November 11, 2015

The Hunger Games series and the Heroic Ending

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:42 pm by chavalah

An iconic image from "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2"

An iconic image from “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”

Several months ago, I read Amanda Marcotte’s column on Slate, which defended the bleak amounts of death and other violence visited upon “Game of Thrones” main characters as indicative of “classical tragedy.” I was pretty much on board until I read this paragraph.

There’s not a lot of truly tragic storytelling in modern TV and movies. We are trained to expect, especially when it comes to action-packed fantasy and sci-fi stories, that just when things look bleakest for our heroes, they will perform some amazing feat and save the day at the last possible minute. That is the plot of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, “The Hunger Games”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, every DC and Marvel superhero movie, and nearly every B-list thriller on the market.

Feeling irritated by misrepresentation of the messages in “The Hunger Games” is kind of my modus operandi. In my last blog post on the subject, I was griping about how while everyone was whining about North Korean threats/censorship of the sophomoric movie, “The Interview,” critics refused to give “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” a fair shake because it didn’t contain enough of the “heroic violence” of your regular superhero flick. Granted, that may have been my “crabby grandma” blog entry of 2014, and I buried more intriguing nuggets about how the movie influenced real-life social justice action.

I have already responded to Marcotte’s “Hunger Games” assertion on my tumblr, but I focused primarily on events that happened at the end of the series, basically, what I hope to see in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.” I thought, in preparing to see a “Mockingjay” double feature next Wednesday (!!!), I might take a closer look at the previous books and movies. Some critics like to believe that “The Hunger Games” merely amounts to a heroic fable where the good guys sweep in and change everything for the better in the end. But in a series that is about the duplicity of violence and warfare, the morals could never be that simple.

In the opening chapter, “The Hunger Games,” the issues are certainly at their most basic as Suzanne Collins introduces us to the world of Panem. The parameters of the plot are a purposeful construct—24 children forced into an arena to fight to the death by a totalitarian government. But is it so easy to differentiate “good guys” from “bad guys”? With the Districts looking at their own children facing off others who will kill them, it’s easy to dehumanize the others. I still distinctly remember members of my theatre cheering when Clove was brutally killed by Thresh. She may have been a bitch, but did she deserve to be turned into a killer-cum-victim by a society that deemed her disposable? The movie doesn’t seem to think so. One of my favorite additions to the film is Cato’s death speech, when he recognizes the limitations of his life. “I’m dead anyway! I always was, right? I didn’t know that until now.” Cato had bought into the Capitol propaganda which promised him that the Games would turn him into a hero; only now does he realize that all of his killing, and now his death, is merely fodder for the entertainment of others. (But speaking of movies vs books, I’ll always regret that the adaptation did so little to raise the issues of poverty, starvation and brutality in the police state Districts.)

“Catching Fire” immediately vanquishes the notion that the victors are in any way a “happy ending” to the Games, and it’s not just because President Snow decides to send them back to the arena. It’s because Collins deals honestly with post-traumatic trauma. Katniss has recurring, violent nightmares. Peeta paints what he saw and experienced. I lamented that that bit didn’t make it into the movie, but I loved the establishing shots of Katniss looking off into the distance, being freaked out by Gale, and then imagining her hunting spoils as the first boy she killed in the arena. As Haymitch says, “no one wins the Games, period. There are survivors. No winners.” Meanwhile, the scope of the world continues to grow. The victors are supposed to be shiny distractions, so that everyone focuses on their celebrity appeal rather than seeking self-determination in their own lives. But when Katniss saved Peeta in the arena, she cheated the system. The notion of a “hero” to lead the people into revolution spreads. But this is a narrative, and not necessarily reality. In the Quarter Quell, Katniss is primarily concerned with saving Peeta. She gets rescued by the secret rebellion in District 13 not because she devises some cunning plan, but because most of her allies deliberately lead her there. Although her anger against the Capitol’s injustice is real, “the Mockingjay,” much like “the Girl on Fire” and “the Star-Crossed Lovers,” is an image that is foisted on her.

Without an arena, and with a distinct focus on propaganda, the third film becomes more political. Will Katniss choose to play the role that’s been assigned to her? There’s some beauty in giving hope to fallen rebels at a hospital, but also the precariousness of Peeta’s situation as a supposed traitor/prisoner of war. The victories, hard won in this movie, come with questionable heroic fanfare. By couching Katniss’s Mockingjay propo in promotional music from the trailers, the producers ask us to look at our own complicity in buying into an image. Meanwhile, as Katniss stares at herself shouting fighting words in front of the burning hospital, Finnick leans in and asks “you don’t like hearing the fight song at a funeral, do you?” Gale, our most stereotypical heroic figure, who labored in the mines where his father was killed for six days a week, who was whipped bloody for standing up for those in need during an exercise of police brutality, who unquestioningly helped to save the small number of his District who survived the bombing, starts to lose his moral compass in District 13. In the movie, he berates Peeta for supposedly succumbing to torture and speaking against armed conflict, and in the book he’s even worse. He questions Katniss’s concern for two Capitol citizens who are chained up for taking extra bread from the cafeteria. The fact that they were Capitol employees precludes them for any consideration of humane treatment, in Gale’s eyes.

