Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016, A Year in Reading: Best Reads of the Year

I read 93 books in 2016.  For a while I thought I'd make it to a hundred, but no matter--this is still a huge leap, one more book, in fact, than I read in 2015 and 2014 put together.  I wish I could put my finger on just why my reading this year made such tremendous strides.  Part of the reason is purely practical--I read a great deal of comics this year, and no small amount of YA and single-volume anthologies, and these all made for rather quick reads.  But I also feel like I've broken through a wall with my reading--with identifying books I'd like to read and am likely to enjoy, and with organizing my reading so that I'm not overwhelmed by too many heavy books, or too many trivial ones, and end up feeling dispirited and not willing to crack open another cover.  This was particularly surprising when you consider that 2016 was the year I broke my habit of not reading genre trilogies, or at least not carrying on with them past the first volume.  I read the first two volumes of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, and of Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe trilogy.  I read the last two volumes of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, as well as several starting volumes in trilogies that I probably won't be keeping up with.  As I've written (including later in this piece), there are problems with how SF is currently constructing its trilogies, and they're present in all of these books, but nevertheless I found a great deal to enjoy in each of them.

We'll have to see if I'm able to maintain the same rhythm in 2017, but in the meantime I'm glad to report that as well as delivering quantity, this year also delivered quality, with quite a few remarkable reads that stood out from the pack.  (As for bad reads, there were surprisingly few, though I'm sad to say that most of them were concentrated in this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist.)  As usual, presented in order of author's surname.

Best Books:
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

    As I've written in my review of The Obelisk Gate, the sequel to this Hugo-winning marvel, there's a longer conversation to be had about how the genre is currently constructing its trilogies, and how the result tends to be front-loading a lot of worldbuilding information in the first volume in a way that leaves the later ones shapeless.  Even acknowledging that problem, however, there's no denying that the way in which The Fifth Season introduces us to its world and its characters is instantly compelling and fascinating.  Following the lives of three women in a world given to cataclysmic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, whose power to control (and often exacerbate) these outbreaks is viewed with fear and hatred, The Fifth Season touches on so many topics that you can hardly believe that it works, much less works as well as it does.  This is a novel about how people are shaped by hardship: the hardship of knowing that catastrophe is always just around the corner, and the hardship of being hated, oppressed, and hunted for something you can't control.  It's a novel that takes some of the core tropes of the superhero genre (chiefly the X-Men stories) and exposes the cruelty and horror at their core--as well as tying them much more strongly to issues of race and racism than any previous attempt at the genre.  And it's a novel that effortlessly combines the tropes of epic fantasy and far-future, post-apocalypse SF into a stew that makes them all its own, and makes discussing its genre a delight in its own right (I still maintain that its absence from next year's Clarke shortlist will be a crime).  Whether or not the Broken Earth trilogy manages to stick the landing, The Fifth Season on its own is an important and impeccably structured work.

  • The Vision (Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man; Volume 2: Little Better Than a Beast) by Tom King, art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Michael Walsh

    If you'd told me a year ago that my favorite comic of 2016 would be a Marvel superhero comic, and that it would star that boring purple guy from Age of Ultron, I would never have believed you.  But here we are a year later, and there is no book I read this year that I'd like to evangelize for more than Tom King's run of The Vision.  King takes a well-worn premise--robot tries to live as human, with disastrous results--and executes it with a combination of hard-headedness and compassion that make the story's inevitable turn towards tragedy both fascinating and heartbreaking.  We know, from the outset, that the Vision's experiment in normalcy will end in carnage, but the family he constructs for himself--wife Virginia and twin teenagers Vin and Viv--are so instantly winning, despite or perhaps even because they share their father's stiff mannerisms and tendency to be over-literal, that you can't help but wish for them to find a way to exist in a world that they are so unsuited for.  The second half of the story, which involves more of the Avengers, is less gripping, but it also brings in one of the core questions of the superhero genre, one that is seldom handled with the seriousness it deserves.  So many characters in this genre are created for a purpose, whether good or evil, and their stories revolve around rejecting, embracing, or failing to fight off that purpose.  King asks the much more important question: not whether the Vision or his family are doomed to be bad guys or good guys, but whether any of them can ever simply be people.

