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Analysis

Game of Thrones Took an Orientalist Journey

Julia

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Last Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones put a final nail in the coffin of the Dornish subplot; an aspect of the show that even its most earnest defenders agree was a failure. Now that it’s over (I think, I was wrong once before.) it’s a good time to get into the weeds of why it was so unsuccessful. There are all the obvious issues with the plot itself, the dialogue, the casting, the direction, the costumes… but the ultimate root source of all of these is a failure of adaptation. More specifically, it’s a failure of the writers of GoT, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, to understand a fundamental feature of the source material: point of view.

The A Song of Ice and Fire (aSoIaF) series, on which GoT still claims to be based in its opening credits, is famous for George R.R. Martin’s use of what is called a “close third-person pov” structure. The story follows many principal characters. Each chapter alternates between them and is told, not only through their eyes, but also through their minds. The character’s voice are unique, and influenced by their own experiences, knowledge, and biases.

So, Sansa Stark begins the series seeing things as one would expect an eleven-year-old girl who’s been sheltered and taught idealized notions of how people in power behave would see things. As she gains experience, her commentary of the goings on in King’s Landing and the Vale become more and more insightful, and a good deal less idealized. When she becomes more wary and suspicious, people start behaving more suspiciously. Tyrion Lannister brings his vast knowledge, especially of history, to the table as he navigates through war, politics, and exile, but he also brings his misogyny, internalized ableism, and Lannister pride.

Tyrion’s biases are especially relevant here because it’s through his point of view that we first see the people who have always existed on the edge of Westeros, part of the system, and yet outside it. In many important ways, the Dornish were as much the “great other” as the Wildlings in the North, or the Free Cities across the Narrow Sea.

Image: Tomasz Jedruszek. © Fantasy Flight Games.

All Dornishmen are Snakes

I’m sorry to have to bring in the dreaded book knowledge, but it’s important that I explain what George R.R. Martin accomplished with the Dornish in the source material before I can discuss why the show failed to make the same point. Indeed, their own narrative undercuts everything that show plotline was about.

In Westerosi culture, Dorne’s separate history, cultural distinctiveness, strong sense of unity, and their determination to be politically autonomous leads them to be othered in the eyes of Westerosi. They see Dorne as an exotic place, full of violent and sexy people who look and act oddly. Put another way, they are the targets of prejudice, and what we would reasonably call “racism”. They’re certainly the subjects of a good amount of off-hand racist comments and jokes.

“Leo’s eyes were hazel, bright with wine and malice. “Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles. The Dornish will fuck anything with a hole between its legs. Meaning no offense.”” -A Feast for Crows (aFfC)

“Tyrion had sent her little girl to Dorne, and Cersei had dispatched Ser Balon Swann to bring her home. All Dornishmen were snakes, and the Martells were the worst of them.” -aFfC

“Poison was for cravens, women, and Dornishmen.” -A Dance with Dragons (aDwD)a

(I should note, to avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to people who are from Westeros, but not Dornish, as “Westerosi.” This term will not include the Dornish, unless otherwise stated, even though technically, the Dornish are Westerosi.)

It’s useful when thinking about the Westerosi view of the Dornish to compare it to “orientalist” ideas in Western European thought.

Orientalism is, strictly speaking, a nineteenth century artistic movement in Western Europe that depicted “the middle east” and points further. It’s most famous for painting of women in harem and eastern market places. These days, though, the term in most likely to be associated with the work of Edward Sa`id and his most famous book, Orientalism.

The quintessential image of Orientalism: “Le charmer de serpents” by Jean-Léon Gérôme

This book is a foundational text of postcolonial thought, and rather notoriously dense and difficult to get through for students in ‘Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies’ classes. What I offer is a very simplified summary of Sa`id’s ideas.

He argued that western depictions of “the orient” are, in general, inaccurate, servile, and patronizing. Even the very concept of the orient itself is inaccurate, servile, and patronizing. It conflates many complex times, places, and peoples and turns them into a “narrative of incident,” a convenient background where white people can have adventures.

This is self-serving on the part of western culture because these narrative aren’t interested in actually exploring or understanding these places. It exists to create contrast between east and west, where “the east” is irrational, weak, childlike, and feminine, and “the west” is rational, strong, developed, and masculine. It justifies western domination by implying that the western understanding of the orient is more valid than the understanding of the actual “orientals” who live there.

This plays into the Westerosi understanding of the Dornish in many ways, though one of the most obvious is the contrast between Dornish and Westerosi conceptions of Dornish “ethnic identity”. (A totally anachronistic term I only use for lack of a better one.)

