Monthly Archives: September 2016

Letting Different People Be Different

One of the many (many, many) things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the hunky guy Rebecca is pining for is an Asian guy (named Josh, but that parts not important right now). It’s incredibly refreshing — when was the last time you saw an Asian male as a romantic lead, let alone an object of sexual desire by a white woman in fiction? But that leads me to another one of the things I love about the show: it’s not a big deal. No one cares that Josh’s Asian. Even when Rebecca has Thanksgiving with him and his Filipino family, there’s none of that usual other-ing that happens when you see character entering into a space that’s foreign to them. That’s also great.

But part-and-parcel of Josh’s Asian-ness being a non-issue is that he gets to take on a character archetype Asians never get to have — he’s a bro! He’s an idiot. A lovable idiot, yes, but an idiot still. Why’s this matter? ‘cuz when you have an Asian guy in fiction, chances on he’s going to be the smart guy or the dork or, y’know, both. There’s a very specific space in fiction that Asian characters are allowed to inhabit, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend throws that to the wind. It goes on: a middle-aged man is bisexual, the professional psychiatrist is a black woman, the underachieving stoner next door is a brown girl.

I saw The Magnificent Seven this week (#AsianCowboy) and though it’s a flawed movie, it’s still terrifically entertaining and, on another level, absolutely wonderful. The latter of which I’m blaming on how it handles its diverse cast. Race is hardly touched on in the film, which, y’know it doesn’t have to. But instead every member of the titular seven gets to be a rough-and-tumble jackass of a cowboy. Billy Rocks the #AsianCowboy goes toe-to-toe with the Mexican and Chris Pratt, while Red Harvest the Native American makes fun of their food. Every character gets to give as good as they get. There’s no token minority put on a pedestal, everyone has an edge.

Which applies to the action bits too; everyone gets to have their cool bits, with Billy Rocks winning a shootout and throwing knives while saving Ethan Hawke. He’s not the Asian journeyman on a mission, he’s a cowboy (with a knife speciality). Again, this is an Asian character in a role usually off-limits to people that look like him (or, well, me) getting to do things associated with the role that usually doesn’t happen. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with, say, Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan plays an Imperial Guard on a mission in the old west who’s more martial artist than cowboy. The problem comes when every single narrative about an Asian in that time period is that narrative. So getting to see an Asian character be the quintessential American cowboy — dude, that’s dope.

When Alan Yang won an Emmy for an episode of Master of None, he gave a great speech pointing out how despite there being the same number of Italian- and Asia-Americans in the US. the former group has some of the most celebrated stories in fiction, while Asians have, well, Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles. The narrative of Asian-ness is shockingly limited, despite how long they/we’ve been a part of Western culture. In other words: the roles Asians are allowed in fiction is usually one of a handful of archetypes. Diversity and inclusion means changing that, means letting Asians be the dumb bro or the badass cowboy, means letting the lead of a tv show about being in your 30’s be an Indian guy, it means letting you ragtag band of space rebels have Asian actors, it means making your superhero a first-generation Pakistani immigrant or a half-Asian kid. Let different people be a part of different narratives.

Of course, this is a selfish want — I wanna see more people who look like me in fiction doing everything. But then, don’t you wanna see more people who look like yourself in fiction?

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Do Spoilers Spoil?

Darth Vader has Luke Skywalker on the ropes, cornered, defenseless, and missing a hand. But rather than killing the Rebel, Vader offers for Luke to join him. Luke refuses. Undeterred, Vader throws doubt on those Luke trusts and utters one of the most famous lines in cinema:

“No, I am your father.”

It’s shattering, throwing everything Luke knows into disarray. But Luke doesn’t join Vader, choosing instead to cast himself into the abyss below.

Also, that scene’s a big honking spoiler. It upends everything we, as viewers, have been told thus far, paints Obi Wan as a liar, and Yoda one by omission. It also profoundly effects Luke and colors his motivations throughout all of the next movie. Big twist, big development, so, y’know, spoiler.

But do we call Han getting frozen in carbonite a spoiler too? I mean, he’s basically becoming mostly dead and that plot point necessitates the first act of Jedi and is partially responsible for the downbeat Emprie ends on. So why isn’t that the big spoiler? It’s not as catchy as the Vader quote, no, but isn’t it at least as big?

