Friday, June 30, 2017

Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston (4/5)

When Ahsoka Tano showed up in Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie, few expected much of the character. For older Star Wars fans, she seemed to be shoehorned into the film as an audience surrogate for younger viewers, which isn’t necessarily a problem except that the Star Wars series has had, at best, a mixed record when it comes to appealing to the younger set. But over the course of The Clone Wars TV show, Ahsoka proved herself to be one of the best additions to prequel era Star Wars. In 2016, E.K. Johnston wrote a standalone novel that follows Ahsoka after the close of The Clone Wars series, and the result is a highly enjoyable, if somewhat slight, look at how one of the last remaining Jedi survived Order 66.

Near the start of the novel, Ahsoka is living in obscurity away from the newly established Galactic Empire and anyone she may have known in her past life. Afraid that her Jedi past might be uncovered by the imperials, Ahsoka flees her makeshift lodgings on Empire Day, the one year anniversary of when Palpatine declared himself emperor. (I wonder if they still celebrate Life Day, or if that was outlawed when Palpatine came into power. I’m all for people celebrating Life Day, but I’m not sure it should be a galactic holiday, since it seems kind of religious in nature. I’m for the separation of church and empire). Eventually, Ahsoka finds a new hideout on the farming moon of Raada, tucked away in the Outer Rim.

On Raada, Ahsoka befriends Kaeden Larte and her sister Cietra. The two are orphans who were taken in by a group of farmers. This is actually a nice spin on the family assembled from outcasts trope, which usually form into some sort of gang of thieves like in Oliver Twist. The Lartes and the rest are good people. Ahsoka adopts the name Ashla and works as a mechanic. But just as she’s starting to get used to wearing a new identity with new friends, the Empire arrives on Raada. Soon Ahsoka and her gang of farmers find themselves forming a rebellion after the Empire takes control of farming production and hopes to squeeze more efficiency out of the population. Ahsoka and her allies form a band of guerillas, a development that mirrors her time working for the resistance on Onderon during the Clone Wars, which is even referenced here.

While on Raada, Ahsoka has had to hide her Jedi powers, and when she must finally use them, she decides to flee the moon rather than put her friends at risk. In the second half of the novel, we leave Raada, and Ahsoka even encounters Bail Organa who is in the midst of forming the Rebellion. I almost wish we had stayed on Raada and focused on the rebellion there, but perhaps E.K. Johnston thought this would be too similar to the Onderon arc on The Clone Wars. And while Ahsoka is a fun read and well plotted, it’s a young adult novel and sometimes suffers from the pitfalls of that category. The writing is sometimes prosaic, which is something you generally expect in Star Wars novels, but I’ll admit to cringing a little when a character’s hair was described as “very, very curly.” And you don’t get into quite enough of Ahsoka’s psychology. I wish Johnston had better laid out how Ahsoka reacted to both Order 66 and the Jedi’s betrayal of her.

But perhaps the most interesting moment in Ahsoka occurs towards the end when Ahsoka returns to Raada and rescues Kaeden from the Empire (for the second time!). While being whisked away to safety, Kaeden admits to Ahsoka that she’s in love with her. We never hear Ahsoka’s response, and the moment evaporates without further comment. Still, there’s something joyful about the fact that a female character can express her romantic interest in another female character in a young adult Star Wars novel. I’m of the belief that Johnston is able to slip this moment into the text because the Jedi code of celibacy provides enough room for maneuvering to allow creators and audiences queer these characters. This happened not too long ago when fans insisted that Luke Skywalker was gay.

Gender politics aside, Ahsoka is a fleet little novel that benefits from its limited scope. The title may have promised that the book contained the whole of Ahsoka’s history from Episode III to her appearance in (Spoilers!) Star Wars Rebels, but it’s really just one adventure among many. Hopefully this means that we’ll get more stories about what happened to one of the last remaining Jedi in the time of the Galactic Empire.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (4/5)

My beat up, yellowing copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from high school has the title Blade Runner in the familiar font in big, red letters up top. The cover features John Alvin’s instantly recognizable movie poster for the film. The only thing that suggests this book isn’t one of those once common movie to book adaptations are the words “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a novel by Philip K. Dick” timidly flanked by parenthesis. The inside even contains a disclaimer of sorts that reads: “PUBLISHER’s NOTE: In 1968, Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a brilliant SF novel that became the source of the motion picture Blade Runner. Though the novel’s characters and backgrounds differ in some respects from those of the film, readers who enjoy the latter will discover an added dimension when encountering the original work. Del Rey Books is proud to keep this classic novel in print.” It kind of sounds like Del Rey thinks they’re doing PKD a favor and that they’re worried people are going to be pissed when they realize the film is a departure from the novel.

With the exception of the very broad plot outline and a couple of scenes, PKD’s novel bears little resemblance to the cult classic film turned simple classic. As a reader who, like most of the planet, came to the novel through the film, I initially didn’t know what to make of Electric Sheep. At the time, I hadn’t quite gotten into PKD, and I wasn’t used to his writing, including the wild plot detours that only make sense when you realize he had to publish at an incredible rate and even relied on the I Ching to decide where to go next. Revisiting the novel many years later, it’s evident that Electric Sheep is one of PKD’s best and a superb introduction to his work.

Of all the changes between the film and the novel, the one that initially surprised me the most was the fact that the main character, played by Harrison Ford in the movie, Rick Deckard is married. Blade Runner borrows heavily from ‘40s film noir, so Ford’s version of Deckard is a loner with a drinking problem. But the first scene in the novel is Deckard bickering with his wife about which setting they should set their “Penfield mood organ” to. The mood organ functions like futuristic pharmacology, able to alter the user’s mood upon request. The only problem is that Deckard’s wife, Iran, doesn’t want to alter her depressed state. In his usual circular logic, PKD reveals that there’s a setting on the mood organ that makes you amenable to setting a new mood, which Deckard suggests to his wife to no avail.
This first scene establishes Deckard’s blase middle class life, which seems at odds with his profession as a bounty hunter of replicants, or “andys” as they’re often referred to. But here Deckard’s just some middle class striver.  When you think of a bounty hunter, the first thing that comes to mind is a rugged, cynical individualist pushing against an irrevocably corrupt world. The world here is corrupt, and Earth itself is on its way to obsolescence after what’s known as World War Terminus (WWT), but Deckard’s still worried about keeping up with the Joneses. Because most animals on Earth have died off, it’s both the duty and a sign of social status for people to keep pets, but not necessarily domesticated ones. Those who can’t afford a real life animal try to blend in by buying electronic facsimiles. As members of the bourgeois, Deckard and his wife own an electronic sheep.

In PKD’s world, working as a bounty hunter isn’t as cool as it seems. When a group of Nexus-6 model androids escape and make their way to Earth from Mars, Deckard is given the assignment to track them down. The Nexus-6 are next level replicants, and by the time that Deckard receives the assignment, the escapees have already put the previous bounty hunter in the hospital. Because he’s not a police officer, exactly, Deckard is paid on commission and hopes that by taking out the rest of the replicants by the end of the day, he will have made enough to put  a down payment on a real, live goat to replace his faulty sheep. In this way, Deckard is kind of like the Willy Loman of bounty hunters.

The rest of the novel follows Deckard over the course of twenty-four hours or so as he hunts down his charges. Each time Deckard encounters an andy, he must administer the Voight-Kampff empathy test, because otherwise the replicants are indistinguishable from humans. The test involves hooking up nodes to measure individual reactions to a series of questions. Because the Nexus-6 are so advanced, Deckard tests out the test on a woman he’s told is a human, Rachael Rosen, at the headquarters of the Nexus-6 manufacturer. While Deckard is able to determine Rachael’s an android, there’s still a fear that one day it might be impossible to tell the difference between human and robot.

Deckard’s encounter with Rachael is taken nearly straight from the page to the screen, but the rest of the novel goes its own course. Because this is a PKD novel, there are a number of strange twists that don’t quite make sense when you think back on them. [Spoilers to follow in the rest of this paragraph.] At one point while trying to retire one of the androids, Deckard is picked up by police who are convinced he’s on a killing spree trying to kill actual humans. But these officers take Deckard to a police station he’s never heard of before. He eventually comes to the conclusion that either this is a mock station staffed by androids or the he himself is an android with fake memories. The police chief confirms that the entire building has been put together by androids as a sort of shadow precinct. The fact that a faux-police department is operating in San Francisco seems like a pretty big deal, but it’s never really mentioned again. PKD’s known for including irregular moments in his narratives that don’t quite make sense within the whole. These moments are like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit without bashing them into place. This might upset newcomers to PKD, but for those on PKD’s wavelength, there’s something attractive to how his worlds fall apart. These moments of oneiric psychedelia unbalance the reader.

If there’s one theme that runs throughout the novel, it’s the concept of “empathy.” Humans and androids are differentiated by an empathy test. Most of the androids reveal a streak of cruelty at one point or another. The leader of the escaped androids, Roy Baty (spelled with one “t” in the novel), holds up with two fellow escapees in the apartment of J. R. Isidore who, like many, has suffered mental damage from radiation fallout. Baty and the others are cruel to Isidore, even though he’s clearly estranged from others because of his disability and suffering from loneliness. When they come across a rare living spider they torture it by tearing its legs off. The Voight-Kampff test questions often focus on harm done to animals, an especially egregious act in a world where few animals still live.

But of course there are exceptions. One of the androids Deckard must retire, Luba Luft, hides in plain sight as an opera singer, and he eventually finds her and kills her at an art museum. Before killing Luft, Deckard in an act of kindness buys her a book of Edvard Munch reproductions, and she confesses to Deckard that she never much liked androids. Luft’s love of art seems to make her different. Another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, forms a mirror image of Luft. [Spoilers for the rest of the paragraph.] At first, Deckard believes Resch might be an android with implanted memories, but it becomes clear he’s merely a vicious human whose job has eaten away at his sympathy for others. The encounter with Resch makes Deckard want to give up his life of killing lifelike humans for fear that he will wind up like this man.

Electric Sheep asks us to see what makes us human as relative. It suggests that what makes us unique is our ability to empathize with others, but this is not an constant trait. Our sense of empathy must be sustained. In Electric Sheep followers of the religion Mercerism connect to one another using “empathy boxes” where they can experience being the leader of this sect, Wilbur Mercer, as he ascends a mountain and his hit by rocks flung by unseen assailants. It may very well be that Mercer is a fraud, as is suggested in the novel, but the empathy boxes still function. As in Luft’s reproductions of Edvard Munch’s paintings, Mercerism is a facsimile that paradoxically sustains our authentic humanity.

PKD was a prolific writer, and Electric Sheep serves as a good introduction to his work because it catalogs some of his obsessions. It asks us to question reality and asks, What makes us human? Although overshadowed by Blade Runner, Electric Sheep shares only the most basic plotline with the film. They’re separate works of art that deserve to be taken on their own. Rereading Electric Sheep many years since I first came to it, I was surprised to see how much of the novel still resonates. Today, we live in a world where there’s a shortage of empathy. It’s not the whimper of a dystopia PKD paints, but our society has been hardened by hardship and uncertainty. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks us to question the world we live in and to extend empathy to our neighbors.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Let's Remember the Good Times: In Memory of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell's voice could be as powerful as a hurricane, as focused as a laser. That voice could shatter brick. That voice could cut glass. He’s often compared to Robert Plant, which isn’t a bad comparison, except that he could huff and puff and blow Robert Plant off the stage. He will be remembered as one of rock and roll’s greatest vocalists. And he was a fantastic songwriter, contributing his fair share of classics to Soundgarden’s oeuvre. Naturally, his death on Thursday came to a great shock to fans of Cornell and Soundgarden.

Grunge has a reputation for being dour. And when I heard about Cornell’s death, my mind drifted to how bleak his lyrics could get on tracks like “Fell On Black Days,” “Black Hole Sun,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” and, the now unfortunately titled, “Pretty Noose.” Cornell had apparently been struggling with depression for some time, and his suicide is a reminder that the void can chase us from our teens into middle age and beyond. Depression is a disease, not a phase.

It’s also impossible to separate Cornell’s suicide with the many other deaths that occurred within the grunge scene: Andrew Wood, Layne Staley, and Kurt Cobain immediately come to mind. Associated with Pacific Northwest, grunge music, with its downtuned guitars and sludgy sound, has always seemed to reflect that part of the nation’s downcast skies and omnipresent rain as well as its reputation as a breeding ground for serial killers.

But this was just one side of grunge and only one side to Cornell. In any life, we shouldn’t let the dark times completely define a person. And this is true of Cornell’s music as well. The original grunge scene wasn’t just about the drudgeries of life; there was plenty of irony and humor--plenty of light to balance out the darkness. I’m going to choose not to define Cornell solely by his depression; I choose to see him and his art holistically, not forgetting the kind of humor he infused into his music.

Perhaps the best description of humor in grunge was absurdist. In some way or another, grunge musicians seemed influenced by dadaism, the early twentieth century art movement that rejected logic, reason, and beauty as represented in 20th century capitalism. Dada itself is a nonsense word. Perhaps the most famous piece of dada artwork is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which was a urinal placed in a museum and signed “R. Mutt.” It was a crass middle finger to the arthouse establishment.

The influence of dadaism on Soundgarden seemed to go hand in hand with their punk influences, and it’s in some of their shorter punk-inspired songs that we can see Cornell play around with absurdity. On the one and a half minute long “Kickstand,” a song about the eponymous kickstand that Cornell implores to “stand me up,” the song’s lyrics don’t read easily. He could be writing about heroin, which is always a safe interpretation of music from the 90s, but the mentions of his mother and a “trike” suggest that maybe he’s actually writing about a bike. The song appears to have flummoxed the literal minded people over at “Genius Lyrics,” and that’s because they’re not supposed to be taken literally. It’s much more likely that Cornell intuitively came across these lyrics with a bit of a smirk. The lyrics are absurd, and the music serves as a streak of light in the brilliant if dark Superunknown.

The same can be said about “Ty Cobb,” another punk-dada composition. Included on Soundgarden’s final album of their original run, Down on the Upside, “Ty Cobb” has little to do with the curmudgeonly baseball player, and the title was suggested by bassist ben Shepherd to replace “Hot Rod Death Toll.” Cornell admitted that he knew nothing about Ty Cobb the person. The lyrics and title form a loosely connected game of association. In a stroke of brilliance, the band included a mandolin on the hard-charging track, creating a contrast between the stately instrument and the way Cornell screams the word “fuck” twenty-one times.

Plenty of Cornell’s humor comes from grunge’s troubled relationship with classic rock. Grunge had plenty of punk music’s sneering disdain for the mainstream, but it also happened to be influenced by some of the most popular rock bands of all time. Without a doubt, you can hear the influence of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin on Soundgarden, but the band members spent plenty of time in interviews distancing themselves from these groups. It just wasn’t punk enough.

Whenever Soundgarden explicitly pulled from classic rock tropes, they often did so with quotation marks. The songs “665,” “Beyond the Wheel,” and “667” occur one after the other on Ultramega OK, and they satirize metal’s obsession with satanic imagery. The middle track of the trilogy includes demonic chants and the flanking tracks each make use of backwards recordings. The same album includes a “cover” of John Lennon’s “One Minute of Silence.”

Cornell and Soundgarden were having their cake and eating it too. They both made fun of and borrowed heavily from the bands they satirized. They were experiencing of a form of what the literary critic called “the anxiety of influence,” but without this ironic distancing, Soundgarden wouldn’t have been able to move past those who preceded them. In this way, their sense of humor helped them push their music forward.

Cornell and Soundgarden’s music could be dark, aggressive, and epic, but it could also be really fucking funny. Cornell’s depression seeped into his lyrics, but so did his wry sense of irony. I'll always remember his great cameo in the love letter to Seattle's music scene, Singles. No person is defined by a single act, even when that act is as extreme as suicide. I’ll choose to remember Cornell as a fantastic singer and songwriter, as the frontman of the one of the best bands of the 90s, and as a guy who had a wonderful sense of humor.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (4/5)

When the first montage hit, I knew Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur film was going to be exactly what I wanted out of a Guy Ritchie King Arthur film. After witnessing the death of his parents, a young Arthur floats down a river, Moses-like, until he’s taken in by a brothel. In quick successive cuts and sped up shots, we see Arthur repeatedly getting the crap kicked out of him, train, get the crap kicked out of him again, train some more, and then start kicking the crap out of others. This wordless couple of minutes doubles as both training montage and character development--this version of Arthur is a rock hardened by the pressures of living in the lowest dregs of society. It also showcases some great visual storytelling that’s becoming increasingly rare in modern blockbuster films that are so often bogged down by exposition.

Hollywood has a long tradition of trying and failing to bring King Arthur to the screen, from the leaden musical Camelot my parents forced me to watch as a kid to the “respectable” 90s version First Knight to the Clive Owen starring film that drained the tale of its myth and magic--you know, all the good parts. The most successful King Arthur films are without a doubt Monty Python’s irreverent take and John Boorman’s surreal Excalibur. On some level, Ritchie imbibed the lesson from these two successful adaptations: if you’re going to tackle an oft told tale like King Arthur, then you’ve got to make it weird.

And the movie opens weird, with Camelot under siege by elephants the size of mountains. An evil mage Mordred has come to claim the lands of Uther Pendragon, but he is defeated by the king. The danger isn’t over, however. Uther’s brother, Vortigern, (here played by Jude Law) stages a coup, killing Uther and his wife, but letting their son Arthur slip away. (Never trust a young Pope).

When we finally meet adult Arthur after the frenetic montage, he’s more concerned with taking the piss out of his buddies and protecting the girls at the brothel than of staging a rebellion. Things change when Uther’s sword, Excalibur, reveals itself after years hidden under the tide. Knowing that Arthur is still out there and still a threat, Vortigern lines up all the men in the kingdom to try out the sword, hoping to uncover the last threat to his kingdom. After Arthur pulls the sword, he’s slated for execution, but the Vortigern resistance snags Arthur and takes him to their hideout in the woods to meet their leader and former Uther ally Bedivere.

The film follows the basic template of “the hero’s journey,” so you can imagine what happens from here. Arthur resists the call before finally meeting his destiny. By eventually accepting his role, he can unlock the powers of Excalibur, which in this version grant Arthur immense power up, like Cloud’s omnislash limit break in Final Fantasy 7 or Mario getting the star if you want to go old school. As with most blockbusters these days, the narrative is set on clearly defined rails, but it’s Ritchie’s flair as a stylist that makes the story work. Ritchie loves to intercut non-chronological sequences, using staccato editing to bounce back and forth in time. When Arthur refuses the call, Bedivere and a newly arrived Merlyn acolyte discuss whether to send Arthur to the “badlands,” a place of giant snakes and bats that would look great as a Manowar album cover. This moment is the katabasis or descent to “hell” portion of the journey, and it’s quickly montaged away at the same time that Bedivere and the mage discuss whether this dangerous journey is a good idea.

It’s this irreverence that elevates the material. Sure enough, King Arthur suffers from many of the problems that persist in fantasy films: a cumbersome backstory and the use of random magic as narrative device. But by quickly shuffling through these necessary but rote elements in the fantasy genre, Ritchie gets the audience straight to the good stuff.

And Ritchie gets plenty of help from others in this romp. His cast has an easy camaraderie with plenty of easy joshing between the characters. (With only a single female character of note, the mage who has only a handful of lines, this is a movie made by dudes about dudes and for dudes.) Jude Law once again reminds us at how damn good he is at chewing scenery. But Ritchie’s biggest ally might be composer Daniel Pemberton, who previously worked with the director on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Instead of solely relying on medieval signifiers in his music, Pemberton makes use of clipped percussion, which perfectly compliments the film’s rapid fire editing. “Growing Up Londinium” treats every sound like a drum, even the shallow breathing that functions as just another instrument.

King Arthur could have been just another Lord of the Rings knockoff, but Ritchie avoids this pitfall by injecting a bit of verve and energy. Sure, he’s influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, but he’s also pulled in Sergei Eisenstein inspired montages, his early crime films, video games, Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, and heavy metal album art. The common complaint against Ritchie as a filmmaker is that he favors style over substance. That might be a legitimate critique if we’re talking about art house cinema, but when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking style over substance is exactly what we should be aiming for. (And if you truly believe there’s lots of substance in today’s superhero saturated marketplace, then you need to get out more). While he started out making indie crime stories, Guy Ritchie might actually be most in his element making sleek, fun blockbusters.

Unfortunately, it looks like King Arthur bombed on its opening weekend, so don’t expect King Arthur 2: Merlyn’s Boogaloo. Perhaps more disappointing is that critics savaged the film despite the fact that it looks and feels different than the unending stream of blockbusters we’ve been getting these days. (Plenty of critics liked to mock the name of one of the film’s major locations, the city of  Londinium, apparently ignorant of the fact that this was the actual name of London starting in 43 AD). Still, let’s hope that Ritchie gets a chance at helming some more big budget films on the studio’s dime. I think up next is the live action Aladdin film about a charismatic, street-smart criminal who becomes royalty. It sounds a little familiar. Anyway, Ritchie’s King Arthur will be heaped upon the open grave of failed franchises, but like the legend itself, I have a feeling it will once again be resurrected...probably on basic cable.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Curse of the Cat People

Curse of the Cat People (4.5/5)

In the tradition of Aliens, Evil Dead 2, and Halloween III, Curse of the Cat People is a sequel that radically diverges from the original film. Where Cat People was a horror film about a woman who descended from people who could transform themselves into, well, a giant species of cat, Curse of the Cat People changes gear by eschewing most of the original’s horror film trappings and instead becoming a family drama about children and their imaginary friends. While some people might say to themselves, “I watched the entire movie, and not one person turned into a damn cat!” Curse of the Cat People actually serves as a worthwhile follow up to the original, and the genre hopping only reinforces the fact that this is a thoughtful and unique picture that stands on its own.

In the original film, Oliver Reed, a dopey middle class striver, marries a woman from Eastern Europe, Irena, who comes to believe she is descended from people endowed with the ability to transform into giant cats. Irena slowly loses her mind as her husband begins to strike up a romance with his coworker, Alice. By the end of the film, Irna dies, but not before transforming into a panther and killing her therapist.

Curse of the Cat People moves its characters from the city to the suburbs. Years later, Oliver is living in a house and now married to Alice, his coworker from the first film, and the two of them have a six-year-old daughter, Amy. Amy is estranged from her fellow schoolmates because she spends most of her time daydreaming. She knows that she’s different from other children, and on her birthday, Amy wishes that she could be normal just like other children.

Like many films after Curse, Amy’s childhood alienation is demonstrated by the fact that her classmates do not show up for her birthday party. But in a twist on what has become a trope, it’s not that the other children are purposefully avoiding her. Rather, Amy never mailed the invitation, instead stuffing them into a gnarled tree that she imaginatively transforms into a mailbox. It’s not that other children don’t avoid Amy--the film doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of kids--but on some level I think that Amy wants to be alone. Like any creative person, sometimes it’s easier to escape into fantasy than to be around others.

Eventually, Amy starts to have visions of an imaginary friend who looks just like her father’s first wife, Irena the Feline-American. And yet it’s not clear whether or not Irena supernaturally appears to Amy or if the vision is only in her head. Before seeing Irena, Amy uncovers photographs of her that Oliver keeps around, and her presence metaphorically haunts the home in the form of one of her paintings that Oliver still keeps around. This naturally makes Oliver’s current wife uneasy.

Amy also strikes up a friendship with a former actress, Julia Farron, who is now an elderly woman shut up in her creepy home with her adult daughter. Julia and Amy form a natural pair because both are interested in the world of make believe, but Julia also represents what happens when you find yourself too invested in the unreal. Julia has developed an unhealthy belief that her daughter, who has sacrificed much of her own life to care for her aging mother, is not really her daughter. Perhaps a sign of increased dementia, but almost certainly tied to her career as an actress, Julia believes her actual daughter died when she was six and that this woman who now takes care of her is somehow an imposter.

Curse wonderfully recreates the imaginative world of children. Amy finds a place of her own in the family’s backyard, a site of imagination. In fact, the backyard is referred to as a “garden,” which connotes a place of play and fantasy, a location where fairies might exist. Like the imagination, a garden is both wild and cultivated, containing plants that would not naturally appear in our backyards. It’s no coincidence that gardens have become metaphors for imagination in children’s literature as we can see in classic’s like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

The directors, Gunther Von Fritsch and Robert Wise (more on them later), capture a child’s fantasy world. The one technique that I found particularly reminiscent from my own childhood is how brief shadows of clouds portend the arrival of the fantastic. I remember feeling a bit of a chill and a bit of wonder whenever a cloud would pass over a field I was playing in. For a moment, time seemed to stop, and I found myself looking around to see if anything around me had suddenly changed. This obviously come out of the overactive imagination of a child, but Curse suggests that I wasn’t the only child who took a passing cloud as a symbol for the supernatural.

Curse could easily stand on its own, apart from the original film. Without the first Cat People, I think most would read the appearance of Irena as solely the work of Amy’s imagination. At one point, Amy is told by her father that she must denounce Irena’s presence or suffer the consequences, which means he will spank her. This is referred to as a “special occasion” because it’s the first time Amy has had to endure physical punishment for misbehaving. (People sure were accepting of parents hitting their children in the 1940s).

While Oliver is smacking his child, Alice has a conversation with Amy’s teacher. (In another exchange that reminds us the film is made in the 1940s, Amy’s teacher is reminded that she doesn’t have children of her own, likely because if she did, she would be a housewife and no longer working.) The teacher reminds Alice that it’s healthy for children to have imaginary friends and that this is a phase that she will grow out of. She then quotes a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson on the subject, titled “The Unseen Playmate.” When Amy starts to truly connect with others, then her unseen playmate will disappear. It’s at this moment that the film unveils the moral of the story: having imaginary friends is a normal and natural part of a child’s progression to adulthood.

Curse has two directors, Gunther Von Fritsch and Robert Wise. Wise actually took over from Fritsch when he fell behind schedule, and it turned out to be Wise’s first directorial effort and served as the inauguration of an impressive career, which includes highlights like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Haunting, and The Sound of Music. Moving from horror to domestic drama, Curse succeeds thanks to its empathetic and detailed understanding of a child’s imagination.

“When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.”

--Robert Louis Stephenson

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones (4/5)

In 1948, Davis Knight was put on trial under Missippi’s miscegenation laws after marrying a white woman, June Lee Spradley. By today’s standards, Knight appeared white, and he passed to the extent that the official marrying Knight and Spradley didn’t even think to ask about Knight’s race. But Knights ancestry hid African blood, and the state of Mississippi eventually brought him to court and were able to return a conviction. In the mid-nineteenth century, his ancestor, Newt Knight, had taken up with a former slave by the name of Rachel, meaning that Davis Knight may have had at least one-eighth African blood, making him black according to Mississippi law. Fortunately, this conviction was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the overturned conviction rested not on the unconstitutional nature of miscegenation laws, but rather as a means to avoid a challenge to miscegenation laws in the federal courts.

Davis Knight’s incredible story is a shocking example of how race in America was policed by state forces. And yet, the story of his ancestor, Newt Knight is somehow even more improbable. Newt Knight lived in Jones County Mississippi, a poor subsistence farmer in a land ruled by the whims of large plantation owners. He would briefly serve for the Confederacy before going AWOL and leading a band of Anti-Confederate fighters in their resistance against the newly formed government. Director Gary Ross’s film, Free State of Jones tells the story of New Knight as well as Davis Knight, and it’s an important film that stretches our understanding of both the Civil War and its aftermath, Reconstruction. Ross seems intent on bending the traditional Civil War narrative in order to get the viewer to see how the problem of race in America was not settled with the close of the war in 1865.

Newt Knight worked as a medic during the war, and when we first see him, he’s exchanging a wounded soldier’s garb for an officer’s jacket so that the man will be treated more quickly. Already disillusioned with the war, Knight becomes incensed when he discovers the implementation of the Twenty Negro Law, which exempted those who owned twenty slaves or more from military service, making his service part of, as Knight puts it, “a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.”

Knight abandons the army and returns home to his wife and child where he finds that the Confederacy has been seizing a disproportionate number of food and goods for the war effort. After turning guns on some Confederate soldiers to prevent them from taking any more, he flees to the swamps and lives alongside a number of slave maroons.

Knight strikes up a friendship with an escaped slave Moses as well as Rachel, a woman still tied to her plantation, but who manages to smuggle supplies to the escaped slaves. The film treats this as an experience of cross-racial empathy. Not only does Knight live with these escaped slaves, but he also depends on them. Unlike Knight, these men and women are knowledgeable about the swamp, able to navigate its inscrutable waters and wrest food from its harsh corners.

After the battle of Vicksburg, which essentially cleaved the Confederacy in half, more deserters trickle into Jones County, and Knight begins to rally a resistance, a resistance that includes both black and whites. Using guerrilla tactics, Knight and his men eventually wrest Jones County and the surrounding area away from the Confederacy. During this time, he also strikes up a romance with Rachel. (At this point in time, Knight’s wife has fled the county, afraid that her husband’s lawlessness will mean repercussions for her and her child.)

Ross’s film is attempting to reinsert the notion of class into the Civil War narrative. Knight’s journey takes him from a realization that as a poor farmer, he’s being used as fodder to prop up an unjust economic system to the understanding that he has much in common with enslaved blacks of the South. This is not to mean that the plight of the poor white man is just as bad as that of enslaved persons. It certainly wasn’t. And slave narratives at the time from people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs took pains to make it clear that slavery was a far worse situation than poverty. Still, both Knight and the escaped slaves he’s taken up with are being chewed up by an unjust economic system.

In a pivotal scene, Moses is chastised for taking food that one of Knight’s men believes belongs only to the other whites, not to “n***ers.” Moses responds, “How you ain’t a n***er?” This of course can be read a number of ways. This poor white has also been used by Confederacy, conscripted into a war that does not benefit him. It could also be read as a comment on the illusion of race as a biological category, an absurdity that becomes clear in the film through the intermittent intrusion of Davis Knight’s story.

In a film of this nature, it would make narrative sense to end at the close of the Civil War, perhaps also covering the fact that Knight and Rachel had to flee their home for fear of repercussions, just so that the ending isn’t too “Hollywood.” But nearly the last half hour of the film covers the Civil War’s aftermath and Reconstruction. Moses’s son is taken by a plantation owner as an “apprentice,” a form of slavery that persisted after the Civil War. We also witness the political disenfranchisement and violence blacks faced at the hands of terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

By extending the narrative, Ross points out the long-term destructive force unleashed by slavery, which was not stopped at Appomattox, at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, or at the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Like Knight’s descendants, we too are living in the shadow of slavery and the Civil War.

As a filmmaker, Ross is often faulted for being too much of a crowd pleaser, and you can see his desire to make buoyant entertainment in his screenplays for Big and Dave or in his directorial efforts like Seabiscuit. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with this instinct for making an audience happy, but I think critics also forget that Ross also directed the smart and nuanced take on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Pleasantville. And there’s a real desire on his part in push the Civil War drama forward in the hopes of counteracting the Lost Cause narrative that has infected the public imagination. And in doing so, he plays with the structure of Free State of Jones in unique and interesting ways.

That’s not to say that Free State of Jones is a perfect film. I can’t quite decide if it’s too short or too long. Davis Knight’s story seems essential to what Ross is attempting to accomplish with this film, but his intrusion into the nineteenth-century narrative is sometimes clunky. And while Ross worked with historians to make sure the details of his film were right, by necessity some of history’s weirdness gets sanded down. For instance, by the end of the film, Knight’s first wife comes back to live with him and Rachel, but we don’t really get a sense of what she would have thought about her husband taking up with another woman, especially a former slave. (Although, it is suggested in the film that Knight may have been carrying on a sexual relationship with both women, which the historical record appears to back up).

But Free State of Jones is a timely and necessary film. We live in an age where racism has forced many poor and working class whites to vote against their own interests. And it’s worth remembering that this has historical precedent that goes back generations. In time, I expect the reputation of Free State of Jones to increase. It’s another important film in a string of them that asks us to reexamine nineteenth-century America in order for us to understand how we’ve gotten into the mess we’re currently in.