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It was great! I didn't really expect it to be great, but it was. The action was so kinetic and joyful- ZOMG Diana's smile when she's using her powers!- and it sat on top of harmonious thematic development about the difficulty and moral complexity of war. Diana questing to slay Ares, as if War were a thing that could be slain like a dragon, and then realizing that truth is a much deeper ideal and that standing up for those who can't protect themselves is a much worthier way of waging war against Ares than trying to slay him with a sword.

Chris Pine was really good as Steve Trevor, this world-weary doomed soldier who slaves his fortunes to Diana's because "there's only two choices- doing something, and doing nothing, and I already tried doing nothing." He is unapologetically sexist and so is everyone else in the movie, and that's not something anyone in the movie, even Diana, really tries to change. But he recognizes Diana's heroism and her power and he invests himself in trying to support it even when it costs him. [The world of Wonder Woman is a mess, and it's not getting better fast, but there is the chance for it to get a little better, and that's enough for Wonder Woman to fight for. It's a very gradualist feminism. I think it's striking that unlike in The First Avenger, where Cap has comic books and all sorts of imagery of legacy and inspiration, Wonder Woman doesn't really show mundanes being inspired by her example- other than one town that subsequently got wiped out by von Ludendorff.]


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Rogue One

I haven't posted because I haven't really had much to say. I enjoyed it, but ranked it somewhere in the middle where it comes to Star Wars movies. I might go ANH/TESB/TFA/R1/TPM/ROTJ/ROTS/AOTC, with a considerable jump between TESB and TFA, and considerable uncertainty in the ranking of TFA/R1/TPM/ROTJ.

Rogue One had a great set of characters, a fun story that generally kept moving well, but its commitment to not being a Saga movie threw me out of it periodically. The lack of title crawl, the ending, the color palette, the sometimes boring locations... They were going for a much more mundane version of the Star Wars universe, and they succeeded. And in some senses that's a really cool thing. I like [personal profile] ghost_lingering's post about how ambiguous the 'right choices' were and [personal profile] skygiants's post about how central the nitty gritty details of archiving was to the plot. But it's also... not the reason I fell in love with A New Hope. Star Wars is a universe where there is a Dark Side and a Light Side and those things are kept cosmically in balance by a unifying Force. In that sense the Star Wars movies are generally profoundly conservative, in the best sense of the term. The Force is a presence in this film, but a more uncertain one- the film captures a moment when the Force is out of balance, and balance will not be restored until the end of the film this one is a prequel to, so I think there is a sense of structural incompleteness. I have not yet had a chance to watch Rogue One and A New Hope back to back, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that transition works.
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Now You See Me 2

I loved the first film enough that I actually requested it for Yuletide one year. Somehow the release of the sequel slipped past my awareness until Facebook started spamming me with ads for it, at which point I made a point to watch it.

I was disappointed by the sequel. It didn't ever seem to get its footing in the way the first one did in terms of telling interesting stories about the characters, and it seemed less enthralled with the power of magic and more convinced that magic was the refuge of manipulative misanthropes. NYSM skated past its imprecise plotting by being such a joyful film. NYSM2 was largely joyless.

Lizzy Caplan was a rare exception- stepping in for Isla Fisher as the token female Horseman, she brought energy and mystery and comic sexiness to the film that it desperately needed. That being said, it would've been better if the film had more interesting female characters besides her- Sanaa Lathan's police supervisor seemed like her scenes had probably been cut back, based on her lack of interaction with Dylan or any of the Horsemen, Melanie Laurent's French detective from the first film was sorely missed, and I'm disappointed that my weird pet theory about Hermia, Bradley's assistant, being more important to Bradley's plans than the first film suggested got no further evidence in film 2. The presence of the token female Horseman is grating no matter how cleverly they subvert it, and how effective the character actually is. I will say that I appreciated how intentionally they made it clear that she was not Atlas's new love interest.

And then you had Atlas and Jack get basically no character development, and the weird thing with two Woody Harrelsons had no emotional payoff in the end. Bradley was great (Morgan Freeman being morally ambiguous, duh), and we got one awesome Bradley/Tressler scene (they were definitely a couple at some point, right?), but then the Bradley/Dylan stuff had the laziest payoff because I guess they've shoved resolving Dylan's daddy issues for real to the third movie. Obviously Lionel Shrike is not dead, they've been hitting us on the head with how obvious that is for two movies now (First Jack's fake death, then Mabry's fake death... then Dylan surviving despite being apparently killed in literally the same vault that apparently killed his father), but they're unwilling to reveal him yet.

But Mabry was the movie's biggest problem. Daniel Radcliffe playing a manic sociopath was supposed to be the big new addition to the movie, the thing that upped the ante from the first film, but he was just not amped up enough to really be scary to the Horsemen. He never pushed any of his scenes far enough, never made it seem like he was actually worse than Tressler, and Tressler's mid-film reappearance undermined Mabry even further, making it seem like he wasn't competent enough to fight the Horsemen without assistance from papa. A demonic, soulless Daniel Radcliffe would have foiled Atlas perfectly, battle of the nerds for magical dominance, but he never got anywhere close to pushing Atlas, and the Horsemen coasted to a victory that was somehow both too easy and not easy enough- too easy because you never got the sense that they could actually lose, not easy enough in the sense that they were accomplishing their magical wonders with the breezy self-confidence of the first film's Horsemen.

In truth, the first raid on Octa was a monkeywrench in the film's sense of fun that they never really overcame. After showing the Horsemen so publicly humiliated, you would think that in addition to making contact with the Eye, there would be a sense of needing to prove themselves as stage magicians again, but that dynamic was left out of the film, so after that scene, I had lost confidence in the showmanship of the Horsemen, a confidence they never tried to re-earn. Was London a frothy triumph in the vein of the Vegas/France heist of the first film? Yes, but it had no character oomph behind it.
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The Big Short directed by Adam McKay

There are times, and now is one of them, when I have the sense that most of the success of the Judd Apatow empire is the result of Adam McKay being a comic genius.

So... The Big Short is a parody of Moneyball. All of my problems with Moneyball? Adam McKay is aware of them and he devotes considerable effort to lampooning them. (He also minors in lampooning Scorsese's appalling Wolf of Wall Street, a movie I couldn't endure past the first half hour.) One of The big Short's most arresting scenes involves Margot Robbie, the actress from Wolf of Wall Street, sitting naked in a bubble bath and talking about collateralized debt obligations. This scene serves multiple purposes. At its most obvious, it is a commentary on the impossibility of this movie: Nobody can make CDOs sexy. They are fundamentally, deliberately unsexy. Even when shot in the most horribly sexist, objectifying way, even when oversimplifying the explanation in the most horrendously condescending way, Margot Robbie cannot make CDOs an interesting subject. And in making this point, McKay brilliantly casts shade on Wolf of Wall Street, which tried to be a cautionary tale of Wall Street greed and excess and instead got caught up in trying to sell the excess, trying to sell the sex and drugs, trying to sell the pleasure as the entertainment to pair with the moralizing. But thirdly, the scene is a brilliant summation of what Michael Lewis tries to do. He tries to make CDOs sexy, to depict them in a way that people will find entertaining.

But this is bullshit. How do we know it's bullshit? Adam McKay has Brad Pitt (of Moneyball Brad Pitt!) explain it to us in clear terms: Celebrating the bears who created the big short is heinous, not because they didn't have a right to do it, not because they don't deserve the money, but because what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy and the ruination of many, many lives.

The Big Short begins with the smugness that characterizes every word out of Princeton Man Michael Lewis's pen, but it takes every opportunity to puncture it. It depicts scenes using Lewis's credulously oversimplified dialogue, scenes you can't believe happened as described, but you can certainly believe that the people interviewed simplified the dialogue in retelling it to Lewis, who then reported it as the gospel truth- and just as you're rolling your eyes thinking here Lewis goes again, Ryan Gosling shows up, breaks the fourth wall, and says "None of this actually happened like this." It's an incredibly striking effect to deconstruct the easy narrative.

The heroes of The Big Short are not heroes. There are no heroes in The Big Short. That doesn't mean you can't sympathize with them, sympathize with Steve Carell's fund manager trying to stick it to Wall Street in a misplaced crusade to right unrightable wrongs or sympathize with Christian Bale's brilliantly weird hedge fund manager trying to persuade his clients to hold on just long enough to actually benefit from the crisis he sees as unavoidable in the numbers, but you can't call what they do heroic. There is a lot of great acting here, but it is not in service to a feel-good story.

But I worry, because not everyone is as jaded about Michael Lewis as I am. My sense from skimming reviews is that not everyone understood that this movie was a parody of Moneyball. Not everyone got that the scene where Anthony Bourdain compares CDOs to fish or the scene where Selena Gomez talks about synthetic CDOs are not serious efforts to explain the financial market, they're jokes about how understanding the financial market isn't something you do by watching a movie, or by reading a Michael Lewis book. And not everyone will recognize that the moralizing the movie engages in in its rather impressive gut-punch ending is also leavened by the humor: Adam McKay is preaching at you about fixing the markets, but he's also preaching at you about saving our consumerist society. He's not preaching an easy salvation, that there's some obvious regulation you can get Congress to pass that will stop this from happening again, he's preaching for smart people and moral people to talk to each other and figure out how to create a system where evil people and dumb people can't win. By doing the hard and complicated work that the movie is unwilling to do. By not being stupid, by not listening to Michael Lewis tell us how it all happened and how easy it was to see the signs if you were only Christian Bale. By working within the recognition that in order for a solution to happen, it has to acknowledge that everyone in the world is rightly working toward their own self-interest.
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1973 Directed by John Sichel (after Jonathan Miller), Laurence Olivier as Shylock

Stylistically very old fashioned feeling, which made for something of an adjustment, but it is very well acted in its style and very well directed.

