The Light Between Omissions: An Analysis on Adaptation and Communication

 I recently rented a film called Chef (NOTE: Spoilers ahead). It appealed to me primarily because it starred its writer-director (Jon Favreau) and also because I’ve been in a bit of a John Leguizamo mood lately. I can’t say that film was my thing: it had a tad too much meat in it and, and it made use of the unsubtle trope of morally-astute-kid-who-is-unrealistically-aware-of-the -shortcomings-of-his-father. I did, however, enjoy the film’s feel good end scene. Chef is the story of Carl Casper, a chef who is stuck between the rock of being creatively constrained by the owner of his restaurant (Dustin Hoffman), and the hard place of being ripped apart for not being bold enough by a food critic (Oliver Platt). The film ends with Casper, now a food truck operator, serving food to the critic, winning him over and then having an exchange, in which the critic tries to rationalize his combative relationship with chefs as a sort of theatre. In a day and age when twitter obnoxiousness is a cultural norm, the critic’s is an oddly reassuring line: people don’t actually enjoy tearing each other apart, they just enjoy playing at it.

The other important exchange in this scene, however, is the one I want to write about today. A newly empowered Casper explains to the critic that he agrees that he did not offer him a sufficiently bold menu, but that this was out of his control due to the orders of his boss. This scene feels cathartic because it addresses an elephant-in-the-room that haunted the whole movie. Casper allowed himself to be ruined by this critic, when if he had only reached out to the critic and tried to explain his context in the first place, his dilemma could have been resolved.

Of course, human psychology is not such a simple thing. Often we let insecurities, even insecurities we know to be irrational get in the way of us doing the common sense thing. This is the link between Favreau’s light-fare and M.L. Stedman’s(/Derek Cianfrance’s) tear-ridden novel(/film) The Light Between Oceans.

The_Light_Between_Oceans_posterThe Light Between Oceans begins as the story of Tom Sherbourne, a WWI veteran who, traumatized by war, decides to take a post operating a lighthouse. That means spending three year terms alone on the Australian island of Janus, where he is only allowed the company of a potential wife and kids, and the occasional visitor. Tom is quiet and guilt (quite possibly PTSD) stricken, but eventually accepts company when he captivates the imagination of Isabelle Graysmarck (Alicia Vikander)  a young woman in the town of Partageuse, looking for some sort of adventure.

Isabelle tries to enjoy her new life on the island, but her mental health takes a turn for the worse after she suffers multiple miscarriages. It is at this point, however, that a boat winds up on the shore of  Janus containing a dead man and a very young baby. While Tom wants to report the incident, Isabelle insists on keeping the baby who they name Lucy and raise as their own. It is only when Lucy is around four-years-old that Tom and Isabelle discover her mother is not dead as they had assumed, but alive and well in Partageuse. Her name is Hannah and she is portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the film.  A guilt stricken Tom anonymously informs Hannah that Lucy is alive, leading to a custodial and criminal battle between Hannah and Tom & Isabelle.

In the ways listed above Derek Cianfrance’s film adaptation of  The Light Between Oceans is entirely true to Stedman’s novel. The two stories have similar themes, beginnings and conclusions. Some of the novel, however, was inevitably lost in the process of adaptation. The film notes Tom’s trauma, but not frequently or in detail. This, perhaps, is a reasonable sacrifice given that the film already runs over two hours in length.  Isabelle’s horror at the prospect of the baby being sent to an orphanage, however, is also under-depicted, a more problematic sacrifice.

Meanwhile, a number of plot points are also ommitted from the film. Firstly, the film maintains the idea that Tom’s pushover  friend Bluey reveals Lucy’s whereabouts to Hannah, but does not explain it is only because Bluey was under pressure from his mother to collect reward money for his marriage (Bluey’s subsequent remorse also doesn’t make the film). Secondly, the film also reduces the role of Hannah’s sister Gwen, who in the book takes a more nuanced view on who Lucy’s mother is than does her sister. Most importantly, however, the film omits the ideas that Isabelle and Tom both knew Hannah previously: Isabelle simply as a fellow Partageusian, and Tom, because he saved her from being sexually assaulted by a sailor.

Whether Cianfrance’s cuts are disappointments or not is a question that requires contemplation. The film, like Chef, is a story of failedcommunication. When Lucy’s identity is revealed to Hannah, she comes to view Tom and Isabelle as kidnappers who belong in prison. While reading the book I found myself clenching my fist in frustration. Why can’t Isabelle and Tom just tell Hannah, that having found a baby alone in a boat they reasonably assumed her mother couldn’t have been alive? Why couldn’t they just tell her they didn’t report the baby knowing the dismal conditions children face in orphanages? Why couldn’t they, as people who loved Lucy just as much, if not more so now, than Hannah, have recognized they were mutually suffering and worked out a joint custody agreement? Couldn’t these adults consider the best interest of the actual affected child, rather than resorting to an un-nuanced dispute based essentially in the philosophy of property rights?

These questions apply to the book and movie alike. In the book the case for Tom and Isabelle is stronger: we know of Isabelle’s orphanage trauma, we know that the reconciliatory way of thinking I’m proposing is not unheard of in the charatcers’ world (consider Gwen’s approach), and we know that Hannah knows Tom to be a man with a moral compass who tried to make the best of difficult situation. Yet in the book and film alike Hannah is equally un-nuanced in her response to the situation. She doesn’t want to sit down and talk about restorative justice and Lucy’s well being: she wants the iron fist of the law to do its work.

Cianfrance’s approach, one can thus say is economical. What use is it to include the layers that Stedman includes if they don’t matter? The Light Between Oceans is a story of how good people can end up spitefully irreconcilable, and Cianfrance perhaps portrays a better version of such a situation than Stedman does.

On the other hand, Cianfrance does not completely deviate from Stedman’s approach. He keeps one detail from the novel that could theoretically complicate Hannah’s approach to the Lucy situation. In both the novel and film, Hannah’s late husband is Frank Roenfeldt, a German immigrant who is treated horribly by Partageusans (and ultimately driven out of town) because I suppose at that historical moment, a lot of people struggled to tell the difference between enemy combatants, and ordinary people who simply came from countries Britain happened to be at war with (ok, maybe that’s still a problem). Despite being bombarded with bigotry, Frank remains a friendly community member, explaining to Hannah “you hate forever, you only have to forgive once.”

