The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “It’s a Miserable Life” (S2, Ep. 4)

Despite the sporadic nature of my updates to this series, I’m hoping to be a bit more consistent going forward. I’ve still got quite a few episodes to cover, after all. So, onward we go into season two.

In the fourth episode of the second season, the girls confront the malice and profound misanthropy of Frieda Claxton, their neighbor who does everything in her power to ensure that the old oak tree on her property is cut down by the city in its efforts to widen the street. When Rose loses her temper during a meeting of the City Council and shouts at Mrs. Claxton, the old woman dies on the spot, and the four women ultimately decide to pay for her funeral.

What is most striking about Mrs. Claxton is that she is unrepentantly misanthropic. Unlike the four stars of the show–who spend much of their time committed to social good–she straight up doesn’t like people. While the show doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing (quite the opposite, in fact), it is refreshing to see a woman who doesn’t make any bones about the fact that she doesn’t feel the obligation to be nice to people just because that’s what she’s “supposed” to be like. Fun fact? She is basically what my Mom is going to be like when she gets to be that age.

The real highlight of the episode, though, is the scene at the funeral home, in which the four women have to contend with Mr. Pfeiffer (the “p” is not, in fact, silent). The scene is pure comedy gold, from Sophia’s threatening to give the funeral director a punch in his “pface” to the girls attempting to get the cheapest funeral and casket, since none of them really want to invest that much money into honouring a woman that none of them liked. The sequence also contains a sly reference to the popularity of The Cosby Show and indeed the centrality of television to the lives of those who lived in that far-off time before DVR. The whole thing is, quite simply, a hugely hilarious bit of comedy.

What I really like about this episode is that it shows us that Rose truly is a good, decent person. Sure, she has her moments when she lets her anger burst out inopportunely. However, her genuine devastation at the lack of attendees at Claxton’s funeral reveals how deeply Rose feels about the world around her, how she is determined to believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that there is something good in the heart of even the most despicable person.

Indeed, this episode (like so many) contends with the incontrovertible fact of death and its increasing proximity. As mean as Frieda Claxton was, Sophia points out, she still deserves at least a measure of a funeral. Though she claims it’s good luck to pay for the funeral of someone you hate, one suspects that there is a recognition on Sophia’s part that death waits for all of them, and that it might be in all of their interest to save up some goodwill with the Almighty.

Next up, we come to one of my very favourite episodes, in which Dorothy’s gay friend comes for a visit.

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Reading History: “Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession” (Alison Weir)

Alison Weir continues to surprise and amaze me with her ability to bring something new to the stories of Henry VIII’s six queens. In Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, she brings Henry’s most infamous queen to vibrant life, painting a portrait of a woman doomed to live in a period that is as beautiful as it is deadly, as full of peril as it is pleasure.

Contrary to what some might like to see from a new novel told from Anne’s perspective, Weir doesn’t attempt to make her into a saint. She is imperious, and she knows that she is smarter and cannier than Henry, who emerges from this novel as something of a spoiled brat who is as indecisive as he is cruel, as prone to folly as he is sparkling wit and intelligence. Raised in privilege and coming of age in the courts of Europe where women are the dominant voices, Anne returns to an England still very conservative in its views of women and the relationship between the sexes. Indeed, it precisely Anne’s inability to adapt to the restrictions of England that sets her on a collision course with her inevitable execution.

Throughout the novel, we get a sense that Anne wants something more out of life than is possible in the world in which she lives. She is, in many ways, a proto-feminist, a woman who chafes at the restrictions placed upon her by a culture that is so thoroughly dominated by men that it cannot even imagine that a woman would have a mind of her own. While this might seem anachronistic to some, it is worth pointing out that this was a period of rapid social change, and the evidence we have suggests that, indeed, Anne was quite responsive to the currents of social change that were sweeping through Europe, both in terms of the Reformation and the relations between the sexes. Unfortunately, Henry is far more conservative than he appears to be.

And this, ultimately, is what causes her downfall. Though she knows that she should do more to placate Henry and not endlessly antagonize him and downgrade him in front of others, she cannot seem to help herself. It is this constant oscillation between knowing the wise thing to do and being unable to do it that gives the novel its essential dramatic tension and that makes Anne’s story so profoundly affecting. We in the 21st Century view her sentiments as entirely justified, given that (I would assume) those of us reading women’s historical fiction feel at least a measure of feminist sentiment.

