Eighth Grade Review: A Empathetic Look at Anxiety, Youth and Love In The Modern Age

Eight Grade.png

I cried all the way through Eighth Grade, the excellent debut feature of Bo Burnham. This experience was a new one for me. Usually my cinematic crying experiences are limited to a couple tears rolling down my cheek or that thing where your eyes get a bit red but no actual liquid comes out. I should explain that there were tears of joy as well as tears of sadness through the screening. Still, I’m not sure I could overstate the visceral emotional reaction I had to the movie. The main reason why I am framing this discussion in terms of crying is partly because good film criticism involves working backwards from the actual experience of watching a movie. What the movie actually makes you feel is an incredibly important part of analysing and understanding it. More than that, I bring up my emotional response because Eighth Grade is a movie that places such a high value on empathy that I want to be totally transparent and communicative about those emotions. This movie is arriving at a time when it’s sorely needed and its mission statement of placing empathy above all else makes it a truly radical and worthwhile experience.

When I say radical, I don’t mean it like how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might mean it. I am talking about the radicalism of Antifa or the Black Panthers. We live in a time of diminished empathy. I don’t mean to say that North America was ever a bastion of empathy and kindness. However, from where I sit, it is undeniable as refugees are turned away because saving their lives might stifle economic growth and as a buffoonish cartoon character still presides over the United States due in large part to his promise of erecting a giant monument to hate that we have an empathy problem. This problem isn’t just an insiders/outsiders thing either, it is also generational (to name just one way we are bad at empathizing with each other). This is a time where the young blame the old for destroying the planet and ushering in a neoliberal hellscape from which there might be no return and the old blame the young for being self absorbed, whiny and perpetually “triggered”.

Eighth Grade feels like a movie aimed squarely people who digest anti-millennial hot takes with glee. It is a movie that has the courage to treat the life of a middle schooler as having real weight and importance. It asks us to empathize with Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she goes to pool parties and agonizes over her lack of popularity. Burnham has the wisdom and technical filmmaking skills to make these things feel like life and death because, despite being conditioned to view young people’s lives as unimportant, this stuff subjectively feels like exactly that to them. The main way that Burnham addresses this generational divide is through the relationship between Kayla and her father, Mark. They are always framed in wide shots together, occupying opposite ends of large frames as they fail to communicate their positions to one another again and again as the film goes on. Mark is far from the crotchety and disgruntled guy that a you might think would represent his generation on screen. Even though he has his flaws, he is an example of what Gen Xers ought to be. He is persistent, willing to be patient with his daughter as she learns to articulate herself and always responds to her problems with love.

It is a sad fact that “love is radical” reflexively evokes comparisons to the perpetually stoned and lazy hippie archetype because it’s the actual truth. Underneath all of the compelling drama and visceral cringe scenes,  Eighth Grade is a movie about learning to love yourself, love your family and love even the scariest, most unpleasant parts of life. I was exactly like Kayla until, if I am being honest, recently. Anxiety dominated my life in a really big way until I finally decided to seek help for it midway through my university degree. Until I made the best decision of my life and talked with professionals about these issues, anxiety chipped away at my confidence, self worth and ability to articulate myself in a big way. It still does, in fact. I persistently work on learning to love myself and others. I work on being okay with the fact that my nervous system will conflate sharing an idea with my professor or boss with being attacked by a stampede of machine gun wielding dinosaurs. This film really gets what that journey can be like and the honesty and reality of the depiction is unlike anything else I have seen in a movie.

This review is more personal than most because the film is as personal as they come. That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the movie is an extremely well made version of what it is. The movie feels largely plotless, which serves it well in an unexpected way. If “on a general trajectory to what feels like nowhere in particular” doesn’t describe adolescence than maybe I just had a strange one. Burnham also leans heavily on POV shots to convey Kayla’s perspective as well as a repeating theme of slow tracking shots both towards and away from her.  Through these shots, we are always made privy to Kayla’s tendency to be hyper critical and self focused while also being reminded of her status as one microbe in a vast social ecosystem. This is strong filmmaking that I wasn’t sure Burnham would have in him. Any praise I have for Burnham’s direction is met equally by the astonishment I have towards Fischer’s performance. She is so convincingly inarticulate and so authentically layers her performative social persona on top of her anxious, hyper-aware personality that the film often feels like a documentary. Kayla arrives from scene on as a complex, multifaceted human being and Fischer is magnetic for every step of her journey.

My reaction to this film is deeply subjective but, if you can help it, don’t write off this review because of that. The best movies find universality in specifics. I have never been a performer who is coping with his perceived irrelevance but The Wrestler resonates with me every time I watch it. I’ve never found out that I was, in fact, a superhero and had that information solve a lot of my midlife crisis issues but Unbreakable is my favorite movie of all time. I have no doubt that you will see yourself reflected in Kayla’s experiences as I did because when it comes to anxiety, popularity, self worth and socializing we are only really different in degrees if you don’t count serial killers. There is so much more to say about this film and even in this somewhat lengthy review I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. I urge you to see this movie in a theater while you can, it’s as vital and endearing a debut feature as I have ever seen.

 

Revisiting Superman (1978): The Perfect Superman Movie

See the source image

Superman is held in very high esteem amongst most comic book movie nerds. Snyderverse megafans aside, everyone seems to be able to respect that Richard Donner set up shop in a industry landscape that was a far cry from our modern one and made a film that perfectly presented the most iconic version of a beloved hero (speaking of our modern climate, what’s weirder: that Oscar nominee Josh Brolin just finished playing Thanos AND Cable in movies released a month apart from one another or that most people don’t even think of this as being strange?). Superman regularly turns up on “top five best comic book movie” lists, was recently the subject of a thorough examination on Moviebob’s popular Really That Good video essay series and is fondly remembered by everyone who hasn’t recently tweeted out #ReleaseTheSnyderCut. So, I am now left wondering why my recent revisitation of the film left me feeling disappointed.

