April 14, 2017
As I’ve assumed some Jewish practice as an adult, Passover remained my sore spot. It’s a family holiday, and my memories of robust family Seders ended in childhood. And I was mostly bored by religious ritual then, so I mostly remember leaving the table and heading off to play.
So this was my year to reclaim the holiday! This was my year of coming home. I sent my parents an evite, knowing that I could coerce them to at least follow some of the rituals, and we had our Seder Sunday evening, the day before Passover 5777 began. I’m not pretending to be traditional here. 😛
Even though I didn’t chase after hametz with a feather, my condo is about 75% comprised of cat fur, so I did have to embrace some serious cleaning. Opening my home, even to my parents, was an apprehensive task for me. I live alone, and can’t say that I’ve ever “entertained” guests in the formal way. Here again I differ from my family, who clean house and cook meals for people during at least one festive holiday per year. I decided that if Passover was important to me, and Passover is very much about community, this would be the time for me to join their ranks.
Like with most holiday preparations, it was a stressful experience. My parents ended up arriving an hour and a half late and I had barely started cooking. I had to run to CVS for some chicken broth while my mom rolled my matzah balls into boiling water; the soup ended up rather tasteless (though the matzah balls were great! :P) And my dad graciously tipped my Ikea table onto its side to tighten some seriously loose screws, and then he got out the big vacuum for some final de-furring. My cat stayed in the bedroom, having exhausted her curiosity about why I’d pulled said table away from the wall in the first place.
My biggest accomplishment of the day was obtaining a free shank bone from Whole Foods, after I asked customer service about an obscure 2012 blog post I’d read half an hour earlier. I also printed out some supplemental reading from HIAS, the American Jewish World Service and a page from The Five Books of Miriam edited by Ellen Frankel.
My mom brought the Seder plate, some homemade charoset, and our Reconstructionist Haggadah. We skipped through the book, playing a little hodge podge with the ceremonial rituals, and focusing on responsive readings that spoke to us about the holiday. My mom and I sang the four questions in Hebrew, and my dad read in English. We told the story of the Exodus in our own words as the natural light shifted and my cat came out to meow for food. Then we sang a few songs, cleared the table and washed dishes, talked about other things, and my folks headed home.
Despite the preparation anxieties of the weekend, which honestly feel as much part of the experience as the Seder itself, I’d call this a success. The food was (mostly) good, and our religious content was casual but meaningful. I felt connected to my family, to my heritage, and even to myself in the ways that I hoped I would. Taking on the mantle of Passover meant that I had to take responsibility for my religious identity in a new way. This wasn’t about sitting in a pew in synagogue, but about leading the festivities, like Miriam with her tambourine by the Red Sea. OK, maybe not that significant, but you get the idea. 😛
Best of all, my parents said that they enjoyed themselves, too. It’s all well and good that I wanted to do this for myself, but to be a noteworthy host, I also had to bring something to the guests. I feel like something changed in me by opening my home to others, even if it was just my own parents. To practice Judaism fully, you have to share your life with your family, your community. Sometimes, you have to be the leader in things that matter to you. And I don’t need to be afraid of those steps anymore.
Chag sameach, everyone. Next year in my condo. 😛
March 21, 2017
These are the questions, asked in an explicitly Jewish way, that captured my attention most while watching X-Men: Apocalypse. A little background–yes, I saw it in theatres, but the constant barrage on HBO has me thinking about it again. 😛
The three X-Men reboot movies have all essentially been about the same thing. Even though this film is ostensibly about a Bronze Age demigod attempting to gain omniscience and destroy/rebuild the world in his image, it’s REALLY about Erik’s neverending distrust of humanity and pull towards the dark side. Apparently losing his family to the Holocaust was a little too retro for the third time, so the story fridges a sudden wife and daughter instead, in order to nudge Erik from quiet country life into vengeful mass murderer again.
Except that this film does deal heavily in the Holocaust, and in the most real and visceral way that I’ve ever seen, at least in a big genre blockbuster. Erik and Oscar Isaac’s character, who is basically the closest we come to God, act out a pantomime at Auschwitz that is uncomfortably familiar to me as a Jew who has learned about the genocide since being a little girl, and has listened to survivors. It’s a conversation that even those of us born years after the Holocaust ended have had in our heads.
The scene starts with Apocalypse taking Erik to Auschwitz and saying “this is where your people were slaughtered,” which strikes me as a very particular sort of framing. Not all of “the people” were slaughtered after all; many of us lived on, l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation. But for many survivors, and perhaps others pondering the enormity of the Holocaust, the Jewish people ended in those gas chambers and mass graves. In the 1980s, Erik is living in his native Poland, but he doesn’t appear to be leading a Jewish life aside from singing Yiddish lullabies to his daughter. Obviously the macro character arc for Magneto is predicated upon the loss of his entire identity as a child, leading him to embrace an extremist mutant ideology.
Then, Apocalypse and Erik move on to a God/Man struggle talk, which would not feel out of place in the Bible. Apocalypse introduces himself by several monikers, which hearkens back to the Jewish belief that we can’t know the one true name of God so we call God by many names, including “Shem” and “Elohim,” both of which Apocalypse ticks off. Erik then asks Apocalypse, well if you are God, WHERE WERE YOU when this was happening, and Apocalypse answers that he was sleeping. The answer really isn’t as important as the question concerning what sort of magnanimous God would allow the Holocaust, or any other form of genocide or crime against humanity, to happen. The issue is of course much more complicated than the movie makes it out to be, because Apocalypse is merely a character with an agenda to tap into Erik’s rage. But the fact that this conversation takes place at all, between a Jewish man and a godlike figure, has been niggling at me in a Jewish identity sort of way. Not sure what this means…except that this largely insipid action film moved me very personally for about five minutes. Not to say that I hated the rest of the experience; just…eh.
