First Contact?

At first, I was excited. It’s not every day that an anthropological documentary drops on Netflix. “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon” started streaming online recently and while the title gave me pause because it sounds like something straight out of the 60s I had to give it a watch.

“First Contact” does feel like it’s something straight out of the sixties, down to the British narrator who waxes poetic on the virtues of simple living and the misrepresentation that this is first contact at all.  As the title explains, the anthropologists and filmmakers are viewing and reflecting on a “first contact” encounter with members of the Sapanawa tribe who fled colonial death squads in Peru in 2014. The narrator informs us that this encounter became a viral video success on YouTube. However, interviews with Xina, the primary informant, indicate that he has had plenty of “contact” already.  The film endeavors to dig into the conflict occurring between the “civilized world” and “uncontacted tribes” in South America but fails to deliver on exposing the deeper structural problems that are fueling it.

It’s unfortunate that the film spends so much time on the moment of contact instead of the why. It also displays an overwhelmingly outdated and offensive perspective of tribes who have chosen to live in isolation by falling back on the same old tropes which simplify and infantilize indigenous people.

The most disappointing moments of “First Contact” comes in the last five or so minutes with an abrupt tonal shift that could have made for a much more responsible documentary.

“First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon” premiered in February 2016 and is still streaming on Netflix.

Here is Survival International’s response to the film.


Why You Should Be An Anthropologist

I majored in anthropology because I thought anthropology degrees could be useful things could be useful in unexpected ways.The other day I used it to shut down an internet troll.

Here’s the setup: There’s going to be a new Jesus moving starring Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara. Shame on Rooney Mara for consistently going after ethnic roles when she is Whitey McWhite.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR IS IN THIS MOVIE AND HE’S NOT PLAYING JESUS! Side note:let’s start a campain to get Chiwetel Ejiofor to play Juan de Perez

I was commenting on a Collider Movie Talk episode on YouTube.

Me: Not another Jesus movie starring white people!

Troll(paraphrased): Oh really? And what do you know about ethnic migration? *I’ve pinpointed a device they use to redirect the argument. It’s the old rhetorical question and it, like sarcasm, can be difficult to interpret on the internet.*

Me: *answers the rhetoical question because I’m a sucker*Actually,  I’m an anthropology major who took several classes on the Ancient Near East.

Troll: *silence*
So, there it is, a completely unexpected end to what I figured would be a lengthy comment feud. You’d be surprised how useful an anthropology degree can be.


The Fountain: A Love Poem to Death

Darren Aronofsky once said that his inspiration for The Fountain was his own mid-life crisis and that the film was his love poem to death. That concept, of approaching death with love, was quite foreign to me. Death was not something I particularly feared. Which is not to say I wasn’t afraid of dying, but as long as it wasn’t a death by drowning, I was rather at peace with the fact that one, hopefully far in the future, I would die. In part, this stems from my Jewish heritage. While we do now conceive of an afterlife, Judaism prior to the Babylonian Exile (circa 586 BCE) had almost no conception of life after death. One died, got buried, and that was that. Of course, post Galut, when life seemed rather unbearable at times, the notion of some kind of reward for our suffering in this life became much more desirable.

I have to admit here that the primary reason I wanted to see The Fountain in 2006 were my “strong feelings” about Hugh Jackman. In fact, I think the three roles he plays here are the finest performances of his career. Next to Wolverine (obviously). The story forces his character to go to vulnerable extremes on several occasions.

In my view, the key to The Fountain’s success as a film is two-fold: themes and visual execution. This is the kind of movie you want to see twice just so you can pick up on the subtle cues that echo and foreshadow throughout the story.

And what a story. Well, it’s three-part tale taking place in the early days of Colonial Spain, the modern era, and far in the future (where astronauts travel in very unique spaceships). If that’s not tricky enough, there’s also Mayan-Judeo-Christian mysticism with a Buddhist flare to pique your sensibilities. The politics of having a white guy be the hero of tale influenced by non-white religions is another post for another time. While each story does not exactly mimic another there are through lines in imagery and dialogue the remind the viewer that there is a deeper connection between these characters than the fact that two are played by the same actors.

