Weekly Rant: On Being a #BernieNo: 5 Theses

Well, I was going to write my new blog post on Kamala Harris’s new book but, since Bernie announced his candidacy today, I decided I’ll go with a rant instead. So, allow me to make it clear why I’m a #BernieNo (as opposed to the obnoxious and toxic Bernie Bros).

1.) Bernie is an ineffective legislator. Despite his many years serving in the United States Senate, he has achieved remarkably little. It’s really rather staggering when you think about it. What’s more concerning for his prospects as a presidential candidate, to my mind, is that this doesn’t bode well for his ability to craft any sort of legislation that has a chance of making it through Congress. Furthermore, it’s a well-attested fact that Bernie seemed unable (or unwilling) to forge alliances with his fellow legislators (Barney Frank was apparently not a fan).

3.) Bernie is an egomaniac. There, I said it. Bernie seems to be under the impression that he is the only one who can rescue the country from its myriad ills. It’s pretty staggering that people still make the claim that Hillary felt she was entitled to the nomination, even though she won the popular vote by quite a large margin and even though Sanders still seems to operate under the assumption that his assumption of the Democratic crown is only his due. This despite the fact that he has done very little for the party whose nomination he seeks, which leads me to…

4.) Bernie isn’t a Democrat. To my mind, it takes a particularly egregious sense of self to believe that, as an stubborn Independent, you have the right to come in and take over a party you have done literally nothing to help. In fact, Bernie is well-known for his contempt of the Democratic Party and its politicians, frequently painting them as just as bad as Republicans. If you want to be a part of the Democratic Party, then fine, our door is wide open. However, if you’re only going to be a Democrat when it suits you, then I am not here for it.

5.) Bernie is disingenuous. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Sanders referred to almost anyone who opposed him as “The Establishment.” The Human Rights Campaign (who advocate for the LGBTQ+ community) was the Establishment. Planned Parenthood (which presses for safe, affordable abortion) was the Establishment. And why? Because they supported his opponent. And the real kicker? Bernie Sanders, a United States Senator, IS PART OF THE ESTABLISHMENT. His effective weaponization of this empty term is one of his most grievous offenses, as was his grouchy (and, to put it mildly), lukewarm concession to Clinton in 2016.

6.) Bernie doesn’t care about black people. Or queer people. Or women. Bernie, like so many Marxist bros that I had the displeasure of encountering in graduate school. Like those men, Sanders sees things only through the prism of class struggle; anything else is secondary. One would think that, given the ways in which intersectionality has become part of the everyday lexicon of Americans since 2016, Bernie would adjust his language accordingly, but he continues to cling to the belief that nothing matters but economic justice. Fix the rigged system, he claims, and prosperity will inevitably follow. More perniciously, he continues to act as if one’s other social identities don’t matter (and are certainly not worth organizing politics around) and to excuse the white racists who he presumably sees as part of his base.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If, heaven forfend, Bernie should lock down the Democratic nomination, I will assuredly vote for him in the general. And I will do so without an ounce of reservation, and I might even be able to muster up the sort of excitement that I now feel for Kamala Harris. I recognize that, much as I dislike him, he is miles and miles better than Trump.

For make no mistake, we are in the midst of a full-blown existential crisis. 2020 may well be the last chance that we have to get this country back on track. After all, Justice Ginsburg will almost certainly not make it through another presidential term, and the planet will be a burnt cinder if we don’t take meaningful action on climate change.

All that being said, 2020 is going to be a bloody slog.

Heaven help us all.

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Novel Thoughts: The Savage Joys of Cutting

Since I’ve been struggling a bit with revision today, I figured I’d take a break and write about writing about writing a bit, particularly about cutting.

Unfortunately, I’ve always been one of those people who writes with a mind to length. My daily writing goals are typically focused on achieving a certain amount of words, and I still can’t quite take to hear the idea that concision is more effective than bloat. I’m getting there, but boy is it hard to shake the mind patterns of a lifetime.

So, unsurprisingly, when I compiled all of the separate chapters of my manuscript, I found out that it clocked in at a staggering 280k words. Even for an epic that’s a bit preposterous. In fact, I was convinced that something had gone wrong with Word’s counting mechanism. Nope. I’m just that wordy.

