February 6, 2016

Thoughts on Diversity and Representation in Film, From Academy Awards and Etc

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 2:58 pm by chavalah

An Eddie Redmayne movie that is unlikely to get an Oscar nom.  Well, more likely than "Jupiter Ascending." :P

An Eddie Redmayne movie that is unlikely to get an Oscar nom. Well, more likely than “Jupiter Ascending.” :P

There’s this strange dichotomy in the Academy Awards. Although this year they are not celebrating the performances of racially diverse actors, they seem to have a penchant for other “minority” representations. LGBTQ issues are on their radar, as Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Eddie Redmayne are all nominated for their work portraying characters on that spectrum.

Last year, perhaps disability issues were in the fore, with Redmayne taking home the Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. Multiple issues arise—the issue of the actor/character correlation, for example. Should disabled actors be the only ones allowed to play disabled characters? Should gay characters only be helmed by gay actors? It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg question with which is more important—diverse themes or diverse actors. I tend to err more on the side of themes, because that’s what gets the point across to the audience, that these characters with varying experiences that you’re seeing played out across a narrative bear as much weight as the trials and tribulations of ye standard able-bodied, white, cis, Christian men. Maybe there’s no better example of this than the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where white actors played Asian characters, Asian actors played white characters, and Hallie Berry played a German Jew from the 1930s. :P

More to the point with Redmayne last year—why did he win the nomination, and later the award? The movie clip they chose to illuminate during the ceremony was troubling in that context, with Redmayne straining to pull himself up a staircase. This makes it seem like the Academy was applauding an able-bodied man for pretending that he couldn’t just move his legs and stand up. Look, I’m going to be in Eddie Redmayne’s corner until the end of his life, now that he’s taken on a role in a movie based in the Harry Potter universe. :P Speaking of bias. But pretending his legs don’t work because the character’s don’t doesn’t deserve special recognition. We might as well give most novelists awards for daring to dream up characters who don’t exist in real life.

So, what does deserve special recognition in the field of acting? I am not a student of acting, just a consumer of narrative in film and creative writing. To me, what counts is the actor’s ability to convince me that the character is a multi-faceted human being. What I liked in Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking was how he started with his boyish devotion to his friends and academic work, his bewilderment-cum-stubbornness in confronting the limitations of his condition and the effect it has on his family, and his wry humor with regards to his growing celebrity. (Note: I’m not referring to the real Stephen Hawking, just Redmayne’s ability to inhabit a character who felt like he was a human being.)

Of course, there are plenty of actors who accomplish this feat, and I’m not sure I could choose between them. To be perfectly cynical about it, I’m not sure that’s what the Academy is after, either. I think they’re as biased and insular as the big wigs of any industry, and awardees are more based on networking than on merit. It’s a problem that goes back all the way to the beginning of the assembly line, which is why there are also fewer projects by Black/other racial minority producers, and about Black/other racial minority themes. The movie business probably needs a variation of #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

I’ve been bitter at “prestige” awards shows for awhile, lately because they refuse to consider that The Hunger Games franchise were actually expertly produced and about major themes of warfare, trauma and propaganda, rather than, like, shallow YA teenage girl feels *hair flip* So I’ve decided to out-snob the Academy. :P Because seriously, there is no art house movie that can approach the layers of complexity and emotional nuance of most literary novels on the market. All of this being said, I’m going to try and read Room by Emma Donoghue and Carol/The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith this month, and then compare them to their movies. I’ll bet anyone that the books are better. :P

Another thing I’m doing, within the realm of movies this time, is paying more attention to film festivals. Particularly one—the Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival, which always revs up around the time of the Oscars. In years past I used to just take a cursory look and choose a film or two that was showing near me, but now I’m being much more thorough and want to buy tickets to LOADS. There’s Israel’s submission to this year’s Best Foreign Picture category for the Oscars–Baba Joon, about Jews of Iranian descent and spoken mostly in Farsi. There’s a whole section of films rated LGBTQ. Many films range across countries and time periods, not just depicted time periods, but dates of release.

And perhaps fortunately, Natalie Portman’s directorial/screenwriting debut of Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is already sold out. :/ NOOOOOOOOO. The U.S. claims part of this film; it should be distributed more widely here! :( Wah.

