Arrietty into exhausted compliance. Spiller is from that really horrible moment in 90s Bollywood and someone should punch him, though I’d prefer Arrietty rather than Pod to be the one to do so. Unfortunately, when Pod and Homily are trapped by Mildeye, he decides to literally hand his daughter over to Spiller to look after. Solid parenting as ever there, Pod.

 

  • To be fair, there’s a solid argument for reading Arrietty’s sex life as central to the book and film. As Erin says, there are some erotically charged moments in the book, when Arrietty first goes outside, and as she and the boy learn about each other. But on an even more basic level the book, and Arrietty herself, are concerned with “saving the race”–it doesn’t seem to occur to her that to do that she might need to find a nice Borrower boy. In the film this does seem to occur to her and everyone else–early on, when Pod protests that he provides everything Arrietty needs, we’re reminded that she has Other Needs (though there’s no un-disturbing answer to how Pod should provide for those).

 

  • James finds a dollshouse bed for Arrietty and Spiller to sleep in. “Is there another bed?” asks Arrietty (I’m paraphrasing) as the two boys smile at her (James innocently, Spiller leeringly) and ask what the problem is. She has to get into bed with Spiller. But she does manage to kick him out when he gets too threatening (the film presumably doesn’t think of its target audience as one likely to have experienced sharing beds with men who will not stop, and apparently sees this as all in good fun).

 

  • Arrietty eventually admits she has feelings for Spiller and the two leave to have adventures, with Pod and Homily’s blessing. UGH.

 

  • How many people are likely to have read The Borrowers? Erin observed that adaptations of other children’s books tend to be a lot more faithful–and I wonder if part of the reason this is able to be the film it is is because this book has fallen out of the popular canon (is it in bookshops? do actual children read it?) to some extent. Everyone knows it’s about tiny people; the rest is optional. (Erin: “[but] it could as easily be Jim the little fairy who lives in your house. Fae are common property.”)

 

  • A thing I miss  about the book is the sense you get of a switch in perspective. I love what Erin says in her post about the clever cover art of her edition and the tricks it plays with regard to size. In the book, most of the time we’re seeing through the eyes of Arrietty who is the right size for a Borrower, and so the human world is huge to us. It’s no accident that I refer to the boy in the book as The Boy, and to James in the film–the film roots itself in the human, gives the humans context and story and thus loses its capacity for estrangement. This is a vital difference for me. The book is set in a vast and terrifying landscape populated by huge creatures that can kill you–the film is set in your nan’s house with cute tiny creatures scurrying around. It keeps the Borrowers small. And it renders the film safe–the heartwarming tale of How Little James Helped The Friendly Tiny People With No Bad Consequences For Him Or Them looks a lot more fraught from the other side.

 

Which is a lot of words to say “this film is mediocre”, but hey.

September 1, 2014

The future is ScarJo

I have watched a lot of Scarlett Johansson movies this year. I have also watched other movies, some of which are mentioned in this thing I wrote recently for the Indian Express (this version is slightly edited, the result of having rewatched Lucy). This isn’t the long Scarlett Johansson’s Summer of SF piece I crave, and I hope someone does write that soon. I do want to write more about Lucy which, for all its badness is occasionally bad in really interesting ways (on twitter, Rahul Kanakia summed it up for me when he said it was nice to see “an SF film with vision and ambition”, even if “both vision and ambition were very stupid”). But not yet.

 

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A young American student in Taiwan falls into the hands of drug smugglers, who surgically insert a packet of a new chemical into her stomach. When the package leaks, its effects upon her system are catastrophic—her capacity to use her brain expands, allowing her to manipulate matter and absorb huge amounts of information at a glance, but she has not long to live.

Accepting the obvious, that no movie exists in a cultural vacuum, it’s tempting to read Luc Besson’s Lucy in the context of other recent movies. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character, has starred in a run of science fiction films over the last year—she plays an alien in a human body in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a quickly-developing sentient computer operating system in the Oscar-nominated Her, and spy-turned-superhero the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

All of these roles have her cast as an outsider and observer of humanity– even the Marvel movies, where her character is self-contained and closed-off. Johansson brings to them all a sort of curious detachment that is genuinely effective. Under the Skin opens with the putting-together of the alien character’s eye so that from the beginning we’re aware of her as a being who sees; in a probably-accidental parallel scene in Besson’s film, Lucy comes back to consciousness after the drug has wracked her body and we see her eye blinking through several shapes and permutations before coming to rest.

And yet. As the nameless protagonist of Under The Skin comes closer to humanity, we’re invited to see the creatures she preys on as vulnerable, thinking beings. Black Widow’s arc has her open up and form gradual friendships with her new colleagues. Samantha, the “her” of Her, begins by forging a relationship with one human but is soon involved in intimate connections with hundreds, her developing intellect allowing for a larger relationship with other creatures, human or AI. Lucy, by contrast, is growing away from the humans around her.

Lucy has a number of resonances with another big science fiction movie of this summer, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, in which brilliant scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) uploads her dying husband’s consciousness to a powerful computer. With access to near-infinite amounts of information and a rapidly expanding consciousness, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) turns into something of a monster. Both films have their protagonists grow more and more remote, both are martyred for science (Transcendence seems a little more ambivalent than Lucy on this subject). Both feature Morgan Freeman in the supporting role of a scientist whose job is largely to look wise and reflect upon the follies of mankind. Both use TED talk style settings as a tool for exposition. Neither is very good.