Which makes me wonder, why do we call spoilers spoilers? Now, I’m not talking about people who go around trying to find everything out about a movie before it happens. I mean more the idea that finding something out ruins a story for good.

‘cuz I knew a lot of of the big spoilers for Game of Thrones going in. I knew Ned died. I found out about Robb’s death by accident. A friend of mine unintentionally spoiled another couple deaths. But it didn’t make any of the moments any less dramatic. Or even less shocking, since the impact still hits in a big way. Because you’re not really watching Game of Thrones to see who dies, but rather for the how of it. “Ned dies” is uninteresting, but “Ned dies as a show of force by new king Joffrey to prove himself” has kick. The why and how of it is more interesting that the what. If you know Robb’s gonna die, you keep wondering what it is that’s gonna do him in at the end. And when it really comes, that’s the whammy.

Nothing really beats the impact of, say, Han’s death in The Force Awakens when you first see it not knowing it’s coming. But watching it again let’s you appreciate the finesse of it all the more. When you’re less concerned about having to pay attention to every what of the story, you look more for the bits of set up and pay off. But don’t just take my word for it, it’s an actual fact. It doesn’t ruin the story, so to speak. Instead it changes the approach of the narrative.

But for turns like that, even if we know that Vader is Luke’s father and Ned dies, the characters don’t. It’s a beautiful dose of dramatic irony that heightens the tension in its own way because you wanna see how they’ll react to it. How is Obi Wan gonna react to Qui Gon’s death? One of the reasons “I am your father” is such a magnificent twist is because of the effect it has on Luke as a character. Watching his response – throwing himself into the pits of Cloud City – is a thrill born out of character. The story still has a hold even if you know what’s coming.

See, that’s the thing: a good story doesn’t revolve around That Twist. Empire still works knowing that Vader is Luke’s father. You lack the shock, but it’s no less compelling; you still want to see how we get to that point. A good story shouldn’t rely on one plot point being the big twist. The Prestige still works when you know what’s coming because the process of reaching that reveal is so well done. Watching characters make the choices that takes them to the ending you know has an allure itself.

All this said, I don’t like being spoiled. I swore off the internet after the Lost finale aired so it wouldn’t be spoiled before I could watch it. But watching the series again, it is no less powerful because the catharsis works just as well. Fiction – good fiction – isn’t consumed to find things out; it’s to feel. If a spoiler really ruins the story completely, than it probably wasn’t that good a story in the first place.

If this feels inconclusive, it’s because I’m still thinking about it all. Did knowing that Charlie died in Lost affect how I watched the show? Did knowing Kreia was the villain affect the choices I made while playing Knights of The Old Republic II? There’re more rants here for other days.

That said. Don’t tell me how Rogue One ends.

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#AsianCowboy

I was vaguely aware of the casting for the new Magnificent Seven when it was first announced, but more so for the fact that it reminded me that I really needed to watch The Seven Samurai (which I still haven’t…)

Anyway, since then trailers for the new Magnificent Seven have been released and there’s been a little bit of buzz around it and reviews have been coming out. What’s most caught my attention — and what makes me really wanna see it — is actor Byung-hun Lee as one of the seven. Now, this is a Western. Set in the mythical Wild West. Y’know, Americana incarnate. But there’s an Asian cowboy.

Now, of course, this excites me. Like basically everyone I grew up aware of the mythos of the Wild West, with cowboys and train robberies and all that stuff. So it’s exciting to see someone who looks kinda like me (he’s Korean, I’m half-Chinese, I’ll take it) being apart of it is really cool.

And I’m a sucker for multinational teams so seeing the seven cowboys include Denzel Washington, a Mexican, and a Native American is really cool. That and it makes total sense.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that in ‘reality’ cowboys and cattle hands weren’t as white as we’d expect. It’s easy to take the Western as being historical (it’s like a period piece, but with guns and horses!), and historical pieces tend to be very white because not being white in places when/where most historical dramas take place isn’t always a good thing.

But this is fiction.

