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The Failure of The Last Jedi.

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The Failure of The Last Jedi.

Here be spoilers.


Ever since the prequels wound up being at least a little bit inept, large swatches of Star Wars fandom have delighted in acting like they know more about the franchise than the people actually writing the stories within it. George Lucas might have thought that it was a cool idea to start his trilogy about the emotional downfall of one of the most iconic representations of evil and villainy in all of storytelling with a film centered around a complicated trade dispute, but the guy isn't a complete idiot. He was fully aware that he was telling the story of the Jedi failure, but fans can have a tendency to talk about this as though Lucas didn't realize exactly what he was doing. Again — Lucas might have misfired on a lot of ideas when it comes to the prequels, but the subtext of the Jedi Order's role in the birth of Darth Vader wasn't one of them.

Now that Star Wars has been soft-rebooted, so to speak, it's open to a new narrative paradigm that wasn't really possible before. Open for the first time to storytellers with a bit of distance from its initial conception and execution, the Star Wars franchise finds itself with some unprecedented potential for meta-commentary. Neither the prequels nor the original trilogy were capable of commenting on the legacy they were actively becoming part of, but a 30-year remove puts this new generation of storytellers in a very unique position: Star Wars stories can now be told in a way that thematically and sub-textually comments not only on the very franchise they are a part of, but on the extended legacy of that franchise, its cultural impacts, the nature of its relationship with its fans, and so on. For the first time, Star Wars movies can be about the cultural institution that is Star Wars movies.

Now I'm as staunch an Abrams apologist as they come, but at this point it's more or less apparent that JJ isn't interested in taking any real risks with this new potential. His is a deep love of homage, and thinking back to a story about his on-set mantra being "Is it delightful?" during the production of The Force Awakens points to a clear difference in his storytelling goals when compared with Rian Johnson's work on The Last Jedi. If Abrams' aim is to delight, Johnson's is to pick apart all that shit that you've been delighted by for the last thirty-some-odd years, thematically shoulder his way right past all your easy nostalgia buttons, and demand that you ask yourself why you were so delighted by all of it in the first place.

And all The Last Jedi needed to be was a rip-roaring Star Wars flick. Delightful would have been enough! Hell, it was fine for Force Awakens and Rogue One, so why not this one? It just wasn't enough for Rian Johnson. He seems to have set his goals a little higher, and his resultant work has elevated the franchise to heights it hasn't reached since Empire Strikes Back. Through a series of storytelling choices that elicit a deep understanding of the Star Wars franchise as well as its fandom's complex relationship with it, The Last Jedi doesn't just accomplish things that Star Wars had never done before, it accomplishes things that weren't even possible for Star Wars to do before in the first place.

 

The Jedi Failure

The Last Jedi made it no secret that Luke Skywalker has grown sick and tired of everyone's favorite order of magical laser-sword space-knights. Hell, they put it right there in the trailer. Luke is not down with the Jedi anymore, and he wants them to be donezo. Then, at a certain point, Luke explains to Rey that despite all the myth-making and galactic hero-worship, "The legacy of Jedi is failure...hypocrisy, hubris." He even goes so far as to point out that the Jedi basically let Palpatine rise to power when they were at their strongest. All things that any Star Wars fans will recognize as having come out of the mouths of people who think they understand Star Wars better than Lucas does.

To a degree, this is understandable: While the Jedi failure was clearly and intentionally played out in the action of the prequel films, its interpretation is more or less implicit, and has never — for lack of a better term — been "made canon" in a diegetic sense. Fans have been quick to assume that, since the Jedi have been treated with reverence by most all characters within the Star Wars universe itself, their failure was not rooted in Lucas' authorial intent. Thing is, most Star Wars stories don't center on characters who have actually been through all of the core films thus far. Given The Last Jedi's temporal setting, this makes Old Luke one of the only characters in the Star Wars universe who can actually offer up an authoritative analysis on the events of both the prequels and the original trilogy.

That analysis? To sharply rebuke the Galactic Good Guys for having been a failure and condemn them for having been driven by hubris and hypocrisy, essentially calling for an end to their existence.

Damn, Rian.

But by brilliantly deciding to make failure the thematic throughline of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson canonizes the Jedi failure as being recognized thusly in the most poignant way possible, elevating it to a vital teaching role within the hero's journey. At the same time, the Jedi are humanized. De-deified. The Last Jedi shows us that the Jedi have always had their hearts in the right place, even though they sometimes fuck up the execution. At the end of the day, they were fallible. They had to learn from their mistakes and miscalculations, just like us regular, non-magic folk. Even Luke comes to learn that his criticisms don't need to be quite as sharp as they had been, because the Jedi were never supposed to be regarded as infallible gods in the first place. They were capable of misjudgment just like anyone else, and their true power lied in their ability to learn from these failures and integrate them into their journeys. So sayeth Yoda, in one of the film's most thematically important moments. The Jedi weren't perfect Chosen People...they were People.
 

The Rey of it all

And so it turns out that the Skywalker Saga isn't just about the Skywalkers. Up to now, it's been easy enough to interpret the core Star Wars saga as being about a single family around which the fate of the struggle between good and evil within the galaxy seems to hang. In The Last Jedi, however, Rian Johnson thumbs his nose directly at this idea, tossing all that destiny, chosen one nonsense right over his shoulder (remind you of anyone?).

