Monthly Archives: May 2015

I’m Going To Use The Word ‘Intertextual’ Because I Want To

Intertextuality is a fun word to say. It’s an even funner concept: it’s the idea that one text will reference another. And I’ve been on a vacation of sorts this week so I’m going to write about it.

See, when intertextual literature lets its world be informed by the outside. Chuck, for example, uses it to inform characters. Characters’ references to Tron or Back to the Future lets us in to their heads and gives us an idea of who they are. When Casey tells an amnesiac Morgan that there are only three Indiana Jones movies, we know that he does actually care about the guy he’s always found insufferable. First off, the show at-large is tapping into general consensus that Crystal Skull, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, was comparatively awful. But more importantly, it’s got Casey entering into Morgan’s nerdy world, something he usually doesn’t entertain. But because he does, we know how far both his character has come but also his relationship with Morgan. Outright telling Morgan he cared would be clunky (and also not true to the character), but the smaller reference feels far more natural. All because of an Indiana Jones reference.

Of course, when talking about intertextuality and characterization, it’s hard not to bring up Ulysses, but that’s mostly because I’ve read it and the book’s kinda taken over my head. The tome portrays a day in Dublin from deep within a couple characters’ minds. Bloom and Stephen, the main characters whose heads the book spends the most time in, both use contemporary culture in their thoughts, but both do differently. Stephen, the intellectual young man, quotes and references Shakespeare and Catholic funeral rites. The former because it’s what he’s familiar with, the latter because of residual guilt over his mother’s death. Bloom, on the other hand, being a rather normal middle-aged man, has advertising slogans and popular songs crawling through his head. Since Ulysses is meant to be as close to life as literately possible, it wouldn’t make sense for it to not have this. Intertextuality here serves to make James Joyce’s Dublin feel even more real. Then there’s also the fact that much of what they reference has to do with their own internal conflicts (see Stephen and his mother) and also elucidates more of the book, but that’s an essay rant dissertation for another day.

Intertextuality, however, extends beyond simple references. Star Wars is deeply intertextual, although it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away where contemporary pop-culture isn’t a thing. Rather the plot as a whole is heavily influenced  by traditional mythology as well as classic Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featured many ideas and plot beats that were integrated into Star Wars.  This isn’t to say that Star Wars is derivative, no more than The Lion King is for taking a lot from Hamlet (or, for that matter, Lion King 1/2 and its relationship to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).

Rather it makes you realize that literature — and that’s literature insofar as film, books, video games, television, comics, and any form of telling a story — is inherently interconnected. Everything references something else and now, with the internet making pop culture osmosis prevalent enough that I can mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and know that a good many of you will get it even if you, like me, haven’t read it.

All this to say that intertextuality isn’t going away, and isn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it’s a fancy word for a normal enough thing that, when used well, adds layers to a story that wouldn’t otherwise.

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Obligatory Fury Road Entry

I haven’t seen any of the old Mad Max trilogy, more for lack of bother than anything. Pop culture osmosis ensured I knew what it was about, though; post-apocalyptic wasteland, lots of leather, cars, machismo. So Fury Road flew below my radar during much of the lead up to its release. That is, until the press surrounding it started to discuss how it was surprisingly feminist and was pissing off a lot of Men’s Rights Activists.

That got my attention.

Fury Road, despite seeming a super-macho movie by way of its car chases and apocalyptic grit, features Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the film’s de facto protagonist with Max essentially falling in to her quest to escape the Citadel with five of the villain’s wives. Furiosa is fantastic. She’s introduced as an elite in Immortan Joe’s army, one with enough sway that when she serendipitously changes course during her mission, no one in her escort questions her. And of course she kicks ass. Furiosa goes toe-to-toe with Max when they first meet and continues to prove herself plenty capable action-wise throughout the film.

But as unexpected as it is to see a woman headlining a Mad Max film, it’s expected that she would be plenty capable in the world. After all, she’s a fighter, someone hardened to the film’s post-apocalyptic setting. Where Fury Road gets really interesting with its character portrayals is with the wives. By all rights, these five should be damsels, albeit ones rescued by a woman instead of a man. They’re not fighters, not drivers, not politicians. In a world like Mad Max’s Australia, what use are they?

The film gives the wives a surprising amount of agency. We, as viewers, are first clued into their escape when we see their empty room in the citadel, “We Are Not Things” scrawled on the walls. This is the central thrust towards them: the wives are not things; they are people.

So they aren’t the load, and they aren’t just Furiosa’s cargo. When the raiding party catches up with Furiosa’s War Rig, one of the villains steadies a shot at her. In response, one of the wives, Splendid, opens the door and places herself — and Immortan Joe’s unborn child — between the gun and driver. It’s an epic moment, one of those big reversals in an action scene that cause a shift in how it all plays out.

