Category Archives: that’s so post modern

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 It also displays an overwhelmingly outdated and offensive perspective of tribes who have chosen to live in isolation by falling back on the same old tropes which simplify and infantilize indigenous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.

 

OK…This Makes No Sense8

Sense8-castWatching Sense8 was one of the stranger viewing experiences I have had. The only other experience I can compare it to is 2001: A Space Odyssey, though I hesitate to do that because Sense8 is not nearly as masterful as that movie. The two comparisons drawn are that they are both science-fiction and they both provoke in the audience a sense of frustration at not quite understanding what the whole thing is about. This frustration was so great in the case of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece that 241 members of the audience walked out of the film the night it premiered. The beautiful thing about 2001 is that the frustration is completely intentional. Kubrick wanted to make it difficult to watch this movie because the reward was a magnificent visual pay-off (even if you still didn’t quite understand it). Unfortunately for Sense8, the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski failed to make such a satisfying conclusion to their noble cinematic aspirations.

The most frustrating thing about Sens8 is that the premise is so spectacular. Picture this: a group of 8 people living around the world begin to sense each other on a telepathic level that is so powerful they can lend their skills to one another even if they are a continent away. They are being chased by a cabal of “others” determined to wipe the sense8s out. Unfortunately, the entire series drags and it is evident from the first episode. There is not nearly enough “sensing” and when “sensing” does happen it rarely serves a purpose. In fact, it is often hard to tell if the characters even realize that they are in someone else’s head.

It was by the end of episode three that I realized this show could lose a few storylines and still not make complete sense. To be sure, it had its moments and it the first time the characters actually used their abilities instead of floundering around with them. Instead of building the episode around that moment, the show spends the majority of its time focused on three or four other things. It used to be shows would have an A plot and a B plot. Sense8 is asking you to follow eight plot threads in a single episode, nine if you count the actual overarching plot. I would have fast-forwarded through the Indian and the German storylines if I had not been afraid of missing some random “sensing” or “visiting” because the transitions really are quite brilliant. I would have skipped through the Korean storyline but after episode three Sun Bak’s character becomes roughly 15 times more fun to watch.

SPOILER ALERT: Sense8 does not use subtitles. Actually, it does use subtitles…three of them. The rest of the time everyone speaks English. I can see no reason for this beyond someone’s greedy decision to appeal to more Americans who simply cannot be bothered to read subtitles or listen to a dubbed version. Yet, listening the South Korean extra with a speaking role just trying to get those words out or the eight year old Kenyan who has a suspiciously British accent, one wonders how much speaking a foreign language affects a person’s acting talents. There were a few Mexican extras with speaking roles whom you could tell were trying their hardest to sound as American as possible. This show’s casting director must have had his/her/their work cut out for him/her/them with this project and I’m sure they did the best they could. And props to whoever got Freema Agyeman as Amanita, the most supportive girlfriend in the history of girlfriends.

For all its faults, Sense8 does get a few things right. It is the most trans-positive show I have seen. I have not watched Transparent or Orange is The New Black or whatever the hot new trans-positive thing is so I cannot say how this compares, but this show is so matter-of-fact about Nomi, an LGBT blogger, that I had to rewind her first scene to catch a bit of dialogue about “colonizing white males.” And then there’s Lito, a Mexican action star whose love-life is about as soap operatic as it can get. I could not see how their skills would be useful as members of the sens8 cluster but their storylines were so compelling that I did not care. Of course, it became obvious how useful their skills actually are during the season’s last few episodes.

Warning: There is very graphic sex, nudity, and several birth scenes. I was hoping to go through life never seeing an actual childbirth. I avoided all those documentaries and reality shows for a reason. It was soooooooo gross. The sex scene is not that bad but it does go on for quite a while and is kind of an orgy.

Final Thoughts: At the end of the day, the premise is sound and the final two episodes do a serviceable job of capping off the show. It could have done with a few less characters (hopefully, a few will be killed off next season) and perhaps ten instead of 12 episodes. Daredevil had similar pacing issues. It makes me wonder about this new binge-watching format and what the perfect length is for long-form stories like these.

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 http://www.themarysue.com/reconsidering-the-feminism-of-joss-whedon/. 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.

Daredevil. Or, “Not the one Ben Afleck was in”.

maxresdefault1.jpgThese are some thoughts I had about Daredevil. It was going to be a Facebook post but it got too long.

The thing about Daredevil is that it possessed the most “gritty” and “realistic” tone out of all the Marvel live action properties and I make a distinction between the television and cinematic universes because of rumors that they are not so simpatico. Then again you may acknowledge that Netflix shows are not quite like regular tv shows. They are presented in episodic form but they are designed for binge-watching, presented as something of a whole story rather than being forced to restrict every segment to being available only once a week.