For my relationship with this film, context matters a lot. I had put off watching it forever due to a then still sadly engrained bias against what I sometimes incorrectly perceived as “dated” special effects (honestly, Superman looks better than most of big budget movies made in the 90s) and partly because, as a younger person, I self consciously believed that I was somehow above an earnest, old movie about a big, blue boy scout. Flash forward to one neck snap later, when my then girlfriend and I were leaving Man of Steel. I vividly remember discussing the film for 3 hours afterwards, with interludes about what we even wanted from a Superman movie at all and what elements of the character we deemed fundamental. It was at this point that we viewed Superman and it arrived like Lois Lane, throwing away the kryptonite of gloom, bad editing and tornado induced suicide that was Man of Steel at the last second.

It was nice to watch a movie that didn’t seem as self conscious and embarrassed of its own source material as Man of Steel is. There are colours, smiles and many other staples of the funny books that Zack Snyder was all too happy to kick to the curb in his Nolan emulating, fun devoid reboot. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was (and is) the stuff of acting legend, with his performance being able to definitively answer the question of why nobody realizes Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. You could never believe that Reeve’s Clark was a superhero, even if you saw him lift a car with his own two hands. The way that he minimizes himself in crowd shots (a testament to the quality of the scene blocking as well as Reeve’s physical acting) has you almost forgetting he’s there in the same way that Lois always seems to. Incidentally, a brilliant choice by Margot Kidder and/or the filmmakers is to have Lois never really look directly at Clark. This inattention is a byproduct of Clark’s meekness as well as Lois’ ambition and tendency to multitask. All of this comes together really nicely in what is as perfect an early Lois/Clark dynamic as has ever been realized in any medium.

If you noticed that I was gushing in that paragraph, it is because there are certain elements of this movie you just can’t help but gush about. Donner’s perfect use of tone that distinguishes the various chapters of Superman’s life, the performances of literally every actor in the film, the unabashed commitment to the source material. It’s all so great. Why, then, was I left feeling so cold?

I guess it was because certain things just stick out in today’s political climate now in a way that they didn’t back in 2013. This is partly due to my increased political awareness and partly because institutions like the police, the presidency and the USA itself have had their flaws and failures exposed by the magnifying glass and microphone of social media. When Lois quips that Superman would have to put every elected official in America behind bars if he were truly committed to justice, Superman responds with “I’m sure you don’t believe that”. In 2013, this kind of claim was antidotal. It was a refreshing optimism that cured my disinfatuation with grim and gritty comic book movies. In 2018 however, it is just one frustrating way in which the conservatism inherent in so many superheroes manifests. Superman spends the movie catching criminals and gleefully handing them over to the Metropolis police department. He has faith – which he is never actually asked to justify – in the American political system as it currently functions (as distinguished by having faith in the principles that the system *should* be a product of, which would be far more permissible). He also manages to drop Lex Luthor off in prison at the end of the movie*. The problem with that ending of course being that using “gets dropped off at an American prison” as narrative shorthand for “justice is served” is naïve at best and propagandistic at worst. The police, the prison system and America as an institution are never examined, questioned or even paid that much attention to. Instead, these oppressive and deeply flawed systems functioning without any depicted flaws or any onscreen questioning is the baselines reality that Donner’s Superman lives in.

In a way, this does make Superman the definitive cinematic representation of the character of Superman. He, like many superheroes, fills us with happiness, optimism and hope when the world seems bleak. Superman is charming, funny and comforting in a way that conveys the warmth of his best stories. However, he, like many superheroes, is an adamant defender of the status quo who would rather unilaterally intervene in circumstances he doesn’t understand and offer a quick, easy “solution” that tempers any lingering worry that the world isn’t a simplistic fantasyland in which the right man punching the right guys often enough will fix anything or help anyone.

I still love Superman and I am happy to revisit it at new times in my life and have my reactions change as I do. The desire to hold on to the good feelings offered up by simple, uncritical pieces of art and media rarely have good consequences. The fact is that Richard Donner made the perfect Superman movie but, as I get older, the perfect Superman movie gets further and further away from my definition of the perfect movie full stop. I am just interested in continuing to see how my relationship with Superman and, well…Superman continues to grow and change in the coming years.

*This post assumes the truth of a number of controversial social positions for the sake of brevity. I would love to hammer out the details of why these systems shouldn’t be exalted and what exactly Superman should do instead but that is another post for another time

 

Masculinity and Performance in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Act-III-Caps-dr-horribles-sing-a-long-blog-2189276-1440-900

Whatever you may think of Joss Whedon, it is impossible to deny that his work (especially in the realm of television) never fails to provoke discussion. “Buffy Studies” – the niche of film scholarship that critically analysis Buffy and Angel – is nearly an academic discipline unto itself. There is also plenty of written material on both Firefly and Dollhouse (the former more than the latter). While Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog certainly enjoys a good reputation, I have seen comparatively little writing on it relative to the rest of Whedon’s oeuvre. In this essay, I will examine how Dr. Horrible examines masculinity via its performances by the film’s central characters. I will argue that both Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) and Nathan Fillion (Captain Hammer) represent different masculine paradigms and that the film is ultimately critical of Dr. Horrible for succumbing to the same masculine faults that are embodied by Captain Hammer.

Whedon signals that Dr. Horrible is about the performance of masculinity first and foremost by his choice of genre. The musical is a format that demands that its characters literally perform their songs and choreography. Furthermore, musicals have a kind of cognitive dissidence at the heart of them. From the perspective of the other characters, are the performers *actually* singing and dancing or are the musical numbers just peculiar interludes that other characters do not acknowledge? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter but the logical observer in us can’t help but wonder whether musical performances are made salient to the characters in said musical. Thus, the musical is the perfect venue to examine the performance of masculinity, which is a performance that most men don’t even realize that they are doing.