In general, the film chooses to downplay the Judaism of Shylock and the anti-semitism of the text, which kind of surprisingly eases some of my problems with it. Olivier plays Shylock as a cruel, ambitious, but stiff-upper-lip Anglo-Jewish banker who is playing a very dangerous game against Antonio, a cruel, ambitious, stiff-upper-lip, fully Anglo banker. Religion is a subtext for two men who don't wear their faith on their sleeve, or perhaps, whose only faith is money. Religion obviously matters to the text, but Sichel/and/or Miller are not that interested in being faithful to the text, so much as they're interested in being faithful to the play. Lines that invoke Christianity or Judaism tend to get skated over or skipped- the whole "I hate him for he is a Christian" soliloquy is left out, making for a much less sinister-seeming Shylock, but also a much less Jewish-seeming Shylock.

The film's disinterest in Shylock as a Jew is inadvertently (and a little infuriatingly) emphasized in a staging goof where Shylock kisses a mezuzah placed on the left doorpost, rather than the right where it should be. So I should say that while making Merchant of Venice a story about the perils of high capitalism where the faiths of its protagonist and antagonist are irrelevant eases some of my problems with the play, it certainly is not a solution without its own issues.

The trial scene sees a brilliant Portia as a catspaw for the vicious Antonio, who shows none of the agony and fear common in other productions- when he is ordered to lay bare his breast for Shylock's knife, he removes his suit coat, but leaves on a waistcoast and a shirt and looks perfectly calm. When he emerges from the trial victorious he suavely puts his coat back on and strolls out of the courtroom. He is a man used to risking much- and winning. Shylock, too, is a warrior- but his daughter's disappearance throws him off his stride. He does not act meanly in the courtroom. He moves with the confidence of a man with a carefully laid plan, who then sees that plan overturned at the last moment by an unforeseen trick. He is humiliated and wounded, but he takes it as part of the game.

Weirdly, the production ends with Jessica reciting Kaddish for her father, another apparent misunderstanding of how Judaism works. At some level, Merchant is a play about Judaism and its relationship to Christianity, and for all the good things in the Olivier Merchant, it fails to intelligently confront this fundamental element, and the result is disappointing.
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Because my brain fixates sometimes?

2001 Directed by Trevor Nunn, Henry Goodman as Shylock

Not always the most moving film, but a masterclass in how to not fuck up The Merchant of Venice. Which is not the most surprising thing given that it's the only Merchant film that actually cast a Jew as Shylock. (I'm not exactly blaming other directors for not casting Jews in the role- it's not a role a lot of Jewish actors would necessarily want to take, and it's hard to ask a Jew to play a walking talking stereotype. But Goodman brings a hell of a lot to the table.)

Goodman on the problem of playing Shylock: "I felt very strongly that we don't want to be too nice and sympathetic to him. We must believe that he could kill someone. He is actually not a nice guy. He is a scheming, dangerous man. And if you try and make him a nice guy because he is Jewish, and I am Jewish, then you throw away the play. You don't feel sorry for him. You become weary of him." YES. FUCK YES. Henry Goodman gets it.

This is the thing about Shylock, this is why it is so hard to satisfy me when it comes to Merchant: If you play Shylock as a walking, talking anti-semitic stereotype of greed and bloodlust, don't even bother talking to me. But if you try to make Shylock sympathetic, you ruin the play. He is the antagonist and the things he tries to do are inexcusable. And if you make excuses for him, "Oh, poor Shylock, his wife died, he has no legal rights, he is persecuted by all the Christians around him," you are trying to excuse the inexcusable. And that doesn't salvage Shylock. That just means you're not actually taking him seriously.

What you need to do to make Shylock work as a real character is treat him as the villain, but take him seriously as the villain with a meaningful character arc. There are many paths a director can take to this- Nunn and Goodman see Shylock as a conniving bastard, an Iago figure. He's the smartest person in the play, constantly playing people against each other, and he is always wearing a mask in public, always pretending to make friends with the Christians even as he seethes inside, because the dual consciousness is the only way for him to survive life in Venice. But the loss of his daughter knocks him off a step, takes him off his guard. He becomes blinded by his need for revenge, loses sight of the original purpose of the scheme, which was to take advantage of a rare opportunity to actually hurt Antonio, and ends up destroying only himself and his family.

Nunn also emphasizes Shylock's Judaism in his home life, by showing him marking Shabbos dinner with his daughter. But this is not the gentle, quiet, lovely Shabbos dinner of the Tresnjak production- Goodman's version is a complicated affair. Shylock is obsessive about making everything perfect, so obsessive that he yells at his daughter about the placement of dishes. She is sulky, resistant, but ultimately they find themselves on the same page with the recitation of Eishet Chayil, the traditional hymn in praise of good wives that is sung every Friday evening before Kiddush. Jessica and Shylock set aside their frustrations with each other to sing "Eishet Chayil" and remember the wife who had once bound them and now creates an invisible separation between them. In the finale, where Munby had Jessica sing "S'lach Lanu Avinu" from the Amidah, Nunn returns Jessica to "Eishet Chayil" as a remembrance that she has now lost both her mother and her father. It is heartbreaking.

Nunn makes the Shylock/Antonio dynamic even more complicated by giving Antonio other faults besides his anti-semitism. Most productions of Merchant I've seen don't know what to do with Antonio's opening speech about his melancholy- they present it as a thing separate from the rest of the play, and otherwise show a friendly, warm, compassionate Antonio whose only fault is his hatred of the Jew. David Bamber's Antonio, though, is melancholy because he is a closeted gay man in 1930s Germany, who loves Bassanio with a powerful but unrequited love that Bassanio knowingly takes advantage of for his own benefit, again and again, even though Bassanio likes women. Antonio knows he is being taken advantage of, but he will do anything for Bassanio out of his devotion, even things Bassanio is unwilling to accept. This complicated psychosexual dynamic makes Antonio's choices seem less noble, and explains his vulnerability to Shylock's predations. It also makes it easier to appreciate Shylock- yes, he is a monster, but he's not the only monster in the play.

Nunn fabulously de-comedizes every joke in the play, while maintaining a clear awareness that they were written as jokes. He transposes Lancelot's devil on my shoulder monologue to a Weimar cabaret as a written comedy bit, where the (on-stage) audience, which includes Antonio and Bassanio, is laughing because they like laughing at Jews. Shylock walks in, invited to meet with Antonio and seal the deal, and the crowd goes briefly silent, only to resume laughing when Shylock departs. He plays the casket scenes as pure horror scenes, where if something goes wrong Portia will be forced to marry one of these horrible men. He dances over the 'complexion' line so fast you barely notice it. Nunn's Merchant is not a comedy, but it's also not a tragedy- it's a work that was written as a comedy but which we no longer find funny. And that's ultimately why I said that it's not always the most moving film- for all the great character performances, it's often hard in Nunn's Merchant to figure out who to root for. It's often hard to take any joy in any character's triumph, because everyone is so remarkably, indelibly flawed and broken.

1980 Directed by Jack Gold, Warren Mitchell as Shylock

Just an absolute piece of shit from beginning to end. Played as a comedy, but not a funny one. The kind of comedy where the characters all have to laugh overly hard at their jokes to tell the audience that they are jokes. The kind of drama where all the characters have pinched looks from beginning to end to tell you that they're taking things seriously, rather than actually reacting to what's happening. The kind of overly stylized, formal diction that thankfully is being excised in more modern productions of Shakespeare. I don't have much to say about it. I quit twice partway through, and watched the ending with one eye while reading a book.

Shylock lisps like a scary foreigner and schemes aimlessly. "My daughter, my ducats" is played for laughs, which it doesn't earn, the absurdity of the Jew caring as much for his money as the loss of his daughter. Antonio is so melancholy he becomes absent, barely a meaningful character. Even Gratiano's pratfalls fall flat. The trial scene was scratched on my DVD, so I skipped it, and feel like I dodged a bullet.

As far as I can tell, the purpose of this production was to create a basic filmed unabridged reference production that high school teachers can screen for their students, a production that takes no stands and makes no waves and follows along exactly to the text the students were given, that any teacher can use to impose their own lesson plan on top of. Maybe it's effective on its own terms. As art, it is worthless and insulting.

2003 Directed by Michael Radford, Al Pacino as Shylock

It opens with a dense textual title card explaining what life was like for Jews in 16th Century Venice, because everyone knows that Tell, Don't Show is the fundamental principle of great storytelling. Why prove the difficulty of life in Venice for Jews by showing Shylock's life and trusting the audience, when you can spell it out for them before the play starts? And because everyone watching The Merchant of Venice doesn't know what anti-semitism is and needs it explained to them like they're two years old, right? The Radford Merchant is much more egregious than the Munby in its obliviousness to the fact that actual Jews might actually watch his movie. From step one it assumes that Shylock needs defending, that if only you explained to the audience that Shylock's life was hard, they would sympathize with his victimhood rather than thinking of Jews as evil Christ-killing usurers. The prelude goes so far as to show pages of Talmud burning in the pogroms of the Venetians.

