Harry Potter has been, and always shall be, my favourite fandom. It was my first, and my screen name on the discussion board that saw my first interaction with fandom was Pottermaniac. I would fight with my friends because they liked Lord of the Rings more than Harry Potter, and that was unacceptable. I tried to get the people who haven’t read the series to be socially ostracised. Yeah, I was a shitty person as a tween.
Anyway, naturally as one gets older – I read the first books of the series when I was eleven – one sees the faults in one’s favourite media, and one sees the problems. And in this case, there are many to choose from.
Now follows a part where a white girl talks about racial issues. Sorry about that. Leaving it out seemed like it would be even more problematic, because one of the most cited problems of Harry Potter is the problem of cishet white West-centric privilege just permeating the series. As for blaming Rowling for it, well, there is a post doing rounds on tumblr that sums up my feelings on this pretty well. She created that world and the basic characters of the story in the nineties. Many things were very different back then, many things were less discussed, people were less aware of them, and it’s not fair to judge Rowling by today’s standards for something she wrote that long ago. We can look at her newer work to see how she’s doing now. Far from perfect, as it turns out – not a week ago, she posted some info about famous magical schools in the world on Pottermore, giving us the whooping one school in each continent except Oceania, which doesn’t have any, while Europe boasts three – but that is a separate issue. She doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, really deserve censure for what she did back then.
However, there’s a difference between blaming the author and critiquing the books, so I think it’s perfectly fair to say that this is a problem. It’s not, thank Merlin, as if Rowling made Britain completely whitewashed. In fact, when you look at the demographic numbers of the UK, you’ll see that she sort of got that right. The problem, of course, is the role of these characters, in light of the importance of representation of real world groups. While from the Watsonian perspective, someone could argue that if eighty-seven per cent of British people identifies as white, it’s statistically likely that all the protagonists would be white as well, the thing is, Hogwarts doesn’t actually exist.
It’s not life, it’s a story, and narratively, there’s no reason for all of not just the main trio, but the “secondary trio” (Ginny, Neville and Luna), as well as all of the ten or so significant adults, to be white, when having them be people of colour would enhance the experience of reading and made identification easier for non-white readers.
The only PoC characters of note, if memory serves, are Cho Chang, Angelina Johnson, Parvati and Padma Patil, Kingsley Shacklebolt and Dean Thomas. Out of these, Kingsley and Angelina are probably the most interesting. We don’t see much of Kingsley, but he is cool and capable and personally he has always been my favourite Order member. Plus he becomes the Minister at the end. But he is still a very minor character. Angelina is in the story more and she is fantastic, a great Quidditch player and a team Captain, a laid-back, fun girl to be around, good at her captain duties at the same time. I’m sorry she didn’t play more of a part in the story.
With Cho we can sympathise because of her tragic romantic history and because of Marietta, but identify with her? She’s a good Quidditch player, so there is that, but so are Angelina and Ginny and those, I think, are easier to relate to. Cho had a potential to be a relateable character for people suffering from depression, but for me at least, it falls a little flat, because of all the stereotypically girly and ‘boys will never understand girls’ aspects Rowling decided to give her, which, for me, detract from her humanity. Not that I think people who like frilly tearooms and get jealous aren’t human, but in this case it seems more like a strawman to me. Cho’s character, to my mind, is sidelined in favour of the type she is meant to represent.
And the rest of the characters…well. Perhaps I am wrong, but I find it a little difficult to imagine that anyone would particularly want to identify with them. They are not very fleshed out, barely feel real, and don’t have any actual good qualities one could latch onto (well, that’s not fair. We know Dean is artistically talented). Maybe the best thing about them is that, at least in some cases, they’re vague enough that one can project anything one likes onto them.
It’s of course even worse with LGBTQIA characters, since there is no one directly identifying as gay (let alone any of the other letters of the acronym) in the books, and the one character who Rowling straight-out said was gay ended up basically ruining the world by the one relationship of his that we know of. Narratively, not the least problematic choice.
So all this is a problem, yes, and if Rowling wrote another book series now, I’d certainly hope she did better with it.