I think it’s easy to enter into the idea of something being ‘unrealistic’ and it ruining the story. If we’re willing to believe that Tom Cruise is the last samurai, why can’t we believe there was a ragtag multinational team of cowboys? The same rule of “why not?” that applies to science fiction or contemporary stories can also apply to stories that take place before. Sure it was surprising in Season One of Agent Carter to see a black man the owner of a club in 1940s America, but we bought it and the story didn’t suffer for it. Having Zoe Saldana as Anamaria in the first Pirates of The Caribbean worked. Sure, she didn’t get to do too much but she still was a fun character who should’ve shown up in the sequels. These are worlds of cowboys, spies, and pirates; why not throw in some diversity?

Granted, it gets trickier with more serious, more properly historical stories. It’s hard to tell a factual story about the American Revolution with a diverse cast. But, then again, that’s what Hamilton did, so, y’know, there’s that.

Really, it all comes down to telling different stories, and telling more. By including people usually underrepresented in these narratives, The Magnificent Seven is offering a space at the table to more people. Like how The Force Awakens and Rogue One change the criteria for who gets to be a hero in Star Wars, so does this, in however a small way, for westerns.

So, yeah, at the end of the day I’m gonna go see The Magnificent Seven. Because there’s an Asian cowboy.

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To Tell The Truth

How do you tell the truth? Saying “Alice and Bob broke up” may be what happened, but is it the truth of it all? Breakups are messy business; did Alice break up with Bob or Bob break up with Alice? Did Bob break up with Alice for Charlie? Suddenly there’s a narrative attached to the happening, which in turn colors our perception of what happened. It may be less accurate, but it could be closer to the truth. Maybe the truth is Bob feels like his heart’s been ripped out. But there’s gotta be a better way to say it.

Enter fiction. And writing in general, actually, since trying to capture that elusive truth is one of the things poetry does so well. When Matthew Dickman describes the act of a dance in “Slow Dance” as “The my body // is talking to your body slow dance” it’s decidedly not factual (bodies, um, don’t talk). Heck, it’s not even strictly grammatically correct. But, what it does do – along with the rest of the poem – is describe the truth of that dance “with really exquisite strangers.” Throughout “Slow Dance” Dickman invites you into a space where he paints a picture of all those thoughts and feelings that accompany dancing with someone. He’s crafting an experience for you to be a part of, letting you know how it feels to be there. The truth of it all.

It really is poetry’s modus operandi, that, sharing a truth. For all the silliness of Lewis Carrol’s “Jaberwocky,” it vividly places you where it was brillig; in “False Security,” Sir John Betjeman makes you feel like a child again, where going to someone else’s house at night is an adventurous quest in and of itself. It’s not enough to tell you what’s happening, it’s about telling you the truth of what happened.

But poetry does it through image-heavy words, how do you show it? Take a look at musical Fun Home, which I recently saw before it closed (thank you, Nathan). Towards the end the narrator, Alison Bechdel, expresses how she wants so badly to remember how things were doing a pivotal point in her youth, but how does memories fade quicker than she can remember them. The play illustrates it beautifully, with the furniture that’s made up the set of her home (where her memories have played out) receding into the stage as she chases after them just moments too late. Again, not ‘realistic,’ but heartbreakingly true. How better to communicate the realness of memories fading away? It works.

Which brings me to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because a lot of my thoughts and ramblings have been pointing towards that show lately. The show’s musical numbers are largely born out of a heightened emotional state, be it feeling excluded at a group hang or the stress of a parent coming to visit. These songs sometimes serve as a culmination of a sequence and let us into the singer’s mind. A striking example is the song “You Stupid Bitch,” wherein Rebecca finds herself at one of her lowest points — everything she’s been striving for has blown up in her face. So she sings this song rife with self-loathing, this incredibly harsh, unflinchingly brutal song — a song that she has the imaginary crowd join in on. Now, in the real world, people don’t get a musical number when their depression closes in on them. But, that feeling of despair with a crowd in your head singing your ills is absolutely true.

I talk a lot about how fiction’s all a lie. But it’s a lie that tells the truth. Because sometimes the lie of fiction tells the truth better than a factual account. Least that’s the best way to explain Bob’s really sad poetry about the breakup.

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