Think about how intentional this decision must have been. There's no way Johnson wasn't acutely aware of the conversation surrounding Rey's origins; remember that this is one of the first Star Wars films produced in a way that actually allows for reflexive commentary. This type of storytelling wasn't even possible until now, and the reveal that Rey comes from outside the Skywalker lineage has implications that ripple back to the very DNA of the original trilogy itself.

The Last Jedi firmly and confidently asserts that Rey doesn't have to be the progeny of someone previously-established as being "special" in order to play a vital role in the struggle for good and evil. Rey isn't a hero because she was born a hero, she's a hero because she decided to use her gifts and abilities to actively become one. She doesn't have to be the secret spawn of some major player on the galactic stage the way Luke was. It's enough that she's someone who has the ability to make a difference, and is determined to do so in a positive way.

As such, Rey's call to adventure is entirely her own. It doesn't come attached to the legacy of some important dude who came before her; it's borne out of her own agency, and of her decision to use her gifts for good.
 

The Hero's Journey

Above all else, Rian Johnson remembered that Star Wars is a telling of the Hero's Journey. Lucas was famously fascinated with Campbell's contributions to the field of comparative mythology, and it's no secret that The Hero with a Thousand Faces informed a lot of the Star Wars blueprint. The Last Jedi has no shortage of heroes that emerge over the course of its movie-and-a-half runtime, but what's incredible about Johnson's screenplay is how much thematic depth emerges from a film that allows itself the time to comment on how those journeys actually start.

In its retroactive illumination of how Rey's hero's journey started, The Last Jedi strengthens itself with a valuable thematic insight on the very nature of Campbell's monomyth (and something a lot of ancillary Star Wars material seems to have forgotten) — heroism is universal. It's for everyone. The Hero of a Thousand Faces is fundamentally about the universality of the hero's journey, and The Last Jedi makes this idea literal by depicting the Rebellion's contagious spark as it makes its way across the galaxy.

We are all our own heroes, each of us on our own journeys. Background doesn't matter. Luke and Rey both stared up at the sky towards the start of their respective journeys with the same wistful look on their faces, a gesture that speaks to a truly universal desire to have our complex, complicated lives pared down to something as elemental and simple as "good versus evil."

And all this thematic legwork is what makes the oft-derided Canto Bight sequence not just an absolutely indispensable part of The Last Jedi, but also one of the sequences that clarifies Rian Johnson's deep understanding of the Star Wars mythos.

First of all, consider the fact that the Canto Bight mission fails. Finn and Rose touch down with the goal of finding someone who can help the Rebellion, and they fail. They find someone who does help them, but it's not exactly the help that they wanted, and it's not exactly delivered in the way they expected. Just like Rey's mission to find Luke and bring him back, their Hail Mary play doesn't go exactly as planned, showing us that failure is always part of the journey. This sequence also zooms out on the Star Wars universe a bit, showing us a larger context for and the impact of the galactic conflict we've been following along all these years. It's not just the Rebels who suffer at the hands of the Empire: both sides are engaged in a massive, churning war machine, and the Canto Bight sequence offers a valuable look at those left in its wake.

Most importantly, though? This sequence sows the seeds for another hero's journey. Remember, Luke was a conflict bystander who once stood in a shitty place and looked up at the sky wishing he could be part of something bigger. The Last Jedi ends with a poignant shot (perhaps the most meaningfully significant frame in the entire franchise) that shows a slave boy, having recently been inspired by Rose and her Rebels, looking up at the sky and holding his broomstick so it looks like a lightsaber.

The spark spreads. Yet another hero's journey begins. And not because of special parents, but because someone helped. The Rebel Alliance has started the fire of yet another Hero's Journey somewhere in the galaxy...even though the Canto Bight mission was technically a failure. It's all part of the journey.

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The Shaggy Feminism of Wonder Woman.

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The Shaggy Feminism of Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman is an amazing thing. It's fantastic that this movie exists, and it took entirely too long to get a female-led superhero film to the big screen from a major studio. Hell, the movie almost made it to release date without having a sexism-fueled controversy nipping at its heals. At least we didn't have to deal with Ghostbuster levels of unnecessary blowback. And now, here we are: Wonder Woman is out, and we're free to talk about all the things it does and doesn't do, for better or for worse. And on the whole? Wonder Woman is an enjoyable superhero movie, with a buoyancy and and sincerity that has been sorely missing from the DC film universe since it started back in 2013.

No matter what, Gal Gadot leading a solo Wonder Woman film is a huge moment for women, especially those who have been yearning to see themselves reflected in a powerful, ass-kicking demigod for as long as they can remember. Nothing can take that away, and nothing should. At the same time, it's worth taking a deeper look at Wonder Woman's gender politics, just like it's worth taking a deeper look at the subtext of just about any movie. So what's going to follow is going to be the most objective interrogation of Wonder Woman that I can possibly muster. I'm going to take a look at the movie's gender politics, which necessarily means I'm going to be taking a look at the film's feminism. I'm doing this as a guy, and as a guy who doesn't claim to know shit. As such, I'm going try to avoid offering any kind of prescriptive evaluation, suggesting that the film should have done such-and-such instead of whatever it did or didn't do. Instead, I'm going to try my best to objectively evaluate the film's depiction of its lead character, and by extension its feminism based on a rubric provided by another film that I think successfully imbues its narrative with a strong feminist subtext.

