Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

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Legalizing Repression: “Muslim Registries” and English Recusants

Metathesis

On my last day at the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium — blissfully unaware that nazis were meeting just down the Washington Mall — I spent part of my lunch break with the Folger’s rare books and manuscript collections. I didn’t have long to submit my request the afternoon before, so I did a quick catalogue search and picked documents almost at random authored by the Surrey Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants, an organization I knew nothing about but whose name held promising keywords. Not until I sat down in the Paster Reading Room and pulled the manuscripts from their grey envelopes did I realize the history I was holding in my hands. These sixteenth-century documents contained lists of indicted recusants, sent to local and national English authorities for the purpose of tracking and condemning religious and political treason.

As the threat of “Muslim registries” continues to linger…

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Minas Tirith”

I’ve always found the first half of Return of the King to be some of my favourite parts of the entire Lord of the Rings saga, so I’ll be spending a bit more time dwelling in detail on each chapter than I usually do. Even now I’m not entirely sure why, unless it’s because there is something hauntingly evocative about the fading grandeur of Gondor, so similar to Byzantium after the fall of the Western Empire (if you know me, you know I love me some Byzantines).

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the similarities between Byzantium and the Gondor that we see in The Lord of the Rings. Both are essentially rump states, decayed (yet still magnificent) relics of an empire that was once vast and powerful. They are, furthermore, beset on all sides by enemies who threaten to bring about their end, and that end seems to hover just on the edge of sight and of time, always present and yet never quite intruding into the flow of events.

Minas Tirith, as the novel describes it, encapsulates this similarity perfectly. While it is certainly more vast than anything Pippin has yet seen–and he includes Isengard in that estimation–the novel remarks that there are signs that it is on the downward spiral. The city, vast and powerful as it is, has not even managed to fill its walls full to capacity, and it is strongly hinted that even many of the most powerful families have faded into obscurity, leaving nothing behind but their enormous, empty mansions that stand as mute testimony to their once formidable power.

As Pippin and Gandalf make their way through this enormous city of Men, he cannot shake the feeling (and we cannot either) that this is a city and a culture that has passed its zenith. Like Byznatium in its long decline, Minas Tirith contains echoes of the greatness that it once possessed, but it is somewhat marred by a feeling of elegy and melancholy, for past that is now past any recall. We are left with the feeling that, even when/if Aragorn should win back the throne that is rightfully his, the spiral will be averted but not reversed, and that the restored world will be one that is not as glorious as it was at the height of its majesty.

Despite its decline, this chapter contains some truly beautiful and evocative imagery to convey to us the vast lands that comprise Gondor. These always stand out to me as some of the most powerful, piercing in their exquisite beauty. It’s hard not to feel a sense of overwhelming vastness as Pippin sits on the wall gazing outward, a vastness both complemented and soured by the high wails of the winged Nazgûl that fly periodically over the city.

Even Denethor seems to exhibit this set of characteristics, and it’s easy to see how he could produce sons as different as Faramir and Boromir. On the one hand, he is still a powerful figure with a cunning and deep mind, so deep that he even feels that he has the right and the power to challenge Gandalf in terms of the defense of the city and in the steps that they should take. While he has not yet been driven mad by the despair that will eventually claim his mind, it’s clear even at this point that he has begun to crack under the ceaseless pressure to defend the nation that he clearly (and, I would add, sincerely) loves from the relentless pressure of Mordor. He is flawed, yes, but still noble in his own twisted way, and we are led to have at least a modicum of respect and admiration for him.

Last but not least, no discussion of this chapter would be complete without a mention of Beregond. He is one of those characters that Tolkien creates, minor yet important, utterly compelling. This is a man in whom the best of Gondor is brought to fruition and yet, as we shall see, this places him somewhat at odds with the loyalties that he feels pulling him toward his beloved Faramir.

Next up, we’ll switch gears slightly and rejoin Aragorn as he makes a fateful journey to claim the allegiance from the dead.

Reading Tad Willams: “The Dragonbone Chair” (Book One of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

A recent piece in The Guardian made the trenchant point that Tad Williams, author of the fantasy epic series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” hasn’t really gotten the respect he deserves for both the achievement of his epic series in itself as well as the influence he has come to exert on generations of fantasy writers. In keeping with the spirit of that Guardian article, I have embarked on an epic quest of my own, to make my way through his corpus. Given that he has published three complete series (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” “Otherland,” and “Bobby Dollar,”) along with sundry other works, this may take me a while.

