Stonewall

For a film that ostensibly wants to tell its viewers about the Stonewall riots and what they meant for the LGBT rights movement in America, Stonewall actually manages to say very little about it.

The Stonewall riots were a watershed in the history of LGBT rights, a spontaneous eruption of civil unrest that started from the Stonewall inn, a mafia-run speakeasy that acted as a nexus and shelter for the poor and marginalised LGBT elements of New York City. Stonewall, however, spends most of its time following the travails of a protagonist that seems incongruously out of place in this milieu – the young Danny Winters, a gay youth from Indiana cast out by his parents and newly arrived in New York to start a new life.

Now, centering your narrative on a fictitious white protagonist is not in itself a bad thing from an artistic perspective – even though it might have troubling Hollywood-style whitewashing undertones. But Winters is nevertheless the film’s biggest issue in several respects. Stonewall isn’t really about the Stonewall riots. It’s relegated to a milestone in Winter’s character arc. The film’s preoccupation with Winters takes the focus away from the historical import of the riots and what they meant to the LGBT pride movement. I expected to come away from the film with a deeper understanding of the Stonewall riots, or at least, the filmmaker’s own interpretation of the events. Instead, all I got was an account of a fictional white guy who incited the Stonewall riots as part of his coming-of-age narrative. It trivialises the former just so Emmerich can spin out the latter.

Winters’ whiteness introduces another troubling element to the film. The film depicts him as being the instigator and catalyst of the riots, as if the actual residents of Greenwich, the ones who’d suffered under the system of abuse their whole lives (and were doubly- and triply- dis-privileged – being black, women or transgender), were unable to make their stand until this child of relative privilege came along and riled them up to action, a his pit stop in his journey to greater self-actualization (he later heads on to Columbia on a scholarship). And then we have the minstrelization of the supporting cast, the hodgepodge of gender-fluid, queer, cross-dressing denizens of Greenwich, presented to the viewer either as comedic relief or for shock value. With the possible exception of Ray/Ramona, played by Jonny Beauchamp, the cast tend to over-perform in the stereotypical gay-camp department. Marsha Johnson, in particular, was portrayed as a campy airhead in the movie, when in reality she was one of the prominent leaders of the gay scene. This trivialization of history in favor of Emmerich’s precious (and fictional) all-American protagonist doesn’t do the film any favors either.

This centering of the story on Winters, and its whitewashing might not have mattered as much if Winters’ coming-of-age story had been presented well. But it’s not. It’s a bunch of loosely-strung together elements that have little sense of narrative continuity. Most of all, the lead-up to Winter’s climactic moment isn’t convincing. We are shown that the elements of Winter’s turn to violence (and by extension, his moment of character transformation) are: being jilted by his pacifist lover Trevor, being kidnapped to perform a discreet sexual service for a rich, corpulent cross-dressing magnate, and a sense of distant solidarity with his newfound genderfluid street friends. So, the main drivers of Winter’s discontent against the heteronormative system have nothing to do with his oppression against the heteronormative system, but rather elements of the homosexual subculture of his surroundings. But instead, he’s directing his anger at the cops for letting a suspected murderer of gay youth in the city (Ed Murphy) escape. It feels like the film is misdirecting the subject of its righteous anger against the police and not against the main catalysts of Winter’s discontent.

And then, after the Stonewall riots, what happens? Nothing. Winters becomes self-actualised, gets into Columbia, goes back to town to settle things with his teenage love Joe, and visits his estranged family. Then there’s a nice series of captioned scenes (as is common with historical films) stating what happened afterwards, but these captions are rather dissonant with the rest of the film. The suspected gay youth murderer Ed Murphy becomes a respected gay rights campaigner? How? What? Marsha Johnson, portrayed as a spaced-out, scatterbrained drag queen, becomes a respected community organiser? Those stories are the ones that should have been told, instead of Danny Winters’. As it is, the film expects us to buy into their stories, when it’s said nothing about them. The film straight-up telegraphs to you that Stonewall riots led to more gay movements in its closing captions, which are punctuated by scenes of a gay march through the streets of New York, led by – you guessed it – Danny Winters. The jump between the riots and gay rights advancement is told, not shown, in the last five minutes or so of the film.