I first saw this film when it came out, in a theater, and I had a visceral negative reaction to it. I hated how Pacino played Shylock, the weakness in his character, the opacity in his mien, the lack of apparent intelligence. I hated the victimhood narrative that drives so much of the action, how the film tries to at times justify Shylock's actions, make the audience sympathize, by playing up the violence against Jews, as if that violence could ever justify demanding a pound of Christian flesh. We see Antonio spitting on Shylock, we see Venetians shoving and kicking and swearing at Shylock and his fellow Jews. Nothing can be left to the imagination, Shylock's suffering must be writ tediously large.

This time around, I felt more positively about the film, for several reasons. First, the cinematography and mise en scene is phenomenal. This is a beautiful movie that captures medieval Venice in its complicated glory, with its diverse crowds, its nautical merchant culture, its striking architecture. And all of that is worth praising, because it is a pleasure in its own right.

Second, in the title card there is one fascinating feature I hadn't picked up on the first (two) times around- the text notes that while Venice had laws oppressing Jews, it was comparatively liberal because for most 'sophisticated' Venetians, money and the value of lending with interest was more valuable than obeisance to Christian faith. However, says the title card, 'religious fanatics' hated the Jews for charging interest.

In other words, in Radford's vision of the play, Antonio is not a true Merchant of Venice, committed to winning his fortune at any cost- he's a religious fanatic. This is an amazing twist that Radford and Irons actually carry through from beginning- where Radford shows Antonio attending mass- to end- where Antonio's breast is bared and readied for Shylock's knife, revealing a massive silver cross on his chest. Antonio's hatred of Shylock is not personal, it emerges from his own deep faith in Christ and the Bible. This explains his willingness to lend without interest at obvious personal loss, it explains his willingness to, Christ-like, accept the execution of Shylock's bond. Antonio is not typical for Venice, he is an exceptional man whose personal character impels him to antagonize Jews.

I was talking to [personal profile] ghost_lingering at Club Vivid about how the central tension in the best versions of Merchant is on the idea of the power of promises. Portia believes in oaths so deeply that she will not violate the oath she swore to her father even if it mean she end up married to a hateful man. She believes in oaths so deeply that in the trial scene, she will not invalidate Shylock's bond because to do so would make contracts meaningless. She believes in oaths so deeply that she tests her husband's oath about the ring, and finds him disappointingly lacking. Shylock will have his bond, and the Duke will go along with it because do otherwise would destroy the Venetian commerce system.

In contrast to this principle of promises stands Balthazar's "quality of mercy", which transcends laws and which she urges upon Shylock in lieu of his legalism. What's fascinating about Radford's version of the play is that while it's very much concerned with promises and oaths and mercy, it flips some of the conventional elements of the tension- Pacino plays Shylock as far more apparently merciful than one is used to seeing: When Balthazar speaks of the quality of Mercy, Pacino does not look mocking or scornful- he looks troubled. Portia's message resonates with him, as a pleading for virtue, and he appears to be genuinely considering backing down from his cruel demand. Perhaps he is recalling the original loan, when he pled unsuccessfully for Antonio to be his friend, when he made the offer to lend without interest not as a cruel joke but as an offer of friendship. No matter- ultimately Shylock's heart hardens and he refuses to back down from his legalism. Perhaps he recalls that the religious fanatic Antonio never showed him any Christian mercy.

I also like that Joseph Fiennes' Bassanio is clearly marked as an unreformed spendthrift, with far more servants than I've ever seen a production of Merchant assign him before. That was a clever choice, I think, that calls into deeper question the power imbalance in the Portia/Bassanio relationship as well as the Antonio/Bassanio relationship.

I still think it is a weaker set of choices than Nunn's. I still think Pacino's Shylock is opaque and his actions not well justified by the performance or the staging, and Jessica is a vague whimperer rather than a fully realized character, but I appreciate this version more than I did previously.
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I just saw the new Star Trek movie. I liked it, I guess. I definitely liked it more than the other two reboot films. Those films were just action movies with fanservice. This one... it wasn't exactly a Star Trek movie, I would say, but it was a movie interested in asking the question "What is a Star Trek movie?" which is in some ways better. I like messy uncertain art.

I liked Kirk's anxiety about the 'episodic' nature of the Enterprise's journey, how his central quest in this film is for a mission he can sink his teeth into and commit to, an opportunity to put his stamp on the way the world works, rather than just aimlessly exploring. His conclusion to the quest looks both inward and outward, via a literal piece by piece reassembly of his understanding of his own crew.

I liked Scotty's storyline about being forced into an utterly foreign kind of heroism, of building relationships instead of just interacting with equipment. I liked Bones's struggle to make sense of his friendship with Spock. I wish Sulu and Uhura had been given character arcs, but they were given moments of badass instead, which is perhaps adequate recompense, especially since it was Uhura who was allowed the chance to articulate the movie's ultimate conclusion. And Jaylah was pretty great altogether.

But most of all I liked "The Federation is an Act of War". I felt like in a lot of ways Krall was what Khan should have been in STiD- the threat he poses to the Federation and the reasons why the Federation is flawed but worth trying to improve on.
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I saw Ghostbusters Sunday. The topline verdict is that it was both fun and funny, and that it had glorious, top-notch technobabble.

No seriously, I aspire to write technobabble that good. It wasn't just euphonious and sciencey, it was self-consistent and it was consistent with the technobabble of the original movie. But it was also euphonious. There were repeated references to ionizing energy that had very little connection to how ionizing energy works in the real world, but which were consistent with each other, and built up a mental image in the viewer's head of how the science of ghostbusting worked. It sounded like real science. And it was paired with scientists thinking like real scientists. I loved how Dr. Gilbert confronted the Bill Murray character by saying "You're right, if I were you I wouldn't believe us, because science is built on experimentation and repeatability and evidence, and you have not seen any compelling evidence yet, so... I am going to show you our evidence." All the scientific method feels.

Holtzmann was the best. "Safety lights are for dudes," indeed. I love her reckless abandon and commitment to engineering improvement. I love how even she can't keep track of all of her own modifications, and how casually she handles nuclear weapons. I love how she iterates, how every failure just brings out her "Okay, now I know how to make the next generation better." I loved her sarcastic guessing about how many safety regulations she's violated. Holtzmann is my engineering anti-hero- though a basic guide to how to do engineering would be: Look at whatever Holtzmann does and do the opposite, it is awesome to imagine a world in which Holtzmann could be successful. (Holtzmann reminds me of the way I wrote Eugenie Rillieux, actually)

I have mixed feelings, though, about the put-it-back-in-the-box ending. I suppose the intention is to suggest explicitly that women can be as successful as men, but they won't get the same credit, and I think there is also commentary about how the discourse between scientists and the public is broken, how the things the public believes about the scientific world are not the same as the things that scientists believe, but... the triumphant ending is part of what I love about the original movie. I like that ultimately the outsider scientists save the world and are recognized for it, that the world readjusts to the reality of ghosts rather than trying to deny they ever existed. The cover-up is not supposed to be part of my Ghostbusters fantasy, damnit.
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Recent media:

I'm watching Agent Carter, of course... this thing they do where they only show Agent Carter when Agents of SHIELD is on hiatus is only helping Agent Carter, I think, because the relief I feel of not watching AoS makes my enjoyment of Agent Carter that much greater. I recall narrating the half-season finale to [personal profile] sanguinity on chat as I watched... "Holy shit, Fitz just travelled to another dimension to kill Simmons's ex-boyfriend. That is a thing I just watched."

Agent Carter is far from perfect, but the effort is there and that's a large part of my 'glorious failure' aesthetic. The reason Agent Carter frustrates is because it's actually trying to deal with important social issues and coming short, not because it's trying to pretend the issues aren't there. So one can certainly call attention to the way Howard Stark's sexism continues to be a joke rather than a character flaw, how Stark's imperviousness to Peggy's frustration with him undermines the show's messages about sexism. It's worth complaining about, it's one of many places where the show fails to deliver on its promise. But it's in the context of a show that's trying to talk about sexism, so we can have a conversation about that failure and what it signifies, rather than objecting to the bankruptcy of the original concept. Its failures are interesting failures, to put it one way.

I thought the scene where Howard Stark invades the all-male social club with his harem was fascinating and worth reflecting on, for its complicated mix of conflicting signals. The club is a safe haven for white, Christian, heterosexual, wealthy men. Howard Stark is white, ostensibly Christian, apparently quite heterosexual, and undeniably wealthy- a prime candidate for membership. He has no interest in joining the club, he says, because of his sympathy with egalitarian principles. One wonders, given the ambiguous signalling of last season, whether his Jewishness has some role in it, if some part of him objects to the club because he knows that if they knew his Jewish origins they would reject him. (I deeply wish Howard Stark's Judaism had been made explicit, it would have been this scene much more interesting) On the other hand, one wonders how much his sexism masks his egalitarianism- Stark could consort with his harem anywhere, but he takes delight in bringing them to the club because they represent a disruption to a social ideal he abhors. He values his harem in this moment not because of any sexual pleasure they provide him, but because of the effect they have on the members of the club: they are, by and large, delighted! Titillated! The general membership has no objection to women on premises, they simply do not have any reason to object to the status quo because it benefits them. It is club management who calls security, who evicts Stark and bans him from the club because of the social protest he has oh-so-innocently offered.