Did anyone else think that Apocalypse may in fact be the unintentional good guy when he made the world’s nukes go away? He even referenced the Bible again with the Tower of Babel story–“You can fire your arrows from the Tower of Babel, but you can never strike God!” An ungenerous reading of the Tower of Babel story paints God as jealous of human industry, and therefore scatters us so that we don’t get too smart. But human smarts have led in part to these possible Earth-destroying weapons of mass destruction–just saying I’d be cool with a supernatural force intervening to say “yeah, no, this shit won’t fly.” 😛
I try not to be a sucker for romance (I don’t really think most of the characters in this franchise are developed enough for that anyway) but I got the feels when Charles (James McAvoy) told Moira (Rose Bryne) “I’m on a beach…in Cuba…with you.” Hearkened back to the first (and strongest) reboot movie, though you kinda have to ignore that he’d stolen her memories from her for the past 20 years. Also that no one had aged much in that time. 😛
THE major reason that I went to see this film in theatres was that I was hoping that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) would have ONE conversation together. This was accomplished through a five minute back and forth about fear in the face of danger, with the dude characters constantly interjecting. 😦
Possibly my least favorite part of the film: the sexual tension between Logan and Jean Grey. Ugh, I’ve endured SIX YEARS of Aiden Gillen perving on Sophie Turner via Game of Thrones, ever since she was like 13-14 years old; I do not NEED this here. Please, someday, let me see a Sophie Turner project where someone old enough to be her father is NOT hitting on her. 😛
I’ve seen some comparisons concerning Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique role in this film to her Katniss Everdeen role. Apparently, since the events of the last film, she’s seen by many young people as some sort of folk hero, and like Katniss, she’s not comfortable with the attention. The main difference being that superhero Mystique, largely on her own, decided last minute to NOT partake in a political assassination; and human Katniss, largely manipulated by government agents and propaganda forces beyond her control, was picked to be the figurehead of a revolution. It’s interesting, though, that in this movie, they gave Mystique a Katniss-like prickly, reclusive loner vibe. Overall I find Mystique’s character to be pretty underwhelming. The X-Men movies are mostly the Wolverine show with a side dish of Erik and Charles debating the nature of humanity. But at least I got to add to my quota of constantly referencing The Hunger Games. 😀 Score!
Moving to a largely unrelated note, but this is my blog, after all. 😛 I’ve slowly been getting into reading more recent science fiction books, and my latest conquest was Planetfall by Emma Newman. It’s been on my mind a lot–it’s the story of a woman, Ren, who, along with a thousand others, follows her close friend-turned-prophet off of Earth and onto an alien planet where she’s convinced that she will find God. It’s actually pretty low on the religion and pretty high on the science, except that this isn’t what drew me into the book.
The novel is a character study about Ren, our unreliable narrator who is dealing with an anxiety disorder. The plot jumpstarts with a mysterious stranger coming to town who inevitably unravels several colony secrets, but it’s a very interior novel. It’s also a bit about the search for meaning, if not outright the search for God. (Said prophet, it should be said, is actually shunted into a Moses narrative; by the time the book starts, most of her compatriots are waiting for her to “come down from Sinai,” as it were.)
Still, I can’t help but hold this book up against my occasionally explored “Jews in space” theory, and I wonder if what this is telling me is that we wouldn’t invariably go to space, at least not to find God. God, for us, is very tied up in our history, which is very tied into Earth, Jerusalem in particular. Even if we don’t go to space for religious reasons, could most (heavily identified or practicing) Jews bear to leave Jerusalem so far behind? (Now perhaps would be a good time to quote the Psalms. Or Yehuda Amichai. :P)
Before I go too off the rails here, I guess I’ll end by pointing out that Newman has written a companion book to Planetfall–it’s called After Atlas. I’ll need to get to it sooner or later…there’s just so much to read! Oy.
February 19, 2017
Undoubtedly the social justice-oriented movie most on my mind this Academy Awards season is the based-on-history film Denial. No, it’s not up for any Oscars, and I’m not here to argue about that. I’m perfectly happy for Hidden Figures to take home that top prize. But Denial, which chronicles Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel case against Jewish historian Deborah Lipdstadt, speaks heavily to these modern times.
I’m not attacking freedom of speech. I’ve been defending my right to stand up against someone who wants to pervert the truth.
When Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway first spun the term “alternative facts,” my mind immediately went to Holocaust denial. Later, of course, the Trump administration would omit mention of the Jews from their statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which Lipdstadt herself would term in an Atlantic editorial as “softcore denial.” Actually, this whole debacle brought into sharp focus for me the “alternative fact” propagated by Simon Wiesenthal some 70 years ago in order to engender Gentile support for Holocaust remembrance–that 5 million non-Jews were targeted for genocide next to the six million Jews. This line of thinking could take me down a rabbit hole about how the Jewish narrative is often tweaked–even by ourselves–to appease Gentile sensibilities, but I think I’ll stop myself. 😛
What skills do we have to combat these “alternative facts”–or to use the more honest term, these lies? Rachel Weisz, who plays Lipdstadt in the movie, has these compelling lines: “Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be accountable for it.” There’s a difference between quantifiable facts–like that the Holocaust happened or that climate change is real–and opinions, such as one’s preference for movies up for Academy Awards.