But, as “Game of Thrones” defenders sometimes point out, depiction does not equal endorsement. Gale hardens as the story progresses, as does President Coin, because so many people, righteously angered by injustice done to them and their comrades, buckle under power. The story will continue to grow more complicated, and Katniss will even interact with varying people from “the other side.” The movie trailers might focus on the driving narrative, where beleaguered Districts finally join together to fight the Capitol. But this won’t end with “some amazing feat and sav[ing] the day.” This will end with violence uncoiled, with brutality and victims on both sides. There is a tragic narrative to “The Hunger Games”—the truth that revolution can be corrupted, and that war, even justified war, brings destruction to all parties.

This series gets a lot of flack—for being aimed at young adults, for having characters struggling with their feelings, sometimes romantic, towards one another, and for its “dystopic” elements. (I don’t actually see “The Hunger Games” as a dystopia. I see it as the depiction of ill treatment under a totalitarian government, something we’ve had on and off for millennia, just with futuristic weaponry thrown in.) This is not a story about a girl who dresses up in a superhero costume and singlehandedly saves the world. And this is not a story where the good guys thoughtlessly and righteously beat the bad guys in a justified war, the end. Yes, Katniss ultimately finds a measure of hope in her life. But it is not without cost.

October 21, 2015

“Back to the Future”: You Mean To Tell Me This Is The Year 2015?!

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:57 pm by chavalah

GREAT SCOTT! This is heavy. :P

GREAT SCOTT! This is heavy. :P

Yup, I’m one of those nerds you’ve seen across your social media dashboards, gleefully posting and keeping up with the news we’ve all been waiting for these 30 years (well, technically more like 26)—when real life caught up with the fantastical storyline from “Back to the Future: Part 2.” :D

I’ve felt a special affinity concerning this franchise since I first saw the movies, probably a few years after their release. The generational gap between me and my parents is about the same as it is for Marty and his—circa 30 years. My father was born in 1955 and my sister was born in 1985. Of course, this means that if I took a time machine to check on my parentals when they were 17 I’d be heading to the early ‘70s, which lets just admit right now is a cooler decade. :P

Back in the day, I used to do some idle research into production of the franchise, and some of the details stuck with me. I know old Biff was stumbling around when he returned to 2015 because when he altered the past, Lorraine then shot him dead sometime in the ’90s. :P Ergo in unaltered 2015 he has to disappear; there’s some more distinctive (cut) footage of that on the DVD. I also loved the little tweaks between timelines; like when Marty ran over a tree in 1955, a mall name changed from “Twin Pines” to “Lone Pine,” and when they saved Clara and Marty assumedly fell to his death in 1885, the ravine name changed from “Clayton” to “Eastwood.” :P

But more all-encompassing is the issue of downtown (fictitious) Hill Valley itself. When the first film opens in 1985, downtown is pretty run down, similar to the modern-day realities. They actually shot the ’50s scenes first, for that shiny, thriving mom-and-pop feel, before dirtying up the sets. For the 21st century they imagined a revival of downtown with a bustling new mall, movie theatre and etc; I see that happening a lot now, too, with young professionals moving back into cities, and the gentrification of downtown areas. My own current-day town is thriving, where a few decades back it was pretty dilapidated.

Maybe because the 2015 storyline is probably my favorite out of the three films, I was stunned when director/writer Robert Zemicks said on the DVD that it was his least favorite. He didn’t like the idea of imaging a future that obviously wouldn’t come to pass. Now that we’re officially in and through October 21, we can all say with certainty that there are no flying cars, and lawyers are still around. :P But I guess, for me, I never minded the thought of anachronisms. I save my petty annoyances for in-universe discrepancies—like when they leave 1985 in the morning but return from the future at night, or why the older Doc in 1885 doesn’t remember the details of his younger self sending Marty over in 1955. The one that makes me seethe the most is at the very end of the third movie—when Marty’s termination notice disappears because “your future hasn’t been written yet,” BUT THE FAX PAPER STILL EXISTS. *tears at hair* AURGH. :P

Although the specific 2015 gadgets, for the most part, remain fictional, I respect the general observations that this film made about the advance of western society. I remember, in the ’90s, thinking it was absolutely crazy that people would publicize such random details about themselves through the video conferencing interface; now, there’s Facebook. :P There may not be such a thing as cell phones in the movie’s 2015, but the teens are still attached to their electronic communications devices at the dinner table. Fax machines are next to obsolete in the real world, but in the movie they could serve as a stand-in for the ubiquity of emails and texts. As for multi-installment blockbuster films, just substitute Marvel or DC for “Jaws.” (Also, not from the 2015 storyline but from alternate 1985, I can no longer look at Thomas Wilson’s powerful business mogul, Biff, and NOT see Donald Trump. :P)

I like the premise of the first movie; introducing the idea that our collective parents used to be young, that believe it or not they had lives before us. Marty was mostly embarrassed by his parents in 1985, but in 1955 he could almost look at them as peers and counsel their bad-road behaviors (Lorraine’s drinking, George’s low self esteem.) But I like the narrative flux of the sequels more, when Marty has to face his own flaws. In 2015, Jennifer is almost a stand-in for the audience, surveying what comes from Marty’s daredevil behavior when he’s no longer a teen but a middle aged man. I love the disbelieving, disgusted look she gives him as he plays dejectedly at his abandoned guitar. Still, I view this franchise as uplifting; I mean after all, Marty ultimately gets the chance to make the right choices once he returns to his normal life in 1985.