The choice to work within the confines of the superhero genre once again calls attention to the performativity of the main characters’ actions . Due to the ubiquitous trope of heroes and villains having secret identities, superheroes constantly perform. For example, Clark Kent pretends to be a mild-mannered dope, Bruce Wayne a vapid playboy. These examples are relevant because both characters evoke questions of exactly which aspects are of their personality are authentic and which are performative. Is Clark Kent the “real” person, while Superman is an affected persona that helps to conceal Kent’s identity, or is it the other way around? Most Batman fans accept that Bruce Wayne is the performance while Batman is the real person underneath (an assessment that I disagree with, but that is another essay for another day). The one two punch of the superhero musical invites us to question who exactly is the true persona of both Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible, and who is a performance.

The super personas of Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible convey a lot of information about each character. Hammer adopts the masculine-associated title of “captain” and pairs it with a hammer, both a traditionally masculine tool and an object that signals a blunt and basic approach to problem solving (the old saying “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind). Hammer seems to have also put the bare minimum of effort into his disguise, slapping a picture of a hammer on a yellow circle background onto a plain black shirt. From this lack of effort, the viewer can glean two key pieces of information. First, we learn that Hammer doesn’t take his super heroics all that seriously beyond his opportunities to inflict violence on Dr. Horrible. Secondly, there is very little that separates Hammer from his non-superhero persona. He is a pair of gloves and a homemade symbol away from being a normal guy, the implication being that being Captain Hammer is his normal life. Billy, on the other hand, has clearly given his persona more thought. He has more elaborate props, such as his goggles, which are purely theatrical and never actually used until he switches costumes at the end. Billy also takes on a masculine-associated “doctor” title but it is to emphasize his intelligence rather than his strength. We also see that Billy puts a lot of thought into his super villainy, trying on new catchphrases and pursing the super villain career path of joining the Evil League of Evil.

Hammer and Horrible figure nicely into a classic nerd vs jock dichotomy, which incidentally sets them up as embodying different masculine paradigms. Hammer is old school masculinity, valuing simple brawn over all else. We see this in the way that Hammer solves problems. He stops the Billy’s heist in Act 1 by punching the van control device and forcefully pushing Penny in the garbage, he tries to impress her on their date by showing off his physical strength on the swan boat and he tries to kill Horrible with his own death ray.  Billy is a newer masculinity that is very much a response to the former. He solves problems with his mind, designing technology like the freeze ray and van remote. Billy rebels against the classically masculine norms that Hammer is emblematic of, but he is frustrated that this rebellion means that he can’t have the things that Hammer has. He wants people to think he’s good looking, capable, loveable and more than anything else, he wants Penny’s affection. None of this is meant to endorse Billy’s perspective, as I think the film ultimately rejects it and this will be discussed later in the essay.

One of the crucial takeaways from what I have said so far is that superheroes and masculinity are explicitly paired in the world of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The story is about two men who represent different masculine paradigms each trying to validate said paradigm by proving that they can attract a woman. It just so happens to be the case that the brains vs brawn battle for Penny’s affection is dramatized through the means of the superhero musical, which calls attention to the specific context of masculine performance that is always present in love triangle stories. Every super-event in the film, such as the wonderflonium heist, Horrible’s off-screen freeze ray test and the showdown at the homeless shelter are all explicitly linked to Billy and Hammer’s competition for Penny’s affection. The heist is performed to get the freeze ray working, which “My Freeze Ray” equates with winning Penny’s affections, the off-screen heist tests the freeze ray and the showdown is a direct response to Hammer emasculating Billy at the laundromat by flaunting his victory in the chauvinistic competition for Penny’s affections.

Whedon makes it easiest to answer the question of “which persona is the mask” with Captain Hammer. Captain Hammer is distinguished from Billy in that he only has one persona that the audience actually gets to know. We never meet his civilian identity, even when he meets Penny at the laundromat or goes on a date with her. Penny doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that Hammer has any more to his life than being Captain Hammer. She tells people that she’s Captain Hammer’s girlfriend, making no reference to a civilian persona. In some sense, in virtue of consistently presenting himself as a superhero, Captain Hammer is always performing. It is no mistake that we are introduced to the character while he is singing and that we spend most of our time with him in songs. Regarding the theme of the performance of masculinity, it is no accident that Hammer is also the most classically masculine character in the film on top of being the most consistent performer. The audience sees Hammer solve problems with brute strength repeatedly throughout, with his muscularity being referenced by both Penny and himself. In addition, when Hammer says that he is “going to give Penny the night of her life, just because [Billy wants] her”, he reveals that he is primarily motived by the prospect of dominating and emasculating his enemy than by any romantic feelings he might have towards Penny.

Contrasted against the consistent, hypermasculine performance of Hammer is the bifurcated Billy/Dr. Horrible. Unlike Captain Hammer, the lines between the Doctor and Billy are blurry. In Doctor Horrible’s first song, we see Billy in the laundromat singing as well. In his second song, aptly titled “A Man’s Gotta Do”, Billy is seen only briefly before the context of the song demands that he shift personas and change into his super hero outfit. The lyrics to “A Man’s Gotta Do” can even be read as Billy’s two personas engaging with one another. As Billy considers abandoning the courier van heist (signaled by his longing gaze in Penny’s direction and the conflicted expression on Billy’s face), the music kicks in and the audience hears:

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do
Don’t plan the plan if you can’t follow through
all that matters: taking matters into your own hands
Soon I’ll control everything; my wish is your command”

In the first line, the masculine is explicitly evoked to justify Billy’s continuation of his actions as Dr. Horrible. The second line makes the most sense directed at Billy himself, since he is the one who is in danger of not following through on his plan. This line begins the trend of Billy including the word “you”, rather than “my” or “I”, in his lyrics despite singing to himself. It is tempting to read the final line as the typical claim that a supervillain would make to the public, but it wouldn’t make sense for “you” to shift from referring to Billy in the previous lines of the verse to the citizens of the city in the final line. Instead, we should read the final line as Dr. Horrible shifting from encouraging Billy to take part in the performance of supervillainy to threatening him. In Act 1, Billy primarily moves around in the real world while his Dr. Horrible persona is relegated to the film’s musical segments and one-take blog sequences (the blog is another form of performance, which is why Horrible is seen doing it). The implication is that Billy is still the one in control, needing to be coaxed into performing the heist and hanging on the prospect of a normal life.