Commence the cutting.

One of the greatest joys of this round of revision has been the excision of superfluous words, phrases, paragraphs, even entire chapters. While the rewriting of entire chapters–and, in one case, an entire story arc–can be somewhat exhausting and dispiriting, cutting brings with it a savage sort of pleasure. I guess you could say that it’s a form of creative destruction, demolishing that which isn’t working so that something more beautiful and effective can emerge. When you absolutely have to cut things, you begin to realize, and sometimes re-evaluate, which parts of your narrative and which parts are a needless distraction.

I tend to be wordy, piling clause upon clause and rumination upon rumination, until I can imagine my reader shouting: Get to the point! So that part of the revision process has been a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated. It’s hard to describe, really, except to say that there’s something liberating about cutting away the dross and fluff to reveal the lean, muscular prose beneath.

This isn’t to say that complex syntax isn’t sometimes a good thing, but instead to say that I’ve learned that excess verbiage isn’t just confusing, it’s boring. It’s actually been very helpful to read through the entire manuscript as if I were a lay reader, trying to identify those places where the prose sagged, or where the plot began to meander in useless directions. Let me tell you, that has really opened my eyes to some serious bloat that I wasn’t even aware of while I was in the midst of writing it. Needless to say, in subsequent weeks a lot of that has ended up on the cutting-room floor.

As i move forward with the revision process (which is going quite well, thank you), I have to constantly remind myself of the value of being concise. Even now, when I’m drafting a new chapter or scene, I find myself slipping back into those troubling habits. The difference now is that I identify those tendencies a lot faster, so at least they’re not making it into the revised chapters.

There’s still a long load of revision ahead, but I’m increasingly confident that, with metaphorical scalpel in hand, I can whip this beast into shape.

Weekly Rant: West Virginia, We Need to Talk

You know, for a while there I’m sure (as The Onion put it) that West Virginia was feeling pretty smug watching the slow-moving disaster in Virginia.

Well, never let anyone think that we can’t hold our own when it comes to looking like huge dumbasses on the national stage.

Cue Eric Porterfield, West Virginia Delegate. His behaviour over the past week has shone a spotlight on why it is that West Virginia struggles to keep its brilliant young people, attract investment, and in general remains a laughingstock to the rest of the country.

In a series of remarks, Porterfield has referred to the LGBT+ Rights Movement as equivalent to the KKK, argued that queer people are a public menace, and suggested that he would drown his children if he happened to find out that they were gay. All with no sense that anything he was saying or doing was harmful, bigoted, and cruel (unsurprisingly, he wore a red MAGA hat during a television interview). When pushed about his implication of drowning his children, he said he was just baiting the libs. Because yes, joking about drowning your gay children is sooo funny. What a great way to show the world how much you lack human compassion!

To me, though, the most upsetting thing about this whole debacle is that it is so unsurprising. When I was a member of the Young Democrats in the aftermath of 2004, I distinctly remember a speaker informing us that Kerry lost the election because of “God, Guns, and Gays.” As a young gay man and proud Democrat, it was one of the most insulting and dispiriting things I had ever heard, and I still feel that betrayal almost a decade and a half later.

Things have only gotten worse since then for queers in West Virginia and, despite the passage of protections at the local level (for which several cities deserve great respect and applause), the climate there is not friendly. Though I once thought about returning to my home after I finished my Ph.D., at this point I don’t think that you could pay me enough to go back there. I much prefer to live in queer-affirming states like NY and MD, thank you very much.

Nor am I the only one. In fact, there’s quite an expat community of queer folk from WV who have left the state, taking their talents with them. After all, who wants to stay in a state that seems so dead-set on alienating every minority group that it can?

West Virginians, I urge you to wake up and smell the coffee. I know that you’ve convinced yourself (or allowed yourself to be convinced) that your ignorance and bigotry are some sort of principled stand in the culture war, but you are literally hurting your loved ones. Every time that you allow a man like Porterfield to keep his seat after these kinds of hateful comments, you send a message to your queer family and friends that your own right to feel insulated from political and cultural change is more important than their literal right to feel safe in their own state.

