September 9, 2015

Queer Review: Dear White People (2014)

Dear White People
Director: Justin Simien
Writer: Justin Simien
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell, Brittany Curran, Justin Dobies, Dennis Haysbert, Peter Syvertsen

A comedy about a group of black students at the prestigious (and fictional) Winchester College, Dear White People manages to make plenty of provocative observations about the state of race relations in the United States, in addition to being both entertaining and funny.

When the prestigious (and presumably Ivy League) Winchester College decides to engage in randomized housing assignments, it threatens to break up the Armstrong/Parker House -- the house which represents the heart of black student life at Winchester College. When the current the head of Armstrong/Parker, Troy (Brandon Bell) fails to protest the new policy, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) runs against him and to her surprise ends up winning. Sam, who is famous on campus for her in-your-face radio show called Dear White People, sets out to overturn the new housing policy, while dealing with a serious of personal issues. These include the failing health of her white father and the complexities of navigating an inter-racial relationship when one is the face of black resistance on a mostly white campus. While all of this is going on, nerdy student journalist, Lionel (Tyler James Williams), tries to get the scoop on the situation while facing down both homophobia and racism. Further complications arise when Coco (Teyonah Parris) in an attempt to generate conflict so she can be featured in a reality TV series, agrees to DJ for a racist blackface party that will be thrown on campus.

The Queering
Recently, I had a conversation with a few other people that went approximately as follows:

Person 1: So, why did you move to Minnesota?
Me: Because my partner got a job teaching at [local college].
Person 2: Oh nice! What does she teach?
Me: Um well *he* teaches penology.
Person 1: She teaches penology? What's that?
Me: Er, it's the study of prisons. That's what *he* teaches.
Person 2: The study of prisons, eh? That sounds interesting. I might take a class with her.

My partner, as it were, has a similar story of living next door to someone for years, and talking about his (then) boyfriend using male pronouns all the time and the other person, in all of those years, never realizing that my partner was dating another man.

Moments like this, at the end of the day, are easy to brush off as trivial. A minor pin prick, nothing more. But shrugging off each trivial incident can take a little bit more energy each time, eventually becoming simply exhausting to deal with. Some off us develop means of deflecting minor incidents, such as the above. Our skin becomes calloused and tough. Others are not so lucky. If one finds oneself saying, "but it was only a pin prick, it shouldn't have hurt them!" remember this: the place you stabbed was quite likely an open, gaping wound.

Dear White People deals quite frankly with a topic that few films, even amongst those that explicitly care to address the issue of racism, direct their attention toward - that of micro-aggressions. There are no lynchings, no people of color falsely accused of a terrible crime, and no mention of the KKK. When the police show up, it's to break up a party and the only person arrested is a white male who's in the process of beating up Lionel.

Instead, the topics that do get addressed are the lack of representation of interesting and complex people of color in the media, white people constantly touching black people's hair (Lionel refers to his hairdo as a black hole for white people's fingers), and having to deal with a white people simply dating a black partner, for no greater reason than to piss off their parents.

One of the most visceral sequences (not to mention a fairly brilliant one from a writing and technical perspective) has Sam explaining three different patterns black people can fall into when interacting with white people. There's the offta, who dials their blackness up or down depending on the audience, the nosejob, who exchanges their blackness for whiteness, and the 100, or someone who is 100% okay with being black. What makes this sequence so compelling is the way Simien intercuts between different black characters who are all exhibiting the exact behaviors Sam is describing.

Sam, we are told, is a big fan of Bergman, and with two characters (the dean and the president of the college) being described in a perpetual chess match, it would appear that Simien is trying to draw a parallel between the infamous chess match played with death in The Seventh Seal and the constant strategizing black people go through when interacting with white folks.

With the films constant focus on issues of race, Simien naturally has been compared by just about everybody to Spike Lee. However, with Simien coming at the film's premier as gay, a more natural antecedent would be Cheryl Dunye who directed The Watermelon Woman. There is more than a bit of Cheryl (the character Dunye played in The Watermelon Woman) in Samantha White, mixed with Honey, the radio DJ from Born in Flames, (a film Dunye was not involved with).

Dear White People does admittedly make a few missteps along the way. The ending feels a little anti-climactic, some of the melodrama doesn't always work, and a couple of major plot points are a bit confusing. However, these elements don't detract from the overall impact of the film. Based on what he achieved here, I look forward to whatever project Justin Simien chooses to work on next.

Highly recommended. Dear White People would be worth going through all the admission processes at all of the most difficult Ivy League Colleges to get into in order to see.

The Rating
3 and 1/2 stars out of 4


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

September 7, 2015

Queer Issue: On the Upcoming Stonewall Film and the Absence of Historical Transgender or Transsexual Characters on Film

By now, the fact that the soon to be released Stonewall movie directed by Roland Emmerich minimizes the contributions of transgender women of color and that key figures such as Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major are entirely absent, is fairly well known.

