Specter of Reason

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Spinning Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates has carved out a controversial corner for himself in this election cycle.  He quickly got on the bad side of many progressives when he questioned the Bern's bonafides.  The cries echoed through the halls:  "Why aren't you going after Clinton?!"  Ironically, if Coates has shown bias at all, it is against Hillary.

Yes, Coates jumped on Bernie's sharp "no" in response to the reparations question, and rightly so.  Coates' argument was about what it means to be "the candidate of the radical left."  Nobody would identify Clinton as a radical.  It goes without saying that Clinton is not going to stake out a radical position on reparations.  The question is, why won't Bernie?  The more challenging question to Bernie's supporters is, do you want to support somebody who claims to be a radical, but who does not seem to understand what is arguably the most important moral question the nation has faced in its entire history?

If Bernie had shown more compassion and understanding, acknowledging the importance of reparations but explaining why he believes it cannot be a priority at the current moment, he would still have disappointed many progressives, but the backlash would not nearly have been as sharp.  At least when Clinton talks about reparations, she doesn't sound tone-deaf.  She sounds like what we expect her to be:  a tactful politician.  Bernie disappointed people because he didn't sound like what he is supposed to be:  a representative of the radical left.

Coates' conclusion is not that Bernie is only posing.  He doesn't conclude that Sanders is a phony.  He concludes that the radical left isn't what it should be.  It isn't free of racism.  Coates is saying that if you're on the radical left, Bernie is your man, but if you think that means Bernie represents what the radical left should be--if you think this means Bernie is going to stand up squarely against white supremacy--then you are mistaken.  Coates is indicting the left more than he's picking on Bernie Sanders, and his argument is fair and charitable.

If Coates is unfair towards any candidate in that article, it is Hillary Clinton.  He mentions her only briefly, saying that she addresses "black people not so much as a class specifically injured by white supremacy, but rather, as a group which magically suffers from disproportionate poverty."  This is not just unfair, but absurdly silly.  He doesn't even try to present a fair and charitable interpretation of Clinton.

Coates is practically endorsing Sanders, but yes, he is also criticizing him for falling short.  Bernie's supporters couldn't get past the critical stuff, though, and so they accused Coates of being biased in favor of Hillary.  I guess if you don't unequivocally Feel The Bern, then you're on the wrong side of things.  (The extremism is supposed to be part of the charm, right?)  However, in his follow up on the Sanders issue, Coates showed where he stands.  His bias against Clinton is extreme.

First, Coates claims that Hillary Clinton would not call herself "left-wing" or a "liberal." Why would he say that? Hillary has called herself a "progressive." She was ranked the eleventh most liberal Senator in Congress. There is no doubt in my mind that she would embrace the terms "liberal" and "left-wing." (You can say the terms don't rightly apply to her, and we can discuss that, if you want, but it is entirely beside the point.)

Second, Coates wrongly implies that the 1994 anti-crime bill can be held against Hillary Clinton, but not Bernie Sanders. He calls out Hillary Clinton for echoing the "superpredator" myth when she was First Lady in 1994.  While that does indirectly implicate her in the passing of the bill, Bernie Sanders is directly implicated because he voted for that bill.  There is no excuse for Coates's failure to mention that.

Third, Coates observes that there is nothing "as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform," implying that there is something as damaging in the Clinton platform. That is simply false. Clinton has made criminal justice reform a key part of her campaign, and has called for an end to mass incarceration.

Fourth, Clinton has consistently done a much better job of pointing out that racial inequality is not just a part or a symptom of economic inequality. Clinton has referred to slavery as America's "original sin." She is much more sensitive to the historical and practical issues.

In sum, Coates entirely misrepresented both Clinton and Sanders in a way that is meant to shame Clinton and over-inflate Bernie's image.

If that wasn't bad enough, Coates issued another attack on Clinton in yet another recent article, accusing her of parroting the Dunning School when she said that Lincoln would probably have enabled a better postbellum reconstruction than Andrew Johnson.  Coates' interpretation of Clinton's comment is extremely uncharitable, though that hasn't stopped several left-leaning pundits from repeating it.  (For a detailed defense of Clinton's comment in historical context, see my previous post.)

 If you had any doubts about Coates' loyalties, you can put them to rest. Coates is willing to spin left, right, up and down to make Clinton look as bad as the devil.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reflections on Clinton's comment on Reconstruction

If you don't know what Hillary Clinton said about Lincoln and Reconstruction at the Town Hall meeting in Iowa, here's one of the more measured commentaries.  Hillary's gotten a lot of heat for her comment, and understandably so, since she was suggesting that the United States was too quick to give freed slaves the vote.  However, following Ta-Nehisi Coates' lead, some critics are unfairly associating Hillary's comments with the Dunning school, which views Reconstruction as a corrupt and unjust system of violence against the White South. The similarity between Hillary's comment and the Dunning school is entirely superficial.  Hillary was making a case for the political expediency of forgiveness, and she was aligning herself with one of the most beloved presidents in American History: Abraham Lincoln.