I almost wish that all of these films were more similar, because the diversity kind of makes me want to see them AAAALLLL. My pocketbook points me in a more limited direction, alas. But expect a review of something or other on my blog, JewishDC. :D

January 10, 2016

2015: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 6:54 pm by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

It’s my fourth year doing this blog post! I’m especially excited to include an update on Rabbi Barbara Aiello; not only is she rare for being a liberal, female rabbi in that country, but she’s particularly interested in revitalizing Judaism in southern Italy, the home region of my (non-Jewish) family.

Going back to my usual sources, I see there’s a lot about food this year. :P Also an opinion piece from an American Jew in Rome, and then an article on how the Italian Jewish community sees their own situation. Bookended by incidents of antisemitism, because that’s how history goes this year.

Speaking of history, I also decided to include a few articles that JTA republished from their archives. Gives a rather intriguing portrait of Italy with regards to the Jews…from 1939 to 1960.

So, without further ado!

Read the rest of this entry »

January 1, 2016

2015 in review

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:26 pm by chavalah

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,800 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 30 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

December 24, 2015

Major Movie Season: Star Wars, The Hunger Games

Posted in Pop Culture at 12:14 pm by chavalah

Seriously, where's Luke?? No, don't tell me. :P

Seriously, where’s Luke?? No, don’t tell me. :P

I still remember the first time I saw a Star Wars film. It was 1997, and my parents took my sister and me to The Senator Theatre in Baltimore for the release of the special editions. Before The Empire Strikes Back, they warned us, excitedly, of “a shocking reveal” coming up, and by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, I was fully engrossed in the Skywalker family drama. I completely blame the Star Wars franchise for my family drama obsession, by the way. :P

Looking back, I wonder if my parents would have taken me to see the films and cement my love for the science fiction and fantasy genres, if they knew that within a couple of decades, many of my closest friends I’d meet through a Harry Potter role-playing game, or I’d be carting myself off to the biggest Comic-Con in the world. :P For a long time, I considered Star Wars to be my favorite fandom. I wrote Luke Skywalker a sonnet in high school that started “Oh Luke, thy father smote off thy hand…” The year of The Phantom Menace, I was glued to the soundtrack on my headphones. We were vacationing in the Poconos that summer, and I remember lying on the bed in our lodge, seeing nothing but wood paneling and movie plot points dancing in my head.

That’s right…I am a fan of the prequels (maybe not Attack of the Clones as much. But definitely the other two). Perhaps that’s part of the reason I slowly–not exactly fell out of love with the Star Wars fandom, but it diminished in my obsession scale. Harry Potter slowly took over, and became more far-reaching and long-lasting love affair (still holding out hope that it joins the ranks of SFF infamy, like a classical children’s literature version of Star Wars and Star Trek. You can bet your owl I’m writing my niece an acceptance letter to Hogwarts. Anywho, back to the Wars. :P)

It’s not much fun to like something that most of the rest of the fandom hates, and even throws around insulting bullshit like “George Lucas raped my childhood.” If that didn’t get to me, then it’s also the sheer disinterest of most of the cast. I had a negative reaction to Carrie Fisher’s electronic-cig smoking/alarm setting off DragonCon panel back in 2011, but in retrospect I think I didn’t respect her awesomeness enough. :P But it’s also true that she, Harrison Ford and others aren’t bananas over the films and the effect they’ve had on their careers, what have you. They’re certainly not fans, in the way of the SFF tradition. :P But I think that Fisher and Ford slowly got me to accept the role of actors in these blockbuster movies; I shouldn’t expect them to be fans, to understand the hype or be behind the message. It’s far more important to be on the same page with writers, directors, executive producers, if not the fan base.

Part of the reason I liked the prequels was that they were still undeniably Lucas’s vision. With The Force Awakens with Disney as the main backer, we’re officially moving into franchise territory. I know people whine about Ewoks or Jar Jar Binks being fodder for toys and money-making, but what do you call making movies just because they’re popular? Will they become as soulless as many comic book films, with their crazy, warping timelines and re-boots and shallow story arcs?