If nothing else, you should realize that the problems you face–the flight of young people, the dearth of decent job opportunities, and on and on–are only going to get worse when people like Porterfield are the face that you present to the nation at large. No one wants to relocate to a state known for its bigotry, and that most definitely includes young people. How long do you think you can continue on this path?

West Virginia, I know you’re better than this, I really do. I know that there’s love and compassion and earthy wisdom in those hollers and mountains, but for the love of all that’s holy, you’ve got to start showing it and standing up for it. Looking like a bunch of ignorant rednecks isn’t a political statement: it’s a one-way ticket to desolation.

Despite everything, I still think that there is a lot of good in you, but you’re going to have to work really hard to show this to the world. I know you can do it, though.

I have faith in you.

The New “Aladdin” Looks Like Trash: A Screed

The 1992 Aladdin was the first Disney film I well and truly fell in love with in the theater. Though I later came to understand the many problematic things about it (not least its flagrant Orientalism), I also came to appreciate the queerer textures that bubble under its heterosexual surface (Jafar is one of the queerest of the Disney villains IMHO). And there’s no question that the film is breathtaking and gorgeous and filled with irresistible music.

So, all of that being said, I was a little dismayed to hear that Disney was going to be doing a live-action remake. Though I had liked The Jungle Book, I felt that Beauty and the Beast was so devoid of imagination as to be a colossal waste of time. I still harboured hopes, though, that somehow Aladdin would be different.

If the recently-released trailer is anything to go by, it won’t be.

First of all, it boggles my mind how a film that is so expensive to make can look so distressingly cheap. As I watched the trailer, I just could not quite shake the feeling that I was watching an extended episode of Once Upon a Time. It is definitely not a good thing if your big-budget blockbuster looks like your network show, and I still cannot wrap my head around how so much money could produce such shoddy CGI. Admittedly, some of this cheapness may look better on the big screen, but I’m not holding my breath.

Secondly even if the CGI ends up looking better in the final film that we see in theaters, there’s no shaking the fact that the costumes aren’t great. Again, I’m not sure exactly how it is that such a big budget can produce costumes that look so….cheap and campy. Speaking of camp, I have a feeling that this film is going to be way camp, and not in the self-conscious way that the filmmakers and studio would like.

Third, while it’s no secret that the 1992 Aladdin was hella racist and Orientalist, one would think that two and a half decades would have taught studio execs something. Certainly, they made the right choice by populating the film with non-white actors, but there’s still so much about the aesthetic of the film–and even the core of the film itself–that can’t quite elude the aura of fetishizing the Middle East. While you could get away with that nonsense in the 1990s (sort of), I have my doubts about how well this is going to fly in 2019. (And don’t get me started on the fact that they still felt the need to cast a white actor as a rival for Jasmine’s affections).

Finally, there’s the fact that the whole affair just looks so…small. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because traditional 2-D animation still has a sense of wonder and magic about it, but I’m always shocked by how limited these remakes are. The Jungle Book probably came close to attaining the grandeur and majesty of the Disney Renaissance, but I think that may have to do with the fact that the film they chose to remake is one of the lesser lights in the Disney firmament. In any case, the trailer for Aladdin fell very short indeed of any sort o (the opening shot of the Cave of Wonders was particularly underwhelming).

And the worst part about whole thing?

I’ll still go see it.

I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

Novel Thoughts: On Finishing and Revising a Rough Draft

Well, since it’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the status of the novel, I thought I’d set out some thoughts on how the revision process is going. I have to say, I’m happy with the novel as a whole. I think it’s got good bones, though I do have to totally rewrite one character’s entire story arc. And let me quite honest: it’s just thrilling to have actually finished a rough draft of an epic fantasy novel. The only other creative project of this magnitude that I finished was an historical novel, and that was 8 years ago. So, yeah, I feel accomplished.

However, as I’ve reread the rough draft, I’ve noticed some aspects of my writing that I really want to work on curtailing as I compose more material. It’s always hard to take a good look at your own composition process, but it can also be very healthy.

First of all, I like to pile clause upon clause upon clause. I’m not sure why I do this, other than that it’s the way that my writing processes my complicated thoughts. This definitely hamstrung some parts of my dissertation, but it is even more distracting in fiction.

