Warning: This article contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! Proceed with Caution.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a five movie saga (what happened to nice clean trilogies?), is now downloadable! Thus, yours truly has finally watched it after missing the initial theater release. The next installment of films set in Rowling’s wizarding world received pretty good reviews. However, like most of what we’ve seen out of Rowling recently, out of all the possibilities of expansive and interesting stories teased in her original novels, following Newt Scamander wasn’t the most initially enticing.
Yet, the Potter nerd within me couldn’t resist. I found the film quite enjoyable, actually. It’s definitely a step up for David Yates as director after he produced what I considered the worst of the Potter films. Yet, I found myself incredibly frustrated by the the b-storyline centering around Grindelwald.
First of all, the filmmakers announced the series would be following Grindelwald, not Newt. The fifth film will end in 1945 with the infamous battle between Grindelwald and Dumbledore. With that in mind, Fantastic Beasts seems like the wrong place to start this series.
Newt barely worked as a character for me. He only came alive those moments when we were in his case with him. Had they wanted to make a standalone film about Newt, he would have made a fine protagonist. And it makes me wonder if that’s what Fantastic Beasts had originally been meant to be.
Is he exceptionally interesting? No, but definitely adequate. The message, which often felt lost in all the hubbub, of protecting the rights of magical creatures would have made a strong theme for his own movie. (I won’t bring up the fact that he had had a muggle animal carcass lying around in his case, cause that’s different). In a world where we missed out on seeing Hermione’s fight for Elfish welfare in the film adaptation of Goblet of Fire, seeing more of the wizarding prejudice and cruelty brought to life would have been interesting.
Which then leads me to ask, does Newt not care about the rights of House Elves either? Is Hermione the only witch to have ever given a second thought to the enslavement of a magical creature? A creature so commonplace in the Wizarding community? Sorry for the tangent but Newt may need to extend his ideals beyond the animal world.
In the film, we hear Newt mention more than once that he’s attempting to “gently” teach his fellow wizards about compassion for their fellow magical creatures. It totally reminded me of when I not-so-subtly attempted to educate my friends and family about veganism (not that I think the film is about veganism). But, it was the one point in the movie where I connected to Newt and what he wanted. It was a strong core of ideals for his character, but it was lost as soon as the bigger plot with Credence and Grindelwald took center stage. Newt actually seemed unconcerned with Credence at the end of it, yet Credence could have fixed the focus issue. He could have brought Newt’s wants and values into the overarching plot of the series and tied it to Grindelwald.
Despite the potential plot with Newt and magical animal rights, this is the setup of a five film series about Grindelwald, his rise and his fall. We’re meant to understand this will lead us to the final battle with Dumbledore before he’s thrown into Nurmengard. The subtlety of weaving in a dark power wreaking havoc on the wizarding community and the panic and fear that it induces was an intriguing setting. It could have worked well, but instead the film functions as if it were a set up for two different franchises.
What do I mean by that? Fantastic Beasts could have been many things. It could have been the jumping off point for a series about Newt. A series about his adventures fighting for the rights of magical creatures. This could have been an interesting inciting moment where this scholarly wizard had his one brush with the greatest dark wizard of all time (before Voldemort). It would have also worked to establish the general panic, confusion, and fear that someone with Grindelwald’s power and message can create. Thus, it could have set the tone for a separate Grindelwald series as well.
Instead, we’re meant to believe that this was the setup for a single story with both of these plots. Somehow Newt Scamander, studier of magical creatures, is intwined with Gellert Grindelwald. Grindelwald who was the biggest threat to the world before Voldemort’s rise. It’s not believable, and it’s also not interesting. With Newt at the center, the threat of Grindelwald holds no weight. Newt’s not effected by any of it. We see this when he strolls unaware and unprepared into the current state of hysteria in New York.
Not to mention that within all that, Rowling, paints Grindelwald into the antithesis of what he functioned as in her original novels. It happens before our very eyes. We see the three dimensional and dynamic possibility, along with Colin Farrell’s compelling performance, fade into the bland piece of one dimensional cardboard cutout of evil that is Johnny Depp’s older Grindelwald.
Where’s the Nuance?