That’s not to say that there aren’t conflicting ways to get to the truth. My favorite part of the movie, and the part that challenged me most, was the way to fight this libel suit. The lawyers wanted to focus on discrediting Irving and highlighting his antisemitic agenda in a rational, almost detached way, where Lipdstadt focused on the emotional appeal, and fought futilely for some Auschwitz survivors to testify on behalf of the dead. Auschwitz, where one million Jews were killed, was the focus of the trial. When the Nazis realized that their cause was lost, they destroyed the gas chambers to circumvent evidence of what they did there. There is, of course, testimony from collaborators and survivors, as well as scientific inference from what remains, but deniers use the lack of a proverbial smoking gun to spout their propaganda.
Even in today’s hyper-documented world, dangerous conspiracy theories about science, different minority groups, and etc abound. Political leaders in various parts of the globe are denigrating the press in the hopes of blurring the concepts of “fact” and “opinion.” Historians, scientists and others are being compared to politicians and bigots with biased agendas in order to create the idea of “alternative facts.” This movie was a beacon of light to me about the still-powerful call to real truth.
January 19, 2017
I have some memories in the last year of sitting on the DC metro and skimming through my Twiter feed, seeing fascinating Jewish-Italian interest headlines crop up and thinking I should store them away for this feature. Except that I never did, instead preferring to do all of my compiling in the future. Thanks a lot, past self. 😛
But I feel pretty confident, after perusing JTA and Tablet Magazine, that I have the important stuff. Turns out that 2016 was an important year in Venetian Jewish history–it marked the 500th anniversary of the first Jewish ghetto! See a link to a feature about that down below, as well as some commemorative activities, including a staging of “The Merchant of Venice” with a cameo by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a judge!
Other fascinating historical and cultural pieces cropped up, too, to complement the usual and less savory amount of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, Italian earthquake aftermath, and a continuing obsession with Hitler. Surely Mein Kampf entering the public domain didn’t help much with that one. 😛 But we also have stories about Italian museums showcasing the history of long-gone Jewish communities. A 13th century Torah scroll was repaired and returned to a synagogue in the northern town of Biella; it’s now thought to be the oldest scroll still in use. Speaking of the Torah, Tablet ran a fascinating article about a uniquely Italian focus on Jewish women in ritual life.
I included other personal essays from people with Jewish and Italian heritage, as well as information on famous novelist Elena Ferrante’s possible links to that community. Please feel free to add any other stories in the comments. So, without furtho ado!
January 3, 2017
First, thank you so much for my 1,470 views and 1,169 visitors in 2016. I know that I run a tiny operation here, but I appreciate you taking the time to stop by.
As you can see from the graphic, I’ve had visitors from around the world (including, unlisted, some countries in Africa and South America where just one person has dropped in, but I appreciate his/her contribution to my diversity! :P)
My most popular post, by far, continues to be my 2011 Rumplestiltskin and antisemitism entry. I’ve had mixed feelings about it ever since. First of all, I wrote it in response to the first episode of Once Upon a Time, a show that I still watch, and that obviously means something very different to me now than it did then.
My second reservation is about the click baity nature of it. I went for the dramatic title, and thus it paid off in views. It has also paid off, of course, in the occasional antisemitic comment.
I take pride in tackling issues on this blog with nuance and empathy, I hope. I’m not interested in extremism or taking sides or comment brawls. There’s been times in the past where I’ve definitely chosen a mundane subject line so as to deter this sort of drama. Of course, the flip side is that my numbers remain relatively small.
Unsurprisingly, my most popular entry from 2016 was A Reversal of Fortune: Sansa, Arya and Cersei in Game of Thrones Season Six. It pays to be writing about a popular tv show. 😛 But in fact, Game of Thrones is also my favorite thing on the air right now, and the chance to suss out my analysis once or twice after each season is very cathartic.
So I suppose one of my new year’s resolutions might be to take a little more of a risk. I don’t intend to be incendiary with my content, but perhaps a snappy title here or there might incur new visitors. I put a lot of work into this writing project, so maybe I should try to expand my reach a bit. Thank you, special thank yous, to people who leave likes and comments on my posts; that means a lot to me.
Happy 2017, everyone. I hope that you are renewing yourself in all of your creative endeavors.
December 11, 2016
I was expecting to have more shows and films to talk about in this winter 2016 pop culture wrap up, but I ended up covering a lot of that through my #NaNoBlogMo project last month. I also find that I have a lot to say about these two shows, particularly about the theme stated above, so let’s get started.
Once Upon a Time, season 6AI’ll be the first to admit that OUAT is not a prestige television show, and it has its share of narrative problems. The plot often twists on itself, creating maguffins and backstory contradictions in order to amp up the drama. But we all have our forms of escapism, and the strong ladies of this show do it for me. I don’t mean “strong” by way of kicking ass—though they often do—but “strong” in the way that they are front and center on the show, within complicated narratives that are about them as people, not some dude. This season, Emma is struggling with her moral compass and letting her loved ones in, as she senses a dark future ahead of her. Regina is fighting her darker half, which is now literally separated from her, and has trouble forgiving her sister her indiscretions. Snow White’s attempts to build a peaceful identity for herself are hindered by a new curse that she shares with Prince Charming.