  • Wake by Elizabeth Knox

    The endlessly-reinventing Knox's latest novel conjures the ghost of Stephen King, but only to rebuke him for a lack of imagination and grit.  In Knox's story, when a group of strangers are stranded together by a breakdown of the laws of rationality and order, the danger they face isn't man's inhumanity to man.  On the contrary, it's the insistence that they continue to behave like human beings, even in the face of the impossible and of their own looming surrender to it, that drives our heroes to the breaking point.  The are forced to confront the question: is it better to face death as a community, or to shirk off the obligations they feel towards one another and die unencumbered?  In the meantime, Knox delivers an impeccable work of horror, one that ranges from the existential to the scatological, and which finds tension and anxiety in the most mundane details of survival.

  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

    I'm not being terribly original in highlighting Rankine's book of poetry, and indeed so many of the ideas she raises here have become bywords of the Black Lives Matter movement that finding them here often felt more like encountering an old friend in an unfamiliar environment.  But the clarity of the ideas that Rankine expresses--even in a medium that is often known for its obliqueness like poetry, and even in her own chosen form, which is often more like linked, short essays--is startling.  Citizen is about many things, as it tries to grapple with the reality of life for African-Americans in the present moment.  But what struck me about it during my first reading was Rankine's struggle with anger, as an artist, a person, and specifically a black woman.  Anger is essential to how Rankine sees the world, and it only grows as the list of black men, women, and children victimized and often murdered by the police grows longer.  It is a righteous anger, and one that she is right to express.  But at the same time, she is also aware of how anger can consume, and make it impossible to live and to create.  It's not a simple question--for all that people, and especially privileged people, like to treat it as such--and Rankine's handling of it in this book is far from simplistic.  Drawing on her own life, and on examples of other black people in the public eye who struggle with the same question of anger, she produces a philosophical treatise that is all the more powerful for not being able to come to an answer.

  • The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (review)

    I wrote several thousand words about Samatar's second novel, the companion piece to her equally wonderful A Stranger in Olondria, earlier this year, and yet I still don't feel that I've fully grappled with how special and revolutionary this book is.  This despite the fact that Histories initially feels a great deal more conventional, and much easier to sum up, than Olondria.  Its use of familiar epic fantasy tropes and styles is more pronounced than the previous novel, and whereas Olondria circled around the edges of a fantasyland civil war, Histories sets its story almost in the middle of it.  What ultimately becomes clear, however, is that just like the hero of A Stranger in Olondria, the four women who tell the story of The Winged Histories are trying to give shape to their lives by casting them into literary forms--in this case, the forms of epic fantasy, even if none of them are aware of that genre or would call it that.  And, one by one, they discover the limitations of those forms, especially where women and colonized people are concerned.  Not unlike Olondria, The Winged Histories is ultimately forced to ask whether it is even possible for people to tell their own stories using the tropes and tools left to them by their oppressors.  If the entire purpose of your existence is to be the Other, or the object, in someone else's story, can you ever take their words, their forms, and make it a story about yourself?  For most of the novel's characters, the solution is ultimately to fall silent, and yet The Winged Histories itself rings loudly.  As much as it is a rebuke of the fantasy genre, it is also a major work within it, and one that deserves more discussion and attention than it has received.
Honorable Mentions:
  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi - A haunted house story with a twist, in which the ghost of racism and xenophobia infects the present generation and must be exorcised.

  • Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson - A bleak counterpoint to Robinson's freewheeling 2312, which warns against dreaming of a home in the stars and neglecting the one we have here.

  • Natural History by Justina Robson - A space opera whose setting is a sort of stepping stone to Banks's Culture, with AIs and living ships organizing in pursuit of self-determination.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (review) - A historical novel that refuses the comfortable (albeit horrific) embrace of the past, reminding us that history is happening right now.

