Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Imitation Game, A Movie Review

Just back from seeing the Alan Turing bio-pic/Weinstein Company Oscar bid The Imitation Game. With Benedict Cumberbatch in the starring role, and chronicling the birth of the computer age, this should be a better movie than it is.

Part of the reason it is such a mess is because it is trying to do so many things at once, and manages to do none of them very well. The movie establishes a few salient points of Turing's life, while simultaneously attempting to cover a host of other issues, including but not limited to:

  • Turing's theories about computing,
  • how to break codes, 
  • why breaking the Enigma code was important to the British war effort, 
  • how the code was broken, 
  • what the modern world owes to Turing's eccentric mind, 
  • how that mind worked, 
  • the emotional stakes involved in war work, 
  • the strain of being a lonely genius, 
  • the homophobia that forced him to live his life in hiding and that ultimately killed him, 
  • the seeds of the Cold War planted during World War II, 
  • the sexism rife in the 1940s, 
  • the evolving nature of WWII intelligence work, 
  • the role of M6, 
  • the conflict between logic and emotion, 
  • the nature of human social relations, 
  • bullying in boy's schools of the 1920s, 
  • the nature of violence, 
  • the effect of the Battle of Britain on civilians. . .

All with a running time of under two hours. You can see the problem. Furthermore, the movie skips around in three different time periods, which was maybe not such a useful structure. Shall we dive in?

(By this point, I have lost track of exactly how the movie skips through time, and in what order.  For clarity's sake, I am going to just summarize each time period. Let's finish out 1951, even if that does take us to the end of the movie before we even get to the middle.)

The movie opens in 1951, when some cops arrive at Alan Turing's home in Manchester in response to a neighbor's report of a burglary. Turing is bent over amid the mess, sweeping up a fine powder which he identifies as cyanide. Somehow, the police know that nothing has been stolen, but they want Turing to file a report anyway, which he declines to do. Apparently the crime rate in Manchester in 1951 was sufficiently low that the police didn't have enough to do: Detective Nock decides that "Professor Turing is hiding something" and he decides to pry into the professor's war records.

Now all of this is rather telling, if you are already familiar with the broad outlines of Turing's life. In that case, you realize that his war record is stellar, but he's hiding his homosexuality. The "burglary" was committed by a young male prostitute who Turing knew. The cyanide is a foreshadowing of Turing's eventual suicide by cyanide, widely presumed to have been staged to look like an accident to spare his mother's feelings. If you don't already know these things, well, too bad, because the movie isn't really going to explain most of them.

(There is also a very James Bond looking moment where a shadowy official-looking figure is handed a note that says "Alan Turing's home was burgled." It looks ominous, but might not be? No--we aren't ever going to have this explained either. )

Detective Nock is using correction fluid to alter some document. Remember correction fluid? Oh, those Olde Tymes! Apparently, this clumsy forgery fools the staff of an unidentified depository, where he is asking to look at Turing's classified war records. What he gets--eventually--is an empty envelope. Which he takes to mean that Turing is a Soviet spy.

Okay, let's just stop here for a moment, because I have some questions that the movie neither asks nor answers. First of all--if the War Secrets Act forbids Turing from ever talking about his work at Bletchley Park (and that information was classified for some 50 years after the war), don't you think somebody would have looked at a letter with a big glob of Wite-Out on it and maybe. . .raised some questions? Confronted the guy with trying to illicitly obtain War Secrets? Maybe had him arrested? Or, are we supposed to think that this is an Especially Clever Detective who has fooled the British Military establishment?

Alternatively, are we to think that the military was not fooled by the "Wite-Out Stratagem" and rather than confronting the guy, simply gave him an empty envelope? And he wasn't smart enough to figure that out either? I don't know. And as the movie progresses, we don't get any answers to that either.

What does happen is that while Nock is apparently dreaming that he's about to bring down a Soviet spy ring, the constables find Turing's burglar, who discloses that Turing is "a pouf." Homosexuality is illegal, so they issue a warrant and arrest him. Nock is appalled, and says so. "That's not the investigation I was running!" But a crime is a crime, so Nock asks to be the one who interrogates Turing.

So now this Detective Nock is the audience surrogate? He talks to Turing, and elicits the story we see on screen? I mean, the movie actually does start with a voice over, and there is some confusing dialogue where Turing invites the detective to "play" the imitation game, by asking questions.* So it seems that in some version of this movie, Detective Nock was the framing device, but that more or less got revised and muddled, because significant swaths of the story don't seem like they would be at all relevant to either the investigation into his homosexuality, the burglary, spying, or the Turing Test. Why would he go into detail about his 1928 school days to a cop? (Why are we watching those scenes either?)
*I assume this is what might be better known as the "Turing Test"--a thought experiment where a person poses questions to unseen participants. A computer can be said to beat the Turing test if the questioner can't tell the computer's answers from a human's. Not sure how the detective can play this game when face to face with Turing, but that's yet another thing the movie fails to address.

Anyway, the framing device doesn't really make sense, and the detective fails to create any sense of audience identification. He's a mook, who starts poking around in Turing's life for no clear reason, violates War Secrets acts, gets the whole story of Turing's (classified, remember?) war service that he doesn't have clearance to hear.

I wonder if somebody realized this? But maybe only in, like, post-production? "Hey--the way we set this up, both Turing and Nock should be hanged as traitors. Can we maybe do something about that?" "Well, we can't get Cumberbatch back for reshoots, so we'll just mess up the timeline and maybe nobody will notice?"

So, let's skip to the meatiest part of the film, the Bletchley Park years.

Turing applies to work at Bletchley Park. He tells us he's currently 27, although he looks basically the same as he did in 1951, plus he's still got the same (stupid) haircut. He's being interviewed by a high ranking military officer who is played by Charles Dance. If you primarily know Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones, you might be surprised at how funny he can be. The scene starts out as nearly a cross-talk vaudeville routine, riffing on Turing's inability to recognize a joke or sarcasm. In an exposition dump that is pretty well disguised by the humor, we learn that Turing is a math prodigy, he solves puzzles, he wants to break the Enigma code because it is the worlds hardest puzzle, and he doesn't do well with authority. There is a reference to "Mother says I'm off-putting." Again, if you know about his "accidental suicide" the reference to his mother is telling. Otherwise, it merely makes him seem extraordinarily odd and a-social. So, mission accomplished I guess.

Weirdly, the Big Initiative to Break the German Codes has. . .a total of 6 guys? There seems to be a lot of activity in the area, and lots of secretaries and transcriptionists, but only six guys who are trying to actually break the codes? And their equipment seems to be pencils? We know they have an actual Enigma machine, because that's the first thing they see. Why not just put the intercepted messages through the machine, one of them asks. You need to have the password, and there are "159 million million million" possible combinations. "That's 159 with eighteen zeroes behind it." We are also told that the Germans change their password at midnight every day, and the first messages go out at 6 a.m. They do have one decoded message (from where? Oh, silly audience, why would the movie answer that?) and it's a weather report.

So five of the guys sit around, write things on a black board and go out for sandwiches. It is not clear what strategy--if any--they have for breaking codes. Meanwhile, Turing invents a machine with 108 rotating dials that he intends to use to churn through all the possible combinations mechanically. (This is the first computer ever built. Turing names it "Christopher".) There are some power politics, and once the machine is built, for some reason, Tywin Lannister decides it's not working and so he's going to have it destroyed. The other five guys make a show of solidarity--if you fire Turing, you will have to fire us as well.

Okay--but it's been two years, there's been no code broken as far as we know, and no progress on any front. Tywin hates Turing, we are told, but not why. Not sure why turning off the machine would help more than--oh just off the top of my head--hiring more cryptographers? No--five guys seems to be all Britain wants to use.

Turing hires two additional people--Keira Knightley, and some Random Guy with Glasses. There are a couple of scenes where Keira gets marginalized, because she's female, and Turing goes to bat for her. He illegally smuggles messages out of Bletchley to her, because she is also a math wizard who solves crossword puzzles very quickly. So she never does any code breaking, but teaches Turing to tell jokes and try to be more socially gracious. They get engaged, even though he's homosexual, she doesn't care because she can stay at Bletchley if she's married, otherwise her parents want her to come back home and live like a decent unmarried 25 year old spinster. Which is all--what? Why is this even in this movie?

At the engagement party, Turing confesses his homosexuality to one of the other code (non)breakers, John Cairncross, played by Allan Leech, better known as Tom Branson from Downtown Abbey. Branson already figured out Turing is homosexual, but advises him not to tell Keira Knightley because women aren't keen on marrying known homosexuals. Branson turns out to be passing information to the Soviets, and claims they are on the same side, so it's okay, and anyway, Turing can't tell because then Branson will tell his secret. Then it turns out that Mark Strong (acting with hair this time!) planted Branson in order to control what does get passed to Stalin, and poor Turing can't keep up with the double-double crosses.

Eventually, the break the code. Do you know how they break the code? They bother to look at messages that have been decoded (where? How? why did it take them years to think of doing that?) and they discover that the Germans end every message with "Heil Hitler." Also, the 6 a.m. weather reports always have the time (6 a.m.) and weather words.

Now, I'm sorry, but knowing that every message ends with "Heil Hitler" means that you have a whole lot fewer codes you need to worry about, doesn't it? Shouldn't they have figured that out a whole lot earlier in the war? Why do they even need Turing's machine if they know that?