And then there’s Belle, who is finally learning to stand up for herself. Obviously women aren’t the only ones with big roles on this show, and her husband, Mr. Gold, is our main antagonist. He’s kind of like a mob boss, keeping a brutal grip on his own power in town, while his wife has largely been clueless. But this year the blinders are off and she’s been awake for most of this half season, yay, and doing what she can to protect herself and her unborn child. She even succeeds at this when Gold literally has her locked up, through magic or other means. Plus, she’s a librarian who often relies on what she learns in books. Booyah. 😀
Ultimately this is a family friendly story, and Mr. Gold has enough dimension for maybe redemption to be possible. I’m a little wary about where they are leaving us before the hiatus, where out of nowhere, his mother pops up as an uber bad gal. Seems like a convenient way to distract Gold from atoning for his own sins. But I’m in this for the long haul, and expect to have some fun!
WestworldWestworld is also a story that puts women front and center in the form of the innocent rancher’s daughter, Dolores, and the cynical brothel madam, Maeve. They are robots, or “hosts,” in a western-style theme park designed for human guests, largely men, to be able to play out their darkest fantasies. That means, for Dolores and Maeve, that they are constantly victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, with their minds seemingly wiped clean between encounters so that they can fit their designated roles.
It goes deeper than that, of course. Dolores’s arc this season takes her through a “maze,” a storyline that her creator made for her to confront her own inner consciousness. Maeve seems, in Hunger Games terms, to “know who the true enemy is;” she wakes up in a behind the scenes repair shop and manipulates some employees in an attempt to escape the park entirely.
I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a show that’s been so cynical about human nature. The guests come to the park, in their words, to find themselves, and at best they are hedonists, at worst they are psychopathic mass murderers. Maybe the worst of the worst are the parents, who insanely think it’s a good idea to bring their kids to the fringes of this place to fish and hike and camp out. Meanwhile, at the behind the scenes facility that keeps the park running, backstabbing runs rampant, and employees routinely throw physical tantrums or urinate on company property when things don’t go their way. Not to mention all of the murder cover-ups.
The outside world is described as a place where we have eradicated all diseases—except, it seems, for whatever killed Arnold’s son—and people live this meaningless existence where everything goes their way and nothing seems real. I suppose I can assume that “people” in this case are the ones who can afford to spend $40k a day in the park; war and poverty may still exist, but these self-absorbed rich folk perhaps write a philanthropic check, but generally just ignore all of that.
Westworld’s exposition, particularly around Dolores’s storyline, is incredibly clunky. It’s like the series was written merely to spawn conspiracy theories rather than tell a story in its own right; they went out of their way to be melodramatic and confusing about the time-hopping bit. Racist narratives involving Native American tribes, Confederate soldiers and Mexican freedom fighters exist on the sidelines to get characters from point A to point B. Presumably, this also fits into the guests’ needs for a stereotypical western experience.
One thing that kept me watching was how similar Dolores was to Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. Both women started out innocent, and spent several episodes being abused by men. And both women give chilling speeches that strip away the power of two of their primary abusers—Ramsay Bolton in Sansa’s case and “The Man in Black” for Dolores. But I’m worried that the GoT showrunners might take Sansa in a similar direction to that which Dolores travels—basically giving her an extreme personality. She can either be innocent and pure, or ruthless and dark. In Sansa’s case, she’s pretty much run out of enemies. The people geographically closest to her now are her own family. “Dark Sansa” would not only be overly simplistic, she’d also be framed as being in the wrong.
But Dolores exists in a narrative of literal white hats and black hats. The humans are the bad guys, and the show doesn’t seem to question using violence against them. They are pretty much sadistic stick figures, after all.
Dolores may be here to start a revolution for the hosts, but her awakening was framed in terms of confronting her deepest self. This says to me that the show is saying that violence is her best option for self-enlightenment. She finally decides on “who she must become”—firing upon the park’s board members and embracing the murdering-psychopath-Wyatt storyline that Arnold gave her long ago. And no matter how self-directed Dolores’s actions might be in the finale, she certainly got there because the current park director, Robert Ford, egged her on. This doesn’t feel like full freedom for the character.
Not to mention the major conceit that Westworld is trying to pull off—because the humans are so one dimensionally evil, the revolution can never be real. In the real world, there are no sides that are completely white hat vs black hat. Real revolutions, even started for the noblest of causes, never end up completely pure; the quest for vengeance and power always brings corruption.
Maybe there is hope for a more humane future in the next season. Faced with the choice of leaving the park forever or reuniting with her daughter from a previous storyline, Maeve chooses the latter. This also feels very Hunger Games to me—that the best way to overcome a tragic past is to embrace your interpersonal relationships. Whether or not Maeve has achieved full consciousness I don’t know; I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Thandie Newton is ever seated across from herself. 😛
But here’s an unexpected high note in this season; I don’t know if the showrunners agree with me on this, but a conversation between Ford and Dolores seems to infer it. He shows her Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” and points out that Gd appears out of a structure that looks like the human brain. Ergo, Ford says, “the divine gift,” eg consciousness, doesn’t come from a higher power, but from ourselves. Considering that consciousness means embracing violence, at least in the final episode, perhaps the show is giving a boon to religious people. Naysayers have often equated violence with following religion, but religious adherents—most of whom are women—aren’t naturally violent. The inclination to do violence comes out of a personal understanding of the world and one’s place in it. I may be way off course with what I’m “supposed” to take away from this show, but that’s what sticks out to me.
November 27, 2016
Note: I’m a little late with this one due to the Thanksgiving holiday. This is also one of those ideas that I thought up months ago, with the publication of this Mary Sue article, but the subject matter has evolved with time. Sensitive issues abound ahead, and I hope to tackle them with care.
I’ve been a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time since I first read it in the 5th grade, and I was thrilled when I read about an adaptation being in the works. Yes, there was a tv adaptation in 2004, which sucked, and of which L’Engle herself said “I expected it to be bad, and it is.” But the screenplay for this new one is written by Jennifer Lee, who blew me away with her sibling relationship component in Frozen. It was enough to make me feel hopeful, as the Meg/Charles Wallace dynamic is undoubtedly my favorite part of the story.