Also worth noting? This necessarily means I'm taking a critical look specifically at the movie's script. And while Patty Jenkins directed the absolute hell out of Wonder Woman (seriously, its action sequences are some of the most thrilling I've seen since John Wick: Chapter 2), the script was written by men, and was based on a story developed by men. And the more we get into it, the more I think that it'll become apparent that this was a story that should have been told by a woman at the script stage, too. But we'll get there.

For the most part, we're going to be taking a look at Diana and her trajectory throughout the movie, paying close attention to the way she's portrayed, the way the men in the film around her are portrayed, and the way the movie uses both to comment on the way men and women relate to one another.

In the film's second act, Diana makes her way off the Amazon-inhabited island of Themyscira and follows Chris Pine's Steve Trevor to London. Prior to this, everything is pretty much peachy-keen for Diana. She's part of the Amazons, a clan of warrior women who basically hang out on a beautiful island and practice fucking shit up in a combat kind of way forever and ever. Beyond a few (correct) mentions that the world of mankind doesn't deserve someone like Diana, there isn't much to unpack in terms of gender politics throughout the film's first act. It's when Diana arrives in England and gets to interact with society at large that the film really gets the opportunity to make any moves in terms of gender politics, and it's unfortunately here where the film starts to drop the ball.

There's no question about it: Diana is fucking gnarly. To use a term from Christina Cauterucci's fantastic article at Slate, she's hypercompetent. And while her hypercompetency should be the source of the film's most feminist undertones, it's instead...played as a joke. Over and over, throughout the film. I don't know that this would have been a problem, had it happened once; the film's temporal and social setting all but demands it. Women weren't treated particularly well during World War I (not that they are now, but this is a work in progress), so it only makes sense that many of the men in the film would respond to Diana's lack of concern with traditional gender roles and extreme levels of capability with a measure of surprise. In fact, this is pretty much expected in social settings. Where the film truly missteps — and this was well-discussed in Cauterucci's article — is in its commitment to having Diana's abilities played as the punchline to a bad joke, over and over again.

Each time Diana does something badass in front of one of the film's male leads, we get some combination of cartoonish surprise and awkward arousal. It happens repeatedly, and what this winds up doing is giving us a film that tacitly agrees with its main characters' surprise at Diana's competency, which undercuts said competency in the first place. Why show us a powerful character only to have the other characters surrounding her express their repeated doubt at her abilities. Frustratingly, this continues right up until the third act, when someone has to point out to Steve Trevor that Diana just got done knocking down a fucking building by jumping into it.

Having each male character respond to Diana's ability with googly eyes and a line amounting to "HOO BOY CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS WOMAN CAN DO SHIT?" while they scramble to cover up an erection seriously undercuts the fact that Diana's as powerful as she is in the first place. And again — this is a script issue. It's as though Wonder Woman was afraid to simply present a woman who can fuck shit up left and right without a second thought...the script had to wink at its audience, going "You sure didn't expect that, did you?!" every time it happens.

Consider a film that takes the exact opposite approach: Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa's competency is never really remarked-upon; it simply exists as fact in the world of that movie. Max and Furiosa are very much on equal footing, and they work together because they need each other and neither is afraid to recognize this fact. When every male character reacts with surprise at the fact that Diana can do stuff, it serves to narratively undercut the fact that Diana can actually do stuff, as opposed to an example wherein male characters aren't repeatedly surprised at the competency of female characters. Instead of playing Diana's ability as understood and par for the course, Wonder Woman repeatedly calls attention to how unexpected it is. And again — depicting this reaction once might not have been an issue...but the film's repeated depiction of male characters confounded at Diana's power (perhaps inadvertently) suggests that the audience shares this reaction, and even identifies with it.

Now, when this issue is coupled with the film's other main issue, the root of these problems become clear: this script was written by men. I'm referring, of course, to the male gaze that incessantly follows Diana throughout the film. Her appearance is remarked-upon constantly, with one character even going so far as to state that he is both "afraid and aroused" after watching her ruffle some manfeathers in a bar. Male characters are repeatedly reduced to being able to comment about little other than how fetching they find Diana's physical appearance, which brings us to what might very well be the film's biggest problem: Wonder Woman reeks of things that men think women might find empowering.

Diana is constantly and repeatedly reminded, by just about every male character with which she comes into contact, that she is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen. She's objectified repeatedly throughout the film, even if it's meant in an almost reverent way (massive eye roll). On top of this, her competency repeatedly confounds the male characters who innately doubted her. Look at this goofy man who didn't think that Diana could actually be strong or capable! How hilarious is it that he was proven wrong! It's in these ways that a mostly-fantastic script falls into the trap of exploring female empowerment through a distinctively male lens.

Despite all this, there are moments of successful, inspiring, fist-in-the-air feminism throughout the film, not to mention the fact that the film's existence in the first place (and its opening weekend box office performance) are huge steps in the right direction. The No Man's Land sequence is brilliantly setup and sublimely executed; and several moments where Diana, Trevor, and their group of wartime cohorts work as a team absolutely cook onscreen. For the most part, Wonder Woman succeeds at what it sets out to do: provide a fun superhero with a lady in the lead, and it's fun as all hell, to boot.