So. This film tells us about a fictional white gay man’s coming of age through applying misdirected violence against cops that, although they were part of a hetero-dominant system, were in that specific instance doing their jobs. The violence somehow leads to the explosion of gay rights movements in the US. Nobody who was real and part of the riots gets any meaningful treatment. And the big emotional payoff of the film is that Danny Winters gets to go to Columbia and hug his sister, with no repercussions. The Stonewall riots are just another anecdote in his CV of self-actualizing activities. Maybe a better Stonewall film might have started with the riots and then showed its viewers how the riots were viewed through different perspectives and how gay rights groups used the riots as a rallying call to organise, or something. Because the riots themselves were, to my understanding, not the be-all and end-all, they were the beginning. And as the beginning, they should not have been used as a climactic capstone to some dude’s muddled coming-of-age story.

I give this film: 1 out of 5 Stonewall mugs

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Rick and Morty – Season 2

The brilliant show is back for a second season, and it’s just as good as its first run, but for slightly different reasons.

When I watched the first season, I was struck by how unflinchingly brutal it could be at times. Rick and Morty was an animated sitcom that deconstructed the tropes around animated sitcoms. It used the multiverse idea to great creativity and comedic effect, as well as to reject the “world-resetting” conventions of other animated shows. It dared broach darker topics – rape, troubled marriages, sociopathy – in a transgressively comical, but not gratuitous, fashion. Its characters had authenticity in that they were human beings with failings and idiosyncrasies, but who nevertheless stay together because of some intangible undercurrent of concern and familial togetherness.

This second season is evidence that Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland know what made their Season 1 formula so wildly successful. Season 2 iterates upon the qualities that made the first season so great, but also adds an extra layer of historical depth that was largely absent in the first season – the beginnings of an accounting of Rick’s backstory and the reasons why he left in the first place. In other words, intimations of heavy duty character exploration for the show’s most important character. This is hinted at in several episodes but is most apparent in the season’s final episode, where Rick’s political activities against the Galactic Federation come back to bite him. I don’t know if this was a planned plot point or a retcon, but the last episode really expanded the Rick and Morty universe in ways I hadn’t anticipated, which lent some new context into some of the things that occurred in the first season – such as Rick’s dealings with the underworld and his dislike of the Galactic Federation insectoids. I doubt that Season 3 will be kind of big reveal of that history, and it shouldn’t be, but I hope it does shed more light to develop Rick as a more complete and compelling character, adding more context to his nihilistic sociopathy.

I’m also glad that Summer is getting a bit more screen time in this season. In some ways she’s the new Morty of Season 2, with her own moral compass that is often hilariously violated by Rick’s lack of mores (see Keep Summer Safe). Summer has great potential as an alternating sidekick to Rick along with Morty, who is himself displaying signs that he’s acclimating to Rick’s style of doing things, and is starting to be capable of holding his own during their hijinks.

Not everything in the season was perfect, of course. The season has episodes of varying quality and fit into the Ricksterverse. Get Schwifty, for one, was slightly too surreal and non-sequitur even for Rick and Morty, and it had some characters behaving in highly uncharacteristic fashion for the sake of thematic demonstration, which gives off bad Family Guy vibes. Interdimensional Cable #2: Tempting Fate was another running of the show’s breakout improv section in Rixty Minutes, which was one of the best parts of the first season. While this second offering had its moments (see Plumbus creation and Mr Stealy), it, predictably, can’t measure up to the first, not least because it had a bit of a more calculated, “let’s do this to add ratings since the first was a hit” feel to it, which goes against the whole “stoned improv” feel of the first offering. To their credit, the show creators did anticipate that the second offering would be “tempting fate”.

But the very fact that Season 2 knocks it out of the park with its standout episodes testifies to the fact that there’s quite a bit of steam left in this animated comedy franchise.

Some standout episodes:

S2E2 – Mortynight Run

Contains a poignant, standout section where Morty plays a video-game in which he lives an entire man’s life in a simulated reality. The juxtaposition of living a good life with getting a high score in a video game is darkly comedic. Also, features a gaseous being that’s able to croon out a hilariously hippie number to the beat of Morty’s cosmic hallucinations.