I also tend to have my characters ask too many questions, either to one another or in their own minds. This is, of course, related to the clause issue, and again I’m not sure why I do it. As I’ve embarked on revision, I’ve tried to take the majority of those interrogatory sentences and convert them into declarative (when I don’t delete them outright).

Speaking of character thoughts…I tend to spend too much time in my character’s heads in third person. To try to correct this I’ve focused more on action. After all, while it’s good to let readers get to know your characters and what motivates them, excessive navel-gazing isn’t very interesting to read. Perhaps my tendency to spend so much time in my characters’ heads reflects my own introspective tendencies. Or maybe my characters just don’t have enough to do yet.

I have to say that working on this revision is both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting to be able to sculpt and craft the rough clay of a draft into something that really sparkles. But man, it takes so long, and it’s very alienating (and dispiriting) sometimes to see all of the mistakes that you made as you were floundering your way through the plot.

So, I’ve now made it through Chapter 6 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with how they look. There’s still a long way to go, though, given that the rough draft was almost 60 chapters. And then there’s that pesky character who finally decided to reveal his real plotline. Still, I’m going to really, really try to get a revised draft done by the end of March and thus be ready to start querying agents by April.

These goals are definitely ambitious, but I am nothing if not determined to see this book in print, come hell or high water.

So, onward we go!

Weekly Rant: Barbara Ehrenreich, et al. and the Banality of Racism

Ugh. Some days.

I didn’t start Monday thinking that I was going to be struggling with rage all day; I figured that would come Tuesday, when the country would once again be subjected to the inane blatherings of Trump during his State of the Union.

Then, while playing on Facebook to avoid doing work, I happened to notice a frame capture of a Twitter exchange among Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter. You can see it below.

Now, I would hope that most of you would recognize why this caused so much anger, hurt, and sadness among the Twitter left. Here we have these three giants of feminist thought openly trading in Orientalist language, at once dismissive and condescending. Ehrenreich’s crude neoconservative pining for the days of “American greatness” and Pollitt’s and Showalter’s patronizing language referring to Kondo as “fairy-like,” as a “pretty little pixie” and “Tinkerbell” are breathtaking in their offensiveness. I had to double-check to make sure that these weren’t trolls out to take down noted feminists.

Unfortunately, the exchange was all too real.

What astounded me the most about the exchange among these three feminist giants was how banal it all seemed. Nothing about the way they were talking suggested that they saw what they were saying as problematic, no awareness that they were participating in long-standing means by which white people have dismissed Asian culture, Asian people, and Asian traditions. How was it possible, I wondered (and still wonder) that these prominent intellectuals could be so complicit in this system of power and not even seem to know about it? How could they be having this conversation on Twitter for the world to see as if they were merely having tea in their parlors?

The answer, of course, is that their white privilege shields them from having to think about these issues, or they think it does (because it once did). Ensconced in their ivory towers, they think they can get away with this kind of language because they always have. One can’t help but wonder how Showalter’s casual racism has affected those of her students who aren’t white or, for that matter, how much it has influenced every aspect of her research and her pedagogy.

I suppose what really frustrated–frightened, me really–was how shocked I was by all of this, even though I know that white feminists have a long history of being dismissive of the concerns of women of color. I was also deeply angry, because even though I realized some time ago that Ehrenreich was a bit of a hack, I had continued to look up to Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter (Showalter’s feminist criticism was hugely inspiring to me as a young undergraduate). To find these two women trading in racist and Orientalist language was, for me, a profound betrayal. I particularly expected more of Elaine Showalter who, as a feminist academic, should absolutely know better. I guess you could say that I felt like my trust had been betrayed in some deeply personal way, even though I know that that makes me sound hopelessly naïve.

But then again, perhaps it’s a good thing that all of this played out on Twitter, so that we could at least have a public accounting. One can’t help but wonder, though, if this is the kind of racist trash they peddle in public, what do they say in private? It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.

And all of this on the same day that Liam Neeson admitted (apropos of nothing, really), in an interview with The Independent, that at one point after a friend of his had been raped he had gone out hoping to violently assault a random black man (you cannot make this stuff up).