However let's recap things briefly. While the film is yet to be released, and thus could look very different from the previews and promotional material, the signs are not currently all that promising. The main cast is mainly white and the trailer focuses on a white gay male character who appears to be responsible for (in the movie) actually starting the riots. Although, I never heard the version where a brick thrown threw a window was what started the riots, but um, okay.

Admittedly, the trailer could be misleading, and the cast, as billed, is not reflective of who actually gets to play major parts in the film. Also, there is a character listed as Marsha P. Johnson on the film's IMDB, which will mean that Marsha P. Johnson will be the second transgender woman of color to have a character based on her appear in a major motion picture. The first (that I am aware of) being Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

I have often bemoaned the straightening out of historical LGB characters when they are presented on the silver screen. A process in which bisexual or pansexual characters will either be presented as engaging in only heterosexual copulings, or the same sex partners will be minimized or ignored. If they character was gay or lesbian, then they will either wind up bisexual on screen or straight, depending.

However, I have increasingly come to notice the actual absence of characters on film based on historical or real life transgender or transsexual people.

Thus I tried putting together a list of all mainstream feature films that actually featured such characters. Documentaries are excluded. Stories based on a real life story where the transgender character was fictional were also excluded (ie: Dallas Buyers Club).

Here is the list:

-Queen Christina (1933)
-The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)
-Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
-Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1977)
-Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Upcoming Movies:
-Stonewall (2015)
-The Danish Girl (2015)

I may be missing a few. I can't claim to be an expert on foreign films for example. And many early silent movies have been lost altogether. But even if there are a few examples that I'm missing, that's still a pretty pathetic list. If there are any, let me know, and I'll add them in.

But as it stands, of these examples, one is the story of a trans-man who ends up dead (Boys Don't Cry). Two are famous for primarily being transgender or transsexual (The Christine Jorgensen Story and Queen Christina. The remaining two characters are incidental to the main story (Dog Day Afternoon and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Not that there is anything wrong with presenting the stories of tragedy within the LGBTQ or cases where the character is famous for being LGBTQ, but there needs to be a point where we move past that.

Consider as a point of comparison, the number of movies based on the lie of Ed Gein (who was not in any way transgender in real life), in which characters who were based on him (or his murder spree) are shown cross dressing or attempting to obtain sex change operations. There are 5 of them that I am aware of. (Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Silence of the Lambs, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.) Add in sequels and the Gus Van Sant Psycho remake, and these films easily outnumber the films featuring historical transgender characters.

It's worth pointing out that there isn't exactly an absence of historical transgender or transsexual people to tell stories about. The fact that Sylvia Rivera has never shown up in a mainstream film in spite of (almost now) two films about the Stonewall Riots, is itself disheartening.
A few examples:
-Alan L. Hart: Saved thousand of lives by innovating the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of tuberculosis.
-King Ashurbanipal: Developed one of the largest collection of cuneiform documents ever and had a card catalog to find material. In plain talk: He invented the library.
-Karen Ulane: Was fired by Eastern Airlines for undergoing gender affirmation surgery and sued the airline in court before dying an airplane crash.
-We'Wha: A famous Zuni Native American who met President Groover Cleveland.
-Lynn Conway: Computer scientist whose innovations are still used in modern computers and transgender activist.
-Chevalier d'Eon: French spy and member of the Secret du Roi.
-Elagabalus: Roman Emperor who developed such a scandalous reputation that he had damnatio memoriae (the erasure of a Roman's official public record and very rarely done) applied to him.

At the end of the day, it's important to note that the stories of people across the LGBTQ spectrum are told (this should go without saying right?). We are starting to see inroads being made with prominent films featuring cisgender LGB characters based on historical figures getting made and widespread distribution. The Imitation Game being the most recent example. However, the lack of portrayals of historical transgender or transsexual individuals on film (and arguably elsewhere) is an issue that needs to be rectified.

May 28, 2015

Queer Review: The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
Directors: The Wachowskis (Credited at the time as The Wachowski Brothers)
Writers: The Wachowskis (Credited at the time as The Wachowski Brothers)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker

What is The Matrix but the greatest science fiction film of all time? Few films can match what The Wachowskis accomplish here, in this tale that takes some of the densest metaphysical questions that have ever been asked and uses them as the basis for a high octane, adrenaline fueled action flick, which also happens to serve as a modern re-telling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programer in search of the elusive Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who Neo (Thomas's hacker alias) believes holds the answer to the question: "What is the Matrix?" On his journey to see Morpheus, Neo manages to make contact with Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), a female hacker whom everyone thinks is a guy. When Neo finally manages to meet with Morpheus, he finds that the answer is more complicated then he imagined and that the reality he has believed in his whole life has been a lie.