Maybe just next time let's get some ladies in the writers' room to tell these stories, yeah?

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Problems with the Ending of The Discovery.

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Problems with the Ending of The Discovery.

Here be spoilers.

Charlie McDowell's The Discovery presents itself as a film about the afterlife, but it's more specifically a film about regret. As I touched upon in my review, The Discovery follows three main characters, each of them consumed in some way by regret over a past action they can no longer go back and change, and each of them taking actions that are almost singularly motivated by a desire (and ultimate inability) to cope with that regret.

In the end, the film's events are revealed to have taken place within a memory loop, part of an afterlife that central character Will Harber has graduated to after living his normal life to its fullest and then dying. In a "memory," a version of love interest Isla explains to Will that he has been living within the same loop, and that his ability to finally save Isla from suicide — thereby correcting the regret that most centrally dominated his life — has broken that loop and enabled the both of them to move on. The Discovery posits that the afterlife is an alternate version of our real lives, with the key difference being that we're given the chance to make different choices and correct our most troubling regrets in our do-overs. As such, the film reveals that its events have been one iteration in a continuous loop of Will's afterlife, replaying itself until he's able to save Isla and truly correct his life's biggest regret.

Conceptually, this is an interesting idea, but The Discovery seems fundamentally unaware of the fact that this third-act reveal raises some huge implications that it fails to address in any way whatsoever. One of the most fundamental issues is what happens to people who die without having any serious, towering regrets?

Everybody in The Discovery is miserable as fuck, which is in line with the film's choice to be a meditation on regret. For the most part, it succeeds in this goal, but the script fails to specify what happens to people who don't have this kind of towering sadness in their lives. Not everybody lives with the kind of wracking guilt that the characters in The Discovery all feel, but the film seems to imply that all of humanity trudges along wishing they had done things differently. The implication that the afterlife is a chance to do things differently is mostly presented as a chance to correct mistakes — only the small detail of the dead man's changed tattoo suggests that we might simply want to also try on new clothes. But this detail is the only one of its kind, and is overshadowed by the work the film does to show us that everyone who goes to the afterlife experiences the chance to correct their life's biggest regret when they do so.

Either way, The Discovery takes place well after Will Harber has died. In the film's final moments, he learns that he's been living in a memory loop, starting back at his meeting with Isla every time he fails to keep her from committing suicide. When he is finally able to save her, he is able to move on. The only problem with this is that there are two huge implications here, neither of which are expanded upon. The first implication is that the afterlife repeats itself until you figure out how to actually go about correcting your biggest regret. Doesn't that kind of make it some sort of shitty, torturous puzzle, as opposed to an uplifting second chance that allows you to experience and know what it would be like to have lived a different life? According to The Discovery, when we die, we go to some kind of fucked up Groundhog Day where we relive the same set period of time until we can figure out how to correct our life's biggest regret.

The second implication is that the afterlife is a series of alternate lives, none of them terribly different from the previous one, stretching on into infinity. When Will finally figures out how to correct his biggest regret and leave his Groundhog Day loop, Isla tells him that he will now be able to move on. Immediately following this, it turns out that "moving on" just means going to another alternate version of David's real life, this time one in which he manages to keep Isla's kid from drowning and correct not only his life's biggest regret, but also hers (too bad she didn't get to be responsible for this, I guess). Glossing over the fact that the whole point of this was so that he could reunite with her and fall in love again, but she's got a kid so we're just to assume that she's a single mom...this implies that the afterlife consists of just a repeating set of alternate lives, none of which are ever markedly different from your original life.

If Will's original life involved Isla committing suicide, his first afterlife involves him figuring out how to keep her from committing suicide — the alternate version of his life that allows him to erase his biggest regret. Once he experiences this, he goes to another alternate life, in which he meets Isla under different circumstances and keeps her son from drowning. So are we to assume that he will just continue to hop into a series of alternate versions of his normal life, each with slightly different details, for all of eternity? No way to tell.

Finally, the biggest problem of all is that we have no idea why Will was finally able to move on. This is supposed to be the film's emotional climax: Isla tells him that this time he was able to save her. This time, he was able to connect with Isla in a way that kept her from killing herself, but the problem is that we're not told what Will learned, changed, or did differently in order to enact this change, so we don't understand what will needed to learn to move on. Because Will doesn't really learn anything. In fact, the film implies that Will has already learned what he needed to learn in order to move on, and this last iteration of his loop appears to be the one in which he's finally given the chance to actually apply his knowledge. For the viewer, though, it's hugely unsatisfying to be told this without also learning what it was that Will was doing differently before that wouldn't let him save Isla. That's something I'd like to discover.

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Progressivism vs. Plot: Optical Issues in Ghost in the Shell

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Progressivism vs. Plot: Optical Issues in Ghost in the Shell

If you've been on the Internet or alive in the world during the last calendar year, you're probably aware that there is a live-action Ghost in the Shell remake on the horizon. If you're paying only a little more attention, you've probably sniffed out the fact that the decision to cast Caucasian actor Scarlett Johansson in the lead role was a controversial one, with many believing that a Japanese actor should be heading the big-budget adaptation of one of Japan's most treasured animated films. From pretty much the moment it was announced, DreamWorks' decision to put ScarJo front and center of this movie was a landmine thoroughly stepped-on, and we won't even get started on the reports that the studio screen-tested a visual effect to make the actress appear more Asian.