Dorne has a complex history. It’s defining moment as a unified political entity was the marriage of Mors and Nymeria and the coming of the Rhoynar from Essos, but there’s a good deal more to it than that. The idea of a separate “Dornish” identity seems to have existed before then, when Dorne was inhabited by petty kingdoms of Andals and First Men. The people living in the red mountains and the deserts and river valleys beyond were certainly referred to as such when they were raiding the Reach in ancient times, and one of the titles of the Yronwood kings in the Boneway was “King of the Dornish”.

The coming of the Rhoynar had a profound cultural, legal, and political impact on Dorne. Most notably, they adopted a distinctly Rhoynar legal tradition. Still, it’s completely inaccurate to say that the Dornish are simply Rhoynar transplanted to the desert who totally overwhelmed and subjugated the indigenous Andals and First Men. That would be as inaccurate as implying that the current English identity or cultural and political system are purely the result of the Franco-Norman invasion, ignoring the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic elements that are just as, if not more, central.

The Westerosi have made much of the “ethnic” divisions in Dorne, most famously in the Targaryen king Daeron I’s history of his conquest.

“There were three sorts of Dornishmen, the first King Daeron had observed. There were the salty Dornishmen who lived along the coasts, the sandy Dornishmen of the deserts and long river valleys, and the stony Dornishmen who made their fastnesses in the passes and heights the the Red Mountains. The salty Dornishmen had the most Rhoynar blood, the stony Dornishmen the least.

All three sorts seemed well represented in Doran’s retinue. The salty Dornshmen were lithe and dark, with smooth olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind. The sandy Dornishmen were even darker, their faces burnt brown by the Dornish sun. They wound long bright scarfs around their helms to ward off sunstroke. The stony Dornishmen  were biggest and fairest, sons of the Andals and First Men, brown-haired or blond, with faces that freckled or burned in the sun instead of browning.”

The Three Sorts of Dornishmen: Stoney, Salty, Sandy. From: The World of Ice and Fire.

Most readers with a passing interest in the history of the Social Sciences are no doubt strongly reminded of Victorian Era pseudo-Anthropology and its preoccupation with categorizing everyone in the world into the four “races,” Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, and Amerindian.

SCIENCE! (and a little gift for francophone readers.)

This type of thing didn’t disappear from school textbook until well into the 20th century, but is generally considered these days to be little less than bunk. And it was an idea that interacted quite heavily with orientalism. It’s a perfect example of Western Europeans thinking they have a better understanding of “others” than the people themselves do.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the Dornish in A Song of Ice and Fire never refer to themselves using Daeron’s three categories. In fact, it’s often characters who would clearly fit into the “stony” category that are the most assertive about a “Dornish” identity.

Contrary to how the Dornish think of themselves, the Westerosi emphasize the Rhoynar aspects of Dornish culture to play up the idea that it is exotic and somehow “foreign,” rather than something that developed in Dorne with Rhoynishness as one piece of a greater cultural-political puzzle that is more than the sum of its parts.

The Dornish are Crazy

So what does this all mean for Game of Thrones, particularly as an adaptation?

This issue is that aSoIaF goes out of its way to challenge the Westerosi image of them, especially through the point of view of Dornish characters. Contrarily, the Dornish of the show simply are the orientalist stereotypes that the Westerosi believe them to be.

“The Dornish are crazy,” Bronn said in season 5. “All they want to do is fight and fuck.”

This is a rather good characterization of the stereotype in both text. Indeed in the third volume, A Storm of Swords, we first see Dornish characters (namely Prince Oberyn and Ellaria Sand,) and we do so only from the point of view of Westerosi characters. Their characterization as overly sexual and unpredictably violent is well in place. Oberyn’s mysterious darkness and reputation for poisoning and duels is his prime characterization, and Ellaria probably worships a Lyseni love goddess, at least according to the gossip that reaches Sansa.

However, by the time we meet Arianne Martell, a point of view character in A Feast for Crows, we gain an entirely different perspective on both these characters and maybe even begin to suspect that Oberyn spent the previous book playing into stereotypes deliberately in order to gain a specific political advantage and make his hosts in King’s Landing uncomfortable. Arianne’s view of her uncle doesn’t erase or deny his violent past or promiscuity, but it emphasises his devotion to his family and children, and his role as a beloved popular political figure.

The difference in Ellaria as soon as she crosses the mountains is even more striking. The woman who was framed as the classic dark, seductive foreign woman who uses her sexuality in a magical way, probably to control men for her own purposes, is revealed to be rather conventionally feminine and focused primarily on her role as a mother. Rather than trying to manipulate people, her main wish is to break the cycle of violence in order to keep her children safe.

Contrast this to the way the Dornish are played throughout their run on Game of Thrones. These stereotypical aspects were not only played straight and presented without challenge, but also dialed up to eleven.

The first Dornish we meet are a monolith of dark, broody men who are identically dressed. The sole speaker in the group introduces us to the cartoon accent that will be used for all Dornish characters for the next four years.