Splendid’s actions give credence to their manifesto of not being things. When she puts herself in the line of fire, she’s doing so of her own accord; neither Max nor Furiosa tells her to do it, she makes her own choice. Furthermore, her actions indicate that she knows her own value; she knows how she can be useful in a battle despite being a noncombatant. It’s also worth noting that Splendid’s not out there alone; the other wives are helping hold her to the side of the vehicle speeding through the desert, thus showing that all of them are in this and they all know what they can bring.

Much of Fury Road plays out without dialogue, with visuals being as, if not more, important to storytelling as words. This also makes it a big teacher in the lessons of showing instead of telling: we’re not just told the wives don’t want to be considered things anymore, we see them actively fighting for and using their own agency. We’re not just told that Furiosa’s demanding of respect through others’ reactions, we’re shown it again and again by how she handles herself. With it, the film lets its female heroines make interesting choices. One of the wives loses hope, another one has great faith in their journey.

In other words, Fury Road has a surprisingly feminist bent by writing its women as people.

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Top Nine Movies of 2014

Eventually you get to the point when you realize if you keep putting off this list until you’ve seen everything you wanna see you’re never gonna write the darn list. So I’m writing it.

So here’s my list of top nine movies for 2014; nine because I’m leaving a space for movies I haven’t seen but want to. And it’s my list, so it’s very, well, me. I liked Birdman well enough and loved Godzilla, but neither quite made the list. These are the ones that I liked best.

9. John Wick

I have a soft spot for action movies, especially when they’re really slick action movies with Keanu Reeves doing what he does best. But what really sets John Wick apart is the incredible world building. There’s a deep background to the assassins and mafia that made me really want to know more. Also, it’s beautifully shot.

8. Gone Girl

Y’know that thing where you’re enjoying a story and then it changes gears? Like how Black Swan went from ballet drama to psychological horror? Gone Girl does that with ease, masterfully unfolding its plot like a magnificent murder mystery. Also, it’s decidedly not a date movie.

7. Whiplash

A movie about drumming should not be this intense. But it is, due in no small part to Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons’ phenomenal performances and how far the script goes. By foregoing a moralistic thrust in lieu of about pure drive the movie is able to get grippingly dark. And it works, man, it works.

6. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s greatest weakness probably lies in his portrayals of characters and emotion. Yet Interstellar, for all it’s sci-fi grandeur, is able to remain grounded in people and be genuinely moving. It may border on being overlong, but it expertly weaves in its core of love into a movie about wormholes and time dilation.

5. 22 Jump Street

Being unfamiliar with the original television series, I thought the original was a lot of irreverent fun; but it’s in the second film, I think, that Chris Lord and Phil Miller really cut loose. Blisteringly self-aware, the movie skewers sequels (and itself) while packing in the laughs start to finish.

4. Chef

No, the movie may not be super dramatic, and yes, it is a very warm, very feel good movie. It does it all well, though, and its charm more than ends its sweetness. Plus, it’s a delicious movie rife with heart.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

I limit myself to one Marvel film on these things, and Guardians beats Winter Soldier by a hair, and that’s probably due to my love of space opera. James Gunn’s effortlessly handles high adventure while keeping it firmly rooted in character. And it’s just plain fun. And the soundtrack’s awesome.

2. The Imitation Game

I actually read Turing’s titular paper a week or two before I saw the movie, which gave it some cool context. The movie, though, is beautifully heartbreaking. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in an unparalleled performance as Alan Turing, a Turing given considerable depth and breadth by a gripping story. The movie plain works.

1. The LEGO Movie.

Could it be any other? I grew up with Legos so the movie appeals to the kid in me. But then the film’s superb plotting and usage of the Hero’s Journey and various tropes is what really pushes it up there while still consistently bringing the funny. Then the movie brings in an emotional beat that you’re simply not expecting yet doesn’t feel at all out of place. It’s simply magnificent and also my favorite movie of 2014. Easy.

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Let’s Talk About That Whole Black Widow Thing

People are mad on the internet. As usual. The hubbub recently, though, is about choices made regarding Black Widow in Age of Ultron. Now, I’m a big fan of Black Widow. I’d really like her to get her own movie and Nathan Edmonson’s run on the comics has been fantastic (issue #13 is framed on my wall). And I’ll be the first to admit that a character beat in Age of Ultron did throw me off for a bit. But I didn’t realize the furor until I started reading up on it.

Mild spoilers for the film from here on out.

Most all of it seems to boil down to one particular piece of characterization: In a quiet moment, Natasha reveals to Bruce —who she’s debating entering into a relationship with — that she was forcibly sterilized and she laments being unable to have a normal life. It’s clear what there is to take issue with: The one female Avenger is preoccupied with romance, babies and the lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how badass Black Widow is, Natasha’s life is still incomplete without a man and children. Hence the death threats against writer/director Joss Whedon.