S2E4 – Total Rickall 

Mr Poopy Butthole. Rick’s catchphrases. Episode as an indictment of how the proliferation of random wedged-in supporting cast members and nonsensical flashback vignettes is stifling comedy television.

S2E6 – The Ricks Must Be Crazy

Keep. Summer. Safe. Also Stephen Colbert as an obnoxious alien, and Morty taking charge of the situation.

S2E10 – The Wedding Squanchers

The twist, the insight into Rick’s character, the expansion of scope, the cliffhanger, the hilarious planets that the Smith family finds, and that squanchy ending with a slightly deranged, painkiller-addled Mr Poopy Butthole. A great conclusion to an excellent season 2.

I give this series: 4 out of 5 Plumbuses

The Martian

I’m actually really glad this film got adapted.

The Martian is that rare science fiction film that doesn’t play that tired old “human hubris” card when portraying stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon’s) struggle against the Martian elements, or the efforts of the NASA administrators, engineers, and astronauts that try to save him. Instead, it celebrates human perseverance and scientific ingenuity in the face of certain disaster – and portrays manned Mars exploration in an aspirational light.

I was interested in The Martian for three main reasons; first, I’d read the book and was curious to know how the hybrid first-person third-person narrative translated to the big screen. Second, I wanted to see how a realistically rendered Martian landscape looked like on film. And last but definitely not least, to support a big budget hard-sf film, a rare enough unicorn in the cinematic landscape that its once-in-a-blue-moon appearances must be treasured.

So how did the film measure up on those three counts?

First, the filmmakers have done surprisingly well in transmuting the book into film. I don’t claim to remember too much of the book (I read it over a year ago), but the film covers most of its bases, and does so in a way that doesn’t seem rushed or padded out. In the book, Watney’s narrative is stuffed with jokes, pop-culture references and irreverent quips, and much of the book’s appeal comes from that humor. While I don’t think the film is quite as funny as the book, (and it certainly is somewhat grimmer than I remember the book to be in some moments), it does capture a large part of Watney’s sense of humor rather well. Watney’s narration in the book is captured in the movie as a series of video logs that Watney records of himself for posterity. The humor adds a much-needed touch of lightheartedness and optimism in what would be an otherwise cheerless two years in the Martian dust.

In terms of the Martian landscape, the film does a bang-up job, to the extent that I’d consider their depiction of Mars to be the best on yet shown in film (John Carter doesn’t count, because that’s Burroughs/Bradbury Old Mars). The redness, the bleakness is there, but so is that unbridled sense of wonder, the call of an untamed wilderness desert with its swirling dust storms and crimson rock formations. The Mars of The Martian should serve as a reminder of why humanity should send its explorers to Mars – it calls out to our essential wanderlust, our romantic desire to reach places unknown even in the midst of danger.

Which brings me to the last point – The Martian should be celebrated for what it doesn’t try to do – become yet another tired old cautionary tale warning against expanding the limits of our knowledge. In this aspect it benefits from its thematic similarity to the book. This film is like NASA propaganda, in the best possible way – a tale about how the ingenuity and hard work of its astronauts and ground staff overcame the challenge of space to bring back one of their own. Nobody screws up, nobody does anything stupid or illogical or evil (which, of course, was one of the annoying things about Scott’s other movie, Prometheus). It presents an optimistic vision of humanity, too. Not once is the need to save Watney questioned, despite the billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money that were needed to save him. They even threw in a little Sino-US relation-building content into the mix – when the Chinese volunteer the use of their classified rocket to help save Watney. For once, a film about space exploration is aspirational, rather than cautionary. Sure, tragedies and accidents can and do happen, but the fundamental drive of discovery is – as this film aptly demonstrates – an urge that should be met not with overweening caution, but a boldness and a dollop of irreverent ingenuity.

PS – The spinning Mars Pathfinder robot is adorable.