The complaints leveled at DreamWorks and their casting decisions are deserving. As Iron Fist and Dr. Strange just recently highlighted, there is a dearth of leading Asian actors working in American cinema today, and every missed opportunity to put an Asian actor front and center is a new slap in the face the community first and foremost, but also to anyone who wants to see a little more representation in their storytelling.

Whenever a socially-motivated complaint picks up steam — especially online — refutation never fails to be in short supply. Inevitably, there will be a counterpoint, though they tend to from a more antagonistic place than in this particular example. This time, a rather surprising endorsement of Scarlett Johansson's casting came straight from a place of some pretty solid authority: In a recent interview with IGN, director of the original Ghost in the Shell anime Mamoru Oshii said he straight-up loves the casting of Scarlett Johansson. His full quote:

What issue could there possibly be with casting her? The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name "Motoko Kusanagi" and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.

In the movies, John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, and Omar Sharif, an Arab, can play Doctor Zhivago, a Slav. It's all just cinematic conventions. If that's not allowed, then Darth Vader probably shouldn’t speak English, either. I believe having Scarlett play Motoko was the best possible casting for this movie. I can only sense a political motive from the people opposing it, and I believe artistic expression must be free from politics.

There's a lot to unpack here, but we'll start with the most relevant bits. The first thing Oshii points out is that the Major in Ghost in the Shell is not technically a Japanese character because she is not technically human. In fact, she is so not technically a human that they made the entire movie be about her not being human, and large parts of the film involve the Major just pretty much talking about how that makes her feel. In an inescapable way (and I'm frankly super curious to see how much of this makes it into Friday's apparent VFX-fest), Ghost in the Shell is about how the nature of humanity and consciousness has been made malleable by technological advances, and seeks to tease out what it even means to be human when the parameters surrounding humanity have been so fundamentally altered by our technical capabilities. So when Oshii points out that The Major is essentially a character who has literally transcended her humanity, he's right. Where he's wrong, though, is in his implicit assertion that this posthumanism a) applies to our current society, and b) negates the need for a push for racial representation right now

Another place in which Oshii is wrong is his apparent ignorance (and I use that word in the most literal sense — he is literally ignoring the issue) of the representation problems that plague Asian actors trying to work in the American entertainment industry. While I (maybe) can't speak with authority as to whether or not Mamoru Oshii has a working knowledge of how Asian actors are treated in the American film industry, it can certainly said that his comment widely misses the point of those upset with ScarJo's casting. In pointing out that Johanssen's casting preserves the artistic and thematic integrity of the original Ghost in the Shell, Oshii isn't wrong, but crucially misses the point that an Asian actor in the same role would still remain faithful to the film's thematic and artistic endeavors, while also remaining faithful to the film's place and culture of origin.

To address the second half of Oshii's quote involves a little more wading. First, his pointing out that White actors have played Asian roles in the past is an argument that simply begs the question: this kind of casting is exactly the problem that we're trying to move away from, and this comment supports my suggestion that Oshii is simply not familiar with how much of a problem the whitewashing of Asian actors has historically been for Hollywood.

And finally, should art be free of politics? This seems excessively strange coming from the director of such a political work. Maybe Ghost in the Shell doesn't directly concern itself with governmental politics — no wait, it absolutely does; international relations are central to the plot — but it most certainly concerns the politics of identity and self-actualization. To suggest that art should steer clear of politics is to suggest that art ignore a vast and vital aspect of the human experience, which is just about as bogus as it gets.

Still, Oshii's point is an interesting one, and is not at all without merit (except for the part about art needing to be free of politics; maybe that part is a little bit without merit). The point that he misses in making it, though, is the responsibility that storytelling has, especially on a level like PARAMOUNT PICTURES' GHOST INTHE SHELL STARRING SCARLETT JOHANSSON. Storytelling is a fundamentally important part of society and popular culture, and like it or not, the stories we tell and the way we tell them have an impact on the shape and health of our social body. Having too much White in our diet isn't going to help us be as socially healthy as possible, which is why the missed opportunity to put a Japanese actor at the heart of a fundamentally Japanese film far outweighs the fact that not doing so allows the film to still remain faithful to the original's thematic intent.

What Oshii might not realize is that Ghost in the Shell had the chance to be faithful to its source material and racially progressive at the very same time.

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Different Worlds: Taboo's Exploration of Nobility and Savagery.

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Different Worlds: Taboo's Exploration of Nobility and Savagery.

A figure, hooded and cloaked, stands upright in a rowboat as it creaks across a river. The background is obscured by fog. The scene is a familiar one, its iconography cleverly deployed in the opening moments of Taboo. While it may be a little on the nose, the moment in which we meet James Delaney is one in which he crosses a metaphorical river Styx, ironically making the journey out of supposed death and back to the "life" of Victorian-era London. As such, the show introduces the audience literally to its main character at the same time as it introduces the audiences symbolically to its primary thematic concern. Taboo primarily focuses on the supposed distance existing between man's noble and more savage natures...or more pointedly, it questions whether such a distance actually exists at all.

 

Crossing the River Styx

One of  Taboo 's opening images and less subtle moments.