In the film Hannah sees this line in a flashback. Much like her knowledge of Tom’s past in the book, however, this flashback does not alter Hannah’s behavior as much as one would think. Driven by the dream, she tells Isabelle that she can have Lucy, so long as she testifies against Tom (implying he murdered Frank). Hannah’s behaviour here is interesting: simply negotiating with Isabelle over Lucy’s custody does represent a bold move on her part, yet it’s still, at best, a much-watered-down application of Frank’s ideals (it rings with a sort of deadpan irony). Regardless, this scene shows there is a merit to Stedman’s approach of filling her book with qualifiers that don’t matter: reasons for Hannah to be conciliatory that ultimately don’t have an impact. These qualifiers tell us that while perhaps The Light Between Oceans is a tragedy of under-communication, it may also be a deeper sort of tragedy. Stedman’s book suggests a deep-seeded belief that people may indeed never be able to understand the perspective of others: or perhaps there is one human who can, but he died of a heart attack alone with his infant daughter in a rowboat in the ocean.

The Light Between Oceans film ends with an elderly (he, interestingly, doesn’t look that much older), lonely Tom looking out to a sunset. The scene suggests his story has gone full circle. He was lonely, he met Isabelle and now he ends up lonely again. It’s a mysterious moment, suggesting the entire drama we just saw was but one way of contextualizing the misery of a single broken person, rather than the story of several. In a way, however, it’s fitting that both Stedman’s novel and Cianfrance’s adaptations are tales of situations that could have been resolved, but largely weren’t. They are calls for people to be more like Frank and Gwen, but they are characterized by a pessimism that implies many us will end up at odds like Hannah and Isabelle, or at very least, forever hopeless like Tom.

Advertisements

Disney Dreamers and Oppressors: a bug or a feature?

Disney occupies two conflicting places in my imaginary. On the one hand, Disney is the source of some of my favourite songs (“Under the Sea,” “Why Should I Worry,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Two Worlds one Family,” “We Are One” etc) as well as the animation studio behind some of my favourite cartoon characters (Sebastian, Lumiere, Napoleon & Lafayette, etc). Part of me thus sees Disney as part of modern children’s folklore.

On the flip side, there’s the part of me that sees Disney as a massive brand that iron-fistedly enforces its IP rights, perpetuates unnecessary gendered-market-segmentation through its heavily girl-coded “Disney Princess” concept, and is predictable and sappy in its story telling. The first two issues are of limited relevance to film review, but the third issue is one I can talk about. If part of me has strong affection for Disney, why do I so deeply associate their brand with cheesiness?

Part of the answer came to me when I watched video-essayist Lindsay Ellis’ analysis of Beauty and the Beast in which she notes that Disney renaissance films (the animated musicals of the 90s) are characterized by their giving their main characters a belted song about not fitting in/needing to search for purpose. These songs are “Part of Your World,” (The Little Mermaid) “Belle (There must be more than this provincial life…)” (Beauty and the Beast), “Just Around the River Bend,” (Pocahontas) “I Can Go the Distance,” (Hercules), “Reflection” (Mulan), and (years later) “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana). While I don’t think these songs in themselves are innately cheesy (it took Ellis’ video for me to notice they’re a pattern), they create an oversimplified binary between their singers and the world around them. The singer has a dream, and the authorities in their life thus come to occupy the opposite position of dream-oppressor.

kerchak new Of course, the notion of having a dream that differentiates you from those around you is broad and thus rightfully belongs in a lot of stories.  However, some films make clear that dreamer-and-dream-oppressor binaries are a trope and not mere reflections of everyday reality: Tarzan, for instance. The film tells the story of a boy who is adopted by a gorilla mother. As he grows up his first dream is to be accepted as a gorilla. His mother’s husband, Kerchak, meanwhile fills the role of dream oppressor. Kerchak initially advises his partner against adopting a human because…well, he’s not a gorilla. Tarzan grows up under the constant, blatantly-hostile gaze of Kerchak. Therefore, Tarzan’s anxiety about his identity is not simply the result of teasing from immature kids or an unnecessary childhood-neuroticism; rather it’s particularly the product of his adoptive father refusing to identify as his father, and explicitly stating that Tarzan doesn’t belong. While Tarzan is perhaps best remembered as a romance between a gorilla-man and a woman from typical human society, the film’s real arc is built around Tarzan’s search for approval from Kerchak.

While I can’t say for sure at what age predictable/unsubtle dialogue becomes apparent (I was six the last time I saw Tarzan and all I remember is being bothered by the sight of Tarzan sliding around on tree bark since that would surely hurt his hand), speaking as an adult who likes good children’s media, this is my biggest problem with Tarzan. His tension with Kerchak loses some of its effectiveness by virtue of how contrived it seems. We don’t see Kerchak and Tarzan as characters at odds, but stand-ins for the ideas of dreaming-misfit and dream-oppressor.

One reality that Tarzan fails to capture is that real-life dream oppressors are not necessarily real people. Rather they are caricatures of real people that exist in the heads of dreamers. These “oppressors” may be ambivalent about or even supportive of the “dreamers,” but the dreamer’s biases and neuroses lead them to pessimistically ignore this complexity. This concept is illustrated in Tiny Furniture in which the protagonist rails at her mother for being unsympathetic towards her struggles, even as her mother is, in fact, largely a laid-back, non-judgmental artist (then again, I note in my review that Tiny Furniture goes too far in this direction).