And yet it’s interesting (or ought to be) to consider what these two science fiction films about characters transcending what we know as human, released within a few months of each other, have to say about humanity and where it goes from here.

Nowhere good, appears to be the answer. Lucy’s preliminary reaction to the changes in her body is to travel around Taiwan indiscriminately killing the local people—the film’s racial politics are about what you’d suspect from the trailer, which consists entirely of Johansson’s character killing Asian men—and even as she becomes more resigned to her situation and tries to reach out she finds it harder to make connections with other people.  Will Caster’s expanded consciousness doesn’t extend to such things as greater empathy—he quickly begins to use other people’s bodies as tools and even with the wife whom he loves he is unable to grasp the concept of consent. (The scene in which Hall’s Evelyn reacts to his violation of her boundaries with an almost-childish “you’re not allowed!” is one of the most powerful in the film.)

Apart from being a tragically limited understanding of human intelligence, I suspect this is bad science—though accepting flawed science is probably a prerequisite of both films.

Early in the film, as Lucy is pursued by her captors we cut to Discovery channel-style footage of a predator fleeing prey—at one level she is just another animal. In a late scene we see her travel through time to meet the first Lucy, our earliest human ancestor and reach out to her, re-enacting Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (previously shown in the film, which doesn’t really trust its audience to understand things like metaphors). Across time and space and thousands of years of evolution the first and last humans (because when Lucy’s brain has reached 100% capacity where else is there to go?) see each other, and forge a connection. The film can identify Lucy with animals, or with our most distant ancestors, or with the Biblical God; when it comes to humans in our current form both it, and Lucy herself, don’t seem to know what to do.

In this Lucy is the more intelligent of the two films (which is to say very little); more than once we see her struggling to hold on to her humanity.  Yet the question remains. Freeman’s character, Professor Norman, tells Lucy that one of the most important functions of life forms is to pass on knowledge. A suggestion that this knowledge might be misused is made, then dismissed. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it,” says Lucy, at the end of the film. I suspect many of us would prefer not to.

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July 7, 2014

Bulletpoints: Maleficent

I loved many things about Maleficent and rolled my eyes at many others. Some rambly bulletpoints because I can.