The Queering
A the time The Matrix was first released, Lana Wachowski was still going by the name "Larry" Wachowski and the film was credited to "The Wachowski Brothers" rather than the moniker "The Wachowskis". Looking at the first Matrix movie now, it's possible to see a great many transgender subtexts that were not as obvious when it first came out. For starters, there is Trinity, a female hacker whom everyone thinks is a man (as commented on by Neo when the two first meet). The fact that people think Trinity is a man in the Matrix, is also brought up in The Animatrix short A Detective Story, where the titular detective assigned to track down Trinity, constantly refers to Trinity as a man. This essentially makes Trinity a women who is in the process of either escaping from or attempting to destroy an artificial reality where everyone thinks she is a guy.

Other examples are more subtle but definitely are there. Take Neo, a hero who -- outside of scenes where he is required to fire off endless rounds of ammo from a variety of firearms -- is not generally presented in overly macho terms, at least if one were to compare him to the mold created by 80's action heros like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. As it is, Neo has to deliberately reject his old, gendered name of Mr. Thomas Anderson and has to correct Mr. Smith (Hugo Weaving), who constantly insists on using the old name. Then there is Switch, who in earlier drafts of the script, was supposed to change gender upon leaving or entering the Matrix. In the version that made it to screen, the character is instead presented as androgynous in both worlds.

These trans subtexts I would argue, tie directly in with the films' main themes regarding the nature of reality. As the Oracle points out to Neo, all knowledge begins with knowledge of ones self. In order for Neo to be able to do anything as "The One", he must first know what he is and what he is capable of. As the story progresses, a key plot point revolves around Neo being unable to access his abilities until he has knowledge that he is the one. In other words, Neo becomes "The One" through self actualization and increasing his self awareness of who he is.

Of course by now, it has been pointed out by others that The Matrix is basically a modern day retelling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The story of Plato's cave is one where an entire group of people is kept prisoner for their entire lives, forced to stare at flickering shadows on a cave wall. Because these shadows are all these prisoners experience, they assume that the shadows are all that there is to reality. One day, a prisoner finds himself able to escape his chains, and makes his way up out of the cave. As he travels out of the cave, he becomes scared and disorientated by the new experiences he undergoes. Once outside, he is blinded by the bright light of the outside world. Eventually his eyes adjust and he sets out to explore the new world. Afterwards he returns to the cave and attempts to free the other prisoners, only for most of them to not understand his story about the outside world.

Many of the elements of that story are present here. Neo is the prisoner who manages to escape and like the Prisoner, he is blinded by the bright lights of the outside world. "Why does the light hurt my eyes," Neo asks Morpheus. "Because you've never used them before," Morpheus answers. Presumably, the reason the Washowskis use white transition shots so frequently is to reference this element of the story. Furthermore, as Morpheus mentions to Neo in the scene with the Women in the Red Dress, many people who are kept prisoner in the Matrix, will fight to stay a part of that system, rather than accept the truth.

While what The Matrix ultimately offers up is primarily a cerebral experience, it is also worth mentioning that the action scenes are pure visual spectacles, (the film is still famous for introducing the world to the Bullet Time technique). While the sequels were disappointing, the first film in The Matrix Franchise still holds up today.

It would be worth doing advanced math problems involving matrices, if the reward was being able to see The Matrix

The Rating
4 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 18, 2015

Fury Road: Mad Max Reboot or Remake of Communist Manifesto?

(Mild spoilers ahead)

So, my partner and I saw Mad Max Fury Road last night in the theater. It was pretty spectacular, even compared to other spectacular works of epic epicness. Right now there are more than a few people out there pointing out that there are a few feminist themes running around amidst all the testosterone. Some men have even go so far to condemn the film for tricking people into seeing a feminist film. (And this is a bad thing because...?)

What I haven't seen is a lot of people pointing out are the rather subtly overt communist themes that are also scattered throughout.


-The Bourgeois Big Bad (BBB) owns the means of producing water and the main plot ends up being resolved by a coup to redistribute water production to the masses.

-The BBB uses religion as an opiate to keep the masses under his control. There are a couple of ways that the religion is a drug connection is made. For one, the Mad Boys are conditioned to kill themselves in the service of the main baddie and are shown using chrome spray paint as an inhalant before committing kamikaze suicide bombing runs. At the same time, these suicide attacks of the Mad Boys is given all sorts of religious overtones. Then there is a scene where the BBB lampshades what he's doing by telling people not to get too addicted to the water that he's rationing out to them. The BBB does this in a scene where he plays Moses producing water from rocks.

-People are frequently reduced to commodities to be exploited by the big bad. Examples of this include humans being used as sex slaves, milk mothers, and blood bags, with each group being ultimately separated from that which they produce.

Queer Review: 50 Shades of Grey (2015)

50 Shades of Grey
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Kelly Marcel. Based on the novel by E.L. James.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden

In spite of what has been written about 50 Shades of Grey, it is difficult for me to argue that the final product that reached movie screens represents anything other than an anti-BDSM, pro-abuse propaganda piece. I have nothing against BDSM and although I don't consider myself a pro-BDSM advocate or anything, I support peoples right to engage in such activities. As it stands, there is nothing pro-BDSM about 50 Shades of Grey, which presents the activity as something that practitioners should be ashamed of.

Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is an ordinary college student about to graduate with a degree in English Literature, who ends up interviewing the mysterious Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). In spite of her clumsiness, or perhaps because of it, Christian appears attracted to Ana during the interview, and afterwards, she finds herself thinking about him during quiet moments. Eventually, Mr. Grey starts to stalk Ana, showing up at her place of work, buying expensive gifts for her, and generally being a creep. Which Ana oddly enough finds attractive. After being mysterious, and vague about what he really wants with her, Christian eventually reveals that he is a BDSM Dom and proposes that Ana could be his sub. In spite of not being interested in BDSM, Ana naively continues to think that she and Christian can maintain a normal relationship. Unsurprisingly, what develops is about as unhealthy as unhealthy can be.

The Queering
50 Shades of Grey was originally developed as a fan fic based on The Twilight Saga before being published and released as it's own book series. Only rather than featuring vampires, 50 Shades of Grey has BDSM. While I have never read any of the books in either series, I did watch the first Twilight film and the similarities are striking. The female leads are both underdeveloped and both find themselves falling for mysterious man-childs. Stylistically speaking, both adaptions appear to have been influenced by the Chris Columbus School of Adaptation. This means remaining as faithful as possible to the source material, while including as much stilted camerawork, stilted dialog, and as many stilted action/sex/singing scenes as possible.

As for claims of 50 Shades of Grey being pro-BDSM, it's hard to reconcile such a view given what is on screen. Ana consistently seems repulsed at the thought of being a submissive to Christian. For his part, Christian expresses extreme self loathing because of his partaking and getting off on doing BDSM. There is no indication that this self loathing is caused by anti-BDSM stigma but rather appears to be the result of a writer who legitimately believes BDSM to be a bad thing.

This is a critical point to understanding if a work of art is for or against LGBTQ folks, when such a work shows us engaging in self loathing: What is the cause of the angst? If the work in question shows that the loathing is the result of societal prejudice, and the character has overcome the self-loathing to become confident with regards to their sexuality and/or gender identity, then the work should not be considered anti-queer. However, if the work shows the character needing to be "cured" or otherwise overcome their gender identity or sexuality, then it absolutely should be reviled for being a transphobic or homophobic crapfest.

Given the ending of 50 Shades of Grey (and having read what others have written about where the series ends up) I get the impression that this particular story is following the latter trajectory.

Otherwise, there are a few other parallels between BDSM and queer identity present in the film. For starters, the way Mr. Grey gradually builds up to the reveal of his sexual proclivities strongly suggests an individual who is coming out of the closet. In fact, that's where most of the BDSM activities take place in the story, in a locked closet (or rather dungeon as it's called by the characters).

Then there is the idea of sin and seduction that parallels ones anti-LGBTQ narratives are built upon. Specifically, the way sin, in the religious sense, is frequently shown to require a recruiter to lure people into engaging in a sinful activity. Once the victim has given into the temptation of a sinful lifestyle in question, the victim can thus be punished for their weakness and even start to engage in luring others in as well. Consider the ultimate fate of Eve in the story of Genesis or how in the 1961 film Boys Beware has the underage protagonist being punished for having sex with a pedophile, in spite of the fact he had been the victim of statutory rape. Note how the sin narrative erases the idea that anyone would have a natural inclination towards an activity that society has deemed as sin. Also note Ana's frequent incredulity at the idea that anyone would enjoy subbing for a dom.

For those interested, here is the film Boys Beware for you to... enjoy.

In 50 Shades of Grey, Christian is mentioned as having been seduced into the BDSM lifestyle by an older woman when he was all of 15. Of course, now that Christian has been seduced into the lifestyle he is now both a lurer and a sinner who should be ashamed of what he is. Again, the idea that anyone would be naturally inclined towards engaging in BDSM is all but assumed to be impossible.

Ultimately, given the way both films ignore actually abusive behavior -- be it stalking, sexual assault, or statutory rape -- in favor of condemning sexual activities frowned upon by society, 50 Shades of Grey becomes the equivalent of Boys Beware with regards to BDSM films.

If you ever have the misfortune to hear the line: "Mr. Grey will see you now." - take it as your cue to leave.

The Rating
0 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 6, 2015

Queer Review: Get on the Bus (1996)

Get on the Bus
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Reggie Rock Bythewood
Cast: De'aundre Bonds, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Richard Belzer, Gabriel Casseus, Albert Hall, Hill Harper, Harry Lennix, Bernie Mac, Wendell Pierce, Roger Guenveur Smith, Isaiah Washington, Steve White, Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Andre Braugher

The Million Man March on Washington DC in 1995 was an event organized by the controversial Louis Farrakhan and was designed to improve the image of black men by challenging negative stereotypes. That at least is what the textbooks say about the event. What Spike Lees' film Get on the Bus about The Million Man March does is paint a more intimate, on the ground perspective of a group of black men on their way to the rally.