Back to the thing about Daredevil, though, it started of dark not just in tone but in the visual style itself. Think of that famous fight scene in episode two, so clearly inspired by Old Boy (The original not the Spike Lee version since I haven’t seen that). As awesome as it was watching the beat down that went down in the hallway, being left to wonder what was happing in the side rooms when you could only hear the fight. It also forces the viewer to acknowledge, that really, fighting is exhausting. Even boxers have to take breaks. Even the darkness of Matt’s Catholicism rears its head. He is haunted when he asks, given that God has some grand plan, “why’d he put the devil in me?” Our hero believes he has an evil source fighting to control his behavior and that he really could become as bad as the criminals he is fighting…

And then you have the man whose name “we don’t say.” Until we do say his name. Fisk. Wilson Fisk. He’s not the Kingpin, not yet. He’s just a maybe psychopath who has amassed quite a bit of wealth about the town as well as influence with members from all walks of life. He’s in partnership with Mafia’s and a crooked accountant. Yet, he really seems to want ultimate make his city better.

But the show transforms. It begins a transition which has yet to be fully realized. This transition would be fairly considered a dark to light metamorphosis. It becomes more “comic-bookey” and with that comes the ultimate judgment that comic book movies are not considered art, at least not to some in the Artistic community (I’m looking at you Inrarritu).

it is also fair to say that Daredevil loses something towards the end of the of the season. The story becomes, not only unnecessarily long but also a little too predictable. This can be seen in the uniform change. I think that was a bad idea. He was so cool in his ninja costume! Then there’s the “cowl” that covers the whole half of his face. If I were a criminal I’d be a little freaked out by the vigilante who doesn’t need to see to fight.

The thing about Daredevil is that it also represents a shift in Marvel’s live action story-telling. Contrary to what Marvel’s movies might be, in the comics world Marvel characters do not spend all their time crossing over. Even SHIELD has it own storyline that is affected by the movies yet has no effect over the movies. (SHIELD. Oh SHIELD. There is a comic book show that had a hard time finding its mediocre legs. It taught me not to have high hopes.). But the movies have spread the notion that these larger than life characters, these icons that have been constantly reinvented into new storylines, can, in fact, show up in other movie “universes”. Heck, even E.T. cameoed in Star Wars (ha! +2 to geek cred).
The thing about Daredevil is, I don’t think he belongs in the MCU. AThe movies have a very particular and frankly, very family-friendly, style to them. They appeal to most generations. Avengers: Age of Ultron is so appealing it’s almost certain to break the record for biggest opening weekend. You know who currently holds the record for biggest opening weekend? The Avengers.. Daredevil is not this happy go lucky, not at all. The Avengers are super soldiers, aliens so goddamn weird they have the names and personalities of there Norse mythological counterparts on Midgard, and genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropists. They are not generally blind orphans. And there are no hyper-real 10 minute long fight scenes. There is a lot of blood and I kept my eyes closed for several gory moments.

For the most part, in terms of entertainment and story value, I think Daredevil satisfies my requirements. I love what the tone says about the archetype of this character. But I like it where it is. Certain stories need to be restricted to a long form method like Television. Breaking bad for example. A clever someone cut it into a two hour movie but I think it was perfect as a several year-long transformation archetype switch.

And I like where The Avengers are as movies. I am exited to see if/how Avengers: Age of Ultron affects the coming Infinity War. I hope that it passes the Bechdel test. That’s another place Daredevil failed miserably. As my friend Dick Powis remarked with not a little sarcasm, “I like this Daredevil show. It’s about time someone portrayed women in roles as nurse and secretaries.” IBut the fact is that it doesn’t mesh with Daredevil’s bone-crunching bleakness. And Daredevils conflicted view of the good vs/ evil battle does mesh with the pretty clear lines about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Maybe that’s what it comes down to. The struggle between fantastical, larger than life characters in one and the other focuses on how personal demons shape one’s identity. One has Superheroes and Super Humans doing battle with Alens and A.I.s and the other has a vigilante who has kind of a hard time figuring out how to compete with gentrification.

The thing about this show is the difference between the man in the black mask, the devil of Hell’s Ktichen, and Daredevil.

Activation Achieved

I have spent a lot of time praising the internet but only participating in half measures. I have been a lurker, a youtube addict, and occasionally an anonymous commentor. So today I have decided to take the full measure and create a real presence digitally (or as real as the internet can be).

I’ve applied to graduate school for anthropology twice and been rejected twice, which hurt.   But I had my cry, and then I decided if I couldn’t go to school to learn how to be an applied anthropologist, I’d learn how to do it myself.  Right now I’m fighting for the Huaorani to maintain their territorial rights. I am going to use my skills as an anthropologist to do it.