I give this film – 4 out of 5 Pathfinders

The Call of Cthulhu and other Weird Tales

HP Lovecraft is celebrated as one of the essential progenitors of modern horror. His specific style of horror deals in the tension between man’s utter helplessness against the infinite, unfathomable, and malignant cosmos. The Lovecraftian mythos that he created and expanded through a number of short stories and novellas is a world full of potential for expansion and literary exploration.

And yet, reading his actual works and stories reveals him to be a writer of limited range and ability. (Also, he was racist to the point of hyperbole – but that’s another story).

Lovecraft, at his best, was a literary pioneer in thinking about the ways in which the infinitude of time and the cosmos could be plumbed as a source of deep existential horror. He knew well of man’s innate fear of the unknown, the other, and the strange. He took those motifs and manifested them in his writings as malignant cosmic entities, strange sea-peoples, vegetal aliens inhabiting the Arctic plains. These creations were made vast and ancient, impossibly different from common human experience, to drive home the thesis of man’s utter insignificance in the face of the unknown.

Insanity – the breakdown – or absence – of mind – played a large part in establishing the viscerality of the horror. Lovecraft’s characters often lose their sanity when they behold the various horrors of the cosmic menagerie. Lovecraft often uses the adjective “insane” to describe the actions, gestures and designs of his eldritch creations. Descending into insanity is perhaps the most intense emotional and mental response to encountering something with which the mind is incapable of coming to terms. It conveniently signposts the utter alienness of Lovecraft’s horrors, the impossibility of understanding or even apprehending the insane unknown without becoming a part of that insanity.

It is no accident that Azathoth, the primal deity of the Lovecraft mythos and the implied creator of the universe, is described in The Haunter in the Dark as “a blind idiot god”, “encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paw”. Here, Lovecraft implies that mindless, idiotic chaos is inherent in Creation. The Universe is malign in its very nature, and man’s attempts to apprehend it only leads to gibbering insanity.

By the way, the reference to Azathoth being lulled by a flute could be a deliberate reference to the Pythagorean notion that the cosmos was ordered by principles of music (Pythagoras apparently hated the flute).

Lovecraft was also adept at making horrors out of the notion of the other. Tales like The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Dunwich Horror feature strange, shambling subhumans with malign intent as antagonists. To the protagonists of these stories (white men of standing), these others were inherently repulsive in a way that defied description. They were dark, queer, described as being regressed from some more advanced state of being. They spoke in barbarous tongues. The ab-human nature of these creatures was synonymous with their inherently inimical intentions.

Such motifs, unfortunately, are very similar to the kinds of narratives often employed to demonize peoples of other races, and Lovecraft’s use of it here to generate a feeling of horror is well in keeping with his well-known racist tendencies. (And man, he was racist as all hell – see this link) It might even be described as writing from a place of intimate familiarity – Lovecraft projecting his own racist disgust into his characters, but directed at fictional fish-races and the like. Which brings me to an uncomfortable point – to enjoy a story like A Shadow over Innsmouth is to surrender yourself into that frame of mind, and accept the notion, however fleetingly, that those who are different are degraded, inhuman, and malign by nature. The scariest thing is the story is so powerful precisely because of how easy it is to slip into that mode.

Ultimately, Lovecraft’s lasting legacy persists because of their imaginative power. He named our fears, gave them form – even if it was of the incorporeal variety. He created a pantheon of gibbering, insane gods – Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, lightly painting them with evocative brush-strokes to hint at their aspects, but nothing more, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. He did the same with books and accounts of fantasy lands and ancient races – the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,  mentioned shudderingly by the protagonists of nearly every story in the compendium. He littered his narratives with evocative locales like the nightmare plains of Leng, or Ib, or of the beings that resided on distant Yuggoth.  These features added up to a compelling mythopoeia of the unknown and the strange, spanning deep time and the furthest reaches of the cosmos. It is a febrile imaginative landscape for readers, and other authors, to spin their own narratives of cosmic terror.

