July 30, 2015

July 27, 2015

The Most Wholesome Movie of the Year: Magic Mike XXL

Coming home from Magic Mike XXL this weekend, my husband commented, "You know, it's really a very wholesome movie." I quipped, "Once you set aside the cussing. And the drug use. And the simulated sex."

But I knew just what he meant. MMXXL is unusual. It gets high scores for being positive toward women, and yay for that, especially on the heels of shooting of two women during a viewing of the feminist comedy Trainwreck this past week by a old, angry white man who had a longstanding hatred of "feminine rights." As the boys in the movie make their way to Myrtle Beach (Myrtle Beach!), they run into every type of woman: cool beach girls, young black women at a steamy club, rich older white women in a wealthy neighborhood. And every group is treated with respect and a sense of possibility: whatever new place they go, they as characters—and you as the viewer—feel that something good is on the way. And why not: In Mike's world, men and women are friends and comrades. There are no assumptions, no expectations of sex, no temper tantrums if sex doesn't happen, just openness and generosity and respect, toward others and yourself.

The movie's equally positive toward men. The guys at the center of the movie aren't perfect and they aren't generic. They're no better than they should be, but they're good-hearted and, underneath the bravado, grappling with their insecurities and trying to figure out how they can get from point A to point B in pursuit of their dreams. They're friends. Nobody's mean to each other or overly competitive. When Joe Manganiello's character fears that he's losing his touch, his friends challenge him to woo a grumpy convenience store clerk, leading to one of the best scenes in the movie as he dances his way around the condiments and sodas. And there are his friends, outside the store windows cheering him on. The whole scene is dirty . . . and very sweet.

Even better, the movie is sex positive. Hooking up doesn't make you a douche. Having sex is great, with no sense of shame for the women or ugly conquest for the men. The movie has a comfort with male beauty and the female gaze that is simply unprecedented. When the guys are dancing and stripping, there's no camp, no wink-wink at the audience like they know how silly it is. They are deadly serious about what they do. Which doesn't mean it isn't fun, only that they find the business of being sexy for women to be a straightforward and perfectly respectable endeavor, honorable even.

The plot is also unusual because it contains obstacles but not conflict. It's like a picaresque novel, in which the hero travels through society in pursuit of a goal, at each stop interacting with a different slice of society and revealing its vices and hypocrisies. The point of a picaresque novel is not character development but satire. MMXXL is kind of the reverse: The boys travel up the East Coast, interacting with different groups, and revealing the virtues and possibilities of each. Their characters don't develop—they're fine just as they are. But each stop on their journey reveals a new way in which people can connect and have fun together. The culmination of this might be the rich woman's house. When the boys come in, looking for a beach girl they met a few days earlier, they're sat down in the brocaded furniture by a group of older women who would, in any other movie, be reduced to an ugly cougar stereotype. How they inch from strangers to mates (in the British sense of the word) is great, culminating in the loveliest scene in the movie, where they sing "I'm in Heaven" together.

There's craft here. The dancing is great (and yay on including one of my favorite dancers, tWitch), and the writers find a way to bring each guy's personal passion to the final dance scene—a neat trick. It gives a satisfying arc to the movie and provides a lesson in authenticity, as the guys reject the worn stripper stereotypes (fireman, cop) and build new stage characters from the inside out. I have to say, too, that Channing Tatum is a hell of an actor. Just watch a scene where he's in the frame but not talking: he's looking around, making little distracted expressions, totally natural. I've seen Oscar winners who aren't as good at that.

Every woman viewer during Magic Mike XXL.

July 15, 2015

The Bold and the Beautiful, in Writing

Ever since I read The Fault in Our Stars, John Green's YA novel about a teenage girl with cancer, a few years ago, hardly a month goes by without the novel's signature line coming to mind: "The world is not a wish-granting factory." That's a great line because it is both true and well-expressed. Reconciling ourselves to the indifference of the world to our desires is a struggle as ancient as the Greeks. They expressed it as the wheel of fate, and it's been expressed a zillion times since. Yet this quote makes you feel it anew, acutely and even beautifully. How does it do that?

John Green proves that great writing doesn't have to be elaborate. But elaborate can be beautiful, as one of my other favorite quotes, by Virginia Woolf, demonstrates: "The beauty of this world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder." While John Green's line is forceful, Woolf's is subtle. And precise: Has the exact nature of life—how completely its wonderfulness and its tragic nature are interwoven—ever been so exactly conveyed?

