The Authorial Intent Battle Royale

Is there a right way to advise people to care about authorial intent? My instinct would be to tell most people that they can disregard it, but I think that—as a whole—that can rob us of some really fascinating perspectives.

Obviously without authorial intent movies can feel “of the moment” in the wrong (or at least, unintended) way. Battle Royale hit the U.S. at a time when it was recovering from its first school shooting; the notion of paying to watch kids killing kids seemed to fly in the face of the idea that violent culture breeds violent kids. And so it was largely “banned” and made difficult to access in the U.S.

Battle-Royale-Class-Photo-But in Japan it was a whole different ball game. Director Kinji Fukasaku came up during WWII, working in a munitions factory that kept getting bombed, as a 15-year-old (the same age as the students in his film). When bombs came the kids sometimes used each other as human shields, and survivors would be left to bury the dead. It made him “understand the limits of friendship,” and he realized that the government had lied to Japan about why they were even in the war to begin with.

“This was his film kind of giving a finger to the Japanese government,” said film critic Amy Nicholson on The Canon. “I love that the last film he made is [like] ‘You can’t trust adults, you can’t trust the government; they grind up kids and use them for meat.'”

This seems like a crucial block of knowledge to bring to a Battle Royale viewing; it colors the culture of Japan (which, during the movie’s release in the ’90s, was also going through some changes reflected in Battle Royale like high unemployment) as a post-war state, and informs viewers about how that makes Fukasaku feel. As authorial intent goes, this one is wide-reaching and savage. It touches on the war, the nation, and human (or at least, survivalist teen) nature.

But that only makes it all the more peculiar when directors like Christopher Nolan say that the wiretapping debate had no impact on their decision to give Batman the ability to wiretap the citizens of Gotham in The Dark Knight, or the clash of grassroots protesters versus the police just happened to make its foray into The Dark Knight Rises after #OccupyWallStreet. It seems disingenuous for audiences to implicitly trust that Nolan wasn’t affected by these things. It seems wrong to think that there’s no way the two worlds could bleed into each other.

Dark Knight Rises protest still
I mean, come ON

Which is what makes The Birth of a Nation controversy so irreconcilable. How can a movie, centered on a graphic rape, be trusted to be appropriately handled by someone who committed (alleged and murky) sexual assault? How can the audience react to a movie organically, knowing that fact in the back of their minds? Will they be able to divorce authorial intent and the creator from their viewing? Should they have to?

It’s easy to cast off a notion like Nolan’s when you see parallels in The Dark Knight trilogy. Incorporating Fukasaku’s past is a fascinating spotlight that only illuminates the statement of Battle Royale all the more. But with Nate Parker the line is murkier. And I’m not sure there’s an easy answer there.

Medium/Large: Episodic Moves in Television and Movies

Many television critics have been bemoaning the death of the episode in TV lately. As our culture shifts to online, streaming, and binge watching, the episode has become less of a chapter and more of a sentence in the seasonal books we watch. More and more the shows we watch resemble 10-hour movies rather than episodic television. The flip side of that is that our movies are starting to resemble the episodic television we’re more accustomed to.

On the surface level these are driven by two different goals. Television is increasingly embracing the streaming platform’s structure of releasing a whole season in one go, which encourages long periods of watching, which doesn’t have as much need to break up the story into chunks like network television does. Movies, meanwhile, are caught up in the desire to be like Marvel, and create a shared cinematic universe. It’s the reason Captain America: Civil War is able to build on the characters, relationships, and events that people have been watching play out for almost a decade on the silver screen, or why The Force Awakens was able to exist paradoxically as a reboot, a sequel, and a retelling without fully standing on its own. star-wars-the-force-awakens-15-1200x630

But underneath it all it’s the same principle: To get people obsessed with your content. Marvel has always understood that building out narratives across issues and decades creates generations of fans. Star Wars invented modern blockbuster culture because it turned out to be a smash hit. Shows like BloodlineSense 8, and beyond are able to take advantage of the interest in telling long-form stories and connecting (deeply) with characters week-after-week to use whole seasons as pilots instead of one episode. And so they borrow strategies that worked for the other in order to build their medium up. Similar to the way genres have started to bleed into each other, formatting now is as well; blockbuster movies are more often than ever before just episodes of a longer story being told across a franchise, and television is just an imagined story that functions more like building a puzzle rather than a daisy chain each week.