Nevertheless, I plan to keep at it, and to post my reviews of his work here, starting with The Dragonbone Chair.

Now, a brief word about my history with Williams and his work. I first discovered him when I was a teenager and, as I was prone to doing at the time, I just browsed through the aisles of the fantasy section at Waldenbooks (back when that was a thing) and, I believe at my Dad’s suggestion, picked up To Green Angel Tower:  Part 1. Again, being the foolish person that I was back then, I went ahead, read it, and and bought the second part, and it would be several years before I would get around to reading the series from beginning to end.

Now, I’m on my second time around, and I find that I love it even more. There is a lushness and a maturity to Williams’ prose that I find is very rare indeed in a lot of even the highest-quality fantasy writing. Every time I read his work, I take pleasure not just in the plot (though those are surprisingly tightly-woven for works of epic scope), but also in the way that he engages us as readers, giving us a world at once brilliantly realized and familiar yet also sometimes disconcertingly strange.

The novel follows several primary characters, primary among them Simon, a young scullion who is apprenticed to a scholar named Morgenes. Gradually, he becomes embroiled in both struggles both political and cosmic, as it gradually emerges that the dynastic struggle between two princes, Elias and Josua, is but part of a much larger struggle between the undead Sitha Ineluki (the elf-like creatures of this world) the Storm King and the humans who he sees as his enemy to be utterly destroyed.

I have found that the most compelling and enjoyable epic fantasies typically contain something of the disturbing about them, something that makes an essential human part of your body and psyche recoil. Terry Brooks has it with his Reaper and his Shadowen, Tolkien had it with the Nazgûl, and Robert Jordan had it with the Myrddraal. Williams has an uncanny ability to convey, primarily through Simon’s eyes, the absolute otherness of Ineluki and the Norns who are his primary allies. The scene in which Elias gains possession of the unearthly and destructive sword Sorrow, in particular, is one of the most viscerally unsettling that I have ever read in a fantasy novel, equaled only (I think) by the revelation in Martin’s A Storm of Swords of Catelyn Stark’s eventual fate.

While Simon fits neatly into the fantasy archetype of the reluctant hero, he’s actually far more complex and contradictory than that designation might imply. He is by turns likable and insufferable, and he is driven by a burning desire to know. His descent into abjection after he is forced to flee the castle known as the Hayholt is frightening, and Williams’ great genius is that he allows us as readers to feel Simon’s sense of fear and alienation, as he struggles throughout the novel to make sense of of the forces that continue to move him along and, as importantly, attempt to assert his own agency in the face of those titanic forces.

There is much else to love about this novel. The world is vast yet understandable, with a rich history that suffuses every aspect of the novel. Ancient history comes bubbling to the surface in all of its terror and its suffering, and it is up to the flawed mortals of these latter days to attempt to piece together the tatters of knowledge that have been left in order to make sense of the threat and attempt to combat it. As readers, the novel forces us to dwell in as much ignorance as the characters and to feel with them the terror of the unknowable, even as we hope (perhaps without justification) that a new day may yet dawn. Even in the face of incredible suffering–the death of companions, the destruction of the strongholds of good–hope springs eternal. In The Dragonbone Chair, and indeed in Williams’ epic fantasy work more generally, the beautiful and the tragic remain inseparably intertwined.

I’m sure that most of this sounds like slavish devotion, but let me assure you that it is heartfelt and genuine. Fantasy as a genre is rarely celebrated for either its aesthetic beauty or its philosophical depth, and that is truly a shame, because Williams does both. Is it possible to have human agency in a world where titanic forces threaten to overwhelm those who would resist it? Is there such a thing as good and evil to begin with? How much can we truly know, either about the world in which we live or about the history that precedes us? Who, for that matter, gets to write history and how are we to make sense of the tangled skein of competing narratives that constantly struggle for supremacy? Of course, there are no easy answers to these, and the novel doesn’t try to provide them.