I’m not usually an optimistic person, I’ll admit. My general attitude is that you have to work to carve out a piece of grace for yourself, amidst a continuously violent and cruel world. (Speaking of which—small tangent—MOCKINGJAY PART 2 WILL BE IN THEATRES IN LESS THAN A MONTH. REPEAT: MOCKINGJAY 2 WILL BE IN THEATRES IN LESS THAN A MONTH. :D) But these films bring out my hopeful side, my playful one. As Caroline Framke wrote on Vox this morning, “Back to the Future is just about the most perfect science fiction blockbuster movie ever. It’s quick, both in pace and in wit, and takes its characters seriously even as it lets them laugh.” It’s majestic in scope, too. Just like the ticking clock in the crocodile reminds “Peter Pan”‘s Captain Hook of his mortal coil, the long lifetime of the clock tower in BTTF allows Marty and Doc to experience various realities.

Man, no matter what you think the movie got or didn’t get right, real October 21, 2015 will go down in history as a sort of meeting of the dimensions. Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown addressed us all from a Delorean. Michael J. Fox got to try on power lacing shoes. Universal released a trailer for “Jaws 19”and Pepsi rolled out some bottles that were branded to match the movie version. I’m sure there’s plenty more I’m missing, too!

But long before the real-life hoopla about 2015 began, YouTube gave us the best “Brokeback Mountain” parody (BTTF-inspired, of course) of all time. :D So I’ll end this rambly blog post on that note. Remember: the future is what you make of it. So make it a good one.

September 29, 2015

Recapping High Holidays and a World of Scapegoating

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 10:17 pm by chavalah

During the Days of Awe, Jews are supposed to apologize and seek forgiveness from the people we’ve wronged in the last year. I struggle a lot with the concept of relationships; I’m on the autism spectrum, and I find it difficult to grow close to people, even when I desire it. At school or at the job, it’s easy to feel competitive, or undervalued, or generally out of sync with your environment and the people in it, especially in the DC area. Got a mention in a few rabbinical sermons I heard last week.

But I think I made some decent strides last year. I joined a book club, I started going again to a local writers’ meetup. It might not be about bosom buddies, but it’s invigorating to be part of discussions about passions that are so central to my life. I feel like one of my biggest challenges is to open myself up to contact with the human race. (I’m doing pretty ok with the domesticated feline race. :P)

On a grander scale, I think the human race should join me in trying to make empathetic contact with the rest of the human race. During the Days of Awe, Anne Coulter tweeted something disparaging about Jews, which a bunch of antisemites picked up on to further the stereotype about Judaism’s attempt at world domination. A brown-skinned Muslim boy brought a clock to school that some of his teachers automatically assumed was a bomb.

On Yom Kippur, traditionally speaking, the head of the temple casts the sins of the people onto a goat to send out into the wilderness; this is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Today, all humans continue to actively scapegoat each other; we condemn those who are different from us in order not to confront our own flaws. Jews are power-hungry manipulators. Muslims are terrorists. Gay people are destroying the institution of marriage.

Instead, we should look inside of ourselves. Confront the greed, the violence, the damage that we, not the shadowy Other, do to our own relationships. As we try to clear away that fog, the world, the people in it, our own lives, should become less encumbered.

G’mar chatima tova. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.

August 11, 2015

Sensitivity in Fiction: Trigger Warnings, Xenophobia and Complex Characters

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:00 pm by chavalah

Somehow this carnivorous "Harry Potter" textbook feels appropriate to this post :P

Somehow this carnivorous “Harry Potter” textbook feels appropriate to this post :P

In recent book drama news, the Romance Writers of America found themselves under public scrutiny when a certain novel was nominated for an “inspirational” (read: Christian) award. Said book chronicles a Jewish concentration camp prisoner who falls in love with a high ranking official; in their redemptive arc, he renounces genocide and she converts to Christianity, and together they save some Jews.

As an ardent bibliophile I take a hard stand against book banning, but this one has surely tested me. :P Maybe I can rewind history and just stop it from getting published altogether. Surely there was something less offensive and just as well-written or riveting or what have you that they could have accepted instead; that’s how publishing works. Only the bare minimum of worthy books actually get their shot.

It pains me that so many people, from the editors in the publishing house to the readers giving it star reviews and nominating it for awards couldn’t conceive how insulting this is to Jewish people. To a degree, I suppose this encompasses Evangelical Christianity’s relationship to my religion; they’re so blinded by their narrative that they are showing us the right path that they deny our own complex history, culture and peoplehood. I’ll return to that theme later.

Before all of this mishegas, I was concerned enough about literature from a progressive standpoint. It’s easy for me to accept that the majority of book banning is wrong; born out narrow-minded fears of confronting a portrayal of life that challenges the status quo. But lately, progressive discourse has been littered with words like “trigger warning” and “problematic.” I fear if we lose our handle on such words, we’ll be looking at the same type of censorship.

I get “trigger warnings,” I do. For years after my mother sat me down to watch Schindler’s List, I’d get physically ill whenever I read memoirs about the Shoah. But I certainly didn’t want to excise such material from libraries or school curricula, either. The public conversation should remain on the atrocities of genocide, or rape, or other violence, and fiction is a great platform with which to do that with empathy and complexity. A “trigger warning” should just serve as a quiet, private exit for those who need it.