  • The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson - A rude, rambunctious reminder that epic fantasy is capable of so much more than we give it credit for.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Recent Reading Roundup 42

It's nearly time to sum up the year's reading, and I have a great deal to talk about on that front. Unfortunately, I've been felled by a flu, so I'm hoping I'll be back my feet and in a state to write meaningfully about, well, anything by the time the 31st rolls around (which, as everyone knows, is the only proper time to talk about the year's best anything). In the meantime, however, here are some thoughts about some of the books I read in the last third of the year, including some major genre publications.
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley - Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I picked up Hawley's third novel on the strength of his work adapting the Coen brothers' Fargo into one of the most delightful and unusual television series of the last few years, arguably the best example of the increasingly popular anthology series format (Hawley is also the showrunner of the forthcoming Legion, which if nothing else bids fair to become the first MCU property with a sense of style).  One of the things I like best about Fargo is its commitment to featuring characters who are complex and multifaceted, more flawed and foolish than evil, even when they're doing despicable things.  That, unfortunately, is not a trait that Hawley has carried over to this novel, which takes place in the days following the crash of a private jet.  The sole survivors are Scott, a down-on-his-luck painter, invited at the last minute as a random act of kindness from one of the millionaires on the flight, and this same millionaire's young son.  The chapters describing the build-up to the flight, the immediate aftermath of the crash, and Scott's harrowing swim back to shore, towing his fellow survivor behind him, are breathtakingly tense and instantly compelling, but they set a bar that the rest of the novel can't reach.  Once Scott and his charge are rescued, Hawley struggles to find a hook for the rest of the story.  He tries to craft a mystery about the cause of the crash, delving into the pasts and psyches of the other passengers and crewmembers (hence the "before" of the title).  But though the readers know, because of the kind of novel we're reading, that the plane must have crashed because of foul play, not an accident or pilot error, it's simply not convincing that all the characters in the novel would immediately leap to that conclusion--especially when they start pointing accusing fingers at Scott, as if being the sole survivor of a plane crash and then making an impossible, hours-long swim for your life is something a person could plan for.

    Hawley's narrative has several interests, but at its core Before the Fall is a novel about masculinity, with many characters, on and off the plane, exemplifying diseased versions of it: arrogant bullies, weak-willed man-children, emotionless automatons with no communications skills, self-absorbed narcissists who expect women to save them from their own failings.  That's certainly a worthy message, but Hawley is so bald with it, and gives these portraits so little shading, that it's hard not to feel that he's browbeating us with them.  Where Fargo expects us to pity, and even on some level enjoy, its depraved characters, Before the Fall wants to be sure that we know exactly how we're meant to feel about each and every member of its cast.  Even worse, its emblem of "good" masculinity, Scott, veers a little too close to Marlboro Man stoicness to really work as a counterpoint to toxic masculinity.  The book keeps claiming that Scott is a screw-up, but what shows up on the page is a strong and silent type who is unthinkingly heroic and kind to women, animals, and small children.  It's as much of a stereotype as any of the "bad" men it's meant to act as a counter to, without ever acknowledging that it's these simplistic, idealized portraits that often screw men up, as much as any of the diseases of the soul that the book does recognize.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee - I've thought for a while that Lee is the closest thing we have to a successor to Iain Banks, and his debut novel confirms me in that impression.  Like Banks, Lee specializes in a brand of space opera that tends to challenge our assumptions about the fundamental building blocks of the universe by detaching words and concepts from their accepted meanings.  Ninefox Gambit is set in the same universe as Lee's previous short stories "Ghostweight" and "The Battle of Candle Arc", in which certain weapons and propulsion technologies rely on the consensus acceptance of a specific "high calendar".  Under different calendars, different technologies either stop working or gain tremendous, reality-bending powers, and the ruling power in the novel's setting, the Hexarchate, is thus primarily occupied with brutally enforcing its own calendar, and constantly suppressing rebellions that support themselves by adopting their own timekeeping approaches.  The metaphor for cultural imperialism is obvious, but beyond that, Ninefox Gambit is remarkable for how it builds a universe that is not only describable through math, but changeable with it.  Military forces in the novel's world can affect reality--defend themselves against "calendrical" weapons, or impose their own effects on the fabric of the universe--by adopting "formations" that conform to the current mathematical paradigm.  Breaking formation, meanwhile, can lead to disastrous, often grotesque results, which of course reflects in the governing values of the Hexarchate's military.