One of Taboo's opening images and less subtle moments.

Taboo's opening image is a rich one, ably introducing us visually to our main character, while also sneaking in a bit of exposition for good measure. Hardy's James Delaney has returned to London after having been presumed dead in Africa for the better part of the last two decades, his seeming "resurrection" coming in response to the recent death of his father. It's an interesting reversal of the imagery's traditional use, as Hardy takes a journey that mimics a crossing of the River Styx (typically a journey into the afterlife) in his return to "life." Most would consider the journey from Africa to London a return to civilization and proper order, but the opposite is true for James Delaney. Rather, his resurrection is a deeply ironic one: He journeys to a place where he clearly does not belong, his unwillingness to repress himself or his desires flying in stark contrast to the buttoned-up nature of Victorian-era high society. James leaves the familiar life he knew in Africa and crosses his own river Styx into a personal underworld.

What would be for most a return to civility is instead a death-like journey into the unknown for Delaney. After fourteen years in Africa, the proper customs and manners of Victorian society are completely foreign to James, and his desire to conform to them has not returned with him.

 

Stuart Strange and the East India Company

The first group Delaney bumps up against is the East India Trading company, with boss Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) most directly representing the thin veneer of Victorian-era manners. The members of the East India Company obviously think themselves to be gentlemen of high stature, with Strange going so far as to assert that his position within society gives him the right to malign the name of God with impunity. He is aware of exactly how much power he yields, and his position makes him a de facto example of high class. And yet, for all his posturing, it seems incredibly easy to get Strange to descend into fits of screaming profanity. In fact, he does it at least twice before the end of the first episode, and in doing so shows that Taboo doesn't see much distance between the tendency to angrily act out and the carefully-constructed artifice of nobility that Strange and his ilk hide behind. In fact, as Strange is repeatedly shown to act out when things don't as planned, it becomes clear that the rest of his colleagues are somewhat used to dealing with it.

Delaney's interactions with Strange serve to further highlight that the two men aren't as different from one another as Strange would like to believe. Delaney is a man of few words throughout the entire series, but during his meeting with the East India Company in the first episode, both he and Strange devolve into a series of grunts as they wordlessly argue over whether or not Delaney will open the an envelope. His mere presence is enough to strip Stuart of his noble posturing, and as a result Delaney seems to be able to keep Strange and the East India Company on their back foot for the majority of the series.

 

Prince Regent & the Crown

Royalty doesn't fare much better in Taboo, with an equally unsubtle (but particularly fun) portrayal of the Prince Regent by Mark Gatiss. This character presents us with the perhaps the show's laziest attempt at subtext, because most of it is just right up there on the screen. The Prince Regent is introduced with expository dialogue telling the audience he's in poor health, and the guy pretty much stuffs his face in the most boorish manner possible any time he shows up onscreen. He constantly gorges himself and has gout, the "rich man's disease."

Recognize Mycroft Holmes? I didn't either.

Recognize Mycroft Holmes? I didn't either.

Perhaps more subtle is the consistent placement of animals in the frame with the Prince Regent. So far he has only been depicted in what appear to be his massive personal chambers, but this limited setting means that everything we see is more or less a direct reflection of the Prince Regent's inner state. The set is dressed sumptuously, which certainly reflects the way someone of the Prince's status would have lived during the Victorian Era, but with its inclusion of a seemingly endless supply of stuffed animals Taboo makes its best about the Prince. He is never depicted as being very physically far from some sort of "exotic beast," and in his first appearance he shares the frame with a full-sized stuffed zebra. Another one of his appearances involves an animal eating in the background, its actions directly mirroring those of the Prince Regent as he confers with one of his closest advisors. Between this and his constant face-stuffery, it becomes clear that Taboo sees little distance between English nobility and the so-called "savage beast."

 

The Duel

Among Taboo's richest moments is the duel between James Delaney and his brother-in-law Thorne Geary, which takes place at the opening of Episode 5. Taken on its own, the Victorian-era duel is an incredible presentation of ordered savagery: pettiness and violence hiding just beneath a cursory facade of rules and "honor." At their core, duels were pretty brutal, with two men agreeing that one might possibly kill the other as the result of a perceived offense. With its bizarre and byzantine codes of conduct, old-timey dueling is one of the best ways to explore the way man's more violent nature tends to get a thin spackle of rules and regulations slapped on top of it so we can keep it just out of sight and pretend it doesn't exist.

In fact, worth noting is that as the duel begins, Delaney is the only member of the group to offer any kind of greeting, when everyone arrives at the agreed-upon dueling grounds. His almost cheerful, "Good morning" immediately sets him in contrast to the rest of his stone-faced and somber associates. The rules of the duel are pored over in detail by an officiant...but each character, one by one, rejects at least some part of the rules surrounding the event. Right off the bat, we learn that the duel is to take place on a small island, "owned by a gypsy woman, between two parishes." Not only does this dueling ground literally exist between the borders of civilized society, but its proprietor is of a nomadic people. When it's suggested that custom dictates and exchange of a few shillings for some trinkets, attorney Thoyt is quick to dismiss the idea: "This isn't a fairground."