Let's start with some historical context.  Many extremely prominent abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, did not want to extend the franchise to freed slaves. Lincoln's own plan for Reconstruction would not have given the vast majority of freed slaves the vote. The most charitable interpretation of history is that Lincoln had the long-term goal of universal suffrage in view, but believed that it was impossible in the short-term. At best, he thought the franchise should be immediately extended to freed slaves who passed some educational requirement, the sort of requirement that would notoriously be (mis)applied in the Jim Crow era. Instead of Lincoln's plan, we got something very different: Radical Reconstruction guaranteed the franchise to all freedmen--with the unfortunate loophole which still denies the right to convicts--and this was enforced by a federal occupation of Southern States.

 Let that sink in: After they were defeated and economically devastated, the Southern States were occupied territories. Progressives today are well aware of the dangers that come with political occupation. It should not be controversial for a liberal to claim that the occupation of the South had a counter-productive effect on the reunification of the nation. So why is it controversial? Because in this case, the occupation was necessary to guarantee the franchise to southern freedmen. Liberties extended to the freedmen were taken away from the Southern Democrats.

 So where does that leave Clinton? When Hillary aligns herself with Lincoln's attitude towards Reconstruction, she is making a number of controversial political claims. The first is that painful compromises on crucial issues are sometimes the best way to ensure a long-term victory. This is the relevant point she wants to drive home to distinguish herself from Bernie Sanders. The second point is that Lincoln was right: The franchise was extended to freed slaves too quickly, and too forcefully, in the postbellum South. She says that if the victorious North had taken a softer stance on enfranchisement, then everybody would have been much better off. We can't say there would have been no racist violence and oppression against freed slaves and their children, but it is possible that the road to recovery, justice and universal suffrage would have been smoother and more successful.  And she says the reason we did not have a better postbellum reconstruction is that we list Lincoln's leadership too quickly.

Clinton was talking about forgiveness--not for slavery, but for the Civil War.  If she thought the South had fought a just war for a righteous cause, she would not speak of forgiveness, for there would be nothing to forgive.  She is acknowledging that the Civil War was fought for ignoble purposes.  She does not claim punishment was unjust.  She only claims that punishment was not politically expedient.  Note also that this is not about punishment for slavery.  Though Hillary still has not supported reparations for slavery, she has not ruled them out, either; and in any case, reparations would have to be faced squarely by the nation as a whole, and not just by the South.

Let's look at the big picture.  Reconstruction had noble aims, but it was a disaster. The North lacked the vision and determination to sustain a long-term plan.  Unity was never restored. Equality was never achieved. To this day, reconstruction is still needed.  We can't blame that on the Radical Republicans, but can wonder how much better America might have been, and might be today, if things were done differently.

I expect Clinton would agree with the following: Reconstruction was justified. It was not corrupt. However, it was not executed with prudence. It led to more division, not less. It did help establish pillars for African-American communities in the South, but these gains did not produce unity for the nation or equality for the oppressed. If Lincoln hadn't been killed, he might have been able to work with Congress to produce a better plan for Reconstruction, one which required more compromise, but which had a better chance for long-term success.

Is Clinton right? I honestly don't know, but her comment does not show ignorance of basic history. It does not show her being on the wrong side of civil rights principles. What it shows is her aligning herself directly with one of the most respected and appreciated Presidents in US history, and on a question which to this day remains controversial.

The question Democrats face today is, does the United States need somebody like Lincoln, who was willing to make compromises for the sake of long-term success, or does the United States need somebody like Bernie Sanders, who relies on intransigence?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Luke Skywalker and Rey: Comparing Character Arcs

My second viewing of The Force Awakens only reinforced my admiration.  I'm very impressed by Rey as a character, and so I want to respond to the prevalent criticism that she does not have a satisfying character arc.  I think she stands up better than many people think.  To prove it, let's compare her arc to Luke's in the original Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope.  Luke and Rey each have two inner conflicts dealing with the themes of loyalty and trust, but in Rey's case, the conflicts converge and are developed in a more dramatic and I think satisfying way.

At the start of Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke wants to be loyal to his aunt and uncle, but also wants to follow his own dreams.  This is his first inner conflict.  His dreams are somewhat vague at first: He wants to get off Tatooine, join the academy, be heroic, etc.  When Ben Kenobi tells him his father was a Jedi Knight killed by Darth Vader, his motivation becomes more focused: He wants to join Kenobi and the rebellion, and become a Jedi Knight like his father. When he is finally free to follow this path, Luke faces another internal conflict: to let go of his senses and trust his feelings and the force.

