Reading History: “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World “(Alison Weir)

Elizabeth of York is one of those fascinating figures of English history. Part of this has to do with her elusiveness. As prominent as she was as a figure–the daughter of Edward IV, the wife of Henry VII, and the mother of Henry VIII–she remains something of a sphinx, always hovering on the edge of the frame, taunting us.

Fortunately for those of us in the 21st Century, the British historian and royal biographer extraordinaire Alison Weir is a practiced hand at excavating such tantalizing female figures.

Traditional historiography asserts that Elizabeth was largely overshadowed by the men in her life. This tends to be true of almost any biography or historical fiction about her (of which I include Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess). Elizabeth was the Yorkist heir that allowed Henry to solidify his claim to the crown, and she was the mother of one of England’s most (in)famous monarchs and, through her eldest surviving daughter, she is the ancestress of all subsequent English kings and queens. Yet what was she like?

Admittedly, Weir only has so much to work with, but it is refreshing that she gives Elizabeth more agency and control over her destiny than has been the case with many other interpretations (both fictional and nonfictional). She digs through the texts and archives of the period to show a woman who was at the center of the political life of her time, and while she may not have been the dominant personality that the other women in her family were–one thinks of both her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her granddaughter, another Elizabeth–Weir convincingly argues that Elizabeth of York worked closely with her husband.

She also dispenses with the many myths that have grown up around Elizabeth, Henry, and Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort. While most people tend to assume that Margaret and Elizabeth had an antagonistic relationship, Weir asserts that this is based on a selective reading of the evidence. In fact, they probably had a cordial relationship with one another, as one might expect of two women invested in the survival and thriving of the monarchy.

Above all, Weir makes clear that Elizabeth was a survivor, a woman who managed to survive the untimely passing of her mighty father, the disappearance (and presumed death) of her two brothers, and the collapse of her mother’s ambitions for her children. Elizabeth emerged through all of this determined to forge a life for herself, for her husband, and for the several children that she bore him. While she might, understandably, have felt a fair bit of enmity toward Henry when they were first married, Weir convinces us that she was able to find a measure of contentment–perhaps even happiness–with the man who came into England as a conqueror.

As always, Weir pays exhaustive attention to the material details of everyday life in this period (at least as such things apply to those of royal descent). This can make for some tough going at times, but I will say that it does give the reader a very strong, detailed sense of the lives that these people led. I’ve always admired her willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of that world, somehow finding a way to make even the driest of privy purse expenses yield up significance about the lives of those who spent that money.

Of course, the figure of Richard III looms in the background of this biography, and it is quite clear that Weir is most definitely not a supporter of this most infamous of English kings. She remains in no doubt that he was responsible–probably directly–for the murder of his nephews. I don’t want to weigh in on that particular subject (I’m basically agnostic about it), but I do think it’s an essential part of how Weir views Elizabeth and her life.

While I was a little let down by Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn, my faith has been utterly restored by this outing. While she’s not always the most graceful of prose stylists, Alison Weir does show us that it is possible to be a meticulous, rigorous historian even if you don’t have a degree in history. I very much look forward to making my way through more of her work.

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Reading History: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” (Alison Weir)

By this point, Mary Boleyn has become best-known as the major protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the (according to Gregory) younger sister of Anne Boleyn.

Alison Weir, one of my all-time favourite biographers of British royalty, undertakes an effort to excavate what we know of Mary.

And, as her work reveals, that’s not too much. Unfortunately, much of Mary’s life remains shrouded in mystery, precisely because she has been so thoroughly overshadowed by Anne’s dominance in the popular imagination of the Tudor period. It thus takes all of Weir’s considerable skills as a historian/detective to extract from circumstantial evidence details about Mary’s life, her loves, and her actions.

We do know (with a fair degree of certainty) that she was the mistress of the King of France, a dalliance that no doubt stained her reputation and endangered her future in the English court and may have rendered her particularly susceptible to the amorous attentions of Henry VIII (who always wanted to outdo his French rival).

And we also know that, contrary to the mores of the time, she ended up marrying the man she loved, at least on the second time around. Indeed, the decision to once again endanger her family’s fortunes by going against her father’s wishes may well have contributed to her later penury. Weir makes it pretty clear throughout the book that Mary was something of a black sleep among the Boleyns, particularly her father (anyone who has seen Thomas Boleyn in film will find this quite easy to believe).