July 12, 2015

Love & Mercy: Second Viewing

I saw Love & Mercy in the theater for the second time this weekend. There is so much going on in this movie that I think I could watch it a third time and still pick up more. The photos above may not make it look like a very compelling film, but it's mesmerizing.

June 20, 2015

Jon Stewart Was Wrong—And So Was I

Back in the more innocent time of  2010, Jon Stewart held the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. The purpose of the rally was to bring right wing and left wing together to moderate the extremist rhetoric that had become ever more common in our public discourse. He wanted us to stop calling each other Nazis and terrorists and haters of America. I went to the rally; it was fun. People had cool signs.

Looking back, it feels ominous. Shouldn't we have been more disturbed that some of our best-known media figures felt the need to address this? Didn't it imply an underlying unease at what was coming across our airwaves? Didn't we want to assure ourselves that, really, we're okay, America is full of good people, we're fine, aren't we? Aren't we?

We're not fine and we're not good and we're not safe. This week a white 21-year-old planned and carried out the murder of a group of black people. At first I balked at the term "terrorism" to describe it because I think of terrorism as something committed by networks of people instead of individuals. But the truth is that the killer was part of a network, a network that has been growing year by year. 

Terrorism grows when a group of people in society feel they are getting a raw deal. This raw deal consists of two things: economic stress and loss of political clout. They are angry and perhaps even humiliated. They want very, very badly to matter again. If they can't achieve that through normal means, abnormal means will do.

Fear of humiliation is one of the strongest motivators in all of human nature. People will do a lot to rid themselves of that feeling. It's what motivates the husband whose wife has left him to kill her. It's what motivated the straight soldier who attacked a gay soldier and found himself beat up instead to go back the next day to kill that gay soldier. It's what motivated Germany to start World War I. It's what motivated Osama bin Laden, who couldn't stand that the West was winning, that the Muslim world was considered a hopelessly backward, inferior culture.

There is a portion of white America that is in psychic crisis over their identity and their place in this country. Year after year they have to hear about police brutality against black people; they are forced to observe the celebration of the civil rights movement. They are told that black people are good and white people are bad, and they HATE that because they know some black people, and they're not good at all, while they themselves are both white and good. They watch a black president get elected, even though they hate him. They didn't want a black president, but their voice, in the end, didn't matter. The country is changing and moving on, and they are being left behind and they hate that too.

What happens with this group of people? What do they do with those feelings of resentment and loss of status?

After Barack Obama was elected, sales of guns and bullets soared, a fact that some Republicans reported with glee. The ostensible reason was worry that Obama would enact gun control laws, but there was no indication that would happen. More likely: guns represent power. If you are armed, you can't be dismissed. You must be recognized. You automatically matter.

Way back in the 1980s the film Grand Canyon has a white middle-aged driver get lost in a ghetto. He is accosted by a group of scary black young men but a black middle-aged tow truck driver arrives to diffuse the tension. He appeals to the young man who seems to be the leader and urges him to let them go on their way. He treats the young man with deference and respect, and the young man asks him if he would have addressed him the same way if he (the young man) didn't have a gun. After a moment, the middle-aged man answers:

Middle-aged man: You don't have a gun, we don't have this conversation.
Young man: [pauses, smiles] That's why I have the gun.

That black punk, that degenerate, status-obsessed thug? He is Osama bin Laden. He is WWI Germany. And he is white right-wing America, right now.

There is another element to every successful terror movement: media.  Local newspapers were extremely important in the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism in Germany, just as local radio was in the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. Day in and day out, readers or listeners were whipped into a frenzy of disgust for others and self-righteousness for themselves. The constant onslaught of media brainwashing turned thousands of people who had been peaceful neighbors into sadistic killers. These are people who, not too long beforehand, greeted these same neighbors in the street, shared meals, shared gossip, lived together normally. They were—once—perfectly good citizens.

We have in American culture right now a media empire that is daily growing richer by nurturing the feelings of resentment, victimhood, and extremism that terrorism grows from. Fox News is not calling for white conservatives to kill their enemies. But they have found a formula to make money, by stoking feelings of disgust for others and self-righteousness for themselves, and if the cost of that cash cow is the spread of white right-wing violence, then so be it.

The killer of the members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston said that he was radicalized by the Trayvon Martin incident. But how is it possible that the acquittal of a white man of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager should represent the oppression of white people and the taking over of America by black people? How is such thinking created?