There's no time for that! The movie must speed ahead! We have broken the code! We have read the dispatches! We have a map with all the Uboats placed--and it looks like they are about to attack a civilian convoy--that has soldiers on it too. One of the code breakers has a brother serving on one of the ships. We have to notify the army and save the civilians!

But Turing knows--we can't! Then the Germans will know Britain has broken Enigma, and they will simply switch up the machine, and we will have to start all over again! So the Littlest Code Breaker (the one with the brother that was only mentioned in passing once before) stands there in tears and keeps repeating "my brother, my brother" while the rest of the cryptologists unilaterally decide the strategy for handling military intelligence. Because that's how the military works.

Also, they stay on and use "statistics" and "data" to determine how much intelligence they can release without the Germans realizing that Enigma has been compromised. They can't explain how they do that, because it is far too technical, but it's a huge emotional burden. Except for Turing, who doesn't understand emotions. And then the war is won hurrah! And they have to dismantle and burn all their papers because of Reasons.

Interleaved throughout are some Alan Turing's School Days scenes, set in 1928, when he makes a friend who teaches him about codes. They pass coded messages back and forth during math class (which is too easy for them) and Young Turing falls in love, but Christopher dies over break of "bovine tuberculosis" and Turing denies that they knew each other very well at all. So the big emotional scene is played by some kid pretending to be the young Cumberbatch, while not looking like him at all. The culmination of the 1928 scenes is this kid trying to hold his face steady, while his heart is breaking, and while he lies to his headmaster about "I scarcely knew him at all." Why? What does this have to do with adult Turing? Not clear, other than explaining why he named his computer "Christopher."

Then there is a coda, that wraps up Turing's conviction for "gross indecency" and his election to take "chemical castration" to "cure" him of his homosexual predilections instead of two years of prison time. Keira Knightley comes to visit him, and he's a shaky mess, can't do a crossword puzzle (what is causing his mental incapacity, and how bad is it). He ends up breaking down into tears over the idea of being separated from "Christopher." Keira tells him that she is glad he isn't "normal" because there are people alive and towns that exist that wouldn't if he hadn't cracked the Enigma code.

Text on screen tells us that Turing committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41. Turing's work is estimated to have shortened the war by 2 years, saving millions of lives. "Turing machines" are now called "computers." The End. Annnnnnd--credits.

Honestly? This is such a mess that it's hard to sort out just where it went wrong. Maybe it just tried to do too many things at one. American's aren't really up to scratch with Bletchley Park and the role of the Enigma code break and how it affected the war, so U.S. audiences have to be filled in on the essentials. There are attempts to impose the "ticking clock"--we have to crack this code before time runs out!--that just don't connect. There are scenes of British civilians during air raids and evacuating children that fail to connect dramatically, because those scenes are all populated by extras with no connection to anybody we know form the rest of the film. Stock film of bombing of London reminds us that there is a war on, but again--doesn't really affect anybody individually. The risk that Keira might have to move home and live with her parents has more impact than grainy black-and-white film of German planes.

The cost to Turing and to the world of the homophobia is gestured towards, but not really explored. He was a genius and a hero, and it certainly seems unfair NOW to hound him for his sexual preferences. . .but would we feel differently (even now) if he was a pederast? Arguably, in 1951, homosexuality was considered the same way. So if you are really going to try to challenge homophobia, maybe you need to actually challenge it? Nobody but the Manchester bobbies of 1951 seemed to have any real problem with Turing's obvious preferences. Not even Keira cared--she was willing to marry him even after he confessed to her.

It appears that the Weinstein Company is pitching their Oscar campaign on this issue. Too bad the movie itself muddles it so badly.

There are a couple of through lines that should have landed better. The recurrent motif of "is Turing a Soviet Spy" should have felt more ominous--either that he was and we had misjudged him, or that there were serious consequences to him looming. The fact that M6 not only knew who the spy was, but had planted him there from the beginning defanged all threat, both during the war, and afterwards.

"Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine." This gets repeated throughout the film, without ever adding up to much. Christopher says it to Turing in 1928. Turing says it to Keira Knightley in order to get her to Bletchley in 1942. Keira says it back to Turing in 1952-ish. It's really the message of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, isn't it? "You are weird, Alan Turing, but that weirdness can be useful."

Should have been better.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Way Way Back, A Movie Review

I am packing to move to California, and one of my "tasks" is to finally watch things that have been on my DVR before I lose them. This movie is one of them.

I had heard good things when it came out, but didn't manage to see it in the theaters. Then it showed up on cable, and I recorded it, but didn't manage to watch it then either. Last night, as I was building moving boxes, I turned it on to keep me company. Does this context affect how I felt about it? Possibly. To create a summery metaphor--it's possible that this movie is like a box of graham crackers, opened for a campfire night of s'mores, then left forgotten on a shelf for to long. When I finally did watch this, it felt stale and soggy, with some of the sweetness still discernible, but not really enjoyable to consume. Possibly not worth the effort.

The Way Way Back also suffers because it has many of the same themes and character interactions as Boyhood, Richard Linklater's movie about the transition from boyhood through adolescence. In many ways, I had just seen this story, and watching it a second time in as many weeks did neither movie any favors.

Quick synopsis: The Way Way Back follows fourteen year old Duncan through part of a summer at a beach house with his mother, her boyfriend, and his daughter. This is a test run of the possibility of becoming a family. There is a gorgeous, slightly older girl who lives next door, and her strange little brother. And there is a water park, where Duncan escapes the stifling (if privileged) life and meets the men who will be his true parental figures for the season.

Written by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (who also wrote the Oscar-winning The Descendants), the movie has a great cast: Toni Collette as Duncan's mom, Steve Carell as her boyfriend. Alison Janney is the single mom next door; Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet are other summer regulars. At the water park, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are the ostensible adults. The movie is so slight, that there is little characterization--what is there is provided by the actors bringing versions of themselves they have played before. So to limit confusion, I'm not even going to bother with their character names.

The movie starts in the car on the way to the beach house. Carell is driving this tank of a wood-sided station wagon that looks like something from 1973. Collette is sleeping in the passenger seat, Carell's daughter is also asleep, spread across the entirety of the back seat. I used to do that, back in the days before mandatory seat belt laws. (At this point, I have tentatively concluded that this is a period piece movie. More on this later.)

Duncan is sitting in what we used to call "The way way back"--the rear-facing jump seat of the station wagon. With the women sleeping, Carell starts a conversation with Duncan--a conversation that is ill-advised and awkward, made worse by the difficult acoustics of talking the length of a car.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you see yourself, Duncan?" So we know Carell is basically a dick. Maybe he means well, maybe he thinks he's orienting the kid to be socially successful in the new environment, but any such kindness is lost inside his belittling and hectoring tone. Duncan reluctantly offers "I don't know, a 6?" Carell brutally rejects that kind of grade inflation: "To me, you are a 3. Because I don't see you putting yourself out there, buddy." Anybody think this relationship is going to last? Duncan eventually manages to escape this humiliation by putting in ear buds and listening to his own music, thus hopelessly confusing the time line. The cars, the cavalier approach to vehicle safety, the swinging middle-aged singles vibe of the beach community--all speak to the mid-1970s. The ear buds say "current day." There is even an attempt to lampshade the visual confusion--Carell's first conversation with Janney is about how much it costs to keep a car like this, but worth it "because it's an exact copy of the car my dad used to drive." It's like Faxon and Rash started writing a valentine to their own teen aged summers, but due to budget constraints or something, half-assedly updated it, perhaps convinced that the result would be "timeless" rather than "half-assed." Which it is.

As the movie progressed, it hit just about every cliche and stereotype that I had feared, a grindingly depressing experience for women watching movies. The girl next door (played by AnnaSophia Robb, asked mostly to just look good in shorts and bikini cover-ups) is gorgeous, blond, and inexplicably interested in the odd-looking Duncan, and who persists in trying to make friends with him even in the face of multiple rejections. Sure, if you are watching this movie worrying about Duncan, then you presumably want him to have more chances to learn to be more socially adept. But if you are a girl, identifying with AnnaSophia's experience, then you see someone working really hard to be a friend in the complete absence of any encouragement, the utter lack of any visible point. Duncan is not just awkward, he is actively anti-charming, anti-friendly. I'm not sure what possible indication he gives of being anything but more work than he is worth. All of which is to say, if I am anyone other than his actual mom, I throw this one back as too small to keep.

AnnaSophia has what passes for a backstory, sketched with the fewest possible lines and filled in with a heavy wash of misogynistic cliche. There is a pack of teen girls she is impressed into, lead by a Queen Bee who brooks no individualism. When she wants to swim, all the girls must get into the water. She gossips nastily about other girls, she attempts to wrest attention from her ab-tastic dude-bro boyfriend, and all the girls chatter in the lilting Valley Speak that is shorthand for nasty vapidity. But not AnnaSophia! No--she would prefer to read while she is on the beach! See--she's different! Not like all this other girls! (Which is itself a deeply problematic trope that I'm just not going to get into here.)

Then there is her little brother, Peter. Kid has a lazy eye and refuses to wear the eye patch, causing (allegedly) comic frustration in his mom (Allison Janney). He's got a huge collection of Star Wars action figures, hangs out underneath the deck, and is the designated Weird Kid. Of course, Allison Janney is working really hard to foist him off on Duncan, because they are both boys and are in physical proximity, so that's all it takes, right?