The third song, “My Eyes”, is the only one that is performed by Billy outside of his guise as Dr. Horrible. This shift is crucial because it backs up the message behind the song. When Billy sings:

“Anyone with half a brain
Could spend their whole life howling in pain
‘Cause the dark is everywhere And Penny doesn’t seem to care
That soon the dark in me is all that will remain”

He is telling the audience that Dr. Horrible is in danger of taking control of their shared identity (“the dark” being an obvious reference to his supervillainy). As such, we are being shown here that the lines are starting to blur, and Billy is now acting as we have only previously seen Dr. Horrible act.

In the laundromat confrontation between Billy and Hammer, Billy is utterly unequipped to handle Hammer outside of his super villain persona. He frantically tries to leave after learning about Hammer’s arrival, going so far as to leave his clothes behind. Hammer controls the interaction, going on a lengthy monologue while Billy is nearly paralyzed. After Hammer leaves, Billy once again starts singing and quickly changes into the Horrible persona. It is during the song “Brand New Day” that Billy is confident and collected, even as he misses all of the darts that he throws at a cut-out of Hammer’s head. Billy’s fantasy of being a giant who is capable of physically intimidating and scaring Hammer betrays the fact that his fantasy is about no longer being at the mercy of macho guys like Hammer, rather than the social change that he frequently demands. This is a running theme, as we see Billy frequently fantasize about his super villain victories. In “My Freeze Ray”, Billy imagines himself dancing with Penny and sings about them ruling the world. It is telling that Billy never fantasizes about actually ruling the world or having henchmen or followers of his own but only about getting the girl and defeating his male adversary.

In “So They Say”, Billy sings the following:

“There’s no happy ending
So they say
Not for me anyway
Stop pretending
Take the chance to build a brand new day”

The line of interest here is “stop pretending”, which gestures toward Billy only being half committed to his performance as Dr. Horrible up until this point. The verse making reference to a “brand new day” pairs Billy’s commitment to his performance with killing Captain Hammer, a decision he made during “Brand New Day” and that the viewer is reminded of by both the chalk board and death ray that are seen during “So They Say”. In “Slipping”, Dr. Horrible frequently refers to himself in the first person but nonetheless reasserts the dichotomy between himself and “Billy” in one of the last verses

“No sign of Penny – good.
I would give anything not to have her see
It’s gonna be bloody – head up Billy buddy
There’s no time for mercy
Here goes – no mercy…”

By referring to “Billy” as both a separate person and his “buddy”, we see that Billy is very close to committing to Dr. Horrible in the same way that Hammer has committed to his superhero persona full time. This commitment is finally realized in “Everything You Ever”, when Dr. Horrible sings:

“Now the nightmare’s real
Now Dr. Horrible is here
To make you quake with fear
To make the whole world kneel
And I won’t feel
A thing”

Whedon cuts to Billy, in his living room blogging space right before the last line. This signals the definitive shift in who the dominant persona between Billy and Horrible is. Billy now inhabits the space that Horrible used to inhabit, a space that represented confinement in virtue of it being both a space of performativity and a persona space for Billy (his apartment). It is important to note that the lighting in the living room is terrible and the scene seems to be taking place at night, which is highly irregular for the blog (the only instance being after Billy’s off-screen defeat at the Superhero memorial bridge). Also, Billy is recognizably miserable in the shot and appears to be making no effort to engage an audience. The evocation of a major defeat and the lack of any performativity in Billy’s behaviour dispels the notion that Horrible will be performing Billy in the same way Billy performed Horrible. Instead, the takeaway is that Billy has been defeated by Horrible and left in a sate of isolation.

Billy’s character arc plays out through every song and it is ultimately one of self destruction. We see that he is slowly being overtaken by his exaggerated, masculine persona until the persona becomes dominant. This pairs Dr. Horrible with Captain Hammer; whose hyper masculine person is his primary (if not only) one. The final question to answer now is what, exactly, is the point of all this? To answer that question, we will have to take a look at Billy’s relationship with Penny and how it is affected by his adherence to the masculine norms embodied by Captain Hammer.

Firstly, it is made very clear to the audience that Penny and Billy have the possibility for a romantic relationship. After “Penny’s Song”, the two leans towards each other slightly, indicating a mutual desire to kiss. Also, during “So They Say” Penny is eating frozen yogurt, with a second yogurt that is clearly intended for the absent Billy. Whedon puts a fine point on the scene by having Penny excitedly check the door when it opens in the hopes that Billy will show up. This beat is especially important because it conveys to the audience that Dr. Horrible, and by extension Billy’s, participation in the objectifying and masculine competition for Penny’s affections is actually an obstacle in his attaining them. If Billy were not planning Hammer’s murder (and thus not attempting to recede further into his super villain persona) then he could be bonding with Penny. In the homeless shelter sequence, we also learn that Penny is off put by Hammer’s objectification of her and leaves during his speech, telling the audience that she really has no interest in his overt machismo. Dr. Horrible being antithetical to a relationship with Billy and Penny is literalized when the Death Ray (the mechanism by which Billy will “make the nightmare real” and become Dr. Horrible full time) explodes and kills Penny.