It’s been a long time in the making, but news has been fast and furious of late. We have a release date—April 6, 2018—and lots of principal cast—Storm Reid as Meg, Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Witch, Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, Chris Pine as Dr. Alexander Murry, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dr. Kate Murry, Levi Miller as Calvin O’Keefe, Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium and etc. They started principal photography earlier this month.
There’s no denying that this is an industry-driven project. One of the (*cough* numerous *cough cough*) things that I like about The Hunger Games film adaptations is that it was a passion project for indie studio producer Nina Jacobson, who then brought the rest of the team together. Game of Thrones, inspired by the A Song of Ice And Fire series, had a similar backstory, with producers David Benoiff and D.B. Weiss approaching author George R. R. Martin, who gave the OK to these two guys to get the ball rolling. But A Wrinkle In Time was snatched up by the monolith, Disney Studios in 2010. They hired Jennifer Lee in 2014 to take over for another screenwriter, then earlier this year, they finally found their director in Selma-famous Ava DuVernay. These big industry collaborations may run the risk of being a little more soulless. But on the other hand, I’m pretty happy with the Warner Brothers-backed Harry Potter films, so you never know.
But there were some things that gave me pause in the Mary Sue article that I linked above, or to take it back to its source, this multi-topic interview with the Los Angeles Magazine. Primarily that DuVernay isn’t a fan of viewing white-only fantasy adaptations like Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, and one of her biggest objectives with this film is to showcase people of color.
Let me back up a minute to say that I’m kind of tilting at windmills here. I have absolutely no problem with the casting in A Wrinkle in Time. I’m totally down with the Murrys being portrayed as an interracial family. And anyone who has a problem with Meg and Charles Wallace not being seen as white Americans of Scottish ancestry, let me remind you that Levi Miller, who plays Calvin O’Keefe, isn’t Irish American either. But somehow popular opinion doesn’t seem to care as much about one white ethnic group playing another white ethnic group, vs the people of color question.
This is giving voice to the fact that the United States is comprised of more than one race of people. I understand and respect the power of that. But as A Wrinkle in Time fan, I feel some trepidation about the story not coming first. In most of DuVernay’s interviews that I’ve read, she focuses on the importance of having POC folks inspiring the action behind and in front of the camera, rather than what drew her to the magic of L’Engle’s world. I can’t help it—I’m a book snob. The main reason I’m interested in this film is in seeing a beloved story come to life.
We are in early days here—there’s still at least several weeks left of production, I’d think, then post production, and then a few months of promotion leading up to the film premiere—that’s plenty of time for DuVernay and the rest of the crew to talk about adapting the story, and it’s universal themes, as well. I’m just bringing this up because I’m grappling with the issue. I want to see more POC representation in movies, films and books. But there is more to any good story than the genetic makeup of the people involved. I hope that we also keep in mind that this is a tale about a young girl finding her voice, searching for her father and caring for her baby brother. I hope that we can see Meg build up a relationship with Calvin and learn from the three witches, and the issues they have to teach about humanity’s goodness and the fight against darkness. And as much as representation is important, the things I mentioned belong to everyone. Speaking as a Jew who feels close affinity to this book that takes inspiration from a liberal Christian mindset, this adaptation should ultimately transcend our ethnic and cultural differences.
Fantasy is an amorphous beast. So much of it, and I’d include Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and even Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice And Fire take heavy inspiration from a dogmatically Christian and/or medieval European mindset. The Harry Potter books are largely based in the UK and rely heavily on European mythology, but there’s room to imagine a more diverse Wizarding World. The Hunger Games (which isn’t fantasy, but I always have to talk about it :P) deals specifically in issues of economic disparity, and more broadly in genocide, propaganda and war. Meanwhile, I’d loooooove to see Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series adapted to the big screen, which delves into Middle Eastern folklore for its magical worldbuilding. A few months ago, BookRiot published this list of middle grade fantasy with Black girl leads. Some of these stories seem to rely on specifically African inspiration, and others are more universal, but happen to feature a person of color. A Wrinkle in Time (which is technically labeled as “science fantasy”) is definitely more universal.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Storm Reid, say, will be playing “Black Meg”; she will be playing THE Meg, and if he work in 12 Years a Slave is any indication, she’ll be a great one. Now if only I could tesseract to April 2018! Alas.
November 19, 2016
Note: I went into this movie relatively blind. Definitely didn’t have on my Potter fangirl glasses. 😛 I knew for quite awhile that Eddie Redmayne would play Newt Scamander, and more recently I learned that the dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald would be a concern. I’ve followed some of the big fandom stuff, like J.K. Rowling’s short stories about the establishment of Wizarding society in the Americas and the founding of the Ilvermorny school. They left me quite cold, not only because of her shallow appropriation of some Native American mythology but because the writing was so bland. And, like I wrote in my Cursed Child post back in August, a lot of the magic of the Potter series for me centers around British folklore in general and Hogwarts in specific. Still, after seeing the movie, I’m suddenly quite proud that I was sorted into the Thunderbird house. 😀
My overall consensus is that I liked the movie a lot. And it’ll probably grow in my estimation, I think, unlike Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where at best I feel mixed about the narrative. Despite myself, and ignoring all of the Native American issues that are thankfully absent from this film, I’m ready to move the Wizarding World away from Hogwarts and into the Americas.