The visual effects choices made in The Fountain are superb, particularly with regard to the most sci-fi element, traveling through space towards a dying star wrapped in a nebula (I’m not sure if that’s cosmologically accurate). At first, you might think that nebula is crafted with amazing CGI. You would be wrong. Those are actually practical effects, on an almost microscopic level. What you are watching is massively enlarged footage of chemical reactions in a Petrie dish. Yeah. Think on that.

The Fountain has the kind of ending I like in artsy-fartsy movies (and I mean artsy-fartsy in the most respectable way). It is slightly ambiguous but not overly confounding. After pulling roughly at the viewers’ heartstrings, it allows us to wrap death in a loving embrace.

Beethoven:The Rush to Romanticize

Recently, I have become somewhat obsessed with Beethoven. This is not a new obsession. When I was a very young child I read a very short biography (it even had pictures). This might have been my first exposure to the idea of a tortured artist and I am still not sure why, but it spoke to me. A few things stood out at the time. First, that he was so talented and that it showed at such an early age. Second that his father was determined to make him into another Mozart. Third, that some parents beat their children. It also contributed to my desire to learn how to play the piano which is one of my better decisions.

Many years went by while I listened to NPR’s random selection or played my trusty 2 discs of Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits on several road trips. I heard Beethoven randomly in movies, TV shows, and department stores. I saw a few scenes of a movie starring Gary Oldman while flipping through channels on television. I thought it was cool that Beethoven had his own biopic and hoped that I would happen upon it again but I never did.

Then, a few weeks ago a DVD arrived from Netflix that I had honestly forgotten I had ordered. It was called Copying Beethoven and starred Ed Harris in the titular role. I know what you’re thinking. Ed Harris? Yeah, Ed Harris! It is a very interesting portrait of the Maestro’s final years of composition. There were some flaws with the film, a couple of plot-points and camera techniques that came out of left field. But there is a 13 minute re-enactment of Beethoven “conducting” his 9th Symphony and it is magical. I really do give credit to Harris’s performance here. You can see the relationship Beethoven yearns for and never finds with his nephew and the way he doesn’t understand how people cannot see the brilliance of his work but have to hear it to believe it.

I ignored a growing passion for a day or two after watching Copying Beethoven but my preoccupation with Ludwig van Beethoven ballooned into full-fledged fanaticism. That movie only covered a few years. I needed to know more, to hear more, and to see more. I started where most searches start these days: Google. I refreshed my memory. Yes, his father did want him to be the next Mozart and he was a very abusive teacher. Beethoven became a great composer and continued to write music even after he lost his hearing. I learned more. He was not very good at making friends and even worse at keeping them. He probably drove his nephew to suicide.

As soon as I finished my Google search I went back to Netflix to order Immortal Beloved and moved it to the top of my DVD queue. I was excited not only for the music, the period-style clothing, and the story but also for Gary Oldman. That guy has some talent. The story springs from a love letter Beethoven had written that was posthumously discovered, having never been delivered, apparently. The movie then time hops between a search for this mystery woman and a parade of Ludwig’s romantic liaisons. Gary Oldman was indeed fantastic. . The film is quite entertaining but I was reminded, sometimes forcefully, that biopics can take huge liberties with history to make a better movie.

One interesting point of comparison is different is the way the women in these movies are presented. The protagonist of Copying Beethoven is a young woman aspiring to become a composer. We get to see Beethoven’s abusive side on the one hand and his grudging kindness on the other. In Immortal Beloved the succession of potential candidates for true love paint Beethoven in a much more romantic light (I couldn’t tell if this was coincidence) than may have necessarily been the case. The two films also differ wildly in recounting the most famous tragedy of Beethoven’s life: his deafness. Immortal Beloved has him almost stone deaf many years earlier than in Beethoven’s actual life while Copying Beethoven places severity of his deafness in a more accurate manner.

Thanks to Copying Beethoven I have a renewed interest in a fascinating historical character. This character has a story that really doesn’t need any embellishments to be more compelling so I have invested in three of those actual autobiographies. You know, the ones written on paper. If you want historical accuracy watch a documentary on YouTube. Or watch the BBC film Beethoven’s Eroica which is pretty much exactly what I want out of a Beethoven biopic and needs about 5 more prequels/sequels.