And at the same time, Stark's harem is nameless, just a collection of attractive bodies, sex objects manipulated by the only heroic woman with any brains and intentionality on the show: Peggy Carter. The show's great structural failing remains this. While we occasionally we get the heroism of Angie's acting scene or the wry subversion of Jarvis's amazing wife Anna, for the most part Agent Carter is about Peggy Carter in a man's world, and ultimately that feels like the kind of feminism that emerges from a man's imagination.

And still I love it! I love 1950s Hollywood as the new setting, even though obviously I would not have objected to more 1950s NYC. I love how they keep hitting the theme of Hollywood as a place for reinvention of self, this terribly destructive and terribly powerful myth that has been so important in shaping modern America. And I love Jarvis and Mrs. Jarvis beyond words, I love how at every turn the Peggy/Jarvis relationship subverts the tropes of UST, how the Jarvises represent one of the most compelling marriages I've ever seen on action television. I love the tension of a SF mystery told well and reasonably fairly. And I love Hayley Atwell's Peggy so fucking much. Administering the common cold as torture! (A really intense cold!)

I want to know more about Peggy's fiance backstory from last night. I was really hoping the fiance would be a Hawley, that they would transplant Nick Fury's Pamela Hawley backstory to Peggy, because it would work really well. It didn't quite go that way, but in general we didn't get enough details.

I also watched Ant Man last night, borrowed from the library because I had no interest in paying to see it. It was way more inoffensive than I'd feared. Hank Pym was not a likeable dude, but the story didn't require me to like him, because he was up against a lunatic allied with HYDRA and anyway Scott Lang and CASSIE!!! And Janet died because of her own choices, not because of Hank's mistakes, and we may get Janet back after all, and we're getting a Wasp either way, so the damage from that fuckup was about as minimal as I could have hoped for in the circumstances. And the shrinking stuff was fun! The scale play was really enjoyable, the scene fought on top of an iPhone, the scene in a bathtub flood, all the anthill stuff... Not a great movie, but not as terrible as it could have been.

I also recently finished Jessica Jones. What to say? It's really good, Krysten Ritter was really great. I think it was not a great show to marathon, and did not necessarily benefit from the Netflix release schedule. I needed time to process as I watched, so I watched it over the course of a few months, and everyone I talked to was on their own viewing schedule so we couldn't really talk about it. Very few people I know binged through it, mostly everyone was working through it an episode or two at a time the way I was. But I welcome conversation about it now.

And... I know I've recommended Only Connect a half dozen times already, and I know nobody but me cares, but seriously, even if you're not a quiz show person, watch the season finale. It's mesmerizing. The questions are just ludicrously impossible and the quizzers do a truly heroic job of slogging through it. The connecting walls are absolutely brutal. I think it is the greatest quiz show episode I've ever seen. Only Connect Season finale
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Um... Star Wars. The usual disclaimer that I'm an asshole who doesn't cut-tag spoilers applies. The other usual disclaimer is that it's not really all that likely that I'll talk all that specifically about the major twists in the story, because that's not usually where my focus is in talking about fiction.

I saw it last night with a bunch of friends, and I have to say that even if the movie had been terrible, that's how I'd want to see it, the excitement and enthusiasm of opening night and the joy of sharing it with friends. The Star Wars movies are for me such a powerfully communal fannish experience... my first experiences with online fandom were Star Wars play by post rpgs as a teenager and online yahoogroup fan clubs talking obsessively about the minutiae of the EU. I love the movies, especially Episodes IV and V, but I love playing in the worlds of Star Wars with my friends more than I love watching the movies. The excitement in the room when the opening crawl was palpable and was better than the actual crawl itself by miles.

The movie wasn't terrible, though. It was actually quite good. The new characters, particularly Rey and Finn, slotted seamlessly into the world of the classic trilogy and felt like real people immediately. The plot moved nicely without the annoying lags that mar Episodes II and III, the visual vocabulary of the movie FELT like Star Wars. Han and Leia and Chewie and Threepio were used marvelously, with the relationship between Han and Ben representing one of the best emotional arcs in any Star Wars film despite how little we knew about its details. These weren't cameos, this was a completion of stories that also passed the torch.

The first appearance of the Falcon on Jakku and the chase scene that followed was a wonderful action scene, and the final duel between Kylo Ren and Rey was a phenomenal piece of action storytelling. The scene at Maz Kanata's was far too short, but it was full of detail and depth and fun. BB88 was adorable and the Finn/Poe bond was nice and I really liked the ups and downs of the Rey/Finn relationship.

But... there are buts. This was an unsatisfying movie, one much more preoccupied with asking questions and setting up new characters and story-lines than with giving the kind of complete narrative that A New Hope managed. We know virtually nothing about Rey's backstory, a lack that doesn't impair the movie until the ending, where her final meeting with Luke is incomprehensible and will remain so until the sequel. We barely got the time to form any attachment to Poe, so the interludes in the final battle where we see his X-wings are nowhere near as tense and memorable as the X-wing vs. TIE duels of A New Hope because we just don't care that much about Poe, compared to Han and Chewie and Rey and Finn and R2 and even to some degree Kylo Ren, who are all chewing up story like mad in the parallel sequences.

And the factional politics were particularly muddled. In A New Hope, you don't know anything about the Empire or the Alliance, but you have a sense of their relation: The Empire is big, vast, impersonal, and evil. The Rebels are tiny, underfunded, scrappy, and fighting for freedom. But in The Force Awakens there is The Republic, the First Order, and the Resistance, three factions whose relation to each other is confusing and ambiguous and we get no sense of scale. Is the First Order more powerful than the Republic? Is the Republic more powerful than the First Order, but for some reason unwilling to resist the First Order's advances? Is the Resistance small and scrappy, or is it well trained and powerfully funded, capable of beating back the First Order unless the First Order deploys an amoral and unethical superweapon? I don't need to know the names of politicians and laws, but without this sense of the scope of the relationships between the factions, it was hard to fully appreciate the movie's war storylines.

And thirdly, watching in 3D was a huge mistake. This was not bad 3D, the kind that makes you sick, or that looks silly and cartoonish. But it did make the foreground pop significantly, grabbing the eye's attention almost unavoidably, and this is not how I want to watch a Star Wars movie. The composition of a shot in most scenes in a Star Wars film is full of background easter eggs and jokes and stories that add to the depth of the sense of world. I want as deep a field of view as possible, and I'm not going to get that until I rewatch the film in 2D. And again. And again. :P

But most importantly, HAN! AND CHEWIE! AND LEIA! AND LUKE! AND THREEPIO! AND R2! AND NIEN NUNB! It was like family coming home again, and I had a blast despite these reservations.
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A couple nights ago I watched the Moneyball movie as a followup to the book. It was um... in some ways it was worse than the book. In some ways it was more interestingly bad.

The filmmakers reproduce a scene from early in the book where Beane sits in a room full of his scouts and listens impatiently as they talk about 'tools' and physical attributes rather than about statistics. Lewis's version is subtly more interesting in a million ways: Lewis captures the mix of older and younger scouts, adaptable scouts and inflexible scouts, thoughtful scouts and intuitive scouts. The movie shows a room full of old men, emphasizing this by having one of the most outspoken ones wearing a hearing aide. It is lazy and ageist and it is not as interesting a story as the reality, or even Lewis's botched reality.

But basically the plot of the film is Regression to the Mean: The Movie. The Oakland A's jump out of the gate slowly, underperforming as compared to what their statistical output as far as run creation would predict. Fans are unhappy, players are unhappy, media is unhappy, ownership is unhappy. Billy Beane and [Pseudo-Paul DePodesta with some Sandy Alderson thrown in] tell them not to worry, the team will regress to the mean. Gradually, it happens. Everyone is happy. The end.

This is phenomenally boring. The movie tries to deal with this problem by obfuscating its own thesis. Beane's trade of Jeremy Giambi for John Mabry is, pretty clearly, an emotional overreaction by Beane that worked against his own theory of run creation, but in the movie it's positioned to suggest it somehow played a role in changing the team's fortunes. Beane tries to maintain separation from his players to maintain objectivity early in the film, but after the Giambi-Mabry trade, the film starts to show Beane and fake-Depodesta lecturing the players on sabermetric tactical principles, suggesting that it was selling the system to the team's players, leadership on Beane's part, that caused the turnaround... even though the movie's whole thesis is that the turnaround was just regression to the mean. This tension between sports movie tropes and moneyball's mathematical truths is inharmonious at best.

But it is interesting how much the movie is committed to not looking like a sports movie. We barely see any baseball being played in the movie, and when we do, it's shot in explicitly trope-subversive ways. The trope of the players fading off the field to leave an empty stadium at the end of the season is used particularly effectively in this regard.

Unfortunately, instead of baseball imagery we get weird, fetishy number imagery. Tables of data shot out of focus, shot with the column headings cut off, scrolled through too fast to make sense of. Math as magic, whee! Never in the movie does Sorkin trust the numbers to actually tell a story. People have to tell the stories for the numbers, and they usually do a pretty poor job of it.
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I saw Terminator: Genisys on Sunday, mostly because it was a fast day and that limited my interest in doing anything more active. As I have mentioned, with the reclining seats at my local movie theater, I will gladly see even terrible movies. Terminator: Genisys was terrible.