“Problematic” is one of those see-saw words. When an author portrays a world in a racist, sexist, or antisemitic light, that’s a problem. Like I alluded to above, it’s a failure to see other groups of people as human. For example, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (though a criticism of European colonialism) chronicles “the African race” as “dark” and “savage,” with no indication that Africans are actually a collection of diverse and complex individual people.

But when a character is called “problematic,” usually the opposite issue is in play. In the recently released and highly controversial novel, “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee, there’s been wide-scale upset that Atticus Finch is racist. But real-life people are racist all the time, and Finch’s opinions about African Americans and Brown vs the Board of Education are pretty in line with popular opinion from the 1950s white, southern perspective. More to the point he’s still treated as a complex individual with his own character arc.

With some genre exceptions, perhaps, characters in fiction aren’t meant to be our friends, nor should they be perfect. The fact that they have flaws means that they are human, and this makes them genuine agents in stories that explore our culture and heritage. The best characters may also remind us that we are also not perfect, and that we should always strive to expand our own horizons.

The book that sparked this blog post may be here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call it out for what it is. It’s a formulaic romance novel with an externally-mandated need for evangelical redemption. But Jewish suffering, institutionalized antisemitism, and the Shoah in particular (complete with several real-life accounts of Nazi officers actually raping prisoners) aren’t some convenient platform to espouse the “glory” of converting to Christianity. Our history and our lives are worth more than racial scapegoating in someone else’s narrative. We have our own stories to tell.

July 23, 2015

Reactionary Religion in “Game of Thrones” season 5

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:35 am by chavalah

Brother Lancel (Eugene Siimon) and the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) as the face of the Faith Militant

Brother Lancel (Eugene Siimon) and the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) as the face of the Faith Militant

More than any other, I think, this is the scene that set the tone of the season for me. I kind of love everything about it, from the softness of Lancel’s (Eugene Simon) tone to the tentative music underneath him; it announces that the biggest threat to King’s Landing this year will not come from a loud trial or battle, but from the quiet earnestness of religious fanatics looking for a higher purpose.

It’s been a pretty iffy year for religion in Westeros. Melissandre’s visions as sent to her by the Red God backfired spectacularly. Our first introduction to any ceremony involving the old gods of the North involved the traitor, Roose Bolton, presiding over a horrific wedding. But the Faith of the Seven is going strong. In both the books and the tv show, the reason for this appears to be the poor peoples’ growing disgust with highborn debauchery and war mongering.

There are, however, some marked differences between the source material and the adaptation. Starting with Lancel; in the books, he is a weakened and quietly observant man far from the capital, and the Faith Militant organization isn’t so taken with patrolling the streets of King’s Landing for sinners. Instead, they mostly offer safe passage to pilgrims on the road traveling to holy sites. Of course their role is ramped up on the television show to cause drama with well-established elements, like Littlefinger’s brothels. It also drew comparisons, among some critics, to modern day real-life religious extremist movements like ISIS.

They also tweaked another storyline from the books–this time involving Ser Loras (Finn Jones) and his homosexuality. In the books, Cersei (Lena Headey) is ultimately able to get Margaery (Natalie Dormer) arrested on charges of sexual promiscuity. Though King Tommen is played by Dean Charles Chapman on the show, he’s canonically a much younger character, and the marriage has not been consummated. But since there was no getting around that in the show, they had to think up a new way for Cersei to attack House Tyrell.

Some fans are against the idea of Loras’s sexuality playing such a big role on tv; in the books he was devoted to Renly (Gethin Anthony) but claimed celibacy after he died. I’m ok with the idea of Loras taking on another lover for comfort, but the constant references to his and Renly’s promiscuity with multiple partners seems a bit shallow and stereotypical.

I would also argue that Loras being punished for his homosexuality isn’t much different than Cersei, in both mediums, being punished for her extramarital affairs as a woman. Both go against the tenants of the Faith, and both are threatening to Westerosi patriarchy, where heteronormative male behavior and dominance is held sacrosanct. Homophobia and sexism tend to go hand in hand, because gender and sexual identity is tied into who has privilege and power in a world like this one.

I appreciate that the emboldened Faith of the Seven this season hasn’t been a simplistic issue. In one scene near the middle of the season, the High Sparrow and the Queen of Thorns, as played by venerable and established actors Jonathan Pryce and Diana Rigg, have a bit of a spar. She points out, rightfully, that this fundamentalism offers convenient targets while real problems go unanswered. “You live among murderers, thieves and rapists, and yet you punish Loras for shagging some perfumed ponce, and Margaery for defending her brother.” And yet, for the common people, this priest who dresses in rags and devotes time to feeding the needy offers some desperately needed straight talk. “I’m telling you a simple truth,” he explains to her. “I serve the gods. The gods demand justice.” The rules are written down in a Westerosi version of the bible, and no amount of the usual self-interested double-dealing from the highborn class will change them.

Religion isn’t necessarily the enemy, but when it plays into patriarchal norms, it always leaves victims in its wake, like Cersei, who had her humanity stripped away from her because she took the wrong lover. Sansa’s rapes are not considered to be so by her society because she was married to her abuser. Unfortunately, this hateful attitude continues in our own time–and even among practitioners of my own religion. Around the time that “Game of Thrones” was completing it’s broadcast this year, Dr. Ruth went on record that the Talmud claims that men can’t control their carnal urges if women are naked in bed with them, and ergo can’t be held responsible for unwanted sexual contact thereafter. Luckily, we live in a society where other Jewish leaders will challenge unsubstantiated and sexist claims. The Faith Militant in fictional Westeros, as inspired by the real-life Protestant Reformation, might be doing a good job of easing some burdens that the rich put on the poor. But their quest for a simple, no-nonsense religion cripples their empathy for complex people who don’t fit their mold.