Nevertheless, even Weir’s capable hands can only spin so much material out of these few threads of information. The book is one of the shortest that she’s written, and it feels like it. As a result, Weir sometimes has to resort to discussions of issues, people, and materials surrounding Mary, rather than the actual woman herself. Of course, this does give us a good sense of the world that Mary inhabited, as well as the various connections that she would have had as a member of a noble family. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mary is a bit of an absence, a glaring hole around which we can construct a narrative but who nevertheless remains elusive.

Thus, if I have a complaint about this book, it’s that Weir tends to wander off on tangents that are only faintly related to the subject matter. Some of this no doubt reflects the fact that she could find relatively little to say specifically about Mary in the sparse sources, but it does make for difficult reading at times, particularly as Weir–as she often does–tends to indulge a bit too much on the material culture aspect of her biographies. If you want to learn about the many things that early modern nobility spent vast amounts of money on, you will learn much in this book.

For me, arguably the most interesting part of the entire book was the discussion of Mary’s two children, Catherine and Henry, both of whom became very prominent members of Elizabeth I’s court. Weir lays out a convincing case for Mary’s daughter Catherine being the result of her affair with Henry VIII (there was allegedly a pronounced physical resemblance between them), though the same is probably not true of Mary’s son Henry (ironically). Weir also goes into some detail analyzing portraits that may (or may not) be those of Mary.

Overall, I would rate this in the bottom tier of Weir’s books. She tends to make some assumptions and assertions that aren’t adequately supported by the evidence that she has presented. Such is certainly the case with her assertion that Mary’s mother Elizabeth was a woman of ill-repute, evidence for which is quite sparse and relies on a decidedly selective reading of what evidence exists. (For what it’s worth, Weir makes a more compelling case for this in her recent historical novel about Anne, Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession).

Nevertheless, even a low-tier Alison Weir outing is still a good read, and you will learn a great deal about the workings of the Tudor court, the luxuries and dangers of the period, and the fraught position that women occupied in this dangerously beautiful world.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “Knife of Dreams” (Book 11)

I know it’s been a while since I posted about this series, so I thought I’d just update to say that I have, in fact, finished The Wheel of Time. Clearly, I’ve earned some sort of nerd points for doing so. Now that I’ve finished, I’ll be slowly catching up with my entries.

As you may recall, Knife of Dreams was the furthest I had made it with the series, so it was pretty exciting for me to embark on some uncharted Wheel of Time territory.

Unfortunately, in many ways Knife continues to exhibit the flaws of its predecessors. The plot moves forward at a mostly infinitesimal pace, broken up with a few noteworthy exceptions. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel that all-too-familiar frustration that things kept getting delayed, with the Last Battle seemingly no closer than ever.

For all of its flaws, however, I was tremendously happy to finally see the Faile-captured-by-the-Shaido storyline brought to a satisfactory conclusion. By now, everyone who has read my earlier entries on the series knows how infuriating I find these two characters. The capture of Faile by the Shaido–and Perrin’s absolute folly in being willing to do anything–and I do mean anything–to get her back is just…excruciating to read. Sure, I know that it’s intended to show Perrin’s growth from being self-centered, lovesick dolt into hero of the Last Battle, but my gods…anyway.

One exciting development was the foreshadowing of Moiraine’s saving by Thom and Mat. Ever since I first read The Fires of Heaven, I’ve always thought it was a damn shame that Jordan got rid of Moiraine. She was one of the few characters that I didn’t find absolutely infuriating, for all that her self-righteous sense of justice was sometimes galling (and brutal). Now, however, we get the distinct sense that she is still alive, waiting to be rescued. Of course, this being Jordan, one knows that it will take two or more books to actually see this plot thread meaningfully resolved.

For me, the highlight of the whole book was Egwene’s time in the White Tower and her determination not to bow to the whims of Elaida. Admittedly, I was very frustrated in the former book when this happened, as I felt it was a bit of a distraction, but gradually the design has become clear. As meandering as he could be sometimes, when it came to certain storylines Jordan clearly had a trajectory in mind that kept him in focus. And, since Egwene is at once both one of the most frustrating yet also enjoyable characters to read, that made these portions of the novel, which show her tremendous strength, all that much more appealing. She clearly deserves to be Amyrlin in a way that Elaida, for all of her strength, never will.