The prequels, for all of the shitty dialogue and demystification of the Force with the midi-chlorians, at least had a message. I’m gonna be totally unpopular and say that they were more realistic and thoughtful than the Cold War originals, with all of the “rah, rah, good fights evil” (though in proceeding years, there has been attention paid to innocents who might have died on the Death Star, or even whether Luke was “radicalized.”) But within the actual canon of the prequels, we see how corruption often comes from within. And sure, NPR, maybe Lucas was a bit wishy washy with political structures. :P But Niel DeGrasse Tyson apparently tweeted out all of the scientific inaccuracies of the new film; you can’t say that it’s physically impossible for Queen Amidala to call a vote for no confidence in Chancellor Valorum. :P /geek out

The Star Wars films, like most stories about mythology, focus on individual characters. In the originals, Luke undergoes Campbell’s “hero’s journey” while Han and Leia learn to let go of their pride and come together as an endearing couple. In the prequels, Palpatine, in his slow bid for power, first manipulates Amidala and then Anakin, playing on their fears and desires. The Jedi order isn’t reduced to a couple of philosophical exiles, but is crippled by it’s own massive power. Maybe they can’t see the Sith threat because they’ve grown too arrogant. How else can you explain that horrible librarian in Attack of the Clones who sniffs “if it’s not in our database, then it doesn’t exist?” :P

For a long time, Anakin was my favorite villain in cinema. I know some fans are disappointed that he was such a whiner, and didn’t come to be Darth Vader in a more “badass” way. But I was thrilled by the message that fear and arrogance can corrupt our intentions. Anakin just wanted to save Padme, especially haunted by the fact that he couldn’t save his mother. He was frustrated with Obi-Wan, rebelling against him as the father figure, but he loved him until the end, too. And the Jedi Order was sending some mixed messages because they weren’t quite in control, either.

The downfall of Anakin Skywalker wasn’t perfectly executed, and I suppose he’s been overtaken in my favorite “villain” category by Gale Hawthorne of The Hunger Games. I’m a bit loathe to call Gale a villain, because I think that’s way too simplistic. (I’ve unofficially devoted every “Mumford and Sons” song I hear to the character, because I’m that kind of geek. :P) But Suzanne Collins, and then the movies, explored the ways that an oppressed, disenfranchised miner could eschew empathy and when given the chance, condemn all people on “the other side” of his fight, and justify acts of extreme violence. It seems like an important character to analyze when so many angry young men, of late, are picking up guns.

Yes, The Hunger Games has superseded all to become my favorite fandom of the season. While everyone else was scampering off for the opening weekend of The Force Awakens, I went to The Mockingjay, Part 2 for the third time, now to do research for my rambly, 4,300-word book-to-movie review. :P

I feel like, through the stories I mentioned here, I can trace my own development about the universal questions that fascinate me. I’m still tickled by the mythological escapism of the original Star Wars films and Harry Potter–a young boy in a fascinatingly-drawn world embracing his destiny as “the chosen one.” (Actually, I love The Phantom Menace for the same reason–that sense of fantastical worldbuilding set-up and the wide-eyed wonder of imagining a plucky, disenfranchised boy going on a great adventure. Doesn’t turn out so well for him in the end, but. :P) As I’ve grown up, I’ve become more haunted by this post-9/11 world, where people come in shades of grey and war seems never-ending. The Star Wars prequels were like a stepping stone for my interest in the much better executed The Hunger Games, perhaps. This wonderful essay goes into the Star Wars vs Hunger Games scenario in more detail, and I agree with all of it until the end. I believe that when Katniss is exiled to District 12, she’s able to take off her “chosen one” propaganda, deal with her trauma, and make genuine human connections again, leading to a life of hope and a modicum of peace. The most realistic, and perhaps moving, of happy endings.

So, tonight I go with my dad to see The Force Awakens (but not at The Senator, waaah. What happened to upholding tradition?!) I’m not sure what to think. I believe I’ll enjoy the film (most of my friends certainly have), but I don’t know if I can take it as seriously as I used to take this series. Maybe it would be all-together easier accept this as a fun, action-y scifi/adventure romp. Though I suppose it’s impossible to assume that my feelings about Star Wars won’t change, yet again, with this new incarnation.

Just tell me Luke is ok, all right? :P I’ve done a pretty good job avoiding spoilers, but it’s common knowledge that he isn’t in this one so much. Has his “radicalization” in the original films now corrupted him beyond measure? ;) I’m just gonna imagine him as a hermit, chilling out on Degobah with R2-D2. :P I’ll find out the truth in a couple of hours.

Happy holidays, and may the Force be with you!