Like it or not, the world is a complicated place, be it fictional or reality. When religion is multidimensional and evolving, it can bring great meaning to our culture and society. Brother Lancel’s ushered-in and one-dimensional “justice” can only bring solace and purpose to a few people. The rest have just found a new obstacle.

June 15, 2015

Patriarchy and Vengeance: Sansa, Arya and Cersei in “Game of Thrones” season 5

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:00 pm by chavalah

Sansa Stark in the crypts of Winterfell

Sansa Stark in the crypts of Winterfell

Sansa Stark is no superhero. Leave that to the one-dimensional Sand Snakes, who presumably fulfilled their dark mission to avenge Oberyn by assisting in the murder of an innocent girl. From the end of season four, when Sansa walked down to meet Littlefinger in that ridiculous, feathered dress, fans entertained notions about how dark she might go to meet her own ends. But Sansa’s personality didn’t do a 180 as quickly as did her wardrobe and hair color. She remained more complicated.

The eldest living Stark child had always gravitated towards the life of a Westerosi lady. As a highborn woman in Westeros, the only real way to get ahead is through marriage. Littlefinger offers Sansa the chance to do what all Stark enthusiasts hunger for—the chance to put the family back on the map. Vengeance comes in many forms, however. One can make a list of people to kill, then proceed in taking them out, or, like Sansa decides to do, one can bide one’s time. If Stannis is to win his battle with the Boltons, he might name her Wardeness of the North, particularly on the strength of her father’s name in that region. If the Boltons are to win, Sansa could secure her legacy to the north by her marriage to Ramsay Bolton, a man she does not truly know until it is too late.

The concept of “home” has always been integral to Sansa’s narrative both in the books and on the show. “Please, let me go home,” she begs Joffrey after her father is killed. At that time they are still betrothed, but once he dumps her for Margaery, Sansa is naïve enough to hope again. “You mean he won’t let me go home?” she asks Littlefinger at the end of season two. When Baelish finally squirrels her away in season four, she builds a replica of Winterfell in the snow. Finally, this season, back in her family’s stronghold, she’s able to draw some strength. She lights the candles for her ancestors, and makes it plain to the Boltons that they are the outsiders here. “I’m Sansa Stark of Winterfell; this is my home and you can’t frighten me,” she tells Myranda, after correctly reading the other girl’s jealousy and territorial attitude over Ramsay.

So many stories deal with the truth that in the aftermath of huge life changes, the protagonists can’t really “go home” again; they are too changed by their experiences. “Game of Thrones” ups the ante in a brutal way. Sansa’s trauma is not a thing of the past; it only gets worse, where she is repeatedly raped in her childhood home. This was a place where she had been beloved. “I grew up in the shadow of her father’s castle,” Ros tells Shae, back in season three. “The day she was born, they rang the bells from sunrise to sunset.” Quite a harrowing fall from grace.

Sansa’s rape—at least the first one, to which we are privy—is arguably the most controversial scene in the show to date. (And sheesh, I kinda thought I wouldn’t be writing that again after Cersei’s rape last season.) Part of the quandary with that scene is that Ramsay’s role isn’t easily defined—is he a psychopath, even according to the mores of Westeros, or is he just a man demanding his due in a society that doesn’t recognize marital rape? If the former, the audience is already aware of that fact; listening to Sansa moan in pain as he assaults her is superfluous. The latter carries more narrative merit within the entire context of the show. Some people like to argue over how true Westeros is to medieval history, but I see it as more of a commentary on violent patriarchy, and the bigotry, chiefly misogyny, that it breeds.

I accept that the rape scene was inevitable within the narrative of the show, but I think the execution was botched. We didn’t need to see the whole thing (at least then we could have avoided the argument about whether the scene should have ended on Theon’s or Sansa’s face if we cut to black after Ramsay rips her dress…and I also wish the scene didn’t end the episode, as if placed there for shock value.) Patriarchy breeds violence towards women in Westeros, and we got a far less muddled portrayal of that in Cersei’s walk of shame from the final episode of the season. Cousin Lancel, who is complicit in the same crime, gets off the hook while the Queen Mother has to stumble, naked through King’s Landing, with the people yelling gendered insults and pelting her with filth. I imagine Lena Headey’s shuddering performance of this woman—this oft-villainous woman—being stripped of basic human decency will win her a few acting nominations. She was incredible.

Many people want justice for Sansa—for Ramsay to die, and for the history of his sexual assaults to play a major part. The other controversial issue this season, that of Shireen’s burning by her father, ended on such a note. Instead of ensuring total victory, Stannis’s forces desert him, the rest of his nearest and dearest abandon him in various ways, and he loses his battle against the Boltons. When Brienne comes to seek justice for Renly’s assassination in season two, it’s like coming full circle. Stannis used blood magic to murder his own family members, and it’s only led to his ruin. Surely we want something that harrowing for Ramsay. Though, unlike Stannis, since he’d devoid of any empathy towards others, perhaps we’ll just see him die a painful death.