Here is a breakdown of how this all plays out in relation to Luke's choices.

In Act 1, Luke chooses . . .

  • to help his uncle take care of droids.
  • To remove R2-D2's restraining bolt, because he thinks it is limiting the droid's ability to function (he wants to see the rest of the message from Leia)
  • to give in to his uncle's command to remain on Tatooine another year, even though he is anxious to leave.
  • to chase after R2-D2 after the droid escapes, because Luke doesn't want to disappoint his uncle.
  • to reject Kenobi's offer to join him, because his uncle wants him to stay on Tatooine.
  • to race home and see if his aunt and uncle are okay after he realizes that stormtroopers are looking for the droids.
When Luke removes R2-D2's restraining bolt, we see how excited he is at the prospect of adventure.  This is the only time he comes close to being untrue to his uncle and it is what allows his entire adventure to begin.  Apart from this act, his loyalty to his uncle always wins out, making him rather whiny and anxious during this part of the film. Act 1 ends when Luke's aunt and uncle are dead and he no longer has any reason to stay on Tatooine. His internal conflict is thereby resolved. He is now free to follow his dreams:  Join Kenobi, train to become a Jedi Knight and defeat Vader.  This motivation carries him through the rest of the film.

In Act 2, Luke chooses . . .
  • to join the rebellion
  • to train to become a Jedi Knight
  • to rescue Princess Leia
The second internal conflict is set up when Luke begins training: Luke must learn to trust his feelings and the force.  This is not much of a conflict, however.  It only takes a brief verbal interaction with Kenobi before Luke is expertly blocking laser beams while blindfolded. He insists that he felt "something," even though Han Solo is skeptical.  It's a first step--he's no Jedi Knight yet.  The rescue of Leia is Luke's first trial, but it does not require overcoming any internal obstacles.  It is all external conflict, a typical "save the damsel in distress" scenario, and Luke's struggle with trusting the force is not even addressed.

In Act 3, Luke chooses . . .
  • to attack the Death Star
  • to rely on the force
When Luke chooses to use the force at the end of the film, it is not the result of a significant struggle.  His inner conflict is resolved and the Death Star is destroyed at the culmination of an exciting action sequence, but Luke does not go through any internal struggle here.  He hears (or "hears", depending on how you want to look at it) Kenobi's voice telling him to use the force, and he does it.

Let's look at this a bit more critically.  Luke's Act 1 inner conflict is resolved at the end of Act 1, which makes him a less engaging character as we enter Act 2.  Additionally, he does not choose to resolve that conflict: It ends when stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle.  If it were up to him, he'd spend the next year whining about how his uncle won't let him follow his dreams.  Furthermore, his motivation to follow in his father's footsteps is primarily established through exposition, not action.  Luke's motivation intensifies through dramatic action in Act 2, when he witnesses Kenobi's death, but his motivation has already been established at this point.  Act 2 sets up a new internal conflict for Luke--trusting the force--but this is given very thin development, without any significant internal obstacles.

How does this compare to Rey's arc in The Force Awakens?

In Act 1, Rey chooses . . .
  • to scavenge in order to survive on Jakku
  • to rescue a lost droid
  • to befriend said droid
  • to protect the droid from traders
  • to help Finn and the droid escape stormtroopers
While Luke's adventure begins with a feeling of excitement for adventure and heroism as he removes R2-D2's restraining bolt, Rey's adventure begins with a feeling of compassion for a lost droid.  (It's worth noting that at this point in the film, Finn's story has already established that there is no place for compassion in the First Order.)  Rey is staying on Jakku out of loyalty to her family, because that is where they left her to wait for their return, even though she is unhappy and dreaming of a better life elsewhere. Her feelings of compassion drive her off Jakku, but her inner conflict is not resolved: She still does not want to betray her family; she wants to return to Jakku.

In Act 2, Rey chooses . . .
  • to recruit Han Solo in BB-8's mission
  • to help Han Solo and Finn escape Han's enemies
  • to reject Han's job offer
  • to plead with Finn to get him to help BB-8 and the resistance
  • to reject the call of Luke's lightsaber
  • to fight Kylo Ren
Rey's choices reflect her conflicting motivations:  Her loyalty to her family is drawing her back to Jakku, even though her compassion for BB-8 is drawing her towards the resistance.  When she finds Luke's lightsaber, however, she faces a new internal conflict: trusting the force.  This conflict builds on the first, because trusting the force requires trusting her feelings and letting go of her desire to stay on Jakku.  She feels that there is nothing left for her on Jakku, but she cannot believe it.  She feels the force (and her compassion) pulling her towards a new path, but she cannot trust it, so she runs away in fear.  She doesn't stand a chance against Kylo Ren at this point, and he easily uses the force to paralyze her.