As the duel proceeds, just about every character involved takes a turn to flaunt the carefully-placed rules of the Code, so they can hurry it up and get to the part where they try to shoot and kill each other. In fact, Thorne specifically angles for this outcome, insisting over the officiant's objection that he and Delaney duel to the death, as opposed to first blood. Delaney shrugs his shoulders at the insistence that he must have a second, simply stating "I don't have one" until one is provided in the form of Lorna...who forwent a boat and waded through the river (something that would have been thought of as incredibly undignified, which is reflected by Thoyt's asking as to why she didn't stay dry "like a normal person") so she could better see two dudes try to murder one another over a disagreement.

Each and every character takes an opportunity to show that when it comes down to it, the rules and order aren't actually that important; we're here to see someone get shot.

 

THe ghost of james delaney

And finally, we have Taboo's protagonist. James Delaney is Taboo's fascination with humankind's insistence that the rules and regulations are enough to sweep our baser natures under the rug, made flesh and bone. From his introduction, it's made clear that Delaney is a man who walks between worlds, so to speak. He returns to London from Africa, where he was presumed dead, and is referred to as a ghost by more than just one character. His rowboat-style entrance to both London and the show is a clear comment that he's leaving one world and entering another, and at a certain point in the series he kills a guy by straight-up ripping out the other man's jugular with his teeth. James Delaney just does not give a fuck, and in the most animalistic of ways. His ability to remain in touch with his more animal nature, and his readiness to do so stands in perfect contrast to the buttoned-up nature of Victorian English high society and its obsession with manners.

Delaney serves, on repeated occasion, to reveal the base natures of the characters with which he comes into contact. One of the best interactions of this can be seen in his interactions with Stuart Strange and the East India Trading company in the series' earliest couple of episodes, in which Strange is often reduced to grunts, profanity, and bursts of screaming by Delaney's machinations. He also tests the artifice that his sister Zilpha has constructed to conceal her sexual urges, particularly those that she feels for her brother James.

He also shows that savagery and the upper hand are not mutually exclusive. Through his willingness to employ brutal tactics and utilize magic and rituals, Delaney keeps a firm grip on the upper hand throughout the majority of the series. He also expresses disgust and extreme guilt over his involvement with the institution of slavery, and the way his father treated his mother. In the former case, it's easy to understand Delaney's horror at the lack of humanity exposed by his actions. In the latter, Delaney is horrified at his father's attempt to force an indigenous Native American woman into the role of an English Noblewoman, and his commitment of her to a mental institution (a truly horrifying fate at the time, especially for a woman) when she fails to meet his wishes. In both cases, we can see that James Delaney's history with the so-called "civilized" world is one suffused with savagery, cruelty, and inhumanity...all institutionalized and all executed in the name of high society.

As such, James commits himself to a penance of sorts in Africa, where he learns to embrace the so-called "savagery" that is inherent in his humanity. He is now horrified at his participation in slavery, and is disgusted by it and other institutions that society holds deer. These institutions — represented most directly by the Prince Regent/Crown and Stuart Strange/the East India Co. — are seen by the English as providing humankind with order and structure. Delaney, however, sees them as purveyors and perpetuators of cruelty and inhumanity. To Delaney and Taboo, high society and the institutions it holds dear are the true savages of their time.

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So: What Happens When the Cloud Evaporates?

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So: What Happens When the Cloud Evaporates?

Together, Spotify and Netflix probably represent the best $20 I spend each month. For basically $10 each, (Ok, eight bucks for Netflix), I'm given nearly unfettered access to massively huge libraries of media. I can check in from just about any device, at any location, and can watch things that simply stream straight to my location, from outer space or wherever, in high definition.

Welcome to the future, right?

It really seems like we're moving away from a model of media consumption that revolves around ownership, and towards one that revolves around subscription. It's very awesome, in theory.

It's also very awesome in practice. Until it isn't.

What happens when the cloud evaporates?

What happens when a company decides that the service you love simply isn't profitable anymore?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about "the cloud." I basically do everything that I do in Google Docs, I'm a pretty hopeless Google devotee in general, and I listen to Spotify on a near-constant basis. I absolutely love the connectivity and mobility that the cloud gives us.

Because it makes sense! We're an increasingly mobile species, the human race.

And we're getting more and more comfortable that there is just a LOT of stuff out there.

Does anyone give a shit about an iPod anymore? No, because you can pay $10 a month and just have access to all the music on your smartphone or computer. Why wouldn't someone do that?

But sometimes I feel a pretty genuine concern for what would happen if, say, those wonderful Swedes just decided that Spotify wasn't really working out, anymore. It's not you, Spotify, it's me. Sorry.

It's not you, Google Reader. It's me. Sorry.

If Spotify disappeared, I have no idea how much music I'd lose. Granted, I don't HAVE any of that music to begin with. But say the service just shut it down. Lights out. And I didn't get any forewarning. All those playlists (which is how I keep track of albums in Spotify) would be gone. I'd basically lose forever any music that I didn't happen to remember. And I listen to a lot of music!

Granted, I don't think something like that would happen without Spotify...but it makes me give pause as I cede more and more of my media-watching abilities to third parties whose decision-making process has to do with me.

By the way, seriously. Someone just tell me what I should do when Google Reader goes offline.

 

photo | tensaibuta

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Amanda Palmer and the Art of the Fail.

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Amanda Palmer and the Art of the Fail.