To start with, WTF was with the title? Terminator has this uncomfortable relationship to Biblical legend... John Connor is a Messianic or sometimes Anti-Messianic figure, and the last Terminator movie, which I haven't seen, was called Salvation. We all know this, made a vid about this. So Genisys, the weird techno-pun on the book of Genesis, is an obvious Biblical reference. But it's not clear what the reference is.

In TSCC, the Eden imagery belongs to Derek Reese, who grew up East of Eden and was blessed/cursed to return to the Garden. The show consciously played with this, dwelling on the way that circumstances John took for granted were paradisical miracles for Derek. (I have also worked on a vid about this theme. What can I say, I love Biblical themes in Terminator.)

But in Terminator: Genisys, even though Kyle Reese spends nearly the whole film in this Eden, the movie is not at all interested in seeing him adapt. So the title Genisys is not clearly a callback to that.

For a while, I thought it might be a Paradise Lost theme with Kyle Reese as Lucifer cast out of Skynet's heaven into the past, but the thematic development on that theme was too lazy to merit mention.

Otherwise, I'm lost. There's a muddled John as Messiah of Skynet-God idea that doesn't really line up with anything else in the series. Genisys in the actuality in the film is a somewhat childish proto-skynet as Microsoft Cloud, the anxiety of Star Wars and Cold War weapons gone rogue transmuting into our current anxiety about the omnipresence of corporate control of technology. (Literally transmuting... Genisys is created, with Time Traveling Skynet's help, by the son of Cyberdyne's Miles Dyson.) At best, the resonance I can find for the name is Genisys as a Beginning, but it's not even really a beginning in a movie that starts timelinewise with a T-800 rescuing a 9 year old Sarah Connor.

Otherwise? The idea that Skynet sent Terminators back in time to when Sarah was nine and tried to kill her is fascinating on so many levels.

First, because it suggests a progression of the tactical back and forth between Skynet and John Connor that is just interesting in a student-of-war way, no matter how horrific it is. That each is probing the others' defenses and searching for weak points and striking ruthlessly at the heart of any weak point available.

Second, because the resulting Sarah we see is really interesting conceptually. She has grown up knowing that she is 'supposed' to be the mother of the savior of mankind. That she is 'supposed' to meet Kyle Reese, fall in love with him, have sex with him, get pregnant with his son, and then Kyle Reese is 'supposed' to die. And if she prevents any of these things from happening, humanity dies. So for this Sarah Connor, wondering about fate is the most eminently practical thing imaginable, because she knows the life she is predestined for, and it is stark and terrible, and yet anything other than that life is worse. Fate has taken away her bodily autonomy.

And she hates this, she hates that she lost her family when she was nine, hates that she was raised by an absolutely absurd machine she calls 'Pops', hates that her life is not her own, but at the same time, she has adapted to it. She's had fifteen years to get used to the idea that this is the shape of her life, and she has become good at it. She's good at fighting Metal, good at out-thinking Skynet, good at pulling people together to fight, good at being Sarah Fucking Connor. And when she meets Kyle Reese, she is excited, because he is everything her life has been building towards, and she is nervous, because that is a really adult thing to confront, and she is still to some degree a child.

But for this to work as designed, the acting needs to be better than it was. Sarah needs to meet Kyle Reese and, even though she's steeled herself against any kind of emotional response, even though she's trying to force herself to 'love' him mechanically so that she can save the future, she needs to fall in love with him anyway, so that she has to fight these two forces within herself, the force that believes in subordinating her emotions for the sake of humanity and the force that is hopelessly letting her emotions pull her toward (or possibly away from) the fate that she has grown up believing is unavoidable.

Emilia Clarke is a good enough actress to pull this off. Jai Courtney is not. His Kyle Reese is so bland, so emotionally empty, so ridiculously and pointlessly devoted to the idea of Sarah Connor, that Sarah falling in love with him is utterly meaningless.

And then there's the film's time travel. Terminator time travel never makes sense, and that's fine. It's never clear if it wants stable time loops or branching timelines, and that's fine, that's part of the ropes when it comes to being in Terminator fandom. But in this movie, Sarah is so nervous about the falling in love with Kyle Reese thing that they timeskip over the birth of John Connor, without even questioning its potential impact. Later, there's a little babble about how Kyle and Sarah have become islands in the time stream, able to affect it without being affected by it, but I found that unclear and hard to swallow even in the circumstances. The tropey All You Zombies elegance of the first movie's Sarah/Kyle romance erodes deeper and deeper into silliness with each successive iteration.

The good things about the movie were limited to Arnold being ridiculous and awesome, Emilia Clarke being badass, and some surprisingly good comic relief from JK Simmons, as a cop who'd encountered Reese and Connor in 1984 and spent the rest of his career chasing after evidence of their existence.
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I saw Pitch Perfect 2 yesterday. My mind is unsettled.

In the realm of comedy, Pitch Perfect 2 was very broad, even broader than the first film. Crass sex jokes and jokes about how weird foreigners are make up a lot of the actual jokes in the film, and that is not typically the sort of humor I tend to go for. And yet, with a few exceptions, I laughed at this movie. I'm trying to figure out why.

I think a major reason is the surreality of the plot. The film opens on the Bellas performing for the President at the Kennedy Center, as John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks's ICCA commentator characters give play by play. Which... WHY? When have you ever seen a random Kennedy Center performance with play by play? The performance goes poorly, leading to the ICCAs suspending the Bellas from competition, but they will let them be reinstated if they do well at the World Championship... even though ICCA stands for International Championship of College A Cappella, and in the real world has hosted international teams for at least a few years now. No American team has ever won this imaginary World Championship, because according to Higgins's character, "The world hates us."

The premise doesn't just make no sense. It actively requires you to suspend all sorts of disbelief in order to embrace it as a vehicle for great singing. So when it turns out that the German team are a bunch of emotionless robots who wear fetishy costumes with leather and fishnets, it's not entirely clear whose expense the joke is at- or if it is even intended as a joke at all. (Probably a joke, though. They sing the English language version of Der Commissar!!! WWWWTTTTTTFFFFFFF???????) When Florencia delivers a sustained stream of 'jokes' about the ravages of the war she survived in Guatemala in order to smuggle herself into America, in comparison to the Bellas' first world problems, the jokes land better than I would expect because there is no sustained comic tone that they puncture, so they almost work as character beats. It likewise almost doesn't matter that every thing Cynthia says is "Look at me, I'm a lesbian," because nobody responds to it in any way when she says it. Pitch Perfect 2 is too weird a movie for offensive jokes to come out as jokes, so instead they come out as just part of the weirdness of the worldbuilding.

Besides, we're there for the music. We don't care if Cynthia is a lesbian, we're there because she's Ester motherfucking Dean singing. Even more than the first movie, this film trusts the music to do the storytelling. When the Bellas gives a disastrous performance in a senior citizen center, we don't need the John Michael Higgins to tell us that the Bellas have lost their sound and their identity. When they sing a no tapping Cup song in unison on their retreat, we don't need Aubrey to tell us they've found it again. The movie is a sustained argument about the valences of songs- what song to sing, how to sing it, when to sing it. What does an original song say? What does a remix say? What does a 1960s cover mean, vs. a 1990s cover, vs. a 2010s cover? What is originality, what is talent, what is an individual contribution and what develops in collaboration? It's a really compelling presentation even in its strange packaging.
seekingferret: A picture (me)
A thing I realized recently... when I was about seven or so and obsessed with the reruns of Adam West Batman on WPIX 11, my parents threw me a Batman birthday party. My grandmother sewed me a Batman costume, which I would regularly put on for the next several years when I wanted to feel awesome. And my mother... in addition to the Batman themed decorations and the cake and whatever else she did for the party, my mother wrote a Riddler-style puzzle hunt where we solved rhyming clues that brought us all over the house to catch the Riddler.

And I just realized that as an adult, I go up to Boston nearly every year to (sometimes dress in costume and) compete in the MIT Mystery Hunt, but Batman (and my mother) is responsible for my first puzzle hunt experience. And I'm pretty grateful for that.


Thoughts on recently consumed media:

-Kingsman was a pretty hard no. The problem wasn't gratuitous violence, it was the film's attitude toward the gratuitous violence. I was revolted by the scene in the church, which compromised a major character's morality while trying to have its cake and eat it too by fetishizing the moment.

-The Last Five Years movie was delightful, though my relationship with that musical is so tied up in the people who I've shared it with that I can't really give it any kind of honest review. I loved it because I was going to love it no matter what. Anna Kendrick's "I Can Do Better Than That" was a particular treat, and though I think I've seen "The Schmuel Song" performed better than Jeremy Jordan did, I've never seen it staged better.

The movie struggled at times with staging the more surreal moments in the the play- "The Next Ten Minutes" didn't quite sell the overlap for me, chiefly, but overall I thought it was well shot, but this was a movie that was all about the music, and both Jordan and Kendrick did a very good job with the material, and Kendrick in particularly is obviously a superstar.

And... here's a picture of Every Shapiro in Washington Heights!

-Jupiter Ascending was a lot of fun to watch. I don't think it was as well-crafted or well-plotted as Guardians of the Galaxy, but I admired it a hell of a lot more. The originality of the visual universe felt almost like A New Hope in its hidden depths. I'll tell you what- I would really enjoy a sequel where Jupiter has come into her own as a secret space princess. I liked her a lot in this movie, and she was obviously smart and brave and kind, so it was disappointing that she was thrust into a universe where she defaulted to damsel because there was too much she didn't know for her to possibly make the right choices. I want a movie where Jupiter can wage a subtle war of soft power against Titus and Kalique, and not be overwhelmed by their familiarity with the ground rules. (Having seen the second Matrix film, though, I'm not certain the Wachowskis are the directors to give us that growth.)