In Act 3 + Epilogue, Rey chooses . . .
  • to escape Kylo Ren's control using the force
  • to fight Kylo Ren again, this time using Luke's lightsaber and the force
  • to find Luke Skywalker and return his lightsaber
Luke Skywalker first uses the force in an otherwise useless scene in which nothing is directly at stake.  In contrast, Rey first discovers she can use the force when she is under great duress, and she uses it to protect herself (and the entire resistance) from Kylo Ren.  It's a stunning scene which turns an all-too-common victim narrative on its head.  Where Luke passes a typical hero's trial (saving the damsel in distress), Rey faces a twist on a typical female victim narrative: Mind rape. However, this victim narrative is turned on its head.  First, Rey successfully stops Kylo Ren from having his way with her. (He does violate her, but he doesn't get the information he wants).  More profoundly, she violates him in return, stealing and revealing his deepest fear.  Later, when she beats him in a contest to see who can pull Luke's lightsaber from the snow, we are thrilled, but not shocked, because we've already seen evidence that Rey is at least as powerful as Kylo Ren.  She knows it, too.  She is no longer afraid.  By taking up Luke's lightsaber and using the force against her foe, both of Rey's internal conflicts are resolved. She's not going back to Jakku.  She trusts the force and her feelings and she is following the Skywalker path.

At the end of the fight, after Kylo Ren is defeated, Rey is confronted with a choice: She could kill him or she could show mercy.  We know she has a strong capacity for compassion, but her wrath might be a significant obstacle.  And Kylo Ren has earned her wrath.  We've seen it all unfold through action, not exposition.  Will she be ruled by hate or compassion?  Alas, the choice is stolen from her as the planet is torn apart, but the seeds for a new internal conflict are there for the next film.

In the film's epilogue, Rey takes her first step forward on her new path: taking the lightsaber to Luke.  He doesn't accept it, at least not right away. Is it now hers?  That's another question for the next installment, but however it is answered, the film has completed a compelling arc.  Rey finally trusts the force and is no longer torn between family loyalty and compassion.  She doesn't know who her family is or what happened to them, but she has made her choice all the same.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Saga Continues: Why I Admire The Force Awakens

My curiosity about The Force Awakens was mild.  I was more skeptical than anything else.  And yet, when opening day crept up on me, I found myself getting excited.  Finally, sitting in the cinema as the opening crawl started the film, I was captivated in a way I had not expected: After all these years, I am still deeply connected to Luke Skywalker's story.

I was too young to see the original Star Wars in the cinemas, but just old enough for The Empire Strikes Back.  I was nine for Return of the Jedi.  I had my share of the toys and books, and I'm pretty sure I had Star Wars underwear, too.  My infatuation was gone before puberty hit, but the iconography and mythology never lost their potency.  Star Wars references have always been there--not just because they are fun, but because they are meaningful.

Now, witnessing the continuation of the mythology as a middle-aged man with a soft spot for nostalgia? Finding that the story is not over and that new characters can pick up where the old must end? The complexity of emotions is striking.

Yes, The Force Awakens is a product.  Yes, they are trying to make money and reboot an old franchise.  That's all true, but there is also love and art in it.  The Force Awakens respects the mythology and the iconography.  It doesn't pander. The fan service is a way of paying respect to the original trilogy, to remind us that that is where this film owes its dues.  It may be excessive at times, but that is a minor complaint.  Like so many others, I found enough freshness, fun and authenticity to satisfy me.  More than that, my childhood connection to Luke's story has not merely been awoken, but also developed in a meaningful way.

The more I reflect on the film and compare it to the original Star Wars, the more I understand why it feels right. The original trilogy is all about destiny.  The characters talk about it enough, but more importantly, it is shown through coincidences.  In the original Star Wars:
  • Leia's ship is waylaid right next to Tatooine.
  • The Empire doesn't fire on the escape pod carrying R2-D2 and C-3PO at the beginning of the film. They presumably know that it could be carrying droids, but they let it go because they don't detect any life forms.
  • R2-D2 and C-3PO split up on Tatooine, only to be captured by the same group of traders.
  • The second unit Luke's uncle wants to buy from the traders breaks down, leading him to buy R2-D2 instead.
  • Luke and his uncle happen to need droids at that moment at all.
  • The Empire doesn't notice there are life forms on the Millennium Falcon, giving the good guys a chance to sneak past the stormtroopers on the Death Star.
  • The Death Star has a design flaw that allows it to be destroyed by a single fighter pilot.  What young Jedi-to-be could ask for a better opportunity to prove his or her worth?
All of these coincidences and absurdly fortuitous circumstances (and more) help nurture the audience's belief that Luke is following his destiny. He was meant to find R2-D2.  He was meant to study under Kenobi.  He was meant to blow up the Death Star.  It just had to be.  If the film had relied exclusively on exposition to tell us about Luke's destiny, we might not believe it; but when we see all the pieces just happening to fall into place, it feels right.