So should Disney strive not to portray characters like Kerchak? Not necessarily. Again, Disney can be understood as a source of modern folklore, and as such its approach to storytelling can be understood as part of a tradition: a tradition that includes belted-search-for-purpose-songs and dream oppressor characters. So how can the maintenance of this tradition be balanced with the need to create richer stories? One film that effectively navigates this dichotomy is Moana.

images-1            Moana’s opening is the opposite of subtle. When she is surely way too young to process the concept, her father leads a song to her explicitly laying out that her duty is to stay on their island and not wander off. Unlike Tarzan, however, Moana takes advantage of the fact that it overstates is message early on, to become more subtle as the film develops. Moana’s father is about as explicit as Kerchak about being her dream-oppressor, but his influence over her is quickly diminished as she escapes to sea. While Moana’s psychology is no doubt shaped by her having been raised by a dream-oppressor, her conflicts with other antagonists (cute-pirate-creatures, Tamatoa the crab, the vastness of the ocean and of course Te Kā the lava monster) are really what define the script. In essence, having a dream oppressor is part of Moana’s mythology, bringing her into the Disney folkloric-imaginery, but it is not the be all and end all of her story.

           Patterns in film are not necessarily a bad thing. There’s something satisfying about seeing, for instance, enough Wes Anderson films and saying “ah, ha, there’s that familiar artistic element!” Children’s films, however, must be careful when they use patterns. Since they are created to be consumed as direct stories, and not necessarily pieces of art, their being predictable can particularly undermine their quality. Clichés are unavoidable, as nothing is original. The question is, how aware is Disney of its dream-oppressor cliché, and how creative can Disney be in transforming it for the better?

Pocahontas and the Spectre of Tybalt

 

longo-duelo-com-tybalt_medium

Clockwise from top left: Tybalt (Basil Rathbone, Michael York, John Leguizamo), Bernardo (George Chakiris), Nuka and Kocoum.

 

As my regular readers know, I recently saw Bambi for the first time. I can now also add Pocahontas to the list of Disney classics I’ve seen in full. I knew in advance that it was a work where political discussion was unavoidable. On the one hand Pocahontas was arguably Disney’s most explicitly “strong-and-independent” “princess” character to date. The film also can at least be said to lean in the right direction on the question of settler-colonial injustice. On the other hand, the film (and its sequel) made the odd decision of using the names of historical figures. In doing so it obscured the fact that the real Pocahontas was ultimately kidnapped by the English and died young. As for the real John Smith, though at one point he was honoured by the Powhatin nation, and though he claimed to have befriended Pocahontas, he was ultimately a proponent of the settler colonial project.

So can Pocahontas be called clunkily progressive? For the most part, but the clunkyness goes beyond its weird relationship with history. It seems as if Pocahontas was the product of two unrelated bases for a story. One was the desire to depict indigenous and settler culture at an early moment of colonial contact. The film’s other foundation seems to be to depict a Romeo and Juliet style story; or, to be more precise, a West Side Story adaptation, given that it’s a film about race relation, and given the resemblance between monologues given by Pocahontas and (West Side Story’s) Maria.

A Romeo and Juliet story is most fundamentally understood as a romance between lovers from worlds at odds with each other. That said, perhaps its next most important piece is its depiction of enemies from these two worlds; enemies who are of emotional significance to the individual lovers, but themselves cannot be reconciled. In West Side Story these characters are Riff and Bernardo. In Romeo and Juliet these characters are Mercutio and Tybalt. In Pocahontas those characters are Thomas and Kocoum.

What character traits define “a Tybalt”? For one, this character must be brutish: willing, and a bit to eager, to fight to the death for their ends. Secondly, the character’s brutishness must in no ways reduce their reputation amongst other characters. In the context of Romeo and Juliet, we are made to understand that Tybalt is unequivocally loved by his cousin Juliet and her family (even if his tender side is never displayed). Thirdly, the Tybalt character is “the other.” In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt’s rival, Mercutio, is a light-hearted character, whose winding up in a duel with Tybalt permanently darkens the play’s tone. In lacking Mercutio’s warmth, Tybalt is the other: when he draws his sword we see not a conflicted soul, but a Boba Fett-like, mysterious killer.

West Side Story’s Bernardo is also portrayed in line with these rules. He is a gang leader, but despite his rough side he is unequivocally loved by the film’s Puerto Rican characters. He is also an “other,” as unlike Riff (who sings “When You’re a Jet”) he doesn’t get a father-figure song, and as such, the audience is not seduced to care for him. Bernardo, notably, is also “an other” in the Edward Said sense of the word. He is a racial-minority-gang leader who is made to face Riff, a white-gang leader. West Side Story makes some interesting decisions in its dealings with race. As a Romeo and Juliet style script, it on the one hand creates the illusion that its two gangs are equally-flawed and equally-redeemable entities (much like Romeo and Juliet’s houses of Capulet and Montague), but on the other hand it does include enough references to racism to problematize its own dichotomy (particularly through the character of Anita—a character who has a loose equivalent in Pocahontas’ Nakoma). West Side Story’s racial consciousness led to Riff and Bernardo not being exact duplicates of Mercutio and Tybalt. In West Side Story, the two rivals do not embody the comic-relief and brute niches from Romeo and Juliet: rather, Riff and Bernardo have near-identical personalities. In making this decision, West Side Story was able to play off of Tybalt’s “otherness” by depicting Bernardo as a “racial other,” but at the same time, avoided perpetuating the trope of the racialized brute.

One of Pocahantas’s mistakes is that it lacks this sensitivity displayed in West Side Story. West Side Story starts by giving you a sense of equality between its two sides , and then problematizes that false equality. By contrast, Pocahontas moves in the opposite direction, particularly near its climax when its two sides sing a song calling each other “Savages” (undermining the racist connotations of the word). Also unlike West Side Story, Pocahontas fails to appropriately modify its Mercutio-Tybalt characters for the racial context. Pocohontas’ Tybalt is Kocoum. Like Bernardo in West Side Story, Kocoum is non-white, the racial other. Unlike Bernardo, and like Tybalt, he is portrayed as the bigger brute than his rival. Pocahontas’ Mercutio character is Thomas. Like Mercutio, he is a misfit in a duel: he is timid, and though an enthusiastic product of his racist context, displays a level of sensitivity implying he can be reformed. Kocoum, by contrast, is only portrayed as an attractive, brave warrior. While his status as a racial other makes him more sympathetic than Tybalt, he is not given the depth he deserves.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to say about how awkwardly Pocahontas straddles the line between progressive and problematic. As someone whose general belief is that most media can be appreciated for its good qualities, so long as viewers are exposed to sufficient critical discourse, I’ll end my commentary on a positive note, pointing out that the film ultimately does favour its Powhatin over its colonial characters (albeit via the not only historically inaccurate, but entirely implausible explanation that colonialism’s sins can largely be pinned on one greedy man)) and that Flit the hummingbird and Meeko the raccoon are fun to watch.