This scene is short and relatively unimportant, but it’s very telling as to how simplified and exoticised Dornishness will be, even compared to the Daeron I’s racist ethnography. For one thing, they’re all men, eliminating the important role that women have in politics in Dorne, another thing that Westerosi think is very unusual, and probably dangerous. And for another thing, there is none of that diversity of appearance that allowed Daeron’s ethnography to begin with. Here, every Dornishman is the same, and he has the same opinion about everything.

Then we meet Oberyn and Ellaria and…. they’re in a brothel. As far as anyone can tell, this is where they’ll live for the duration of their stay.

Now, the Oberyn of the books series is canonically bisexual and his relationship with Ellaria is implied to not be entirely monogamous. While it’s true that the Dorne of the books is notable for its permissive attitude to sex in general and homosexuality in particular, I don’t think it’s uncontroversial to say that the emphasis GoT placed on these elements goes beyond what the source material indicated.

There’s no clearer indication of this than that first scene, where the pair were apparently so overcome with the need for sex that they ditched the king and headed straight for the brothel for group sex. And this emphasis on the salaciousness of their sex life does not stop for the entirety of the season. For Ellaria especially, there seems to be nothing in life but having sex, and there’s little indication that she and Oberyn have anything in common other than the fact that they enjoy having sex in the same room.

An obsession with sex is a common orientalist trope. Concubinage and the harem especially terrified and fascinated puritanical western minds, though their views of both of those things bore little resemblance to reality.  

“The Harem Dance” by Giulio Rosati

In these conceptions of oriental sex, female homosexuality is omnipresent, if always implied, and it’s used as a way to characterize orientals as barely in control of their own sexual impulses. So while there’s little implied about Oberyn and Ellaria in season 4, their frequent scenes, with the set decorated with the bodies of sex workers of both genders, serve the very same function. And they contrast very tellingly with, for example, Cersei and Jaime’s need to keep their relationship secret, or Tyrion’s chaste marriage to Sansa.

The other half of the Dornish coin in the opening scene with Oberyn and Ellaria comes later on, when they overhear a man in the other room singing a pro-Lannister song. In retaliation, Oberyn stabs the man through the wrist, while his lover watches, clearly aroused.

This violence isn’t the controlled, calculated violence that is wielded for political or military ends by other characters within the show; it’s impulsive and irrational. Oberyn can’t help himself, it seems.

The prince, however, did receive a few humanizing and complicating moments in the episodes before his death. These were the moments that made him a successful character. But Oberyn’s success was perhaps the downfall of the show’s presentation of Dorne, because the following season doubled down on the uncontrolled sex and violence, but was unable to recreate the charisma that made it bearable.

Weak Men Will Never Rule Dorne

In the fifth season, the emphasis in Dorne shifted to the bereaved Ellaria Sand and Oberyn’s adult daughters. And their need for revenge.

“One finger at a time.”

This need put the women in conflict with Oberyn’s brother Doran. The narrative attempted to frame this as somehow a victory for women over restrictive patriarchal control, but in the end, it was all a rather textbook example of Sa`id’s Narrative of Incident. The truly important conflict of the storyline was not the one within the Dornish royal family, it was the peril that Jaime Lannister, and his daughter Myrcella, were placed in in this strange and mysterious land.

Indeed, any even cursory consideration of the motivations and actions of the Dornish characters reveals how little sense they make. Myrcella as a target for Ellaria and the Sand Snakes revenge makes no sense. Her misplaced anger towards Prince Doran for not sharing her impulse makes even less, but that hardly matters because Ellaria is not a rational actor, because the orient is a place that doesn’t allow for rational action.

In contrast to the directness of western political violence, where knights face each other in duels governed by well understood and rigidly adhered to rules, oriental political violence is always hidden. It’s characterized by poison and brothers stabbing each other in the back. There are endless betrayals and lies. No one can be trusted, and no one ever tells the whole truth. And in the end, no one survives. The very impossibility of navigating such despotic harem politics is the point. It is meant to be impossible to survive or to change. Neither Doran nor Jaime’s good intentions could survive Ellaria’s need for revenge. Indeed, not even Ellaria could survive Ellaria’s need for revenge, because there was no reason to it. She was no more in control of her impulse toward violence in seasons 5, 6, and 7 than she was in control of her need for sex in season 4.

Again, the book series presents us with a Dornish court with a reputation for poison and intrigue, and then challenges this image through its Dornish point of view characters. The intrigue and conspiracy may still be there, but it’s contextualized entirely by Arianne and Quentyn’s love of family and need to do their duty. Importantly, it’s a context that has everything to do with them and with Dorne, and with these two characters as political agents.