So it is with The Force Awakens.  I was first critical of its heavy reliance on coincidence, but now I see it as a necessity. 

I'm not the first to observe that there are many similarities, deep as well as superficial, between The Force Awakens and the original Star Wars. You could criticize the writers for that, but it's not like they were trying to hide it.  All the criticism means is that some people don't want a movie that is so similar to the original Star Wars.  And that's fine.  Not everybody wants it.  Not everybody is going to appreciate it.  But for the rest of us, it's exhilarating.  

As it happens, I think Rey is a lot more compelling than Luke in the original Star Wars, which relies more on exposition. We are told (by his uncle) that Luke has a lot of his father in him, and we are told (by his aunt) that most of his friends have already gone off to join the academy, and we are told (by Luke) that he wants to join the academy and do something bigger and more exciting with his life, and we are told (by Obi-Wan Kenobi) that Luke's father was a Jedi who had been killed by Darth Vader. Exposition sets up Luke's inner conflict, telling us who Luke is and what he wants.  All we really see from Luke at the beginning is that he is loyal to his family:  He races after R2-D2, because he does not want to disappoint his uncle.  Then he races home, heedless of the danger, to find his aunt and uncle killed by the Empire.  He only agrees to join Kenobi when he has nothing left on Tatooine.  These acts are important, but don't go very far in establishing Luke as a young Jedi-to-be.

Compare that to Rey.  We see her struggling to survive on Jakku.  We see her isolation.  We see how she wants to feel close to the old legends, putting on an old fighter pilot's helmet as she sits alone, eating her meager rations outside an old, fallen AT-AT.  We see her make a difficult choice:  to give up a fortune in order to protect a droid, her new and apparently only friend.  We know she doesn't belong where she is and that she has a great deal of inner (and outer) strength.  Sure, in many ways, Rey is a sort of Luke Skywalker reboot.  In fact, the two films are structured around their respective character arcs in remarkably similar ways.  There's nothing wrong with that.  The Force Awakens takes the time to bring Rey to life, to let us believe in her, and that's what counts.

Nobody goes into a Star Wars movie as if it were just another action-adventure.  The expectations are too high.  The mythology is too ubiquitous.  And that, I think, is what makes the success of this movie so impressive and worthy of respect.  There are plenty of complaints one could make about the film.  It is flawed, and it can be fun and interesting to go over everything that does or does not work.  But the more interesting question to me is, what makes this so satisfying for so many fans--fans who have long felt mistreated, and who can be hyper-critical of how Star Wars properties are developed?  I think it's about destiny, and that is more a feeling than anything else.  The Force Awakens makes us feel the way a Star Wars movie is supposed to make us feel:  like the hero is fulfilling her destiny, and the Skywalker saga is alive and well and up to date.

Some say this film only works as a promise for new films.  On the contrary, I think it is a solid stand-alone film. Of course we're being set up for more, but there is a clear beginning, middle and end to this story.  If the next Star Wars films are disasters--or even if they never come about by some bizarre twist of fate--this will remain a compelling addition to the mythology.

My nephew--he's not yet ten years old, but he's seen all seven films--he says this new one is the best so far.  His previous favorite was Return Of The Jedi.  One day he'll grow up and realize that there is no topping The Empire Strikes Back.  But when it comes to second best?  The Force Awakens may not be that good, but it might give the original a run for its money.  I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time.

Some additional thoughts on character development below.


***SPOILER ALERT***

Some complain that Kylo Ren is a weak or inconsistent version of Darth Vader.  His apparent inconsistency did bug me for a while. At the beginning of the film, his power over the force is impressive.  By the end of the film, he's not a very intimidating adversary.  In fact, he doesn't seem to know what he's doing.  How is Finn able to stand up against him in combat at all?  (Some speculate that Finn must be strong with the force, but I don't buy that.)  And Rey could actually defeat him?  

Then I considered the characters.  We only see Kylo Ren having strong command over the force when he's wearing his mask. Maybe, when he takes it off, his insecurities take over.  He clearly lacks self-control and self-confidence.  When Finn raises his light saber against him, Kylo Ren is unmasked.  He wields his light saber with the angst and fury of a petulant child, not the caution and focus of a Jedi.  He's no Vader, and he knows it.  Ren is emotionally unbalanced enough so that Finn is able to put up a fight, if only for a short time.  When looked at that way, it is not so surprising that Rey--who is much more self-assured, has learned to defend herself on Jakku and is apparently much stronger with the force than her opponent--is able to beat him.