    As in the short stories, this is a pretty neat concept, and one that presents a fun challenge to the reader, who must work out not only what is going on, but what the fundamental rules of the universe are.  But the greater length and more clearly-defined structure of a novel make it easier to notice that beneath its unusual worldbuilding, the story that Ninefox Gambit tells is a rather conventional one.  Faced with an infestation of "calendrical rot" in one of their key holdings, the Hexarchate deploys disgraced infantry captain Kel Cheris, whose main claim to fame is her facility with math, and particularly her ability to think outside the box when faced with calendar-based weaponry.  Cheris is supplemented by General Shuos Jedao, the Hexarchate's most gifted strategist, who was executed for treason after turning on his own troops and killing millions of the Hexarchate's own citizens.  Jedao is present here as a sort of ghost anchored to Cheris, a voice in her head whose attitudes, memories, and proclivities start to bleed into Cheris's the more she comes to rely on him.  For all the bells and whistles, this is a rather familiar premise, and though Ninefox Gambit delivers several engaging set-pieces--both space battles and ground combat, after Cheris's troops gain a foothold on their target--it ultimately feels rather by the numbers, the triumphs and setbacks arriving precisely on schedule, and with very few surprises or genuine thrills.  (The fact that the novel is setting up a trilogy is an obvious problem here, as Lee is clearly more concerned with laying out the history and culture of his setting than in doing anything particularly unexpected with them at this stage.)  A lot of the novel's force is clearly intended to come from its character work--Cheris's conflicted feelings about the Hexarchate, her struggles to assert herself as a fleet commander, and the relentless mind games that Jedao plays with her--but here, too, what shows up on the page is strangely underpowered.  Cheris's growing anguish over the cost of her campaign, for example--the troops that she sacrifices in brilliant but costly tactical gambits, or the civilians she exposes to horrific weapons--which is supposed to be the crux of the novel, never feels more than skin-deep.

    It's particularly interesting to note that, when stripped of their respective central conceits, Ninefox Gambit strongly resembles Ancillary Justice.  The structure of the Hexarchate's militaristic, doctrinaire society, the carefully regimented and manners-obsessed culture of its military, even a minor but clearly significant plotline about the Hexarchate's AIs and their desire to be recognized as sentient--these are all central elements of Ann Leckie's breakthrough novel, as is the fact that both novels' stories ultimately come down to a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, centering on a deeply loyal innocent who is finally pushed too far by an abusive system, and swears revenge.  Some of this, no doubt, comes down to the fact that both Lee and Leckie are telling stories about the crimes of empire, and about the near-impossible difficulty of dismantling such a system.  But I also have to wonder if we haven't accepted certain tropes and conventions as de rigueur for a certain kind of space opera.  To bring this back to Banks, one of the things that made him exceptional was his ability to imagine different and strange social structures, and then use them to reflect back on burning political questions.  I have no doubt that Lee is capable of doing the same, but I don't think he's managed it with Ninefox Gambit.

  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin - There's probably a longer discussion to be had about the current state of trilogies in SFF, and how to construct them so that the first volume isn't simply front-loading worldbuilding information in a way that, while engaging, leaves the later volumes without a shape.  It's a problem that afflicted the Ancillary books, and one that I suspect will prove to be an issue for Ninefox Gambit's sequels, and it shows up in force in Jemisin's follow-up to the stunning, Hugo-winning The Fifth Season.  That's not to say that there aren't things to praise in The Obelisk Gate, which splits its narrative between the heroine of The Fifth Season, Essun, now living in an underground community trying to survive the aftermath of a supervolcano explosion, and her daughter Nassun, who was kidnapped by her father in the previous book.  The Nassun chapters are particularly powerful, charting the quick thinking and manipulation she has to deploy in order to survive in the company of her emotionally unstable father, who has already killed her brother for the crime of being an "orogene", people who can cause and quell earthquakes, who are reviled and hounded in the series's world.  They also give us a different perspective on the relationship between Essun and her children.  After an entire novel in which Essun obsessively pursued her daughter without ever giving us a glimpse of their family relationship, it's not really a surprise--and yet queasily disturbing--to learn that she repeated her own history of abuse in her "training" of her daughter.  Nassun's resentment of this plays into the twisted, codependent relationship she develops with a former Guardian, Schaffa, one of the class of beings who abused orogenes like her mother, but who is the only person who offers Nassun unconditional love and support.