There was the barest hint of this kind of agency in season 4, when Oberyn’s revenge was framed as a response to familial love for his sister and the injustice of her death. But as soon as the scaffold of directly adapting material from A Song of Ice and Fire was removed in season 5, all this context that would have made the actions of Dornish characters comprehensible or relatable disappeared. Their actions became things that happened to other, more favored characters.

In sum, the Dornish were not truly characters on Game of Thrones; they have been much more like forces of nature. Beyond reason and understanding.

Dorne itself, as a place, was poorly defined. It seemed entirely uninhabited except for a few guards who may as well be mannequins, and consisted of nothing but a little patch of desert. It didn’t have a history of its own, or any people to have opinions about the violent overthrow of their monarch. Such considerations were never deemed to be important. As in 19th century Western Europe, the only importance that the orient (Dorne) can have is in what it teaches those who observe it.


Images courtesy of HBO and Bantam Publishing

Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.

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Analysis

Netflix’s The Meyerowitz Stories Looks Deep Into Dysfunctional Artist Families

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Review and Theme Analysis for The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected

“We all have this gap between who we are and who we think we are, between who we are and the dream of who we might be, who we want to be,” said Noah Baumbach concerning his new Netflix original film: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). In it, Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) explores the dysfunctions of an aging family unit as they try desperately to work through their grievances with the past, and with one another.

The setting, the story, even the title itself, which sounds like something off of a Sufjan Stevens record, is both swallowed up by and pays homage to its postmodern, “Art House” culture. The movie is as advertised: selected snippets of the Meyerowitz family and their dysfunctional relationships. It certainly doesn’t abide by any sort of Hero’s Journey formula, but make no mistake, these selected stories are not chosen at random with an attempt to pretentiously or absurdly confuse their audience. These stories, centered around the children of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), are all part of a single, congruent narrative that beautifully weaves together powerful themes of regret, bitterness, longing, and neglect.

Danny Meyerowitz Was Trying to Park

Newly separated from his wife, Danny Meyerowitz (played by Adam Sandler) is driving he and his daughter Eliza (Grace van Patten) to his father Harold’s house in Manhattan. (I’d call it an apartment personally, but then I’ve never owned a place in Manhattan, so…) They are having dinner as a family before Eliza heads off to Bard College as a freshman, where her grandfather taught art for more than thirty years.

The relationship between Danny and Eliza is some of the sweetest, most authentic father-daughter on-screen chemistry I’ve seen in a long time. Between their pithy banter while Sandler searches for parking, screaming at other New York drivers that dare get in his way, to their lovely harmonies when they sing together on the family piano, we are given a plethora of special moments between these two characters. The “conversations between generations” is something (I’m told) Baumbach excels at in his films, and though I’m not too familiar with his body of work, The Meyerowitz Stories is more than enough proof of his prowess.

The Meyerowitz family is very artistic. This tradition is carried on down the family. Harold had a successful career as a visual artist, but is hung up on the fact that his friend LJ (Judd Hirsch) has achieved far more fame and admiration that he ever could. Danny, on top of dealing with a fresh separation, turns out to have been an unemployed musician for quite some time. Apparently he never did anything with his talents except write a few charming songs to be played on the family piano. Eliza is now continuing the hereditary niche by way of directing and starring in overtly ridiculous, pornographic Art House films.

“Have you thought about getting a job?…I think you’d feel better about yourself. Have you thought about playing music again?”

Resentment and neglect start to rear their heads when they go to LJ’s showing, and Harold gets his face pressed up against the glass to the life he should have had. He’s snubbed by all the high-society folk as though he were a commoner! But seriously, being ignored amongst your peers is a very hurtful thing. Resentment from Danny for years and years of neglect also bubble to the surface and the night goes awry.

Danny: I’d like to come if that’s alright. It would be a real treat for me.

Harold: I think they’re filled up…L J’s getting me a special spot.

Though it’s like pulling emotionally distant teeth, Danny is eventually allowed to attend the fancy gala with his father. Even on such a celebratory occasion though—complete with a wonderful cameo of one of my favorite actresses—the Meyerowitz boys can’t seem to let their resentment toward life go, and the evening is ruined.

“What a life that LJ leads!” Dad, we were literally just at the same party he was.

Matt’s Story: Go Forth and Multiply…

Harold is currently remarried to his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who is a chronic drinker. And although she seems to share in a loving relationship with Harold, she feels understandably distant from the rest of the extended family, who we are then introduced to.

Enter Harold’s other son Matt (Ben Stiller) from his first marriage. Matt is a successful architect visiting from LA for some meetings, including a delightful luncheon segment with his stubbornly pretentious father to talk about selling his estate. As they wander around a New York City Neighborhood in search of a restaurant that’s ‘up to Harold’s standards,’ we start to see why Matt chose to live across the country.