December 19, 2015

Fall/Winter 2015 TV Summary

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:48 pm by chavalah

"Dark Swan" promotion from OUAT season 5A

“Dark Swan” promotion from OUAT season 5A

Happy Holidays! I might be more prolific than usual this month and write another post, because as all science fiction/fantasy and/or pop culture geeks can tell you, it’s a big time for movies. :P

But to start, some lukewarm thoughts on the two television shows I watched this season; “Once Upon a Time” and “The Leftovers.” Rounding off with “The Man in the High Castle,” a show I haven’t watched (and a book I haven’t read) but is surely a springboard into Jewish and other significant issues.

Once Upon a Time, season 5A

This might be my least favorite first half of a season ever. There’s still a lot I liked about it, particularly making King Arthur into a villain. “Once” is very good at twisting the attributes of traditionally heroic characters to show the dark sides of their personality traits. (And, paradoxically, the sympathetic angles of a canon villain’s bad choices.) I also really liked how “the dark one” magic played on Emma and Hook, their motivations and their weaknesses that led them into flirting with being Sith Lords, hee.

I’m usually more ok than some others with “the rules” of magic being a bit all over the place, because the true purpose of this series is to show, through a mythological construct, the emotional consequences when these characters choose to follow such choices as hope, faith or love, vs hate, fear and anger. But this half season, things felt a little less internally driven and a little more externally forced by the writers, like Merida physically and psychologically bullying Rumple to become “brave” so he can do the minor plot thing for Emma. Part of this has to do with introducing intriguing secondary characters who are primarily meant to propel the plot for the leads before abruptly disappearing. Maybe we need some spinoff shows, hee.

I’m incredibly disappointed in Rumple and Belle getting a hard reset into being the villain and the ignorant wife. We’ve been here before, due to more understandable circumstances, and I’m not keen to see it play out yet again. I like characters who change, and I especially feel duped because I had such hope for them, “Once” showrunners. :P

And in that vein…I’m a little wary about entering the underworld in the next half season. I feel like the writers were a little loose with setting up the backstory, because I don’t think the point of this family show is to promise that everyone will rot in hell after death, no matter what. :P I think this will be a very specific journey to a place that holds very specific people (and speaking of, there are some guest stars who I can’t WAIT to see in 2016. :D) But what happened to “dead means dead”? Why does Hook get a pass when no one else does? I rather wish that Nealfire, Graham and others might confront Emma on this point. :P And I’m also hoping—if we save Hook from death, which seems likely, someone else should be gone forever. Should be some lasting consequences, at least.

The Leftovers, season 2

I suppose, overall, I’ve become more amenable this season to the idea that this show might not be about the Christian rapture, but about a predominately Christian-identified nation convinced that it has experienced the Christian rapture. :P I contextualized more of the imagery and liturgical music, I suppose. And this year, we did briefly get to see a pair of Chassidic Jews and a tour bus or two of Chinese people. Booyah. But the most obvious show of diversity came through the introduction of the awesome and nuanced African American family, the Murphys. Looking forward to seeing these folks again.

But actually, “The Leftovers” is only nominally about the Rapture/Departure, what have you. What it’s mostly taken with is the multiple resurrections of its protagonist, Kevin Garvey. If I thought I was annoyed by his storyline last year…*cracks knuckles* It’s a simple identity crisis story, writers; you’re ridiculously blunt about it when Kevin is singing “Homeward Bound” while having flashbacks. You don’t need to kill him, and then break the laws of nature to bring him back—magically draining a lake so he won’t drown or whatnot. Honestly, this storyline sounds like something that should be parodied on @GuyInYourMFA.

Give me more of Nora Durst and Ericka Murphy—played beautifully by Carrie Coon and Regina King. Speaking of a literary conceit that actually worked, their episode felt like a short story that was bookended by two rocks being thrown through front windows. In the face of losing their children, these women grapple with motherhood, guilt, and they earnestly ponder the supernatural. Or give me more Matt Jamison. He’s the most human depiction of a Christian religious figure that I’ve come across in TV drama; not the boy-next-door clergy (in Jewish terms, I always think of Rabbi “Look at the Parking Lot” from “A Serious Man”), nor does he belong on the pulpit of the Westboro Baptist Church. He seems like someone who would fit nicely into a Marilyn Robinson novel, at least from what I’ve gleaned second-hand. (Speaking of Twitter and hashtags, I kind of wanna try one of her books, but I have #TooMuchToRead. :/ Anywho.)