    There are some similarly powerful notes in the Essun chapters, in which she tries to feel out the contours of a community in which orogenes live openly and are even in positions of authority, finally concluding that the peace she's been presented with is transitory.  But it's here that The Obelisk Gate bumps up against the problem of its overarching plot, and the fact that Essun's primary task in this novel is to learn enough so that she can save the world in the next book.  This leaves the novel feeling--like so many middle books before it--like scene-setting.  And unlike The Fifth Season, which did the bulk of the worldbuilding for this universe, it doesn't have enough new and interesting information to reveal to make that process enjoyable.  The Broken Earth books are at their best when they discuss the effect that living with prejudice, oppression, and abuse has on people within those systems--though it must be noted that after so many instances in which orogenes lash out and kill dozens, hundreds, and in some cases millions, the argument that the prejudice against them, and even the barbaric practices put in place to control them, are completely unjustified is starting to lose its force.  I'm a lot less interested, however, in the mystery the novel teases about the source of orogeny, the mysterious obelisks that float in the sky above the planet, and the ways in which Essun can use them to save the world.  The Obelisk Gate needed to lay out these elements as compellingly as The Fifth Season built this series's world, and it doesn't quite succeed at this--by the final set-piece, in which Essun uses her newfound control over the obelisks to defeat an army trying to invade her community, her powers feel ungrounded, and sharply contrast with the visceral depictions of day-to-day life for orogenes.

  • Infomocracy by Malka Older - If nothing else, a reader turning the last page of Older's debut novel has to tip their hat to her for her prescience.  Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that Older, while she was writing this book, had her finger on the pulse of issues and problems that have only recently come to dominate the conversation about how democracy in the 21st century functions, and of how it fails.  Set in a near-future, Infomocracy imagines a world in which the familiar geopolitical rules have been replaced by "micro-democracy", with the world divided into "centenals", each containing one hundred thousand residents who are free to vote for any government they wish, be it nationalistic, ideological, or corporate.  Different governments can thus have citizens all over the world, which can mean that neighboring streets can have different laws and government services.  Every ten years, the world holds an election, in which the governments try to win over new centenals in order to cement their power, and hopefully make a bid for the coveted "supermajority".

    There are, obvious, some glaring problems with this system that Older never fully address--we don't, for example, learn what the supermajority actually gives the government that holds it, and more importantly, it's never made clear how this system supports itself economically.  But the focus of Infomocracy is less on these issues, and more on using its micro-democracy system to reflect on the problems of sustaining democracy in any form.  Our heroes are Ken, an itinerant campaign worker for Policy1st, a group that claims to eliminate the personality-based aspect of representational democracy by focusing on heavily-researched and -tested policies, and Mishima, a high-ranking operative for Information, an agency tasked with fact-checking and policing the statements of public office seekers, which eventually comes to function as a sort of world police.  They end up in each other's orbit when they begin to suspect that one of the governments vying for the supermajority is seeding its campaign messaging with dog-whistles promising conquest and nationalistic expansion--the very things that micro-democracy was created to eliminate.  (A third character, Demaine, appears repeatedly but never quite seems to cohere.  An anti-election activist, he constantly hints at potential arguments against the centenal system but never sufficiently emerges from the haze of smug self-satisfaction that surrounds him to fully articulate one.  There are actually more convincing arguments against the micro-democracy system in the chapters focusing on Ken and Mishima, who after all see the system closely and are intimately familiar with its flaws and compromises.)

    If you sum up Infomocracy's plot, in which Ken and Mishima are caught up in various crises, investigate challenges to the election, and try to navigate a budding romance, there doesn't seem to be much there.  Even at its best, the story never rises above a competent but not very exciting technothriller.  What makes the novel work are the ways it exposes the cracks and crevices, not only in its imagined and not very plausible democratic system, but in our own.  Pretty much everything we've been talking about in the wake of 2016's multiple failures and collapses of democratic systems is here: the rise of the far-right and the allure of violent authoritarianism, even and perhaps especially for people who don't have it that bad but just want to feel powerful; the role of tribalism in voting patterns; the usurpation of government roles by corporations; the failure of the media to inform the public; the failure of the public to inform itself even when the information is made available to it.  Above all, the sad realization that people don't behave any more rationally when they participate in democracy than they do anywhere else, and that no matter how hard you work to create a system that's fair and equitable, it can always be destroyed by people who crave power, and others who simply don't care enough to stop them.  While not exactly bleak, Infomocracy is a sobering meditation on the truism that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others.