I must confess that I was one of the few fans who, when craving more content and more stories set in Rowling’s sprawling world, thought not of the Marauders but rather of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s origins. The pair had always intrigued me. Their relationship and what it meant to both of them broke down the caricatures. It deconstructed the wise mentor archetype that Rowling saddled Dumbledore with in the beginning of the tale. It granted nuance to a face of evil that we had failed to see with Voldemort.
Voldemort was always the embodiment of pure evil, unable to change, never faltering. Grindelwald was the opposite. Grindelwald and Dumbledore are essentially the Magneto and Professor X of Harry Potter. While Grindelwald’s horrific ideals of “the greater good” are terrifying and the atrocities he committed to achieve it unacceptable, he wasn’t as black and white as Voldemort. He and Dumbledore started in the same place in Godric’s Hollow and only ended up so far away from one another due to Ariana.
The way he acts as a foil for Dumbeldore only goes to show that Grindelwald isn’t “pure evil”. He’s horrific and a villain, no doubt, but the nuance is what makes him intriguing and all the more horrifying.
Dumbledore, as he states in the “King’s Cross” chapter of Deathly Hallows, could be Grindelwald. He wasn’t so far off, nor were his ideals. He states that if Ariana’s death hadn’t put things into perspective for him, he would have gone down that path. Had he ever sought a position of power, like the Minister of Magic so often offered to him, he could have regressed. He could have returned to being the Dumbledore huddled over papers with Grindelwald speaking of the “greater good” and the Hallows in Godric’s Hollow. Very little separates the two. It’s that relationship, that core bond and similarity, that forced the two against one another in the end. It’s also what is so intriguing.
Grindelwald was power hungry, idealistic, and willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. (Sound familiar?) He believed that the true place for wizard kind was not in hiding. Their power meant they were destined to rule the Muggles. Grindelwald thought that a reclamation of their power would be for the best for everyone. That Muggles would be safer and better off under wizarding rule. “For the Greater Good,” as he put it.
As I hinted at earlier, its the Magneto and Professor X argument about mutant kind. It’s not all that subtle, but it is ever so effective. After all, any time those two meet, their middle ground is the most intriguing part of their confrontations. Same with Grindelwald and Dumbledore. Grindelwald doesn’t want to kill every Muggle and Muggle-born like Voldemort. Voldemort’s ideal of a mass extermination is so evil one can’t deny his utter vileness. There’s no going back for a villain that evil, which is the climax of Harry’s final battle with him. Harry realizes there’s no saving someone like Voldemort even as he urges remorse.
Grindelwald is supremely horrific and commits horrible crimes in the name of “the greater good”, most definitely. But, in the end what makes him different and more interesting is that there are (very) small points of his argument that are understandable. It was the ground on which he and Dumbledore first walked on in Godric’s Hollow, even before they stumbled upon the whole “greater good” mentality.
He is human. With that humanity comes empathy. Not sympathy, for sure, but understanding. At the point in Dealthy Hallows when Voldemort confronts him to secure the Elder Wand, it becomes strikingly clear the two forms of villainy Rowling was painting. Voldemort, lusty and hungry for power, never stops. He never changes or relents. He is willing to do whatever it takes to kill Harry Potter, rule the wizarding world, and submit Muggles and Muggle-borns to mass persecution and execution.
Grindelwald, however, shows a shred of remorse. His final act shows that his years at Nurmengard actually changed him. He was changeable. When Voldemort asked him for the location of the Elder Wand, instead of confessing the truth and telling him Dumbledore won it in their infamous duel, he lies. He claims he never had it, knowing full well that his life would end there and then. Instead of allowing Voldemort to break into Dumbledore’s tomb, Grindelwald evinces the lingering and long-thought lost humanity that has always been inside of him. He uses the last moments of his life to do the only thing he could do to make what little amends he could to his old companion.
Perhaps we should have known the film series would destroy all this nuance. It should have been obvious when this scene played out on our screens in the first part of the film adaptation of Deathly Hallows in a very different way. Instead of securing the end of his life by concealing the place of the Elder Wand and the sanctity of Dumbledore’s tomb, Grindelwald outright tells Voldemort its location and final possessor. After that it should have been clear. It should have shown us that this was the Grindelwald the films would be interested in adapting.
Although with Rowling at the helm of Fantastic Beasts one would have hoped for something different. Where’s all that nuance Rowling? You gave him more nuance on those few pages than you did in the movie he was actually present in.