Political questions aside, however, this discussion still leaves with a literary question: what is to be done with the Tybalt trope. I see no reason why the Romeo and Juliet-story can’t and won’t continue to be told, and its hard to imagine it being retold without the Tybalt-Mercutio clash. Tybalt is a perplexing character, however, in that he adds great depth to Romeo and Juliet without being so deep himself. Interestingly, Disney has addressed this problem and reimagined the Tybalt character, just not in Pocahontas. The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, as it tells of love between Simba’s daughter Kiara, and Scar’s heir/lookalike Kovu. While the film’s Mercutio (Timon/Pumba) does not end up in a plot-altering fight, Simba does, and, in the Mercutio-Tybalt-spirit, his fight pits him against Kovu’s brutish-brother, Nuka. Nuka is not like Tybalt, Bernardo or Kocoum, however. He is not a conventionally-attractive alpha male, but a flea-bitten lion-version of (Arrested Devlopment’s) Gob Bluth. While he has an alpha-male agenda, he simultaneously retains loveable loser traits. As far as characters from Disney-direct-to-video sequel characters go, Nuka is memorable, and as far villains go, he is endearing. Furthermore, despite the differences between him and his Shakespearian equivalent, his niche in The Lion King 2 is unquestionable: if you know the film is based on Romeo and Juliet, you won’t be left with doubts as to who Tybalt is.                     Nuka’s existence, of course, does not singlehandedly solve the Tybalt problem. It should serve as a reminder to writers, however, that one can and should be creative in depicting future versions of the Tybalt character. Characters can and should be deep and compelling, even if they flip their lids at the sight of someone biting a thumb in their direction

Is Isle of Dogs Appropriative? (and is that even the right question?)

1024px-Isle_of_Dogs_-_Press_Conference_2

(L to R): Wes Anderson, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schrieber, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura. The Photo is from Wikipedia where it is credited to Diana Ringo https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

As promised, I wrote this follow-up piece on Isle of Dogs. To see my original (conventional) review, click here.

Before even going to see Isle of Dogs, I knew it was the subject of controversy. Shortly after its release (almost a month ago now) Justin Chang of the LA Times wrote a review in which he suggests its cultural “sensitivity is lost in translation.” The sirens went off in my head: was Isle of Dogs “Cultural Appropriation!!!?”

 

I scoured the internet for references to what Chang meant, but only now read his original article. Reading his piece helped reveal that we are in a culture obsessed with buzz-words and categories. Chang’s review in fact balances praise for the film with criticism of how its Japanese subjects are portrayed. Most notably, Chang never explicitly uses the word “appropriation” to frame his disappointment (though I should note that this language does come up more in his discussion with fellow film writer Jen Yamato, also included in the link above).

 

But in our society of categorization and buzzwords, discussions like the one above are often reduced to the question of “appropriation” versus “appreciation.” Appropriation means using concepts from a marginalized culture in a way that is disrespectful to the source. For example, promoting offensive “cowboy and Indian” tropes by dressing up as a generic indigenous person for Halloween. Appreciation, needless to say, is the opposite of this: it implies reverence and thorough-engagement with the culture that one borrows from.

 

Chang’s main criticism of Isle of Dogs is its use of language: the dogs speak “dog,” but it is dubbed into English. The film’s humans, meanwhile, primarily speak Japanese. In his original conception of the film, Anderson had decided that this Japanese would not be subtitled, giving it a level of authenticity. This is where Chang sees a problem. Anderson has made numerous films about white people, (a few stand-alone characters are exceptions), and gives those people a chance to express themselves. In Isle of Dogs he has finally made a film about not-white people: and yet, because of his decision about language, the Japanese humans are not given a chance to express themselves.

 

What Chang has identified is no doubt, on its surface, a problem. There are two potential responses to this. One is that Anderson is not silencing his Japanese characters but simply maintaining a  subversive relationship to language politics by making a film that is not exclusively catered to English audiences. This defence is not particularly strong given that, according to some of the film’s critics (this is a matter I cannot comment on) the Japanese dialogue is not very interesting: it is written to be simple enough that English speakers who do not understand it are not missing out on much. Furthermore, as I will discuss later, Anderson waters down this prima facie subversive use of language by regularly employing (non-subtitle) translator-technologies.

 

That said, I do find the second defence for Anderson’s use of language to be more convincing: it is that Isle of Dogs is, well, a movie about dogs. Humans cannot understand the nuances of dog barking, but can often figure out more or less what dogs are getting at. In Isle of Dogs this logic is flipped to apply to humans.

 

Isle of Dog’s other big “cultural appropriation” problem is the character of Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American foreign exchange student, who critics of the film point out is yet another example of the white-savior trope (ie a white character who singularly solves the problems of a non-white society). While Walker is not the film’s action hero (that role is split between Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) and the dogs), her ideas and spunk are the determining factors in the lead-up to the film’s climax. In short, the “white savior” problem is pretty indisputable.

 

It should be noted, however, that the experience of watching Isle of Dogs is not conducive to seeing Walker as a white saviour. Her initial appearance in the film is somewhat of a joke. Despite Anderson’s initial vision of making his human characters speak un-subtitled Japanese throughout his film, his desire not to hide all of his dialogue behind the language barrier led him to concoct various ways around his no-subtitle rule. In one case, a retro-translation device narrates a phone call between Mayor Kobayashi and his associates. In government presentation sessions, simultaneous translation is provided by an interpreter in a booth (Frances McDormand). The interpreter’s existence is effectively a break-the-fourth-wall joke, as while she exists in the movie’s universe, there is no English-speak population in the film to provide practical justification for her existence.