Also, Loial got married. Much as I’ve always found this character endearing, he has come to seem a bit tangential to the main thrust of the main story. True, that is probably the result of having so many characters and Jordan having to move some of them out of the frame, but I always thought it was a bit of a shame, especially considering he’s been there since the beginning.

To my eyes, this novel seems to mark a tonal shift. I wonder if part of this has to do with the fact that, by this time, it probably became clear to Jordan that he had literally no idea what was going to happen, i.e. how he was going to get from Point A to Point C. He might also have had a sense that he was soon to become terminally ill. Whatever the reason, there is a certain sense of impending doom, a sense that no matter what these characters do they can’t avoid the inevitable cataclysm that might sweep them all away. And, while this isn’t the same sort of world that we’ve come to expect in a post-Game of Thrones environment, there is still a sense that some of these characters might not make it out alive.

Overall, I would rate Knife of Dreams as one of the weaker installments of the series. Next up, it’s on to The Gathering Storm!

Reading History: “Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen” (Alison Weir)

I first discovered the work of the historian Alison Weir when I picked up her Life of Elizabeth I way back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read several of her other historical biographies, as well as some of the historical fiction novels that she’s written. I’ve almost always loved them.

I was a little underwhelmed by the idea of another series about the wives of Henry VIII. Surely, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn) has been so many times that another novel would feel repetitive.

Boy, was I wrong.

Somehow (probably through magic of some sort), Weir has managed to take this well-worn tale and weave it into something truly compelling, magical, and deeply saddening. A fitting way to describe the life of Katherine of Aragon, yes? Though all of Henry VIII’s queens deserve a measure of pity for having to put up with such a tyrant, Katherine has always occupied pride of place in the pantheon of royal martyrs.

The novel is basically a fictional biography of Henry VIII’s first queen, from the time that she sets out to be the bride of his elder brother Arthur (who dies soon after their wedding, probably from tuberculosis), all the way to her death several years later, after Henry has had their marriage annulled on his own authority and essentially had Katherine imprisoned.

It would be easy for a historical fiction author to paint this story in stark, unsubtle tones, so that Katherine is the virtuous sufferer while Anne is the scheming harlot. Though the novel is told exclusively from Katherine’s  perspective, Weir does manage to keep it from slipping into this simplistic model. Katherine is understandably resentful of her young rival, and we are certainly meant to identify with her, but that’s to be expected.

In Weir’s hands, Katherine emerges as a fiercely intelligent, independent woman who nevertheless accepts her inferior place in Henry’s life. She recognizes that, as a woman in Early Modern England, her status will always remain continent on her husband, and while her decision to defy him is certainly justified by her sincere belief that she was a virgin when she came to Henry–and, contra some other authors, Weir makes it clear that Arthur was not able to seeing the consummation through–and by her belief in her daughter’s inheritance, Weir also makes it clear that Katherine was not always as astute as she might have been.

One of the novel’s great strengths is its willingness to show Katherine in all of her complexity. She was incredibly proud–of her lineage, of her royal blood, of her status as a wife to Henry–and she was also deeply pious. We get the strong sense that she defied Henry not only from pride, but also from actual love for him. Whether or not an Early Modern royal woman could feel those things is rather beside the point.

Through this novel, we get a sense of a world that, as Weir puts it in the author’s note, was by turns beautiful and brutal. This was a world of courtly love and sumptuous banquets, but also of ruthless politicking and brutal executions. Katherine, as a royal, was in both a very powerful and privileged position, yet she too was subject to the whims of a man who gradually grew to believe that he truly was next to God in terms of how much authority he deserved. Thus, her life was always in his keeping, a fact that becomes crushingly evident as his royal favour gradually turns sour and his wrath threatens to fall in full force upon her.

Weir also makes no bones about the fact that Henry was, in many ways, a sociopathic tyrant whose will it was extremely dangerous to thwart. That being said, she doesn’t paint him in the sort of cartoonish villain light common to other works of historical fiction (ahem, Philippa Gregory), but instead as the natural product of his time. This was the period in which the medieval was already a memory and the Early Modern was giving birth to new classes of people. Katherine had the misfortune to fall squarely into that tumultuous period.

Next up, I’ll be making my way through some of Weir’s other works, so stay tuned!

Film Review: “Phantom Thread” (2017) and the Dark Side of Desire

Some spoilers for the film follow.