The story begins by introducing the characters we will be spending the next two hours with boarding the bus. Once the trip has begun, conflicts between as the men begin to clash with each other. Gary, who is both biracial and a police officer whose father was killed in the line of duty, becomes a source of tension that is exacerbated when it is revealed that Jamal (Gabriel Casseus) is a former Crip. Flip (Andre Braugher), a snobbish actor, becomes virulently homophobic when he finds out that Randall and Kyle (Henry Lennix and Isaiah Washington) are a gay couple in the midst of a breakup. Evan and his son Smooth (Thomas Jefferson Byrd and De'Aundre Bonds) who are handcuffed together because of a judge's order after Smooth was caught robbing a grocery store. Further problems arise when the bus breaks down and a new bus driver who happens to be Jewish is brought on as a replacement.

Through it all, Xavier (Hill Harper) a film student makes a noble effort to document the proceedings. As tensions flair, guidance is provided by George (Charles S. Dutton), who organized the trip, and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), an elderly man who it is eventually revealed to have a serious heart condition that threatens his life.

The Queering
It is perhaps because my recent film viewing has been exceptionally selective, but I feel that there has been a strong aversion in recent years by filmmakers to avoid actually addressing complex ideas or real life issues in films. As it is, I found myself surprised at the philosophical depth displayed by Spike Lee in Get on the Bus. Lee has always been a controversial figure and accusations against him for being divisive are everywhere. But as it is, every time I watch a Spike Lee Joint I find it to be an exceptionally thoughtful and balanced effort.

Get on the Bus manages to explore a variety of political issues all the while never losing sight of the characters. The dialog at a couple of points comes across as stilted, but given the nature of the production (filmed on a low budget over 16 days) that's to be expected. The issues that are addressed by the characters range cover just about everything from the root causes of economic deprivation faced by African Americans (is it the result of discrimination or welfare causing the breakup of African American families) to what it means to reform oneself after a hard life of crime. At one point, a character points out the problematic symbolism of Evan arriving at the rally with his son in chains.

As the story unfolds, much of the conflict is driven by the prejudices of the characters. The replacement bus driver, Rick (Richard Belzer) finds himself the target of anti-semitic remarks and quits as a result. Several black women express the view that the march is both exclusionary and sexist. Randal and Kyle find themselves the target of homophobia. It's fascinating how Lee was able to present a microcosm within the film of the march that includes most of the criticism against it and Louis Farrakhan without any of these elements coming across as a forced attempt at balance -- or at least none of it felt forced when I watched it the film while unaware of the criticism against Farrakhan for being both anti-semitic and homophobic. While the March is presented as having the potential for positive change for African-American Men, Lee still makes sure to include a cross section of this criticism.

As for the gay couple Kyle and Randal, they are presented as just as dedicated to the march and as integral to the group as any other main character. Furthermore, the unique prejudices they face are presented as no less significant to them than those faced by the other characters. That is there is no game of oppression olympics being played out here. When Kyle reveals that he served in the Marines, he talks about having to face both racism and homophobia when he tells of an incident where he was wounded by friendly fire:
When I woke up, they were laughing and talking about how...they killed two birds with one stone. One nigger, one faggot.

External obstacles to the group include a scene where they are pulled over by a State Trooper in Tennessee. The scene makes us wonder if someone broke the rule the group was given at the beginning about not carrying illegal substances and is about to be arrested.

In spite of the obstacles that the group faces (which are frequently set up to mirror the obstacles and discrimination that African American Men face in our larger society) the movie ends on a note of hope. In the final scene, a prayer is read which had been written by a character who passed away just when the group had reached Washington. It includes the following quote from the Book of Job:
For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down...
... that it will sprout again...
... and that its tender shoots will not cease...
... though its roots may grow old in the earth...
... and its stump may die in the ground.
Yet at the scent of water...
... it will bud and bring forth branches like a plant.

Definitely would be worth a difficult bus ride to see Get on the Bus.

The Rating
3 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

March 4, 2015

Queer Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending
Directors: The Wachowskis
Writers: The Wachowskis
Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatumn, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton

Jupiter Ascending is a mess and not in a good way. This represents the weakest entry into The Wachowskis filmography that I have had to opportunity to see, due to this film falling far shorter than usual with regards to the high ambitions that The Wachowskis usually set for the stories that they tell. Then there is the tricky matter of the main villain, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), falling prey to sexist and transphobic tropes.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an ordinary young woman, working a dead end job as a cleaning lady in her family's business. When her cousin encourages her to donate her eggs at a fertility clinic, she goes, only for the medical attendants to turn into aliens and try to kill her. Fortunately, she is then kidnapped-slash-rescued by a strange being who calls himself Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who informs her that her reality is a computer generated dreamworld designed to turn human beings into batteries, or uh rather... that earth is a farm maintained by aliens who harvest humans so they can have eternal youth. It also turns out that there are a lot of planets like that out there. Oh and we humans were genetically engineered by the aliens with their DNA, which they spliced onto a native species in order to create us. Also, Jupiter is the reincarnation of the Abrasax siblings mother, who was murdered. And Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) is the one who inherited Earth and wants to start the harvesting, like right now. Meanwhile Jupiter and Caine are (supposedly) falling in love, while Jupiter tries to claim her title to Earth.