I don’t necessarily believe it’s a film that can stand on its own, without some knowledge of the original seven books. Particularly the last one, and the backstory about Gellert Grindelwald, which was pretty much washed over in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One. Fantastic Beasts attempted to bring the audience up to speed with a montage at the beginning about the danger Grindelwald posed to Europe, but it’s not the same as a slow build up within the narrative.
The actual story of Fantastic Beasts involves Newt Scamander traveling to the United States in 1926 to set a native Thunderbird free in Arizona. But first he must disembark his steamer in New York, and invariably his suitcase of magical creatures causes a little havoc in the city. Adjacent to all of this, an Obscurus is terrorizing the area and threatening the secrecy of the Wizarding community. Already there’s an “anti-maj” group on the streets, the New Salem Philanthropic Society, or Second Salemers, which claims that dangerous witchcraft must be stopped. We follow some of their members around as well, as they weave into the main story.
Scamander meets up with some colorful characters on his own—bumbling but determined Portpentina “Tina”Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) who wants to reclaim her lost title of Auror for the Magical Congress of the United States, or MACUSA; bewildered but enchanted “no-maj” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who dreams of opening a bakery; and Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who comes off as a little ditzy but is actually an accomplished Legilimens. She’s a mind reader, for those of you who haven’t kept up with Harry’s adventures since book five. 😛 Then there’s MACUSA’s Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Second Salemer leader, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), both of whom play shady characters and who rectify the wrong of these two British actors somehow being left out of the original 8 Potter films, hee.
Rowling is enchanting in her screenwriting debut. As always, I love the names, of course—from MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejojo) to Mary Lou’s adopted children, Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove.) But the real magic is in the connections she draws to her original series. Anyone who has read Newt Scamander’s biography (or brushed up on it quite recently :P) realizes the significance of one of his companions. Graves, at one point, hands Credence a symbol of the Deathly Hallows, which hints his connection to Grindelwald. And it didn’t take long for me to link the Obscurus to the mysterious condition of Dumbledore’s younger sister, Ariana. In essence, Rowling has re-opened the most fascinating (no pun intended) mysteries that she peppered through the last published Potter novel.
It’s also apparent why Grindelwald would make a good, over-arching villain for a now five-movie series, given a certain duel with a famous wizard that he’s slated to fight in 1945. 😛 I imagine that Potter fans might look forward to this the way that Star Wars aficionados anticipated Anakin and Obi-Wan’s battle on the lava planet in Revenge of the Sith. Hopefully with less fannish backlash against the execution, hee.
But we don’t have to wait until the future for good characters—and good villains. Farrell plays Graves with the quiet manipulation of someone who looks like a friend but who uses people for his own means. Mary Lou Barebone is basically this story’s Delores Umbridge, an abuser who justifies hurting children due to her narrow-minded paranoia. Morton plays her with quivering efficiency.
I’ve always been a fan of Eddie Redmayne’s acting, and I was perhaps most emotionally affected when he pleaded with MACUSA to not hurt his harmless creatures. He reminded me strongly of Hagrid, another Hogwarts outcast who was more jittery around most people, and cared for misunderstood animals. Rowling’s big themes were on display here—the danger of the quest for supernatural power, and of “othering” the outcasts, whether human or animal, without making an effort to understand them.
Dan Folger also gave a great turn with some understated, goofy humor. I’m also partial to antsy but committed Tina Goldstein, who by the way sounds like a Jewish American witch to me, so—yup, claiming her. 😛
Some parts of the story didn’t unfold as well, in my estimation. We paid a little too much attention to the fraternal jealousy between the Shaw brothers, given their relative unimportance to the overall narrative. The “fantastic beasts” were cute bits of CGI, but I didn’t connect to them, the way that I did with Hedwig or Crookshanks or Buckbeak. I may have recognized some of the species names from the original Potter stories (or Newt Scamander’s textbook, which I own :P) but I don’t feel inclined to look too deeply into it. Apart from the thunderbird, hee.
The movie was directed by David Yates, who also did the last four Potter films, and Rowling’s script was adapted by Steve Kloves, who also adapted the novels for the big screen. James Newton Howard composed a score that linked this movie to the original series but also skipped off into magic of its own.
As I wrote above, I’m a Fantastic Beasts fan. If the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is to make up a franchise, this is definitely a direction that I’m interested in traveling. Already looking forward to the sequel, set to be in theatres this time next year! But for now, hee, mischief managed. 😛
November 12, 2016
Science Fiction Worldbuilding: How Some Significant Franchises View Government, and the Hero’s Place in the UniverseSecond installment of my #NaNoBlogMo project!
Note: I actually kept meaning to write this blog post since the summer, but more pertinent events kept bumping it down my list of topics. Perhaps it was foresight, because the contentious U.S. election has proven how differently various Americans view the country and their place in it. Though American politics aren’t a direct feature of what’s to follow, perhaps they inspired the creators and writers of these television shows, movies and books. Like all good science fiction, these franchises probe the diverse issues that come out of the conflagration of government, culture and war.
Also, warning: there will be spoilers. 😛
So back in July I saw Star Trek: Beyond in theatres, and I had a brief conversation afterwards with a Trekker friend (see, I’m getting better, guys, and not calling Star Trek fans “Trekkies” anymore. :P) She said that one of the major ways that the film deviated from the original essence of Trek was that the bad guy, Balthazar Edision aka Kroll (as played by Idris Elba) wasn’t “reformed” at the end to toe the party line. Edision was a former human captain who grew disillusioned with the Federation dogma to make peace with one’s enemies. In the movie he’s ultimately killed off, whereas according to Rodenberry’s vision, perhaps he’d realize the error of his ways and embrace a pluralistic, peaceful society. Talk about a utopia! 😛
I admit, I’m most familiar with the reboot movies and pretty vague on the original series. Such a vantage point might be made even more indefensible by the fact that most of the other franchises I’ll talk about wouldn’t have even gotten their feet off the ground if it weren’t for Star Trek. But that’s the way it is, and that’s the information I’m leveraging. I thought I’d take a look at various science fiction government systems, and how the “heroes” are supposed to fit into the broader narrative. There might be some truths in here about how human beings probe these issues in the real world.