Just as importantly, though, Williams’ work continues to serve as one of my models. He, along with others such as Terry Brooks, is a potent and important reminder that epic fantasy can be vast and scope and still wrap itself up in either a trilogy or, at most, a tetralogy. He continues to inspire me with his work.

It will be a while before I finish Stone of Farewell (dissertation and all), but when I do I’ll be commenting on it here. Stay tuned!

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Choices of Master Samwise”

We have finally come to the concluding chapter of The Two Towers, and one of my very favourite chapters in the entire The Lord of the Rings. In it, we learn that Sam, confronted with the awful reality that his master has been struck down by the horrid spider Shelob and that the task of taking the Ring to its destruction in the fires of Mount Doom has at last fallen to him.

The way that Tolkien describes this decision on Sam’s part, with Sam keeping an inner dialogue and debate with himself, is one of those moments when Tolkien offers us a compelling view of the terrible toll this Quest has taken on all involved in it. Sam is faced with an impossible choice, but in the end he hardens his heart with resolve and takes the Ring, knowing that he is the only one who can do so now that Frodo is apparently dead.

Yet it also reveals the extraordinary power of the Ring to corrupt even the purest soul, and even at this early moment we get hints of the power of the Ring over Sam. At this point, it has grown so greatly in power that it seems to hang like a great weight around his neck, and afterwards he finds himself immersed in an unsettling world of shadows and half-light (one can’t help but be reminded here of Jackson’s memorable interpretation of this dynamic in the films).

Given this extraordinary struggle–and the immense bravery and strength of spirit that Sam has in being able to overcome it–it is no surprise that we learn in the Appendices that he was eventually allowed passage out of Middle-earth as the very last of those who had born the Ring. To me, this has always been one of the most heartwarming anecdotes, especially since the reader knows just what a struggle it was for Sam to both put the Ring on in the first place and then actually take the step away from his master and undertake the journey (“the heaviest and most reluctant he had ever taken,” the narrator tells us).

Of course, in this chapter we also learn that Frodo is alive, but that only makes Sam’s choice to go on bearing the Ring all the more exemplary. After all, he (and the first-time reader) has no way of knowing that Shelob’s terrible sting has merely sent Frodo into a deep coma. Yet still Sam goes on, driven by nothing more than his own innate sense of rightness and his determination to do right by his master and ensure that the Quest is completed (after which, he says, he will try to return and stay by him forever).

In Tolkien’s universe, this is what true courage, compassion, and love look like, and it never fails to move me to tears. Given the fact that Sam has always been a source of humour in the book, his ability to not only defeat Shelob but to take the Ring upon himself with no one else’s guidance allows him to really shine forth as the true hero of the novel. The fact that the entire Quest would have failed were it not for his choice at this pivotal moment makes his victory all the more significant.

As compelling and powerful as the Sam portions are, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rather extraordinary exchange that takes place between the Orc captains Gorbag and Shagrat. Their banter, obscene as it is in some ways, also makes them strangely relatable. They are like any set of disgruntled industrial labourers grumbling about their bosses, whom they refer to with mingled disdain and fear. It’s almost (almost, mind you) possible to forget that they are actually cruel and vicious, both to their own kind and to those who are the opponents of their masters. We also get a brief glimpse into how horrid their really are; they are basically no more than cogs in the ghastly war machine that Sauron has made of Mordor and all of his servants. As such, their terrible behaviour and their cruelty is as much a result of their own torments as it is any innate evil on their parts.

I am hoping (though this may be ambitious) to keep this going this year a little longer than usual. Hopefully, in a few days I’ll post about the siege of Minas Tirith, which has always been one of my favourite portions of LotR. Fingers crossed!

Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion

Metathesis

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” — Brandon Victor Dixen

On the Friday night after our first full day of the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium, I did quite possibly the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done: from my hotel room near the Capitol Building, I spent an hour calling my representatives in support of the Affordable Care Act and against Jeff Sessions, and turned on the original cast recording of Hamilton.

At the same time, in our nation’s original capital, New York City, a very special performance of Hamilton was underway — the…

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Tolkien’s Heirs: Tad Williams

When I heard the news that Tad Williams, one of my very favourite fantasy authors, was returning at last to Osten Ard, the sprawling setting of his epic fantasy series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” I was overcome with happiness. While I haven’t yet read the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, I have begun to re-read MST in anticipation of doing so (a full-length novel, The Witchwood Crown, is apparently due out this summer).