Both the radio and the translation booth fit well into the Anderson universe of beautiful,  vintage artifacts. Every time Anderson introduces a new translation technology audiences are left to marvel at the absurdity of it all, thinking: why is he doing this, wouldn’t subtitling or dubbing have been easier (redundancy/arbitrariness is, of course, yet another charm of the Anderson universe as seen in the opening to The Grand Budapest Hotel)? When, finally, Anderson imports an American human into his world, he is simply taking this redundant-technology joke to the extreme.

 

The defence of Tracy as an Andersonian-technology-joke, however, can only go so far. Were her appearances brief, or were she a more bumbling hero, she would come across as the technology gag she was conceived as. Tracy, however, is no side-show, and she crystallizes into the film’s resident Hermione Granger.

That all said, does Anderson “appropriate” Japanese culture? Or, despite the Tracy Walker mess-up, does he appreciate it? Again, I find this an unhelpful binary Some critics might say he is appropriative rather than appreciative, as in depicting Japanese architecture and culture without developing deep Japanese characters he is objectifying Japanese society. This point can certainly be raised to suggest that Isle of Dogs does not “appreciate” Japanese culture as deeply as it could have, but I don’t think it adds up to suggesting that the film is “appropriative” either. Anderson is a filmmaker known for his aesthetic. That he draws more upon Japanese imagery than on Japanese personalities does not make him appropriative, it simply means he made yet another Wes Anderson film, this one set in Japan.

 

Anderson’s Japanese-human characters also do not fit neatly into an appropriation-appreciation binary. While these characters are not necessarily deep, they are not cultural stereotypes either. While some may draw parallels between Mayor Kobayashi and Japan’s fascist past, the character strikes me as far more directly analogical to Donald Trump given his fear-mongering speeches, and given that his political opposition comes from a Science Party (“dang Democrats and their global warming!”). Furthermore, Mayor Kobayashi is showed to have a soft spot as the film reaches its conclusion.

 

Another character worth noting is the student who Tracy Walker confronts in her first scene. He responds to her with cocky skepticism in mildly-accented-fluent-English. While this minor character’s brief existence does not in itself cleanse Tracy Walker of her white-savior-status, he does address the worst elements of this trope. In engaging with Walker he challenges one of the characteristics of white-saviors: that they are voices for a “voiceless,” “helpless” population. While it is still problematic that she alone knows what it takes to save Megasaki, her school mate’s existence makes clear that Walker doesn’t have to be the only one who could save their city.

 

When discussing films, the concept of cultural appropriation often goes unseparated from the #OscarsSoWhite movement. While both are concepts that deal with race, however, they are not synonymous. A film cam not “appropriate” any elements from non-white cultures, but still have a whitewashed cast. I’m of the view that cultural-appropriation-based critiques of Isle of Dogs are misguided, but simply because they are using a not-quite-right word. Does Isle of Dogs appropriate from, ie, disrespect Japanese people or culture? I wouldn’t say so. Does it put an appreciative spotlight on Japanese people? I wouldn’t say it does that either.

 

I can understand where the concept of Tracy Walker comes from. She was born out of the Andersonian script’s need for translator-technology, and, as the story-team grew attached to her, was further imagined in the western cinematic tradition of spunky girls: she’s orphan Annie-meets Lady Bird. It’s this kind of implicit bias, however, that movements like #OscarsSoWhite expose. The idea of foreign-exchange-student-as-translator-device was a good one, but why couldn’t she have been an American exchange student of color? Why not a Japanese American? Why not (here’s an Andersonian idea) a Japanese student with a distinct, intricately designed, steam punk outfit who has methodically read every Victorian classic, and, as such, speaks idiosyncratically-fluent English?

 

Isle of Dogs exists in the context of a world that has grown conscious of Asian-American under-representation in cinema. As such films about Asian societies that to do not actively break with this trend are subject to particular scrutiny, even if as individual works they are not problematic. Isle of Dogs is not a particularly nor singularly problematic film, and should be enjoyed for the innovative piece of animation that it is. That said, we cannot let our affection for this film get in the way of having important conversations about cinema. We can enjoy Wes Anderson films while also hoping that actors like Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura and (why not) Yoko Ono continue to get cast and challenged in them.

The Films that Hooked Me: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis

As I eagerly await my chance to see Wes Anderson’s new release, Isle of Dogs, I look back on how seeing the trailer for his previous release sparked my interest in film and, eventually, gave rise to this blog. 

The_Grand_Budapest_HotelIt wasn’t long ago that I would tell you I didn’t watch movies. I didn’t watch TV either. This was not a conscious choice. Rather, I was raised in the kind of household where sitting in front of the TV for unregulated hours was forbidden. By the time I was in middle school I noticed a clear differentiation between myself and my peers. I watched the odd TV show or family movie that my family went to together because it was a good fit for all of us and/or because it was culturally significant (eg Pixar and Harry Potter films). By contrast, my peers were beginning to binge watch live action TV dramas like Lost, Heroes and various crime shows.

 

My alienation from film viewing was further developed, however, by the movies I did see. The movies that were supposed to excite me didn’t. I got no thrill out of watching action sequences, or the sappy endings to mainstream comedies.

 

I was twenty years old when my mind began to change. I don’t remember what film I was watching (Dallas Buyers Club would be my guess), but I remember seeing a trailer at Varsity Cinema that struck a unique emotion in me. That trailer was for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember thinking “I’m going to make a point of seeing that movie.” Yet that film was not an adaptation of a young adult series I’d enjoyed. It wasn’t a straightforward comedy with an easily explicable humorous hook either. It wasn’t even about a historical event or subject matter that was important to me. Rather, what struck me about it was precisely that I could not articulate what excited me about it. Sure it seemed amusing: the clips of Ralph Fiennes yelling “lobby boy!” gave off that impression, but I didn’t remember individual jokes. I remembered a melange of things: actors, colors, moods and that word “lobby boy.” In other words, it struck me as impressive as a, well, “film.”