Weir’s style has truly matured since her earlier historical fiction outings, and though there are a few repetitive turns of phrase that mar the flow of her work, for the most part I was able to lose myself in this sumptuous world of sex, plotting, and politics. This is a world that is at once exquisitely courtly and yet also perilous, where the whims of a virtually absolute monarch can bring even the most powerful noble crashing down into ruin and death. As he points out to Anne, he can bring her down as quickly as he raised her up from obscurity.

Given that the entire novel is told from Anne’s perspective and is therefore somewhat limited, Weir still manages to capture the complex psyche of one of history’s most infamous women. She doesn’t shy away from the less appealing parts of Anne’s personality–particular her vengeful attitude toward the recalcitrant Katherine–but she makes these feelings understandable and explicable. She also deftly weaves in Anne’s unrequited love for Henry Norris, though she goes to great lengths to show that, however unhappy Anne was with Henry, and however much she did not really love him with her heart, she never went so far as to engage in a physical affair with another man.

Nor is Weir afraid to demonstrate the darker parts of the Anne Boleyn saga. The last scene of the novel details Anne’s experience after the sword decapitates her. While the science has yet to decide whether in fact one remains conscious after decapitation, Weir opts to end the novel with a (mercifully) short sequence. It’s one of those scenes that really sticks with you, long after the book is finished. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this particular artistic choice, but Weir deserves a great deal of credit for being adventurous enough to end the novel in this way.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Weir’s novel. I must admit, though, that I am quite looking forward to the next outing, where we will get a glimpse into Jane Seymour, certainly one of Henry’s more enigmatic queens. If Weir does as expert a job at depicting Jane as she has with Katherine and Anne, then we are in for a treat indeed.

Film Review: “Samson” (2018)

I went into Samson expecting an absolutely dreadful viewing experience. After all, what more could one expect from a low-budget epic from a faith-based studio? I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t the chore to sit through that I thought it would be. It’s far from a “good” film, but that isn’t for lack of trying.

Indeed, on a scale of “awful” to “excellent,” I would have to rate the film at the lower end of “fair.” While some might find this too generous, I do believe in taking films seriously, regardless of how sloppy (or undeveloped) they might be.

While the film lacks the brutal, vicious intensity of DeMille’s Technicolor version (preferring instead the more “realistic” color currently in vogue in filmmaking), there are a few moments that have a certain savage grace about them. Samson’s murderous rampage that sees the death of several thousand Philistines is one such, though it relies more on fast-paced editing than the glam of special effects to accomplish its effect (which, given the budget, was probably a wise move).

Taylor James makes a fine Samson, with his slightly boyish face, overdeveloped musculature, and rakish (almost childish) charm. He is the perfect sort of grand fool, a man a little too fond of the pleasures of the flesh and a little too distracted from the grand destiny that God has decreed for him. In many ways, he’s the high point of the movie, for all that he’s probably the greenest of the actors.

That being said, there is much about this film that could have been so much better. There are some legitimately good acting talents that try to do the most with what they’ve been given–Billy Zane makes a good egomaniac as the Philistine king, and Rutger Hauer and Lindsey Wagner offer up the values of humility and family duty as Samson’s parents. However, it’s hard to shake the sense that the three of them are basically just earning a paycheck, but they do the most with the threadbare roles that they’ve been given.

Unfortunately, the film also has several talents who are less than stellar and are incredibly frustrating to watch. One of these is the villain of the piece, the Philistine prince Rallah, played with overwrought histrionics by Twilight alum Jackson Rathbone. While one might think that such a distinguished-sounding name might grant the role some sort of gravitas, that would be wrong. Rallah is basically a brat prince, with little or no convincing motivation beyond wanton cruelty (and not even interestingly staged wanton cruelty). Billy Zane would have made a far better villain and, had the screenwriters wanted to, they certainly could have played up the political angle. While they gesture toward the greater Mediterranean world with mentions of Persia and Egypt, these are frustratingly underdeveloped.

Oh, and did I mention Samson has a brother? Who’s blonde? And incredibly annoying? He, like Rallah, takes up far too much narrative space that could have been more usefully allocated elsewhere. For some reason that I personally cannot fathom, the writers decided that a brother would make Samson a more interesting character, when in fact the brother is more of a distraction than anything else. Add that on to the abysmally bad beards that everyone decides to grow after a narratively week segue of “many years later,” and you get a good sense of what the weak spots in the film are.