It is created by Fox News and all media like it. For Fox News, Christians are an oppressed minority (though Ivy League colleges have never banned or restricted Christians from enrollment, no evidence exists of job, housing, or political discrimination against Christians); the terrorist attack of September 11 (carried out by a group of conservative religious fundamentalists) was the fault of "gays and feminists"; the drought in California is caused by liberals' acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner, the death of Trayvon Martin was a travesty of justice for white America, reporting allegations of Chris Christie's corruption is a sign of an unwanted "feminization" of American politics, up is down, black is white, yes is no.

Fox News and its right-wing extremism have poisoned our nation. It has fed the passions and delusions of a disgruntled minority with an attraction to the status-generating power of the gun. And to the Emmanuel AME killer, the shooter at the Holocaust Museum, and the gun fanatic at Sandy Hook, let me give you your due: You have gotten our attention. You cannot be dismissed. You inarguably matter. It is an incredible tribute to black America that the result of the Emmanuel AME killer's slaughter was not the race war that he wanted but yet another instance of black strength, forgiveness, and fortitude. White America will never be able to repay the debt that we owe to black America for its nonviolent struggle for justice. But no one should be asked for that much strength and forgiveness.

I hope that we begin to take white terrorism seriously in our country. We need to invest many more resources into investigating and monitoring those who present a risk to our nation. And we have to also admit that liberals alone cannot change our culture. Liberals tend to trust in time and progress, but things are deteriorating too rapidly for time to heal. And once a sense of grievance on both sides develops, reconciliation becomes almost impossible, as the Israelis and Palestinians tell us so eloquently with every new death. Conservative America has to find the moral strength to oppose the destructive lies of victimhood and scapegoating, to reform their own gun culture, and to turn the tide on this drift toward extremism.

June 4, 2015

Magic in the Moonlight

Yes, it's a third-tier Woody Allen movie. But a third-tier Woody Allen movie is still a solid B.

Plus it has Hamish Linklater, one of my favorite under-the-radar actors.

Plus Emma.

Plus Colin.

May 21, 2015

50 Shades of Grey: Review

Dakota Johnson in 50 Shades of Grey is my perfect storm of film frustration. Not because her performance is bad, but because it's great in just the way that will make people dismiss it.

I was originally down on her as a choice to play Ana Steele. This was due to one very silly fact: I didn't like the way she smiled on the red carpet. A kind of closed-mouth, pursed-lips thing that, in the way of all humans, I was tempted to read as an indication of her personality. I chided myself but didn't really get over it until I saw her KILL IT on Saturday Night Live. Then I was genuinely stoked. I assumed Jamie Dornan would be good because his modeling career indicated a total comfort with expressing sexuality.

Did you want to see this film in a public theater with a bunch of teenagers and possibly a neighbor or two? Yeah, me neither. So it was just this week I got around to renting it. The direction and writing were all nicely done, even if there were some pacing problems (Ana goes from having her first encounter with Christian to being frustrated with his limitations way too quickly) and some clich├ęd encounters and imagery (dancing sequence: barf). That being said, I admired how grounded it all seemed. The biggest weakness of the film is without a doubt Jamie Dornan, who seems completely out of his depth. There's a vacuum where his personality should be, though I wonder how much better he might have been if he didn't have to maintain an American accent. Seems like acting in a foreign tongue would be very difficult.

Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, gives us a fully formed Ana Steele. She manages something rare: portraying someone quiet and vulnerable who doesn't seem weak. Americans can be so hung up on "personality," as in "She's got a lot of personality!" Which means she has a certain type of personality: loud, brash, conspicuously confident. Johnson forgoes all of the mannerisms regarding strength and assertiveness that we've come to expect from women in film, without actually forgoing strength and assertiveness. She isn't deferential, but she also doesn't overcompensate by being  "spunky." Her acting is something very, very rare in cinema: truly naturalistic.

It's that naturalism that's bound to kill most people's assessment of her. We've become so accustomed to the stylistic nature of most acting that we don't even see it as a convention any more: People hang up the phone without saying goodbye. They leave huge pauses in conversations or speeches or toasts. The social niceties that are second nature in real life—smiling, being talkative, engaging in gossip or filler—are absent, as are the everyday gestures that are often considered tics in acting, like touching your hair or twisting your mouth around or tapping your fingers. We tend to perceive stoic, serious turns as good acting, with quirky individualism coming in second.