Touching on that nuance would have been perfectly exemplified by the involvement of the film’s ultimate plot point: the introduction of the Obscurial. An Obscurial is a young witch or wizard that, after years of suppressing their magic due to some sort of trauma, develops an Obscurus. They often lose control, leading to violent outbursts of dark and powerful magic.
It’s hinted that Grindelwald had an encounter with an Obscurial before, an encounter that would change his life. Muggles harassed Dumbledore’s younger sister, Ariana, for doing magic. They had seen how this trauma ultimately lead to her refusal to use her powers. Her suppression led to violent outbursts that she couldn’t control, as described by Aberforth Dumbledore in the novels. And Ariana was what drew the wedge between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. She not only represented a home that he couldn’t leave after his mother’s death, but also the future that he and Grindelwald hoped to build together.
People like her were a driving force for people like Dumbledore and Grindelwald and their frustration with wizard-kind hiding and cowering, afraid of detection.
He told me what a stupid little boy I was, trying to stand in the way of him and my brilliant brother…didn’t I understand my poor sister wouldn’t have to be hidden once they’d change the world, and led the wizards out of hiding, and taught the Muggle’s their place? – Aberforth Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Grindelwald-as-Graves has a line after the MACUSA kill Credence. He asks them who that law actually protects. What kind of law is it when it leads to this type of emotional and psychical abuse of children? Who does it protect when it leads to the death of a kid who just needed help? Like Magneto, this type of a villain has a valid point. He has seen suffering and wants to act on it. It’s infinitely more interesting than a pure evil, power hungry maniac. The humanity makes him all the more terrifying because you can understand where it’s coming from.
Yet, the relationship with Credence isn’t stressed. At least not to the point where you would ever think Grindelwald actually cared about his second interaction with an Obscurial. This was his second chance. His moment to perhaps save someone this time. However, leaving all that out left the powerful line of his to the MACUSA flat. In what seems to be a scene that is the opposite of subtle or nuanced, he even tells Credence that he is a worthless squib. This causes Credence to reveal his true nature as the Obscurial in anger. It was ‘evil villain dialogue’ to a T.
Then, at the end, after the MACUSA blast a tormented and abused child to death for their law (would that be “for the greater good” then?), I found myself siding with him. Or at least I did, while I thought he was still Graves. But no one else in the film does, and our protagonists certainly don’t. In fact, they barely have a reaction to anything going on in that moment at all. No one cares about what Grindelwald-as-Graves is saying, but he brings up a good point.
There’s a layer to his argument that makes sense and after seeing an emotionally and physically traumatized child killed before your eyes. You should question the morality of the MACUSA, who, after all, made use of the death sentence earlier in the film. You understand what Grindelwald means and that’s both what is interesting and what is scary. He’s right. Who is their law protecting? What makes them so different than him? They’re just fighting for the protection of opposite sides. It doesn’t make what he’s been doing to make his point morally right, but he does have a point.
When you kill abused children in the name of the law, there’s more going on here than the black and white battle of good versus evil. However, without thinking or hesitating, our protagonists immediately side with the MACUSA, securing Grindelwald’s capture. There’s no hesitation. Seeing as how they are meant to be our eyes into the story, we aren’t supposed to second guess the MACUSA’s actions either.
The point of Grindelwald is that he’s supposed to be able to gain reasonable supporters and not just bigots. He’s playing on something many wizards have feared and thus they find a champion in his ideals. The Obscurial plot line should marry perfectly well with that notion, but instead it’s barely an afterthought.
Not to mention the god-awful look they gave Johnny Depp at the end. He looks less human than Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemeort. A monster persona is the opposite of what Grindelwald represents. Not all bad wizards are inhumanely bad. Not all bad wizards are uniquely flat out evil. It’s why the most interesting moments of Voldemort are his memories, when we see him before he went past the point of no return. Grindelwald inhabits in this grayer realm (in the books, that is). It’s a realm of nuance. But instead, Fantastic Beasts paints him as a horrifying one note monster, from his appearance down to his behavior.
What’s that? Questionable Implications?
Implications! My favorite subject! Many have already called Rowling for citing Dumbledore as gay “representation”. Meaning he’s gay despite the fact that it is never outright stated in the novel, only presented as subtext. Yet, on expanding Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship as well as their characters in Fantastic Beasts, Rowling has a chance to correct her wrongs. Although, judging by her interviews and what has been set up in this film, it seems like she might only be digging herself further into a hole.