Undoubtedly the worst part of the season came by way of Liv Tyler’s antagonist. Her squeaky voice makes her sound like a one dimensional little girl villain prevalent in some horror, and due to the story constraints she’s barely able to move beyond that. But what I’m surprised received no backlash was the scene where she raped a guy. I get it; “The Leftovers” is nowhere as big as HBO’s flagship, “Game of Thrones,” but for all of GoT’s flaws in execution, Ramsay’s actions at least made contextual sense. There was no “enemy protocol” or character motivation that gives this rape scene a pass. And we certainly don’t get any sort of realistic aftermath, IMHO. Talk about inserting something for mere shock value. Big fail in my book.

The Man in the High Castle

From the off, and even before knowing about the controversial subway seats/ads, this concept gave me the heebie jeebies. It’s like I’m Superman, and every time I engage with the outside world, I get Lex Luthor tattooed across my eyelids. Or if American pop culture was obsessed with another class of “supervillain”—say, the Ku Klux Klan? Even if consistently portrayed as “the bad guys,” if I were Black I wouldn’t want to constantly see those hoods. It’s a bit of a moot point, because, as I’ve argued on this blog before, the United States turns to Nazis as our supervillains because we can see them as totally “Other,” something we unfortunately cannot extend to the KKK.

So here’s the time for a standard disclaimer—I’m not judging anyone who watches the series, much less who read Phillip K. Dick’s 1962 book. I’m sure, at the very least, it portrays the values of underdog resistance and the fallacy of fascism. But as a Jew, I look at Pop Culture Nazis and I wonder…are we losing track of things here? Do we need the fictional Nazis to take over the country for us to understand that antisemitism, racism, and other forms of xenophobia (which all exist here in real life) are bad? Do we have to imagine the Nazis having power to do worse than the Final Solution in Africa? (The latter of which probably deserves a historically accurate show or two, given the atrocities that actually happened there under colonialism.) Aren’t fictional Nazis a bit of a cheap shot at trying to gauge universal issues?

I just have too much baggage for this franchise. :P The Nazis are such a huge part of modern Jewish history, and, to my mind, can be so misunderstood. Starting (perhaps hypocritically) with the fact of how prevalent they are to the Jewish idea of peoplehood. I’m pained every time I read a study that claims Jews consider “remembering the Holocaust” to be THE most important aspect of our cultural life today. Should we be diminished to our ability to survive atrocity? Should we forget what Hitler tried to erase, all the centuries of Yiddish language, food, culture and religion, from writer Sholem Aleichem to rabbi Regina Jonas? (And that’s just Eastern Europe, of course.) This is part of the reason why I try to read a lot of Jewish fiction, but I usually stay away from the “Holocaust” theme. The Jewish Book of Life podcast recently did an episode about this, with regards to kids’ books.

In the real United States of late, plenty of other people are invoking the Jews of the Holocaust in response to some horrific public “discourse” concerning racially profiling immigrants and registering Muslims. I’m all for making comparisons to hopefully increase communal empathy for underprivileged groups, but sometimes something is lost in translation. Like when people compare the Holocaust arm tattoos (rather than the “Jude” stars) to registering “non-Christians.” The arm tattoos were used exclusively at Auschwitz to identify bodies, because the SS killed so many people there per day. It’s a little different than what we’re facing here. I’m wary of the idea of shoving Holocaust education down everyone’s throat, but Jews should be more than dead bodies in your allegory. Real, living people were victims of that genocide, and what happened to them, sans alternate history franchises or comparisons to other groups, should matter, too.

(For a different take from another Jewish Rachel, check out Tablet’s review of this television show. She raises some good issues about current events, HOWEVER. *dusts off superhero cape* I’m here to battle my arch-nemesis, shallow interpretation of The Hunger Games trilogy. :p Katniss is not a messianic world-saving hero, but a teenager largely coerced into creating propaganda for the commanders behind the scenes. And if you want to talk “realistic”—the highly improbable hypothesis of the Axis powers winning the war doesn’t quite cut it. A series that probes how violence is destructive, no matter which side you fight for, is more “adult” in my opinion. Anywho. Stay tuned for more Hunger Games thoughts (plus a little something called Star Wars, most likely arriving soon!)

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.

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