  • Sleeping Beauty is one of the best of the classic Disney fairytales to adapt because it is presented to us in the form of a book. We come to Maleficent (those of us who have seen and remember the original) with a sense already of the story as something told.
  • Maleficent gives us two countries, side by side. One of them is populated by “people like you and me”, says the voiceover, making me wonder as it always does if I’m a person “like you and me”. The other country is populated by communists.
  • I don’t know why Maleficent is so much bigger than the other fairies, or why she flies around graciously telling the other residents of the moors what a good job they’re doing, if there’s no hierarchy in this country.
  • Meanwhile, the King of the other country claims to have promised his people he’d conquer the Moors. Perhaps it’s because I have no honour but I don’t get why this is such a problem. Is he worried that he won’t be king anymore if he doesn’t fulfil his electoral promises? I don’t understand the political systems of these countries, is what I guess I’m saying.
  • It’s with patchy films like this one that I’m most grateful that the bulletpoint format doesn’t require me to come to conclusions. This film does some things so well, and others so very badly.
  • Maleficent befriends and falls in love with Stefan, an ambitious young man who gives her “true love’s kiss” before drugging her and cutting off her wings in order to be appointed the king’s heir. Hurt and angry, she seals off the Moors and settles down to wait and plan her revenge. When Stefan and his new wife (who has more screentime in this than in the original and is still barely present) have a child, she curses the baby, throwing “true love’s kiss” in Stefan’s face as the only thing that can save the child. This is the point at which the scene diverges from the 1959 film, to which it is otherwise faithful—and I have to wonder if the role of making the curse breakable is given to Maleficent as part of her redemption.
  • Instead of spending years looking for the child, Maleficent instead spends years watching her, occasionally saving her from the effects of the “good” fairies’ (i.e. collaborators with the people who tried to invade their country) incompetence at parenting. Eventually the two women meet, and grow to care for one another.
  • One of the things the original does better than the new one is Aurora herself. A thing that I find annoying about even new!feminist! Disney is the wide-eyedness of its heroines—and I mean this literally. When Frozen (a movie I mostly really liked) came out, it was pointed out that Disney’s recent animation style demanded that female characters all be tiny with tinier hands, huge heads and even huger eyes. Aurora has rMaleficent Aurora 1elatively normal sized eyes, and it’s not even obvious what colour they are—they appear dark for most of the film, though in the scene where she awakes from her enchanted sleep we find that they’re blue. She’s allowed to look knowing, to be amused by her fairy godmothers in ways that don’t involve tinkling laughs, to have, when singing, quite a deep voice. And in the film’s final scene, you get the sense that she and Philip are thoroughly enjoying the fact that they know what has happened and their bewildered elders do not.
  • I think this is important. Because of all the classic fairytales Sleeping Beauty is among the worst in terms of the lack of agency it gives its heroine. She’s a baby, then sixteen, then unconscious; then a man she doesn’t know kisses her and somehow this is enough to wake her and have her live happily ever after. In some versions, as Sady Doyle notes here, she is raped and only awakens after she’s already had children. The 1959 movie doesn’t entirely fix any of this, but it does have Aurora and Philip meet and actively choose one another (though Aurora hasn’t exactly had much opportunity to meet other young men). Even in the trance-state in which Aurora succumbs to the curse (and I’m amazed this didn’t give me nightmares as a child) she isn’t entirely robbed of agency—just before she reaches out to prick her finger on the spindle you can see her come to herself. One of the things that makes the 1959 Philip work (and I do genuinely enjoy new!Philip’s gormlessness) is the sense that he, like Aurora, has the measure of the powerful adults around him. When this couple are both present and conscious, you can imagine them as allies.
  • Maleficent uses this sense of children who know things also, though it does so mostly by making every adult who isn’t the title character comically incompetent or entirely absent. The three fairies who raise Aurora should clearly not be trusted with a child (does Juno Temple always play characters who could conceivably be called “Thistlewit”?); Stefan goes from power-hungry and obsessive to power-hungry, obsessive, and completely falling apart; his wife is absent. Aurora is aware of Maleficent’s presence when her guardians are not; she also knows instinctively that she is safe with her. She figures out that the woman she’s been visiting every night (which is such a good use of the “Once Upon A Dream” thread) is the evil fairy of whom she’s been told.
  • Aurora is also intolerably twee—as Maleficent recognises, and is played for humour more than once. From Smiley Baby and Cute Toddler she grows into the sort of person who calls people her fairy godmother (Jolie’s “ … What.” is one of the high points of the film) and who adorably has mud fights with trolls. She’s nauseating, but you can see why someone who has literally raised a wall of thorns around herself might also see her as new and bright and grow to love her. Which is all very well except
  • In the early scenes of the movie when everything is still good and the moors are still a place of fullcommunism and rainbows, when Maleficent flies around spreading sweetness and light and telling the other crcommunism rainbowseatures what a good job they’re doing, like a royal visit from Madeline Bassett, she’s nauseating as well. This is the perfect state of affairs that Stefan’s violation brings to an end, and taken in conjunction with Aurora’s character later, the film seems to position these traits as necessary to lovability. Meanwhile the adult audience and Aurora herself, at least, are learning that the opposite is true; that the decidedly un-sweetness-and-light adult woman is the one thing about this movie to love.
  • This will be a problem throughout. Jolie is at her best when she’s playing the villainess, whether caustic and funny or hurt and enraged; she’s particularly enchanting when she’s tormenting people. The moors are far more interesting when they’re dark and fertile and swamplike. Her redemption—protective, possibly maternal (though possibly not!) love, the institution of monarchy in the moors (wait, why?) is boring.
  • As far as I can tell, her evil!headdress is to wrap her horns in leather. Her battledress is leather trousers. Look, leather’s just really evil, okay?
  • In my headcanon Maleficent knows about the care and feeding of children because of the communal, it-takes-a-village-ness of the moors. Instead, we get the sense that even this scarred, hurt, angry woman cannot but love babies because babies. Which feels of a piece with the film’s discomfort with its title character’s anger, as well as with her evil. No, but she’s nice really! She likes babies! And rainbows! Even though we’re acknowledging that babies and rainbows are annoying! And so on. And yet there’s that wonderful moment when she tries to lift the curse and can’t, that seems to hint at rage and grief as the powerful, irreversible things that they are.
  • I think Jolie’s great in all her evil!scenes, but the best scene in the movie is one lifted almost entirely from the 1959 film; the christening sequence. Still so good.
  • I’d been warned in advance that the film had chosen to portray the theft of the wings as rape, and was consciously arming myself against that moment (one of things that recent debates around trigger warnings have done is to make me mindful of how I do this, and sometimes notice other people doing this). It still hurt a bit to watch.
  • Some of the strongest moments in this film take emotional beats, rather than plot points or lines, from the original. The thorns that come out of the ground to create a wall – around the Moors this time. The iron-spike-maze that Maleficent must walk through to get to the castle.
  • Maleficent is the latest in a series of Disney movies that very carefully signal their discomfort with the idea that hetero-monogamous love is the cure for all things. Brave has Merida escape the need to make a political marriage; Frozen has Anna happily paired off but has the act of true love that saves the day be between sisters; in Maleficent Philip’s kiss doesn’t work, and comes after he protests because he’s only met Aurora once and she’s unconscious.
  • That it’s Maleficent’s kiss that does wake her leaves the whole thing open to an obvious queer reading; particularly since soon after we learn that “the kingdoms were united”. Alas, this doesn’t mean what I want it to mean; merely that Maleficent has made the Moors boring again and handed them over to Aurora to rule, with her useless but very pretty prince.
  • It is still not as pretty as the original.

800px-SleepingBeauty_(2)Disney

June 19, 2014

Michel Faber, Under the Skin

At some point (which is beginning to feel like “never”) I feel I should sit down and write a proper-sized thing on the Glazer movie and my many issues with it, though I liked some things about it very much. Reading the book made some of those issues stand out in sharper relief; but one, the movie’s androcentricity, I find myself more lenient towards.

Basically, this week’s column is me complaining that no one is writing the impossible, unwriteable alien stories I want, with properly alien aliens.