Indeed, Samson wastes far too many opportunities than it should have. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that it tries too hard to be an epic, and it just does not have the budget or the writing talent to make this work. Epics need to be long to be effective, and they should ideally feature truly eye-popping action, spectacles, and vistas. If Samson wanted to go that route, it should have upped the budget. Or, alternatively, it could have made this into more of a political or personal drama. But, by trying to play the game of the epic but not including the elements that go into that particular form, it ends up not succeeding as well as it might have. Which, as I’ve said, really is a shame, as they have some true talented to work with.

Most frustratingly, the film only introduces the Delilah subplot in the last 45 minutes or so of the film, and it lacks the dramatic tension that I suspect most people expect when going in to see a movie about the biblical Samson. After all, it wasn’t an accident that the titan DeMille chose to focus his story on Samson and Delilah, for he understood very well that part of what makes the biblical narrative so compelling is the power of sex. Unfortunately, the makers of this film didn’t seem to get that memo, and so this film is largely devoid of the sex. This Delilah has very little motivation and very little character development, and that really is a shame, as Caitlin Leahy is a fine actress and could really have done something meaty with the role had she been given the chance.

Instead, Samson seems far more interested in the relationships among men and between Samson and his good-girl sweetheart Taren (who is so milquetoast as to be a nonentity. At least the DeMille version had Angela Lansbury in the similar role). Which, while I’m as much of a fan of the homosocial as any queer scholar, that’s only true when the other male actors are interesting to watch. In this case, it isn’t.

All in all, I found Samson easy to sit through, and it was better than I thought it would be. However, I also found it immensely frustrating, precisely because it seems to deliberately not play by the rules of the game it has chosen to play. While I’m more than willing to sit through a “biblical” film, I at least would like it to be a compelling film in its own right.

Here’s hoping for next time.

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.

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.

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.

Queer Classics: The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

Warning. Spoilers for the film follow.

Call Me By Your Name opens with a series of snapshots of statues from antiquity, emblems of beauty, desire, and a world lost to the vicissitudes of time. About midway through the film, the main character Elio’s father refers to these statues, arguing that they dare us to desire, their faintly contorted forms contending with the perils of physicality.

In a similar way, Call Me By Your Name dares us to desire, to give ourselves up to the complicated, messy, infuriating yet delicious confusion of lust, love, and longing.

Set in the early 1980s in the north of Italy, the film follows young 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student, as they contend with their burgeoning feelings for one another. Their friendship blossoms into an intense physical and emotional connection, before Oliver must return to the United States, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind.

In some ways, the film’s narrative reminds me more than a little of the tragic romance between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the youth Antinoös. It’s more than just the age difference–though that’s part of it. It’s about the aching beauty of youth, about the awareness that the passion that begins any relationship is doomed to cool in the fires of time. If you’ve ever read the heart-wrenching Memoirs of Hadrian, you’ll know what I mean.

The performances are…exquisite. There’s really no other word for it. Hammer has that sort of effortless male handsomeness that one associates with classic Hollywood, but it is his effortlessly masculine voice that truly stirs the loins. There’s just something deeply erotic about the richness of it, a deep purr that also reminds me of the best voices of classic Hollywood actors (I’m thinking in particular of Gregory Peck). I will say, though, that his character Oliver remains something of an enigma. We don’t really get to know him in the same way Elio,

For his part, Timothée Chalamet shines as Elio. He possesses the same sort of elusive beauty as the statues that his father so lovingly excavates. Several times, the camera catches him in profile, and I couldn’t help but notice that he bore a striking resemblance to those same ancient statues. Maybe it’s the turn of the nose, or perhaps it’s just the slightly elfin cast to his features. I’m not quite sure.

And, also like those statues, Chalamet manages to convey the gangly, tormented physicality of a teenage boy in hopeless love. There’s a certain anguish that Chalamet captures, both in his simultaneously graceful and awkward physical comportment as well as his ability to convey Elio’s uncertainty about his feelings for the golden-haired Oliver. The first half of the film sees the two of them existing in an uneasy tension, neither quite able to express openly the way they clearly feel about one another.

When they finally do consummate their affection, the camera is rather shy, not showing the details but leaving us in no doubt as to what is happening. In keeping the lovemaking away from the gaze, the film dares us to experience the erotic without the messy trappings of the prurient. The physically intimate relationship the two clearly share is conveyed in other, arguably more meaningful ways: through a gentle touch of a leg, the touching of one foot upon the other, a tender yet passionate kiss.