Apparently, 2017 was in some ways the year of desire, or at least that is the impression I get having seen several of the contenders for Best Picture this year. Whether it’s the yearning to be free of small town life and smothering mothers in Lady Bird, the sweet summer of first love in Call Me By Your Name, or the powerful lust for a life outside of the confines of Cold War conformity in The Shape of Water, desire is everywhere.

And it’s darker side is to be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is one of those films that’s deeply unsettling upon an initial viewing but slowly seeps into your consciousness as you think more about its impact on you. Perhaps it’s the film’s gorgeous attention to detail–both visual and auditory–or perhaps it’s the crisp performances from its leads. Whatever it is, this film burrows deep into your brain as the days go by.

Though it’s hard to summarize a film like this, here goes. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned designer of haute couture, his gowns desired and sought after by society’s finest. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), in a relationship fraught with quasi-incestuous ambiguity, and his daily life is governed by a very precise set of rituals which he rigorously enforces upon all who lives in his household. All of this is disrupted when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who slowly but irrevocably disrupts his daily routines as they both find themselves caught in the deadly tide of desire.

This desire seethes in every exchange, every frame, and every sartorial flourish, emerging at key moments to disturb our complacency as viewers. In this film, desire is not just as means by which people seek out a connection to one another, but also the way in which they are able to grasp something about themselves that evades their conscious understanding. Though the film establishes quite early on that Reynolds has a habit of dispensing with the young women who take his fancy, something about Alma–possibly her rakishness, her tendency to resist his control–seems to call to him in a way that keeps him from discarding her.

Desire also writhes beneath the surface of Day-Lewis’s face. Day-Lewis has earned himself a justified reputation for his ability to fully inhabit the characters that he plays, and he brings that to bear on his portrayal of Woodcock. Here, he portrays a man whose desire for control manifests itself in every aspect of his personality, from the rigour with which he approaches the design of his dresses to the absolute silence that he commands. This is a man who takes great care to sculpt his surroundings–including, it should be noted, his sister–into the form that he desires, and any disruption to that order causes an immediate outburst of rage.

And as much as the film’s visual palette is truly stunning, what stood out to me the most was its use of sound: the crisp delivery of the dialogue; the sumptuous rustle of cloth; the infamous scraping of the toast; the soft, delicate skritching of pen on paper. The sounds leap out of the screen, as unsettling as they are pleasurable, a reminder of the sheer physicality of this world. They grate against us just as they often grate against Woodcock, stitching us into his experience of his surroundings.

At the same time, sound also encourages us to see things from Alma’s perspective, to cheer for her as she cheerfully uses sound to break apart Woodcock’s meticulously ordered life. It is thus especially significant that Alma relates the film in voiceover, her voice asserting a measure of control into the narrative that forces us to rethink just how much Woodcock has over anything. But then, her entire presence in the film relies upon the power of sound, whether that is her tendency to always want to get the last word in an argument (one source of the film’s biting and rather acidic humour), or her deliberately goading him at the breakfast table by scraping her toast too loudly (and deliberately pouring the tea from a hilariously high angle).

As the film reaches its final third, Woodcock’s entire life, that he has crafted and sculpted with such meticulous and granular attention, has begun to crack. Cyril defies him at the breakfast table–something she has never done before–and one of his foremost customers has taken her work elsewhere. The film makes it clear that Woodcock’s brittle adherence to detail may well see the ruin of everything that he has worked so assiduously to maintain, both in his professional and personal life.

It is only when Alma begins poisoning Woodcock–thus rendering him incapacitated and totally reliant on him–that they begin to settle into their (deeply unsettling) primal rhythm. Each offers the opportunity to oscillate between control and abandon, a fierce frisson that will, Alma hopes, set the stage for their future together. Unlike Cyril, who has enabled Woodcock in his obsessive control, Alma constantly challenges him.

Ultimately, it seems to me, Phantom Thread explores the perilous nature of desire. It’s what drives (some of) us as human beings to seek out others, even as it is also what threatens to destroy us. Both Reynolds and Alma are individuals whose psyches are haunted by yearnings that they rarely openly articulate, in all likelihood because they cannot describe, even to themselves, what those desires actually are. And because the film seems largely agnostic about how we should feel about this obviously pathological relationship, it’s hard not to emerge deeply unsettled from the whole viewing experience (as many of my filmgoers did).

But then, perhaps that’s the film’s point. Much as we might like to pin desire down, channel it, or just plain understand it, part of it always eludes us. No matter how much we try to repress it, desire will always find away to erupt into our lives, disturbing the placid surface of our everyday reality.