It's not quite nine in the morning. Maybe a half an hour ago, I found out that Amanda Palmer had written a poem for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber. Apparently, it was a really shitty poem. I haven't read much of it, and quite honestly I don't really feel like I need to. Within thirty minutes of learning that the poem even existed, I had read three other people's writing about it and how terrible and awful it is and she is for having written it. And now I'm writing about it! But I'm not going to write about how it's terrible, and how Amanda is terrible, because that's not what I'm here for. Also, because I don't really think those things are true. There are enough people talking up a storm about how bad this poem is, and that kind of sucks for Miss Palmer. I don't have a whole lot of experience with Amanda Palmer, or with her work. I quite like what I've heard of both her solo career and the Dresden Dolls, and I think that the song she wrote about playing the ukulele is one of the greatest things in the history of things. I also think she's been at the center of some of the most interesting and thought-provoking artistic movement in the last several years. Not long ago, her Kickstarter campaign attracted praise and ire in what seemed like equal measures. A few months after that, she blew everyone away with her brilliant TED talk. Now, she's in the Internet's crosshairs again, for a fucking poem that she wrote.

Unfortunate doesn't even start to describe it. And I'm not even going to touch on the fact that we're seriously giving this much negative attention to a goddam poem because we think that it is bad.

I don't think Amanda Palmer was being opportunistic or shitty in doing this. I honestly just think she felt something in her heart, and wanted to get it out. What's important, though, is the takeaway from all this.

It kind of seems like Amanda Palmer is, at all times, doing something either very awesome or kind of embarrassing.

This is important. There is a place for this.

I'm kind of a firm believer in the idea that folks are here to teach/show other folks stuff.

Amanda Palmer shows us that it is all important. You don't get to cultivate an awesome rose garden without stepping on a few thorns in the process.

Amanda Palmer is here to show us that "the very thing you're seeking exists because of the whole."

When she does something people don't like, she wears the honor proudly. She's not afraid to have tried and failed, as far as someone else is concerned.

"It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress."

I think more of us should be unafraid of our progress in the way that Amanda Palmer is unafraid of hers.

I think more of us should acknowledge our supposed "missteps."

I mean...if you get to where you want to go, then nothing that happened along the way was really a misstep, was it?

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Evicting the Fear.

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Evicting the Fear.

Fear is a very powerful thing. Some call it a great motivator. That can be true, sure. Fear can motivate you, and that right there is your evolutionary advantage. Fear can definitely push someone or something to reach some extraordinary places. And sometimes that works out nicely. Awesome! A lot of the time, though, fear can paralyze you pretty thoroughly. That deer in the headlights didn't become a widely-used idiom for no reason. At least, that's my experience. When I'm most afraid of something, it's insanely easy to lock up, shut down. How often is easy the best thing, though?

Anyway, this is a special kind of fear. It's the kind of fear that stops you in your tracks. The kind that looms. It's the kind that gets its own little miniature montage as its shadow steadily spills across the countryside before overtaking the entire city. It might just be me, but when that kind of stressful shadow drapes itself over the sun, it can get to the point where I find myself fixed right were I stand.

When this happens, I've gotta do something about it.

This particular kind of fear is absolutely the kind that needs to be dealt with immediately. This particular kind of fear is mitigating, and stops you from dealing with whatever problem is actually at hand. What really needs to happen is the changing of your problem into a challenge, so that you can develop a way to navigate it. What you need, when you're stuck in a situation that keeps you obsessing about all the bad shit that might happen in the future is to start getting on with all the good shit that you can do in the present to keep any of that bad shit from actually happening in the future. As a close friend of mine likes to put it: What time is it? It's now. And where are you? You're here. Right? Right.

So why are you afraid?

Maybe you've failed int he past. Maybe your challenge is a very significant one.

Figure out what it is that's putting the gum under your shoes.

Why should you not be afraid?

Look, it doesn't matter who you are. There's some reason, somewhere in your past, that you should feel confident in your ability to overcome your present challenge.

Peek at the evidence you've given yourself that you can handle this. There totally is some.

Think on your skills, your talents. Which are the most important right now? How are you going to use them?

So what are you going to do now?

Break your objective up into smaller, more manageable tasks. It'll be less overwhelming that way.

Make yourself a list. Put the most important things first. Get to it. Remember how you eat a whale: one bite at a time.

Stay here. Now.

Remember what time it is, and where you are. Especially when you start to get a little nervous.

Don't let yourself get stuck focused on the future. Big problems can seriously freeze you in your tracks...until you start doing something to solve them, that is.

photo: kubotake

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Yeah, that's a ME problem.

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Yeah, that's a ME problem.

Dealing with other people's problems is the worst, isn't it? Few things can be tougher than trying to figure out how to get someone else to quit doing something that really doesn't work for you.

In fact, changing the things other people do is one of the things we're often completely unable to do.

You can always, however, control the way you react to them.

Next time you've got a serious issue with someone's nonsense, stop thinking about their problem, and start thinking about your problem.

When someone else upsets you, it's not a them problem.

It's a you problem.

Let's try reverse-engineering the problems we have with others.

I know I can't make so-and-so stop being such a mouthy pain in the ass.

It's out of my place to even try.

All I can do is try and mitigate the way said mouthiness affects me.

Because trying to get other people to change is just frustrating.

photo credit to TheArtGuy

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