So Johnson hits it out of the ballpark in building a naturalistic personality for her character, and she's also capable of expressing great emotion, the second, and much more common, virtue of good acting. Her anguish in the last fourth of the movie is completely compelling, and it's in this last quarter that Jamie Dornan does best as well, when he's not called to just be—to walk around and interact with people and have us believe he's a real person—but to be still and express emotion. Still, I wish I could see what the movie would have been with Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey. 

Also: random shout-out to the costume people. There are so many small trends that grew out of the Twilight movies (or, really, the first Twilight movie, directed by Catherine Hardwicke), and one of them was putting young people in real young people clothes: skinny jeans, flannel shirts, jackets they could have gotten at Old Navy. The 50 Shades team did a good job with this.

May 18, 2015

Hoist by My Own Petard: The Suffering Male Body in Outlander

I don't even know what a petard is, but I bet it's something they use in Wentworth Prison.

Wentworth Prison is where the latest episode of Outlander takes place. The beautiful hero Jamie Fraser has been imprisoned by the sadistic British officer Jonathan Randall, who intends to abuse him before sending him to his death. Randall had flogged Jamie five years before, and the incident has haunted and delighted Randall ever since:

Now Jamie is back in Randall's hands, shackled in his dungeon. Randall wants to break Jamie, wants to feel Jamie's surrender to his own power and even charisma. At one point in the show, Randall gazes on dirty, brutalized, but still handsome face of Jamie as he talks about his obsession, and I thought to myself, This is where obsession can lead. And then I thought, That's a good lesson. And then I thought, Didn't I just blog about how, in film, a purported "lesson" based on plot is less important than the message communicated through images? Petard: hoisted.

This episode, called "Wentworth Prison," is being rightly hailed as a masterpiece, heartbreaking to the point of tears. The writing, direction, acting . . .  just look at Caitrona Balfe as Claire, absolutely breaking apart as she sees Jamie's torture:

Balfe was amazing in this episode. True sobbing is hard to fake because there are involuntary physiological responses that kick in when you're that emotional: your airways constrict, your voice is lowered or elevated. The deep, gruff sobbing that came out of Balfe's throat in this episode was so terribly authentic.

Actor Sam Heughan is equally amazing as a strong, masterful man being slowly mastered. The power and beauty of Sam's body is really the lynchpin of the series, carrying so much of the emotional weight of the show, not to mention so much of the plot. Fans are enthralled by shots like this:

And this:

And this:

But equally by this:

And this:

Yes, that's his back, after the flogging.

And this:

Scottish pieta.

And God help us, this:

The spectacle of the suffering male body has always been powerful, from The Dying Gaul:

"Dying Gaul" by BeBo86 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dying_Gaul.jpg#/media/File:Dying_Gaul.jpg

To the dying Christ:

(pending attribution)

These images are powerful because we project onto them our desire for endurance. They are battered and yet somehow resistant to battering. There is an almost God-like ability to sustain and not break, or break but not be destroyed.

But it's confusing to feel my own craving for these images and wonder if they're just as exploitative as Ex Machina's naked Asian automatons (see blog post here). Ex Machina's use of those images feels less honest, especially contrasted with the type of romance art women create and consume, where the desire for male beauty is unabashedly The Point. But perhaps Jamie Fraser in Wentworth is just a bit too close to torture porn for comfort, even if the craving is not for pain or control (like true torture porn) but for the portrayal of male endurance and the promise of female comfort. The image of Claire hovering over the broken Jamie above evokes the Pieta, the ultimate image of female succor:

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It offers a proposal that is deeply appealing: As a woman, I can offer you a healing that no other can. And recognizing that provides an unsettling feeling. In one of the episodes best moments, Jamie's back is turned to Randall, and Randall reaches out with his hand in a shot that mimic's Randall's POV. As a viewer, you feel eerily identified with Randall at that moment, wanting to reach out as well.

Ultimately, I believe in that instinct to reach out. Art serves some deep needs, even if the delivery is as complicated as in Ex Machina. It's also been interesting to read fan reactions to the Wentworth Prison scene, which of course has existed in book form for years. I had always wished that Randall's subjugation of Jamie had not existed, so total was Randall's triumph. But in the week leading up to the episode, several fans wrote about how this story line helped them deal with their own sexual assault. It sounds simplistic to say it this way, but as they read, they thought, "If Jamie can survive this, so can I." Those who have read the book series know that recovering from Wentworth is a long process for Jamie, but even the lastingness of the pain may give comfort to those who feel like the nightmare keeps coming back.