And all of what I have just described took place during the same few days when it was revealed the Virginia’s governor has a racist past of dressing in blackface.

Sometimes, you just have to admit that the world is broken.

Book Review: The Frustrating Pleasures of “Fire and Blood” (by George R.R. Martin)

Let me preface this review by saying how frustrated I am by this book’s publication history. For almost 8 years I have waited very impatiently for The Winds of Winter to finally see the light of day, and when I heard that instead we were going to get the first part of a two-part history of the Targaryen Dynasty, I was quite annoyed. I even contemplated not even buying this book as a (undoubtedly futile) form of protest.

Unfortunately, for all of his flaws, Martin is one hell of a world-builder and, since I really did enjoy both The World of Ice and Fire and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I found myself drawn inexorably toward Fire and Blood.

Though I am still deeply frustrated, I have to admit that this book was a true pleasure to read. I, like many other fantasy aficionados, always find that the histories of secondary worlds are (all too often) more interesting than the actual stories sent in those worlds. Fire and Blood succeeds precisely because it shows us the sinners and saints, the benevolent monarchs and cruel tyrants, that shaped, and continue to shape, the destiny of those living in Westeros.

This history reveals that the Targaryens are some sort of unholy combination of Julio-Claudian and Ptolemaic Dynasties, with all of the associations those two families in the ancient world possessed. We also are left with the distinct sense that, in Westeros as in the real world, the actions of one generation continue to influence their descendants, often in ways that they could never have predicted. Just as importantly, Fire and Blood reveals that this universe is one of both great beauty and unspeakable cruelty.

Some have criticized Fire and Blood for being too much like a history textbook (and thus boring). For me, that’s precisely what makes it so much fun to read. It also reveals just how vast Martin’s creative vision is, how much effort he has put into his secondary creation. Whatever the flaws of A Song of Ice and Fire (and they are substantial), there is no doubt that this is still a world with its own internal consistency and its own contradictions.

Indeed, that is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Gyldayn (the book’s fictional narrator) seems, at first blush, to be merely transmitting information to us, his readers, but he also makes clear at several points that our understanding of the past is necessarily shaped (or misshaped) by the sources available to us. In his case, he has to rely on both eyewitness accounts of the events of the past as well as less reputable reports (some of the most amusing snippets come from the fool known as Mushroom). History, as Gyldayn reminds us, is ultimately written by the victors, and it would be a mistake (or, at least, Martin wants us to believe it would be a mistake) to view anything in the volume as the absolute truth.

That being said, I do have a few critiques. First, while I appreciate that the people of Westeros have a very biting sense of humour, it gets a bit repetitive to continue hearing about the sundry nicknames that they grant their superiors. Unfortunately, this tendency to find a device or turn of phrase and beat it to death with overuse has become something of a thing with Martin (see also “where do whores go?” in A Dance with Dragons). When it’s used sparingly it can be very effective and conveying the particular characteristics of the Westerosi, but in Fire and Blood it starts to become rather irritating.

Likewise, the (to my mind unnecessarily) convoluted family true of the Targaryens makes keeping them all straight something of a chore. This unfortunate problem is exacerbated by the bewildering similarity of their names. If you want my advice, focus on the absolute major characters (mostly the regnants), and you should be fine.

The larger criticism is that much of this material is a retread of what we’ve seen before in various places, both in A World of Ice and Fire and in the numerous edited collections to which Martin has contributed over the years. Admittedly, it’s been supplemented, but it does lead a cynical mind to wonder whether this is just another cash-grab for Martin while he flounders his way through the narrative morass that is the main thread of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Because I hate ending a review with a negative, let me reaffirm that this is definitely a must-read for fans of the novels who want to gain a richer, deeper understanding of the blood-soaked past of Westeros and its most infamous dynasty.

Screening History: Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

For some time now I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the newest film to focus on the tumultuous and tragic life of Mary, Queen of Scots and her tempestuous relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I.