It’s imperative for a show to focus on well-defined characters, which is the reason why I ultimately support moving Sansa’s story to Winterfell. Although still safely ensconced in the Eyrie in the books, the show brings her into direct contact with her goals—and with those standing in the way of them. I admit, the scene where Ramsay shows her the flayed body of her “northern friend” is wearily similar to season one when Joffrey shows her the heads of Ned and her septa. But I think it’s unfair to claim she hasn’t grown as a character overall, and that she’s just repeating the same victimized steps. Unlike Jeyne, Sansa’s counterpart in the novels, Lady Stark isn’t just present to be a stepping stone in a man’s story. She’s the damsel in the tower, but this time she gets herself out by her own cunning and intuition. Theon doesn’t save her—it’s more the other way around. Then they both get to be active participants in redeeming themselves from Ramsay’s sexual abuse. “I know what Ramsay is,” Sansa is ultimately able to tell Myranda. “I know what he’ll do to me. If I’m going to die, let it be while there’s still some of me left.” (Sidenote about Westerosi patriarchy that Myranda mentions—a woman can be reduced to the body parts needed to produce sons.) The camera pans to Theon, the man the Bolton heir has forced into the creature, Reek. But it turns out there’s still enough Theon left to reclaim his humanity.

But “Reek” doesn’t—and can’t—reclaim his identity on his own. This only happens through Sansa finally siezing what she came to Winterfell to do—to avenge her family. She demands accountability for Theon’s actions against the Starks in this, my favorite scene of the season. In doing so, she receives an unexpected gift—she learns that two of her brothers are still alive. This refocuses Sansa’s perspective, and is one of several goal posts that this usually bleak series puts in place to tell us that her fate extends beyond the sadistic whims of such characters as Joffrey and Ramsay. The other major hints come with Brienne, who doggedly tracks Lady Stark and devotes herself to the girl’s care. I got rather teary at this scene, between Brienne and the northern man outside of Winterfell. Catelyn Stark has been dead for years, but when Brienne says “I serve her still,” it’s more of a testament to the late woman’s legacy than Lady Stoneheart could ever be.

The traditional form of violent vengeance that Lady Stonheart from the books espouses is probably best realized on the show by Arya. Like last year, the Stark girls parallel each other, this time by being placed in sexual positions with people who’ve wronged them, but they diverge from there. This might be my favorite Maisie Williams performance to date, as she embraces Arya’s harrowing sense of mind. I have no sympathy for Meryn Trant, whose defining attribute is getting off on hurting little girls, but as Arya slowly tortures him, I have to wonder at her own psychological well-being. The Faceless Men are almost like an allegory for what’s become of the youngest female Stark, especially in the books where she keeps adding names to her list. Her life is now defined by killing people, to satiate the never-satisfied god of vengeance.

Of course, the Faceless Men are more than just an allegory; they’re a physical—and philosophical—institution to which Arya has pledged her service. And their definition of being “no one” is far different than hers. “No one” is basically a lower-than-dirt punishment that Arya Stark inflicts upon Meryn Trant, but to the Faceless Men, “no one” is a heightened state of being. I’m very fond of the idea that “Jaqen” is not “Jaqen” at all; that Arya met different people in seasons two and five, and yet they are the same because neither have a true identity, or a true face. The ultimate goal of the Faceless Men is to give up all personal desires, relationships and agency—to be mere scepters in service of a higher purpose. Out of all the religious orders in this series, the Faceless Men are perhaps the most terrifying to me—in line with the enslaved Unsullied forces, conditioned to be killing machines who feel no pain; or even the zombie-like wights, servants of the White Walkers. I’ve rambled on for quite awhile now, but I expect to touch upon religion in “Game of Thrones”/ASOIAF quite soon.

A final note on the rape—perhaps I’m being too optimistic, but I hope there’s some more aftermath. Just like Tyrion is haunted by his killing of Shae, to the point that he can’t even psyche himself up for sex after her demise, Sansa’s trauma should have an impact on her future as well. To wit, I hope it leads to a confrontation with Littlefinger, considering their own complicated and sexualized history. She’s asserted her power against him before; maybe that can continue into the coming seasons. Littlefinger has desires for her…but Sansa is only growing stronger in defining her own path. A girl can only hope.

May 20, 2015

“Once Upon a Time” season 4 works on character development, mostly to good effect

Posted in Pop Culture at 1:08 am by chavalah

Promotional poster for "Once Upon a Time" season 4b

Promotional poster for “Once Upon a Time” season 4b

Would be lying right now if I didn’t admit that most of my mind power is on “Game of Thrones,” and the extremely controversial ending to the last aired episode. Reactions from fans and tv critics have been raining down on the Internet ever since; I’m currently sort of churning in them. But I have yet to form a definitive opinion, particularly because I do think it’s fair to wait and see how the rest of the season will pan out. But a blog post will be forthcoming, yes yes.

So, to focus on the narrative arc of a tv show that is at a resting place, I present my thoughts on season 4 of “Once Upon a Time.” I usually do this as a precursor to a new batch of episodes about to air, but I couldn’t wait this time. Too much to say! :P

Overall, it was a great season of Once. Although the fandom was divided on the inclusion of “Frozen” in season 4a, I thought it worked well. I enjoyed our little foray into Arendelle, and think that the OUAT writers did a fair bit to deepen the famous Disney story. The actors were all enjoyable, and they had great chemistry.