As I do every so often, I would like to suggest that Tad Williams belongs to that elite cadre of fantasy authors who truly deserves the title of “Tolkien’s Heir.” In terms of the richness of his world-building, the complexity of his characters, and the emotional depth of his achievement, Williams has truly ascended into the ranks of the great fantasy authors of the late 20th Century.

Now, I know that a comparison to Tolkien’s work is thrown about in review circles anytime a new epic fantasy series sees the light of day. It’s become so extensively used that it’s little more than a meaningless cliché. However, Williams’ work really does deserve comparison to the grand master of the form, the man whose own The Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece and one that succeeds as a piece of literature not in spite of but because of its form and content as fantasy.

In my estimation, the same can be said of all of Williams’ work, both the epics (MST and Shadowmarch), as well as the other fantasy works that he has published over his career. Williams constantly shows that there is a certain explanatory and experiential power in the fantasy genre that renders it a uniquely effective way of addressing some of the questions that continue to press us as human beings in a complicated and contradictory world.

Of course, Williams is one of the finest world-builders working in the genre today, and his invented nations seem to leap off of the page into breathing life right in front of us. Whether it is Osten Ard or the many warring nations that comprise the world of Shadowmarch, one can see that the worlds of his imagination of a phenomenal amount of internal consistency. Further, there are histories in these worlds, wells that run deep and troubled and contentious pasts that shape and determine what happens during the novels themselves. The titanic struggles the characters face are often not of their own making, but that does not mean that they don’t still bear a significant amount of responsibility for what occurs.

This, in turn, allows Williams to engage with the thornier questions of morality, justice, and who really gets to claim the high ground in the sort of larger-than-life disputes that are the lifeblood of epic fantasy. For all of Tolkien’s strengths, he was a product of his troubled times, and for him the question of race is, to put it mildly, a vexed one. His portrayal of people of colour is, with a few exceptions, quite negative (though not as repugnantly racist as his colleague C.S. Lewis), but Williams takes care in many of his works to depict people of colour who do not fit comfortably into established stereotypes. This is certainly true of Shadowmarch and sequels, which feature a number of characters that come from cultures that are not typically “white” or European.

Finally, and largely as a result of all of this, reading a Williams novel (or series) is an intense and sometimes overwhelming emotional experience. Beloved characters do die, and sometimes even the deaths of villains are more heart-wrenching than you might have expected. Death is very much a part of Williams’ novels, and you should never become too attached to some of your favourite characters. However, I would also like to point out that while you may feel emotionally wrung-out at

As I embark on my re-reading of Williams’ oeuvre (I hope to have read all of his works by the time the new novel is out this summer), I am astounded again at the richness and power of his prose. Truly, this is an author upon him I hope to model my own writing of fantasy. If I can accomplish but half of what he has, I shall consider myself fortunate indeed.

Reading History: “The Taming of the Queen” and Donald Trump

In the wake of November 8th, it’s really difficult–nay, impossible–to not read and watch everything produced in the years leading up to Trump’s electoral victory through the prism of the dystopian perspective he brings to the world. As a trained historicist–that is, one who views all cultural artifacts as existing in an ongoing relationship with the social and political world in which they are located–it is both fascinating and disconcerting to begin piecing together a historical tapestry, even while living in the middest of this pivotal historical moment.

As I was finishing up my reading of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Taming of the Queen, which follows the marriage of Kateryn Parr to Henry VIII, it was hard not to view it as a precursor to the dark times in which we now live. While I don’t think that Gregory necessarily had the conflict between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on her mind when she wrote this novel, it’s hard, in hindsight, not to see it as at least tapping into the rumblings and seismic shifts that have been detectable for quite some time now. How could you not, when its central characters a brilliant woman who is erudite, learned, and intelligent and a blustering, capricious, and cruel man whose only true investment remains in himself and his own pleasures?

In Gregory’s always-capable hands, Parr emerges from these pages as a fiery, passionate, intelligent woman, one who is as fiercely in love with the dashing Thomas Seymour, a bit of a rakish character who nevertheless has managed to steal the heart of our heroine. However, despite her love of this man, she knows that she has no choice but to give him up once she finds herself caught up in the net of Henry’s court and his own rapacious desires. She knows that if she were to deny the king, she might very well meet the fate of so many others (both men and women) who fell afoul of Henry and attempted to deny him what he desired.