Tights and T-Rexes:

Well guys Suicide Squad has come and gone, and at no point did it go over well with critics. But audiences—or some vocal portion of them—liked it, and are as unhappy with critics as the critics are with the movie. Which lead to some accusations in the raging rapids of Twitter and social media that critics are just shills for Marvel, or even that critics have no place in our lives.

I’ve gone on record as favoring Marvel, and I’ll admit that I share no excitement about seeing Dawn of Justice. But I think it’s possible for both critics and DC fans to exist in this world of ours.

Take The Witch. The movie was trumpeted by critics, beloved for being a return to arthouse horror and building dread without jump-scares. It boasts a high critical rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. But audiences weren’t so enthusiastic. I loved the film, but I’m not immodest enough to say that’s because it’s objectively one of the best movies of the year, let alone that some audiences are “just dumb” as some may argue.

Movies are such subjective experiences, built on the backs of so many people and for the enjoyment of even more I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a movie that everyone loves and could agree was an objectively good movie. So long as you’re able to appreciate what it is you enjoyed about the movie, reflect critically on that, what’s the harm? It’s ok for a movie to be good to you, and have all the elements you wanted from it and for critics to not agree.

I love dinosaurs, particularly of the underwater variety. So for myself, Jurassic World had everything I wanted and more. But I can also acknowledge that if you aren’t me, and weren’t flooded with adrenaline over the action sequences it’s a pretty subpar movie. Conversely, I like my horror films to really wig me out (while not being too gorey) and while It Follows gave others those feelings I wasn’t on board—no matter how much I appreciated the artistry of it. I’m a sucker for smart action films, so Marvel’s cinematic universe excites and thrills me, but that doesn’t mean A.O. Scott is wrong when he called it homogenous. It might mean that we value that differently in our enjoyment. Jurassic World dinosaur

To say that any one audience is “smarter” than another is gross and white-washes the issue. It’s more accurate (and kind) to say that your interests, values, and pleasure is simply stocked in different places. The whole idea of having a wide range of pop culture is that there’s something for everyone, not everything for someone.

When you read a critic’s review and it seems to be overly harsh or bashing on something you love, ask yourself: Is it? Is it just that we disagree? Is this a critic I have a trust and understanding with? Can I get over myself and just enjoy what I enjoy without validation?

Gaming Translations

What makes for a successful board game based on a pop culture artifact?

Obviously you have more souvenir/revenue generation machines on the one hand: Your Simpsons Monopoly, Seinfeld Scene It?’s, The Vanilla Ice Rap Game (no joke). There’s also things like game shows that just convert simply. Everyone’s wanted to prove that they, too, want to be a millionaire, meaning the core concept of a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game would be fairly easy to adapt for a home audience to play what is essentially Trivial Pursuit with a new brand name.

But the flip side of this would be games that are intended to—like a film adaptation or novelization—adapt the concept and qualities you so love about a show into a board game. It’s sort of like challenging an audience (or perhaps a hardcore subset of an audience) to pony up and put their money where their mouth is; if they think they could hack it in the imagined world, prove it.

For that to be successful, you need more than just cutesy namechecks. I think that you’d theoretically want people to feel rewarded for engaging with your media on such a high level: The game Harry Potter: Mystery at Hogwarts is essentially Clue—except for a few key developments. For instance there’s more pieces at play with different (in the theme of Hogwarts, maaagical) powers that can affect gameplay. But some Harry Potter trivia comes into play as well.

Games like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones are intricate and detailed, in order to better resemble the show. Sure the titular game of thrones is not won so easily, and the cylons are not likely to be defeated by just finding a few spies in your ranks. But the core ideas of the show—winning power over others, rooting out the humanlike robots amongst you, defending your people—are preserved. A Game of Thrones fan might enjoy the game even if it weren’t branded as such because the like the powerplays that come into question. Battlestar Galactica as well.

For the rest, who just like the drama of it all—well, that’s just bonus.

 

Surprise! You already know.

Has surprise casting ever worked? I don’t mean like Kevin Spacey at the end of Se7en. More like casting a notable actor in a film (typically a reboot or franchise) as a rando new character before ultimately revealing that—surprise—they were this character all along. Think Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness or Marion Cotillard as Miranda Talia Al-Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises.