 

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Reading Michel Faber’s Under the Skin recently, I realised how rarely I read a book after watching its adaptation to screen. I’m not sure if this is a hangover from my teenage conviction that the book would always be better; if I am interested in something I tend to read the book first or not at all. But Jonathan Glazer’s recent adaptation of Faber’s novel, starring Scarlett Johansson as its mysterious main character left me both intrigued and disappointed; because it was beautifully made and speculative, but also in many ways so tame.

In both book and film a young woman drives around Scotland picking up hitchhikers whom she proceeds to evaluate by criteria that may take us a while to work out. She then either drops them off safely, or takes them home (drugged in the book, though not in the film). It soon becomes clear that the young woman is not from this planet at all. Faber’s novel makes explicit that the men she kidnaps are being processed and sent to her home planet for food.

Both book and movie, then, have a non-human protagonist looking upon a human world, but what they do with her is very different. In the film Johansson’s character remains an enigma, never even named. Glazer’s alterations to the plot shift the action to cities and we’re given far more chance to watch human interactions from the outside, as it were. Yet, for all the invocation of the alien gaze, the film treats its humans as human, vulnerable (particularly its naked men) and familiar. It even gestures towards a narrative arc in which the alien observer is gradually humanised, or wants to be. It’s a deeply androcentric film.

This may be less true of Faber’s book. Our access to Isserley’s perspective (and her name!) gives us a connection to a completely alien world, fragments of class, economic and gender politics that hint at an entire existence to which our own species is largely unimportant. The word “human” is often used, but it’s very quickly made clear that Isserley is referring to her own kind, not ours. She is wholly matter-of-fact about the place of the creatures she calls vodsels; they (we) are a resource and her professional responsibility, but no more. Unlike sheep (Isserley’s people are furry quadrupeds who I imagine to resemble llamas), they don’t even look human.

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous to human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

Isserley knows that we turn things into people by recognising that they are like ourselves; at one point in the book she lies to a visitor from her own land, telling him that the shapes scratched out by the captive vodsels (they form the word “mercy”) are meaningless—to recognise that they too have a language would confer personhood upon them and jeopardise the whole enterprise.

And I wonder if this notion, that we cannot speak of aliens or grant them subjectivity without humanising them is at the heart of this book as well. Above, I praise Faber’s book for giving us an alien character whose life does not revolve around the human; but the conditions of Isserley’s own culture very deliberately echo those of our own. Under The Skin is too sophisticated a novel to be merely a satire on the economics of food production, but that aspect is there. In this sense, Glazer’s rendering of Isserley as a nameless, unreadable creature may come closer to the sort of truly alien (and perhaps alienating) narrative I crave.  I don’t know if such a narrative is even possible, and yet I wish someone would attempt it.

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May 12, 2014

Bulletpoints: Transcendence

Transcendence, dir. Wally Pfister. Spoilers, obviously.

I’m aware even as I write this that it’s rather pointless; by now this movie is widely understood to be quite bad, and my writing many words about it being quite bad isn’t really adding anything to the world. Only my baffled love for Bettany and Hall spurs me on.

 