The film focuses primarily on the fraught relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Once Mary returns from her youth in France, she finds herself confronted by her scheming Scottish lords, a disloyal husband, and by the machinations of her cousin and rival Elizabeth. Despite her best efforts, Mary is ultimately deposed by her lords (who are egged on by David Tenant’s fiery and bigoted John Knox), flees to England, and is ultimately executed for her participation in a plot against Elizabeth’s life and throne.

While the film is more historically accurate than some, it does contain what has become something of a requirement in films about these two feuding monarchs: a face-to-face meeting that never (so far as we know) actually occurred. In this meeting, arguably the film’s climax, Elizabeth finally reveals the truth: that she has long crafted her own persona around her fear of her cousin and rival queen. However, and just as importantly, she also asserts that it is precisely Mary’s most noteworthy qualities–her impetuousness, her heightened emotion, her youth–that have ultimately brought about her downfall. Elizabeth, meanwhile, continues to hold onto her throne and her power.

Ultimately, the film seems to agree with Elizabeth. Mary is passionate and intelligent, but she refuses to put her duty to country above her own wishes and desires. What’s more, she tends to be far too naive to be able to survive the cutthroat world of her Scottish nobility, who balk at her efforts to bring them to heel. She also allows herself to fall perilously in love with Darnley and indulges her fondness for her Italian secretary David Rizzio to a degree that leaves her open to an attack from her disaffected brothers, particularly her brother Moray. (Somewhat implausibly, the film suggests that Mary is totally okay with Rizzio’s explicit queerness).

The film is visually  splendid, and the costumes rustle and glitter with the wealth of the era. There are also some truly splendid shots of the Scottish scenery. Having just returned from an all-too-brief sojourn in that country, I can assure you that the films’ cinematography does it complete justice. Yet Mary struggles to make this beautiful land her own, her many years in France creating a distance between herself and her nobles that she proves incapable of effectively bridging.

What really makes the film shine, however, are the performances. Ronan does an excellent job as the youthful Queen of Scots, bringing her signature brand of fiery passion and steely determination to the role. Ronan’s Mary is a woman determined to forge her own path, regardless of what others advise her to do. She does a fine job at conveying the inner strength that motivated and sustained Mary through some of the darkest moments of her life, though at times her portrayal gives the doomed Scottish queen a bit too much credit. (I’ll try not to nitpick her accent, which still sounds more Irish than Scottish, and yes I know the real Mary would most likely have sounded French and not Scottish in any case).

As great as Ronan is at capturing Mary’s fiery spirit, it is Robbie who truly shines as Elizabeth (full confession: I’m Team Elizabeth, now and forever).  Though at times she is wracked by her sense of vulnerability in the face of Mary’s charisma, youth, and beauty, in their last fateful encounter she finally bares her true self to her cousin. In doing so, she reclaims the agency and assurance that she almost lost and proves once again that she is the queen most willing to sacrifice her own personal emotions and desires–particularly her love for her dear Robert Dudley. Unlike Mary, who refuses to acknowledge political reality, Elizabeth always has her pulse on the real world. She knows, and ultimately accepts, that she will have to give up her some essential parts of herself is she hopes to rule as a wise and just queen in a man’s world. And Elizabeth, even more than Mary, recognizes that there is room on their isle for only one of them.

The script, however, has some major weaknesses that the film struggles to overcome. For one thing, it is too short to adequately explore the various plot threads that it puts into play. For someone who is already well-acquainted with the history and politics of the period this isn’t too significant of a handicap, but I can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the depicted events would quickly become lost.

More significantly, the rushed nature of the script means that some of the key players–particularly Darnley and Bothwell–are woefully underdeveloped, their motives and actions left largely unexplained. A number of pivotal points of character development–Darnley’s betrayal, Bothwell’s rape of Mary–seem to come out of left-field. Had the writers either trimmed out these portions or had the director given some more time for the story to flex its muscles, it would have made a stronger drama. As it is, the performances of the two leads are definitely the best part about it.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Mary, Queen of Scots, despite some of its flaws. Is it as strong a film as some of the other fictional tellings of the doomed Scottish queen? Probably not. However, it does reveal the extent to which this tragic tale continues to hold on the imagination, and how extraordinary these women were in their efforts to rule in a man’s world. What’s more, it does at least attempt to convey the complicated politics of the era (hardly surprising, given that it is based on John Guy’s very popular and applauded biography of Mary) . For both of those reasons, it deserves a great deal of credit, and I look forward to seeing it again.