World Building (17): On Tysfan

The mightiest city in the world, home to almost a million souls, the great Tysfan has been the capital of Haranshar for almost three centuries. It is accounted one of the most beautiful and graceful cities in the world, a true marvel. The airs there are sweet and fresh, the gardens as verdant as anyone could wish, and the streets are marvelously clean. It is thus a fitting capital for the greatest superpower on the continent.

It was founded by the powerful Shah Kavastar, who wished, after a century of almost constant strife and the rise of over a dozen different shahs, to restore stability to a nation that seemed on the brink of collapse. While the site he chose was not in the center of the vast domains that he ruled–something that caused his advisers to fret–it was nevertheless a symbolic gesture. By situating Tysfan in the rough middle region of the continent of Aridikh as a whole, he hoped to send the message that he was determined to bring the rebellious lands of the Imperium under the control of Haranshar once more.

Though he did not succeed, his imperial patronage ensured that the city grew quickly, and within the first twenty years of its existence it had utterly overtaken any of the other cities in Haranshar. And, though those in the Imperium would be loathe to say it, it has also become recognized in the West as the chief seat of learning, one of the few places where a substantial number of texts from the period after the dominance of the Old Ones can be found.

The city is formed roughly of a grid, given that the Shah had been inspired by the very regular and orderly cities he had heard described by a certain adventurer who had made his way to the island of the Anukathi. It is also well-drained, and has led the way in ensuring that all buildings in the city possess indoor plumbing. As a result, disease is relatively uncommon, except in the poorer districts, and even the poorest of the city are guaranteed a daily dole of bread, and there are other measures in the city that keep them peaceful (for the most part).

There are three architectural wonders that set the city apart from others in Haranshar (and indeed from any other cities in the continent). One is, of course, the great palace of the Shah, which rears above the flat city. With its soaring arches, its walls studded with jewels, and its great dome, it is truly a wonder of the world. No other noble family is allowed to have a palace that outshines that of the Shah, and if any leader attempts to do so, they are instantly sentenced to death and a tenth of their total wealth is appropriated by the crown (in addition to the offending building).

The Great Fire Temple of Ormazdh is one of the city’s other architectural wonders. Those who visit it report being overcome with the power of the spirit that is present there, as if the great god himself had stepped into the midst of lived reality. Though it is not the holiest site for the faith–that honour belongs to another fire temple in the north–it is nevertheless the bureaucratic center of the vast Ormazdh priesthood and the seat of its foremost rulers.

The third major location in the city of the Great Library. It is here that the most ancient wisdom from ages past is stored. No location in the Imperium, even in the vaunted Peninsula, can compare to its holdings. There are books here that have been forgotten almost everywhere else in the world, including a few precious pages that date from the time of the Old Ones themselves (though, so far, they remain largely untranslated). Even sages from the Imperium are known to travel to partake in the great holdings of the Library.

The city serves as the ceremonial, political, and religious center of the entire empire, and it is the responsibility of the various great families in the realms to send representatives at least once a year.

Tysfan is notable for two other features. The first is a prominent community of Yeshurites, who are a mixture of Korrayin and others who have converted to the faith. This group is responsible for the collection of the great books of that faith, and this community of elders is acknowledged as the spiritually superior to anything in Korray (though that is hotly disputed by some). The other is a community of those who call themselves the Church of the East but are roundly and heatedly condemned by those in the West as nothing more than the worst sorts of heretics. They are seen by many in Haranshar as a potential source of unrest, as well as a potential weapon against those in the West.

This city will prove crucial in the great battles to come.

Film Review: “Star Wars: Episode VIII–The Last Jedi” and the Aesthetics of Resistance

For me, a new Star Wars film is always a cause for celebration. I would consider myself a casual fan, someone who both takes pleasure in the franchise and recognizes its tremendous cultural impact and value as a text worthy of examination. While I was happy with The Force Awakens, to my mind The Last Jedi is like a breath of fresh air, taking the series in some new and very interesting directions.

Picking up where the previous film left off, The Last Jedi continues detailing the struggles of the Resistance, recently decimated and on the run from the First Order. In this film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to return from self-imposed exile to help his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the other resistance leaders. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows increasingly frustrated with the seeming complacency of the Resistance, particularly when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over after Leia is seriously injured. Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on an effort to break the tracking device the First Order is using against the Resistance.