In general, I admired the movie for building a universe on a massive scale and then not trying to bore us with all the tedious details. There is so much detail in that movie that passed me by, so much density and volume to the movie, that it was remarkable.
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So um... This Is Where I Leave You, which I declared sight un-seen I would request for Yuletide? I saw it today.

Let us first state that it is not a very good movie.

That said, it is a movie about a bunch of goyim sitting shiva for their atheist father because their Christian mother guilted them into it. It has Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation) as a Rabbi. It has fun performances from Jason Bateman and Tina Fey and Kathryn Hahn and Abigail Spencer and Dax Shepard, actors I've enjoyed for ages. It has a marvelous performance from Jane Fonda as the family matriarch. It has goofy synagogue humor... the scene where they're getting high in a Hebrew school classroom had marvelously accurate set dressing.

In short, even though it's not a very good movie, I was destined to enjoy it regardless of that fact.

This Is Where I Leave You seems like it ought to be a movie extracting comedy from the tension of a dysfunctional family, but the Altmans don't really seem like a very dysfunctional family. They don't seem like a very happy family, a lot of the time, but they pretty much do get along. The parents showed affection for their children growing up. The kids supported each other and had each others' backs. At first, I found this a bit surprising but rather enjoyable, that the comedy was coming from a gentler place than I'd expected. I really liked the Altmans and I really liked the way they stuck together even when they disapproved of each other.

Then we got the kind of classic family dysfunction scenes you expect from a film like this, and... they bothered me. Paul's wife sneaking into the basement to seduce her brother-in-law Judd didn't seem like an appropriately raunchy comic moment, an essential 'look at how fucked up this family is' moment. It just seemed sad and bleak and pathetic. Judd recruiting some frat boys to tip his cuckold's car might have been a triumphant if childish moment, but following it up with the cuckold announcing his intention of abandoning Judd's pregnant ex-wife took any air out the triumph. Because the family was not really all that dysfunctional to begin with, because the film began with gentle family humor instead of over-the-top clashes of personality, the 'comedy' of watching shiva force them to be too close together for a week was the 'comedy' of watching a family tear itself apart. When Fonda's matriarch character admitted that she had faked her husband's request for them to sit shiva, her son Philip objected that her ploy had screwed up his relationship with his fiancee- with some justification, I would say.

So am I still going to request fic for Yuletide now that I've seen it? Yes, I think I probably am. Like I said, I liked the Altmans a lot and I loved Rabbi Jean-Ralphio, and I would be happy to see fic for either or both of those things. Even though I was disappointed by the movie, it had a lot of components that I enjoyed and would like to see expanded upon. And I'm amused by the idea of requesting a thing for Yuletide that I'd decided sight-unseen, because I am a bad person.
seekingferret: Photo of the gragger from the Season 1 Agents of SHIELD finale, with the text Agents of P.U.R.I.M. in the SHIELD font. (shield)
X-Men: Days of Future Past was disappointing in all the ways I expected it to be. It was not the follow-up to X-Men First Class I'd desperately and foolishly hoped it would be. It was a story that centered Charles and Charles's vision of the future over Erik's, it was a story that centered Wolverine's struggle over Kitty's, it was a story that prioritized Charles over Mystique.

I will say a few things in its defense before I trash it.

First, the acting was of astounding quality. Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Ian McKellen... the density of high quality actors turning in excellent performances was tremendous, and they played off each other brilliantly. That has always been the hallmark of these X-Men films, even the bad ones, and this was certainly no exception.

Second, I said to [personal profile] starlady after XMFC: "I don't think that Charles at the end of the film has yet reached a truly adult ethics of telepathy." To this movie's credit, though I didn't actually believe it would happen, that did turn out to be Charles's arc, and in the movie's climax Charles does appear to finally develop such a formulation. This would be terrific as an arc for the film, except that I don't watch X-Men movies for Charles. Charles sucks.

Third, Mystique in this movie is truly awesome, and there were places where the movie came close to really giving her her due. And the Future scenes were mostly terrific, also. I loved the coordination, the elaborately chained mutant powers that spoke silently and powerfully of years of training and sharing your minds with your best friends against the world.

Time to trash it!

I wrote in my anticipatory post that the original comic DoFP constitutes a clever critique of liberal universalism from within a comic that traditionally has been a standard bearer for such universalism, and I was correct in intuiting that with Charles present, that would no longer be possible. This became yet another X-Men film in which the only thing standing between the world and coexistence was the mutant terrorists. I have no problem with them making X-Men movies about that, since of course that's what X-Men stands for, but I wanted to see them take advantage of the opportunity the source material offered to complicate the narrative. Because liberal universalism is a nice idea and an important one, but it's sometimes just an attractive fantasy. The Holocaust really did happen, and it didn't happen because the Jews were causing trouble and making people hate them, and sometimes if you take Charles's vision of coexistence too simply that's the terrible place where you end up. That's why you need Erik's vision as a counterbalance. That's why "Erik and Charles both sent me back" should mean something more than "Erik has finally realized the error of his ways." The alternative is "If we stopped fighting, suddenly they would stop trying to kill us."

From a storytelling perspective, the worst part of the way "Erik and Charles both sent me back" was handled was that Patrick Stewart!Charles told Logan that Logan would need to teach McAvoy!Charles how to be a grownup, and McKellen!Erik told Logan that Logan would need to fetch Erik out of his Pentagon prison? As if McKellen!Erik thought one of two impossible to believe things about his younger self: that Fassbender!Erik was unteachable, or that Fassbender!Erik would need no teaching to do the right thing. I can't buy either choice. Logan should have been sent back with instructions on how to teach Fassbender!Erik to be a grownup, accumulated wisdom from the hard life that has somehow brought Erik back into alliance with Charles, but this tremendously disturbing storytelling oversight was made because it would have compromised the filmmaker's desire to use Erik's violent impulses as a strawman to be taken down in the film's finale.

Which leads us to Paris. Charles and Erik have traced their dark dystopian future to a moment here: Mystique assassinates Trask, Stryker captures Mystique, the Sentinel program is reactivated and made unstoppable with Mystique's DNA. Stop Mystique, so the original theory goes, and history will be fixed. [This is too naive even for this film, obviously, so the movie litigates two alternate theories of time alteration: Classic Back to the Future, and Ferret's Back to the Future fanfiction. In Classic BTTF, time travellers can make drastic but plausible changes in history by altering the past. There is no chaotic butterfly effect, but there are no fundamental limits to the way we change the past. In Fearful Symmetry, there is a restitution coefficient in the physics of time travel that reflects the tendency of the time stream to correct toward an idealized state. End tangent.]

And then Erik screws everything up according to both theories by shooting Mystique. This is a mindboggling, utterly bizarre moment that all of the talented actors in this scene do a marvelous job of being perplexed by. There are so many ways in which this makes no sense, but the greatest is that it defies Erik as chessmaster IN THE PREVIOUS SCENE. Literally, we just watched Erik playing chess, thinking about how to play the long game, casually outmaneuvering Charles and now... he has Charles in his corner again, he has Mystique and he's stopped Trask from getting her and they can run away and he can wait until he's thought out all the ramifications before making his next move. Maybe he will have to kill Mystique, but it's not necessary that he shoot her at that moment. It reflects a desire for instant gratification that was never Magneto's weakness, for any version of Magneto.

The frustrating paradox is that because X-Men First Class invested me in the idea of Erik as a broken Survivor, seeing him revert toward comic book Magneto made me way more upset than it would have if I'd never gotten Survivor Erik. And every feint toward Survivor Erik in the movie, like the conversation where Logan identifies with Magneto because they're both survivors, is that much more maddening because of how much XMFC deepened that context.

But enough about why I'm angry about Erik. Let's talk about Kate Pryde. In the comics this is her story, and it's a big part of why the story works. DoFP is about someone going back into their younger body, embodying a different person than they were when they were young and foolish and using their wisdom to make different choices. And Hugh Jackman does that! For all that Wolverine is the epitome of narrative stagnation, Jackman actually does play a different Wolverine in this film, an older, wiser Wolverine. And that's kind of awesome. But Wolverine is the epitome of narrative stagnation and Kate Pryde is Sprite/Shadowcat/Kitty, a whirlwind of identity reinvention. For all that Jackman makes from the bad writing choice, Kitty Pryde would have been far better, and she would also have been truer to the source material, if that matters. (It doesn't, really, except that as a writer Chris Claremont knows what the hell he's doing.) At the end of the day, watching a mature Wolverine is boring in a way that watching a mature Kitty Pryde isn't.

And obviously that's not getting into the real source of my frustration. XMFC shocked me by telling American Jewish stories authentically. Erik's journey was a Survivor's journey, the struggle to make sense of a world after the senselessness of the Shoah, the struggle to keep surviving in a world that has strangely decided the threat is over. And I was not expecting that at all to be part of the story. That's not the kind of thing you get in X-Men films, and I was delighted beyond belief to adopt this version of Erik Lehnsherr into my virtual family.