There is a subtle calculus of cruelty that weird kids perform in self-defense. Duncan knows he's considered a loser--that "you're a 3" discussion made that obvious. He knows that AnnaSophia is out of his league--she's older, she's integrated into the community, she's so much better looking than he is. Realistically, he's got no chance with her and he knows it. He also intuits that he's going to look even worse if he's seen as a peer to her Weird Little Brother. So he tries to ditch Peter whenever possible, perpetrating the social ostracism that he himself is a victim of.

And yet, AnnaSophia keeps pursuing friendship with Duncan. Why? Because that's part of a Coming-of-age movie, so it's gotta happen. In real life, she'd be off with her snotty friends, who at least insist on her presence, unlike Duncan who keeps running away from her and her brother too.

There are middle-aged people melodrama set pieces too. Carell apparently has an affair every summer with Amanda Peet, and so she comes onto him. He doesn't shut it down entirely, but the actual indiscretion is kept off-screen. Nevertheless, Duncan and Collette see the telltale signs. To her credit, Colette underplays the emotional pain of this, which is possibly the best part of the movie, and is unlikely to actually exist on the page. This is a compliment to Collette and her craft.

There is a confrontation between Carell and Duncan, and Duncan yells, and tries to stand up for his mother, and says he wants to go live with his dad. Carell (of course, because he is a dick) lets him know that his dad doesn't want him--he's got a new, young girlfriend, a life in San Diego, and doesn't want his teen aged son around.

Off screen, Collette and Carell hash out their differences, erect a fragile truce under which they will try to salvage the relationship, and agree that they need to leave the beach house. Summer isn't over, but the vacation is.

Simultaneously, Duncan finds his own life at the "Water Wizz" park, a time locked attraction built in 1983 and never updated. The movie tell us this twice, in case you were still wondering in what year this movie is set. This does not actually clear up the confusion. Sam Rockwell runs the place, living in an apartment over the concession stand and generally being a charming screw-up, deploying his patented Sam Rockwell manic charm to keep the place open while not actually performing any work. That gets "delegated" to a visibly pregnant Maya Rudolph, as the Nagging Wife-figure who objects to having to do everything for the Man-Child, but not yet immune to his charms.

Also inexplicably, he takes Duncan under his wing, despite Duncan being unable to even understand the Rockwell Charm (TM). All his jokes crash and burn in the face of Duncan's literal way of thinking and his obvious misery. So of course he offers this kid a summer job. Because there are no rules governing a safety hazard like an outdated water park, or child labor laws for 14 year olds. Jim Rash plays the Jim Rash-iest of awkward equipment attendants, and Nat Faxon is a bro-tastic lifeguard, who literally teaches Duncan how to abuse his position as a life guard in order to leer at underaged girls in bikinis. This is presented as a "man skill" that helps Duncan fin chis groove and become socially adept. It is gross.

But the biggest enigma is Sam Rockwell's character, because he exists purely to demonstrate how to  not-grow-up-at-all, which makes him the role model for how Duncan should be a man. And from the perspective of an awkward 14 year old, Rockwell does offer an appealing view of adult hood. One doesn't have to be a dick, or boring, or embarrassing like all the other adults in the movie. He's like one of the kids, but he gets to drink beer and have a girlfriend too, and he's got a gaggle of adoring kids who follow him around and drink him up like so much soda.

His manic charm is reminiscent of the dad from the Calvin and Hobbes comic--a desperate internal monolog to distract himself from the bone deep boredom of his life. He blows off work because he fundamentally doesn't care. Maya Rudolph calls attention o work that needs to be done, maintenance that should be addressed, and safety issues that could close the whole place down--and Rockwell doesn't do any of it.  Its the behavior pattern of someone so stuck that they can't extricate themselves voluntarily--it would take the actions of an outside agent--the state shutting down the water park as a safety hazard--for him to ever leave. And he should leave, but it's easier just to not do anything. By taking no action, he is leaving it to the fates whether he stays of goes.

What does he do in the winter months, one wonders. How much can a decrepit water park actually pay a guy like him, enough to afford cheap beer through the off season? If he lives on site?

It's like the three of them--Rockwell, Faxon and Rash--got jobs here out of high school and never moved on. None of them are happy or fulfilled, but none of them can actually bring themselves to do anything about it--including doing their jobs properly. Somehow, they aged into being in charge, without ever really maturing. And these are the mentors, this is Duncan's "happy place."

He never tells anybody at the beach where he goes every day--and the park is far away from the beach world, both geographically and socio-economically. But AnnaSophia is curious (why? because she is the Summer Movie Dream Girl, and the plot requires it), so she follows him on her bike. There is a montage of the two of them spending the day at the park together as he shows her around and they bond over missing their fathers, and their mothers' fear of losing them to those fathers. There is an awkward attempt at a kiss, which doesn't happen, so Duncan runs away. Awkwardly.

Then the blow up at home happens, and as they are headed out of town, Carell has to stop to put gas in his land yacht, across the street from the Water Wizz. Duncan jumps out of the car and runs over to say goodbye to his "friends." There is the mandatory Epic Summer Stunt--he manages to pass Rockwell in the water slide tube, and the kids all cheer. Mom sees his achievement and is proud. Carell is a dick, and says "are we done yet?" There are fond goodbyes from his "real" family of under-achieving park employees. In the car, Mom climbs over the seats and joins Duncan in the way way back, thus signaling her abandonment of Carell and that relationship in favor of the proper parental relationship with her son. ("Proper" here meaning one without any of it's own drama or narrative arc.)

Disappointing. Not enough Rockwell Charm (TM), which is really the only thing that keeps this dead weight of a movie afloat. Collette nicely underplays the emotional hits she takes from an untrustworthy boyfriend, but that story line is buried under the much less interesting one of the 14 year old. AnnaSophia Robb looks age appropriate, and she gives Duncan a kiss on the cheek at the end, because of course that's what the movie requires of her. Carell is believable as an attractive enough shell of a man plastered over a very unpleasant center, but he doesn't ultimately rise about the Bad Step Dad cliche. Maya Rudolph manages to be a nag without becoming unattractive or spoiling the "fun," which is a tribute to her delightful screen persona, but is seriously retrograde as a character arc. The movie does capture the kind of disorientation that is a summer vacation at the beach--the pace of beach community life in the summer is convincing. The idea that Steve Carell could afford to take the entire summer off of work to hang around the beach is not convincingly presented. Who are these people? Do they have jobs or lives away from the beach for the other 9 months of the year?

It's a movie that makes some bare, emotional sense if you fully commit to only watching it through the eyes of the 14 year old Duncan. He doesn't seek to understand the hows and the whys of other people. Things just happen, and he reacts to them. His "growth" is that his reactions become slightly less passive and awkward over the course of the movie. He doesn't understand his mother or the hard choices she is making--he doesn't even see them. He doesn't exhibit any awareness that AnnaSophia is making uncharacteristically sustained efforts to be his friend--because this is a Teen Summer Beach Movie, and so there has to be A Girl for him to Achieve. Which he sort of does. He never sees past Peter's weirdness and physical deformity to the socially savvy person inside--a kid who enters an employee farewell party for Jim Rash, confronting a room full of mostly adults he has never even seen before, and who manages to match Rockwell in a mock charm-off. Duncan could have learned a lot from this kid, but the movie doesn't actually care about that. It's all about Duncan--and Duncan may be the least interesting character in the entire movie. Including Peter's Star Wars action figures.

Too bad. The cast did what they could, but there wasn't enough there there to make this the movie it could have been. Like Duncan, it needs to grow up a bit more before it's really worth spending much time with it.

(Written, directed, and produced by Rash and Faxon--might have benefitted from adding some more skilled participants to elevate this out of it's near miss status.)

Monday, September 08, 2014

Some Thoughts On The Twelfth Doctor--A Review of Season 8 So Far

Let it be herewith known that I am perfectly capable of accepting new Doctors. I am not one of those people who have gotten hung up on "My Doctor" and cannot roll with a new face on an old friend. In fact, "my Doctor" was originally Tom Baker, from back in the day when episodes aired on the local public television station and I watched on a garage sale purchased black-and-white TV in my dorm room. Since the reboot, I was impressed by Christopher Eccleston's barely contained rage, enjoyed David Tennant's practice of wearing his heart on his sleeve, and found Matt Smith to be a manic but ancient alien in a body that only looked young.

I made the transition from Russell T. Davies to Stephen Moffatt without feeling that there was some sort of side I had to pick as to which one was better. They both had great strengths, and also great weaknesses as show runners, but the beauty of a show that has run as ridiculously long as this one is that the highs and lows smooth out when placed in perspective with fifty years of episodes.

And yet--it is not entirely possible to always take the long view. This is episodic television, and if you look forward to your Saturday night does of the Doctor, each episode matters in a way that it wouldn't if you were binging on entire seasons, Doctor tenures, or even decades of stories. When you only have one episode a week (instead of watching Tennant's entire run via Netflix in about two weeks--like "a friend" of mine did), your love of the new incarnation can rise and fall on the strength of that week's episode.

So, with that lengthy prelude, let us examine Season 8.

As of yesterday, we are one quarter of the way through Peter Capaldi's inaugural season. Three episodes of a twelve episode run down, and the newest incarnation has not yet come into focus for me, and I can't tell why.