The beat did get a knee jerk reaction from me, but it made sense enough given her characterization. Natasha’s something of a reformed assassin and her past missions haunt her (as we see in her interactions with Loki in Avengers). Along with that,  she’s never had a proper childhood, let alone any semblance of a normal life. We also see that she’s good with Clint’s kids and close enough to the family for the kids to call her aunt. Her attraction to Bruce makes sense, then: Both are damaged people who are trying to atone for their own inner monster. We can also see in it her desire for normalcy (and with it, motherhood). This all makes Natasha a very complex character. She’s torn between the normal life she could never have and atoning as an Avenger. There’s tragedy there too; while Thor enjoys the thrill of the fight, Natasha’s ultimate fantasy is a normal life. She’s forced to make a choice by the end of the movie: continue fighting or run off to find a sort of normal life.

It’s a shame that all of that gets forgotten in light of her grief about being unable to have kids. I’ve seen some people defend the scene by saying that what really was affecting her was that she was denied the choice of being able to have kids — she was denied her agency. Whether or not that’s the case, I don’t think her wanting kids necessarily diminishes her character. If anything, it added the depth detailed in the prior paragraph. There’s a beautiful dichotomy to the cold-blooded assassin wishing she could have a family.

So why the controversy? Are strong female characters not allowed to want families too? It seems male characters are — no one’s complaining about Clint Barton having a wife and kids (except those of us who wanted a Hawkeye Netflix series about him in Bed-Stuy like in Matt Fraction’s comics). Even though his personal life could easily be described as traditionally masculine — what with the farm, wife and kids and, always fixing stuff around the house — he doesn’t get any flak for it.

Ultimately, the issue is that it’s the one female Avenger. Since she’s the only one, she’s going to come under closer scrutiny. There are a host of narratives for the male Avengers, meaning that Clint could have his farm and Bruce be hesitant towards action without undercutting The Manliness as we had characters like Thor and Steve (that and, y’know, 70% of movie characters being men). Criticism is inevitable no matter how unfounded if the only female Avenger’s narrative contains shades patriarchal femininity. We need more good stories about strong women so we can have different sorts of strong women. Give us moms, scientists, and fighter pilots saving the world. Black Widow can’t be the only female superhero.

Which is why we need Captain Marvel next year and not in 2018.

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Masculinity in Age of Ultron

I saw Age of Ultron Thursday night and I have thoughts. There’s the obvious nerd-out factor of the film, and it’s really cool and does a lot of things right (and, arguably, does indeed go smaller than the first Avengers), but those are essays rants for another day.

So let’s talk about how the movie portrays the idea of masculinity. Because it’s actually really interesting.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it and probably every Marvel movie until I get my friggin’ Captain Marvel movie, is very male dominated. But that doesn’t stop it from portraying a variety of roles for the men to take on. Macho men being manly all the time this is not, rather the Avengers portray different shades of masculinity.

Bruce Banner may be the most obvious. His ‘alter-ego’ is inherently violent and destructive, a stark contrast to his more mild-mannered usual self. He’s a violent man who eschews violence. Here’s a man who would rather that problems not be solved by punching.

This serves as something of an antithesis to Thor, who delights in battle (and tries to comfort Bruce at one point by telling him how well he fought). That said, when Thor competes with Tony, it’s not over who’s the better fighter. Instead they’re boasting of the impressive accomplishments of their significant others. Implicit here is that these two who embody traditionally masculine traits (Thor’s the fighter, Tony is characteristically bawdy) are both with accomplished and important women, and both are okay with it. Being ‘manly’ doesn’t mean downplaying the accomplishments of others and sometimes it means deferring to that as the true measure by which they measure themselves.

It’s Steven Rogers, though, who as Captain America is in some regards the paragon of masculinity: he’s brave, physically fit, honorable, a leader, and so on. But at the same time he’s also humble, he hopes for the best in people, is willing to be vulnerable, and knows he can’t always do it alone. He’s a lot like Captain Awesome from Chuck, in that he embodies a sort of ideal masculinity, but without a lot of the toxicity that goes with it.

Which brings me to Hawkeye, who gets a vastly expanded role in this film. Not only do we get a deeper look into his inner life, but we also see his role as a part of the team. Clint is, not unlike his comics counterpart, effectively the most normal of the Avengers. More than that, though, he’s the one with the most normal and fulfilled personal life, making him also the most stable; the least ‘manly’ of the Avengers is also the one who’s got it the most together. Furthermore, within Age of Ultron he carries much of the film’s emotional weight; he may not be the hardest hitter but he is the heart. In many other stories this position is usually occupied by a woman, or the most feminine one if there are multiple (think Katara from Avatar and Kaylee from Firefly). Clint isn’t seen as less capable for it; he, like Raleigh in Pacific Rim, portrays a form of masculinity that’s supportive in nature.

The male action hero has been somewhat pigeonholed over the years. There’s an immense focus on the John McLane, John Matrix, and Indiana Jones type, that is the swaggering, self-reliant, gun toting, never backing down sort. Compare The Expendables, an ensemble cast of very traditionally manly action heroes, to Age of Ultron. The former are all cut from the same hyper-masculine cloth, whereas the male Avengers are more nuanced. None of them are seen as lesser for not being as much of a brawler as Thor or as brave as Captain America. Rather, the film acknowledges that masculinity comes in different forms and that’s perfectly okay.

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