The Queering
There are times when Jupiter Ascending almost manages to achieve the ambitious goals set out for itself by the Wachowskis, but the end result is more disaster than the intriguing space adventure it aims for. There are parts that show off an intricately developed universe, complex characters, the development of philosophical themes, and even bits of intriguing social commentary. Then there are parts that are just confusing and too often, the Wachowskis simply seem to want to show off that they know how to handle a special effects budget.

In the past, the Wachowskis have shown the ability to combine the examination of philosophical themes, even while blowing stuff up real good. Even their post-Matrix material is better than the reputation it has received. Cloud Atlas suffered a bit from over-editing, but still managed to hold itself together and The Matrix sequels while a step down from the first, still managed to tell coherent and engaging stories.

Jupiter Ascending on the other hand, does not hold together so well. Much of the important plot points feel rushed, the big action scenes tend towards the incoherent and confusing, and the universe all of this is set in feels half developed. In spite of the fact that the story drags, there were times when I wanted more time spent explaining how this particular universe worked and to character development as well. The relationships and motivations of the Abrasax siblings in particular felt under-developed (a situation not helped much by the fact that they always spoke softly in half-whispers with each other). Furthermore, the fact that we are never shown exactly what a harvesting of a planet looks likely (merely the results) makes audience investment in the central conflict that much harder.

In Jupiter Ascending's defense, there are a couple of interesting ideas presented, even if they are half developed. The concept of creating sentient life to lengthen the lifespans of other beings, is not that far removed from the creation of savior siblings, where a child is created via in vitro fertilization and is expected to donate cells and tissues for an older sibling with a fatal disease. In other words, the technology for doing what is presented as science fiction here, not only exists, but is already being utilized. I'm not sure if the Wachowskis actually intended for their to be any parallels here, but they are worth pointing out.

As it is, the characters and situation itself are both interesting, even if they are only half developed.

However, there is one awkward element that I want to point out. The main villain, Balem, is presented as being both extremely effeminate and having an obsession with his mother (and thus by default, he also has an obsession with Jupiter Jones). Note: Lana Wachowski said that the story was inspired by The Odessey but with regards to greek mythology, the Oedipal Complexing going on is lot more obvious than anything else. Anyways, the point being is that Balem is queer coded in some pretty obvious ways.

Now, one trope regarding transgender villains that I have pointed out before, is that trans villains (who are almost always woman) are always presented as not only deceptive, but as actively stealing the bodies and or identities (among other things) of woman. Now, while Balem is not presented as transgender, he is still an obviously effeminate, queer coded villain, who actively seeks to steal an entire planet from a female character. Between the use of human bodies to create a fountain-of-youth type substance and Balem's mother obsession, several uncomfortable parallels end up being created with extremely transphobic films such as Psycho (where the titular character is also obsessed with his mother) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (an alternate take on the story where Dr. Jekyll uses female hormones in order lengthen his lifespan and winds up killing numerous female sex workers in order to obtain them)

What makes this particularly awkward is that Lana Wachowski (who co-directed along side her brother Andy Wachowski) is herself transgender.

Admittedly, there are a few problems with trying to paint Jupiter Ascending into a transphobic corner. As close as it comes to paralleling one transphobic trope, there are numerous others that it avoids. Balem never engages in deception to obtain what he wants, but instead shows himself resorting to force to get it. Instead, there is only one Abrasax sibling who resorts to deception, and he was shown engaging in sex play with several female looking alien type characters. Furthermore, Balem doesn't want to steal anyone's body to assist with a gender transition type process (as was done by the main villain in The X-Files: I Want to Believe but merely to extend his life. Even if the specific person he is trying to steal the planet from is a woman, the bodies that the fountain-of-youth substance is made from are going to inevitably have to come from males, females, and anyone otherwise outside the gender binary. Thus, due to this generality, one could argue that the trope of "trans women stealing from women" is technically avoided.

When I first saw the previews for Jupiter Ascending part of me was interested in seeing a female lead in an action heavy film being made by a direction team of whom one half is a woman. As it is, whenever a woman is made the lead of an action film, it inevitably ends up being a member of (as Mr. Cranky put it in his review of Underworld: Evolution) "'hot chicks in skimpy or skin-tight outfits beating the crap out of things' genre."

However, while Mila Kunis plays the role with spunk and determination and the character does get to display both a degree of autonomy and show off her intellect (she manages to memorize most of the universes legal code in what could not have been more than a few hours time). There is even a bit during the climax where she is shown risking life and limb to remove members of her family from a dangerous situation. However, for all the ways Jupiter Jones parallels "The Hero's Quest" (that is, the story hero who comes from a humble background to be revealed to have an important role in grand events) she still tends to wind up a mere damsel in distress to be rescued by Caine.