Looking back at the New Who Doctors, there has been a moment with each of them, early on, where I felt that I was in good hands. Nine gave us "Basically, run!" and we were clearly bringing the past with us into the future. Ten woke up from his lengthy regeneration nap with "Is that the sort of man I am now? Am I rude? Rude and not ginger." Eleven gave us "You're Scottish--fry something!" Basically, each of them had a joie de vivre even in the face of chaos that told us that even as the very existence of the universe was at stake, it was going to be an adventure to travel with this man.

I'm not sure what to think about Twelve yet.*
* Pedantic footnote: Not sure there is an established convention yet about how to number the incarnations, since the "War Doctor" got inserted late last year. I'm going to stick with the numbers I got used to before John Hurt broke all our hearts, and he gets to be "The War Doctor" for now. So Peter Capaldi is Twelve. Thus it shall be.

Thus far, we have been treated with a couple of episodes that ask "Am I a good man?" The question was explicitly asked in the first episode, "Deep Breath," and the answer that was finally given at the end of that episode was Clara's summations "I think you try to be, and I think that's what matters." (Paraphrased, based on my best recollection.) The question is ineluctably bound up in the subject of the second episode "Into the Dalek"--is a "good Dalek" possible? What does it mean when Rusty the Dalek tells the Doctor "You would be a good Dalek"? In "Robot of Sherwood," the Doctor and Robin Hood have a Very Important conversation about what makes a hero, and whether the man and the myth can co-exist.

These are fine, and they are important questions for a philosopher to ask, and they are certainly within the broad portfolio of Doctor Who. I'm just not sure why we are asking these questions now.

I mean--in the last couple of episodes of Eleven's tenure, he was beyond heroic. He spent over 300 years on Trenzalore as a sort of human shield (okay, Time Lord shield, but that doesn't make any sense) to keep the people of the town of Christmas safe. And in the penultimate episode, he joined up with several incarnations to rewrite history--he reversed the Time War, managed to not commit genocide of his own species, and relieved the burden on his own War Doctor incarnation's soul.

Why question his goodness now?

As Twelve, he's been preemptory and a bit harsh--calling Clara a control freak, for example, was a bit nastier than we've seen recent Doctors being. But calling humanity "Pudding heads" is hardly the sort of thing that should make one question his own character. It certainly doesn't make me (as audience) question him. He still protects humans against the Half-Face Man with the same kind of speech about his love for humans that Eleven made in "The Eleventh Hour" and that Ten made all the time. So despite his superficial distaste for humanity, when confronted with an actual threat, he choses to believe that we are worth saving.

I'm not sure that the answer to this question is even in doubt, frankly. Not diagetically, within the context of the particular 12th Doctor episodes, nor in the history of the television show.  The Doctor is our hero, and free-floating existential angst about the nature of goodness feels forced and unnecessary.

In the three episodes aired so far, Twelve hasn't really got a personality, yet. He complains, sure, he's manic (all the weird quasi-medical testing he did on Robin Hood's Merry Men is out of character. And where did he pull that syringe from?), he's rude, he's arrogant, and he's childishly competitive with Robin Hood--all of which we've seen before, but without a sort of thematic personality to tie the disparate parts together. Eccleston had weary gravitas, Tennant flirted with the world until he had to be "so so sorry" at people, Smith thought blindingly fast and jumped around the myriad ideas until he struck the right one. Capaldi--is grumpy and skeptical? Rude and not ginger?

I have great affection for Capaldi--not just his Malcolm Tucker, who is gorgeously, baroquely filthy, but his turn as the tragically soft hearted John Frobisher in Torchwood's third series "Children of Earth." He has range. He has a fascinating face to watch--those eyebrows!--and a great accent to listen to. He just hasn't got much to do.

Perhaps that's the point. This is Clara's season, where she gets to be competent, where she gets her own arc, rather than being a puzzle for the Doctor to solve. Which relegates the Doctor to the role of companion--he's at a loss, she's the one who has experience at this "all of time and space" thing?

I hope we'll get a couple of seasons for Capaldi to tailor the role around him. It's jut not happening yet.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Maleficent, the First Draft Review

[I tried several times to crystalize my thinking about this movie, and while I think I got some traction on it, I left a bunch of stuff out of the other review. So I'm preserving this for what it has that the final one does not.]

Of course I went to see this. Have you seen my avatar?

Yesterday, I posted a sort-of review/deconstruction of this movie, which goes to the heart of my ambivalence about it. It is hard to review, because it's hard to slot it appropriately. It's too dark to be a kids movie, it's too generic to be a world-building fantasy, it's too obligated to it's source material to be a coherent story in its own right. It might primarily be a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who carries the film on the strength of her facial angles. It's a feminist cri de coeur, but it's punches are pulled because it's a Disney move.

Here's the trouble--it's a revisionist retelling of the original Disney Sleeping Beauty, which rehabilitates the villain by giving her a back story to "explain" why she places a fatal curse on a newborn. Generally, I like these kind of stories, the way they shift the perspective that forces you to re-examine the assumptions of the earlier work. This one doesn't really do that. In the 1959 movie, Maleficent was simply evil, and her evilness explained why she was excluded from the baby's baptism and why she reacted by leveling a curse on the child. Over on io9, Meredith Woerner does a great job articulating why the protagonist of Maleficent (the movie) isn't really the same character as Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, and the changes ultimately diminish someone who was originally a strong and powerful character.

When you decide to do an "origin" story, isn't the point to explain the how and why of the character as already depicted? This is Woerner's point--the Maleficent we see in the new movie just isn't the same character.

Furthermore, I believe that in the new movie, Maleficent is herself the victim of unexplained evil--the nature of evil hasn't changed, it's locus has just shifted to the Evil King Henry.

At the beginning of the movie, we are told about two kingdoms--the evil and greedy human one, and the improbably beautiful and resource rich fairy one. Evil King Henry decides to attack fairyland, gets his ass handed to him by Maleficent, so makes killing her the condition for being his heir.

Sure, I've been reading a lot of feminist web writing, and in the days after the Isla Vista shooting, it's an environment of sensitivity to sexism, but I don't think I'm over-reacting. Evil, greedy, monarchist humans attack the peaceful matriarchal realm, then wounded male pride (King Henry gets defeated personally by Maleficient) leads to further lashing out. This is a textbook indictment of patriarchy.

Then there is the rape. The "rape"--the symbolic act of physical violation. Maleficent met Stefan when they were children, they had a connection that apparently culminated in "true love's kiss" when they were sixteen. But as a 30 something adult, Stefan sees the chance of becoming king, so he returns to fairyland, lures Maleficent into trusting him, feeds her a drugged drink, and cuts off her wings. I guess we are supposed to feel like he's not horrible, because he did intend to kill her but couldn't.

(Not sure where this one goes--perhaps it's to keep Stefan from being too scary for the presumptive kid audience. Perhaps it's to give us some hope that Stefan might be redeemable.  Perhaps it's simply required to keep the story as close to the original as necessary. Uncharitably, it's a diminution of the rape allegory--it could have been worse, she wasn't killed.)

I saw it as a set up for Maleficent's righteous anger--she was roofied and raped by someone she trusted. No wonder she was angry. Furthermore, the double violation was done so Stefan could prove his manliness to other males, to demonstrate his own worth in a violent hierarchy. The woman was simply an instrument for his own advancement among other men.

Read this way, this is a timely echo of the experiences shared on #yesallwomen in response to the Isla Vista shooting: women can be abused and damaged by those they trust, and until they violate that trust, there really isn't any way to predict who will be the violator. Maleficent thought she could trust Stefan right up until she learned she couldn't.

The trouble with putting this into the context of a fairy tale with a rigid structure is that it risks the opposite reading--that the symbolic rape, represented by the removal of her wings, sends the message that rape is either necessarily disfiguring (the logic behind honor killings and the "chewing gum" abstinence sex education), or that it's only rape when it's visibly violent and there are maiming injuries involved.

The other problem with the fairy tale trope is that it traffics in tropes of "true love" and "one-itis"--Maleficent moons around her fairy land, missing Stefon after their one kiss (and before he returns to steal her wings), despite the fact that he goes missing for some two decades (based on the actor's apparent ages at least). Why wouldn't she move on? Why wouldn't she have enough to do without obsessing over him for all those years? The structure of the pre-story gives the actual story a gloss that "wimmins be crazy, emirate"--after pining and obsessing over him for two decades, she gets jealous that he has dumped her --oh yeah, and taken her wings--and so she invades his live afterwards because she just can't let it go.

Lindy West, over at Jezebel, sees the patriarchal elements, and to her, they overwhelm whatever feminist message the movie might contain. Which I get--one can easily see that, as contextualized in our culture, Maleficent has been loved and abandoned by Stefan, and she never gets over it. We see her sitting alone, lonely, and we are told she often wondered about him and if he would ever return. We don't see her getting on with her life, filling her hours productively, doing the kind of things that would tell us that sure, she thinks about her first boyfriend once in a while. Instead, we seem to be told "she went on to live her life in regret about the end of that relationship, and she always loved him and missed him."

Now, sometimes I wonder about my first boyfriend, and what he is up to. Also my second and third boyfriends, etc. Some of them I run into now and again, some of them have disappeared off my radar entirely. I also think fondly about my first grade teacher (who I loved), the guy who taught my driver's training course, my first dentist, people who show up on my Facebook feed that I have forgotten about. What I am saying is that there is a range of emotional investments in people who have touched our lives, and while it is denotatively true that Maleficent probably thinks about Stefan under any circumstances (he was her first boyfriend after all), there is something deeply disturbing in presenting her as someone who never loves anyone else, who spends the intervening years existing as the "scorned and spurned woman."