Days of Future Past, the comic source, centers TWO JEWISH MUTANTS. It is the rare comic where both Erik and Kate are heroes, working together. Their Judaism is never mentioned in the story, and ultimately it's not really important to the story, except that knowing that these two characters are Jewish changes the meaning of the story. As I wrote last month

The dark future we see is the Holocaust recapitulated, with Magneto welcomed back into the fold as a vindicated and yet broken man because his prophecies have sadly proven true. His worst fears realized, he serves as a father figure and mentor toward Kitty Pryde. Meanwhile, Kitty is young and visibly Jewish, the person that Magneto and his whole generation had relied upon to transmit his message. It was a message she has failed to learn from, as she mistakenly aligned herself with the naive forces of liberal universalism, but she has learned now, and she has it in her capacity now to make sure that the Holocaust really never repeats itself.

That's not the story Claremont was writing. It's the story underneath the story Claremont was writing. And therefore I didn't need it to be explicit, but I wanted it to be implicit, to quietly continue the deeply personally important narrative throughline of XMFC. Instead, the movie erases the Kate/Magneto relationship entirely. They do not interact and Kate only matters to the movie as a plot device, not a character. She doesn't even get the (problematic, NOT WHAT I WANTED) implicit romantic arc with Bobby Drake that the film weirdly teases- Bobby is with Rogue in the fixed future, and Kate is on her own, happily teaching about Buckminster Fuller (OH MAN, KITTY PRYDE, COULD POSSIBLY I LOVE YOU ANY MORE?)... and look, I'm much happier that Kitty Pryde did not get that romantic arc, especially in the wake of all of the Ellen Page context of recent months it would have been a disaster but even without it it would have diminished Kitty if all she represented was the romantic D plot, but c'mon, give her an arc!!! Have the sacrifices she is shown making mean something within the story, and let me extrapolate the rest.

As I think I've said before, the X-Men series has had a complicated relationship with identity politics. Sometimes with stories about invisible mutations and 'coming out', X-Men has acted out in occasionally effective and occasionally farcical manner a version of the identity crisis of young American homosexuals, and sometimes with stories about fear-driven persecution by neighbors who had formerly been apparently friendly, X-men has acted out in occasionally effective and occasionally farcical manner a version of the assimilation struggle of American Jewry. (I can't even be as charitable as that on the Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X subtext.)

Often this hasn't worked well as allegory. There's too much baggage to the metaphor, after all we know of the differences between mutants and homosexuals or Jews, for the metaphor to hold. In the middle of an allegorical musing on coming out, some feature of mutants that isn't applicable to gays will invariably make the messages and themes of these stories confused. Which is why over the years Storm and Rictus and characters like them have become important parts of the X-mythology... because they let the smarter writers speak to the intersectionality in the metaphor. How to deal with being both black and a mutant, when both identities must speak.

It's rare for writers to do the same with Kitty Pryde (I can't tell you why Claremont originally made Kitty Jewish, other than for a dumb Bat Mitzvah joke, since he otherwise didn't touch her faith at all), but it happened in a recent controversial issue of X-Men (don't read the comments, duh): Kitty Pryde on the M-Word . This is the Kitty I was not expecting to see in the movie, and was nonetheless disappointed to miss, because this Kitty and XMFC Erik in a movie together about what happens if coexistence fails is the movie that X Men: First Class set me up to actually believe was possible.

Sadly it wasn't. X-Men Days of Future Past bows to crass commercialism at every corner, taking every opportunity to use a marketable character over an interesting one, sacrificing appropriate characters and themes to push the tedious and naive thesis that intersectionality is for suckers and if only minorities would stop being angry and stop fighting back, the patriarchy will welcome them into its loving embrace.

Fuck that.
seekingferret: Kitty pryde wearing a Magen David necklace. (Kitty-Jew)
Days of Future Past is a Chris Claremont X-Men storyline from the mid-80s, widely considered one of the greatest X-Men storylines.

It opens in a dystopian future where mutants are enslaved by a fearful human dictatorship. Kitty Pryde is part of a faltering resistance that has unified the X-Men with their erstwhile enemies in the Brotherhood of Mutants. The major figures we see in the fight against the humans are Kitty Pryde, Rachel Summers, Colossus, Wolverine, and in a surprising twist, an aged, unhelmeted Magneto, Erik Magnus (once Lehnsherr). The resistance has figured out a way to send someone back in time into their younger body to warn the mutants of that time that if a particular Senator is assassinated, this dystopian path will be unavoidable. Kitty Pryde is sent, and after some setbacks she successfully achieves her mission, destroying her timeline.

It's a story about what-ifs, as most time travel stories are. In particular, it's a story about what if Magneto was right that mutants and humans cannot coexist. The dark future we see is the Holocaust recapitulated, with Magneto welcomed back into the fold as a vindicated and yet broken man because his prophecies have sadly proven true. His worst fears realized, he serves as a father figure and mentor toward Kitty Pryde. Meanwhile, Kitty is young and visibly Jewish, the person that Magneto and his whole generation had relied upon to transmit his message. It was a message she has failed to learn from, as she mistakenly aligned herself with the naive forces of liberal universalism*, but she has learned now, and she has it in her capacity now to make sure that the Holocaust really never repeats itself.

Charles Xavier is dead. His message of coexistence is not for the world of Days of Future Past. He's one of the fools sacrificed to the false idol of hope. Kitty and Erik are not unwary enough to fall into that trap, and this story is dedicated to their narrative of transmission of Jewish ideas from generation to generation.

So of course in the movie it's Wolverine who goes back in time instead of Kitty, eh? Of course in the movie Charles is still alive to speak to his younger self. The trailers make me despair of sitting through this movie.

*Of course we know that I'm a cynic about liberal universalism in general, but it's significant that DoFP is a challenge to liberal universalism from within a comic book that for decades has been a thoughtful champion of universalism.
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Reviewed the Torah passages of the flood, caught some interesting details that shed light on the film

- Naamah is in the Torah only marked as Tubal-Cain's sister; It's only Midrashically that she is Noah's wife, in the classic misogynistic Midrashic tradition that any woman who is mentioned in one of these genealogies must be mentioned because she's married to an important man. (Though to be fair, there are Midrashim that similarly impute husbands to Miriam)

Still, it's interesting that in the Torah she's Tubal-Cain's sister and Aronofsky removes that detail even as he's making Tubal-Cain a much more important character in the story. I think he wasn't interested in that particular dual-loyalty of husband vs. birth family, which is interesting for a few reasons.

First, because I think classically that is THE emotional horror underneath the story. Noah's Ark isn't horrific because Noah is leaving all the other random people behind, it's horrible because he's leaving his clan behind- the genealogy shows Lamech dying while Noah's in the process of building the Ark, and Methuselah dies at the onset of the flood.

Aronofsky's changes force Noah to confront the horror of losing not just his clan but the whole world. Clan is nothing more than a heritage, a legacy, a tradition, a distant memory of childhood. That's not what Noah is being forced to say goodbye to. He is being forced to say goodbye to everything he finds hateful, and since that is his whole world, he and those around him can't help but miss it, fearing the uncertainty of the new world order.

Secondly, because it refocuses the story on the domestic drama. Naamah has no commitments other than to her husband and to her children, and those commitments and only those commitments are what come into conflict in the Ark. And again, like I said, the internal misogyny of the text, which says that women only are interesting to the story when they're married to important men, but Naamah can't have any attachments of her own outside the ark to worry about. Naamah can't be angry for a betrayal by one of the men out there, she can't have a family she's losing, she can't have any old enemies or old lovers or old friends doomed to die in the flood.

But at the same time, the domestic drama of wanting both your abusive husband and your foolish children to find happiness is very compelling to me. And I liked that even though that's the plot, the final moments of the film, the final image of the film even, is not about any of that... it's about Noah finally seeking out Naamah and trying to give her happiness on her own terms.

-Another note worth mentioning is that the "I am the son of Lamech" scene is particularly ironic when you recall that per the Torah, both Noah and Tubal-Cain are the sons of (different) men named Lamech. Aronofsky doesn't make any mention of this Tubal-Cain's father in the movie, presumably because what works (ambiguously) in text is way more confusing on film. But fanoning that fact adds a nice resonance of mirroring to the Noah vs. Tubal-Cain dynamic.
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The central conflict between Noah and Tubal-Cain can be glossed as a debate over the meaning of Tzelem Elokim, the principle that humanity was created in God's image. To start off with something that is noteworthy but ultimately unimportant, none of the sides in the argument think that Tzelem Elokim means that God has five fingers and five toes on each of two hands and two feet. Both agree that Tzelem Elokim means that humanity was given some of God's spiritual attributes. The debate is over which attributes, and how those attributes should be used in service to God.

There's been some criticism of the movie for never using the word God. God is always referred to as The Creator, something that I tentatively attributed to the movie's consistent efforts to link Noah and the destruction of the world back to Adam and the creation of the world. But another theory that makes sense to me is that Aronofsky is trying to suggest that the attribute of Tzelem Elokim is creative ability.

Both Noah and Tubal-Cain are creators. Noah of his ark, Tubal-Cain of various iron works as well as, he emphasizes several times, a whole civilization. While the actual fight between Noah and Tubal-Cain is short and conclusive, the movie spends a lot of time showing the build up to the fight. If we were analyzing the film from a storytelling point of view, we'd say that was about building suspense toward a climax, but as theology, we might say that the thing that has the most time devoted to it is probably the important part. What do we see of the build-up? Tubal-Cain working his forge, and Noah constructing his ark from wood, lovingly sealing it with pitch, paying attention to every detail of the creative process.