That said, when it came to the craft of the stories, Lovecraft doesn’t pass muster on a multitude of levels. First, of course, is that his prose is florid, over-descriptive, and convoluted, especially when describing the horrors that he creates. It feels as if Lovecraft were pouring out his fears and hatreds in an uncontrollable torrent. As you read more of his stories, you notice, however, that he uses the same descriptors and adjectives in his prose – such as the word “insane” – to describe different manifestations of the same class of horror, story after story.

Most of his stories are variations on the same theme – a WASP, or a group of WASPs, ventures into the unknown and meets cosmic horrors beyond imagination. The difference is in the fluff – the nature and lineage of said horrors, and the ways in which they affect the world. After a while, this pattern starts to get predictable, especially after the nth variation of florid, strangely lyrical half-mad exposition on just how horrible the horror is.

Lovecraft’s dialogue is probably his worst trait, however. He barely used reported speech – most of his stories were first- or third-person recountings of events, rather than ongoing narratives. But when Lovecraft deigns to have a character speak in his stories, it comes out as a rush of verbal diarrhea, long blocks of monologue. Dialogue in a Lovecraftian story serves two purposes: to provide accounts of the horrors, and the vocalizations of characters as they are rendered mad by the horrors.

To Lovecraft, the craft of storytelling were probably superfluous. He was not so much interested in human characters in and of themselves as he was of using them as expository instruments to give shape to the terrors spawned by his febrile imagination. Lovecraft was a screamer from the darkness, the prophet of cosmic indifference. His innate sense of fear and horror, which was probably a fount for his racism, also fueled his stories, and with them, he developed  a new vocabulary for humanity’s deepest fears. Now, modern writers derive inspiration from Lovecraft’s mythos, and spin stories about cosmic terrors arguably better and with more effect than Lovecraft could (see Charles Stross’ Laundry Files for an example). For all his failings, we should give Lovecraft the credit he is due.

Some of the stories I liked better were:

The Whisperer in Darkness: Featuring starfish aliens from Yuggoth, this is one of Lovecraft’s more original efforts, with a strong science fiction ethos. The aliens themselves are also not portrayed as completely evil, but their alienness gives them horrific unfathomability.

The Dreams in the Witch-House: A frenetic, muddled but oddly horrific short story, featuring Nyarlathotep, the “mad faceless god” that “howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players”, as well as the weird hateful Brown Jenkin, a weird human-faced rat familiar of the witch Keziah Mason.

The Shadow over Innsmouth: A classic tale of horror-of-the-other. Disturbing but riveting reading.

At the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraft takes a more scientific and lucid approach to the subjects of this story, the vegetal Elder Things that settled on Earth billions of years ago. There is a lot of expository info-dumping on the history and habits of the Elder Things, but it makes for interesting fluff reading. Shoggoths, the terrifying plant-slaves of the Elder Things, make an appearance here, too. Most impressive is the visual image of a vast, continent sized, billion-year-old city on the frozen high plains of Antarctica, surrounded by mountains that rise higher than Everest.

The Thing on the Doorstep: A surprisingly maligned story, probably because it is the least-Lovecraftian of the lot, featuring less cosmic horror (save for oblique references to the mythos) and more human evil. But this story is probably one of the more well-written ones for that reason, as Lovecraft focuses somewhat more on characterisation, dialogue and narrative pacing, and adroitly gives the story an unexpected and shocking moment at the end. (Actually, this is probably my favorite of the lot).

One final note: One thing I was surprised about is how little Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu, featured in the stories, save for the one (somewhat mediocre) story, The Call of Cthulhu. What made Cthulhu stand out amongst all the other horrors that Lovecraft created? My theory is that Cthulhu holds special terror for us because it is the union of cosmic horror and human evil (i.e. the cultist that worship and try to free it) and resides here on Earth, slumbering, subconsciously affecting human history and religion, giving its horror a sense of intimacy and apocalyptic tension.

I give this collection: 3.5 out of 5 Shining Polyhedrons

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Highly entertaining but to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Jon Ronson practices a brand of what we might call “gonzo journalism”. Gonzo journalism distinguishes itself in that its practitioners freely use their subjectivity as features of their stories. They involve themselves, air their opinions and take sides, in the stories that they cover. They don’t pretend to have any sort of journalistic objectivity. They are characters in the stories they write.