Mostly, it made complete sense to me to combine Emma and Elsa’s stories. Both young women harnessed a great power that first they were afraid of, and then they learned to control. This was an absolutely essential next step in Emma’s overall journey, not to mention how refreshing it was for her to have a female friend—one who wasn’t related to her no less! :P I hope we get something similar with her and Lily moving forward; the actresses who portrayed the girls as teens were superb.

Regina finally ended up being redeemed by the end of this season. Although the mishegas with Robin and Marian/Zelena could get a bit soap opera-y, it was important for her (and by extension the audience) for her to realize that her true happy ending was to feel at home in the world. This is coded talk for the fact that Regina used to play a big part in sabotaging her own happy endings. It’s a lesson that Rumplestiltskin still has to learn, if he even still can, after the death of his son. He spent most of the entire season being the “big baddie,” as fandom calls the primary antagonist of the story, though he ultimately paid a heavy cost for it. My largest complaint about his story is that, despite a few episodic adventures, Belle is still just a glorified assistant cast member in his arc. I’d like to point out how Regina firmly proclaimed that having a man wasn’t a happy ending in and of itself, but I also grudgingly accept that with a cast of characters as large as the group here, only a handful can be primaries.

A few world building details didn’t sit well with me. For the climax of the 4a storyline, Belle found a McGuffin dagger for confronting Rumple, rather than doing so with the knowledge of everything he’d been hiding from her all half-season. Giving Snow and Charming a dark secret was a brilliant move, which made them more complicated than just being one-dimensional heroes, but it came with all sorts of weird conditions. For example, who has “dark” inner potential and who has “light” inner potential, and how can someone retain “dark” inner potential after her parents did a terrible thing to take it out of her, and ugh, my head hurts. :P

I’m a big proponent of the fact that this story is more about the power of hope and faith than the machinations of magic, but for that to work, the “light” vs “dark” potential of each character should be rooted in his or her own conscious choices. And I haven’t even gotten to The Author yet, and his partial ability to mess with free will, oy. It’s at times like these when I think OUAT is losing its focus.

All of that being said, I’m definitely looking forward to season 5. 4b ended with a major shift in power, when magic that had held steady since the beginning of the show found a new form. We’re shaking things up, and so far it seems we’re not adding in a temporary, half-season set of cast members to do it; it’s all intrinsic to our well-established, main characters. I can’t wait to see how they develop next. So see you in the fall, Oncers, and remember—the ability to hope is a powerful thing. :D

April 18, 2015

Finding a foothold with Passover 5775

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 8:20 pm by chavalah

Familial Seder set-up

Familial Seder set-up

I had planned to put together my own Seder this year in my brand(ish) new condo, but then my aunts flew in for the holiday and I scratched that. My mom did her usual, preparing the traditional meal with matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, chicken and salad; my aunts brought their signature dishes and the slim Haggadah they use for their normal affair with the rest of my extended family. They take turns reading from the book and then eat; at my parents’ house we ate, and then half-heartedly read a few pages.

After the dishes were cleared and macaroons put out on the table for dessert, my mom got out candles for me to light for Shabbat, and then we partook in our own little tradition of quickly retelling the Exodus story as a transition into discussing modern day politics and socio-economics. Not in the binary “it’s all Obama’s fault” or “damn all corporate interests” way, but a more detailed look into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, capital punishment, how human nature effects people in good and bad ways at different times. We covered a lot of ground. :p

This was also my niece’s second Passover, and she greeted me eating a piece of matzah. :p. She didn’t seem to like it much, but like most people she kept chewing anyway. She also seemed to like the broth from the matzah ball soup, so she’s slowly learning the ways of Ashkenazi Jewish food. Hurrah!

And I sang in a Pesach concert with my synagogue’s and another choir in late March. It was so rejuvenating on many levels–the first time I’d sung chamber music with a group in a long while, keeping time with the conductor, the cadence of each stanza. I learned a new harmony for “Eliahu,” which made me very happy. Intrinsically I seem to find music very spiritual, and so does my mother; our relationships to Judaism are very different but we come together to sing. Dayenu!

I still feel like I have a long way to go with Passover, though, as the semi-religious daughter of an assimilated family. I think that’s why I have to claim it as my own home and hearth holiday. Every year my parents host a big shindig at their house for Thanksgiving as a way to reconnect with friends and family, and to embrace the benefits of hospitality. I want Passover as way to connect with my family spiritually. I want to cook them matzah ball soup and a chicken from Safeway, and I want to gather parts of the Haggadah to explore Jewish identity and the broader issues freedom, faith, journeying, and home. And by “family” I mean my parents, because even after some thirty-odd years, I feel confident that they might endure my eccentric tendencies. :p

I hope that everyone had a happy and meaningful holiday. L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim!

March 5, 2015

Leonard Nimoy’s Legacy of Jewish Science Fiction and Dual Identity

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 7:28 pm by chavalah

Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and William Shatner (Kirk) in the original Star Trek

Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and William Shatner (Kirk) in the original Star Trek

One of the first entries I posted to this blog centered on J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, and the complex ethnicity of Mr. Spock. It reminded me so much of my own identity, two parents of different religions/ cultures/ ethnicities…one foot in each world.

Perhaps for Leonard Nimoy, may his memory be a blessing, this might have served as more of a metaphor. Spock’s human heritage could stand for Nimoy’s acceptance into the broader American, Hollywood (or UFP, as it were,) culture, where his Vulcan side, with the salute based off of the Priestly Blessing, signified his parents, Ashkenazi Jewish shtetl immigrants.