As it is, he potential for Jupiter Jones to be a female hero is wasted, like so many of the other potentially intriguing elements of this story.

Not quite worth ascending to Jupiter in order to see, but might be worth taking a reasonably priced commercial space flight (if those were to ever be developed at some point in the near future).

The Rating
2 and 1/2 stars out of 4.


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February 3, 2015

Queer Issue: The Box Trolls, Same Sex Parents, and the Never Ending Parade of Gender Transgressive Villains.

In the grand scheme of things, there are plenty of little details that can escape my attention. I didn't know until last night, for example, that the original teaser trailer for The Boxtrolls featured same sex parenting.

The trailer opens with an anonymous narrator intoning, "Sometimes there's a mother, sometimes a mother and a father, sometimes there's a father and a father, sometimes both fathers are mothers."

It appears then that the makers of ParaNorman (the first children's movie to feature an openly gay character) are still willing to continue pushing against homophobic boundaries.

This is a good thing.

Here is the trailer for those who are curious:

My partner and I watched The Boxtrolls the other night and while it at times evokes some of the better elements of ParaNorman, there were some other elements I want to comment on. I don't plan on writing a review, as I was watching it while playing on my laptop and thus was not fully paying attention to the film

The basic story revolves around Eggs, a human boy being raised by Boxtrolls, a sentient group of trolls who are vilified and hunted by the citizens of Cheesebridge. Thus it would appear that the references to same sex parenting in the teaser trailer are rather apt.

This too is good.

However, in a plot twist, it turns out that the head Snatcher (the group tasked with hunting down the Boxtrolls) is also a cross-dressing cabaret singer, who uses his secondary identity to help vilify the Boxtrolls via over the top theatrical performances.

This is not a good thing.

On one hand we are fortunately spared any over the top transphobic Ace Ventura-esque reactions. Eggs doesn't react much of all to the revelation, nor does any one else. And in what I think is a first, this is a first cross-dresser baddie who is shown stealing anything from any female characters. The closest he comes is trying to steal a truly feminine white hat from the mayor.

As it is, the White Hats (which represent the upper crust of Cheesebridge and are presented in the most fay terms possible) are what provide motivation to the Snatchers. As it is, the Snatchers work assiduously to join the ranks of the White Hats, and thus the Snatchers are the ones who spend the most time fanning the flames of hatred against the Boxtrolls.

There are definitely a few interesting subtexts regarding class roles going on here.

On the other hand, I am not sure what the point of the whole The-Head-Snatcher-Sometimes-Dresses-Up-Like-A-Woman sub-plot was. It does, however, do a pretty good job of reinforcing the idea that trans people are deceptive. In fact, deceptiveness is pretty much the character's defining character trait. When Eggs first shows up on the surface of Cheesebridge, and sees the Snatchers putting on his anti-Boxtroll propaganda piece, his immediate reaction to the drag performance is to label it as fraudulent.

In fact, Eggs attempting to reveal the head snatcher as a "fraud" pretty much sums up the rest of the movie. The final scene of the movie has Eggs exhorting the head Snatcher to "stay true to his own nature" and that it doesn't matter what the Snatcher wears or eats.

This is *not* a good subtext.

In fact, it's a pretty shitty subtext, precisely given the constant stream of transphobic rhetoric that transgender people should "stay true to their nature" and not try to live as the gender they identify as and instead live as the gender they were assigned by society.

Honestly, I don't know what more to say about all of this. ParaNorman was groundbreaking, and the same can be said about the trailer for The Boxtrolls. Too bad the actual movie The Boxtrolls delivers such a problematic message.

January 26, 2015

Queer Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Writers: Graham Moore. Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon

Thankfully The Imitation Game does not fall prey to the tendency of filmmakers to de-emphasize a heroic LGBTQ historical figures sexual identity. What we do get is a powerful, well made film about one of the more ironic chapters of human history. Alan Turing's work was influential in the fields of Mathematics, Philosophy, and Cryptology and he is considered the Father of Computer Science. His work on codebreaking is credited by historians has potentially having shortened the World War II, thereby saving countless lives. However, his ultimate fate might not have been very different had the Axis powers won that great conflict.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the most talented mathematicians of his time, applies to Bletchley Park (the British center tasked with decoding German communications during World War II. He is accepted and immediately makes enemies with his immediate supervisor and coworkers due to his abrasive personality and his idea that a new kind of machine is necessary to break the German encoding device known as Enigma. As Turing puts it, it will "take a machine to break a machine". Further complications occur when Turing attempts to hire a talented female mathematician, Joan Clark (Kiera Knightly), to help with the decoding efforts, only to have her face severe sexism that hinders the contributions she can make. Eventually, Turing is successful in building the first decoding Machine (which he dubs Christopher after a childhood love) and ultimately aiding the Allies in their eventual victory over Germany.

This does not prevent Turings' inevitable fate when he confesses to having sexual relations with another man and is forced to participate in hormone therapy or go to jail.