You Are a Beautiful Monster: a Kind of Queer Review of Penny Dreadful

This is a review of the second season of Penny Dreadful and as such will have major spoilers for season one. You can catch up on Showtime on Demand, Hulu, and you can probably check it out from your local library.

As it happens, the first season I watched of Penny Dreadful was season 2, which concluded two weeks ago, and I found it wildly entertaining and I appreciate it more after seeing how it has improved. Thankfully, none of the Victorian flair has left and the season is tighter with even more colorful characters.

The second season starts almost immediately where the first season left off. Ethan awakens in a roomful of blood. It seems clear that this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened and now it makes sense why he was living that peripatetic lifestyle in the first place. The late Miss Brona Croft is lying in one of Victor Frankenstein’s bathtubs while he and the Creature wait for an appropriately dark and stormy night to revive her. Sir Malcom is burying his daughter and Sembene is about to start acting like a person instead of set decoration. Dorian Gray is also around, you know, doing stuff. As it became clear toward the end of season one, the central narrative of Penny Dreadful thus far centers on Vanessa Ives’s struggle with the darkness inside her. This struggle intensifies when she is attacked by Nightcomers (evil witches).

Of all the ships that caught wind in season one, the on ehtat surprised me most was between Ethan Chandler and Dorian Gray and not just because of the hot guy-on-guy action. It is no surprise that Mr. Gray swings both ways given the source material. Mr. Chandler on the other hand, had heretofore been an American archetype of Wild West masculinity. Although perhaps it is not so surprising given his theatrical tendencies. I had faint hope, now that Ethan is a bachelor, he might visit Dorian and give the fans what they really want, but John Logan and company have decided to sail the Ethan/Vanessa ship. And that’s okay because Dorian was occupied with Ethan he wouldn’t pay any attention to the lovely Angelique, who has her own secrets.

I was worried, as sometimes happens when a character who has previously been identified by the audience as straight exhibits same sex attraction, that Ethan’s experience would be a one-time thing, never to be mentioned again (except during the exorcism episode when none of the other dudes in the room made a big deal about which was fucking awesome). Fortunately Mr. Ferdinand Lyle, Egyptologist and, by his own words, “a queen with lovely hair,” is around to flirt with. And flirt they do! Of course it’s harmless since Ethan is being steered romantically and spiritually toward Vanessa Ives, but that kind of spice is what distinguishes the Victorian flavor of Penny Dreadful from other period shows.

There are many layers to Penny Dreadful. Of course there is the horror and the Victorian flair, but the second season has taken a few more colors from the Queer rainbow. I think it is a mistake to label any of these characters, perhaps save Mr. Lyle, as any one of the LGBT alphabet since these are more recent terms for modern identities (Yes, I read Foucault).  That said, this season confirms that Penny Dreadful is Queer-friendly. Well, as friendly as you can be in the horror genre.

Where is My Mind?

When I was 22 years old I lost my mind. Literally. I was a senior in college and had a fairly confident outlook on life when I began my slide into mania. It had all the hallmarks. My mind was filled with racing thoughts, I exhibited erratic behavior (it didn’t seem erratic at the time), and for several months I got by on 2-4 hours of sleep a night. It started during the summer of 2007 when I was overcome with the premonition that a world-altering event was about to commence. I did not know what this event was but I knew I had to prepare for it. Perhaps, if I had been a little saner, I would have begun storing canned food and building a bunker in the woods. Instead, I started perfecting my newly discovered talent for telepathic manipulation and I started taking my 1986 Toyota Tercel out on nightly time-traveling missions. During the day, I did what I thought was a pretty good impression of being a college student. It was all very exciting. I wish I were joking. I wish I could tell you that this is a prank story and that I did not spend several months in a realm of thought that was so far beyond rational I still cannot quite comprehend how I ended up there. Eventually and fortunately, the delusion fell apart.