At this point fandoms have become accustomed to the studio’s schtick: There’s no such thing as adding a new character to an established franchise, they’re only there if it’s a bait-and-switch. Whether it seems to happen because they want to withhold some plot development later on (see Dark Knight Rises) or they want to be able to justify not casting a POC (Star Trek Into Darkness, and arguably Iron Man 3) without fan outrage, it’s a common enough practice that audiences—especially those that leak, clamor, and obsess over anything released by the studios regarding franchises—aren’t buying it anymore.

KhanSequel_FEAT-970x545.pngI’m all for spoiler warnings and avoiding knowing the plot ahead of time before movies (if that’s what you want, I don’t really see the harm in reasonably facilitating that for yourself). But too often it seems producers just straight up lie in order to avoid—what, controversy? Discussion? All they’re really doing is hoping the can is kicked far enough down the road that viewers will be more sympathetic, or at least understanding, of the artistic junket choices they made. But in my experiences no one likes feeling conned. And when these experiences don’t pay off artistically it makes it all the worse. It’s too simple to say that witholding information like this should enhance a viewing experience not dampen it, because that’s probably what creators thought they were doing with Talia and Khan.

But compared to something like (to grab another Spacey-villain-reveal joint) The Usual Suspects, where the person pulling the strings the whole time is played in a bit of misdirection—even acknowledged misdirection, as we see Spacey orchestrate the initial robberies even as he tells us that it was someone else. It’s nuggets like that that can create repeat and rewarding viewing experiences. Compare that to trying to reboot and slip a villain in under the radar in an established franchise under the wire while keeping it under wraps that it’s what you’re doing and the game is considerably more dicey (and as we’ve seen in both Rises and Into Darkness, prone to failure and letdown).

Perhaps the latest comes with the news that Zendaya won’t be playing a random “Michelle” in Spiderman: Homecoming, she’ll be playing none other than the red-headed heartthrob Mary-Jane. Though I’m hardpressed to believe that (if the rumors are true) there’s any real reason Marvel would withhold this information other than to have a couple more months without the ire of racists on the internet directed towards them, at least for once it’s being used to get a person of color into a white role, rather than the other way around.

The Artist and the Work: A Separation

As the world awaits Nate Parker’s highly touted The Birth of a Nation, it was only a matter of time before the media went antsy and digging. Parker, to his credit, tried to own the story, but I imagine that in the week or so since it’s spiraled beyond what he may have expected: In attempting to acknowledge and defend against rape allegations that were made against him and a friend (and coworker) in college, Parker has invited in more awareness to his past.

Whether he thought that would be enough to clean house I can’t say. What does seem clear was he was unaware the internet would be so vigilant about the ways in which he actively played up his life since: The “importance” of the movie he’s bringing to the world; the fact that he mentioned his wife and four daughters multiple times (after inviting the journalist into his home strewn with remnants of a family life); the ultimate fate of the woman who made the accusations; the notorious failure of the criminal justice system when it comes to sexual assault.*

EraserheadAnd so fans, interested parties, and pop culture connoisseurs are once again plunged into the debate: Can you separate the work of the artist from the artist? Should you always?

In a perfect world I want to say yes. It’s possible to duck into a theater, a show, or a book without knowing the creator’s politics, without ever being influenced by them. Theoretically they are utterly separate; like how David Lynch maintains that the married-too-young and father-too-fast period of his 20s had nothing to do with his work on Eraserhead, a movie that (amongst other interpretations) is about a young man grappling with an unexpected pregnancy.

But in execution I haven’t much found it to be possible. As if it weren’t enough that many of the people who insist on the Chinese wall don’t seem to have any skin in the game in this sense, there’s seldom a piece of art that you can’t examine at least some sort of message or motivation for. And I’m not sure I think we should strip it of that. Cultural context matters. The atmosphere around production and artistic decisions is compelling, it furthers philosophies, and it adds to the significance of it all.

I’m not sure whether Nate Parker will effect my viewing of Birth of a Nation. I can’t be certain where the hammer will ultimately fall for me on the issue of artist vs. art. All I know is it seems far too simple to just try to hide under the rug.

 

*I don’t mean to reinforce or express my own personal belief here. Just trying to flag the major sticking points for a lot of people I read.