“I’ll have the steak and the Market salad. We don’t have a ton of time so if you could bring everything at once…”

It’s hinted that Matt’s mother was the love of Harold’s life, and Matt, who is a symbol of that love, was showered with a lot of unwanted attention and pressure growing up. Apparently, even being the favorite child of a successful artist puts a lot on a kid. Nothing comes without cost.

“I got your focus and that fucked me up in a whole other way… It doesn’t matter that I make money, because you don’t respect what I do.”

Scenes between characters, whether it’s parents, siblings, half-siblings, step-parents, or a combination, all feel very scattered and emotionally vacant, but it’s by design. They only have distant memories and vague connections to one another as they must suddenly navigate their way through understanding that their father may not have long to live.

Artists and The Berkshires

Early in the film we are given some exposition. A: Harold is being asked to present art at Bard for a faculty alumni showing. B: Harold suffered a blow to the head on a trail in the Berkshires. Wouldn’t you know it, these two plots intersect when Harold is forced to miss his art showing after suffering severe head trauma from the injury. The aging patriarch is rushed to a hospital in Pittsfield (the very hospital I was born in, actually). It was admittedly challenging to be even slightly objective during this segment as the estranged half-siblings and step-mothers and granddaughters all frantically rush to their summer home in order to be with Harold. They all feared the worst.

I’ve resisted the urge for the most part in this review, but I’d like to delve into why this film struck such a chord with me. Half of it takes place in my home of the Berkshires, where artists have the potential to learn, grow, and thrive with their craft. It’s not filmed on location here or anything, which is actually fine for us Shirefolk because we don’t like our peace disturbed. But see, this film bothered to actually take the time to acknowledge the Berkshire’s contribution to the arts by bringing the characters there in a script all about the art world.

Now, speaking of the film’s theme of resentment, there happens to be an undercurrent of cultural unrest and resentment in the Berkshires. When wealthy New Yorkers buy up summer homes in prime locations up here, it throws the housing market out of whack (i.e., the Meyerowitz family). What used to be a thriving agricultural area and industrial center has now, in many places, either fallen into decline or become a seasonal getaway for exorbitantly wealthy New Yorkers. Putting it simply, it’s hard to have a house in the Berkshires if you work in the Berkshires. Cultural gentrification, if you will.

But on the other hand, many of these wealthy people are generous donors to the arts, which I am heavily involved in. They stimulate local businesses, keep theaters alive with their patronage, and have a general love and appreciation for conserving the culture and natural beauty of the region. To me, (and others, I’d imagine) seeing aspects of your home depicted on film is very special when done well.

Normally I cringe when films try to namedrop my region in order to gain generic culture points, but Meyerowitz Stories does more than that. On a humanistic and personal level, it spoke volumes that it understood “City folk” aren’t just here to clog up our hiking trails. They come here to enjoy the pleasures of art, escape the grind, and sometimes, sadly, to say goodbye to their loved ones. The regional issues are of course more complex than I’m letting on and shouldn’t be simply dismissed because of an Art House film, but it was hard to ignore the sentiment of van Patten’s performance as she wept at her grandfather’s bedside.

Also, they name-dropped my favorite pizza place. Why am I such a sucker?

Jean’s Story

Yes, there is also a third child. Jean is technically present throughout the entirety of the film, but she is purposefully sidelined for almost all of the dramatic moments, which parallels her struggle as the most neglected child. Soft-spoken and reserved, her story in the film comes towards the end of the second act.

When Harold’s friend Paul comes to visit him in the hospital, Jean bolts into the woods. She recalls a summer vacation when she was in an outdoor shower and this Paul character was watching her and masturbating. She told her father, but he was complacent. She describes the incident in the same monotone, nostalgic way that she remembers watching Three’s Company, taking a ferry to the house from the other side of the island (because nobody would pick her up), and swimming in the ocean. It’s quite tragic.

Her father’s neglect has probably thrown her into countless traumatic experiences, as well as given Jean the most reason to resent him, and resent the rest of the Meyerowitz clan for that matter. But she has chosen to be resilient and forgive rather than focus on all her painful memories.

“Because I’m a decent person. Even though he never took care of us, it’s what you do. Besides, I like hanging out with you guys.”

Her brothers, feeling very protective of their sister, consider the best course of action to take against an 80-year-old man who once exposed himself to their sister. The revenge, though farcical and fun to watch, is definitely considered an instance of “misplaced do-goodery.” Jean is not happy. Jean did not ask them to take vengeance on an old man with dementia who has come to say goodbye to an old friend.

“I’m glad you guys feel better, unfortunately I’m still fucked up.”

The emotional abandonment of the siblings is paralleled in the hospital when every time they feel comfortable and trusting of a medical professional, that professional disappears. Pam the nurse was around when Harold seemed to be doing fine, then when his situation worsens, and a new male nurse takes over. He bares the brunt of their confusion and frustration as they’re handed pamphlets about grief. Likewise, when Dr. Soni carefully outlines the plan to induce Harold into a coma, which offers some measure of relief to the three children, Soni immediately tells them that she’s going to be in China for three weeks. Any chance of having stability during their time at the hospital will be slim to none, because, well, that’s how hospitals work.