Ronson’s gift is that he has a perspective and a style that lends itself to this type of writing. Disarmingly wry and matter-of-fact, but prone to bouts of gentle cynicism at times, Ronson’s narrative voice anchors his prose with a sense of slightly bemused detachment, even as he participates in the story as an active foil to his subjects.

It’s an entertaining recipe, as Ronson is not afraid to insert his own opinions and points of view, and when he voices them to his often high-strung subjects or interviewees, or otherwise acts on them, they sometimes react with drama, much of it I must shamefully admit is quite fascinating to read.

In a piece about a small Christian sect known as the Jesus Christians, for example, Ronson writes that the leader of said sect openly admitted to him that he was trying to use Ronson’s story as a would-be pulpit to publicise the organ-donating activities of their adherents. After reading the published story and deciding that he hated it, however, he deluged Ronson with a torrent of sanctimonious videos, which Ronson recounts with a sort of grim thoroughness.

It helps that many of Ronson’s subjects, by dint of his subject matter, have a certain kookiness to them. Ronson has a talent for sniffing out or otherwise inventing interesting, weird premises for his stories, such as when he attempts to re-enact James Bond’s driving, boozing travails through France in the Ian Fleming novel Goldfinger, or merely just interviewing the members of Insane Clown Posse and letting them speak for themselves.

Of course, as with anything, we should be wary of subjectivity. Ronson’s stories are skewed toward entertaining the reader first, and events, portrayals and recountings can and do seem a little tweaked to suit that purpose at times. This is not an indictment of Ronson in particular, but an observation of an inevitability. In the case of the essays and articles in this book, many of them feature slightly outsized characters, brazen in their beliefs and brash in their actions. Ronson always takes the role of the more grounded, slightly bemused outsider. His subjects are sometimes almost theatrically entertaining. Then there’s that undercurrent of sardonic humor that underlies everything, which is Ronson imputing ironic meaning into the gestures, words and actions of his subjects. The reader laughs with Ronson, at the things he chooses to examine through his unabashedly subjective lens.

But that doesn’t detract from the virtues of the book at all. Ronson has a gift of plumbing the absurdities of human existence, of drawing significance and meaning out of the chaos of civilization, in a way that preserves dignity and humor. Lost at Sea is a wonderful collection of eclectic pieces, that, while not the most reliable in the classic sense, still succeed at what they do – to paint colorful portraits of life’s oddities.

Some memorable pieces:

Doesn’t Everyone Have A Solar?: Jon Ronson talks to a bunch of AIs in a bid to understand transhumanists. Signal to noise ratio is not encouraging.

I Looked Into the Camera. And I just Said It: A piece on Ray Gosling, a TV presenter arrested on murder charges for confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. One of Ronson’s most entertaining subjects, a diva so extreme he utters fake murder confessions on a whim.

Have You Ever Stood Next to an Elephant, My Friend? Ronson’s piece on Insane Clown Posse (ICP), a couple of nitwits whose terrible rap is hilariously at odds with their secret Jesus agenda. Not to mention they were the originators of  the meme “f#$@#n magnets, how do they work?”

The Hunger Games: Ronson interviews a couple of competitive eaters, a field of human endeavor that I find endlessly fascinating and, honestly, pointless. Also, I once watched Matt Stonie, this tiny hundred-pound kid, eat 20,000 calories in an hour.

Santa’s Little Conspirators: All’s not well in small-town North Pole, Alaska, where the inhabitants have a Santa-based economy. Ronson interviews an inhabitant, a real-life Grinch, that abhors everything about it.

Phoning A Fried: A hilariously sad account of the famous trial of Charles Ingram, a British Army Major who was found cheating at Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and who was notoriously humiliated at his defense for what really was a very petty crime.

Who Killed Richard Cullen? A sober story (written pre-2008 crisis) about how financially incompetent people were deliberately targeted as recipients of junk mail offering credit cards and loans to subprime individuals. Also, Jon Ronson creates a sex maniac alter ego to test the aforementioned hypothesis.

The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: Because I had no idea real-life superheroes were a thing.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Aston Martins