But then there are all the things that were problematic in the nineties already. For one, the House divisions at Hogwarts, and the way she works with them.
The books give a very clear impression that she herself prefers Gryffindor to all the other houses, which is fine, of course. We all have a preference for one of the other, I guess. But the way she chose to depict that is another thing.
For one, the Gryffindors are overwhelmingly painted as the good guys, and not just by the Gryffindor characters – which would make sense – but by the story itself. In perhaps the most obvious display of this, Dumbledore tells Snape that “I sometimes think we Sort too soon” (DH, The Prince’s Tale) after commenting that Snape was brave, as if the only brave people were in Gryffindor. Gryffindor is also painted as the most ‘light’ house, which is very strange to me, because bravery as such does not necessarily have to be connected to the Light side, it depends on what are you brave in service of. For example, it always seemed to me that Bellatrix Lestrange had many very Gryffindor qualities. There’s nothing particularly cunning or subtle about her, but unquestionably she is very brave. Repulsive, yes, but she has courage. But Rowling’s personal bias makes Gryffindor the good house, with almost all of the prominent characters affiliated with it (the exceptions are Luna, Snape and Tonks – the remaining ten or so are all Gryffindors), and the marked exception to the goodness being Peter Pettigrew – and a very strange exception at that, too, since it’s patently clear Peter’s downfall was his fear, so how he ever got sorted in Gryffindor is a true mystery. There were many other ways a Gryffindor could have fallen that wouldn’t have negated their trademark characteristic, on the contrary, would have made use of it. You could turn into a merciless killer on the battlefield as a Gryffindor, for example – and we get a glimpse of that in Harry’s anger and his torture of Bellatrix, but we never actually see a Gryffindor go fully down that way. Instead, the fates of different characters make it seem like bravery is the only good quality truly worth of having. If you don’t have it, you will fall, or at the very least be useless; if you do, then yes, there are other dangers to overcome, but you’re on the right track.
And of course, Rowling’s treatment of other houses reflects her marked preference for Gryffindor. I’d argue that her second favourite was Hufflepuff, but she seems to regard it with a sort of fond condescension. There are two most prominent Puffs in the story: Cedric and Tonks (in whose case, however, it’s never stated outright in the text). Cedric, of course, is a paragon of perfection – good looks, great Quidditch player, skilled wizard. That is his job in the story. To be the unimitable competition for Harry when it regards Cho, and to make his death that more tragic. He is admirable, but he is also very much a plot device. Or perhaps it is just me, but I have trouble seeing him as a real person.
Tonks is better in this way, and in spite of her clumsiness, she is said to be a badass Auror and we even see her in action a few times. Not much, but we don’t see that much of any Order member fighting, honestly. Plus in her we have what I think is a better depiction of depression – we see her she suffer from it in the Half-Blood Prince, while still soldiering on in her job. So I’m happy with that representation, and my only objection is that her house affiliation was never mentioned in the text – and that she is the only one.
The Puffs we see in Harry’s year…they’re treated with barely hidden scorn, mostly, and serve as a sort of comic relief or simply as background characters. Plus there is Zacharias Smith, who is an unpleasant jerk. Once again, an odd sort of weakness for a Hufflepuff. I imagine a ‘fallen Puff’ as a SJW gone overboard, something we I think all have experience with, perhaps something we’ve all been, on occasion. People who get so enraged by racism and misrepresentation and misogyny and homophobia and similar vices that they resort to bullying the perpetrators, even though they’re often perhaps just unaware and uninformed and really meant no harm. I can see a Puff doing that (a Gryffindor too, for that matter). Or being blindly loyal to their friends and ignoring their faults. Or I can see them simply becoming a workaholic. Smith is a bit of a mystery, but well, Hufflepuff is also, by Helga’s original designation, a place for those every other house rejects. So maybe he ended up there on those grounds.
Oh and there’s Teddy Lupin, of course, but he can hardly be called a real character in the books, and his House affiliation is post-canon as well. In summary, there are very few Puffs depicted, and even fewer of any actual interest or depth, or seen displaying the qualities Hufflepuff is supposed to be known for. Even Tonks seems like more of a Gryffindor.