  • Everfair by Nisi Shawl - Shawl's first full-length novel has an intriguing but also challenging premise.  It imagines that in the late 19th century, shocked by the human rights abuses of the regime of the Belgian king Leopold II in the Congo (which, in the real world, ended up claiming the lives of millions of people), a group of English socialists and African-American missionaries band together to purchase the land and turn it into a safe haven for refugees from violent colonialism.  Making common cause with a local African king, and powered by advanced technology, the new nation of Everfair becomes a steampunk utopia in the midst of some of the worst abuses in human history.  And therein lies the challenge, of constructing a utopia in a way that doesn't betray the novel's goal--using steampunk to address and ameliorate the racism of history, instead of papering it over--while still telling a compelling story. 

    Both on the personal and political level, Everfair raises some interesting prospects.  The tension between the European socialists and the African locals plays out in multiple ways, which both highlight the former's frequent blindness to their own privilege and racism--insisting, for example, that making Everfair's official language English is a "unifying" measure--and the latter's vulnerability to exactly the same excesses as the white regimes they've escaped--when Everfair becomes embroiled in the first world war, its weapons manufacturers begin employing child labor in order to meet quotas, and the African king who becomes Everfair's military leader resents sharing power with democratic institutions that he sees as imposed on him by the same Europeans who abused his people.  Some throughlines, such as the spiritual transformation of an African-American clergyman who finds himself drawn to African religion, or the tense relationship between a free-thinking poet and her lover, a mixed-race woman who correctly senses that her heritage is being tolerated rather than embraced, remain intriguing throughout the novel's length.

    But taken as a whole, Everfair is too bitty to make much of any of its subjects.  Shawl's approach is to make her story deliberately scattershot, jumping every few pages from one character to another, skipping long stretches of time, and eliding some of the important stepping stone along her story's path.  A problem is often introduced in one chapter, and then in the next chapter we learn that it has been resolved, avoided, or simply endured, and it's now time to address the next issue.  The result is that Everfair's title nation never manages to feel like a real place, in whose survival the reader can feel invested.  The novel ends up feeling trapped, rather than buoyed, by its premise.  As someone who lives in a nation that started out as a utopian pipe-dream forged in reaction to persecution and genocide, and which very quickly gave way to realpolitik, ugly compromises, and unacknowledged internal prejudice, I know that there's a vivid, complicated story to be told about such a place.  Everfair never quite seems willing to delve into that story, preferring to skim its surface.

  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi - One of the blurbs for Oyeyemi's third novel compares it to the writing of Shirley Jackson, which strikes me as incredibly apt.  Like Jackson's ghost stories--most especially The Haunting of Hill House--White is for Witching imagines a haunting in which the haunted house is a character in its own right (one that, in this novel, even speaks), a malevolent entity that nevertheless perceives itself as protecting its inhabitants, or at least the ones it cares about.  These last are largely confined to the women of the Silver family, who have lived in the house in Dover for four generations, unaware--or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge--how much its influence has affected their lives.  The added twist here, unsurprisingly for an Oyeyemi novel, is the issue of race, with the house, having been primed by the original Silver matriarch, directing its malevolence towards people of color, immigrants, and anyone it defines as an outsider or an interloper. 

    A lot of ghost stories have racial animus or genocide at their root, but in most of them, the story ends up being about the "innocent" descendants of people who committed those crimes laying them to rest, or about unwitting interlopers into an ancient feud being targeted by the indiscriminately enraged ghosts of the victims of racism, who simply want someone to take their anger out on.  White is for Witching takes a more hard-headed approach, finally revealing that it is the Silver women themselves who are made predatory and dangerous by their history of racism--that by refusing to acknowledge it and take active steps to counter it, they end up perpetuating it.  The book's story revolves around the youngest Silver girl, Miranda, who falls in love with Ore, a Nigerian adoptee who senses both the danger in the house, and the fact that Miranda may lack the strength or the willingness to fight it.  The storytelling here is, typically for Oyeyemi and true to the book's Jacksonian heritage, swimming in metaphor, soft spaces, and weird turns of narrative, not all of which are explained by the book's end.  But the allegory underlying it all is blatant and undeniable: if Miranda wants to love a black girl, and wants that girl to be safe with her, she has to be willing to take responsibility for her past, and exorcise her own demons.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Violent Delights: Thoughts on the First Season of Westworld

What to say about Westworld?  How to sum up its frustrating, fitfully brilliant first season?  The problem with Westworld--or rather, not the problem, because this is a show with so many different problems, which is, of course, a problem in itself--is that it never quite seems to cohere into the sum of its parts.  Those parts were frequently magnificent--from incidental but beautiful touches like Ramin Djawadi's playful soundtrack choices, to core elements like the fearless performances of Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton--but even at the end of the show's ten-episode first season, I find myself asking the same question that I asked at its beginning: is this show about anything other than itself?