 

Seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time was a mixed experience for me. I certainly found parts of it funny, but I also had questions. Why, for example, was the film’s opening narration about a writer, who appears in a flashback telling of how (in a flashback) he met the film’s protagonist (“lobby boy”) Zero Mostel, who (via a long flashback) tells the story that is essentially the whole movie? In short, what was the point of the writer, who in no way factors into the story’s action? I probably wouldn’t be bothered by this aspect of the film today, but at the time this narrative inconventionality was something I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for.

 

Around the same time as The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, another film hit Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Postertheatres. This one, Inside Llewyn Davis, attracted me for less mysterious reasons. It was a film about a folk-singer (I like to think of myself as a folk-singer). It was also written/directed by the Coen brothers, who I knew because they’d directed an adaptation of The Odyssey (O Brother Where Art Thou?).

 

In short, I was drawn to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, because of its many qualities as a work of art and Inside Llewyn Davis because it was a work by a known writer/director(s). Of course, had my life story been only slightly different, I could reverse those descriptions and they would equally be true. My discovery of Wes Anderson was as important as my re-acquaintance with the Coens. More important than my relationship with either of these directors, however ,was the new way they taught me to appreciate film.

 

In watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I found a bit of the old me. I liked the movie because of what it was about: because there were characters based off of Jim& Jean and Tom Paxton. Yet there were also frustrating elements to the film in that regard: Llewyn’s interest in pre-Dylan folk and the film’s anti-climactic ending. There were also things that the burgeoning new film fan in me enjoyed. The film incorporated a not yet famous Adam Driver as character that was very memorable, despite being insignificant to the plot. The film also used John Goodman in a similar regard. Goodman’s character has an eerie feel to him that briefly makes him seem like the film’s villain. In fact, however, he’s simply a quirky, self-promoting man with dehabilitating health problems.

 

Much like Driver’s character, Goodman’s character doesn’t “matter.” Then again, no character in Inside Llewyn Davis really does: the film’s frustrating ending is the revelation that Llewyn’s story is cyclical (a trait also seen in the Coen’s An Irrational Man). As such, Inside Llewyn Davis is not just a narrative, but a diorama: a depiction of Greenwhich village and the universe around it from the perspective of one of the numerous folk singers who did not get to be Bob Dylan. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that John Goodman’s curmudgeony, jazz musician does not serve the function of a traditional villain. He fills an important place in the diorama, sitting in his sunglasses behind his chauffeur, and waiting to capture the viewer’s eye and imagination.

 

Speaking of dioramas, what film better embodies that metaphor than The Grand Budapest Hotel? While it is a story that takes its protagonists to numerous places, its true soul comes out in every utterance of that phrase “lobby boy!” It is the adventure of a purple uniform as much as it the adventure of its unassuming protagonis. The unfirom dashes through an exquisite pink hotel, which itself exists with in the mind of a man buried in a beautiful, key covered monument. Furthermore, while The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a thoroughly non-traditional story (unlike Inside Llewyn Davis it features a traditional villain), it too is peppered with characters who briskly come in and out (including Owen Wilson’s “Monsieur Chuck”), making them more funky-dolls in a diorama than characters in a story.

 

By the time I started film-blogging over three years had passed since I watched these films. They changed me, yes, but it wasn’t a change I became aware of at once. In the year following my seeing those titles I continued to see the occasional flick at the suggestion of a film student friend of mine. It took me 10 months before I truly began consuming film on my own. I lived near Toronto’s Bay St Video at the time, and when I had to watch Children of Men for an assignment, I decided to sign up for membership and rent the DVD.

 

Then, I began to rent more. I rapidly went through all of Wes Anderson’s filmography. I rented Linklater’s Boyhood, the Coen’s A Serious Man as well as a lot of JeanLuc Godard. Having never received a formal film education, I’m sure I missed out on some of the key innovations in Godard’s work. I did however come to appreciate its blatant characteristics: long shots of natural and industrialized environments, philosophical monologues often peppered with references to Marxism and history, and a lack of a traditional storyline: In other words, the oddness of Wes Anderson and the Coens’ approaches to narrative pales in comparison.

 

The challenge of learning to appreciate works like Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Adieu_au_Langage_poster.pngleft me with a strong desire to parody. For me the mindsets of wanting to parody something, and having genuine sense of affection for it are not too far removed from each other. Therefore, when I made a makeshift, imitation Godard film called “La Mort et la Famille” in the summer of 2015 (just under a year and a half since I’d the two titular films came into my life, and just under two years before I started blogging), it wasn’t just a joke: it was a moment of self discovery. There was (and still is) a lot for me to see, but suddenly I could say it: “I liked movies.”

 

There is a reason I realized I liked movies then and couldn’t before. For me, my ability to enjoy films if often rooted in my sense of connection with their director and/or writer. I cannot simply be an audience member being entertained (which is why generic, big budget fight scenes don’t do it for me); rather I wanted to admire and philosophize about the idea of crafting the movie before me. In parodying Godard I awakened a way of thinking that had been stirring in my head since I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer. I was now finally seeing films not as standalone pieces of entertainment, but as intertextual expressions of writer-directors’ imaginations.

 

It took another year and a half for me to first articulate this relationship, however. Moonlight and La, La Land were competing neck and neck for best picture, and in my social media world the competition was tense. This tension was of course political, with the #OscarsSoWhite movement motivating some of the support for Moonlight. To be clear, I agree with this cause and have no interest in arguing with its proponents, however, I did feel that this politicized environment lead to some misguided statements about La, La Land. For those judging the film through a political lens, La, La Land was a predictable repetition of the Hollywood-celebrating-itself trope. If that’s how one saw Damien Chazelle’s movie, I can indeed understand why one would feel it was inferior to Moonlight: a ground-breaking indie film about the intersections of race, sexuality and poverty.

 

For me, however, La, La Land was far more than its theme. It was, well, a dazzling

LLL d 10_1990.NEF

Chazelle directing La, La Land

diorama: a magical realist extravaganza that guides its protagonists around a world so wondrous and vast that they end up with happy endings while still being miserably lost. That it was about Hollywood and dreams coming true was not what made it entertaining: Chazelle’s world-building skills were.

I used to be the guy who didn’t like movies. Then I became more like “everyone else” and learned to like movies. The 2017 Oscars reminded me that maybe I was still in fact not like everyone else. I never learned to watch movies in the way that others do: I’d rather developed a distinct hobby that was like that of the regular movie goer in that it also involved looking at a film on a screen.