The obvious thematic upshot here is that the regression of Billy’s newer masculinity into only a slight variation on classical masculinity is a detriment to men, women and society in general. It leaves Hammer an emotional wreck, Billy defeated and Penny dead. The implication of society being worse off comes from the movie positioning Penny as the arbiter of what is and isn’t good for society. She was the only one of these three central characters who was legitimately interested in changing things for the better. On top of that, she calls out Billy’s flawed plans for social change and is ultimately vindicated by the narrative. For Hammer, social change was a means to get laid and for Billy it was about quelling a growing dissatisfaction and indulging in a power fantasy. Without Penny, and the truly altruistic social change that she represents, we can infer that society will be worse off. This decline is confirmed by what little we see of the city post Penny, with Dr. Horrible robbing a banks and being unchallenged as the ELE’s newest member.

Dr. Horrible is a cautionary tale that laments the failure of nerds to properly change the way that they perform masculinity in response to “alpha male”, strength flaunting chauvinists like Captain Hammer . This theme is also explored in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, where disempowered nerds like Jonathan, Warren and Andrew are presented as far deadlier than any supernatural foe that Buffy has ever come up against (this is made explicit by the controversial killing of Terra by Warren in Seeing Red). In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon is once again lamenting that nerds who were shoved into lockers and ridiculed by men trying to assert their dominance chose to emulate this behaviour in a new form rather than to repudiate it.

 

On the Wonderful Anti-Capitalism of Black Mirror’s USS Callister

Black-Mirror-USS-Callister

The first episode of Black Mirror’s 4th season, titled USS Callister, is also my introduction to the highly regarded anthology show. The internet is full of Black Mirror hot takes that call the show everything from a worthy successor to The Twilight Zone to “kind of bullshit”. I can’t speak to the quality of previous episodes, but I was incredibly impressed by USS Callister. In particular, the episode’s anti-capitalist themes jumped out at me. Ostensibly, the episode (directed by Toby Haynes and written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker) is a dark riff on Star Trek that cautions against VR gaming and its ability to enable our worst tendencies. Beyond that surface layer, however, is a critique of hierarchical capitalist power structures and their dependency on exploitation.

The plot of the episode concerns Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), a sad sack coder who is second in command to Walton, the CEO of the software company (called Infinity) that they both started. In his every day life, Daly is a meek and disempowered loser who sleepily glides through his time at work and obsesses over an ersatz Star Trek TV show called Space Fleet. However, we soon learn that Daly reacts to any perceived slight by uploading sentient copies of his coworkers into an indistinguishable-from-reality simulation of Space Fleet, where he is an all-powerful captain who abuses and humiliates the crew to cope with his lack of confidence and power in the real world.

The first point I want to make about this episode is that it explicitly establishes a link between Robert’s dissatisfaction with the power structure of his company and the desire to recreate that power structure within his simulation. When Robert first meets the episode’s protagonist, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milloti), she is introducing herself to Robert and they seem to be getting along well enough. Robert even makes a corny joke she doesn’t get but he is visibly satisfied by his own wit after making it. This is the only time we see Robert happy with one of his real world social interactions. When Walton comes in and interrupts the interaction, he gives Robert and order and subtly undermines his position at the company when he says “I run the company. Well…we run it. Kind of.” Robert becomes visibly frustrated, especially because Walton is sitting on a collectable from Space Fleet. Notice that Walton towering over an icon from Space Fleet is an explicit inversion of the power dynamic presented in the game world. This scene is followed by Robert rushing home to enter his fantasy world, wherein he asserts himself over his crew and berates them with the kind of demeaning requests that we just saw Walton throwing at him. The implication that Robert indulges in his space captain fantasy because of his dissatisfaction with the hierarchy of his workplace is clear.

Robert’s fantasy offers a mirror (get it) to his workplace where he is in charge and did not let Walton push him out of a leadership position at his company. This connection allows us to read the events of the simulation as just another capitalist hierarchy. All the workers from Infinity are present and doing menial jobs. They have to kiss up to their boss on pain of punishment, just as they do in real life. When Shania (Michaela Cole) gives real life Nanette instructions on how to navigate interactions with the boss, she points out that he is often inappropriate and sexually motivated. This pairs him with Robert, as Robert dominates Nanette by making her kiss him in the simulation. Furthermore, Shania mentions later that the employees are planning to get incredibly drunk and then using their upcoming time off work to recover from it. This scene pairs with the multitude of times that we see simulation versions of the workers coping with alcohol. Through these pairings, the simulation of the capitalist  acts as a more explicit version of the real life one that we see, making its flaws more pronounced as the characters do not have their real life social structure in place to help make sense of what is happening to them.

The episode calls for a rejection of capitalism and hierarchical power structures when it comes time for the crew members to mount their escape from Robert’s simulation. The first thing to notice is that the decision to mount the escape is not unilateral. Nanette suggest the escape plan but everyone on the crew must consent to it before the plan is enacted. It is at this point that the viewer learns that Walton is motivated by Robert holding his son hostage. Robert has uploaded and killed Walton’s son before and can do so any time he likes. Since this is the case, Walton is compelled to fall in line with Robert’s demands. It is crucial that what keeps Walton complying with the power structure of the spaceship crew is his desire to provide for his son, an incentive that keeps many people from openly rebelling against and rejecting capitalism. Once the group ensures that Walton’s son will be safe, it is Walton who realizes the error of his ways when he apologizes to Robert for exploiting him in an effort to control Infinity. It is at this point that Walton himself, the most explicit capitalist in the real world, subjects himself to an extreme amount of pain so the group can persevere and escape Robert’s simulation.