But to be honest, I’m even more angry about the depiction of Ravenclaw. It’s probably my personal bias (full disclosure: I identify as Slytherclaw), and the Puffs could certainly convincingly argue that at least Ravenclaw gets one proper supporting character. It’s true. Luna Lovegood is a fully fleshed out, wonderful young lady who should be treasured.
However, I have strong issues with her being the only properly depicted Ravenclaw.
She is an embodiment of some of Ravenclaw qualities, like the association with air, free thinking and so on. But I highly doubt she is a typical speciemen of a Claw (after all, her being bullied by her house implies otherwise). She holds a lot of silly and nonsensical beliefs, making her brand of smart a very special one. Just imagine her being given the job of doing the research about Horcruxes instead of Hermione. The idea sounds very absurd, and yet research is the sort of thing the usual Ravenclaw should excel at. Some more mainstream examples are badly needed as a counterweight.
And when we look at the other Ravenclaws, the prospect is very meagre. Probably the second most prominent character from that house is Cho Chang, and during her entire relationship with Harry, we see barely a hint of why she was sorted into that house. And it would have been so easy, too.
Give me Cho that tries to talk to Harry about books on their date, only to find out that he never read a book that wasn’t for school or about Quidditch. Give me Cho that tries to discuss classes, only to discover that Harry doesn’t care or only wants to complain about too much homework. Give me Cho wanting to talk about the electives, only to learn Harry picked the two classes Ron did to be with his friend and thus ended up in Divination.
Don’t give me Cho that just clumsily tries to make Harry jealous, because I just don’t see any traces of her having a particularly ready mind, wit or learning in that. The same goes for Padma, and for every other Ravenclaw present in the story – and what others are there, really? No one of import, and certainly no one showcasing any Ravenclaw qualities except Hermione, who is not in Ravenclaw.
And then, of course, there is the complete disaster of Slytherin.
The entire idea of how this House is treated is absurd, down to the Hogwarts origins story, which purports that Salazar held anti-Muggle-Born views seven hundred years before there was such a thing as properly separate Muggle and wizarding cultures, and that the other three founders were for some reason cool with starting a school with a racist jerk – and also a psychopath who puts a monster in a school with a vague murder-plan that doesn’t even work. Right from its founding, Slytherin is not shown as a house that values ambition and cunning, but as the racist, murder-happy house. There’s nothing particularly cunning or ambitious about antagonizing your three co-workers to the degree that they kick you out of your project and then putting a revenge monster in your old job site out of spite. Plus, the idea seems to be that while to be in Slytherin, you need certain qualities just like with other houses, you also can’t be Muggle-born to get there. There is no way any sane school administrator would find that acceptable. Godric, Helga and Rowena would have told Salazar to go to the devil.
And the depiction doesn’t get any better when we come to Harry’s time. The only supposedly good Slytherin character we get is Severus Snape, and even in his case it’s bought by a Death Eater past, and by bullying children, not to mention his problematic attachment to Lily. I don’t want to dwell on him too much, since he deserves a separate article – he was mentioned briefly in the last Fanwankers episode, and I might write an article about him in the future, unless someone else does it first. Suffice it to say, he’s not exactly a role model.
Then there’s Draco, not evil enough to do murder in cold blood, but a nasty piece of work nevertheless (what does it say about the picture of Slytherin Rowling painted that for someone to be considered as good, it’s enough for him to be not fully comfortable with murder?). Pansy the Bitch and her giggling gang that doesn’t ever deserve personalities of their own. Blaise I-Hate-Blood-Traitors Zabini. Crabbe and Goyle, who have zero Slytherin qualities and yet still ended up in that house, probably because they’re racist and murder-happy enough. All of these people’s parents, who are Death Eaters and it is quietly assumed were Slytherins – I mean, other houses don’t have a prevalence of Death Eater names. The implication is that someone who is cunning and ambitious will, more likely than not, also be happy to join a mass murderer.