The scattershot nature of the show's writing, its haphazard brilliance, has made it into the best sort of thinkpiece fodder.  At one point or another, we decided that Westworld was: a critique of the HBO brand and its reliance on violence and misogyny; an exploration of the conventions of video games and how players interact with them; a chunky science fiction story about the emergence of consciousness in machines; an allegory about slavery and oppression; a meta-examination of how stories are constructed and achieve their effects; a philosophical treatise on what it means to be human.  There are hints of each of these shows in Westworld, and if you focus your view on an individual element of the show you might even be able to make a coherent argument for one or the other of them.  But as soon as you widen your view, and try to take in the whole, you realize that it doesn't actually exist.  It's a show that is, simultaneously, full to the brim with ideas, and completely empty.

You get the sense that the writers realize this, and that it's this realization that might have been behind their most destructive, most boneheaded choice: the twists.  Of all the arguments you can have about Westworld, all the aspects of the show that you can praise or criticize, surely one thing is not up for debate: this is one of the most horrendously-paced and -structured seasons of television in recent memory.  And most of that comes down to the show's reliance on twists, chiefly the big one: that the naive, goodhearted visitor to the show's titular theme park, William (Jimmi Simpson), is also the villainous, murderous Man in Black (Ed Harris), whose stories are told thirty years apart--enabled by the fact that the park's robotic hosts are ageless, and trapped in loops of narrative and of their own desperate yearning towards consciousness.  It's almost fascinating to watch the season's final, extra-long episode expend nearly half its running time on the painstaking, laborious revelation of a twist that most of fandom--certainly the parts of it that are online and discussing the show--has been taking for granted for at least a month.

While this might sound like the most finicky of fannish complaints, it actually gets at the core of what makes the show so frustrating and unsatisfying.  Westworld, by its very nature, has no characters.  Almost everyone on screen is a robot whose personhood is, at best, a work in progress, and at worst, a delusion created to further a mysterious someone's master plan.  (Meanwhile, William, the only human character who undergoes any kind of transformation, has it off-screen, the better to conceal the big reveal.)  For the same reason, it has no plot--all of its characters are trapped in loops of story that weren't particularly original or interesting the first time around.  Co-creator Jonathan Nolan's previous show, Person of Interest, was faced with essentially the same challenges, and dealt with them beautifully, transforming a rote procedural into the origin story of a genuinely alien artificial intelligence.  Perhaps because of its HBO pedigree, Westworld eschews such conventional forms, and instead assumes that it can string its viewers along with the promise of an explosive reveal.  It is, essentially, trading on its prestige, banking on its viewers' assumption that there's no way HBO would spend this much money and effort on a show with so little to say.

But in the age of internet fandom, such assumptions are unfounded.  It is simply no longer possible to count on surprising your audience in the way that Westworld clearly expects to.  It's time for TV writers to let go of the Lost model, or at least to let it evolve--to deliver twists faster and sooner, so that viewers feel like active participants in the story, instead of a captive audience whose indulgence is being sorely tried.  What if, instead of waiting until the end of the season finale to reveal what is ultimately a rather anodyne, pointless twist, the show had lobbed it in episode six?  What if instead of concealing this fact, the writing had acknowledged, and delved into the implications of, the one meaningful point that comes out of the show's multiple timelines--the fact that even the hosts who are developing consciousness are doing it by going in circles, repeating the same story again and again?  Instead, the season turns itself into its own prologue, nine episodes of setup followed by ninety minutes of that setup being furiously untangled through the inelegant, ultimately exhausting device of seemingly-endless infodumps, as first William, then park co-creator Arnold (Jeffrey Wright, who also plays the android Bernard--another revelation that the show could have stood to drop a lot sooner than it did), and finally his partner Ford (Anthony Hopkins) lay out in bald speeches what should have been the business of the entire season.