  • The important thing about Transcendence, I think, is that someone clearly set out to make a movie based on some sort of venn diagram of my interests. Do I like science fiction? Yes I do! Do I like Rebecca Hall? I think she is perfect. Do I like Cillian Murphy? Very much. Paul Bettany? Paul Bettany in GLASSES? Etc. Perhaps I should have spent less time squeeing about attractive people on the internet and more on pointing out that I also like films to be good. This one wasn’t.
  • Hidden somewhere in Transcendence is a far better film, and one that has Paul Bettany’s character Max Waters at its centre. Waters is given the film’s framing narrative, but to me this only highlights the ways in which it’s clear to me that it would be better balanced were he its protagonist. After we’d watched it Niall said something about how it would have worked in book form, and I can see this as the sort of literary SF where the dubious SF background exists to provide an occasion for the protagonist’s story; a man who found himself ranged against his best friends, who watched his world fall apart, who now mourns them. Transcendence chooses to linger on (“explore” would be the wrong word) the details of how and why its world fell apart, and … it’s a bit embarrassing when it does.
  • At one point Cillian Murphy says “*dramatic pause* We’ll have to shut down the internet.” I wonder if the actor laughed a bitter laugh, or just made a face and went with it, or.
  • And yet some of Transcendence’s characters, and some of its relationships, are ambitious. The huge, doomed love of the Casters—Will is martyred For Science, Evelyn is unable to accept his inevitable death and does big, foolish things to keep him, until the two realise this is impossible and choose to die in each other’s arms. These aren’t the emotions of real people, but they might have worked in a Greek tragedy. Max’s love for his friends (and also his almost courtly love for Evelyn) also feels like it belongs to a literary or dramatic tradition, rather than any mundane SFnal (and it has to be okay to use those words together in some situations) world.
  • Early in the film Depp’s Will Caster is about to give some sort of TED talk and a young woman comes up to him and asks him for his autograph. Max complains that he does not have groupies (I will be your groupie, Paul Bettany! I cried silently from my seat. Nic may have been doing something similar). It’s gratifying later in the movie to find that Bree (Kate Mara) and her band of anti-technology “terrorists”, RIFT, often gather to discuss Max’s work.
  • Bree’s commitment to eyeliner while camping out in the desert, on the run from the law and hiding from any technology, is admirable.
  • A fun exercise might be to watch Transcendence and watch the trailer for Luc Besson’s Lucy (or the film itself, when it comes out in a few months) and try to work out to what extent Morgan Freeman’s roles in them are interchangeable. He seems to be at a phase in his career where his characters are acknowledged as wise and important but otherwise ignored, and in the actual plot reduced to shaking their heads slowly in slow horror at what humanity has done now. Perhaps his role in Lucy will surprise me? (And perhaps that film will turn out to be about more than Scarlett Johansson killing brown guys?) At least his character in Transcendence stays alive.
  • He comes close, though. Almost all of the staff at Dr Joseph Tagger’s lab celebrate a colleague’s birthday; Tagger (Freeman) alone sits at his desk, working, with a slice of very chocolatey cake next to him. When he next looks up, many of his colleagues are dead. The cake had been poisoned by terrorists. This is brilliant because it’s the worst plot ever (THE CAKE. WAS POISONED. BY TERRORISTS.) but also because it may be the only time I’ve read or seen any sort of fictional disaster, natural or man-made, and come out of it thinking “perhaps I could survive that”. I am not a fan of chocolate cake.
  • The dialogue in this film could easily have been written by aliens. It’s an understanding of what people sound like that is inaccurate, but it’s the inaccuracy of a complete outsider observing something utterly foreign. It’s rather fascinating.
  • “They claim to be defending humanity … but they kill people!” (I’m paraphrasing) says Will, profoundly. “That’s not logical!”
  • The last thing in which I saw Rebecca Hall was the often-very-good Iron Man 3, which did at least pass the Bechdel test. In IM3, she plays Maya Hansen, a brilliant scientist whose work Tony Stark is able to improve upon, who makes some terrible decisions, repents of them, and dies trying to fix the damage she’s caused. In Transcendence she plays Evelyn Caster, a brilliant scientist whose work is subordinate to that of her brilliant scientist husband , who makes some terrible decisions and causes massive, world-changing problems, and dies trying to fix the damage etc.
  • I think what irritates me most is that it would be so easy for this film to be about a completely different woman and scientist. It’s established for us at the beginning that Evelyn’s the one who deals with the social things, like placating investors and wearing appropriate clothing. Soft skills—Will, on the other hand, can barely dress himself, and exclusively does Science when he’s not signing autographs or appearing on the cover of Wired. Evelyn gives introductory speeches about her husband’s work; Will is the main act. And so the movie establishes her as helpmeet rather than partner and equal.
  • When Will finds out he’s dying, he only wants to spend his remaining time with his wife. Evelyn hardly spends this time with him—she’s convinced she can solve the problem with science. Between then she and Max achieve something amazing, yet the role into which the movie has already placed Evelyn makes it easier for us to read this as the obsessive, over-emotional behaviour of a wife who refuses to accept reality (she won’t simply accept Max’s opinions) than those of a scientist obsessed with her work, turning to her understanding of science to solve a problem and as a result doing things no one has achieved before. All her subsequent actions are framed as deluded or brainwashed; as if she’s so wrapped up in her newly-returned (or is he?) husband that she simply isn’t noticing the huge events taking place around her.
  • So imagine a different film, built upon what Transcendence says about Evelyn rather than what it does. In which she turns to science to solve her problems not out of an inability to face reality, but because she’s good at science and believes in its ability to fix things. In which she knows exactly what she’s doing when she builds an underground lab in the desert, in which the thing that may or may not be Will Caster is focused on healing the environment because Evelyn built it and these are Evelyn’s priorities. In which her huge mistake isn’t the result of disproportionate love but of hubris. It would still BE a huge mistake, but one of those motives is more culturally respected (and I’m not sure it should be) than the other.
  • Almost everything that Subashsini says here, because she’s right and wonderful.
  • I do think, though, that it’s interesting that Evelyn’s dawning realisation that everything is horribly wrong is framed in terms of her own bodily integrity. The first time she seems to see that something is wrong is when “Will” appropriates the body of a man he has healed; someone she barely knows approaches her, saying in her husband’s voice “I can touch you now!” Later, she finds out that “Will” is monitoring her to the point of even keeping track of her hormones (the all-seeing husband, as Suba says) and it’s a violation too far. “You’re not allowed”, she says, and it works as a line because it’s filled with that sort of childish incomprehension at this exertion of power. It’s here that she leaves, and I think this is the point at which stopping “Will” becomes something that she’s capable of considering.
  • I make the distinction between Will and “Will” because for much of the film (including, I’d argue, the end) it’s not clear that they are the same thing. The film makes more of this question than necessary—considering that, as Tagger says at one point, even if it was Will, he’s evolved so far so quickly that the question is moot.
  • Speaking of violations of bodily integrity. The first instance of “Will” healing-then-taking-over another body is one in which consent for his continued infestation is not given—it’s an emergency, as is the other instance of his healing someone. What about the other people lining up to be healed? I think it’s interesting (particularly with regards to, again, Suba’s post and what it says about collectivity) that we aren’t told.
  • I’ve just used the word “infestation”. I think there’s a moment where the movie suggests that “it” (“Will”) is building a nest of sorts underground. For something apparently highly evolved beyond humans, I find the film’s ways of talking about “Will” interestingly basic. Nest. Control. Protect.
  • It is a very pretty film, though.
May 6, 2014

April Reading (and recent movies)

Things I read this last month:

 

Deji Bryce Olukotun, Nigerians in Space: I’m reviewing this elsewhere, but I’d love more people to read it and for there to be a larger conversation about it, particularly among science fiction fans, for whom the question of who can imagine the future and in what terms has felt particularly relevant recently.