Like Reboots through the hourglass…

Ways Old-Busters and New-Busters diverge to reflect their times:

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  • Villains:
    • In 1984, “big government” and this crazy EPA guy who’s worried about polluting the Earth can’t trust a private business to do their job and protect the people.
    • In 2016, four women run into a sulking, ostracized nerd who feels that something he held dear is corrupted. (Even clumsily drawing the line that if he had a friend growing up like Erin did he might’ve turned out differently.)
  • Joke Structure:
    • 1984’s classic was built on the back of its leads: Aykryod, Murray, Ramis—Second City and SNL alums, who had established themselves as reliable comic mainstays. They embued the movie with a story and a tone, and the jokes followed along, keeping it feeling very natural. It’s not just about placing funny people in a place they could be funny; it was a solid example of storytelling.
    • 2016’s reboot style is more in the style of director Paul Feig: Get four comedians—with plenty of SNL alum themselves—in a room together, give them a story and let the improv zingers fly. It feels more like situational comedy, having them do their thing (at a PG-13 level) in a way that feels a bit more like flat riffing when it’s tried to mash into a good, solid story.
  • Relationships
    • The boys in 1984 had mostly established relationships and it’s almost entirely about how their team rises to the occasion of ghosts. The main “relationship” at play is between Peter and Dana; his relentless pursuit of her almost uncomfortably wedged into the plot as a sort-of obligatory 80s film mainstay.
    • The girls of 2016, however, have no romantic interests, and barely objects of lust. Their story is (unevenly) driven by them coming together not just as a team but as friends.
  • New York meets the Ghostbusters:
    • Back in the day four men saving the city from an onslaught of ghosts brought cheers, magazine covers, fame, and fortune.
    • Now (or at least, now with four women) it brings government conspiracy, downplaying, and undermining.

It will haunt you every night…whatever it is, no one should have to encounter that kind of evil. Except you girls, I think you can handle it.

Through Confirmation Bias Glasses

Everyone’s got it. You form an opinion, you see a pattern, and your brain starts working to confirm it. Most of the time it’s no big deal. But it can be dangerous as soon as you encounter anything that seems to fall in an “other” category.

It’s how police officers overwhelmingly suspect people of color of crimes, even when the cops are 50 percent people of color themselves. It’s how shows like Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat can become the black or asian (respectively) family show, even when their families are closer to the average American family unit than Modern Family. It’s also how you get reporting like this, from The Mary Sue about the rumors that Sony is passing on the Ghostbusters sequel because the first one lost them money:

In fact, within the body of the article it reports that Sony has made no such decision either way, but weirdly connects that to its other Ghostbusters plans in order to draw conclusions:

Sony won’t comment on whether it has banished a sequel to the netherworld, but perhaps tellingly, a rep says the studio actively is pursuing an animated Ghostbusters feature that could hit theaters in 2019 and an animated TV series,Ghostbusters: Ecto Force, which is eyeing an early 2018 bow. Both are being guided by Reitman, who firmly is back in charge of the Ghostbusters empire via Ghost Corps., a subsidiary with a mandate to expand the brand across platforms. (It was former Sony film chief Amy Pascal who first embraced Feig’s vision for the live-action reboot, not Reitman or Rothman.)

Now, we’ve known about this upcoming Ghostbusters animated film since the end of 2015, and reported on the film finding a director in March of this year. Yet, with the sly phrase “perhaps tellingly,” this article presents its existence, as well as the existence of Ghost Corps. as a direct result of Ghostbusters’ box office. Ghostbusters was also a Ghost Corps. project! And yet, if you were to read this with no other information or context, you’d think that Ivan Reitman had nothing to do with Ghostbusters as a film, and created Ghost Corps. as a response to its failure.

What’s “telling” is the unnecessary dig at Amy Pascal, separating Reitman and Rothman from her as if Reitman didn’t also produce this movie. Why did that need mentioning? Oh right, because we want to make sure that people know that it was the woman in the equation who thought this movie was a good idea, and let’s all remember she’s not working there anymore. What’s frustrating is that a female writer wrote this piece.

Confirmation bias can be a tricky drug to get a handle on. It takes constant checking of what we know to be true versus what we believe to be true. And it causes real damage, from police brutality all the way to showrunners and directors of color who feel afraid to make experiences around their lives (as opposed to white lives) because then it “wouldn’t be universal.”

And the fault can be spread everywhere: Even when critics, for instance, are trying to build momentum around a show lead by women or POC, they often do so at the sake of its universality. It goes from being the critically acclaimed new show on the block to the critically acclaimed girl show coming out. And in that sort of instance, anyone involved in making it who is that characteristic (girl, POC, LGBTQ, etc.) becomes implicated in its success—and more notably its failures.