In its thematic concerns, Last Jedi carries on from the first film in the new trilogy. The First Order is ascendant, and throughout the film the Resistance trembles on the brink of utter collapse. The pacing accentuates this, as we are constantly led to sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for the dreadful final bomb that will wipe our heroes from the galaxy. Of course, the narrative tension is supplemented by the action-cinema aesthetics, the numerous explosions, whip-crack camera movements, and bodies in perpetual motion. Through this narrative, cinematographic, and editing patterns, the film leads us to feel how imperiled the Resistance is, how all it will take is one more death, one more catastrophe, and the First Order will succeed in rebuilding the totalitarian state.

These patterns are undergirded by universally excellent performances, and I continue to be totally on board with the increasing diversity on display in the Star Wars franchise. Kelly Marie Tran is the film’s breakout star, and her fierce portrayal of Rose Tico is both off-beat and touching.

Though she is only on screen for a very few scenes, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is also one of the film’s great stars. Dern has always managed to capture a peculiar mix of strength and vulnerability, and she brings that to bear in this role. Though our perception of Holdo is largely skewed by the perception of Poe, who thinks that she lacks the initiative to help the Resistance survive, her ultimate sacrifice was one of the film’s most beautiful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating moments. As with any great movie about resistance against tyranny, The Last Jedi makes it clear that there can be no victory without sacrifice.

On the “evil” side of things, Adam Driver continues to blow me away as Kylo Ren. This would be the easiest sort of role to do badly, in that he is essentially a spoiled man-child who thinks that the universe should bend to his will. Driver, however, makes the most of his own gifts to endow this character with a certain tortured beauty. Somehow, Driver manages to be both graceful and awkward at the same time, a tension that perfectly captures Ren’s profound inner conflict. He feels abandoned by everyone who he thought cared about him, and this has become key to his ruthless drive to bring the galaxy into order.

This reflects Rey’s own inner turmoil but, unlike him, she turns away (for the moment) from both the dark side represented by Kylo and the isolationism represented by Luke. Though she was similarly abandoned by her parents–whoever they are–she has given herself completely to the Resistance, and she recognizes, in a way Kylo does not, that attempting to force an order on the universe will only replicate the cycle of chaos and destruction.

What I’ve always loved about the Star Wars universe is that it tackles the pressing philosophical questions of our time. Is it really so bad to have a world that is firmly ordered in order to curtail the dangers of contingency and chance (as Kylo wants)? Is there value in the sort of exclusionary religion practiced by the Jedi, one that relies on genealogy and a select priesthood? (A friend of mine referred to this film as the Protestant Reformation of the Star Wars universe, and it’s an apt metaphor). The film has a philosophical heart, and that’s a refreshing thing to see in an action/science fiction/space opera film.

Though it risks finding resonance everywhere (as a friend recently pointed out to me), it seems to my eyes that the recent spate of Star Wars films has intervened in our contemporary moment. With the forces of tyranny, authoritarianism, and toxic masculinity in full flood, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, of wanting to just put your head down and hope that you survive. The Last Jedi, however, tells us that this is the way of the defeated, and that if we accept the brutality than we are complicit in the destruction of both ourselves and what we love. We must fight with every breath of our being, even though it is sometimes exhausting to do so (and even though it looks as if we might lose anyway).

This resonances stems in part from Carrie Fisher, who continues to exude a frail but resilient strength as an aging Leia. It was hard not to tear up every time she came on the screen, exuding her force of will and speaking in that faintly hoarse, slightly whispery way that is a hallmark of her recent performances. This is a woman who seems to know that she is fighting a rising tide but is determined to go down fighting.

In the end, The Last Jedi does give us hope that, even in the midst of great darkness we can still find the resilience and the strength to go on. And in these dark days, that’s a very heartening thought, indeed.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water” (2017) and Subversive Desire

Spoilers Ahead

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work ever since I saw Pan’s Labyrinth as an undergraduate. Though I haven’t kept up with him as much as I should have, I decided that, when The Shape of Water came out, I was going to go see it. After all, it was set in the Cold War, and was clearly an homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of that era’s most iconic horror films.