Maleficent, a Review

[I have been trying to write this review for an incredibly long time. After multiple attempts, I am just starting again and hoping that a blank page and fresh start will make this happen.]

This movie should have been great, or at least hitting all my pleasure centers. When I was very little, Sleeping Beauty was my favorite fairy tale, and the Disney version had some stickiness in my life. Perhaps we had a record that tied into that version? In any event, it was my movie.

Later, after growing up and having kids, I transitioned to adopting Maleficent as my alter ego. My kids accepted limits and parental "no" when it came from "The Mistress of All Evil"--it gave us a way to negotiate disappointment without getting all wrapped up in each others' self-worth. I mean, you have looked over there to the right and seen my avatar, right?

Add to that the way that an alternate take on a familiar story gives fresh insights. I love the way my brain feels bigger when I realize that there is another perspective on something that I hadn't considered before. Alternative fairy tales can be really enjoyable.

Plus--Angelina Jolie. She looks like the cartoon version. Seeing a living actress embody something so stylized creates such an opening for humanizing the character. Centering Maleficent herself into the narrative offers the hope of a movie really coming to grips with the nature of evil. In the original movie of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficient is elemental in her evil. She's never explained, no one seeks to understand her, in some ways her malice is like weather--it's not personal, it's just that you got in the way. Telling her story using a live action actress promises to humanize her, and to explain the nature of evil.

Which the movie does--kind of? Except in telling her story, it drains some of the real magic out of the character. At the same time, it does open up the story to more nuanced elements. In the end, it ping-pongs between enhancing and diminishing the original, which is not really a winning combination. This may explain why it is hovering around 50% on Rotten Tomatoes--it gets some parts very right, gets some parts terribly wrong, and satisfies as many people as is disappoints.

Quick synopsis: Two kingdoms abut each other--the human one and a fairy one. A human boy, Stefan enters fairyland and befriends the child Maleficent. They grow up, eventually share "true love's kiss" Years later, the human king decides to annex the fairy land, and Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) leads the magical creatures against the invading humans and personally mortally wounds the king.

On his deathbed, the king promises his crown and daughter to any man who can kill Maleficent. So adult Stefan (Sharlton Copley) returns, plays on their former relationship, drugs Maleficent and saws off her wings. (Yes, this is a barely veiled date rape. In a Disney movie.)

Mutilated and pissed, Maleficent bides her time until Stefan's daughter is born. She shows up at the christening and enacts the familiar revenge. Before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on a spindle and [not die! This Maleficent doesn't curse her to die] fall into a deep sleep that can only be broken by true love's kiss.

Spinning wheels are banned and stored in the castle dungeons. Aurora is sent to live in a cottage in the woods with three incompetent fairy guardians. All as you know. But Maleficent lurks and spies on the child as she grows, victim of the child's charms and falls in love. She even tries to withdraw the curse, but it was cast too firmly. Helplessly, she watches the girls doom arrive, and tries to avert it by delivering a handsome prince to the sleeping princess's bedside.

But--ha ha! Plot twist! (Which you saw coming if you saw Frozen.) Aurora and Philip barely know each other--it's not True Love! Maleficent, resigned to having lost the girl to her own curse, kisses her  farewell on the forehead, and she opens her eyes!

There are some boring fight sequences against King Stefan, Maleficent turns her minion into a dragon (but not herself! Boo!) Stefan falls to his death, and Aurora is crowned ruler of both the human and the fairy lands. Happily ever after!

Let's look at the ups and downs, shall we?

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
She's tiny, but strong--apparently a diet of scenery chewing gives you super powers. With the prosthetic cheekbones and the slash of blood red lipstick, she carries off the role, despite being about three feet too short. Which is to say--Jolie is fierce. Like Dirty Harry fierce. She takes justice into her own hands, and you believe that the threat of her is enough to drive Stefan mad over the 16 years he's just waiting for her to show up again. It's a star vehicle, and she owns the screen whenever she is on it.

Which means that all the rest of the scenes are kind of bland and flat in comparison. The "magical wonders" of fairyland are less interesting than watching Jolie act circles around everybody else on screen. So the casting is excellent for Maleficent, but she is so good she makes the rest of the film feel lackluster.

That date rape scene
Honestly, I am of two minds on this one. Jolie plays it straight and tragically--her howls of pain and anguish when she wakes up and discovers what he has done to her are compelling. He has mutilated her, left her bloody and mutilated, then run back to the man's world to show off his conquest.  It's obviously deeply traumatic, and it certainly makes her vicious revenge feel proportionate to the crime. Also, have a mentioned--date rape in a Disney movie?

At the same time--did we really have to go there? It's kind of a cliche, or at least it veers horrifyingly close to one. How many cultural products use rape as a plot engine? Too many, that's how many.

I mean, I appreciate how the scene tracks what current research shows about sexual assault--it's predatory, perpetrated largely by men the victims already know, in which alcohol is used as a weapon. It's disorienting, it's violent, it leaves the victim vulnerable and without recourse. There is no justice system Maleficent can invoke, no retribution other than what she makes herself. In some ways, it's refreshing to see a "rape" scene not used for titillation, not used to be "edgy," not reinforcing old tropes about stranger danger or "what was she wearing that caused it?" In that way, it's a deeply feminist deployment of folklore as lesson and warning--the world is effed up, and this is how it happens.

On the other hand--she's a flying, magical being! She isn't human, and having her be subject to precisely this female human situation is kind of disheartening. It risks reducing her from a powerful and alien being to--a scorned female dumped by a boy? It doesn't help that after they kissed, he disappeared for years (decades?) and the movie tells us she would sit around and wonder what happened to him. Pined, even. She's got all the magic in the world, all the power, wings to fly, and we see her mooning over a boy. Why reduce her to something so cliched, so powerless? And then reinforce it with her getting roofed by the same boy and getting dumped. Again.

The movie makes this narrative too easy. I don't agree with it, but the elements are all there, and rather than adding sophistication to the plot, it simply makes the story too easily reduced to "girl without agency over-reacts and goes psycho over bad sexual encounter." The power and the majesty of the original 1959 Maleficent gets siphoned off into a depressingly common story of a girl getting revenge on the boy who dumped her.

I don't want this narrative to have any support in the story. I deeply wish the script hadn't tried to make the betrayal a personal one. I mean, if anybody had come into the fairy land, drugged the most powerful fairy and sawed off her wings, she would have been pissed. It doesn't add anything to her anger that it was someone she had kissed once, a very long time ago. In fact, the whole Stefan-Maleficent paring doesn't really work, so it doesn't add anything to the mix of fury and injury she experiences just because she knew him when they were kids. At least, I don't think so.

Think about how this might have been done differently. Instead of a pre-existing "relationship," Stefan had been shown to be a sly courtier, perhaps mocked and disliked by the knights and generals. He is not brave, but cunning, a characteristic not valued by the vaguely medieval/chivalric humans. When the king tasks his generals to kill Maleficent, the others are shown to be drawing up invasion plans, or building siege weapons, while weaselly Stefan uses his distasteful skills of manipulation and deceit to get the job done.

One can imagine that he might have feigned injury, hobbled into the fairy kingdom and drawn Maleficent's attention by seeming weak and helpless. A Maleficent who hadn't ever encountered human perfidy (one who was as trusting as the child Maleficent the movie did show us) would likely have fallen for the ruse and the movie could have continued as plotted. Stefan would have been just as despicable, his death just as satisfying, without the "jilted and jealous ex-girlfriend" meta-narrative.

I'm just saying. Make her terrible and awesome through the whole movie, and drop the "faithful spaniel awaiting her master's return" elements.

The nature of evil
Face it--1959 Maleficent was evil. She wasn't invited to a christening, so she goes full metal postal on a baby's behind. Disproportionate use of deadly force, really. And there was no appeasing her, no reason to think that inviting her would have made the situation any better, really. So you just left her off the guest list and hoped she didn't hear about it. Because there was no telling what kind of sadistic mischief she might decide to enact, given any excuse at all.

Her plan for the drawn out emasculation of Prince Philip in the original movie, for example, was a loooong game played for her own satisfaction. She was going to keep him in her dungeon for the hundred years that Aurora slept, releasing him when he was too old and decrepit to be the hero any longer. That was a stone cold beyotch-y move, that was.

The movie tries to explain why she was that way, what led her to her vindictive cursing of the baby. By offering a backstory of personal trauma, the implicit contract of storytelling is "See! She's not evil, she is injured and misunderstood." Evil is only the lack of explaining the circumstances, and once you know the backstory, you can't see her as evil any longer.

But this doesn't explain the nature of "evil," it merely moves the locus. Instead of residing in Maleficent, Evil lurks in the heart of the first king--the one who attacked the fairy lands to start the plot. He's got no explanation for his attack, there's no indication that he had any reason to grab for the land other than "it was there." There might be some gender politics in this--the human land was a kingdom, ruled by hierarchy and male power, while the fairy land was a kind of anarchy-syndicalist commune, overseen (but not ruled) by female power personified by Maleficent. The king's military assault is a coded sexual assault perhaps?