Tubal-Cain creates because he believes that being made in God's image means he was born to rule. He builds empires because God is the mighty one who rules worlds, and he seeks to create a microcosmic universe to rule over. He is ruthless in his quest because he seeks to create the greatest civilization he can- in that way he will fulfill the potential God endowed him with. He is also an artist- the objects themselves have value for what they are. When he hands Ham a hammer, watch the way Ham salivates over the craftsmanship. Tubal-Cain can compromise Ham because he understands Ham, understands that like himself, Ham values objects as a, well, objective measure of the outcome of our labor.

Noah builds because he needs tools to achieve outcomes. He doesn't value these tools as works of art, he only values them for the ends they allow him to achieve. And those ends are not his own, but God's. He builds in spite of the building going against his own needs and desires. Noah believes that Tzelem Elokim is much more constrained, that it connotes a creator who builds out of benevolence, not merely a builder of things. Like God, Noah sees the value of creation not in the act of saying "Let there be Light", but in "And God saw that it was good."

I think on these terms, ultimately the film comes out much closer to Tubal-Cain's position than Noah's. The end of the film forces Noah to acknowledge that in spite of Tubal-Cain's iniquity, his faith in the power of human creation was much greater than Noah's. The blueprint for the future of mankind that emerges after Noah accepts that he was wrong to try to kill Ila's daughters is Tubal-Cain's blueprint (inasmuch as it is God's blueprint, obviously). The blueprint calls for man to build a new dynastic order, for children to take their fathers' legacies and expand upon them, standing on their shoulders in (as I mentioned in my last post) progress-narrative evolution.

Weird, like I said.
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Several people, when told of my interest in Darren Aronofsky's Noah, asked that I share my reactions with them. I saw the movie last night with some friends, and then we talked about it for over an hour. I'm still not talked out, fortunately.

Um... it was exactly as puzzling and strange a movie as I expected it to be. Which is maybe an achievement, since I went in expecting to be puzzling and it still managed to puzzle. Afterward we went out for a drink to discuss the movie and there was this weird phenomenon where every ten or fifteen minutes in the conversation, which was otherwise thoughtful in dissecting the range of sources and influences and themes the movie was playing with, a fresh wave of confusion would hit someone and they would say something like "What the hell was that movie, anyway?" The processing was slow, and new strangenessses kept creeping up on us the more we dug into it.

It is... possibly a radical environmentalist movie? If we really put more of the emphasis on the radical part than on the environmentalist part. The film is more interested in the response to ecological damage than it is on celebrating the environment, per se. For a Noah's ark movie, it has very little interest in animals, or man's relationship to animals. There are no named animals, no animals that have special relationships to the characters, no animals that even have roles in more than one scene. In the movie, animals aren't important as creatures, they're important as symbols of Eden and of God's creation. Noah and his adopted daughter Ila's answer for why the animals should be saved is that the animals still behave the same way they did in Eden. Their innocence is not only their only virtue, it's their only attribute.

Meanwhile, most of the people in the movie are similarly reduced in depth... Animals are only innocent, but humans can be either innocent or depraved. The movie spends considerable time debating whether certain characters, notably Ham's intended wife, are innocent and therefore worthy of saving. Ultimately Noah concludes, in possibly the film's most difficult scene, that all of mankind is depraved and he ticks off the reasons why his wife, children, and himself are not worthy of renewing mankind. It's unclear whether the ending even repudiates this horrific logic... the movie doesn't even attempt to impose any interpretation on the strangely spectacular rainbow that fills its final shot.

As a result of Noah's conclusion about mankind's depravity, the majority of the film's climax is about women's bodies as battleground of the patriarchy. Emma Watson's Ila, a strong, fierce, and thoughtful woman, is reduced by the plot to an incubator of the future. Her pregnancy is instigated by Methuselah's miraculous intervention and it then becomes cause for several men to fight over her right to self-determination of her body, and no amount of insisting that it's her choice that matters is enough to overwhelm Noah's certainty that abortion/infanticide is God's will. It's a sly bit of irony on Aronofsky's part that is probably overwhelmed by the fact that Noah is still the film's conflicted hero, even though he spends most of the movie acting like a colossal jerk, even though Naameh tearfully promises him that his reward for his behavior will be that every person he loves will despise him for the rest of his life.

But I feel like all of this analysis betrays the true weirdness of the movie. An example: Genesis 6:16 records that Noah lit the ark with something called the Tzohar. Midrash explains this as some sort of illuminated stone, and Aronofsky expands its role in the film, showing people waging wars over Tzohar stone mines, showing it driving Tubal-Cain's proto-industrial civilization by allowing him to work iron, and then showing Tzohar shortages dooming that civilization to collapse. As I said shortly after the movie, apparently Aronofsky decided that Tzohar needed an origin story?!

What is most strange about this movie is its relationship with textualism. Most Biblical movies have two sources: The actual 'literal' text of the Bible, and the imagination and storytelling needs of the creator. The exceptions are usually didactic works that use specific intermediary sources, typically at a sacrifice of narrative integrity for the sake of fidelity to these texts. What makes Noah so unusual is that it is just as faithless to its secondary sources as it is to the Biblical text. Clearly Aronofsky wanted to include ideas taken from Midrash, from Aprocrypha, from various historical commentators and interpreters of the text, but he is the final arbiter of what belongs in his version of the story, which leads you to ask what interest the movie has in questions of canonicity. [personal profile] roseandsigil and I were casually jabbing afterward about J and E, and I wonder if Aronofsky isn't sort of metatextually asserting himself as a Redactor in the High Critical sense, piecing through contradictory sources for a story he finds resonant, if nonetheless still contradictory. The resulting movie is a funhouse mirror version of Genesis to those who only know Genesis, and something more sophisticatedly playful to those who know the rest of the sources. Most of the Midrashim Aronofsky borrows from were stories invented to comment on gaps or theological problems in Genesis. By piecing them together in his strange and imaginative way, Aronofsky illustrates how some of them fulfill that objective, but he also creates new inconsistencies not strictly demanded by his Midrashic sources. The Nephilim 'solve' the problem of Noah's family being unable to construct a massive boat all on their own, but they also call to the fore uncomfortable questions about the meaning of God's plan.

I felt Noah was most successful as a movie about the question of why God asks difficult things of us. What if God asks us to assist in a genocide, how do we respond? What if God asks us to kill our granddaughter, how do we respond? Ultimately, Aronofsky puts what feels like the movie's definitive answer into Ila's mouth: Harder than any of these things is when God doesn't tell us what is right and what is wrong, what God wants and what God doesn't want. The hardest thing of all is when God leaves us be and trusts that we will do the right thing even without direct guidance. It is easy to feel certain in a God who tell us what to do, even if the thing God asks seems evil. But what God appears to want, argues Aronofsky, is for us to feel uncertain, for us to constantly test ourselves and our faith in our ability to serve God. Only when we're willing to expose ourselves like that will God reward us with the gift of the rainbow.

Other notes:

-Og did not cling to the side of the ark. I was very upset about this. I had no other objection to the portrayl of the Nephilim. It jibed very closely with the Jewish understanding of Angels as sort of mechanical messengers of God: Jewish Angels are only given one mission at a time, and they perform it exactly as God intended. I liked that their Fall came after a mechanical disobedience of God's will that could not be atoned with pleas for mercy, and their Ascent came after mechanically repositioning themselves within God's new plan. This contrasted very well with the ambiguous and unclear redemption of humanity, dependent on God's mercurcial mercy.

-Methuselah had a weird fixation on berries that formed, as Jon noted, the movie's single comic callback. Possibly it was an attempt to contrast and implicitly critique Noah's asceticism, his reluctance to take any pleasure in the world, to so much as pluck a flower. In general, Methuselah's role in the film as Gandalfian mentor and plot-mage was strange. But I'm running out of synonyms for weird. Very little about this movie made any sense. Mostly I liked Methuselah's position in the generational epic storyline, which Noah's attempted infanticide threatened to jeopardize. The movie was very interested in the begats, in the idea that there were familial lines that God intended to sever entirely. In Noah's first confrontation with Tubal-Cain, he calls himself "The Son of Lamech", a callback to the actual recitation of the genealogy of Seth in the movie's first scene. Methuselah is almost exclusively called "Grandfather".

-There was this trippy morph effect when the movie endorsed some sort of theory of evolution. As we watched, a paramecium trawled the ocean and then rapidly morphed into 'higher' and 'higher' forms of life, until humanity emerged from the lower animals. That was when I stage-whispered to [personal profile] roseandsigil "Wait, is this movie supposed to be watched while high?" It's of course noteworthy when any Genesis movie endorses evolution, but I wish this one hadn't been so densely entangled with a progress narrative-oriented version of evolutionary theory. That's where Aronofsky's innocence vs. depravity theorem emerges from, a theorem that I think we all suspect is more complicated in both directions. (Aronofsky tried to shortcircuit some of this complexity by having the large carnivores knocked unconscious for the duration of the flood, so that the true barbarism of nature would not obscure his ideal of animal innocence.)

-I've already talked endlessly about this movie, and I could say more. It's worth seeing. That's my bottom line. It is strange and terrible and wondrous and beautiful and broken.


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