We see the crew all take each other’s hand as they mount the final escape, showing the viewer their status as equals. After the resolution of the conflict, the crew finds out that they did not die as expected and now exist in the cloud. This is thematically important, because the cloud itself is a non-hierarchical space where the information and data of many coexists. This space is contrasted with their previous existence on Robert’s computer, which symbolized his control over them. The episode ends with Nanette rejecting the title of captain and thereby rejecting the hierarchical power structure that comes with it. For the reasons I have given, I conclude that USS Callister is not simply a cautionary tale about technology but about capitalism and its necessary exploitation of the working class. The final interaction with the self-proclaimed “king of space” gestures towards the crew not living in some kind of socialist utopia but instead in a space with individuals who will still try to dominate and threaten them. At the very least, they are existing in this space as a collective rather than a singular entity.

The Contemporary Relevance of Thor: Ragnarok

thor-ragnarok-1_marvel.jpg

The main thing that many people will likely respond to coming out of Thor: Ragnarok is the film’s comedic tone. It represents a huge departure from the previous entries, particularly the overly serious Thor: The Dark World, and leans into a comedy heavy script and a “fun first” sensibility. This very sensibility will likely draw the ire of people who think that superheroes are serious business and that Marvel films are already nothing more than quip-laden diversions. However, it seems to me that Ragnarok is a film with a lot on its mind and it seems worthwhile to dive into some of that here.

Odin is a curious fixture in the Thor movies. In the first one, he is basically just an all seeing Christian God figure who happens to be dressed like a viking. However, the second movie pivots on his characterization and depicts him as a petty, shortsighted man who is motivated by fear and is more interested in winning a war than saving his people. Ragnarok opts to try and reconcile these characterizations to some extent by revealing that Odin has sanitized not only his own history but the history of all of Asgard. As it turns out, Odin and his (up until now secret) daughter Hela built up Asgard’s golden empire via an incredibly destructive path of violence and imperialism. The paintings in the halls of the throne room that at first seem to depict Asgard’s history are revealed to be lies. We see later in the movie that the real, violent history of Asgard is represented by different pictures that lie just underneath sanitized fiction.

It is hard not to read the film as a cautionary tale against sanitizing a nation’s history. The fact that Odin removed all mention of Hela from Asgard’s history and locked her away meant that nobody knew she was coming or how to stop her. We also see Odin’s sanitization of history come back to haunt Asgard in the form of Hela’s army, which she literally acquires by reviving the corpses of the soldiers that Asgard previously used as its imperialist armed forces. She acquires these soldiers from a secret tomb that is hidden under Odin’s treasure room (which we also learn is filled with lies of its own). In today’s world, where Neo-Nazisim is on the rise and god awful media outlets like The Daily Wire still run pieces about how Christopher Columbus was a great man, the film’s message is an important one.

What the film does not do, however, is given credence to people who want to keep statues of confederate generals up because they view the statue as part of their history. Not only is this a nonsense argument, ignoring that fact that statutes serve the function of memorializing and do not act as historical record, it is the one the film engages with. When Loki is ruling Asgard in Odin’s place, he takes a stab at historical revisionism of his own. He puts on plays that recount the events of The Dark World from a pro-Loki perspective. Guess what else Loki uses at a tool of revisionist history and manipulation? That’s right, a giant gold statue of himself. The film is clearly arguing in this scene that statutes serve the agenda of history revisers, not history preservers.

The film’s second main thematic through line is embracing change. Not only is the film a total stylistic and tonal departure from what came before but Thor also loses his iconic hair style, cape and hammer. Similarly, Bruce’s dynamic has inverted, so that Hulk is the dominant persona rather than himself (this is symbolized beautifully in a sequence that plays out the usual hulk transformation in reverse, with Hulk trying to stay angry to avoid becoming Bruce). Both Thor and Bruce have to learn to embrace these changes throughout the film in order to come together and save Asgard. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Thor tricks Loki (yet another clever reversal) and, before leaving him behind, tells him about the importance of embracing change.

So, we have a film that is arguing for the embrace of change and the honest confrontation of history that seems especially relevant in a time where people seem fear change and confronting history. There is a common narrative around the Marvel films and their aversion of stakes and meaning. Sometimes these criticisms are fair but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t engaging in a thematic discussion that’s worth having. Thor: Ragnarok is one of the best times that I have had in a movie theater in years but nothing about being fun, energetic and full of spectacle precludes being intelligent and having plenty to say.

Fences, Adaptation and Storytelling

fences-tease-trailer-cover

There is a general rule regarding the quality of an adaptation of material from one medium to another. Good adaptations translate their content across mediums whereas bad adaptations merely transport the content to the new medium in the language of the initial medium. A good adaptation justifies the story being told in a new medium, using that medium’s strengths and tweaking the story to be better suited to said strengths. For an example of this, look at the way that the Game of Thrones TV series trims the fat of George R.R. Martin’s novels. A book is generally considered to have no real limit in terms of length, so Martin can dedicate an entire paragraph to explaining the lineage of a particular character or family. It would be a completely unacceptable thing for the show to stop dead in its tracks and list a given character’s lineage right as the audience is introduced to them. On top of eating up precious run time, cinema does best when conveying action and worst when things are static and expository.

Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, appeared to me at first to be a bad adaptation. My first issue was that the film spends most of its first half in one location. The one setting approach was an indication that the film was keeping too much of the stagey, play like elements in tact. In addition, the film opts to tell so much of the story through dialogue that alarm bells started to go off in my head. “You’re watching a bad adaptation; you’re watching a bad adaptation”. It wasn’t until later into the running time that I realized I was wrong in my appraisal of the film up until that point. Fences does leave many of the elements of the stage play intact, from the minimalist setting to the dialogue heavy storytelling. Under normal circumstances, an adaptation of a play would almost certainly be the worse for that. It just so happens that Fences is a rare case where confinement of setting, lack of visual flourish and storytelling through dialogue are all features that serve the film adaptation as well as they served the play.