But that again just makes that king Bad, the same kind of fiat evil that Maleficent had in the first movie. It doesn't illuminate anything other than--bad people do bad things because they are bad.  I was hoping for something more complicated than that.

Which, face it, isn't that what Game of Thrones is doing on a weekly basis for four seasons now? We see how people's actions have unintended consequences, that the "bad guys" have their own reasons for doing what turn out to be Bad Things (although Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsey Snow might be major exceptions), and even the Good Guys' actions sometimes have bad consequences. Danerys freed slaves, but then her dragons killed and ate some of the people, so Not All Good to be rescued by her perhaps. For example.

In Maleficent, the titular character is no longer Simply Evil, but the king now is. Which is unsatisfying, and has ripple effects. Why do humans hate the fairy kingdom? The voice-over narration claims because humans are jealous of the beauty of The Moors. Srsly? "U R so jeeluz" is the explanation? Humans attacked because "Reasons?" Not good enough, Movie.

Gender Roles
This is an issue that runs all over this movie, from the contrast between the stereotypical male hierarchy of the human kingdom contrasted with the horizontal arrangement in fairyland, to the way Stefan seems to have no emotional attachment to the women in his life (his queen, Maleficent and Aurora) compared to how they frequently seek his attention and approval. The big one is of course the rape, but even before that, there is a powerful scene of how a man won't respect a woman. Again, Maleficent is the victim.

The perpetrator this time is the king--the one before Stefan, the one who decided for no apparent reason to invade and annex The Moors. He assembles his army, he attacks the border, and he gets his ass handed to him by Maleficent. Personally. She actually delivers the injury that ends up eventually killing him.

You might think that this would be enough to change his mind about the wisdom of his plan--but you would be wrong. In fact, he doubles down, requiring all his generals to swear to continue to try to conquer The Moors. Since there's never been any season given for his imperialist drive, we just have to accept it as his nature. But it gets gendered when he singles out Maleficent for assassination.

Sure, annex and colonize The Moors for the glory of the fatherland, but make a personal point of bringing in the head of the woman who dared to defeat the king. Because a Real Man doesn't take something like that as a final disposition. No way. The woman's "no" is just the starting point, and escalation and deceit and murder are all appropriate responses to being (temporarily) thwarted by a woman who won't just roll over and give a man what he wants. Which for this king is land and power. It's really just another form of rape, one that foreshadows Stefan's violation.

This is also something that might go toward explaining the 50% rating this movie has on RT--if I were a man watching this film, I would feel really uncomfortable. I mean, there is nothing any man does in this movie that isn't violent and disgusting. (I'm excepting Diavlo, the raven sidekick, because he may not technically be a man. Also, I haven't really thought this through about him.) Even Philip is a laughing stock. There aren't any male figures to identify with--welcome to women's general movie-going experience, dudes!--which might be why as many as 50% of the RT critics didn't enjoy the movie and can't recommend it.

It's Not Maternal Feelings That Save Maleficent
I have read at least one disappointed review that reads Maleficent's arc as one of maternity--that she loses her anger by embracing her role as mother(-substitute) to Aurora. And if you read it that way, sure, it feels dismissive and reductive--that a pissed off woman just needs to find her true calling as a mother to get over whatever has happened to her. I get it--again, the movie is a bit too sloppy and so it makes this reading too easy to slip into.

Which is disappointing for several reasons, a big one is that Maleficent hasn't been intriguing for over 50 years because she's motherly. She's a badass woman with power, and there are just too few of those in our lives. It's a fundamental betrayal of women's power to make Maleficent a story about how women just need to have babies. Second--I don't want Maleficent to get over Stefan's betrayal. As long as she is wingless, she has every reason to hate him and plot to destroy him as he destroyed her. His act has irretrievably damaged her entire life, and there is no question but that she is forcibly reminded of it every minute of every day, and "giving" her a baby to care for is not any kind of compensation.

Yet the movie kind of makes that claim, doesn't it? Her righteous fury gets tamped down and ultimately becomes less important to her than watching Aurora grow up. (Don't even get started on the passive life Maleficent spends most of the movie living--she just watches and stalks Aurora for years, with no other activity shown for most of 16 years!) (After all the time she spent mooning after Stefan, now she moons over his daughter, which is not the behavior of the fairy who turns into a 70 foot tall fire breathing dragon when she's pissed.) I fully understand why plenty of people are pissed at this movie--it's so easily experienced as the systematic dismantling of female power and agency. Instead of a commanding and powerful fairy, she's turned into a hippie who wanders around the fields, unfulfilled without the man and child to "complete" her.

Fortunately, there is another way to read this movie that is more in line with the feminist line I think Jolie and Woolverton were aiming for. Part of it is classic fairy tale irony--Maleficent falls victim to her own curse. By imbuing the baby with the "gift" of causing all who see her to fall in love with her (not something that will make it easy for her to walk down streets or past construction sites, for example), Maleficent finds herself falling in love as well, powerless to escape Aurora's charms, which Maleficent herself gave her.

But more empowering, and honestly, the way I experienced this movie as I watched it in the theater, is that Maleficent realized that her revenge on Stefan was damaging an innocent young woman, and that was simply unfair. Sure, in her rage, Maleficent struck at the thing more precious to Stefan than anything else, which at the moment of the christening was the baby. As a baby, Aurora had no real existence of her own, independent from her relationship with her parents. She was--as an infant--an object that existed in relation to Stefan and his queen. As she grew up, however, she became a person with her own agency, her own autonomy, a young woman who deserved respect for her self. To continue to use her as a vehicle for revenge would be to treat Aurora as Stefan had treated Maleficent: merely as means to an end, not as an end in herself.

[Because fairy tale movies need a little Kantian philosophy now and then.]

Secondarily, by this point, Aurora doesn't seem like a good vehicle for revenge anyway, since Stefan seemed perfectly capable of sending her away and never trying to see her for 16 years--not sure that a curse placed on her would have any real effect on Stefan anyway. (In fact, his spiraling paranoia and madness seem caused by his belief that Maleficent was going to return and attack him directly, not because he was worried about what was going to happen to Aurora. Arguably, his dismay at seeing her back a day early was strictly about self-protection--he wanted her far away from him when the curse struck.)

Which is rather cold hearted but practical--go ahead and take the curse off of Aurora, since it's not actually affecting Stefan in any real way, but do it because Aurora doesn't deserve to be cursed, and Maleficent is not willing to erase another woman's personhood the way Stefan did to her.

I like this explanation, but I fully understand that it's not really presented by the movie in a very strong manner. It's certainly not clear enough to overpower the narrative that "maternal feelings make her better" that others have seen and properly object to.

The Geopolitics
At the start of the movie, we see a hierarchical human kingdom, and are told it contrasts with the co-operative, jointly run fairy world. I was seeing this as a kind of "male versus female" set up, and I don't think that was a mistake. Much of this movie can be read as working out fundamentally feminist concepts about gender difference, gender violence, and the consequences.

So what are we to make of the ending of the movie? Where Maleficent places some kind of crown on Aurora's head and presents her to the magical creatures as "your new ruler." I mean, I guess Maleficent assumed some kind of role as ruler, seeing as how she led the fairy army against the humans? We don't really see her as somebody who has any enforceable authority, so if she does have it, where did it come from? It's not like she spends a lot of time doing anything like "ruling" after all. She's mostly hovering over Aurora, hiding in the brush. If she did get some sort of authority over The Moors by her military leadership, then that makes fairyland a military dictatorship, which also isn't either supported by the movie or very feminist.

This question only matters because of the "reconciliation" the movie tries to achieve in the last few moments, when Aurora "unites" the two kingdoms by ruling over both of them. We don't see any mingling of the two worlds--are we to believe that magic crosses over the border into the human world? Do we really think that opening The Moors to human colonization is going to look anything like a wholesale land grab that will make the settling of Oklahoma look like a child's party game? I just don't believe that the hierarchy of the human kingdom will accept its own dismantling on the orders of an underaged teenage girl who technically is the "ruler," but has no military experience or any allies in the human world.

What would really happen is that Aurora would be swiftly married off to the son of the most powerful general, and that general would rule as "regent" while allowing Aurora to be no more than a figurehead and mascot. Her "real" job would be to produce a male heir and to give legitimacy to the male dominated shadow ruler. Her people would "love" her, but there is no reason to believe that a "good" girl is necessarily a "good" ruler.

The genocide of the fairy would certainly start small, with settlers grabbing land and resources and then forcing the fairy into smaller and smaller reservations. Any sympathy Aurora showed toward the magical beings would swiftly be cast as "evil bewitchment of our Queen" or "blood treason" for failing to side with her own species. Obviously, she would be found unfit to rule, and further marginalized and/or imprisoned for her own good.

I mean, look what happened when magical creatures came into the human world--a giant dragon was turned loose in the castle, burned the place down, and King Stefan was brutally murdered in his own home. You can't trust those magicals, and certainly you can't trust Maleficent, who caused all of it. No, obviously, The Moors have to be dominated and magic suppressed.

I don't see why Maleficent would think "uniting the two kingdoms" would be a good idea at all. I mean, by crowning Aurora as ruler of The Moors, she has just completed the invasion the evil first king attempted, just as a bloodless coup rather than a military action. This is not going to end well for The Moors. Just saying.