 

I suppose I could have named this blog post after La, La Land or Godard’s La Chinoise. Other works including Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson were also part of that process. That said, I’m going to take the Coen brothers’ approach of going full circle. I started blogging in May 2017, roughly within one month of my re-seeing and re-appreciating The Grand Budapest Hotel and Inside Llewyn Davis. I still have a lot to work on: seeing more classics, improving my cinematic vocabulary, and finding more non-white male directors to count amongst my influences. That said, in this regard, I’m not the same person I was 4 years ago, so “…p…p…please Mr. Kennedy, don’t shoot me into outer space,” I hear they don’t have video stores up there.

Reflections on the 90th Academy Awards

440px-Frances_McDormand_2015_(cropped)

Frances McDormand winning a human shaped award in some year other than 2018

I’ve listed this post as an essay, but it’s more of a listacle. By listacle standards it’s an essay. I hope you appreciate this commentary even as it horrifyingly lacks an introduction and a conclusion. Without further ado, here are my quips with the Academy.

Time to Split the best Animation Category

I watched the Oscars at a public viewing event. As Coco was given the award for best animated picture the person sitting next to me complained. “How?” he asked, “Could Loving Vincent not win? It’s an OIL PAINTED MOVIE!” Those comments rang both true and false for me. They rang true in that painting a movie surely made for the year’s biggest achievement in animation. They rang false in that acknowledging the fact that Loving Vincent was, literally speaking, the year’s best animation is (to quote Leonard Cohen speaking on the subject of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize) like “pinning a medal on Everest for being the tallest mountain.”

My personal inclination is that the Oscar for best animated picture should go to a kids movie. After all, it’s the one award that most kids will have heard of an entry in, and therefore, the only one which they will likely have a rooting interest for. In that sense I agree that Coco was a better choice than Loving Vincent. To have given the award to Loving Vincent, would be to have given the middle finger to kids. On the other hand to name a Pixar film the year’s best kids movie is also like pinning that medal on Everest.

Clearly we need more good kids movies (or the Oscars needs to do a better job of finding them). On the other hand, it does feel like a shame that notable animated works like Loving Vincent and Anomalisa (a 2016 nominee) have to compete in a category where I, and apparently many voters, feel they have no real place. The Oscars should make a quick and long overdue fix and simply separate the category into best family movie and best animation: problem solved!

Get Your Cause Speech Right

Even with time limits removed, this year’s Oscar speeches were still generally given in traditionally short fashion: rife with thank yous meaningless to most viewers. Of course it is also not unheard of for Oscar winners to use their platform to make a shout out for a social cause of the day that is often related to their film. While I would never be one to tell celebrities to “shut up and act,” the inherent brevity of the Oscar speech often gives these statements a damningly superficial affect. I think this was particularly true in the case of Coco producer Darla K Anderson’s speech in which she plainly stated that the film was made with the intent of representing non-white characters and culture. While it is indeed important to celebrate and promote representation in filmmaking, Anderson’s choice to represent the film solely as a work of representation made the project seem like a mere charity project rather than a multi-faceted, award-worthy film.

Frances McDormand, by contrast, came a bit closer to figuring out how best to politicize an Oscar speech. Rather than taking on a big subject (such as representation) and failing to present it with nuanced judgement, she was to the point, specific, and narrow. She championed “inclusion riders”: the idea that actors (with clout) can use their contract negotiations as a platform from which to negotiate on behalf of woman and minority actors other than themselves. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say actors should only talk about subjects that fit into 30 second speeches (I’m for all flavors of progressive provocativeness), plans of action beat vague rhetoric in most situations.

Is the Academy Afraid of Great Documentaries?

Perhaps that heading is a bit provocative, as the issue here is not so much about quality but character. Greta Gerwig and Laura Dern presented the best documentary category by describing documentarians as truth tellers, implicitly championing them and other kinds of journalists in the age of Trump. If that is the view the Oscars have of the role of documentaries I can understand why they did not award the playful, unlikely-friendship-centred Faces and Places. Then again, the film that did win (which, to be fair, I haven’t seen) Icarus seems to have been propelled to the top on American Olympic patriotism; I hardly see the notion that Russia systematically cheats as sports as a pressing issue of the day. As far as I’m concerned, Faces Places was simultaneously an exploration of various French proletarian stories, a quirky adventure movie, and an homage to the life of une legende de cinema nouvelle vague. If that’s not a “best documentary,” I don’t know what is.

Faces Places’ snub reminded me of the loss of The Act of Killing back in 2014. The_Act_of_Killing_(2012_film)That loss felt more absurd given that Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary was in fact about a pressing issue (it lost to a film about the experience of being a career backup singer). Like Faces and Places, however, The Act of Killing, did not simply teach but also told a story. While nominally about the brutal anti-communist killings of the Indonesian coup in 1965 and the murderous-machismo culture that stemmed from them, the film goes on to examine the personalities of individual killers and how they explore, and in some cases come to regret, their relationship to violence and power through the arts.

Snubs

I am a hypocrite in that on principle I don’t like the idea of awards (I’m a participation trophy loving millennial, get over it conservatives), but also enjoy talking about and watching the Oscars. I can reconcile this tension, partially, by citing the approach of Youtuber nerdwriter1, who says he doesn’t care about who wins, but sees the list of nominations as a chance to celebrate a year in filmmaking. In that sense I think its important to acknowledge some of the nominations that could have been.

As I discussed previously, I found Downsizing to be on the of most-bizarrely mis-rated films of the year, and was disappointed to see its costar Hong Chau not nominated for best supporting actress. The way Chau’s character is written, puts her at risk of being seen as a joke by racist audiences: she has a heavy Vietnamese accent, is headstrong and is just a tad vulgar. Chau, however, brings the character to life as an anarchic jolt in Downsizing’s dark story, turning what is at that point a visual-based film into a compelling adventure.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer also went unacknowledged at the Oscars, which is a shame given that it was the pinnacle film in a year of what I call “thorough horror.” It’s distinct use of deadpan acting should have garnerned nominations for writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos and supporting actor and spaghetti eater Barry Keoghan.