But, just as the statues of antiquity, for all their beauty, remain fragmented, beaten down and broken apart by the vicissitudes of time, so the romance between Elio and Oliver must contend with the fact that it will always be limited by their time together. Theirs is a connection doomed to flower and then instantly begin to fade, mirroring the exquisite fruits that so often appear on the table.

And that, to me, seems to be the film’s central interest. For as much as Elio is in the midst of his beautiful youth and as profound as this relationship with Oliver has been, time will inevitably wear away the hard edges of it. That romance, like all things, will fall victim to the vicissitudes of memory. And, for the film, it also falls victim to Oliver, who eventually departs, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind in Italy. When he calls his mother and asks her to come and get him, the heartbreak feels real and even now, a few days after I’ve seen the film, I still feel that gut-punch of the end of a romance.

Fortunately for Elio, his father (played by a scene-stealing Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man of infinite wit and wisdom. In a heart-warming (and wrenching) talk with his son, he reminds him that he shouldn’t crush the part of him that was hurt, in the hope that it will keep the pain away. Instead, he should remember the beautiful bond that he had with Oliver, recognizing that feeling is an essential part of what makes us human and what gives life its peculiar savor.

The film, like the ancient statuary with which it begins, attempts to capture an elusive, transient moment of summer. But of course, cinematic time waits for no one, and for all of the camera’s loving, lingering attention to the pleasures of the fleshly instant, it inevitably moves us forward. The summers of our life cannot be held, much as we might wish it were otherwise, and it is precisely because they are so transient that they pierce us with their intensity. We mourn the passing, even as we are in the midst of it. Call Me, more than perhaps any other film that I’ve recently seen, captures the fleeting nature of desire.

Call Me By Your Name is one of those extraordinary stories of queer love that stays with you. It’s not tragic, but it is bittersweet, and in that sense it ably captures the contradictions at the heart of so much queer love. While we have come a long way in terms of the societal acceptance of same-sex love, there are still many more mysteries to the queer heart, many of which don’t even have a name.

And yet still they call to our hearts.

World Building (13): The Anukathi

West of the continent of Aridikh (on which the Imperium, Korray, and Haranshar) are located, lies the great landmass known as Shumeru. This vast land is home to the people known as the Anukathi, who from time immemorial have haunted the imaginations of those living on the continent to the east.

There are many legends surrounding this mysterious people, but truth, as so often, is stranger than fiction. They are the progeny of renegade elohim who, when the various worlds were united as one, broke the law of the Name and lay with human women. When the One World was shattered by the cataclysmic clash between the Name and the Demiurge, the Anukathi were likewise scattered across dozens of worlds.

More often than not, they did not survive their encounters with their mortal cousins. It has been the good fortune of the Anukathi of this world that they have managed to maintain a presence on their continent and that the mortals who live there have largely been subservient to their wishes. As a result, they have been able to build a truly splendid and beautiful civilization, one that is the rival of any.

In large part, this is because they have been able to leverage the Art of Binding to reinforce their great architectural works with the daimons that provide the strength of aethyr, the purest and most powerful element. Given that they are, in essence, avowed enemies of the Name and all of their creations (including the daimons and the elohim), this should come as no surprise.

The Anukathi are tall and often slight of build, with coppery skin and black hair. Their eyes typically appear in some shade of green, though it is not unheard of for those in the purest bloodlines to have either brown or blue eyes. Though they are light, they are fearsome fighters, and before the establishment of the United Kingdom, they were prone to bloody wars between rival principalities and city-states.

There are roughly three castes in Anukathi society, with the priests at the top, the warriors and nobles in the middle, and the laborers and craftsmen at the bottom. The Anukathi are great admirers of tradition and stability, and thus this stratified society tends to not be very flexible. With very few exceptions, individuals are bound to stay within the caste into which they are born. While this is by nature restrictive, it means that, for several centuries, the Anukathi have enjoyed a particularly pronounced period of political and social flourishing.

They are ruled over by the High Queen Y’Narra, who rules from atop her zithurat. The other great houses of the Anukathi also remain ensconced in their zithurats, where they rule over their clients and over their districts. The Anukathi tend to be very urban-oriented, though there are numerous large estates scattered across the continent, most of which are in the hands of the great lords and landowners.