According to Rowling, Dumbledore’s feelings for Grindelwald were never reciprocated. Instead, the relationship we see play out between Grindelwald-as-Graves and Credence in Fantastic Beats is more or less what conspired between the two young men that summer in Godric’s Hollow.
I think he was a user and a narcissist, and I think someone like that would use it, would use the infatuation. I don’t think that he would reciprocate in that way, although he would be as dazzled by Dumbledore as Dumbledore was by him, because he would see in Dumbledore, ‘My God, I never knew there was someone as brilliant as me, as talented as me. Together, we are unstoppable!’ So I think he would take anything from Dumbledore to have him on his side.- J.K. Rowling
We once again see gay sexuality as subtext in Fantastic Beasts. It’s a subtext painted more as an allegory than a piece of representation. Not to mention that if the relationship we see between Credence and Grindelwald-as-Graves is what Grindelwald’s relationship with Dumbledore was like, there is an alarming sense of manipulation and victimhood that comes with Rowling’s one and only instance of “representation”.
Why does it have to be one sided and abusive? In this film franchise, she has what most authors do not. She has a chance to correct herself on something she has been criticized for in the years since she wrote the books.
There is also something more realistic and vivid about a fast and toxic summer fling than a fast and toxic friendship. Romances move fast. People get in deep quickly. It also presents a more apt relationship and arc for the two of them if they actually did care about one another equally (once again reminiscent of Professor X and Magneto). There’s more meaning to what would be one of the most epic duels and climaxes at the end of the series. It also adds more weight and understanding to Grindelwald’s final moments in the book if he wasn’t just using Dumbledore or narcissistically attaching himself to his genius.
Instead of any of that, this is what we’re getting as our one piece of “representation”. If that’s all Grindelwald felt for Dumbledore, if what we see with him and Credence is essentially what went on in Godric’s Hollow all those years ago, that final battle that the series is presumably amping up to loses its dimensionality and power. Rather than two men who had deeper feelings for one another, feelings that ended in a rupture and an event that both of them seem to regret and want to forget. Rather than a confrontation with each other and a truth they pushed out of their minds for so long coming head to head, we’re getting a good guy and a bad guy.
Instead of seeing them come to wizarding blows after denying something within them to be able to continue on their paths. Instead of making that connection something deeper, we’re most likely getting a grand but flat, action-packed battle at the end of the series reminiscent of what they did with the final battle in the final Harry Potter film. We’re getting a manipulative and abusive force of evil and his victim. Now, that is a valid story to tell, but one far less interesting that what we could have gotten. Not to mention the fact that, once again, the gay ‘relationship’ was only subtext, which doesn’t give much, if any, hope for the future.
Also….why Johnny Depp?! I might have let out a sad cry when Colin Farrell and his ridiculously good performance as Grindelwald-as-Graves (seriously he was one of the two standouts) faded right before our eyes and turned into the bland and horrific bleach blond Grindelwald that Johnny Depp will be playing in the rest of the films. Why are they even casting him in things anymore? And why, when you have Colin Farrell at your disposal, do you waste a performance like that for what this ultimately was?
I could go into the fact that there are abuse allegations against Depp from Amber Heard that include a great deal of biphobia. Not a great choice of actor for someone who is playing the second half of what is the only canonically gay coded relationship in the series. But I won’t.
At the end of the day, like Rowling’s original material, there is a strength at the core. There’s undeniable thematic value. However, when translated and adapted, it has lost any and all of its nuance. For now, I think I’ll have to accept that as I watch these films come out for the next eight years. I’ll have to bury the dream of mine to see a properly done Grindelwald and Dumbledore series in the ground, along with the little bit of nuance Grindelwald’s book counterpart had.
Images Courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Netflix’s The Meyerowitz Stories Looks Deep Into Dysfunctional Artist Families
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.
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.
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.
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
Let’s Talk About Supergirl
Spoilers for Supergirl Season 3, including future episodes
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 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.
disagreement over having kids
— Ken (@pursuit23) September 22, 2017
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.
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.
Ah, Mon-El. To paraphrase some Terminator movie, “He’ll be back.” And so will Saturn Girl, who is rumored to be his wife.
back married to some chick. Saturn something or other
— Ken (@pursuit23) September 21, 2017
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.
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.
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.
Love Conquers All in Valerian
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.
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.