May 11, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria: Review

Holy crap this is a good movie. Both Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart won Cesars for their roles as an aging actress and her young assistant, and I can't imagine any more deserving performances. These two are head to head the entire time, and they throw their strength around without fear the other will shatter. The intensity and yet naturalness of their performances is almost unlike anything I've seen.

Sils Maria is the town where Binoche's Maria has holed up with her assistant Val to run lines for a new part: that of a sad, aging woman obsessed with a young, beautiful coworker. Maria is regretting taking the part, perhaps because it hits too close to home, or perhaps because it doesn't and she doesn't want to give the impression that aging actresses are sad specimens. Or perhaps she feels that inhabiting that headspace for too long will turn her into that sad specimen. Three plausible interpretations. Multiply that by the dozens of interactions and issues in the movie, add in the debates over art and celebrity, and you have a sense of the film's complexity.

I always knew Juliette Binoche was a good actor, but I didn't realize what a truly great actor she is. Kristen Stewart's naturalistic manner of acting is so unconventional that audiences and critics, accustomed to the stylized conventions of most performances, often mistake it for amateurishness. She's always been brilliant at vulnerability and quiet strength, but she lets loose here in new ways. I could have watched these two for hours.

The clouds of the title refer to a real-life phenomenon called the Maloja Snake. High in the Alps, clouds are funneled into a series of valleys, moving through them like a snake. The Maloja Snake is a harbinger of bad weather, but can be difficult to spot at first. When Maria is on the mountain early one morning, she goes back and forth: Is it the Snake? No, it's just mist. Or is it? The scene comes at a point when she is about to commit to the role she has been dreading and an additional twist leaves her wondering whether her next move will end up a moment of bravery or a misstep. Despite her perch high on the mountains of fame and success, it can be hard to make out.

The Maloja Snake.

May 9, 2015

Ex Machina: Review


Hoo boy. Ex Machina. The critics like this one. A full six reviews were assigned a score of 100 on Metacritic, with raves like "A riveting sci-fi investigation into humankind's experiments with A.I." (Philadelphia Inquirer) and talk of "the narrative’s multiple, amusingly deployed dualities: confinement and liberation, agency and submission, mind and body" (New York Times).

In some ways, the movie is easy to like. It's a puzzle movie: A coder working at a Google-like company wins a week at the reclusive, brilliant founder's compound. He arrives at a high-tech facility that's part home, part laboratory, and is arrested by its stark, modern beauty, tight security, and spooky emptiness. The founder is an eccentric named Nathan, a muscular, cocky genius who is by turns controlling and avuncular. The coder is a smart everyman named Caleb who is overwhelmed at meeting his hero but unsettled by all the automatic locks and Nathan's moodiness. Nathan eventually reveals his purpose: Caleb is there to perform a Turing test on Nathan's latest attempt at artificial intelligence.

Nathan's latest AI model, naturally, comes in the form of a fabulously beautiful young woman called Ava. Caleb spends his days in "sessions" with Ava, standing or sitting behind unbreakable glass with Ava before him, looking lovely and mysterious and slightly tortured. As the days pass, Caleb realizes that Nathan has a thing for his female robots. Once Nathan discovers their flaws, he assigns them to a closet in his bedroom, taking them out for sex or erotic dancing while he moves on to build the next, better model.  Caleb decides to help Ava escape, and the denouement follows.

My list of grievances with this movie runs long, so let's start with some positives: It's well made. Sets and cinematography: very nice. Acting: ferocious. Nathan is played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac, and Caleb by Domhnall Gleeson. It's hard to believe Gleeson is the same actor who played both Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and Levin in Anna Karenina (in which, as Levin, he was married to Kitty, played by his Ex Machina costar Alicia Vikander). These guys are major talents. It's hard to evaluate the acting of the women because they're, you know, robots. And since Nathan is a sick bastard, they are crafted to look sexy and behave with only stoic allure.