The Queering
When I was growing up, my mom refused to allow us a TV and thus the two of us would frequently listen to audiobooks as a form of communal entertainment instead. While I have not (as of this writing) seen the 2001 film Enigma (an alternative version of the Bletchley Park story where Alan Turing was written out and replaced with an entirely heterosexual character), I do clearly recall listening to the audio book with my mother. I do remember that the tale that was told was one of a sweeping romance where the hero and his lover must face impossible odds while working against impossible odds to break the German codes.

Such is the history that a homophobic society would have us believe, one in which queer people simply do not exist but as victims or villians. This is how our history is stolen from us, not merely by presenting only the stories of us as monsters or victims, but by presenting the lives of our heroes as if they themselves were straight.

There is a vocal group of critics who will leap upon any historical inaccuracy in a film which deviates from history in even the smallest of details. Similarly, justification for homophobic language is simply given as "well, that's just the way people talk". However, when films present a LGBTQ character as heterosexual and/or cisgender, then the result is typically nothing more than a deafening silence.

In The Imitation Game there are a few deviations from history, mostly around simplifying the work being done at Bletchley Park and with how the decoding of the Enigma machine was actually used by the Allies. But these generally do not detract from the narrative, other than in one particularly contrived case where one of the codebreakers, after the decoding is first accomplished, reveals that one of his relatives is on part of a group about to be attacked, and the team must make the contrived decision to allow German attack to be carried out, rather than risk revealing to the Germans that Enigma has been broken. It's a small misstep, but it happens at a time when the film should be soaring.

Other deviations include making Turing to be more anti-social than he probably was. While the real Turing was indeed eccentric, he is written as if Graham Moore believes Turing to be a high-functioning autistic (allow me to insert the obligatory "not that there is anything wrong with that" disclaimer here) and his caustic relationship with his co-workers. The only problem with this is that it causes Turing to come across at times as a pan-romantic asexual. The only thing that prevents such an interpretation, is Turing repeatedly identifying as "homosexual" and his eventual prosecution for sexual deviance. As it is, Turing is never shown engaging in a same sex relationship or any kind of romance as an adult.

In any case, what is demonstrated very well by the film is the way in which Turing's work as codebreaker, philosopher, and mathematician was influenced by his sexuality. The most obvious as presented in the film, was the how the death of Christopher Morcom, drove Turing to consider how machines themselves might be able to think and to store consciousness. Turing believed that it might be possible someday for them to store human consciousness. He also developed what is known as the Turing Test (also known as the imitation test or game), which is an artificial test to determine if a machine is "thinking". Another thing that is done well by the film is the presentation of Turing's philosophical work into the question of Artificial Intelligence. The framing sequence, where Turing is being interrogated by a detective, has the two debating the question at length.

What is equally interesting, is the double meaning that can be read into the title. Does the imitation game refer to the Turing Test or to the imitation that LGBTQ people are constantly forced into, when we must imitate the lives of cisgender, heterosexuals? Either could apply to the life of Turing, who became engaged to Joan Clarke while they were working together at Bletchley Park. Fortunately, the filmmakers go out of their way to make it clear, that while Clarke and Turing were very close friends, their relationship was not in anyway romantic but based upon both of them facing different, but parallel forms of discrimination. While I don't wish to take anything away from Turing, it is worth noting that despite modern stereotypes, computer programming was once primarily seen as being a woman's work, due to it's secretarial nature and the fact that it could be done at home.

However, the greatest irony of Turings' life is not one that is often addressed. The NAZI's themselves were of course notoriously homophobic and imprisoned many gay men in concentration camps, where numerous expirements were performed on them in order to determine a cure for homosexuality. Such experiments included castration. As it were, Alan Turings' eventual prosecution at the hands of the British might have been only slightly better than his fate would have been at the hands of the NAZI's. Thus, while Turing's work was instrumental to an Allied Victory during World War II, he was not able to fully enjoy the results of his work.

Further irony comes in the fact that Turings' case was not unique, in the years leading up to 9/11 and aftewards during the US led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, numerous translators specializing in Arabic and Farsi were let go from the US Military for violating DADT. Some have speculated that had they had not been fired, the US would have had a chance to prevent 9/11.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an impressive performance as Alan Turring, and able support is provided by his costars Kiera Knightley and Mathew Goode. The scene where Turing committed suicide was filmed, but not included in the theatrical version. Turings' final fate thus is revealed by title cards. This is the correct choice in my opinion. While it is important to note the consequences that Turing faced for being gay, too many of stories told about us go out of their way to needlessly demonstrate how miserable being queer can be. As it is, the film ends on a bittersweet note, with scenes of Turing and his coworkers celebrating the end of World War II. This perhaps is the best thing that we should remember Turing, how his accomplishments changed our world for the better. How he died is important, but only because those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, as historian George Santayana (who was either gay or bi) would have put it.

Highly recommended. This is no imitation of a great movie, it has the heart of the real thing.

The Rating
Four Stars out of Four.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.