That December, my psychiatrist broke the news to me matter-of-factly. He diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. He gave me a brochure so I could look over the symptoms myself and I was forced to conclude that I did fit the profile. I have to admit it was little heartbreaking to learn that I did not, in fact, have super powers. What was more heartbreaking was having to come to terms with how unhinged I had been and how much danger I had put myself and others in. And then there was the fear that it could happen again. That was terrifying. Even more distressing was that I had planned a career in anthropology, a field that demands critical observational and analytical skills. How could I survive in such a field when my perception of the world around me could so easily descend into madness? My depression was so great that I graduated from college convinced that I did not deserve my degree. I also shied away from engaging in any critical thought that was not directed at how much of an utter failure I was bound to become.

Luckily for me, I graduated into the worst recession since the Great Depression. The job market at home was not particularly robust so I took a look at opportunities abroad. This led to my first experience of being stigmatized for having a mental illness. I applied for a job teaching English in South Korea, which I thought would look nice on a CV/Resume, and had come fairly close to securing the position. The final step in the interview process was completing a medical health history form. “Do you have any chronic medical conditions and if so, what are they?” I thought about it but I did not think very hard. My diagnosis will be with me for the rest of my life regardless of whether I have another episode and, barring some kind of revolutionary treatment, I would be taking medication for it for the rest of my life. It was an incredibly naïve decision and if I did I have a time machine I would certainly revisit it. The negative response was quick and it was a crushing blow. Despite responding very well to the mood stabilizer I had been prescribed, my depression was never really far away and it was easy to give into the notion that my disorder would forever be a wall between me and the future I had imagined for myself. In fact, I could not really imagine a future at all beyond a single goal: stay sane. The years went by and I was more or less successful.

Above all of this hovered the specter of Lamar Street, my father. I never knew the man. There is picture evidence that he was a part of my early life but he was out of the picture before any sustained memories could be formed. He died when I was in junior high, before I ever even contemplated trying to find out where he was. I did not ask my mother about him very often and when I did she would talk about similar we were. He was very bright, she would say, and creative. The most bizarre likenesses were the way we walked, how we both fidgeted with our hands, and our facial expressions. Now we have one more thing in common. I still do not know very much about Lamar Street but I know that his mental illness ruined his life.

So far, it has not ruined my life. I do not let my disorder define my narrative the way I once did. . Regular sessions with a psychiatrist and a regular dose of Lamotrigine keep my feet off the cliff’s edge and my head on my shoulders. Still, I have yet to truly dispel the depression that set in 7 years ago. It has transformed into a less devastating sense of melancholy at the fact that the career in anthropology I had once planned seems just as out of reach now as it ever has. And as grateful as I am that there exists a pill which can keep me on an even keel, it has its downsides. I don’t cry anymore. I don’t experience very much joy, either. It stifles my creativity. But I have my mind back. So, you know, there’s that.

Avengers: Age of Bechdel

imagesI was a little surprised when I saw the first Avengers movie and realized that it did not pass the Bechdel test. What’s the Bechdel test? You ask. It’s kind of like the Turing test but it tests for gender equality in movies. There are three requirements. 1) There must be at least wto women with speaking roles. 2) They must speak with each other. 3) The conversation must be about something other than a man. It’s harder to pass than you might think, especially for comic book movies. None of the Iron Man movies pass. Man of Steel doesn’t pass. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight don’t pass (haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises). I wouldn’t have been shocked if Marvel’s The Avengers failed to pass the test. Knowing that Joss Whedon wrote and directed it, however, changed my level of expectation. Joss tried. I know he did. He got really close too. The fact that Maria Hill and Black Widow can be on the helicarrier at the same time and not have 3 lines about, say, security, only makes it a more glaring example of how difficult it can be to get good female interaction in major studio movies.

I was worried, given The Avengers’ failure, that Age of Ultron might also fail to live up to my feminist expectations. Fortunately, it turns out that I had nothing to worry about. Age of Ultron only one more speaking woman than The Avengers but had 3 Bechdel-passing conversations. The problem with the Bechdel test, however, is that is does not guarantee that a movie is feminist. That is why it is important to examine the nature of the conversation. After all, as a friend pointed out, “Becky look at her butt. It is so big” from Sir Mix-a-lot’s one hit wonder passes the Bechdel test.

First things first, let us get to know our players.

Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlet Johansson), trained to be an elite spy and assassin since childhood, is an ex-member of the KGB and the only female Avenger to appear on screen. Ever since her shaky first appearance in Iron Man 2, Black Widow has been the champion of comic book movie feminists and more than a few are upset that Captain Marvel is getting a movie before Black Widow. Most recently, Natasha was spotlighted as a victim of slut-shaming when Jeremy Renner, who plays her best friend in the movie, had a very offensive response to a question from an interviewer that highlighted how prevalent casually misogyny can be.

Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders), first appeared in The Avengers as Nick Fury’s right hand woman. Since S.H.I.L.E.D’S dissolution in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Maria has been working, presumably, at the top levels of Stark Industries.

Dr. Helen Cho (played by Claudia Kim), is a cross between an engineer and a surgeon, having invented a process of synthesizing tissue that makes stiches obsolete. She has a lovely amount of screen time for her first showing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Woman Three (played by Julie Delpy) is a spoiler. If you do not to be spoiled about one of the character’s backstory then you should stop reading.

Woman Four (played by Linda Cardinelli) is a spoiler. This character is also extremely significant for a major character’s backstory. She does, however, have one of the best Bechdel-related conversations of the movie that very subtly gives away Whedon’s humor.

Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen) is also making her first appearance in the MCU. She is not a mutant, since Marvel Studios aren’t allowed to say “mutant” in their movies, but she does have super powers including telepathy and telekinesis. She is also very much defined by her relationship with her twin brother, Pietro. The two are orphans in a former warzone in Eastern Europe and it has been them against the world ever since their parents died.

Conversation Number One

This conversation involves Maria Hill, Dr. Cho, and Natasha Romanoff. The boys are involved in this conversation as well and it centers on the movie’s villain, Ultron, and what the A.I.’s motives are. The women are active participants, helping to piece together the puzzle and figure out what the team’s next steps should be. I love this conversation because of how utilitarian it is. This is not meant to reveal some key character development. This is not Whedon making a statement. He is just using all of his talking pieces to move the story forward.

Conversation Number Two

This is a memory of a conversation between Natasha and one of her early instructors in the art of spying and killing. The scene is revealed to us when Wanda “bewitches” Natasha in the Avengers’ first battle against her and Pietro. In it, Woman Three and Natasha discuss a graduation ceremony. It is intercut with shots of a young Natasha practicing ballet, handling firearms, and getting out of chokeholds. Natasha later reveals, in a very touching conversation with Bruce Banner that this ceremony involved a very invasive procedure, one that I am not sure a lot of children watching will understand.

Conversation Number Three

This is actually a trick conversation between Woman Four and Natasha. Pay attention or you will miss it.

What does it all mean?

There are some who believe, despite this clearly passing grade, that the movie is not very feminist and that Joss Whedon might not even be a feminist. This is an old criticism Bizarrely enough, some point to the romance between Black Widow and Hulk as someone making Natasha less of strong character. Strong women don’t get to have love interests? What? Then there is the fact that Black Widow spends some time as a captive who needs rescuing. She does do a little bit of work aiding her escape. Unfortunately, the only other character Ultron could conceivably hold hostage is Clint Barton and Joss was already making up for how poorly he treated that character in The Avengers.

So let’s consider some other moments. As I was faithfully waiting for that first moment a woman actually a conversation with another woman I saw Tony Stark and Thor start to wave their man sticks around. Of course instead of competing intellectually or physically they compare their women. This began when Maria Hill asked the logical question at a mission after-party: Where were Jane Foster and Pepper Potts (Thor’s and Iron Man’s romantic interests respectively)? If Joss Whedon is such a feminist why did he not put all the female characters in the movie? Probably because actors cost money that Disney wasn’t willing to pay and the story has almost too many characters, any. Still, watching these men compete arguing who has successfully wooed the better woman put a sour taste in my mouth every time I watched the movie. Until the third time when I finally heard what Maria Hill cough-said at the end: testosterone.

And I have to go back to conversation number three. That one gets me every time.

Are there flaws with Whedon’s feminist perspective in the movie? Perhaps. Are there filmmaking flaws in the movie? Definitely. Is it a fun movie and worth showing to little girls around the world? I think so.

p.s. Hawkeye would kick the ass of anyone who sluts-shamed Black Widow.