In the world of the Tudors, the monarch’s wishes and demands are the only thing that matters, and gratifying them is the surest way to the pinnacle of power–or to the absolute depths of defeat and death on the headsman’s block. It is largely because of this that Kateryn must continue to wheedle and cajole this aging tyrant, both so that she can continue pursuing her ardent intellectual passions but also, and just importantly, so that she can save herself from the death that met two of his other wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). The novel refers again and again to the jewels, furs, and belongings of those former queens, and these material remains of the past continue to haunt Katern as she must struggle against those in the court (Stephen Gardiner foremost among them) who would love nothing more than to bring her down and destroy her.

Indeed, it is precisely her intellectual acumen that nearly proves her undoing. Utterly dedicated to the rising tide of Protestantism, Kateryn soon associates herself with the foremost reformers in the country, inviting the fieriest of Protestant preachers to preach in her rooms. She also begins doing her own translations, and Gregory shows her to be a woman who manages to find a balance between her intellect and her faith. While this at first pleases Henry–who always did fancy himself a scholar–all too soon it proves to be her weak spot, as her outspokenness alienates her.

It is only when she thoroughly abases herself before him–allowing him to beat and humiliate her in the most degrading ways–that she is saved from the headsman. From that point on, she must bury all of her intellectual, romantic, and spiritual inclinations under a veneer of submissiveness, and it is only Henry’s timely death that releases her from her chains.

Henry emerges as very much a man cut in the mold of what we have seen of Trump. Utterly capricious, vengeful, gluttonous, and venal, this Henry sees himself as a grand pupper-master, determined to keep a stranglehold on the power that has been his for so many years. He turns against anyone who dares to whisper a word of opposition to him, and indeed it is only his abrupt death that saves the Duke Thomas Howard–a man who has served Henry since the beginning of his reign–from the headsman’s block. Indeed, some time ago the noted feminist scholar Susan Bordo (author of the excellent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn) drew out some of these uncanny similarities between the 16th Century monarch and our current President-Elect.

Yet, despite the clouds of impending darkness that seem to have obliterated any hope for an enlightened future in which women’s voices are recognized and celebrated as valid, the ending of Gregory’s novel does provide some solace and hope for a better future. As Kateryn writes:

“I believe that to be a free woman is to be both passionate and intelligent; and I am a free woman at last.”

Though these lines provide narrative closure, they also remind us of the fierce spirit that motivates women both past and present, and that beyond the darkest days there still lies a glimmer, however faint, of hope.

Un/natural Citizens: Naturalization and Conversion

Just in case you missed it, I’m posting this brilliant piece by my colleague Ashley on my own blog.

Metathesis

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President …” (US Constitution)

“Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress” (USCIS)

November 2016. In the week after the election, when white supremacists were convening in Washington, DC, a group of scholars gathered on the other side of Washington at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where we discussed the politics of conversion in Early Modern theatre. Throughout the symposium, a collaboration with McGill’s Early Modern Conversions project, the past pressed heavily on the current political situation in America — 425 years later and an ocean away. This month, I will share some of the more powerful moments that resonated…

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Film Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and the Pain of Endings

Spoiler:  Full plot details for the film follow.

As anyone who has read this blog is well-aware, I am a filmgoer who is fascinated by the endings of films. To my mind, the ending of a film can tell us much about not only how the narrative of the drama works (or doesn’t), but also how the film understands the world works (or doesn’t).

Thus, I was particularly compelled by the ending of Rogue One, which tells the story of the group of rebels who undertake the perilous journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. Among them are the young woman Jyn Erso, the Rebel Captain Cassian Andor, the defected pilot Bodhi Rook, the reconfigured droid K-2SO, and Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen, a pair of warriors. While they succeed in beaming the plans to a waiting Rebel fleet–thus enabling the destruction of the Death Star that takes place in A New Hope–the entire brave troop is killed, either in direct battle or by a focused

I have to admit, I was rather stunned–overwhelmed, even–at the ending, in which Jyn and Cassian hold hands as the power of the Death Star is brought to bear, overwhelming them in a cataclysm. How was it possible, I thought, that the two main characters in a Star Wars film would perish? Wasn’t this supposed to be the franchise in which all of the good guys survive? (One would have thought that the death of Han Solo in The Force Awakens would have disabused me of this naïveté, but apparently I forgot that valuable lesson).