When I say that the film lacks visual flourish, I don’t mean to say that it was made incompetently. The editing, blocking and cinematography are all well handled. The only thing I mean to say is that the deliberate choice was made to stage a number of the film’s scenes in such a way that they feel very much like a play. The first (roughly) 30 minutes of the film are made up of a conversation between Troy (Washington, starring as well as directing), Rose (Viola Davis) and Jim (Stephen Henderson). Throughout the course of the conversation, the camera is simply pointed at one of or more of the characters while they are talking. The film never dramatizes the events of Troy’s stories by using a flashback and the director doesn’t break up this large conversation into smaller, more digestible conversations that are set in different locations, as he easily could have. Due to these choices, a certain fatigue sets in while you are watching the film. You start to wish that the film would take you to another location or that something would disrupt the conversation so you can move on. As Washington must have noticed, this is exactly what you should be feeling while watching the movie. As the film goes on, we see that each and every member of his family feels trapped and confined in the family house. Troy’s son Cory (Jovan Adepo) explains that he is miserable and anxious, always waiting for his father to judge him. Similarly, Rose shows great dissatisfaction with her life and what little she has made of it. As such, Washington’s choice to set the majority of the film in the house leaves the audience feeling exactly how the characters are feeling. Specifically, both the audience and the characters feel confined to the house as a setting and start to wish that they could move beyond it. Since the choices made bring the audience’s emotions in line with that of the characters, it seems that the restricted setting was indeed a good choice to make.

As for the majority of the story being told through dialogue, that too has a function beyond preserving the conventions of the play. Troy uses his voice as a kind of tool throughout the film. Talking is one of the ways that he makes life something that he can control and understand. The audience gets its first inkling of this right out of the gate, as the film opens on a black screen and only give us visuals once Troy starts talking. This momentary suspension of visuals signals to the audience that Troy’s dialogue is affecting the way that we understand the narrative. As things progress, Troy goes from little embellishments to outright lies that it is not even clear he knows are lies. Later in the film, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) catches him in an outright lie. She points out that he admitted his mentally disabled brother to a hospital even though he said he wouldn’t and she has his signature to prove it. Troy repeats, even after she leaves, that he didn’t sign the paper. In this scene, Troy is using his voice to try make the world the way that he wants it to be. Since Troy is actually creating narratives through dialogue, the filmmakers can’t help but tell the story through said dialogue.

When the movie starts, Troy comes off as tough but fair. He’s charming, but in an fatherly way where you like him even though you probably don’t agree with him about everything. As we learn that Troy is a selfish liar who is constantly deceiving his family, we learn that he was also deceiving us with his performative monologuing. Denzel knows that opening the film with Troy as the main source of information means that we will lend more weight to his words. The privileging of Troy as an information source and the strength of Denzel’s performance has us believing his seemingly abiding love for Rose. In a crucial scene midway through the film, when Troy reveals that he has impregnated another woman, the audience feels as stupid as Rose does for trusting him.  Since the film primarily gives us information through Troy’s dialogue, we have no choice but to form opinions about the character based on the things that he says about himself. As his true character comes to light (such as it does with his admission to Rose), the audience is once again brought in line with the perspective of the characters by virtue of the film emphasizing dialogue heavy storytelling.

Troy does not just use his voice to deceive other people, he also uses it to deceive himself. We see this tendency show itself in the previously mentioned scene with Rose, in which Troy repeats a falsity in a futile effort to make it true. In addition to that moment, Troy brings up a number of times that he feels he has control over when he will die. He, true to form, tells a story about fighting off death and keeping it at bay at one point in his life. After that, he has two monologues in which he engages in a one sided “conversation” with death. However, Troy’s death happens off screen and he ends up having very little control over it. The film reveals to us that Troy’s discussion with death was nothing more than a monologue of self deception. We see that Troy had no control at all and that he was never in dialogue with anything or anybody. The self deception seen from Troy throughout the film is another reason that emphasizing Troy’s voice as a storytelling mechanism makes sense.

Troy uses his voice to control his family and to keep them in line with his expectations. Additionally, he uses it to manipulate himself and convey a false sense of control over his life. Living in the same house as Troy creates a fatigue for his family members, which the audience feels due to the choice to focus on one setting for most of the film. In light of these examples, it is clear to me that Denzel Washington did not make a bad choice to preserve the stylistic elements of a play when adapting Fences into a film. In fact, these choices are good ones because they bring the audience in line with the characters and give them emotional reactions that properly serve the story.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

rogueone_onesheeta_1000_309ed8f6.jpeg

I get the sense that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (directed by Gareth Edwards) is a movie a lot of people are going to bend over backwards to like. I don’t mean that to sound condescending, as I count myself among the people who did their very best to like this movie. After all, Rogue One is a film about a multicultural rebellion standing up to the Galactic Empire, which is essentially an organization of Space Nazis. In the age of Donald Trump and his myriad of alt-right (Neo-Nazi) followers, how could you not try your hardest to like a movie that seems to have its heart, and its politics, in exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Nevertheless, I am sad to report that Rogue One is a failure on almost every level. The characters are paper thin and sport confusing, often contradictory motivations. The plot relies heavily on boring exposition and it suffers from every major symptom of the dreaded disease know as prequelitis.