One character that salvages the House’s reputation a little is Slughorn, of course. He’s honestly my favourite Slytherin, because I think he is the only one who truly shows the house’s qualities. He’s amazing, but there’s only one of him, and he’s very clearly a grey character. Regulus Black should also probably be mentioned in this context – I could go on for hours about him, he’s seriously the most under-appreciated person in canon – but he’s not actually in the story, and he has to be Death Eater first, too, before he can be good. Once again, backing out when witnessing the full scale of Voldemort’s brutality seems to be the requirement for “good” Slytherins, with the exception of Slughorn.
And there’s the treatment of Slytherins by other houses and by the teachers, too. These cases are pretty notorious in fandom, but just to refresh your memory: Dumbledore letting them think they were going to win the House Cup till the last minute at the end of Philosopher’s Stone, only to snatch it away from them. Everyone always cheering for Gryffindor because they want Slytherin to lose. McGonnagal simply ordering every Slytherin to leave in Deathly Hallows, not giving them a chance to fight, because everyone knows those jerks would just join the mass murderer. I could go on. Slytherin, in short, is universally hated, and assumed to be a House full of future Death Eaters, and the story cheerfully confirms this opinion, apparently without finding anything wrong about it.
But there is. So much.
When you look at the Hogwarts crest, it is symbols of the Houses united by the large H. It should be about that, it should be about unity in diversity. We each have our own talents and qualities, and the combination of them is what makes the school great. It’s what the Sorting Hat talks about, but it’s not just those evil Death Eaters hampering it, it’s the author, the story itself.
And look, dividing people into groups based on some similarity does have its pros and its cons. It makes forming bonds easier, but you lose the chance to be inspired by difference. You can make the best of a given talent, of the similarity in question, but you are in serious risk of also getting the worst of the flip side of the same thing. So any sane school that worked with this sort of division would try to gain the most of the benefits while minimizing the drawbacks, especially if they’ve had a thousand years to work out the kinks.
There’s a post floating around tumblr about each House being taught in a different way. That’s one option, and we see no hints of that. You could also have different disciplinary approaches. You’d need activities specifically designed to have the houses meet and mingle, to have some of that inspiration and to counterbalance division. You’d have House heads especially watching out for the weaknesses of each of the Houses and trying to prevent their students falling into that trap.
Instead we get animosity and bigotry and division that none of the teachers does anything about, which ends up sending the message that diversity is bad, that diversity is a problem, because look at the conflict it breeds. With some groups, you can just ignore them because thy are merely lesser, not bad, but with some, well, you have to eliminate them, because they are downright evil, right? Certain contemporary parallels come to mind.
I’ll tell you what I’d have liked to see. Different Houses contributing differently to the war, according to their strengths. I get that Harry was a Gryffindor, so his closest friends were always likely to be ones as well, but what about the rest? What about the Order members? I want to see the Claws doing some important war-related research, I want to see the Puffs take care of safe houses and healing and other background work that is not so shiny or heroic as what the Gryffindors do but just as necessary. Snape was spying, so I guess that’s one thing for the Slytherins to do and it was included, but I also want to see them in the political arena, fighting the Ministry or Lucius Malfoy there. I want to see Order members arguing about the methods because some prefer the Slytherin ones, some the Gryffindor ones and so on, but working it out, and finding strength in their differing views. I don’t want to basically have to have everyone turn into a Gryffindor to be useful for the war effort, the only difference of opinion being how much to tell Harry.
So yes, the message of diversity got a little bundled here, to “one type of human is better than most others, and one type is worse.” Something I think we can agree is not exactly desirable.
It is also still not the last diversity-related problem to be encountered.
Rowling makes racism one of her themes, against the Muggle-Born and Muggles and non-human beings. But the thing is, not even the supposedly good characters are free from it. And Rowling sometimes addresses this, and sometimes she doesn’t.
Let’s look at Muggles, for example. While anyone badmouthing the Muggle-Born is clearly shown as a bad person, the ever-present condescending attitude to Muggles is never really challenged. Right at the beginning, we have Hagrid’s condescending comments and Mrs. Weasley’s throwaway remark that King’s Cross is full of Muggles, which rather set the tone.