Matthew: It doesn’t feel fair, Dr. Soni. That you can just live your life normally while our dad is lying here.

Dr. Soni: Maybe it isn’t.

I Love you, I Forgive You, Forgive Me, Thank You, Goodbye…

The film plays with this interesting cutting technique where various scenes reach a character’s moment of emotional explosion, and then they hard cut it to the next scene. It’s a subtle touch to let the audience know how typical it is for these characters to throw their inhibitions to the wind and scream out in frustration. After an explosive argument between Matt and Danny ends in violence (again the cut is made right as the scene reaches fisticuffs), Matt stands before the art patrons at his father’s showing with a bloody nose, ready to give a speech about his father’s accomplishments. But it turns into an emotionally charged farce as he starts to work out all of his childhood issues into the microphone. What he would give for a chance to make things right…

The last theme with Harold’s children, a theme that has been fomenting under the surface and is brought to the forefront by Jean, is forgiveness. It’s the thing that all three of them have been working towards their whole life. The thing they most struggle with. Baumbach has created a cast of raw, troubled, yet deeply sympathetic characters. The subtlety of the emotion behind dialogue combined with myriad amounts of little character quirks that each actor brings to each role is worth the watch on its own merit.

Overall, this is a brilliantly layered, touching family film. And not “family film” in the sense that you can put your kids in front of it and space out for a couple hours. But rather, that in that we all deal with our own versions of “fucked up family drama,” and it’s refreshing when artists hit that nail right on the head. I’m not as familiar with Baumbach’s other films, but I can safely say that he’s just found an unabashed fan in me. I look forward to diving deeper into his body of work.


Images courtesy of Netflix

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Analysis

Let’s Talk About Supergirl

Megan

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Kara Danvers in episode 3x01.
Spoilers for Supergirl Season 3, including future episodes

After a widely criticized Season 2, Supergirl is back and—here’s hoping—better than before.

But, well, it is still Supergirl, and it is still on The CW. So let’s talk about it: the good, the bad, and the potential.

Sanvers

Sanvers is the elephant in the room: after it was announced at the end of last season that Floriana Lima would be leaving the show to pursue other opportunities, the future of the much-lauded couple was uncertain at best.

And now we know: they are breaking up, separating because Alex wants children and Maggie does not. This was something that had been in the rumor-mill for some time.

In a world that already pressures women to want children, and in a world that still very much considers the heteronormative nuclear family the norm, it is more than a little off-putting to insert that dynamic into what has otherwise been a very supportive, healthy relationship between two women. When Alex sees Ruby again in episode 3.02, she is obviously taken by the idea of having a child of her own; why, though, was this never discussed earlier?

Maggie and Alex’s relationship moved quickly, yes, but also successfully. Transitioning so abruptly from a place of deep mutual understanding to butting heads on such a fundamental part of a relationship feels unrealistic at best, and damaging to the wonderful relationship they had spent an entire season building at worst.

The U-Haul stereotype already exists; making it seem like moving quickly means not actually knowing your partner is an unnecessary step. And that is something worth recognizing, especially given how much praise and attention the writers give Sanvers. Just because they did well for a while does not mean they can never be criticized. In fact, they have set the bar high, and we should continue to push for healthy, good representation.

Kara

While Alex is struggling with her relationship, Kara is mourning her lack of one.

Only again, it’s not necessary. Season 3 takes place six months after Season 2, and Kara dated Mon-El for all of a couple of months. And for someone who has lost so much—an entire family, an entire planet—her insistence on letting go of Kara Danvers because of Mon-El just does not read as emotionally authentic.

That said, I am glad they are exploring her pain. I am glad she is allowed to cry, and yell, and break. Kara is so happy and upbeat, partially because it is the only way for her to survive. Once the darkness creeps in, it takes over. If Mon-El is the vehicle used to explore this side of her, then at least it is being explored, and at least she is being allowed to process and grow from her grief.

The first issue, of course, is that Mon-El is not gone forever. He will be returning, married. This show loves drama more than anything, and his eventual, dramatic return is rife with dramatic potential.

So why use him as a source of development if, in a matter of weeks, he will return to once again be a source of regression? It feels as though the answer is simply that the writers, showrunners, and network want Mon-El to remain a fundamental part of the show, despite his overwhelmingly negative critical reception.

In all, I want Kara to grow. I want her to confront her fears as she did in 3.02; I want her to cry. But she can do that without the constant weight of Mon-El hanging over her. Not on her own, necessarily: let her rely on Alex, as she has been. Let her confide in Lena, who obviously wants to be a part of Kara’s life. Let her move on.