Finally, if I had to pick a film of the year, it’s The Florida Project. The film got one nomination for supporting actor Willem Dafoe, a nomination that while deserved feels like an insult to the film’s approach of largely casting amateur actors. While I can understand not nominating Brooklyn Prince for best actress on the grounds that it might be unethical to put a seven year old through the stress of being nominated, I’m disappointed that her co-star Bria Vinaite was not nominated in her place. Vinaite took on similar challenges to Saoirse Ronan who was nominated for her role in Lady Bird, playing a young woman who is playful, but regularly plagued with sadness. The difference of course, is that Vinaite’s character, Halley, has to take on this spectrum of moods within far more painful circumstances, and with less avenue for self expression than Lady Bird has.

I would also, of course, have liked the film to have been nominated for best picture. If you want to know why you can read my review, or check out this great argument by nerdwriter1 who I quoted earlier in this entry.

 

 

 

In Search of the Alt-Superhero Film: The Misplaced Hype Around Thor: Ragnorak (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_poster        I don’t make a point of going to superhero films. I went to Thor: Ragnorak based on rumours that it was something different: that if not one of the funniest films of the year, it was one of the funniest superhero films ever made. I also went because of my interest in its director Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows ranks amongst my favourite films of all time, and whose Hunt for the Wilderpeople would have near equal standing in my heart but for my discomfort with hunting.

Unfortunately, while he apparently did some editing, Waititi did not write the script for Ragnorak. Waititi’s influence in the work is certainly noticeable: for example in the understated comedic dialogue in scene I, the appearances by Wilderpeople stars Sam Neil and Rachel House, Waititi’s own character, Korg, etc. Nonetheless, as a whole, the film does not come across as the genre-transforming piece I’d anticipated. It’s not unusual for Superhero Films to employ the odd joke; Spiderman and Iron Man certainly have their sassy sides. Nothing about Ragnorak stands out as going beyond the comedic standards set by these aforementioned sagas. Deadpool with its anti-hero protagonist and regular fourth wall breaking, whatever one thinks of its crassness, was no doubt a more innovative work than Ragnorak.

            Granted, perhaps it is not my place to criticize Ragnorak. Its target audience is not people like me, but avid followers of the Marvael universe who are able to remember who the heck Idris Elba’s character was from the previous Thor films and get excited by action sequences. That said, surely some superhero films, do strive to be transcendently appealing, and with that in mind, I think its worth exploring how Ragnorak falls short.

The story of Ragnorak is essentially that Thor’s evil sister, Hela the goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett) breaks out of Asgardian prison and declares herself Queen of Asgard, and then promptly starts a killing spree. Thor and a his god-of-mischief-brother Loki must work to overthrow her, but along the way Thor is captured on behalf of another planet’s villainous “Grandmaster” (Jeff Goldblum) where he is detained to participate in prize-fights. This high stakes plot stands in stark contrast to Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a documentary about vampires who eat some people, befriend others and go to an awkward party. The simplicity of this plot means that it derives its life from the personalities of its characters: the unexplainable awe the vampires hold for an IT worker named Stu, their fear of being exposed by non-humans (except the ones making the documentary) and their house rules and flat meetings. Ragnorak, by contrast, calls on its characters to overcome their quirks to participate in a high stakes, big budget battle to the death. While the battle scenes are not free of funny moments (Eg Thor suddenly remembering mid battle he is the god of thunder), they ultimately serve to divert the film from its comic potential.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, provides another lens through which Ragnorak can be critiqued. That film does have a high stakes plot (a boy and his gruff, adopted father take to the woods to avoid his being found by child services). Unlike Ragnorak, however, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s central antagonists are funny. Thor Ragnorak has no lack of silly bad guys. Goldblum’s character is whimsical and arbitrary in his tyranny. Loki, as god of mischief, is Thor’s friend one second, and his playful enemy the next. The film, however finds its sense of direction in the character’s confrontation with Hela, a conventional, clad in darkness villain who kills mercilessly in pursuit of power, leaving the more amusing Thor vs Loki (or even Thor vs Grandmaster) dynamics, underdeveloped.

My disappointment with Ragnorak is indeed largely attributable to its reputation as comedic, a reputation, I would argue, it fails to live up to. Its flaws, however, can more broadly be attributed not to how much humor it has, but the non-impact of the humor on the film’s skeletal plot structure.

Since seeing Ragnorak, I have also taken the time to see M. Night Shymalan’s UnbreakableposterwillisUnbreakable. The latter film is incomparable to Ragnorak in that it does not aspire to be comedic. Nonetheless, the contrast between these two works illustrates what it takes to make an interesting superhero film. Shyamalan has described the film as an “origin story that the audience doesn’t know is an origin story until its last image.” Unbreakable, thus satisfies audiences by taking traditional constructs (heroes and villains) and sneakily forcing viewers to reimagine them. Ragnorak may have its creative moments, but it is ultimately still the story of a hero overcoming (by his standards not overwhelming) odds to take on a plain-stated villain.

Unbreakable is also an interesting example of how a work can quickly redeem itself. Much of the film lies in an emotional grey zone: the character’s are clearly dealing with serious issues, yet these issues don’t always seem serious enough to feel like they’re going anywhere. When the film all comes together at its end, however, audiences are able to retrospectively appreciate the whole work. Unbreakable stands out in that its hero’s self-doubt is his defining feature (rather than the more typical lingering-back-of-the-mind concern). Its villain, meanwhile, stands out in that we get to know them almost entirely for their endearing personality and only minimally for their villainy. Unbreakable closes by taking its viewers into a novel emotional space. When it finally creates a confrontation between good and evil it is not exciting or nerve wracking, but tragically beautiful.

Ragnorak may make audiences laugh, but audiences will not laugh at its central thesis: the confrontation of Hela and Thor. The world needs more films like Unbreakable, or even Deadpool. If Marvel studios is going to keep riding on the talents of directors like Waititi, it should consider giving them the creative space to truly develop the superhero genre.