There is another Finn moment that didn't sit well, but which makes more sense to me now.  I initially thought that, at the beginning of the film, Finn's primary goal was to help Poe escape, even though Poe said that Finn was doing it just because he needed a pilot.  So when Finn seems like a coward later on, and runs away from the resistance, I thought it was out of character.  I think I was just misled by my own desires:  I wanted Finn to be selfless, to be only interested in helping Poe escape.  That was my mistake.  Of course Finn just needed a pilot.  He was happy to help Poe escape, but that was not his goal.  He'd risk his life to escape the First Order, but he doesn't see any sense in trying to fight a war.  He was never out to help the resistance.  So he comes clean at the cantina and decides to split--to get as far away from the First Order as possible.  That all works for me.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Terminator Genisys: A Rant

I watched Terminator Genisys last night. I was prepared to forgive all kinds of time-travel plot holes, and a general level of incoherence. I was not expecting a Good Film. And yet, I was not expecting a movie that undermines everything that made the previous Terminator movies work. And so I must rant.

[Major Spoilers Ahead.]

It comes down to two things: character and principle.

The earlier films had clearly drawn characters whose actions generally made sense. When the second Terminator film came out and we saw Sarah Connor again on the big screen, we knew what she was capable of.  We knew what to expect, and she did not disappoint. In Terminator Genisys, we get a new Sarah Connor. New, but not improved. This Sarah Connor has no resemblance to the old one. The original Sarah Connor is one of the greatest female action heroes of all time.  The new Sarah Connor is not a hero by any measure. She cannot do anything on her own. Her only choice in the movie is to follow Kyle.  By film's end, she needs a man to explain to her that she can actually make choices in the world. We don't see her doing it. He just says she can, and the film ends.

Sarah and Kyle are both idiots in this movie. Kyle has mysterious new memories (don't even pretend you can explain how) and believes in them so much, he's willing to die for them. His willingness to die for them convinces Sarah that they must be legit. They have one shot to save the world (or so they think), and they risk being too late being Kyle insists his magic memories are trustworthy.  Yet, as logic would have it, there's no reason why Kyle's plan would be better EVEN IF HIS MYSTERIOUS MEMORIES ARE LEGIT. That's right. Even if Kyle is right, and the world isn't going to end until 2017, they could still travel to 1997 and do whatever they need to do to stop it. So why risk being too late? There is absolutely no reason for the characters to do this. There is no reason why they should be so stupid, and there is no reason why Pops wouldn't have stepped in and said: "Sarah Connor, I am here to protect you, and I cannot let you make this mistake." No reason. Except there is a reason why the writers put it in there: It is to show that Kyle and Sarah have faith.  But faith in what?  In Kyle? In intuition?  In weird quantum memory magic?  I guess it's all three.

This is where principle comes in.  While every previous Terminator film has driven home the dark message that the end is coming, and there is nothing you can do to stop it--not even travel back in time--this film says You Gotta Have Faith and You Can Change The Future. It's not that those are bad messages. They just don't work in this franchise. Okay, maybe there is a way to work them into the franchise, but it would take some ingenuity. This movie forces them on us in a way that destroys all credibility.

The relationships between the characters are all screwed up, too.  Not because they're different from the original relationships, but because they're just screwed up.  For one thing, the emotions in Terminator Genisys are underwhelming. Instead of the simple, carnal passion arising out of heightened emotions which we got in the first installment, Terminator Genisys gives us forced awkwardness and unconvincing romance between Sarah and Kyle.  Why do they fall in love, anyway?  Is it because Kyle was obsessed with her and decided he would die for her before they even met?  That seems to be what melts her heart, and it's a little creepy.  Is it because Pops, her father figure, was sent from the future to protect her, so now she falls for the first guy to come from the future to protect her? Whatever it is, it does not feel authentic, let alone true to the original characters.

And what about the relationship between Sarah and Pops?  Like in T2, the T-800 in Genisys goes through awkward moments of trying to appear human (which is odd in Genisys, since Pops had been living with Sarah for decades already), but it's not as effective this time around. Pops is no fun, and there is absolutely no chemistry between "him" and Sarah Connor.  When she cries out because she thinks she's going to lose him, it's not at all convincing.

Pops keep asking Sarah if she and Kyle have "mated." Is he just curious about her love life or was Pops sent back to make sure they had a child? Presumably he was, since that is the only reason why he would be sent to keep her alive.  So, will he make them keep having children until they have a boy who grows up to be like John Connor?  That's pretty sick.

But wait.  Why send Sarah and Kyle to the future if John Connor is supposed to be born in 1985?  The real mission is to take down Skynet.  In that case, why bother with Sarah Connor at all?  It doesn't make sense.