The High Queen is also the leader of the state (and only) religion, which worships the person of the Great Goddess, Ishatath, who is understood to be the font of all that is ordered, beautiful, and good in the material world. The Anukathi see the world beyond the flesh as one of frightening despair, and it is for this reason that they take every care not to succumb to wounds or fighting. Given that their elohim blood has gifted them with immortality, they are almost impervious to any kind of illness, though there is a possibility that they might be susceptible to diseases born from the continent from Aridikh. For this reason, and because of their innate distrust of mortals, any trading on their shores is strictly monitored, controlled, and disciplined.

Some native mortals can be found on the continent, though they occupy a largely subaltern position. However, the Anukathi are renowned for their sense of justice and fairness, and slavery as such is forbidden by their most sacred laws. Thus, almost every mortal is held in a form of serfdom. While they are technically free, their economic circumstances are such that they are bound to the land and to the lord.

As the events of the novel will demonstrate, there are deep currents at work in the land of the Anukathi, and it may be that their Queen has a greater destiny ahead of her than anyone thought possible.

Reading History: “The Last Tudor” (Philippa Gregory)

I’ve been reading Philippa Gregory’s books since around 2005, when I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t yet read all of then, but I’ve read enough to have a solid sense of her style and her interests and author, as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a writer of historical fiction.

Her most recent outing, The Last Tudor, puts Gregory’s puts all of that on display.

Broken into three parts, the book centers on the three Grey sisters: Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Jane, of course, has gone down in history as the Nine Days Queen, executed by Queen Mary as a result of her father’s foolish rebellion. Katherine, equally foolish, married a Seymour without first gaining the permission from the Queen, a crime also committed by her sister Mary, who marries a commoner and also finds herself imprisoned.

Jane, in keeping with the traditions of depicting her in historical fiction, emerges as something of a prig, convinced of her own wisdom, erudition, and piety. However, her self-assurance doesn’t keep her from being manipulated by others–notably her parents–into usurping the throne when her cousin Edward VI. Though frequently insufferable, Gregory does capture moments of genuine pathos with this quintessential Protestant martyr.

If only the same could be said of her younger sister Katherine. Though Katherine was surely a complicated and tragic character, in Gregory’s rather unsuitable hand she becomes an insufferable ninny, so swept up by her passion for the young Edward Seymour that she marries him without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, earning both of them imprisonment. As a character, she seems quite the dunce, especially as she moves from bad decision to bad decision. She can’t quite seem to wrap her head around why it might be that Elizabeth would see her as a threat, despite the fact that she constantly draws attention to the fact of her own superiority to her cousin.

It is Mary, ironically, who emerges as the most interesting and insightful character, though she also has the least to do. After her ill-considered marriage to Thomas Keyes, she is shuttled between various keepers. While her chapters are often witty and sardonic, the downside is that most of what she relates has to do with the travails of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, these chapters tend to drag.

All three sisters’ narrations are marred by one of Gregory’s increasingly prevalent tics: repetition. We endlessly hear about how one of the sisters might become the center of an effort to replace Elizabeth, how each of them is better than Elizabeth, how they all hate Elizabeth. I would probably have much more patience for Gregory’s consistent foibles if she didn’t have such a naked vendetta against Elizabeth I. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve long been a fan of QE I, even though I recognize that she has a lot to answer for. Still, Gregory takes this to extremes, and she clearly believes that Elizabeth was responsible for the death of Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart. Given that historians now agree that Elizabeth was most likely innocent, this is at best farfetched and at worst deliberately misleading.

It’s not surprising that the three Grey sisters would see their cousin the queen through their own perspective, but it does strain credulity that three members of the ruling dynasty would not be a little more canny about their life choices. Having been raised to be conscious of their royal connections through their grandmother Queen Mary, they surely would have realized that their marriages had consequences far beyond their personal happiness. What’s more, it’s quite frustrating to read them making these foolish choices, especially as, if they had been wiser and cannier about maneuvering through court politics, they might have seen their children on the throne rather than enduring years of grueling captivity.

In the last several Gregory novels, we hear incessantly about how infertile the Tudors are, how paranoid they are because of this, and how they will willingly punish (or kill) anyone who they perceive as a threat. While there is something to this, and while I am aware that Elizabeth could be quite malicious, Gregory’s lack of subtlety mars what might have been a nuanced exploration of the truly tragic fates of three interesting figures in the Tudor family.

I suppose my greatest frustration with this novel was the fact that the story could have been told better, either by Gregory or someone else. The author’s note suggests that she is moving on from the Tudor and I, for one, must reluctantly admit that this is certainly a good thing.