And I’m also using this blog post to solidify my own excitement in a new(ish) book duology, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers! I gave into temptation and bought the shiny, UK covers from Book Depository, which also means I got my hands on book two before it comes out in the States next March. 😀 Booyah.
Book one chronicles the voyage of an inter-species crew aboard a vessel that creates wormholes. It’s supposed to be character driven, so much so that on BookTube it’s not only popular with the “SFF” crowd but the literary buffs, too! Then, science fiction TV fans started comparing it not only to Firefly, but to my favorite show of all time, Farscape. I wonder what they mean by that! Will the worldbuilding resemble the stuff that I go into below? I hope to find out shortly, after NaNoWriMo ends!
Takes place around the 23rd century, when sovereign planets, including Earth, are governed by the United Federation of Planets. The planets are all semi-autonomous in how they govern their people, and the Federation exists as more of a United Nations construct. In order to be a member, your planet has to agree to live by the Utopian principles of universal liberty, rights and equality. The UFP is in charge of space exploration, where multi-species crews explore space and make peaceful contact with new worlds.
The “heroes” of most Star Trek media, as far as I can tell, are the crews of these space exploration ships. They believe in the mission of the UFP, although they are sometimes beset, in the reboot movies moreso, with various forms of conflict. Again, I’m not as familiar with most of the characters as I should be, but it appears that they are not super-human…or super-vulcan or what have you. 😛 Every species has its own strengths and weaknesses, but no one’s from Krypton or has been bitten by a radioactive spider. These are just folks, trying to get through their lives.
Years ago, I think I remember the ScapeCast referring to this show as a “dark Star Trek.” In Star Trek, human characters come together with other species, and are known to be intelligent and resourceful. In Farscape, our early 21st century hero, John Chrichton (Ben Browder), is thrust into a galaxy of distrustful aliens who are much more advanced than he is. Granted, that “distrustful” part goes away rather quickly, followed somewhat later by John’s naiveté. John is a fugitive, stuck on board a living ship with a bunch of escaped prisoners. There are two major ruling parties at play here—the human-like Peacekeepers and the lizard-like Scarrans. Each has built a fascist empire, and both are aligned with and/or subjugating other groups.
The Scarrans and the Peacekeepers are in a Cold War-esque standoff situation, and John inadvertently becomes a key player when alien forces frell (Farscape speak for you-know-what) with him, and implant coveted wormhole intelligence in his brain. But the story isn’t just about black hat aliens chasing our white hat hero across the universe. John and his crewmates grapple with the price of infamy and trauma, the desire for home and their evolving relationships. Thematically, the show probes the cost of violence and revenge, and the possibility that each of our steps may lead to alternate realities.
I love this show, but sometimes I think it stole Farscape’s thunder, because it came out around the same time and gained a cult status after a swift cancellation. Firefly takes place in the 25th century, after humans have colonized a new star system. Civil war breaks out between the central government, called the Alliance, and fringe elements called the Browncoats. We enter the scene after the Alliance has won, and we follow a rag tag crew of former Browncoats and other outsiders as they try to scrape by, living on a spaceship and largely committing petty crime for hire.
Empathizing, as we do, with these outsiders, the Alliance comes off as dictatorial and brutal. One of the main characters, River (Summer Glau) was taken from her family as a child and tortured into becoming a martial arts expert and a psychic. I tend to like “just folks” characters, and her superhero qualities kinda grate at me, but then I’m drawn into her trauma. I love me some female characters with good trauma (hello Katniss, my old friend…I’ve come to read Mockingjay again…. :P) Like with Farscape, there’s a lot of focus on interpersonal relationships, and the “villains” are often those who stand in the crew’s way of their objectives. This culminates in the movie, Serenity, when they are hunted down by an Alliance agent as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It ends on a Star Trek utopia note, with the agent seeing the error of his ways and leaving our heroes alone.
The Hunger Games
I mentioned Katniss, so you can’t expect me to leave out my favorite YA franchise, can you? 😛 Set in an unspecified future, in what’s left of North America after environmental disaster, Panem is a dystopia and a dictatorship. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) keeps the disenfranchised districts and privileged Capitol isolated from one another, particularly with a piece of propaganda called The Hunger Games. It’s an annual duel to the death between 24 teenagers, played out until one survivor remains. The Capitol citizens and some of the wealthier districts buy into the national narrative about honor and atonement; the rest understand it as a fear tactic. Rebellion’s been brewing underground for awhile, but it gets a certain push when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) “wins” the Hunger Games.
There’s really no question that the lightning rod for the revolution would have to come from the Victors pool, seeing as they’re the only people whom the entire country would recognize. But Katniss is not imbued with superpowers like River; she’s just a girl with the unusual story of being from one of the poorest districts, and also being able to save her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More to the point, she’s immediately swept up into dueling propaganda schemes, with the Capitol trying to showcase to the public that “she’s one of us,” and the Rebellion trying to fashion her into “the Mockingjay,” a symbol of freedom. Katniss wants to take down the brutal Capitol, but in the face of the ensuing war, author Suzanne Collins turns the story on its head. Members of the resistance become corrupted by vengeance, innocent Capitol citizens, including children, suffer, and the rebel leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore) embraces dictatorship. It’s a more complex approach to war and oppression than white hats and black hats. At the end of the day, this series touches me so thoroughly because it points to interpersonal relationships as being the light in any darkness.