There is no way the writers of this film ever thought for a second that they should worry about internal logic.  You can read about the plethora of plotholes on other Websites, though I doubt anyone has enumerated all of them. (They might be uncountably infinite.) There is just one more scene, however, that I need to include in this rant.  It's when Pops shoots John Connor the first time, and Kyle starts yelling that Pops was sent there to kill John (a theory which makes NO sense, idiot Kyle), and Pops grabs Kyle by the throat. WTF? I mean, really. First, why would you start ARGUING about a T-800 that you think is a threat RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE T-800? And why did Pops grab Kyle by the throat? Since when does a T-800 choke people? A T-800 would explain: "That is not John Conner. It's a cyborg. Run!" And why did Pops assume that John Conner was a bad cyborg in the first place? He sees Sarah and Kyle having a friendly conversation with cyborg John Connor and just assumes it's a threat?

I didn't care for the third Terminator film, and the fourth was entirely forgettable, but neither of those was a disgrace to the franchise. At least those films gave a damn about creating believable characters and a fairly coherent narrative. The only fair comparison, I think, is this--and I know it's harsh: Terminator Genisys is the Prometheus of Terminator movies.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - Renewing Old Mythology

Mad Max: Fury Road is a fitting allegory for modern times:  We can find messages about reproductive rights, natural resources and religious warfare, as well as some meditations on the more general themes of home, family, power, freedom and survival.  What makes the film more than just a generic action flic is that these themes are brought to life through the creation of a compelling, mythologically rich world.  Though it is unmistakably a Mad Max film, Fury Road surprisingly calls to mind the familiar mythological territory of the original Star Wars saga.

Spoiler Alert:  Mad Max: Fury Road is all about the action and visual spectacle, so you can still enjoy it even if the plot has been spoiled.  However, it offers plenty to think about in the few quiet moments between (and after) those astonishing action sequences.  If you'd rather not know much about how the plot develops, don't read what follows.

Fury Road' opens at breakneck speed and within minutes we learn a few key details about Mad Max (Tom Hardy):  He is independent, he is capable of doing anything to survive, and he is a universal blood donor.  Metaphorically, that last part could represent his lack of loyalty to any cause: he could give his blood to anyone, for any reason.  At the beginning, his blood is used (against his will) to help Immortan Joe's (Hugh Keays-Byrne) tribe.  As his blood is literally forced out of his veins, Max is caught in the middle of a deadly chase between Joe and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  Still, Max shows no inclinations of sympathy for either side.  He and Furiosa soon start working together, but Max is reluctant.  Like Han Solo, he finds common cause with and eventual sympathy for Furiosa and her rebels.  When he gives her his blood at the end, the opening metaphor comes full circle.  Max's war is won when he is able to give blood as he sees fit.  If there is a message here, it's about taking ownership of our own lives.

This is a film about life, and the fluids that sustain it: blood, mother's milk, gasoline and water.  All of these fluids are used to control, exploit and sustain life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland.  If the film raises a question, it is this:  Who has a right to the fluids of life, and what kind of power can they wield?

Immortan Joe is the great exploiter of fluids.  Under his reign, blood is stolen from Max, mother's milk is stolen from women, gasoline is stolen from anybody who has it, and water is hoarded and used to subjugate the masses, who try to steal it from each other.  If Max is Han Solo, then Immortan Joe is Darth Vader.  We are introduced to Joe with imagery that calls Vader to mind:  Joe's old, scarred and worn torso is slowly covered with a sort of military armor.  We never see his full face, as it is behind a grotesque version of Vader's mask.  And like Vader, he has two primary concerns:  his power and his progeny.

Furiosa is the only character who is not clearly exploited or subjugated in the film.  The reason for this is never directly stated.  She tells Max that she is seeking redemption by freeing Joe's wives. Furiosa therefore must have been one of the exploiters.  All we learn about her past is that she was taken from her home and family as a child and eventually became a great warrior in Joe's army.  Perhaps Joe adopted her, took her on as one of his own.    Indeed, if Joe is Vader, Furiosa is Luke Skywalker, except in this version, Luke has succumbed to the dark side and now wants to make amends.  Like Luke, she has a mechanical replacement for a missing hand, she is from a desert world which was once green and full of life, and she was taken from her parents when she was young.  A great warrior, she stands up against and fights her "father," who wishes to use the force (fluids of life) to exploit and subjugate, to wield an unnatural power over people.

To emphasize the unnaturalness of Joe's power, we see his followers exhibit a religious devotion to him.  They explode in ecstasy if Joe gives them the simple honor of looking directly at them.  They have a highly ritualized way of dying in battle for Joe.  And when one of them sees that Joe is fallible, the spell is broken: If Joe is capable of error, then the whole mythology of his world is a lie.