So then we get Arthur oh-so-cutely not being able to remember what are the different Muggle inventions called. The man’s profession has to do with Muggles, and it’s also supposed to be his chief hobby. Try to image that you were an expert in a field, were getting paid for working in it, and couldn’t even remember the essential terms. Or the way the Minister for Magic arranges a meeting with the PM, which is very far from being respectful and equal. They slip him Kingsley as a bodyguard without telling him first, too. What is being done to the camp owner in Goblet of Fire is way beyond mere disrespect and is absolutely monstrous. I’m not talking about what the Death Eaters do to him, mind you, but about the constant wipes of his memory. I could go on. This casual disregard of the weaker and defenceless (against magic) is realistic in many ways, of course, but to never have it called out by anyone? That makes it problematic.
And there are other cases apart from Muggles. With ghosts, we have everyone just ignoring Sir Nicolas’ wish to be called Sir Nicolas, and instead going with Nearly-Headless Nick, a nickname he clearly finds irritating, and we have Myrtle’s death being treated with what can hardly be called gravitas. Goblins frankly have overtones of a racist caricature, and Bill, who spent his entire adult life working for them and owes his career success to them, has doubts about there being a possibility of goblin-human friendship and, while warning Harry, just casually mentions that apparently the goblin idea of what ownership and sale means has been always ignored by witches and wizards. Centaurs are only shown to be in the right when they abandon their own principles or neutrality and non-interference and join the fight against Voldemort, or do the right thing according to the wizarding moral standards. House-Elves, of course, get the roughest end of the deal, but at least mistreatment of them is always called out, as far as I recall. But there are certainly traces of condescension, and Dobby’s noble self-sacrifice is a very troubling narrative (imagine a person of colour there instead of him to see it more clearly). The Merepeople playing the ‘angry natives’ in Triwizard Tournament is far from ideal as well, even though it was staged. The whole notion that there are intelligent creatures ‘incapable of overcoming their own violent nature’ (Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them) is very problematic. I could go on. Part of this criticism is probably unfair to levy on Rowling, since as with the issues mentioned at the beginning of this article, many of these troubling narratives were not so well recognized and talked about twenty years ago, but some of them should have been transparent even then, and at any rate, like I said before, even if we give the author a break, the problem with the story remains.
So once again, let me tell you what I’d have liked to see. Arthur who is an actual expert and helps the Grangers feel comfortable in Diagon Alley, making useful Muggle-wizarding parallels for them to help them understand the things Hermione, as a twelve year old, didn’t know about. Arthur outraged at what the Ministry does tot he camp owner and filing a complaint, even after everything that happened at Triwizard Tournament, because some things are simply wrong. Bill who tells Harry that he can’t do this thing, that he can’t just use Griphook to what he needs to be done while completely ignoring the goblin’s requests, not because it’s dangerous for Harry but because it’s wrong, and because Griphook is his friend. And Griphook actually acting like Bill’s friend, even if he was unpleasant to everyone else. Harry being shocked when seeing Myrtle, realizing that it’s a student who died at Hogwarts, how tragic is that? And how tragic is it and she is constantly unhappy even after her death? Dobby getting to live and starting a school for House-Elves. And so on.
I understand how all these things might seem like much less of a problem than the lack of representation for people of colour or LGBTQIA. Ghosts and Muggles and Slytherins are not real groups we need to be worried about, after all. But the thing is, that’s one of the strongest things speculative fiction can do. It can explore some issues in our society via allegory, thus allowing us to see them more clearly. It’s not even particularly hidden in case of Muggles and Death Eaters, the second world war parallels are there very clearly. Recently when Drumpf’s spokesperson asked where are all the “pure-breeds”, JKR retweeted it with a commentary saying “Death Eaters walk among us.” So the way the designated heroes of a story act towards oppressed groups and minorities and simply those who are different does actually serve as a model for how we should act towards them, even if they are different particular groups. When the heroes act racist and condescending and are never called out for it, it’s a problem, and it makes the story problematic.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Films
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.