Maleficent as Angelina Jolie
It is incredibly tempting to read this movie as a recap of the career of its star. Angelina Jolie burst into fame as the young and talented star of Gia and Girl, Interrupted. She was odd, beautiful, powerful, and distinctly witchy. She made out with her brother, was estranged from her father, tattooed and wore a vial of Billy Bob Thornton's blood around her neck. Her extended tabloid role as "Jennifer Aniston's nemesis" was kind of the apotheosis of her eerie and unsettling phase.

(Personally, I took issue with this--why was Angelina at "fault" and not Brad Pitt, who was the actual person in a marriage with another woman. Thank you, patriarchy.)

After divorcing Thornton, though, Jolie entered a maternal phase, ending up with six children, and a more "normal" life as a mother. She has apparently indicated that Maleficent might be her last acting role, as she steps aside (as Maleficent does for Aurora) for her UN good will ambassador work and directing and producing.

A Final Word About Sleeping Beauty
On the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast, one of the gabsters expressed disgust at the essential inertness of the Sleeping Beauty myth. "She has no agency, because she's asleep" sums up her position, and she opined that there was no need to ever make another movie about this particular fairy tale.

And I get it, but again, I think it misses the real story of the fairy tale--which is easy to do, because the story itself misdirects us. After all, it's called "Sleeping Beauty," so you might very well think that's who it is about. From that perspective, it is pervasively passive. I mean, Aurora has no achievements of her own--her beauty, her kindness, her lovability are all bestowed on her by fairies, and require no effort on her part. Then she falls asleep, and she simply waits to be picked by a prince who at least has to take the action of seeking her out. But even he just falls passively "in love"--again, through no effort on Aurora's part.

It's the same part of the culture that gives us Miss America pageants, or The Bachelor, where women display themselves in the hopes that their inherent characteristics will cause others (the ones who do have agency) will pick them out of the line up and make their dreams come true.

That's if you think it's her story, or even the story of her generation. I submit that the real reason this story exists is for the older generation--her parents.

Think about it. The story starts with the abbreviated acknowledgement that the king and queen long wished for a child, and Aurora was finally born. This is a story about dynastic succession, expectations of performance and national stability (how can you not think about Henry VIII's life-long quest for a male heir), as well as personal heartbreak, fear of personal inadequacy and failure, as well as relationship stress. Infertility might be understood as a sign of divine displeasure, a failure as a "true" man or woman, a threat to the continuation of the particular nation-state, as well as the loss of a dream of family. In the quasi-feudal state, childlessness may be a sentence of death once the parents are too old to care for themselves as well--there is no Social Security or Medicare, only your children to care for you in your dotage. This is a rocky road the king and queen have been on, one only temporarily alleviated by the birth of their daughter.

Their only child. They aren't likely to have another one as well, as this one was so difficult to achieve. All their hopes have to be pinned on her.

Whatever fragile stability her birth might have granted, it is immediately threatened by Maleficent's curse--the child will die.

Now imagine the rest of the story as experienced by the parents, shorn of the "by attempting to evade the destiny, you only cause it" fairy tale trappings, and it's pretty obviously a comforting tale with Christian overtones.

You daughter died young. But she's not really dead, she's only asleep. She will never age, or fade, but will lie peacefully until her resurrections, when the Prince (of Peace, a/k/a Jesus) will come and awaken her with True (godly) Love's kiss. Then you will be reunited with her, to live Happily Ever After (in heaven)! Sure, time will pass (a hundred years), and your castle will be overgrown and forgotten (you too will die, everyone you know will die, no one will remember you in the future) except the prince, who will come, and will awaken all of you, and you will live again.

Seems pretty obvious to me, once I thought of it.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

A Screenplay Thought Experiment

If you were going to write an explicitly feminist* movie, what would it look like? Especially in the immediate aftermath of the Isla Vista shootings, how could you present female experience in a visual form, one which might even show a strong woman in adverse circumstances responding in a manner that could be empowering?

You might decide to present gendered experiences broadly, using archetypes rather than specific, individuated characters, so you might decide to draw on fairy tales and myths. That way, you could concentrate on broad patterns rather than specific details.

You might start with adjoining territories to represent the different genders. Men would be represented by a kingdom, ruled by a warrior king in shining armor, surrounded by his generals and army--an image of privilege, hierarchy, and power, with the traditions of oath-taking and honor associated with it.  There would be a castle, there would be armaments, there would be the harnessing of resources to forge the weapons that support the power of the king: forges, smelting ovens, the sweaty and dirty work of provisioning the army.

In contrast, the female realm might be entirely the opposite--in order to highlight the different ways of being. So, lots of nature, beings living in nests in trees rather than stone castles, for example. There would be interactions with nature, maybe (to pursue the mythic themes) represented by magical creatures: water creatures, things that live in the air, sentient plants, things like that. Maybe even a land that had no fixed governmental system? Cooperative co-existence even.

Then you would have to bring the two into conflict, right? Because there is no story if there is no conflict, and "the battle of the sexes" is a handy metaphor.** So you might send the king and his army to conquer the adjoining kingdom, which has the advantage of being an exciting visual that will help get your movie green lit. It deepens the dichotomy--the men invade, the women defend.

[This part of the screenplay says "war, war, war; stabbity stab stab; fairies defend, king gets defeated and mortally wounded." Next scene, king's death bed.]

When women refuse, men escalate.  Although he is dying, the king passes the battle down to the next generation, offering his crown and his daughter to the man who kills the fairy who defeated him. But you don't want a repeat of this particular battle set-piece, plus, there are more strategies possible, so you make the next guy more subtle, yet creepier. So why not a roofie and a rape.

Well, not exactly "a roofie and a rape," because who's going to make that movie? Fortunately, fairy tales have a vocabulary, so you can make it a "magical potion" and "bringing back an identifiable body part." Then, when the fairy wakes up, she can get mad and avenge herself, setting up another battle set piece.

But, a single woman who complains of her treatment at the hands of a man isn't going to be supported. The  bros will close ranks and she's going to be told it was her fault. So she has to do something sneaky to get her revenge--and since she's a fairy she can use magic against him, or against someone close to him so he has to watch and suffer.

But it's going to turn out that this doesn't make the fairy feel better at all, as an time passes and her revenge grinds on, she has a change of heart, and finds her ability to forgive --for her own happiness. Because forgiving is something you do for yourself, not for the person you forgive. You do it because it's tiring to carry around all that anger and fury. Like the monk who carried a girl across a river: he set her down at the other side of the river, but you are still carrying her miles later. So, for the fairy's own peace of mind, she has to outgrow the need for revenge.

So let's write the scenes that show the fairy as she calms herself, and does indeed outgrow the need for revenge. [The first draft of this screenplay says "How does she do this? What does she do? Fill this part in later."] These are intercut with scenes of the kingdom falling into chaos in response. In the end, the women's mode of being--forgiveness, moving on. The family members used as weapons to get to the man--see them as people in their own right, not stop using them as if they are mere accessories to the man who raped you.

Of course, there will have to be a couple more fight sequences, this is a Hollywood screenplay after all, but then have the man cause his own destruction from his paranoid response, and let fairyland return to it's organic balance.

But who is going to want to see this movie? It needs a hook, right? So the screenwriter looks around for a property that already has cultural capital, has a built in audience, can be positioned as a sequel or a franchise.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Maleficent.

*For a given value of "feminist."

**And also, because you are angry perhaps. About what? Just pick one.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Once On This Island--Death Wins, You Guys! Open Your Eyes!

Saw my younger daughter's production of Once On This Island over the weekend, and guys--how does storytelling get this bad? It's a gloss on Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, but set on land with added Haitian/vodoun flavor. The music is catchy, the lyrics less so, the plot--uff da!

Shall we? First, I think we can all assume we know the basic plot of Little Mermaid, so now just make it on an island. Instead of living in the sea and looking up onto land, Our Heroine Ti Moune is a lowly peasant looking up the socio-economic ladder to a wealthy boy-man. Instead of a boat, she sees him in a car. As when the boat sinks, the car crashes in a storm and she saves the wealthy son of the island, Daniel. She goes to him, only to find that while he's happy to keep her in his room (where she makes him "rise like yeast" and she "heals" him), he's going to marry the socially appropriate woman he has been betrothed to since childhood. When offered her former life back if she kills the boy, she can't bring herself to plunge the dagger and dies instead. She gains an afterlife of sorts, as a tree.

When Andersen did it, it was a romance deeply enmeshed with questions of soul and salvation. The mermaids had no immortal soul, and turned into foam on the shore when they died. By becoming human, The Mermaid (did she even have a name?) could earn a soul, but she died before then. Instead, she became a spirit of the air, living in a sort of purgatory of good works, with the promise of earning her way to salvation. This is complicated stuff.

Ti Moune sees a boy in a fast car and falls in "love."

Oh, but wait! He's unconscious for days, and she watches over him, never eating or sleeping. So again, what about him is lovable? Is it the drool seeping from the corner of his mouth? The way he has to be cleaned up after, since he's unconscious and can't use a bedpan? Because that doesn't sound all that attractive to me. Unless she likes the power differential, where he's essential a baby or a doll, with no agency of his own? The more I try to figure out what there is that makes this "love" the more disturbing the story becomes.

Oh, but there is a Broadway Explanation! See, there are gods who rule this island, and Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, has intervened. She has (arguably) caused Ti Moune to fall in love, and then she makes Daniel fall in love--for a given value of "love." Because Ti Moune knows nothing about Daniel and doesn't get a chance to, because "unconscious" and Daniel doesn't love her enough to marry her. Okay.