To make the comparison to the Star Wars mythology complete, we can identify Furiosa's people, who she eventually finds again in the desert, as jedi knights.  They are the rightful mothers, the righteous givers of life.  They are the ones who know how to make the world green again.  The oldest and wisest of them is Keeper Of The Seeds, too old to fight, but still wise in the old ways:  in short, Yoda.

Warning:  Way Bigger Spoilers Below

While George Miller has succeeded in creating a compelling world with absolutely thrilling and visually stunning setpieces, I didn't find the dramatic development entirely convincing.  When Furiosa found her "green place" and had to come to terms with that harsh reality, I didn't feel a strong enough connection to her character.  I didn't believe what she was going through. I never felt like she needed the redemption she was after.  And I didn't like that she had to be saved by Max.  The Furiosa in the second half of the film seems weaker than the one in the first half.  Also, I wasn't convinced when Nux (Nicholas Hoult) had his profound transformation, or by his connection with Joe's wife, Capable (Riley Keough).  It was too quick and painless.  I was also disappointed with Max's development.  It was never clear exactly how or why he started to care about Furiosa.  I also think the women should have headed back to the Citadel on their own.  Max should have decided to follow them, to help them, but not to lead them.  And it should've been because he didn't have a choice.  If 160 days of riding in the desert wasn't going to get them anywhere, where would it have gotten him?  Finally, at the end of the film, Max has no car, nowhere to go, no way to survive on his own.  Furiosa would certainly be willing to help him along on his way.  I guess there's symbolism in him disappearing into the crowd as Furiosa is raised into the sky, but it doesn't really make much sense.  He should've stayed, at least for a little while.  Anyway, it's an enormously entertaining and impressive film, but the development just didn't always work for me.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cold In July: Grappling With Character and Narrative

I watched Cold In July last night.  It's not a bad movie.  The acting and directing are stellar, and it is in some ways original and daring.  But when it was over, I was more frustrated than satisfied. Be warned: the following contains spoilers.

Rich (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills a man whom he and Ben  (Sam Shepard) are told is Ben's son.  Ben makes thinly veiled threats, but the police refuse to act until Ben does something illegal.  The police are very concerned about the law, apparently.  Then Ben breaks into Rich's house.  That gives the police enough suspicion to watch the house, but not to arrest Ben?  Fine.  So they watch and find out that Ben never left the house.  Well, they don't see him, but they assume it was him.  So they arrest him. For what?  For breaking in and not leaving until late at night?  They couldn't have just arrested him for breaking in in the first place? In any case, they arrest him.  Then the police try to kill him.  They sneak him out of jail and try to make it look like an accidental death.  For what?  There is no reason at all for the police to want him dead, or to break the law to get rid of him.  One minute, the police are very concerned about carefully following the rules; the next, they are breaking them without any reason.

What was Ben going to do to Rich's son, anyway?  He could have killed him.  He could have kdinapped him.  He did nothing.  Did he just want to scare Rich?  He hid in the house all day and then risked getting caught (or killed) by the cops, just to scare them?  Ben must be insane to do that to a person's family just because the father accidentally killed his son in self-defense.  Which makes us wonder:  Why was Ben in jail for most of his son's life, anyway?  We never find out.

The Ben of the first part of the film is a dark, deranged and menacing figure.  Then Rich saves his life.  After that, Ben seems remarkably centered and disciplined, with a strong sense of duty.  Sure, he persumably a bit disturbed and he is clearly comfortable taking the law in his own, violent hands; but he's not so off-kilter that he would terrorize a family in these circumstances.  He is not so dark and not at all deranged or menacing.  Instead of carrying through with Ben's sinister edge in the second half of the film, Ben comes across as too likable, too principled, too moral.  This is not the same Ben that was in the first half of the movie.

This may to some extent be intentional.  The movie might be saying something about monsters and men.  Perhaps Ben has two sides:  one is a monster, the other is a man.  And we can see Rich's character arc in these terms.  By the end of it all, Rich has changed.  He is no longer afraid to use his gun.  He kills with determination.  Rich and Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) help him along with this transformation, but it comes from within.  Rich changes himself, and it is compelling drama.  He becomes more like Ben and Jim Bob Luke.  Perhaps we are supposed to be left with this question:  Has Rich become a man, or has he become a monster?

Perhaps they wanted Ben to have two sides, one monster and one man.  But in that case, we should see them co-existing.  We should be able to interpret the same action from both sides.  Instead, we just get two different characters when it is convenient to the plot.  Thus, Ben's character doesn't ring true, and the entire story that brings him and Rich together is unconvincing.  It's really a shame.  I found a lot to enjoy in Cold In July, but couldn't shake the bad taste after it was over.