In a basic way, the movie is fun. Nathan is a charismatic beast, and viewers get to juggle scenarios in their heads, making bets on the outcome. I don't know that the film is any kind of brilliant meditation on consciousness or freedom or the limits of humanness. The AI models are robots, and you either believe robots can attain consciousness or you don't. Characters are either lying or they aren't. Scenarios are either what they are or something darker. In the end, there are a limited number of ways the movie could go, and the way it did go seemed no more inevitable or logical than any other. For all its apparent complexity, the film felt very, very simplistic to me.

Plausibility is another issue. The movie tried to provide cover for some of the most implausible aspects: Caleb has always idolized Nathan, and that's why he stays at the compound despite the extreme weirdness he encounters almost immediately. Ava is hand-crafted to appeal to Caleb, and that's why he ends up staring moonily at her by day two. Nathan is a security-obsessed paranoid, and that's why he passes out drunk every evening . . . no, wait, what?

All of these things detached me from the movie, but it's the ideology of the movie that really rankled. No movie can be reduced to a "message," but I'm sure the filmmakers and critics would say the movie is about questions of autonomy, freedom, maybe even female empowerment and the male desire to control or rescue. But the medium is the message, as we know. And the medium here is two hours of imagery of stereotypical female allure. Ava is beautiful in that blank, tragic way we know so well. Kyoko, the other female part, is an allegedly Korean servant whom Caleb mysteriously fails to recognize as a robot. She's beautiful, Asian, demure; she serves, she kneels, she displays herself naked. I'm sure the actress, Sonoya Mizuno, was glad to get the work, but she was probably thinking, "Oh fer god's sake . . . " 

I'll use the term "cover" again: The filmmakers have cover for themselves in this regard. Nathan's construction and use of Kyoko is sick. Caleb's estimation of Ava as an adoring object of desire is wrong. But can you simultaneously condemn and indulge these instincts? Does watching two hours of specific, vivid male personality counterposed with stereotypical, anonymous, suffering female beauty truly chip away at our cultural bias? I'm reminded of a comment that Anthony Swofford makes in his memoir Jarhead. Swofford was a Marine in Iraq and tells of watching antiwar films like Full Metal Jacket in the barracks. He notes that, for soldiers like his fellow jarheads, there is no such thing as an antiwar film. Because all antiwar films shows war, and that's what they get off seeing. And in a film like Ex Machina, whatever lofty concepts the film may use as scaffolding, its prime materials are images of female beauty enhanced by emptiness and exploitation: the sad eyes, the quavering lips, the tragic intelligence, the utter subjugation.

My issue is not with the portrayal of female beauty, by the way. Our attraction to beauty, both male and female, is profound and deserves a central place in art. My issue is how heterosexual male desire gets naturalized in art and how heterosexual female desire gets pathologized. If a movie is focused on female beauty, it's barely worth mentioning; it's natural, it's thematic, whatever. If a movie is focused on male beauty, it's fetishistic, it's mommy porn, it's ridiculous. There's an uber-awareness of the display of male beauty in film, not to mention pushback: Everything from the celebration of Dad Bod to the mocking of pretty boys serves as pushback in hopes that male beauty never gets naturalized the way female beauty is.

It's interesting to compare Ex Machina with Her, the 2013 AI rom-com dramedy starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely schlub and Scarlett Johanssen as his bodiless AI girlfriend. Despite both films being about lonely men falling in love with lovely, constructed women, I never felt unease at Spike Jonze's masterpiece. Part of this is undoubtedly that Scarlett Johanssen is only a voice. And part is probably that Jonze creates a subtly distinct world for his film. Ex Machina takes place in our world, with one disturbing technological advance. Her takes place in a world that is subtly but comprehensively different. Clothes are different. Work is different. Social relations are different. The protagonist doesn't feel like a Mary Sue.

And Her really does delve into the implications of a relationship with an AI in a deep way. In Ex Machina the question is essentially, Is she sincere? In Her the relationship is sincere and deep—and when the protagonist and the viewer realize that the AI is conducting equally sincere and deep relationships with thousands of other people, the sense of disequilibrium is enormous. This is not does she/doesn't she. This is a profound insight into the incommensurate nature of such a relationship.

On a final note: Movie posters are always telling. Here are the posters for Ex Machina and Her

"Investigation into humankind's experiments with A.I." my ass.

April 30, 2015

The New Common Law

Just saw this posted as the caption of a homemade video of scenes from Outlander set to a Billy Joel song. This type of statement is usually included in fan usage, but the wording here seemed particularly confident and authoritative.

"Fan vid. No rights infringement."

"Umm . . ."