Further, the atomic overtones of that destruction, with an enormous cloud of debris and fire rising into the sky, are acutely terrifying. This is particularly true in this era of renewed nuclear threats (witness Trump’s tweet about the possibility of a new nuclear arms race). As anyone familiar with the 1950s and 1960s will know, the threat of atomic annihilation is an acute one in the American unconscious, dovetailing as it so often does with America’s penchant for eschatological fantasies and Christian doomsday prophecies. Given this deep history, and Trump’s happy-go-lucky attitude regarding nukes, it’s no surprise that such a bleak and terrifying ending should appear in a Star Wars film.

What are we to make of the fact that the film ends with the death of the entire cast of characters that have grown to love and respect during the course of the film? On the one hand, certainly, it is meant to fill us with a sense of mingled fulfillment and unease, as we recognize the terrible blood price that has been exacted on those who have engaged in the struggle against tyranny. This is, after all, a war with tremendous consequences, with the Rebellion’s success hanging on a knife’s edge, struggling with its own internal dissent and the fact that the Empire has resources–both military and technological–that they lack. After all, if the Death Star can destroy even a sacred space (which it does, obliterating the capital of the moon Jedha), what hope can the members of the Rebellion have if the Empire should bring its full powers to bear upon them?

The ending, therefore, helps us to understand that this is a full-scale war and, like all wars, it exacts a terrible price in bodies and lives. Freedom, to use a cliche, is not in fact free. Furthermore, there is no guarantee, diegetically at least, that the sacrifices made by this (blessedly diverse) cast of heroes is going to actually do anything to bring about the destruction of the Death Star. We, in the audience, presumably know this, but the characters do not (and I would even go so far as to say that we might even be able to suspend our knowledge of this fact at least temporarily). There is something disquieting about this fact, that the characters perish without the knowledge of whether their sacrifices will ultimately bear fruit.

At a deeper level, it’s hard not to read it also as the expression of the ethos of those who have been dealing with the reality of a Trump victory and what that means for the future of the world that they had envisioned. Is their only hope to be as suicidally obstructionist as possible, in the hope that one day their sacrifices will come to fruition in the fullness of time? Must we continue to work and fight, not knowing whether there is to be any reward for what we do?

As Gerry Canavan noted in an exceptionally astute reading of The Force Awakens, the recent spate of Star Wars films are significantly more pessimistic in their view of history than the original trilogy. That is certainly the case here and, in my view at least, this has as much to do with the rise of Trump and his ne0fascist allies as anything else, as those of us who have embraced the ideals of Western secular democracy find ourselves faced with a very real manifestation of the same dark impulses that brought Palpatine to power and allowed him to maintain it.

As such, Rogue One, despite the claims of studio executives to the contrary, cannot but be seen as the natural product of a world in which the forces of “order” (remember that Trump declared himself the “law and order” candidate”) are in the ascendant, threatening to bring about an end to to everything the Obama Era has come to stand for. However, as Rogue One almost makes clear, while the end of one era may give rise to a darker one, there is still an imperative for those of us who value justice to fight on, even when all hope seems to have vanished.

Coda

At an extra-diegetic level, the film also raises some quite unsettling questions about the nature of endings and the life of the actor. There has, of course, been no small amount of consternation about the fact that Grand Moff Tarkin (played in the original film by the late Peter Cushing) has been reanimated through digital technology, with Guy Henry playing the actual part and the rest being added through CGI. There is something (not entirely unpleasantly) uncanny about seeing this re-created Tarkin onscreen, a reminder of both the character from the first film and the actor who played him (both of whom are, it should be remembered, dead for those of us currently sitting in the theater). At a larger level, such a manipulation of both the digital image and the living body of the actor raises significant questions about whether, in fact, any actor’s performance is ever truly dead and passed, since it is now clear that any actor can be resurrected through digital performance.

As it always does, motion-capture continues to raise ethical and aesthetic questions about the role of animation and technology in the way we experience cinema and the world around us.