Amy Pascal greenlit hundreds of movies during her time, will she be held to the fire on Spiderman: HomecomingFuryJames Bond? Probably not.

Too often creators are conflated with the works they’ve done, if they’re anything aside from a straight white guy. Don’t let confirmation bias lead you to misunderstand what they’re doing.

 

 

 

Ghostbusting politics

Ghostbusters is iconic, and now that the new one is out we’ve got a legacy going. I just wish it didn’t have to do its black characters the way it has.

When the 2016 trailer was released crowds went wild (and so did MRAs)—with the exception of one thing: Patty; played by Leslie Jones, the only woman of color on the team; was a MTA official. Whereas the other (white) girls knew science and research, Patty “knew New York.” Why couldn’t a black woman be a scientist, some asked?

And it could’ve been a question that should be reserved until the movie was seen. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was history repeating itself.

When Dan Aykroyd was first trying to get Ghostbusters (1984) off the ground he had written Winston to be a bigger, more prominent character. And when actor Ernie Hudson showed up for shooting, he found a haunting what-if was left largely in place of his character:

I look back on Ghostbusters in a very fun way, but it’s got so many mixed feelings and emotions attached to it. When I originally got the script, the character of Winston was amazing and I thought it would be career-changing. The character came in right at the very beginning of the movie and had an elaborate background: he was an Air Force major something, a demolitions guy. It was great.

Now I’ve heard, over the years, that the part had been written for Eddie Murphy—all of which Ivan Reitman says is not true. But it was a bigger part, and Winston was there all the way through the movie.

…The night before filming begins, however, I get this new script and it was shocking.

The character was gone. Instead of coming in at the very beginning of the movie, like page 8, the character came in on page 68 after the Ghostbusters were established. His elaborate background was all gone, replaced by me walking in and saying, “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.” So that was pretty devastating.

Call it racism, call it carelessness, call it Hollywood, but it’s an odd thing that both Ghostbusting teams feature characters of color that aren’t allowed to be scientists, or even really distinguished. Ghostbusting knows now gender, and it shouldn’t know any race either.

Why are we getting it on?

As an article for Paste Magazine delved into yesterday, “What’s it like to film a sex scene?” is perhaps one of the easiest staples of an entertainment journalist’s toolkit. And often it results in a familiar rote back-and-forth where actors namecheck the same awkwardness. The better question, however, is why.

I’m not of the mind that sex scenes have to be unnecessary. They are, often, unfortunately. And even some of the best ones can be gratuitous. But sometimes they can be used to communicate depth about the characters, the same way a camera pan or a lighting effect might. There are the obvious ones to check here: 50 Shades of Grey, Shame, or any rom-com where two people start with casual sex and discover real feelings.

But let’s look at Blue Valentine. When we first meet Cindy she’s with a boyfriend, Bobby. She’s got a life outside of that—one that soon intersects with Dean—but we’re given no reason to think that Bobby is a bad guy, really (again, at first; opinions may change as he develops). But we do see them have sex: Him, behind her, both seeming to enjoy themselves. They move fluidly, and seem to be on the same page until Bobby ejaculates without protection.

Flip that with her later sex scene with Dean, where their romance is finally consummated. It’s not a matter of complete control, but it is notably one of the only instances (and certainly one of the happier moments) where a man goes down on a woman. It also earned the film a battle with the MPAA over their attempts to rate it as NC-17, basically because of that one cunnilingus scene.

That got the movie a lot of press, similar to the infamous sex scene(s) in Blue is the Warmest Color. And for once it was because of the question of why: Why was the MPAA so appalled by the act? Why was the scene important enough to the film to go to the bat for?

These sex scenes don’t have to do with power, or money, or fame, as so many “important” sex scenes in Hollywood do. Instead they illustrate the difference in two partners one woman has; the carelessness of one and the consideration of the other. They’re worth risking the NC-17 rating because they’re a quick character study.

Because like technology law, sex touches on a lot of different parts of our life. And how that’s presented on screen is important. Why do we only see heterosexual, white, able-bodied, orgasm-having, conventionally attractive folk on screen? Why is it so shocking when sex is confronted head on, or at least realistically?

And perhaps most tellingly: Why do people still think that a kiss and a pan away means that the characters themselves won’t have talked about sex since the last time we’ve seen them?