April 23, 2015

Rehab Works! by Jim Savage

One of my favorite books to have worked on hit Amazon recently. Here's the link for anyone interested in rehab and what it really requires to be successful.

April 22, 2015

We Are Goop

Hermes bag.

In the days of the old movie studio system, the big film studios, stars, and their publicists carefully managed the stars' public images, keenly aware that audiences would turn on them if they appeared anything other than glamorous, fun (within bounds of propriety), and straight. Stars could be taken down by breaking up a marriage, having affairs, or having a child out of wedlock. Ingrid Bergman managed that trifecta when she shacked up with the married Roberto Rossellini and gave birth to a son just days before her own divorce was finalized. It took America a long time to forgive.

The now years-long hatefest on Gwyneth Paltrow calls to mind this same sensitivity to image. Paltrow does not appear to have a life that is very different from other celebrities. She dresses in nice clothes, goes on vacation, eats at expensive restaurants. The difference is that she has a website, Goop.com, that highlights the clothes, the vacations, the restaurants. Goop provides transparency to the reality of Paltrow's life—and we really, really don't like that.

The 20th-century audience's insistence on glamour and propriety has been replaced with a new template of demands: Celebrities should be down-to-earth, smooth but not too smooth, and self-deprecating. We mostly don't care if someone has a child outside of marriage or is gay, all of which is great. But while the nature of the demands on celebrity behavior has changed, the fact of these demands has not. We still demand they provide a sanitized image of their reality.

I am certain that Vin Diesel does not live in a dump and that Jennifer Lawrence doesn't stay at the Motel 8 when she travels. But without their own Goops, we don't have to think about that. Likewise there are celebrities who are reportedly terrible people. Serious, in-depth articles have contended that Matthew Fox is physically abusive and Tobey Maguire is verbally abusive—I mean really awful. But these things make barely a ripple in the cultural ecosystem, partly because they are no longer huge stars but also because their images are so likable, Fox with his All-American good looks and Maguire with his aw-shucks nerd-made-good persona.

It seems like an infantile mentality to punish stars who are honest about their lives, who are open about their luxuries or the fact that being hounded by paparazzi is a horrible experience. Even clothed in terms of class awareness or antimaterialism, it smacks of 1930s fantasy. And maybe just a tiny bit of misogyny, since we tend to get whipped up in a furor over women far more than men, who if anything are hated for being objects of desire or popularity with women, not for living the good life and being happy about it.

Worst of all is that when we fixate on Paltrow's excesses, we reinforce the delusion that the problem of income inequality lies elsewhere. After she tried to buy a week's worth of groceries on the welfare allowance of  $29 this past week, critics noted that the cost of a page of luxuries touted on Goop could feed a family for a year. While the rich should pay their fair share of taxes and corporations should pay their employees a good living wage, this kind of spotlight on individual celebrity excess directs our gaze to the super-rich, leaving our own excesses off-stage. How many families could be fed for a year by the amount those critics—and we their co-conspirators—spend on clothes, shoes, travel, restaurants? In the end, most of us participating in the hatefest are more like Gwyneth Paltrow than the poor family we imagine her wronging. Maybe a desire to have the reality of celebrities' lives veiled is in part a desire to have the reality of our own lives, our own privileges, veiled.

April 18, 2015

The Copyediting Mind

Yes, it's a grandiose post title, but that's how I'm feeling after reading Mary Norris's glorious "Holy Writ: Learning to Love the House Style" in the New Yorker. Norris has been copyediting for the New Yorker for many years now (though she writes it "copy editing") and just put out a book about her life called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

I've been a copyeditor for roughly twenty-five years now. Like all jobs, editing requires a thought process that becomes virtually invisible after a while. And like all jobs, it constitutes a microculture of its own, with its own tools of the trade (back in the day, colored pencils that each meant something specific: red for printer's errors, blue for editorial changes), specialized vocabulary, and stereotypical experiences. Most microcultures these days at least enjoy dedicated online forums, but it's rare to see one's world put front and center like Norris's book does for editing. John Leguizamo has said that Hispanics are starving to see themselves represented in culture (specifically movies and TV), and it's easy to imagine the joy audiences must feel when they watch an Ugly Betty or Jane the Virgin. Reading Norris's article feels like that to me: I thrill at every recondite detail—the dithering over the comma in "the thin, burgundy dress"; the authors whose talent doesn't match their eccentricity; the satisfaction of work for which a liberal arts education is actually useful and allows you to improve the underlying structure of a sentence while knowing that "Mies" is not the first name of a guy named "van der Rohe."