I was not disappointed.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water is essentially the story of how Eliza (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a creature dragged back from the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Secondarily, the film also deals with the personal lives of Eliza’s friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

As its base, the film is very much about the power of desire to liberate us from the shackles of bourgeois society and its ability to drain the joy from life. In that sense, it’s no accident that the film is set during the Cold War, that most perilous and oppressive of eras, when desire had not only social but grave political consequences. The film rips away the traditional (and irritatingly long-lived) cultural mythology that paints the period as one of dutiful wives and manly husbands, showing us the darker side of this ideology. Shannon’s Strickland is a Cold Warrior of the worst type, his mouth compressed into a grim line, his face bearing the grim imprint of his own pathological repression.

For Eliza, the power of desire lies in its ability to connect her to a being that may not be fully human (though the film also asks us to think about what that designation means). Unlike everyone else in her world, who sees her as just slightly less than human because of her muteness, the creature embraces her difference, desire providing the bridge between them. Indeed, desire in this film seems to exist in space beyond language, a challenge to the limits and the walls that we erect around ourselves.

There is, then, an irony in the title. For just as water always threatens to spill out of its bounds–it is fluid, after all–so desire always threatens to subvert the containers that we erect to contain and channel it. Though some might recoil at the idea that a human woman could find romantic (and sexual!) fulfillment with a man of another species, the film seems to take this particular fact in stride. It feels perfectly natural that Eliza should at last find her happiness with a creature that is as much a victim of the ruthless Cold War ethos as he is the characters’ anthropocentrism.

The Shape of Water repeatedly reminds us of the dangers of erecting walls around how we are supposed to feel, while also shedding a piercing light on the violence and hypocrisy undergirding Cold War America. From Strickland’s rotting fingers (they are bitten off by the creature but sewn back on and rejected by his body) to the empty friendliness of a pie shop clerk who spurns Giles’ advances (as well as a black couple that come in for a piece of pie), this is a Cold War America revealed in all of its artificial brutality. In this world, difference is to be shunned or destroyed and justice, peace, and beauty are (seemingly) doomed.

In the end, though, The Shape of Water is an optimistic film, and it is determined to see beauty and love win out in the end. It’s this sentiment, trite as it may sound, that makes this such a resonant film in our current world. While it’s sometimes very easy to lose sight of the pleasures of desire and the sheer joy of love, this film shows us what that can feel like. It may not be del Toro’s most adventurous film–though it is lovingly crafted, with some exquisite play with shades of green and blue–it is arguably one of his most optimistic.

As a completely useless (I think) aside: I really appreciated the brief snippets of the epic film The Story of Ruth, which I’ve always felt was a vastly unappreciated epic film (and one of the only ones in the latter part of the postwar cycle that actually focused on a woman). It is worth pointing out, though, that reviews of the time particularly praised Elana Eden’s portrayal of the biblical character for its dignity, restraint, and strength, so in that sense the film does serve as a fitting reference point for Hawkins’s Eliza.

All in all, a truly fine film.

World Building (16): The Xhusts of Haranshar

Haranshar is a vast realm. In terms of size, it’s roughly the size of Asia, though perhaps slightly smaller. As a result, it encompasses a wide range of cultures, religions, and peoples, though they all obey theoretical allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith.

The administrative heart of this mighty empire is the xhust of Hamarkahn, which takes up most of the western part of Haranshar. It is here, on the banks of the River Fagrish, that the great city of the shahs has grown up, splendid Tysphan (sometimes spelled Tysfan or Tysvan by those in the west). It was founded by the mighty Shah Kavastar, roughly 300 years before the time of the novel. It is without question the largest city on the continent of Aridikh, and it is also the most cosmopolitan. Almost all of the great religions of the world can be found there, as well as libraries, gardens, hospitals, and academies.

This xhust is also the location of Kheldylon, one of the jewels of the entire land of Haranshar, fabled for its magnificent gardens (the origins of which are said to lie in the reign of the Old Ones). To the north of this province is located Karshasp, one of the great fire temples of the Ormazdhites.

To the north and east is the xhust of Shakastan. It is a tundra-like landscape, though there are also several mountain ranges, which are the haunt of some of the fiercest warriors of Haranshar. There are relatively few major cities in the district, though Maraakh is one such. It is the home of one of the great families of the empire, who rule it as their own fief. The region is also known or its vast mineral wealth, which renders it both a very valuable commodity for Haranshar, as well as a possible source of trouble should any of their rulers decide to rebel. It is also, paradoxically, the site where it is believed that the great prophet Varagh received the illuminating word of Ormazdh.