Also, the gods have a bet that Love can conquer Death. So the whole car accident thing is a set up so the two meet and they can test which is stronger. It's like a Immortal version of arm wrestling?

So "love" here is "seeing a guy in a car" then "cleaning his butt"? To be fair, there is a short duet they sing before he goes back to his big mansion. She decides she needs to go with him, saying "he is in my blood and I am in his." Not sure why she's so sure of this, as most of the time, he's been UNCONSCIOUS.  Maybe she's invented blood transfusions?

Anyway, she is convinced that if she goes to him, he will marry her (why?) and she leaves. As a grumpy old soul with a cold dead heart, I look at this and I see "oh! She's young, so she is stupid." But the play doesn't really back this up, and it doesn't ever ask her to stop and see if she is making good choices. In fact, the play barrels on, encouraging her to chase this boy (but--if he was really interested, he could come to her. He knows where she lives!) to the degree that the Earth Goddess actually leads her to him, while the trees and frogs and breezes etc. sing along. Very lovely musically, but seriously messed up. She is making a bad decision for herself, and nothing in the play really acknowledges it.

Once in the Hotel Beauxhommes, she finds Daniel, and he doesn't remember her. At all. In fact, he threatens to call security on her. "But, I'm the one who made you well," she says. "The gods sent me to you!" Yeah, well, maybe they did, or maybe they didn't, but Daniel has a beautiful young woman throwing herself at him. A peasant, in fact, so not even a "real" person--not someone he has any responsibility to, because of class and/or racial lines. In fact, there is a history of his ancestors who came to the island and took their pleasure from the women who served them, before going back to France, leaving the mixed race offspring trapped on the island. So--we don't think this is marriage plot still, do we? Why does Ti Moune?

(Because she is young and stupid--even if nobody on stage really knows that.)

Then comes the slut shaming. "What does he want with a woman like THAT" is a song, in which the gossips make demeaning sexual innuendoes about how she is "healing"him. Daniel's father makes a short cameo, sympathizing that he understands the appeal of a peasant girl, but making clear that Daniel will be expected to do the right things when the time comes--which is not going to be marrying Ti Moune. Obviously.

Well, so far not so good. We have sexual opportunism, we have slut shaming of Ti Moune (not so much of Daniel, because the Double Standard is alive and well and living On This Island), and we have major social barriers between them that Daniel understands and that Ti Moune apparently does not. But--there might be hope, right? I mean, perhaps they are like Romeo and Juliet, who stand together against the artificial barriers placed against them, and by their example change the social mores. That could happen, and that would be a way for this play to comment on the deeply misogynistic and classist assumptions and critique them.

Or, there could be this "love" song instead. Daniel wraps his arms around Ti Moune and sings this:

Some girls take hours to paint every perfect nailFragrant as flowers, all powdered and prim and pale.But you are as wild as that wind-blown tree,As dark and as deep as the midnight sea.While they're busy dressing, you lie here, warm and bold.Some girls you picture, some you hold.
Some girls take courses at all the best schools in FranceRiding their horses and learning their modern dance.They're clever and cultured and worldly wise.But you see the world through a child's wide eyes.Their dreams are grand ones, you want what's just in reach.Some girls you learn from, some you teach.
You are not small talk or shiny carsOr mirrors or French cologne.You are the river, the moon, the stars.You're no one else I've known.
Some girls take pleasure in buying a fine trousseau,Counting each treasure and tying each tiny bow.They fold up their futures with perfumed handsWhile you face the future with no demands.Some girls expect things others think nothing of.Some girls you marry, some you love.
It's creepy! I mean, it's completely entitled and spells out that Daniel doesn't see Ti Moune as a real person--he likes her for all the demands that she doesn't make, the dreams she doesn't have. This is almost a form of grooming--she's not like those other girls, with their demands to be taken seriously, to be educated and to have their own interests and needs. No! Ti Moune just exists, with none of her own wants, just to fill Daniel's sexual needs!

This song would be bad enough if it were presented as a dilemma song, where Daniel was really considering the choice between the two women, trying to understand his own mind. But as a song presented as a love song, actually song to Ti Moune, it's a series of red flags that if the girl had even an ounce of critical concern for herself, she would at least catch on. She's not the "some girl" that you marry--that's going to be someone else.

But no, Ti Moune gets blind-sided when she is finally let out of Daniel's room and introduced to his fiancee. To the play's credit, the fiancee does scold Daniel for leaving the situation unexplained to Ti Moune--she's not a bitch, and she's genuinely sorry for the circumstances, but she is the fiancee, and what Ti Moune is, well there isn't really a word for it, is there. (Mistress. Lover. Concubine. These are choices.)

What should Ti Moune do now? Well, for a play written in 1990, shouldn't she do something proactive? Expressive of her personhood, her right to be treated with dignity, acknowledging her agency in her own life?

No, what happens is the demon of death shows up, and tells her that she will have to die unless she kills Daniel. (Yes, this was set up earlier, where Ti Moune offered her soul to the demon in order to spare Daniel, and now he is coming to collect the debt.) This is sort of the moment when love and death are tested--I guess? Death points out that Daniel has betrayed her, so why should she die for him? If she kills the love she had for him--literally, by taking the knife and killing Daniel--she can have her old life back, as if she had never loved at all.

In the Andersen story, the mermaids sisters come and offer her the chance to return to the sea. Killing the prince will turn her legs back into a fish tail, she will have her 300 year lifespan back, and she won't die when the sun rises. She's got big stakes here.

By contrast, Ti Moune kills Daniel and--she goes back to being a peasant? This is the offer? Contrary to what the play says, this isn't the choice between love and death--it's the choice between being a murderer and being a martyr. Ti Moune is confronted with a choice between a violent and criminal act, or dying for love. There's not really an opposition of emotional states here. I think Death has mischaracterized the win condition for himself. It's more like he's shooting the moon in hearts--he could win on points, but he's decided not to.

So, Ti Moune doesn't kill Daniel, but gets thrown out of the Hotel and plants herself by the locked gates for the next two weeks. The point of this is? It's like she's doing the Nice Guy™ thing, where if she's just around long enough, he will reward her. Does the play really expect that he is going to ditch his fiancĂ©? Does the audience expect Ti Moune will get anything but the Madame Butterfly treatment? Now it's just humiliating for the poor girl, a humiliation which is driven home by Daniel and his new bride coming to the gates to pass out coins as for good luck.

So, Ti Moune dies. Before we tally up the win/loss results for the gods, let's look at the lyrics of the penultimate song:

And the gods began to cry- tears of compassion for the orphan, Ti Moune, Who proved that love could withstand the storm, cross the earth, and survive even in the face of death.

Erzulie took her by the handAnd led her to the seaWhere Agwe wrapped her in a waveAnd laid her to her restAnd Papa Ge was gentleAs he carried her to shoreAnd Asaka accepted herAnd held her to her breast.
Regardless of what is happening on stage, the words tell us that the Goddess of Love basically takes Ti Moune to go drown herself. Love hands her over to Death. Love has her kill herself, because that's a victory for love? No, a victory for love would have been for her to go on living, instead of seeking oblivion from the pain of thwarted love. What the play shows us (as opposed to telling us) is that it is better to die from heartbreak, and by dying, you prove the strength of your love.

Again--Love and Death are not in opposition--they reinforce each other. Love is so strong that it invites Death, Death is preferable to Love unrequited. I call shenanigans on the lyrics that "Ti Moune proved" anything like what the plays says she proved. In fact, it's just the same tired trope of an exotic girl deemed to be socially inappropriate to marry (but not to sleep with) so she dies.

But because we are in theory more enlightened than the Victorians, we are going to claim that her death changed things! Not just the "girl who dies for the man she loves" but that her death broke the racial/class divide between the peasants and the Grands Hommes. How does this happen? Well, the dead Ti Moune gets turned into a tree (yeah, I know) that breaks the gates of the Hotel Beauxhommes so it cannot be closed.

Well, maybe that's a start, but what about the wildly unequal distribution of wealth? The peasants are still going to be the ones laboring in the fields, right? The existence of a tree and a broken gate isn't going to accomplish any wealth redistribution or land reform, doesn't compel the Grands Hommes to give up their cars or champagne necessarily. The capital of the island isn't suddenly held in common as an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

The lyrics tell us this:
And one day as Daniel's young son sat in the shade of the treeHe noticed a beautiful young peasant girl high in the branchesLooking out at the world
And the spirit of Ti Moune touched their heartsAnd set them free to love.
But--but--but--"love" was not the problem. The Grands Hommes were "free" to "love" the peasant women, and had done so for generations. The problem was social conventions, family alliances, religious and cultural isolation, economic disparities, which little boys playing under trees aren't dismantling, no matter how upbeat the music is.

And really, Haiti remains a desperately poor island, with poverty remaining intractable for generations. Wealth remains concentrated in the hands of the very very few, while the majority of the population remains essentially peasants. Telling the story of Ti Moune doesn't challenge the fundamental causes of economic mismanagement, and seems to actually reinforce the idea that human effort is futile in the face of the whims of uncontrollable supernatural forces. But with a lovely samba beat!

The moral of the story is not that Love Conquers All--the real moral of the story is that humanity is mere meat puppets to the gods, and we all die anyway. But we are welcome to delude ourselves about that by singing in a major key.

The End.