November 5, 2016
Note: As part of my NaNoWriMo portfolio this year, I’ve decided to write weekly blog posts on Chava’s Footsteps. I’ve had a lot of ideas that I’ve wanted to get to, and this has basically morphed into my opinion pieces blog. Where else can I play cultural critic? 😉 To start with, I’m going to address a voting issue that has nothing to do with the U.S. elections. Definitely willing to pass that topic by! 😛
On November 1st, GoodReads unveiled the first round of their annual choice awards. It’s like the People’s Choice Awards but for books, and it spans a much larger range of material. I got particularly giddy because I’d actually read three of the titles spread across the numerous categories. I love GoodReads, and I’ve been paying close enough attention to the publishing world these past couple of years to at least have a little bit of familiarity with most of the fiction and some of the nonfic titles. But I mostly read backlist, and therefore can feel excluded from the big shindig at the end of the year.
The next day, BookRiot published an article about the lack of diversity in the Mystery & Thriller category, possibly the most popular genre of the modern age, since GR placed that link right after the vaulted literary fiction. This is the sort of opinion piece that opens the floodgates for reactionary “good literature should trump inclusion quotas” set, and those whose first concern is championing POC writers. The columnist, Jamie Canaves, took a cursory look at the guidelines GR put in place to determine the first round of nominees; particularly that the books have to have an average rating of 3.5 or higher, and they had to be published between November 16, 2015 and November 15, 2016. From there, GR staff “analyze statistics” and pick roughly 15 books per category. Voters have the option of writing in a nominee, and the top five books will be added to the semifinal round, regardless of average ratings, but based against GR statistics.
Presumably those “statistics” include the book’s popularity, but the site is rather vague about that. Canaves highlighted five books by POC authors that fit the average and date published criteria, but a commentator pointed out that most of her books have under 1,000 total ratings, and most of the GR choices have over 3,000. But this issue isn’t divorced from the problem of POC representation either—evidence has shown how the publishing industry promotes white authors the most, which of course leads to more people finding their books and adding them to GR.
It’s interesting to note the differences in categories as well. The groupings that I’m most familiar with—literary fiction, debut fiction, historical fiction, memoir and history—all tend to include POC and other minority voices. Different genres have different relationships to the idea of POC inclusion; for a contentious one, see what’s been going on these past few years concerning the science fiction and fantasy-centric Hugo Awards. GoodReads, therefore, is providing a useful look into the multi-faceted state of publishing today.
Despite my geeky infatuation with the GR awards, I’m really not too keen on most prizes in general. Minority voices have long been excluded in general, not because they’re universally worse writers than white men but because of societal bigotry. And for an English major (shame), I have a relatively cynical view about the nature of objectively “quality” literature. Or perhaps it’s because I’m an English major; therefore I’ve been taught to back my opinions with a thesis essay, and that mimicking another person’s arguments, word for word, is called plagiarism. I mean, if you were to poll every tenured English professor in the world, surely we’d find a small cache that believes William Shakespeare, say, is the pinnacle of literary excellence, and another small cache that believes him to be vastly overrated.
Who gets to decide what is “quality” literature in prizes anyway? With the Man Booker and the Nobel Prize in Literature, the decision is left to a very small group of individuals. Their tastes may vary widely from the majority of the involved literary public—like, say, when they nominate Bob Dylan for an award. 😛 Then there’s the populist votes like the GoodReads Choice Awards. With so many thousands of books coming out per year, our choices are already weighted towards whatever publishing chose to promote more heavily. This setup also demotes self-publishing or even small presses. The majority of the books on the ballot were published by the Big Five.
I’ll speed past the fact that the only books in contention are U.S. published, despite the fact that the GoodReads community is a global one, and move into user-generated problems. Even in accepting the ballot as it is, the voting is in no way fair. In a perfect world, of course, each voter would have at least read every book in the categories that interest them, but I presume that this is relatively rare. I voted in two categories—science fiction and YA fantasy and SF—and in each, I’d only read the book for which I cast my proverbial ballot. *hangs head* Other voters don’t read the books at all. I’ve seen YouTube videos where people go through category by category and pick a book based on their affiliation for a title or cover. Or, to bring it back to publishing, they vote for books that have been in the media.
At the end of the day, we all get different things out of awards, rather than something universally definitive. Like Canaves, I want to see a diversity in the selection, if for no other reason than to get recommendations that will provide me with a variety of different stories. I’m particularly interested in Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (debut authors) and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (historical fiction).
I also like the opportunity to make my voice heard, in however a biased way. I spend all year adding books to my GoodReads profile, editing records for accuracy and writing my reviews. /librarian pride/ I voted for The Last One by Alexandra Oliva and A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir because I enjoyed and wanted to promote them. I decided against voting for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in fantasy, because it’s lessened in my estimation since I first read it, and I like to be honest when casting my ballot for books I can get behind. Besides, as arguably the most popular book of the year worldwide, we all know that it’s gonna win anyway. 😛
So cast your votes, if you’re a member of the GR community and prizes don’t drive you crazy. The opening rounds close TOMORROW, so get on it! Semifinal rounds run between November 8 and 15, then the final round goes until the 27th. But I hope, with this and other literature awards, that you ultimately use them to pick up new books and continue to expand your mind. Happy reading!