Screening History: The Fraught Pathos of “The Favourite” (2018)

If you know anything about it me, it’s that I’m an absolute sucker for a good costume drama. It’s been a while since I saw one that really blew me away, so when I saw the trailers for The Favourite, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a very irreverent take on the genre, particularly as it seemed like it was going to be as humourous as it was opulent. I have to say, I was very impressed by the film (except for the ending, to which I shall return shortly).

In brief, the film tells of the declining years of Queen Anne of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), who as the story begins is under the domination of the formidable Lady Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Their dysfunctional relationship is soon interrupted, however, by the arrival of Churchill’s impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) who soon sets her own sights on becoming the queen’s favourite. She succeeds, though she soon finds that being so close to the font of power comes with its own price.

It is sometimes very difficult (if not impossible) to really capture the strangeness of earlier historical periods, to convey to modern spectators the oddities and foibles of the past. Some filmmakers have succeeded at it (Peter Greenaway is one example), and clearly Yorgos Lanthimos deserves to join that select group. Between the outlandish makeup and wigs worn by the male characters and the (sometimes heavy-handed) use of the fisheye lens and shots taken from below, we are led to see this as a very disturbing world quite unlike our own.

At times, Olivia Colman (who’s becoming quite adept at playing queens) threatens to steal the show. Her Anne is at once imperious, pathetic, endearing, and Colman manages to wring every drop of morbid pathos from the role, leading us to feel sorry for Anne even as we condemn some aspects of her personality. She is clearly a woman who has long struggled to develop her own sense of self (with the confidence that entails), and so she relies on Sarah Churchill. There are moments when Colman’s performance slides into the grotesque, but even then Colman doesn’t let us lose sight of the queen’s essential frail humanity. It’s hard not to feel a profound sympathy for this queen who, by the time the story begins, has already lost 17 children and a husband. Small wonder that she pours all of her emotional frustrations into her small hoard of rabbits and into the women who maneuver for her affection. And, to be honest, it’s rather nice to see Queen Anne get some screen time, as she usually gets neglected by popular culture.

By contrast, Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is a formidable and indomitable personality. She is not afraid to tell Anne exactly what she thinks–as when she tells the monarch that her new makeup style makes her look like a badger–but she is also subject to Anne’s vicious jealousy. Weisz manages to capture Churchill’s biting wit and scathing commentary, at the same time as she makes it clear that this was a woman who cared deeply about the well-being of her country at both the domestic and international level. Weisz also deserves a great deal of credit for allowing a few moments of genuine vulnerability to creep into her characterization as well. We thus come to understand her as a woman quite out of place in her own time and ultimately punished for her unwillingness to conform to the expectations of others, even the queen.

The relationship between Anne and Sarah is as as refreshing as it is contentious. It’s very rare these days to see a film really delve into the complicated relationships between and among women. It’s clear to me at any rate that the film’s Sarah has genuine love and affection for Anne, though it’s somewhat less clear if their erotic encounters stem from genuine attraction or whether it is a rather twisted manifestation of their social roles. I strongly suspect that it is some combination of the two.

I have to admit to some skepticism that Emma Stone (much as I love her) would be able to pull off playing British, but she does it surprisingly well. What’s more, she imbued Abigail with a certain steely strength forged in the crucible of her troubled youth and her abuse at the hands of numerous men in her life. Abigail is not, strictly speaking, a sympathetic character–indeed, she is quite cold, malicious, and calculating–but she is comprehensible. The film allows us to see her as the necessary product of a culture that values women so little and largely views even the most powerful of them as expendable. Cruel as she might be, Stone lets us feel at least a measure of grudging respect for Abigail’s ability to not only survive her harsh environment, but to thrive in it.

Each of these characters, as different as they are, are hefty and complex and textured. Indeed, for all of its visual artistry (which, at times, becomes distracting), the film succeeds most as a character study of three women negotiating the dangerous waters of desire and royal politics. The Favourite doesn’t really want us to like these characters, but it does attempt to understand them. The three leads give some of the finest performances of their careers, and there is an unmistakable chemistry among them.