The southern reaches comprise Pishapur, the highlands that are the traditional home of the reigning Haransharin. It is here that centuries ago, this seemingly disunited and fractious people united under their leader Xharyush and swept both east and west to conquer all before them. Within less than a decade, the entire continent would recognize his suzerainty. As a result, this province has frequently been paid more attention by the Shahs, and they have founded several major cities here.

The far eastern xhust is the wildest part of Haranshar, as well as the part that has least seen the power of the Shah. Only one of the Nine Great Clans hails from this region, and even their writ is restricted to the western edges of the district. The rest is a vast grassland inhabited by feuding tribes and chieftains. Though they supposedly have sworn allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith, the reality is very different, as most of them follow their own chieftains and worship their own gods. They are notoriously bloodthirsty and willing to attack any who come to their territory.

A vast mountain range separates the steppes and the desert from the relatively rich coastlands that are inhabited by a very strange people. No one knows much about them, and they have only rarely sent ambassadors or representatives to the court of the Shah. It is known, however, that they guard, fiercely, a treasure, though it is not known what it is.

Technically, the kingdom of Ashkum is administered as part of this far eastern xhust, but the reality is that the rule of the Haransharin there is quite tenuous. In fact, it was only within the last fifty years that they were forced to officially swear obeisance. Even now, their powerful ruler the Kidakaia foments rebellion, aiming to bring her people out from under the yoke of bondage and into a new era.

At the time that the novels are set, the Nine Great Families of Haranshar–not all of whom are pure Haransharin–have begun to foment rebellion and anger in the xhusts. The generals are restless, and the people are yearning for something more. It just might be that a young renegade cleric from the Imperium will be the spark to the tinder.

Hot Take: How the Democrats Can Win Big in 2018 (and Maybe 2020)–“Dignity”

 

In his opinion for the majority in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, Anthony Kennedy wrote of those seeking the right to marry: “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” One word stands out to me about this opinion: “dignity.”

It’s no secret that the famously moderate Kennedy tends to place a lot of emphasis on dignity in his rulings, so his mention of it in the Obergefell decision is unsurprising. What might surprise some, however, is my belief that this term, “dignity,” might be the key to the future of the Democratic Party.

As the Trump era has unfolded–leading to ever-greater indignities, both large and small, the demolition of norms and institutions, and the general degrading of the office of the Presidency–it seems to me that there is one sure way that we Democrats can sell a vision to the American people. If Trump traded on easy solutions, finger-pointing, and xenophobia, it is up to us to show the American people that there is another way to conduct policy and, just as importantly, another way to comport ourselves as a republic and as a body politic.

The beauty of a stress on dignity is that it provides a way of addressing, meaningfully, in my view, the concerns of those who have in recent months suggested that the focus of the national party on “social issues” poses a danger to Democrats in traditionally conservative or moderate districts. Leaving aside the arbitrary and misleading distinction between economic and social issues (a subject for a later rant, I’m sure), it seems to me that it would be more effective and moral for Democrats in those areas to stress that their stances on LGBT+, racial, and gender issues are, essentially, about dignity. I would proffer that the majority of Americans, whether they fall to the right or the left of the political center, can at least agree on the fundamental right to dignity before the law.

Of course, this will require Democratic politicians to actually assert leadership, rather than simply acquiescing to the wishes and desires–no matter how destructive and backward they are–of their core constituents. There is a certain tendency among Democrats, particularly those who are vulnerable in states that Trump won, to think that any stance of theirs that is opposite to their conservative majority constituency will jeopardize their seat, and maybe they’re right. But it also occurs to me that people like Senator Joe Manchin (from my own home state of West Virginia) would do well to remember that there are many LGBT+ people in his state who crave the same dignity as their hetero kin. Their lives are just as important, their needs just as great, and their right to dignity as constitutional.

To some, this emphasis on dignity might come off as trite, or as respectability politics, and that’s true to an extent. However, if 2016 and its dreadful aftermath have taught us anything, it’s that we have a long, hard battle ahead of us, and we need to use all of the weapons in our arsenal. Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to think that the majority of Americans are decent folk, people who are willing to change and adapt. They’re not perfect, but with some notable exceptions they understand dignity and its importance, indeed its necessity, for emotional well-being.

Dignity, as a concept that (almost) everyone can sympathize with and embrace, may just give we Democrats a way out of the wilderness.