It doesn't hurt that Norris is a fabulous writer. In the last paragraph of her article, she likens reading and writing to driving a car: You can glory in the details of the engine, or you can just turn the ignition and go. But she drops in the phrase "join the ink-stained wretches as we name the parts," which is a lovely reference to the famous poem "Naming of Parts," by Henry Reed. These kinds of pearls dot the whole article—language geek heaven.

April 17, 2015

It's the Little Things

It's long been my contention that Stephen Colbert would be 20% less funny if he didn't have his one elf ear:

I now contend that 5% of Sam Heughan's extraordinary acting talent derives from mastery of his hyperexpressive eyebrows:

April 12, 2015

Plot and the Problem of Consequence

Outlander spoilers ahead.

Outlander has picked up again, and the first episode of this second half of the first season (got that??) contained the most controversial scene of the series: the either terribly dreaded or gleefully anticipated spanking scene. It begins when Claire makes an escape attempt and, rather than reaching Craig Na Dun, ends up in the hands of the Redcoats. A brutal scene with Black Jack Randall follows, but Jamie and a handful of buddies rescue her. The clan members in the traveling group are now being pursued by the Redcoats, BJR knows that Jamie is back, and the clan is shunning Claire as a result.

Because severe corporal punishment was the way all justice was handled in 1743, Jamie is expected to punish Claire in private, which he does. It's too complicated a scene to analyze here, but in both the book and the show, the end result is clear: Claire learns that Jamie has insight into this world that she doesn't, and Jamie learns that he better never, ever beat his wife again. 

One week later (not just in the viewing world but the world of the show, more or less), Jamie is forced to travel and has only one request of Claire when he leaves: Stay away from Geillis, a mysterious villager suspected of killing her husband. Claire promises—and a day later goes to Geillis's house, where she is promptly arrested, along with Geillis, as a witch.

The fan pages are aflame with opinions about this: Some think Claire is being both stupid and ornery, and some think she's being independent and noble (for going to help a friend). There may be truth in both these opinions, but her disregard for Jamie's request is problematic for another reason: It nullifies all of the developments and action of the previous episode—which is regarded as one of the pivotal moments of the story. It's as if the entire sequence of her rescue from Black Jack Randall and the "reckoning" that followed, in which she slowly realizes the import of her actions, simply never happened. Claire does exactly what she would have done before the reckoning: ignore Jamie's warning and go see Geillis.

That plot points must have consequences seems like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how often this is abrogated. A favorite episode of The Big Bang Theory centers around the revelation that nothing Indiana Jones does in Raiders of the Lost Ark matters to the plot. I still remember my frustration at the second Die Hard movie when I realized that nothing that happens in the first four-fifths of the movie has any impact on the outcome, which is determined solely when the plane takes off very near the end.  This is bad for an action movie, where, you know, action should matter. But it's even worse for a character-driven narrative like Outlander, which makes strong claims regarding the development of its characters. If it is the story of two people who change over time yet continue to love each other and grow, what happens when the change and growth are nullified?

Inconsequence is more of a risk with long narratives. You have to keep coming up with problems and mistakes, but if you want your characters to grow, that means leaving behind certain kinds of mistakes. Outlander is a love story at heart, despite the history and action that accompany it. And love means getting to that point where you're on the precipice of an action and you're able to stop yourself because you're thinking of someone else now. Outlander is still the best show on TV, but it will need to tread carefully. Taken to an extreme, there's a term for a show where the characters never grow and the narrative is a never-ending  succession of crises as a result: soap opera.

April 1, 2015

Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

I reviewed this novel for Booklist recently and am glad to see it finally published and available. This is the novel of the year for me.

March 31, 2015

I'll Have What She's Having: Scotch on the Rocks

The second half of season 1 of Outlander commences Saturday night, and the fandom is stoked. One thing I enjoy about them is that—probably because Outlander is good literature, not just a good story—the fans are rather sophisticated. While there are plenty of OH MY GOD HE'S SO HANDSOME!! posts—

—many posts are about subtle literary or cinematic effects. And these people know their theory, especially regarding fandom. If you take it upon yourself to criticize a bunch of women objectifying a good-looking man, they will literally (not literally) reach through the Internet and beat the living crap out of you.

Bonus Scot Humor: