Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Moonglow by Michael Chabon (4.5/5)

Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, opens with the following:

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.”

Anyone familiar with Chabon’s work will recognize his belief in elevating narrative over “truth,” or to put it another way, to acknowledge that Truth is always out of reach and thus is shaped by narrative. It’s safe, then, to say that we shouldn’t take Moonglow, which purports to be a biography of Chabon’s late grandfather, at face value. Out of fact and fiction, Chabon weaves a tale that spans a good chunk of the 20th century, but never loses sight of the beauty to be found in a life at turns ordinary and singular.

As the story goes, shortly after finishing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in 1989, a younger Michael Chabon found himself beside his ailing grandfather’s hospital bed. During his final weeks, Chabon’s grandfather unfolds a sprawling personal narrative of a Jewish-American whose life was disrupted by World War II and who struggled to maintain a family in postwar America, ultimately constructing a sturdy middle class life that was more easily obtainable and also expected in the second half of the twentieth century. Along the way, Chabon’s grandfather (who is never given a proper name) endures a stint in jail and the reverberations of traumas both global and familial.

Moonglow finds Chabon continuing to turn his attentions to the everyday interpersonal lives of his characters, much like his previous novel Telegraph Avenue, which took as its subject two music nerds living in the Oakland area. At the time, Telegraph Avenue was a departure from his more conceptually ambitious works, like The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. The most surprising change in Moonglow is Chabon’s more restrained style. You won’t find the kind of stylistic gambles as there were in Telegraph Avenue, such as an entire chapter consisting of a single unhinged sentence or a visit from a pre-presidential Barack Obama into the lives of Chabon’s fictional characters. Some of these artistic wagers worked (the former) while others fell flat (the latter). By reining in his linguistic trickery, Chabon fashions a tone that’s appropriate for a more intimate and personal narrative, even if not everything in Moonglow is to believed.

That’s not to say that Moonglow isn’t a beautifully written novel just like everything Chabon has produced. Read this short passage about Chabon’s grandmother, who escaped Europe only after the atrocities of World War II:

“There were days, however, when being left with my grandmother was not very different from being left along. She lay on the sofa or on her bed with the curtains drawn and a cool cloth folded over her eyes. These days had their own lexicon: cafard, algie, crise de foie. In 1966 (the date of my earliest memories of her) she was only forty-three, but the war, she said, had ruined her stomach, her sinuses, the joints of her bones (she never said anything about what the war might have done to her mind). If she had promised to look after me on one of her bad days, she would rally long enough to persuade my parents, or herself, that she was up to the task. But then it--something--would come over her and we would leave the movie theater halfway through the show, conclude the recital after a single poem, walk out of the supermarket abandoning an entire cart of groceries in the middle of the aisle.” (19)

Just in this passage, you get a sense of Chabon’s innate sense of detail. He makes use of parenthesis to indicate his split understanding of these experiences, one that’s contemporaneous and another that clearly occurs years later. And then there’s how Chabon chooses to reach towards the hidden trauma his grandmother has endured, using pronouns and French words to prevent us from ever fully grasping this penumbral history. While Chabon has largely avoided the syntactical backflips of some of his other works, his writing is just as powerful as ever.

The themes common to Chabon remain in tact. As ever, he’s interested in Jewish identity, nostalgia, and mid-twentieth century history and technology. The most immediately gripping portion of Moonglow occurs during grandfather’s service in WW II. As an engineer, grandfather is tasked with capturing both a V-2 rocket and the Nazi scientist, Wernher von Braun, a man who was never punished for his involvement in Hitler’s regime.  Instead, he was pardoned by the United States and enlisted into the emerging space race. The story of Von Braun and the V-2 rocket speak to the multilayered aspect of nostalgia. We venerate WW II as the good war while often overlooking the moral compromises endemic to every armed conflict.

The rocket becomes a reoccurring motif through much of Moonglow. Chabon writes of the V-2:

“None of that, however, could be blamed on the rocket, my grandfather thought, or on the man, von Braun, who had designed it. The rocket was beautiful. In conception it had been shaped by an artist to break a chain that had bound the human race ever since we first gained consciousness of earth’s gravity and all its analogs in suffering, failure, and pain. It was at once a prayer sent heavenward and the answer to that prayer: Bear me away from this awful place. To pack the thing with a ton of amatol, to hobble it so that instead of tearing loose once and for all from the mundane pull, it only arced back to earth and killed the people among whom it fell, was to abuse it.” (167)

Like William Blake’s “Tyger,” the rocket is both beautiful and fearful. This image of the rocket reverse engineers the technological utopianism found in postwar America. The rocket is a symbol of human endeavor, but in reality more often becomes a tool of violence. This is also a reminder that technology does not exist outside of culture and history, but rather is always bent to the will of its users. In our present age of technological fetishism, it’s useful to consider technological progress does not automatically lead to human progress.

Moonglow can be read as a story of the twentieth century as filtered through a particular American family. In this sense, there are some interesting parallels between Chabon’s latest and the Chinese author Mo Yan’s novel of the mid-twentieth century, Red Sorghum. Like Chabon, much of Mo Yan’s novel takes place during WW II/the Second Sino-Japanese War, and he refers to characters solely in accordance to their familial relationship to the narrator (father, grandfather, grandmother, etc.). Despite the countless amount of reminiscing we’ve spent on the twentieth century, we’re still forced to look back, attempting to make sense of the strange mix of destruction and unbridled optimism that impossibly stood side by side. And in doing so, we might somehow understand where we are and how we might move forward.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (3.5/5)

When Disney first announced that they were planning on taking the Star Wars IP (ugh) and submitting it to the Marvel model, where they produce one or more films a year, I was skeptical. As someone who grew up watching the original trilogy on TV and VHS, I felt there was something special about Star Wars, something that differentiated it from other big franchises. Sure, there were plenty of Star Wars material floating around outside of the main “Episodes”: comic books, novels, cartoons, video games, and even a soundtrack unencumbered by an actual film. And there’s been plenty of detritus within Star Wars, including terribly written novels, those Ewok movies, and the godawful holiday special. But these were easy to ignore because they weren’t meant to be experienced on the big screen. By pumping out a film every year, I reasoned, Disney was diminishing what made the experience of seeing a new Star Wars movie in theaters special.

The first of Disney’s anthology films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (okay, they’re still sticking with that subtitle), does a fine job of justifying the practice, even if it doesn’t completely quell my worries that the Disney machine will grind Star Wars to dust in order to suck out every last cent. The plot of Rogue One is extrapolated from a line from the original film, and the movie recycles much of the aesthetic, character motivation, and even the macguffin from A New Hope. Jyn Erso, the film’s protagonist, is a lapsed rebel who now finds herself jailed by the Empire. She’s broken out of a labor camp in order to aid the Rebellion. As a child, Jyn’s mother was killed and her father was pressed into service by the Empire to help build the Death Star, which means this is the fourth film featuring some version of the original superweapon.

But what the Rebellion really needs her for is to make contact with Saw Gerrera, a rebel extremist who leads a guerrilla cell on the planet of Jedha (for some reason the film flashes names of locations in the bottom corner of the screen like we’re watching a Jack Ryan thriller). Gerrera has come into possession of information regarding the Empire’s new superweapon. Jyn, her handler, Cassian Andor, and his surly droid, K2SO follow these breadcrumbs all the way the film’s impressive third act. Along the way they pick up a motley crew, including Imperial defector Bodhi Rook and odd couple Chirrut Îmwe, a Zatoichi archetype, and Baze Malbus.

Most of the characters are quickly sketched, which isn’t necessarily a problem. In the great superhero tradition, Baze Malbus is defined by that massive gun he totes around while his friend Chirrut Îmwe is mostly defined by actor Donnie Yen’s beatific smile. Jyn, played by Felicity Jones, serves as the main character, but her story arc seems incomplete, like a Jenga puzzle threatening to topple because of its missing parts. At one point she must give a rousing speech to the troops, mostly because she’s the protagonist, so of course she does. But Jones’s prim Britishness can’t quite sell the dialogue, and it makes you appreciate Jennifer Lawrence’s conviction to deliver whatever hokum was necessary in those Hunger Games movies.

Part of me wants to snark on Disney’s four-quadrant, tentpole filmmaking, but another part of me has to acknowledge that this film is the product of a well-oiled machine. Director Gareth Edwards nimbly directs the action, and the quips are delivered right on time. The antagonism between Jyn and K2SO provides one of the film’s chief delights. And when the movie turns into the Star Wars version of The Dirty Dozen, it’s easy to lose yourself in the spectacle. Rogue One contains a number of striking imagery of imagined planets and environments that the series is known for.

**SPOILERS AHEAD** And yet, I still felt like the movie never came together like it could have. I love the idea of making a Star Wars movie in the direct mold of those WWII movies from the 50s and 60s, but the need to connect this to A New Hope continually threatens to undermine Rogue One. The Easter eggs come at a regular clip. Some of these make sense. It’s great to see Bail Organa working with the Rebellion, and the glass of blue milk in the opening scene is an unobtrusive nod to Luke’s favorite drink on Tatooine. But do we really need to see Evazan and Ponda Baba bump into Jyn? (For those who weren’t into the habit of tracking down the names of obscure Star Wars characters in their youth, these are the dude with the messed up face and the walrus-looking fellow who pick a fight with Luke in Mos Eisley’s Cantina. Ponda Boba’s arm sees the wrong end of Obi-Wan’s lightsaber.) And while Darth Vader’s inclusion makes sense up to a point, the tacked on ending that connects the film unambiguously to A New Hope seems unnecessary and superfluous, as if Disney felt the audience wouldn’t realize these are the same Death Star plans mentioned in A New Hope. If anything, it undercuts the arc of the characters we’ve been following for two hours by reminding us that they’re just minor people in the grand scheme. Finally, I’m flummoxed by the inclusion of a creepy CGI version of Peter Cushing’s Tarkin. I’m sure there are sexagenarian actors who bear a resemblance to Cushing with the aid of the makeup department. Seriously, the image of CG Cushing is more ghoulish than anything found in those Hammer Horror films he starred in.

**SPOILERS CONTINUED** It’s nearly impossible to discuss your reaction to Rogue One without spending some time discussing the ending, so there are some even more ruinous spoilers in this paragraph. You were warned. Above, I likened this film to Star Wars’s Dirty Dozen, but this film attempts to one up that trash classic because no one survives. Every major character meets their end in the final assault, and Jyn and Cassian die while standing ankle deep in the ocean as a mushroom cloud balloons in the background, an image beautifully cribbed from the film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve gone back and forth between admiring this ending for its ability to smuggle such a bleak conclusion into a major blockbuster and thinking that the film never really earns this downer of a conclusion. Part of the problems is that following our heroes’ demise, there’s a coda that sees the Death Star plans make their way to a CGI Leia, unnecessarily connecting the dots between Rogue One and A New Hope and undermining the journey of the characters we’ve been following for two hours. The film never quite captures the acidic cynicism as The Dirty Dozen. It wants to be a gritty war film, but one that’s still fun for the family.

*SPOILERS CONTINUING* Additionally, I’m not sure the film ever really earns these deaths. There’s plenty of posturing in Rogue One about the kinds of sacrifices rebels must make in order to bring about change, but this is never really shown or discussed. I believe blockbuster movies can engage with complex topics, but there’s a difference between motioning towards complexity and actually engaging with complexity. (As an example, this difference can be seen in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises in which the former actually has something to say about terrorism where the latter’s attempt at broaching the topic of economic inequality is simply laughable). Earlier I mentioned The Dirty Dozen, but where that film gleefully deconstructs “the good war,” Rogue One never has the gumption to really show us these supposed ethical quandaries.


The big argument over Rogue One will likely be about whether or not the film is better than The Force Awakens. You could go back and forth on this question, outlining diagrams on the wall until they take you to a padded cell. I found them to be on the same level. When both films are working properly, they’re the kind of blockbuster entertainment spectacle that we go to the movies for. But they keep making unforced errors. The Force Awakens kills all momentum when Death Star 3.0 enters center stage. Rogue One likewise suffers when it bends over backwards to acknowledge the original trilogy or smuggle in a hero’s journey when the war film genre really should revolve around an ensemble cast. And while I like to avoid nitpicking, I think the inclusion of Peter CGIushing is simply unconscionable. Both films are good if ultimately unambitious. But I think Rogue One at least proves there’s some stock in the idea of creating anthology films. I just hope Disney figures out that not every film needs to tie directly into dialogue or characters from the original trilogy. It’s a big galaxy, after all. Let’s do something new.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Dark Disciple

Dark Disciple by Christie Golden and Katie Lucas (4/5)

Without appearing in any of the feature films, Asajj Ventress has become one of the more fascinating and nuanced characters in the prequel era. Originally developed by the Lucas brain trust for Attack of the Clones, Ventress would go on to appear in the original 2D Clone Wars series and a number of comics during Star Wars’s days at Dark Horse. Throughout The Clone Wars she became a more rounded character, especially after a story arc finding her abandoning her apprenticeship with Count Dooku to strike out on her own. Star Wars is a world of light and dark, but it has always managed to find the complexity these two poles. And it’s that in-between space that Ventress best represents.

For fans of Ventress, it was a pleasant surprise to see the novel, Dark Disciple, take the focus off of Obi-Wan and Anakin to explore the character of Ventress. Taken from unfinished Clone Wars storylines, Dark Disciple showcases what that series did best: explore the moral Catch 22 of war. Believing the toll of the Clone War has become too great, the Jedi Council decides, with some desperation, that it would be better to assassinate Count Dooku rather than let the war linger. Mace Windu is the chief proponent of this plan, but he manages to get the rest of the counsel to go along. Obi-Wan recommends that Quinlan Vos, a rebellious and unorthodox Jedi, carry out the assassination plot.

Vos knows he won’t be able to take out a Sith Lord by himself, so he’s told to recruit Asajj Ventress as an aid. The fact that she had previously attempted to kill her former master makes her an ideal ally. Knowing that Ventress would never trust the Jedi, Vos goes undercover as a fellow bounty hunter. He arranges a “chance” encounter with Ventress by going after the same bounty as her, and in the tradition of Marvel comics, after they squabble with one another, they soon become partners, Vos’s exuberant personality complementing Ventress’s guarded, no nonsense approach to everything.

For a time, Dark Disciple follows the time-honored narrative of the undercover cop ingratiating himself with criminals, but [spoilers] that thankfully doesn’t last too long. There are plenty of twists and turns throughout the novel, and you can tell it had been expertly plotted before being transformed from a series of 22 minute episodes into a book. I also won’t spoil anything else for you. The person who developed the original story was none other than Katie Lucas, daughter of the Maker himself, George. Here she’s helped by author Christie Golden. In a postscript, Katie Lucas writes about how she was drawn to Ventress because she’s a strong female character. I also feel as if the inclusion of Ventress and Ahsoka in the series speaks to the necessity of including female creators and artists in the world of Star Wars. Would these character be as rounded and complex if someone like Katie Lucas wasn’t there to influence the creative process?

What drew me to The Clone Wars cartoon was how it handled some of the moral entanglements hinted at in the prequel films. For all their flaws, the prequels had some legitimately interesting ideas that were, unfortunately, poorly executed. The idea that you could win a war and still lose seems particularly relevant today considering America has been waging a seemingly endless war on terror for fifteen years, and yet somehow global acts of terrorism have actually increased. But there are other ways to lose a war. Dark Disciple, and much of The Clone Wars, suggests that we lose by blurring the line between the “good” and “bad” guys. By engaging in assassination, the Jedi Council have lost their purity. But this isn’t an easy decision. You could see how the Jedi might come to the conclusion that engaging in what’s considered an immoral act, even during wartime, would be their best option, even if it is ultimately an abandonment of their principles. And in the process they have sacrificed the welfare of Quinlan Vos, who must struggle with the Dark Side during his mission.

Not everything about Dark Disciple is completely successful. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older and more cynical, but at times it seems as if the romance between Vos and Ventress seems driven more by the plot than by the characters. But because the novel focuses on secondary and tertiary characters, there can be real consequences. Dark Disciples feels like more than just another adventure in the life of these characters. And the novel reminds us that even in a world with a light side and a dark side, it’s not always easy to know which side you’re on. Like Star Wars itself, this is a lesson that is both of our time and timeless.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

realMyst: Masterpiece Edition

realMyst: Masterpiece Edition (5/5)

When I was about twelve years old, the family of my best friend owned a copy of Myst that we would occasionally fire up and try to play. I’m not sure who else actually played the game, but someone must have, because whenever we loaded the latest saved game, more progress had been made. Unfortunately, we could never really get anywhere with Myst, and mostly we just sort of pushed buttons and wandered around while enjoying the view. At the time it was the video game equivalent of a walk through the woods or a lazy Sunday drive through the countryside. Despite not actually doing much, there was a certain appeal in just spending some time exploring the world of the game.

The fact that my friend’s family owned a copy of Myst speaks to its position within the evolution of technology and culture in the 90s. During that decade, computer tech was becoming mainstream, moving from the world of geeky hackers seen in films like Wargames into an aestheticized product sold by Apple as much for what their products could do as for how their products looked. At the time, Myst’s graphics were quite impressive, and families bought the game as much to play as they did to showcase their swanky new PC’s abilities. In this sense, Myst became an item of bourgeois respectability, something that probably hurt the game’s reputation in the long run.

I never beat Myst back in the 90s, but since I first aimlessly moseyed around its abandoned landscapes, I became a fan of adventure games, starting with LucasArts’s run of 90s classics and later moving on to today’s incredible indie game riches in the genre. I recently decided to return to the adventure game classic, which held the title of best selling game for nearly a decade. Instead of playing the original, however, I picked up realMyst: Masterpiece Edition, a revamped sort of director’s cut. RealMyst boasts of improved graphics, weather, cycles of day and night, a flashlight, an extra world to explore, and, perhaps most excitedly, the ability to walk through the worlds of Myst rather than just click your way through like a slideshow.  But if you prefer (and I did), you can choose to click your way around the environments like in the original release. But even if you choose to navigate the old fashioned way, you can see the camera repositioning itself instead of just being replaced with a new scene.

You start Myst on a small island filled with mysterious objects and structures, including a sunken ship, an observatory, a clock tower, a library, and a rocketship. There are no instructions, no prelude that tells you what to do and how to do it. Instead, you must play around with various machines on the island in order to figure out what next steps to take. What thin narrative that does exist in the game involves two brothers, Sirrus and Achenar, who have been trapped within a red book and a blue book, both of which you discover in the library. Speaking through static, each brother claims that the other is responsible for their father’s death, and in order to release them from their prison, you must collect pages littered throughout various lands that connect to Myst Island.

From here, you’re off, using the various buildings and machines on Myst Island to find books that connect to various other lands, or ages, where you must search out red and blue pages to bring back to the brothers as well as discover the exit from each age back to Myst Island. The set up for the game is actually reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda where you returned to the main map after discovering a piece of the triforce in each dungeon. This simple quest structure shows some of the game’s age. For instance, you can’t carry both pages, so once you’ve returned one page to one of the brothers, you have to head right back into the same age to retrieve the second page, retracing most of your steps. When you do finally return the pages, the brothers don’t really provide you with much more backstory. They mostly repeat what they have already said and, like an addict, beg for more pages.
We learn most about brothers Sirrus and Achenar from their rooms you find in each age. Achenar’s rooms are filled with images of death and torture. And while Sirrus’s rooms at first appear to be the product of a more refined taste, you quickly realize that he has an insatiable greed and has been plundering each age where he has set up shop. But Myst isn’t about narrative. Sure, there’s a story and a fairly robust mythology if you’re willing to read through various materials, but the joy of Myst is exploration, the simple time it takes to wander around each world and solve puzzles.

This time around, I didn’t find the puzzles to be all that difficult. A steady diet of adventure games has likely made the game easier, and I’m hopefully a bit smarter today than when I was twelve. Most puzzles involve you futzing around with various machinery, figuring out how they work and interact with the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean the game is a breeze. It takes some mental sweat, and I resorted to hints on two occasions. Also, the Selenitic Age, whose theme is sounds, is still a pain in the ass. I used up one of my hints on its confusing labyrinth, the most dreaded of all adventure game puzzles.

As a mature adult, I found Myst’s puzzles more enjoyable than frustrating, but the real reason to play Myst are the landscapes. In addition to Myst Island, there are five ages, including the Mechanical Age, Stoneship Age, Channelwood Age, the aforementioned Selenitic Age, and the Rime Age (a bonus level tacked on to the end of realMyst). The worlds of Myst incorporate steampunk visuals. The Mechanical Age takes place on an island that’s also a giant gear; the Stoneship Age takes place on a jagged rock with a ship stuck in the center of it; and the Selenitic Age looks like the landscape of Mars from some 1950s b-movie. Overall, the technology of the worlds are decidedly analog.

My favorite age is Channelwood, which looks like someone took the Ewok village from Return of the Jedi and transported it to a Florida swamp. There are two levels in Channelwood, one a series of wooden walkways snaking their way among tall trees, and the other, reachable by hydraulic-powered elevators, a series of rooms and bridges among the tops of the treeline. Like most of the places in Myst, there’s something inviting about Channelwood. It’s the impossible treehouse you wish you had as a kid.

At this point, the ages and islands of Myst have become iconic, at least for gamers and children of the nineties. But there’s reason to suspect that the game will beat the test of time, becoming an enduring work of art. Every time you stumble on an perfectly balanced horizon or an achingly beautiful pink sunset, it’s not difficult to see Myst as a living painting. There’s a clear connection between Myst and the work of Thomas Cole, JMW Turner, or Claude Monet. Or you could link Myst to the nature writings of Annie Dillard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Gary Snyder, and Jack London. This is obviously high praise, but revisiting the game decades later, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. Myst took a genre of video games and moved it forward in a way that seemed intuitive and yet also completely revolutionary. Today it’s DNA is present in a whole host of games, from Gone Home to Dear Esther to Firewatch, that put their own spin on what Myst first invented. And although others have plundered from Myst, there’s still something enduring about the original that, like a great novel, draws you back for another visit.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Cat People

Cat People (1942) (4.5/5)

Cat People begins like a traditional romance with a couple that meets cute at a local zoo. Having trouble sketching the likeness of a black panther, Irena keeps on throwing away her unsatisfactory attempts but each time misses the trash can. Another zoogoer, Oliver Reed. disposes of her trash and jokingly chastises her. But after they strike up a conversation, this Oliver fellow seems less concerned that one of Irena’s sketches, a badass image of a panther skewered on a sword, has slipped from her sketchbook and is left to muss up the city zoo. (This is before the EPA existed, so I guess people were a little looser about these things). Because we know this is a horror film, we also know that this relationship may not end well, and Cat People could be categorized as a horror-romance in the tradition of early gothic novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, or later horror films like The Fly or Let the Right One In.

Irena and Oliver strike up a romance and eventually get married. It’s not clear how long they were dating before marriage, but in the film it goes by quickly. It doesn’t seem as if Oliver knows much about his bride before marriage, except that she’s has a deep connection to her Serbian roots. In her apartment there’s a statue of “King John” regally atop a horse with his sword held straight up impaling a large cat-like creature. This isn’t Magna Carta King John, as Oliver first guesses; it’s actually Jovan Nenad, a sixteenth-century Serbian military commander who established the last independent Serbian state prior to the takeover by the Ottoman Empire. According to Irena, her village was captured by the Mamluk people, and soon after, the villagers started practicing witchcraft, which gave them the ability to turn into cat creatures. King John retook the village and killed those cat people who didn’t flee into the neighboring wilderness.

Although my knowledge of Eastern European history is hardly encyclopedic, you can probably guess from the description Irena gives us that the King John was a Christian who drove out the Muslim Mamluks. (In fact, the Mamluks were a slave warrior caste that likely inspired George RR Martin’s The Unsullied). Like plenty of horror stories, Cat People is about fear of contamination. Irena symbolizes the immigrant to the United States who may not be as white and Christian as you think. The mismatch between Irena and her husband is further highlighted by Oliver Reed’s absurdly Anglo sounding name.

Over time, Irena comes to fear that she herself is contaminated and may be one of the cat people. Another Serbian woman who bares a striking resemblance to a cat approaches Irena during her engagement dinner and speaks to her in her native tongue, calling her “sister.” According to legend, if a cat person kisses someone, she will transform into a cat and eat her mate. Cat People was made after the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code, which established strict censorship over Hollywood cinema, so the film can’t say this in so many words, but for the audience it’s pretty clear what kissing means in this context. In fact, Oliver even says something along the lines of, “You know, it’s kind of weird we’re married and all and we haven’t ‘kissed’ yet.”

Here it becomes clear the film also embodies the fear of female sexuality as well as racial difference. Even after he marries Irena, Oliver keeps up a flirtatious friendship with his coworker, Alice Moore, who expresses doubt early on about the viability of Oliver’s marriage. Like early film star and sex symbol, Rudolph Valentino, Irena’s appeal comes from her darker complexion, which marks her as distinct from her blonde rival Alice. (Although he was Italian, Valentino also played Muslims, such as the title character in The Son of the Sheik). When Oliver, Irena, and Alice go on a museum trip, Alice should feel like the third wheel, but in fact Oliver suggests Irena explore other parts of the building because unlike him and Alice, she must be bored with these English ship models they’re looking at. The implication, of course, is that Irena is racially, religiously, and culturally unsuited for Oliver.

Irena starts to become concerned that Oliver and Alice are having an affair, and at first it appears that the film is setting up Irena to be a paranoiac. When Oliver’s having a late night at the office, she tracks down her husband only to find him having a meal with Alice. She later stalks Alice late at night down starkly lit streets. This scene in particular is masterfully crafted, juxtaposing the sound of Irena and Alice’s increasingly frantic footsteps and ratcheting up tension until it is broken by the sound of a bus arriving at its stop. Anyone who has watched a horror film is familiar with the scene where we expect the killer to jump out of the shadows, but instead a friendly character or a cat jumps out instead. The technique apparently dates back to Cat People and is known as the Lewton Bus after producer Val Lewton. There’s also a scene where Alice jumps into a pool in order to escape from a large cat she’s convinced is stalking her, and I’m pretty certain this moment in the film inspired a similar scene in the indie horror film It Follows.

But Irena isn’t as crazy as she’s initially made out to be. In fact, Oliver is planning to leave his wife for Alice, and even gets the advice to annul the marriage, which is another indicator that the marriage was never consummated. In all honesty, Oliver is kind of a dick. I mean, dude, you married this woman who you barely knew and then won’t step up when she’s clearly having a difficult time. What’s more, you’re ready to jump ship now that times are tough.

That’s not to say that Oliver doesn’t try to help out his wife, but he does so in arguably the wrong ways. He’s convinced that Irena’s cat person fears are only in her head, so he sends her to a psychiatrist. [Be warned. There are spoilers ahead]. When watching the film, I felt like there was something off about this psychiatrist dude. It turns out, like Irena’s cat people phobia, this wasn’t just in my head. The guy’s kind of a creep, and at the end of the film, he tries to kiss Irena, which I don’t think would be looked kindly on by the APA. Until this moment, we’re not quite certain whether Irena’s cat people fears are legitimate or not, but sure enough, she transforms into a leopard and mauls her therapist.

It’s easy to see why Cat People has become a horror film classic. First off, director Jacques Tourneur drapes the film in shadows, a technique he would use in the film noir classic, Out of the Past. (If you ever wanted to watch Robert Mitchum walk into a room and knock out some schlub with just one punch, then you really should watch Out of the Past). Oliver works for an architecture agency, so Tourneur makes great use of underlit drafting tables to create incredibly stark, nearly abstract chiaroscuro. Second, the film is thematically rich. From issues of hybridity, race, religion, immigration, science and medievalism, Cat People contains a whole host of themes in its brisk seventy-three minute running time.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to reduce Cat People down to a single message. While it certainly embodies America’s fear of the other as present in our anxiety over immigration, it also seems more sympathetic towards Irena than not. After all, the men in the film, her husband and therapist, ultimately fail her. She’s a monster, but she’s also the character who’s easiest to identify with. It’s not surprising that producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, both of whom are immigrants, would take the point of view of Irena, and it’s unfortunately not surprising that the film’s exploration of America’s fear of immigrants who come from the Muslim world remains timely nearly seventy-five years later.