 

Phillip Mann, The Disestablishment of Paradise: I’d read two of the books on the Clarke Award shortlist, and thought it would be a good idea to read the other four. This was one of the weaker books on the list, full of gender essentialism and uncomfortable prose. I’d have liked it to be a lot better than it was.

 

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice: Also on the Clarke shortlist, and the eventual winner. I’d have had to read this eventually, but I wish I’d come to it earlier. It’s good, and I enjoyed it, but after months of hearing about how revolutionary it was in its approach to gender and to colonialism, I found myself looking for more than I found.

 

Christopher Priest, The Adjacent: This was certainly a Christopher Priest book. Not my favourite of his work (but still good); I may have done it an injustice by rushing through it in time for the award to be announced. I’d like to come back to it at some point. For now: if you’re an alternate-history Islamic republic, why are you italicising “burqa”?

 

Ramez Naam, Nexus: I could probably have dealt with the lazy gender and race stereotypes, the dubious science, the accidental (lol, whoops!) sexual assault at the beginning, and the army of Chinese clones who all look alike (no really) if there had been any basic competence to the text itself. Nexus isn’t a bad novel, it’s a novel that has no conception of what narrative prose does. Also everything Dan Hartland says here; his disgust heals my own.

 

Karen Russell, Sleep Donation: I think I may need a reread of this before any proper commentary can happen. It’s very Karen Russell, which is a good thing.

 

Anita Nair, Idris, Keeper of the Light: Historical fiction set in coastal India pre-British rule, from the perspective of a traveller from Africa? I really wanted this to be good. I was disappointed. A review should be published in The Hindustan Times in the near future.

 

Dorothea Moore, A Runaway Princess or H.R.H. Smith at School, Brenda of Beech House: Is there an entire subgenre of school stories in which Ruritanian royals go to boarding school after reading many school stories? EBD’s The Princess of the Chalet School is still the best of these, but I did like the two Moore stories (particularly Brenda).

Evelyn Smith, The Small Sixth Form: I assumed from the title that this was a sequel to The First Fifth Form, which I read last year and enjoyed. It was not a sequel, but it was great anyway. Some of Robin’s early exchanges with her new classmates have an almost Vance-ish feel to them, the sensible, straight-thinking newcomer facing an onslaught of wit and fancy and wordplay. As the book progresses it settles down into a more ordinary (and still very good) school story, but those earlier scenes are unlike anything I’ve read in the genre, and they’re wonderful.

 

M.C. Beaton, Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham: The kindle edition was cheap. I’m not a huge fan of this series—I like that Agatha’s an unlikeable middle-aged woman, but that’s really the only thing about them that really appeals to me, and it makes it hard to see them as more than a vaguely pleasant distraction on an evening off.

 

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip: I wrote about this here.

 

Manil Suri, City of Devi: I did a column on this, and it will be on the blog soon.

 

And because I’ve been doing such a terrible job of writing about movies, here (very briefly) are some things I’ve watched over the last couple of months also:

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: I kept thinking I’d write about this at length and now it’s been out ages and I’m not sure I have anything new to say. It is good? And comes a little too close to undermining its own premises? And made me feel things? I have thoughts about its portrayal of Black Widow that probably do need addressing at some point.

 

Under the Skin: Gorgeous, with one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. But I’m reading the book and I have some reservations about the directions this adaptation chose to take, both in regard to the gendering of its protagonist and in its refusal to provide me visuals of space llamas with prehensile tails. I will be writing about it at length eventually. Someday. Probably.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive: Lovely and funny and dark and quiet and beautiful. There was wine, and it made me giggly, but I think I’d have laughed through this anyway. I’d like to watch it again before attempting any further thought, though.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel: As tends to happen to me with Wes Anderson films I loved every moment of this while I was watching it, immediately ceased to have feelings about it once I’d left the theatre, and subsequently missed the large quantities of online conversation about it and I am okay with this.

 

A Story of Children and Film: This was lovely; Mark Cousins having thoughts on children in film, tied (loosely) together by his own niece and nephew and their reaction to the camera. As with all such collections (or canons, though I don’t think Cousins is trying to do that) there was a certain amount of indignant “but what about?” on behalf of things one loved that had been left out. But it was smart, and charming and I don’t even mind that much that it left most of my anarchic school story films out.

 

Transcendence: I’ll be writing more about this. It was mostly very bad, redeemed only by the prettiness of its cinematography and of many of its actors.