Mon-El

Ah, Mon-El. To paraphrase some Terminator movie, “He’ll be back.” And so will Saturn Girl, who is rumored to be his wife.

When he got sent off in his pod of destiny, we all knew—tragically—that he would return. But to have him return married is a move only The CW would make. We know little of how that storyline will play out: some think that his marriage to Saturn Girl is doomed, and he and Kara will end up together once more. Some think this is a gradual way of writing him off the show by drumming up excitement for a future Legion show.

Whatever the case may be, it is a symptom of a larger problem.

Every series regular is either in a relationship, has had relationship drama, or is currently being touted as one half of a new, potential relationship. And for what?

The Relationship Problem

There is nothing wrong with having strong friendships. There is nothing wrong with creating drama through inter-character tension outside of the confines of a traditional romantic relationship.

And if your first thought in response to that is “there’s nothing wrong with relationships either,” then I want you to think about why.

Because yes: on a surface level, you are more than correct. But Supergirl is no longer about Supergirl. Relationships should built up the characters in them. Instead, the relationships in Supergirl fill in for the lack of actual, well-crafted storylines.

There is a tendency in television to write relationships that have no justification. While friendships are built upon something, whether it be family or common interest, relationships, it seems, are built out of narrative closeness—that is, they are in a lot of scenes together, so maybe they should be together.

At the end of the day, relationships do not excuse otherwise bad writing. In fact, they often amplify it.

With Floriana leaving, it is more evident than ever that the Supergirl writers do not know how to handle healthy couples. With Mon-El returning and Kara remaining broken-hearted, it is clear that all drama must come back to romance eventually. And with every character being romantically involved or potentially romantically involved, they narrow their focus from a show about Kara Danvers, a woman who lost her world and still managed to stand tall and strong as an inspirational hero, to a show about a group of friends that cannot manage functional relationships.

That is not a good message to send, and it is not the show we signed up for.

The Solution

All this is disappointing. When Supergirl moved to The CW, it fell quickly into the CW model of show: pair everyone up, split them up, re-pair, repeat.

But it is not the end of Supergirl, nor will it be the end of my connection with it. The past two episodes have already dived deeper into Kara and her connections with her friends than most of Season 2 did. With Sam and Ruby on the show and Lena involved with CatCo, the plot seems likely to be as female-centric as some of the best moments of Season 1.

Kara and Alex hug.

(Source: Tumblr)

And I have no doubt that the changes are in part due to the collective of voices speaking out against Season 2. I have no doubt that the opinions of critics and fans have prompted development, and I have no doubt that they can continue to do so.

In all, let’s talk about Supergirl, and let’s keep talking about it. Let’s make it clear that we love Kara, and Alex, and James. Let’s make it clear why we are here: for a superhero, and for her friends. Because that is the only way things can change.


Images courtesy of The CW.

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Analysis

Love Conquers All in Valerian

Angelina

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I was hesitant to talk about Valerian, really. I was hesitant because it is always hard to talk about things we love that others despise. Especially when those others are critics. But none the less I feel compelled to speak, because, well, I feel it is needed to discuss things I saw there.

Many people talk about how Valerian is high on visuals but low on everything else. My idea is, maybe this film, just as another good film generally despised by critics (The Last Action Hero), is misunderstood. It is judged not by those rules its creator followed. Like, when I read about how the film is unjust to its protagonist, or when it is judged as a part of a franchise.

Valerian, that Han Solo-esque James Bond-like comics hero with his sexy action girl sidekick, is just an excuse to talk about the real main character. The one we see from the very beginning.

Alpha — Humanity — is the Movie’s Protagonist

The movie starts with a documentary footage that almost seamlessly transforms into a surrealistic futurism fantasy. Fantasy, centered around the main theme of the film: love. It may sound tired and worn out, but it is not; we are accustomed to “love” meaning something that is between sexes, generally between different sexes. Luc Besson takes great labor to show us “love” is something between people — or peoples.

When we see Alpha’s creation, we see it created from tolerance, from desire to understand each other, from acceptance and good faith. In other words, Alpha is a love child — because what are those, if not facets of love? And we see humanity as the main creator of Alpha. Something like a heart of this space station. Because certainly the humanity expressed its best qualities during its creation.

But then… then something happens. Alpha’s heart is infected, we hear, but we don’t yet understand that it is just what happened. The heart, the humanity, was infected. It was poisoned. Which really needed investigation and needed a cure. Humanity needed to find its best again.

And Who Is Our Antagonist?

Well, if the humanity is the protagonist, then who is the antagonist? My answer may seem strange: humanity is, as well. It is not a conflict between species or a battle between nations.  What the movie depicts is an inner conflict, where our hero has to fight itself to find out its true nature.