The film’s protagonist is Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones), an apathetic and isolated woman who gets caught up in the rebellion against the empire. Jones delivers an adequate performance but I find myself at a loss for specific parts of it that I can praise. This might not be her fault however, since there is almost nothing to the character. I do not exaggerate when I say that every major character moment she has is directly attributable to her father. She wants to ditch the rebellion asap until her the prospect of seeing her father again gets her to hang around. After her dad tells her to steal the Death Star plans, that’s exactly what she does. It is so confounding because her journey from apathetic loner to inspiring rebel leader should so obviously be informed by her exposure to the rebels themselves and getting a closer look at their convictions. As far as I can see, that is simply not the case. Instead, Jyn’s journey happens between the scenes, while Jyn’s father provides all of the narrative thrust necessary for moving Jyn from place to place.

Jyn fairs better than her team however, all of whom fail to make a dent in the enormous Star Wars character roster. I feel bad for Diego Luna, whose Cassian Andor the filmmakers expect to be emblematic of both a simple rebellion of clear cut heroes and a complex rebellion where nobody is the good guy. This is a character who will shoot an ally in the back (for reasons that remain somewhat unclear) and then tell Jyn that “Rebellions are built on hope” ten minutes later. In trying to have their cake and eat it to, they completely kill the audience’s interest in Cassion. The rest of the team are barely even characters. There is a pilot who doubles as a tech guy, a guy whose entire character can be summarized by the words “he has a big gun sometimes” and Chirriut Imwe (Donnie Yen), whose depiction registered to me as kind of racist. Chirriut is both the fortune telling mystic and the martial artist of the group. Furthermore, them isn’t a whole lot to him beyond that. I’m sure this is a cast of characters that the fandom will project a lot of stuff onto (“look at the face he made when Jyn said that, he obviously as a compelling backstory”!) but, at least on a first viewing, tangible and interesting character elements failed to register.

There is one character who you will, in fact, fall in love with. Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO is a symbol of everything that Star Wars can be. A robot with more personality than most of his human compatriots, K-2SO is a character you will feel real emotion for over the course of the film. On top of that, he gets a number of organically hilarious lines that killed in the theater I watched the movie at. I should note that the reason I say “organically hilarious” is because the film is peppered with Marvel style jokes that feel as obligatory as they have in every Marvel movie sine The Avengers. At any rate, I loved spending time with K-2SO and I hope the producers over at Disney realize why he was the stand out of the film. He gets real development, he is visually interesting and there is real emotion behind him. You know, like the entire cast of the original trilogy.

The film has potentially interesting commentary on the nature of rebellion. We see both Jyn and Cassian have become somewhat jaded and disaffected in their own way. As they hold each other accountable for their faults, they each discover something worth fighting for. Cassian criticizes Jyn’s apathy while Jyn calls out Cassian for his dogmatic following of orders and willingness to cross moral lines. This is all theoretically compelling stuff that is hurt by the weak characters and their confusing motivations. I’m not sure if it is the writing, the performances, or both, but the characters constantly feel like they are flipping from one characterization to another instead of behaving as single, multifaceted individuals. At one point, after Cassian says “rebellions are built on hope” Jyn scoffs and retorts “hope?” as if it is a foreign concept. The problem is that nothing substantially changes for her to take her from her cynical worldview to the dyed in the wool rebel leader that she ends up becoming. The same goes for Cassian, who goes from disliking Jyn to being willing to follow her into battle after she gives a simple speech. As such, the thematic points that the film is making feel half hearted because we haven’t actually seen these characters become the rebels that the film wants to exemplify.

There is one more area where the film succeeds. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of building a grounded version of the Star Wars universe. The Star Wars films have thus far been set in a high fantasy world, where it is hard to imagine people live day to day lives between epic adventures. Rogue One is still set in that world but given to us by way of Game of Thrones. Cinematographer Greg Fraiser makes great use of handheld shots to help achieve this effect. In addition, Edwards’ decision to ditch the conventional Star Wars scene transitions go a long way to help make this world feel different without it feeling too different. I was impressed by the way that the Star Wars was able to be made tactile and grounded and it provides me with hope that these annual Star Wars films will be able to feel different from each other. It is just such a damn shame that nothing interesting happens in this world.

On top of the unengaging main story, the film is constantly dipping into asides that make it function as a more straightforward prequel to A New Hope. I’m sure fans will be divided on this but I think that every single one of these scenes serves to make the movie worse in some way. The Darth Vader stuff is awful, as Vader doesn’t actually interact with any of the film’s protagonists. He gets a brief scene where he chews out Orson Krennic (played with an almost bureaucratic menace by Ben Mendelsohn) and another action scene that has no bearing at all on the narrative proper. To add insult to injury, James Earl Jones’ return to the role is less than compelling (maybe we should just let Star Wars people retire at some point). Unfortunately, Vader isn’t the only character unnecessarily trotted out to establish a New Hope connection. CGI is used to make Guy Henry look like Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and is it jaw droppingly awful. If you had a friend who knew nothing about Star Wars, you could convince her that these scenes were edited in by a fan that used footage from an old PlayStation 2 game that featured Tarkin as a character.

Overall, I find myself with very few positive things to say about Rogue One. Parts of it seem to indicate that there are better Star Wars Stories on the horizon. If they could truly bring a unique feel to these spin off films and allow filmmakers to tell interesting stories with the backing of the world’s biggest franchise, then Disney could truly have something special here. Unfortunately, the film does a lot better at being distinctive then it does being interesting. I have more complaints but they all bottom out into the same problem. Namely that the film feels like it is the result of the producers getting cold feet. They fill the story with gratuitous cameos, the climax goes too big and shoehorns in a space battle full of characters that we’ve never met before that moment and the complex world that story gestures at is constantly simplified. It seems like someone at Disney was noting the production to death, telling the filmmakers to make it “more Star Wars” than it was. I can’t speak to whether or not that is the case but it is certainly the impression that the movie leaves you with (the fact that there were reportedly substantial reshoots corroborate this theory to some extent). Still, one can’t help but hope that Disney eventually cracks the formula on these movies. If Rogue One is any indication, they still have a long way to go.