I admit, when I first started getting into scifi and fantasy, I didn’t really consider Star Trek and its Jewish lens, although at the time I wasn’t considering anything for a Jewish lens. My gateway drug to this genre was Star Wars, and in the accepted and small minded way, I took sides. I was taken in by Lucas’s space opera, and the struggle of a protagonist who hones his identity and power against a familial legacy. Star Trek, to me, seemed like one of those “day at the office” shows, if your office was a spaceship and your job was either to make sure it ran properly or investigate various aliens. (I’m sorry, Trekkies. Please don’t vaporize me! Is that a thing? *hides*)

What’s worse, as a dummy teen, I was blithely unaware of the fact that some of my favorite new tv shows, like Space Cases and Farscape, were directly inspired by Star Trek. But instead, it was these stories, rather than the original, which made me realize that a crew can be like a family, and alien encounters can shape that one’s trajectory as much as the Force.

I’ve never gotten around to watching any original Star Trek, or any of the franchise before the J.J. Abrams movies. It’s something I’m thinking I should change, now that I’m more aware of creator Gene Rodenberry’s vision to project a future for diversity in humans as well as aliens. Nimoy, who is practically incongruous with his character Spock at this point, is testament to that. More to the point, he could find a seat at the table without giving up his ethnic identity, whether it be Vulcan or Jewish.

In another blog post, I may have to focus on my quest for Jewish fiction from the viewpoint of the children of interfaith marriage (a small sidenote—is the story of Esther, commemorated last night at Purim holiday megillah readings, our first major depiction of an interfaith union? :P); I’m assuming Spock doesn’t ruminate too much on his dual heritage. But science fiction continues to provide a creative avenue into progressive, empathetic thinking—where we can meet new people, or species, from different walks of life, and realize that they’re not so alien after all.

Live long and prosper (LLAP).

February 5, 2015

History vs Art, and other concerns

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 12:32 am by chavalah

Still from the movie, "Selma," starring David Oyelowo

Still from the movie, “Selma,” starring David Oyelowo

As a disclaimer, I have yet to watch “Selma” which is up for Best Picture in the Academy Awards this year. But some of the “factual” criticisms levied against them remind me of being a fan (or sometimes not so much of a fan) of novel adaptations for TV or film. For example, one of my biggest disappointments with “Mockingjay, Part 1” was that they excised a conversation between Katniss and Haymitch working through their anger and guilt over failing to protect Peeta–as if this were an actual historical event. (In my defense, it would have made the story stronger. :p)

With “Selma,” some of this criticism comes from historians, claiming that the movie painted President Johnson in too negative a light. Director Ava DuVernay responded that she didn’t want to make a film about “a white savior,” aka she wanted to focus on some of the African Americans, namely Martin Luther King, Jr., I assume, who were at the center of the Civil Rights movement. I might add that, be the source material a novel or actual history, a movie is too contained to give much dimension to non-main characters. But another argument is–this isn’t a documentary, it’s art. DuVernay–or Francis Lawrence of the final three “Hunger Games” films–aren’t contractually bound to stay true to “the source material.”

The natural follow-up question might be–does that make the movie less “true”? This might be where my fiction-oriented/spiritual brain trumps whatever I have of a facts and figures science brain. :p. I think the truth contained in novels and other fictional media are that they can go deep into characters, and explore the complex questions of identity, history, politics, relationships, etc, etc, etc from a uniquely emotionally resonant perspective. The “truth” about life is more than a ledger book of physical actions. “The truth” is about several different narratives and experiences, but who has the time to watch a movie as long as life? :p

But to be hypocritical (another component of the complexity of “truth,”) I feel disappointed that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was omitted from the movie, even as he marched to Selma amongst other white clergymen who were depicted, so I’ve read. When a group one identifies with is part of the larger narrative (particularly a positive narrative like joining together with diverse communities to stand for civil rights,) I suppose it’s natural to want to see that validation. And again, perhaps a short scene of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel shaking hands might’ve made for a stronger story. But either way, this is one small component of a work that belongs to art, not history. I’d rather judge DuVernay’s movie on what’s there rather than what’s not.

Just because there is a commercial component to some art doesn’t mean that we, as consumers, require a say. This transaction isn’t about buying a pair of pants, after all; it’s about exploring the world in new ways. Part of that, in fact, requires us to give up personal control. No movie, or book, or etc is perfect, but I hope that people leave their personal biases at the door, insofar as is possible; and that they also take into account what the creator was trying to accomplish (and how well he or she succeeded at that) before offering critique.

Tangentially, I’m always on the lookout for films that portray a variety of Jewish characters and experiences in the driver’s seat (currently I’m having trouble narrowing down my selections for the 2015 Washington Jewish Film Fest). But that feeds into my empathy for the perceived goal of the movie, “Selma”–to depict African Americans as the center of their story rather than as the supporting cast. It’s a perspective we don’t often get to see in Hollywood, though with recent successes like “12 Years a Slave,” hopefully it will become more normalized.

Sticking to judgement, though, I don’t really care how the Academy considers something to be a good or bad movie; they have their own issues to work out. But since we are still relatively close to the beginning of the year, allow me to offer my best and worst novel reads from 2014. :p

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