All those people — Lauraline, General Octo-bar, Commander Filitt, even Jolly the Pimp — represent different sides of humanity. In between them stands Valerian, that modern not very deep-thinking, not very far-seeing every man; a man chosen by chance rather than his glorious exploits.

He has to face a person he could have once become: Commander Filitt. This man is evil, yes, but he is a special kind of evil. He became such not as a result of his troubled past, nor out of some inborn sadistic predisposition. No. He became evil out of neglect and lack of will.

I frequently see that he is criticized as bland and not interesting antagonist, but I can’t really see why. He seems like a pretty new and interesting type of character to me. When did we ever see a person who committed a full-scale genocide as a side-effect of completely different war effort? Filitt doesn’t like to think much. He has a chance for success, which he takes it without any second thought. After all, dead aliens tell no tales, so why bother?

And then he has to face consequences of his actions. He has to face the fact that people he murdered were, well, just that: the people, who could think and could speak. The fact no one would overlook, and the fact that will cost humanity its honorable place between nations.

Actually, he has lots of ways to react. He could’ve stepped forward and taken full responsibility for his actions to absolve his nation of the accusation for the military crime it didn’t even know about in the first place. But that guy lacks will, and he just continues on his once chosen course: eliminate.

Why Do We Need Valerian?

And here our title hero enters the scene — our second title hero (the first being Alpha). One who has to grow up, to choose, and to learn separating good from evil. One who has to become something that is not another Filitt.

Valerian is prone to the same course of mind; he doesn’t like second thoughts, he doesn’t like responsibility, and he doesn’t like even making amends. He is a total dick towards his best friend/girlfriend and doesn’t even see and understand what he does wrong. Because he follows rules, doesn’t he?

He always follows those unwritten but well-known rules of conduct modern young men follow. He is entitled, because that’s fine in this list; he is not openly vile, because it’s not appropriate in this list. He acts instead of thinking. That’s why I believe him when he talks about his military decorations; he is a good soldier, a well-honed instrument, and nothing more.

I can’t pretend I was not wounded by the whole Bubble segment, mind you. Using female (and female-coded) characters to further male character arcs is intolerable, really. But still I can appreciate the moral and the meaning of that sequence. Our every man hero has to learn what it is to feel for someone.

I loved the Aesop of the Red Light District episode. That was a short parable about what is not love. Lewdness is not, and using other people is not. Forcing others to do anything is not. Valerian sees himself as a heroic liberator, but he, just like Filitt not long ago (though on a lesser scale) has to face consequences of his illusions.

Irreparable consequences. Like the death of a innocent person who has already suffered far too much.

Here, facing his utter defeat, he starts his way back to real manhood. Because he chooses to feel remorse and place the blame where it belongs: on himself.

alpha

Those who can love

Pearls

The Pearls represent the ideal the humanity may aspire to, the ideal it once lost. Alpha was built on that ideal: learn from each race, join forces, create, and give something back for what you took. They are not (thankfully) any new rendition of the old noble savage trope. They may look like Na’vi, but they are totally different from them. Because the Na’vi are perfect as they are. They don’t need to change; all they need is to eliminate those close-minded humans from their natural paradise.

Pearls, on the other hand, were just a people, and not very advanced at that. They had their simple life on their home planet, and they had to learn for decades to become our ideal. The thing is, you need not to be perfect noble idyllic savage to deserve life. All you have to be is simply alive. That’s all. Genocide is a grave crime not because of special-ness of the victim; it is a great crime because that is in its nature. Murdering a person is a crime, regardless of that person’s morality, after all.

Pearls represent the ideal in other very important aspect: they can love. They can feel for others. They can forgive, even while they are not able to forget. And they can be grateful, even to those who represent the doom which once fell on them.

And To Conclude

In the end, mind you, we are left hanging. Yes, we are given a small Easter egg, sending us to the Fifth Element, but the humanity would still be banished from Alpha for Filitt’s crimes. And this is important, too. Because consequences, and because responsibility. And because the humanity has to learn much before it reaches again the heights of its morality — the love that gave life to Alpha.

I loved this movie, yet I cried in the end,because now we live in a world, where such a scenario (a genocide committed as a side-effect, and no one even noticing that side-effect) is no longer unbelievably fictitious. In a world where taking responsibility is out of fashion and feeling remorse is considered a bit odd.

“Love conquers all” may be outdated saying, but now that we float towards more and more grimdark, I think, it is worth remembering. As George Martin said when he visited St Petersburg, maybe the cyberpunk was more correct in predicting the future, but theirs is not a future one wants to visit or dream of.

Me, I don’t want to visit a future full of shit, too. But I can’t ignore the bad sides of our life. What Valerian gave me was both the hope those bad sides will be overcome as well as the acknowledgement they exist. A perfect mix, for me.


Images courtesy of Fundamental Films

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