At a broader level, Lanthimos’ direction is at times distracting, and he seems a bit overly fond of the fisheye lens (which, to my mind, sometimes undercuts the opulence and grandeur of the film’s locations). The film’s truly significant flaw is the ending, which I found far too clever for its own good (in fact, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it was supposed to signify, if anything). Those flaws aside, The Favourite still manages to take the conventions and contours of the costume drama and turns them on their head. The film is ultimately a biting, scathing, and slightly acidic musing on the nature of power and pleasure in the world of royalty and politics.

Film Review: Surrendering to Feeling in “A Star is Born” (2018)

Warning: Substantial spoilers for the film follow.

I went into the most recent version of A Star is Born with great trepidation. I’ve seen both the 1930s and 1950s versions, but have steered clear of the 1970s one because of its notoriously bad reception. However, something drew me to this one. Perhaps it was my long-standing love of Bradley Cooper’s beauty or my queer appreciation of Saint Lady Gaga. Or perhaps it was hearing “Shallow” come on my Sirius XM and feeling profoundly moved by the performance. 

Whatever it was, something drew me in to see this film, and I have never looked back.

Unsurprisingly, this film follows the narrative pattern of its predecessors: ingenue and aspiring (musical) artist Ally (Lady Gaga) is discovered by country-rock star Jack Maine (Bradley Cooper). Very quickly, her career begins to overshadow his, and he begins his descent a descent into addiction and despair that ultimately results in his suicide. The film ends with Ally singing in her late husband’s memory.

Fortunately for me, I was prepared for the ending. I mean, it is A Star is Born, and so you sort of know how the whole thing is going to end up. The one thing that remains the same in every iteration of the story is Maine’s decision to end his own life rather than continue to drag his successful wife down with him into his own private darkness. Nevertheless, it still felt like a gut punch when Jack takes his own life by hanging himself with his belt–a method that had failed him when he was a teen but has now become devastatingly effective. 

What surprised me as I watched the film was how easily I was overwhelmed by feeling. How was it possible, I wondered, that I could be so invested in a story whose ending I already knew? At least part of this is due to the star power of Cooper and Lady Gaga, both of whom positively ooze charisma. Gaga proves that she has the acting chops to convey vulnerability, while Cooper, with his rakish good looks, serves as the ideal embodiment of a country rock star struggling with his own inner demons.

Yet it is also due to how deftly the film handles the feelings of its characters. Some of this stems from the soundtrack. I dare you to listen to songs like “Shallow,” “Is that All Right,” and “I’ll Never Love Again” without being reduced to an absolutely soggy mess. Of course, we all knew going in that Lady Gaga is one of the most talented musicians of her generation, but MY GAWD. Her performance of the film’s finale (I’ll Never Love Again”) drew sobs from me that I didn’t even know were there. Admittedly, I’m very prone to weeping during melodramatic films, but even as I was watching that final performance I was astounded by just how much feeling was being wrenched from me at this moment. It was one of those rare occasions when my entire body and soul seemed to be caught up in the currents of emotion on the screen.

An equally strong part of the powerful feeling of this film, however, comes from the film’s willingness to display men showing emotions other than anger. Bradley Cooper manages to convey Jack’s genuine sense of remorse at the shame he has brought Ally, and when he breaks down and weeps while in rehab it’s hard to maintain your own composure And let me tell you something, there is nothing that will make you weep like seeing Sam Elliott–the paragon of a certain type of western/cowboy masculinity, who plays Jack’s brother –tear up after what turns out to be his last parting from his brother. Emotional response aside, it really is refreshing to see straight men allowed to be outwardly expressive of feelings other than rage and violence.

At the formal level, A Star is Born is a remarkably intimate film. The camera frequently moves in for tight shots of its characters, and it its movements are graceful and fluid. As a result, we are constantly drawn into the world of these characters, invited to inhabit their states of feeling. By the end, it’s hard not to feel the same pang of loss that Ally does, as we nevertheless experience the soaring, exquisite joy of her ultimate success. 

Sometimes, you just have to give yourself up to the pleasures of feeling.