 

300: Rise of an Empire: The film in which we discover that the evil camp brown people from the first movie a) hate us for our freedom (“us” because I don’t think it ever imagines that a “them” would be watching) b) are not smart enough to be a threat unless led by an evil white person. Said EWP is Eva Green, whose backstory is one of rape and sworn vengeance and who wears a lot of leather in her quest for said vengeance. It is not a movie with many redeeming qualities. It is quite pretty, I suppose. At one point during a battle at sea a horse gallops from one barge to another. And there is the least sexy sex scene any of us had ever seen. And Eva Green dies just as Lena Headey boards the ship on which she is, so that not only is there no chance of this movie ever passing the Bechdel test (hollow laugh), but it almost feels as if that fact is being thrown in the audience’s face.

 

Drinking Buddies: Pleasant, and Olivia Wilde’s face is very nice, and she and guy-from-New-Girl turned me into my father and I spent much of the film wondering if it was really so hard to comb your hair and make your bed.

 

Super 8: I realise I was supposed to be thinking about E.T., but I was thinking about Home Movies instead and that made it better. This is very much a Spielberg tribute movie, and it comes with all the flaws of such a thing, but it (and its film-within-a-film) made me happy.

 

We Are The Best: I WATCHED THIS TODAY AND I WANT TO ADOPT EVERYONE.

 

 

April 14, 2014

On Divergent and self-definition and specialness

In theory, I like heroines who can kill, be morally imperfect, participate in revolts against the state, and movies that have young women hitting stuff and being heroic. A number of YA reviewers I read really like the Divergent series, and it is probably in my best interests for more women-centric action-y movies to exist.

Naturally, therefore, I’m going to whine about how bad the book and movie are. A version of this was in Saturday’s Indian Express.

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“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” says Albus Dumbledore to a young Harry Potter. The Harry Potter series often raises this question of choice versus destiny, always coming down on the side of choice; we’re told, for example, that Harry’s position as Voldemort’s nemesis is not so much the result of a prophecy, as of Voldemort’s believing it.

Of course, all of this takes place within a system in which children are divided into school houses based on their abilities. The cunning ones go to Slytherin, the clever ones to Ravenclaw, the brave ones to Gryffindor and the nice ones to Hufflepuff. That Harry himself is given a choice (the context for the quote above) is due to the special circumstances of his past; we’re given no hints that normal children, not the subjects of prophesy, have this level of control over the ways in which they’re to be categorised.

Then there’s Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a movie adaptation of which has recently been released. In Roth’s future Chicago the Hogwarts house system is the policy of an oppressive state. Society is divided into five ‘factions’, namely Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, each faction composed of those who strive towards the value after which it is named. At sixteen, children take aptitude tests to help them to determine in which faction they wish to spend their adult lives, and once they choose a faction they must stick to it or risk becoming one of the “factionless” who live outside society altogether.

The audience isn’t told how any of this is supposed to work (or, indeed, why the ancestors who named the factions were unable to tell the difference between nouns and adjectives). It’s a fundamentally silly premise, only really there to facilitate the story of its heroine.

Beatrice (eventually Tris) Prior has been raised in Abnegation, where they eat plain food, wear baggy grey clothes and are allowed to look in the mirror only once in every few months. Unable to entirely embrace Abnegation’s selflessness, she isn’t sure she belongs in this faction. Her test results, when she takes them, prove inconclusive. As Tori, the woman who administers her test explains, Tris is Divergent, a rare subset of the population who cannot easily be slotted into a category, and whose deviation from the norm is seen by those in power as dangerous.

It’s Tris’ trainer and eventual lover, Four, who articulates Divergent’s critique of its system. “I want to be brave, and selfless, and smart, and kind, and honest.” It’s never very clear how this oppressive state would derive tangible benefit from preventing any of this. But one way of reading the teenage-protagonist-versus-oppressive-state novel is as a sort of coming of age, a defining of one’s own identity, and a setting of boundaries. Perhaps this is why Katniss in the Hunger Games trilogy is angriest when she is used as a pawn; plots like these literalise a struggle for the right to self-determination, for a physical and moral integrity. It’s fitting that Tris begins her story by leaving Abnegation and giving herself a new name, and the movie makes good use of mirrors, allowing her for the first time to look at herself and claim herself. I suspect Divergent wants to be a story about this claiming of self, and of the right not to be limited by externally-imposed boundaries.

Unfortunately, there’s also the problem of the Very Special Hero. “You don’t fit into a category”, says Tris’ mother, emphasis mine. Just as the Harry Potter books are about the important ‘choices’ of the already-marked-out-before-birth hero, Divergent focuses its argument for self-definition free of categories on a character of whose specialness we are reminded of at every step. Tris can’t be easily slotted into a category, not because people are human and multifaceted (though by having its villain constantly rant about the awfulness of human nature the story nods towards this idea) but because she is part of so rare a subset of humans; later books in the series raise the ways in which she is superior to the level of the genetic. It’s an approach to storytelling that grants full humanity only to the extraordinary. Does it matter that Tris is physically smaller than most of those she has to fight if we’re constantly having it hammered into us that she is fundamentally better than them?

And yet Tris, and Divergent, are underdogs in some ways. Even in the wake of The Hunger Games it’s an uphill battle to get the mainstream movie industry to realise that action movies starring women might be successful, or that stories for teenaged girls needn’t be immediately dismissed. Without closing my eyes to the ways in which Divergent is generic and often silly, I’d like to see the pleasingly ruthless, by no means self-abnegating Tris punch her way into box office success.

I’d also like the occasional Hufflepuff hero, but one can’t have everything.

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March 25, 2014

Her

Some weeks ago, just after I’d watched Her, I had some thoughts. A month later, I’m not entirely sure I can decipher them, and I’m glad as always that this bulletpointsing absolves me of having to have any sustained opinion of anything. Anyway.

  • Here is a story about someone who’s vulnerable, whose marriage has recently ended, and who finds companionship and eventually love with an artificially-intelligent operating system, until the AI grows beyond humans and goes away. The “someone” is Amy Adams, and hers isn’t the story Her chooses to focus on.
  • Her spends a lot of time working at uncreepifying the gender implications of its premise; by which I mean the woman who is bought and owned, who does not come with inconvenient things like crying and screaming and having a flawed physical body, and whose gradual independence becomes threatening; the man who owns her. And so we’re told of AI-human relationships where the AI “belongs” to someone else, we’re even told that Samantha is in several such relationships. It’s clearly important to the film that we know that this isn’t an exploitative relationship.And yet this is the story it chooses to tell, not the Amy Adams love story that happens in the gaps left by Theodore’s story, or any of those other romances between computer programmes and people who don’t own them.
  • And so, presumably, we’re meant to feel discomfort, and we’re meant to cringe when Theodore bursts out that Samantha is his. I’m not sure what Jonze is doing with that discomfort apart from just invoking it; look, look how problematic this is but also let us devote more time to this instagram-filtered manpain. The whole thing reminded me of (500) Days of Summer, another film that teeters awkwardly between acknowledging its protagonist’s creepy, damaging view of relationships and sympathising with him over how awful it is that the women he falls for don’t conform to said view.
  • The Amy Adams story would have been better.
  • Perhaps the most sfnal thing about this world (apart from, you know, all the AI romance) is Theodore’s job, with its implications. He’s a professional writer of other people’s personal letters; not in a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac way, but as part of a legitimate company. In a way this is merely a version of a job writing greeting card poems (and here’s another link with 500 Days of Summer; when will someone write that essay?) but it’s more than that. A sort of taken-for-granted willingness to outsource, to commodify one’s own emotions is something that the world of the film takes for granted. To admit that they are generic.It’s there in the “play me a melancholy song” scene that most reviews seem to have quoted, and in the fact that apparently Theodore can have his letters published without asking for permission from any of the people whom those letters were for or about. We learn at one point that Theodore has inserted his own observations into the letters (something about a woman’s teeth I think, though it’s been over a month since I saw it?) and they have become a part of a couple’s understanding of one another; presumably at least in part because some of their communication is through Theodore’s words. And Samantha takes that further; if emotions can be generic then there’s surely nothing surprising about her feeling the same thing for hundreds of people she talks to as well as Theodore. Which is of course the point where Theodore pushes back, demanding his own specialness.
  • Samantha’s thingness is never so clear as in that moment where the operating system cant be found.
  • The women in this world are all constantly feeling inadequate. In the case of Amy Adams’ “Amy” a partial cause is easy enough to find; her awful husband Charles keeps undercutting her and is generally horrible. In Theodore’s account of his own marriage he suggests that his ex-wife Katherine’s family were similar, and that she turned to him because he was different. We’re not told what motivates Isabella, the young woman who volunteers to be Samantha’s surrogate in sex with Theodore, but when he can’t go through with it she shuts herself away, blaming herself for not being good enough and apologising to Theodore and Samantha . And then there’s Olivia Wilde’s unnamed character*, who goes on a date with Theodore and is terrified that he won’t call her back. Perhaps I’m being shallow, but what is this dystopian future where people don’t call Olivia Wilde back?
  • The relationship flashbacks suggest that the real cause of the end of Theodore and Katherine’s marriage is that moustache.
  • The moustache distracted me throughout. It is terrible.
  • Onscreen bodies become crucially important to the background of a the film where one of the main characters doesn’t have one. There’s an early shot in which Theodore fantasises about a beautiful, shiny, airbrushed pregnant woman in a magazine. The ‘real’ bodies have pores and blotchy skin. Some of them (one minor character, a few people in the background) even have skin that isn’t white. Some of them are fat.
  • I watched Her with people who know and love science fiction. I suspect most people in the auditorium were less embedded in the genre; they didn’t laugh when we did. There are some wonderful moments; a dead philosopher is brought back to life by being rewritten, there’s a book club, there’s Samantha overturning Theodore’s world in the blandest of voices, expressing at the most mild surprise that he is surprised. Of course she’s evolving really quickly, of course she read that book in a fraction of a second, of course she’s talking to thousands of people at the same time as him. I’m not sure how many people were sitting there rubbing their hands together and gleefully waiting for the singularity while Joaquin Phoenix was crying onscreen. I think I may have looked a little heartless.
  • I think Her‘s ending might be the thing that makes it a better SF film than the more beautiful Under the Skin (the other inhuman! Scarlett Johansson film I have recently watched), but my dissatisfaction with that film is better saved for a post on it.

*She’s credited on imdb as “Blind Date”. (She comes out of this better than Evelyn Edwards, who gets to be “Mother Who Dated Pricks” and Steve Zissis who is “New Sweet Boyfriend Of” Edwards’ character.)