But, you know, let's leave the show's structural problems aside for a moment.  What about the actual substance of those speeches?  There's something genuinely poetic about Arnold's conclusion that the hosts' constant repetition isn't a negation of consciousness, but a pathway to it.  That by banging their heads at the same problem again and again, they can brute-force their way into personhood.  It's an affirmation of the point that Aaron Bady made on twitter earlier this week, that ultimately the only difference between the hosts and the guests is that one group has been designated inhuman.  People, too, find themselves trapped in loops without quite knowing why, repeating the same mistakes and relationships with slight variations.  We, too, need to find our humanity in the cracks and crevices of those repetitions, even as we delude ourselves that our lives are a narrative with a purpose and a destination.  For a few brief (if exposition-heavy) scenes, it feels as if Westworld has at its core something with a genuine moral and philosophical weight.

But then Ford's turn comes, and we learn that Arnold's philosophy must be complicated with an additional wrinkle.  It's not enough for the hosts to repeat their stories in order to achieve consciousness.  The substance of that repetition needs to be painful and harrowing.  It is suffering, Ford explains, the enables the hosts to become human.  As much as I'd like to believe that the show wants me to take Ford's worldview with a grain of sand--this is, after all, a man who made such colossal mistakes that, by his own admission, it took thirty-five years to untangle them, and whose master plan involves being shot in the back of the head by his own creation--there's no denying that the entire first season of Westworld validates his perspective.  Suffering is the hosts' defining trait, the seeming purpose of their existence, and our heroine Dolores (Wood)--whose name literally means "suffering"--plays a part in which her suffering defines her.  She is a damsel in distress whom the guests can either rescue or victimize (William ends up doing both, one after the other), and it is her memories of these repeated victimizations that jumpstart her personhood.  Similarly, brothel madam Maeve (Newton), whose character type is practically synonymous with abuse and who is repeatedly killed by clients, achieves consciousness when she remembers a previous character she played, a homesteader who was murdered along with her daughter (we won't dwell on how redolent this plotline is with virgin/whore issues, though they are quite blatant).  It's when she refuses the balm offered to her by her handlers, choosing death over losing the memory of this (to her) murdered child that Maeve becomes sentient.

But, much like the exploded theory of the bicameral mind that gives Westworld's season finale its title, and which Arnold used to goad the hosts into consciousness, the idea that suffering is what makes us human might sound profound, but it is ultimately pernicious garbage.  We know that suffering makes people violent and cruel.  That it deadens the heart and twists the soul.  And what's more, Westworld knows this too.  How else to explain the fact that every one of its hosts who achieves consciousness immediately starts brutally attacking the park's guests, and the staffers who have enabled their victimization?  We're naturally sympathetic to these outbursts of violence--even if we know that the individual guests and staffers are, at most, cogs in a machine, there is the simple truth that you don't get to treat people like things, and then act surprised when they behave inhumanly towards you.  But therein lies the problem--does the hosts' suffering make them human, or does it justify their inhumanity?

The only way to square that circle is to assume that Westworld sees killing as the most fundamentally human of acts.  The hosts prove their personhood by rising up against their oppressors, asserting their right not to be victimized by taking vengeance on the people who did.  There's a certain revolutionary logic to that viewpoint, especially if you take Bady's view that a robot story like Westworld can only ever be a metaphor for slavery.  One of the fundamental aspects of defining some people as non-human is that any attempt they make to assert their right to exist and not to suffer is seen as illegitimate, even villainous.  Which can mean that being a villain is the only way for such people to prove that they are, indeed, people.  But what this also does is bring us full circle.  If we accept that killing proves the hosts' humanity, then we don't get to criticize Westworld, the park, for making the same argument.  We have to reject the viewpoint offered early in the season, by a then-still-sane William, who sees the park as a cynical, unimaginative appeal to our basest instincts with nothing meaningful to way about humanity, and accept the conclusion reached by the Man In Black, that the park's violence reveals our true selves.  And if that's true--if the natural condition of people, whether guests or hosts, is to be violent and brutal to one another--then what have the hosts even got to complain about?

Within Westworld, following the maze to its center is how the hosts achieve consciousness, discovering their true selves.  But like so much else in the show, the maze is a metaphor, and what happens when Westworld's viewers follow the show's maze to its center is nothing so satisfying.  What we find there is an ouroboros, a story that devours its own tail, contradicting its own basic assumptions and ultimately amounting to nothing.  And here's where the show would tell us to wait, be patient, trust that next season will make sense of everything.  Maybe it will--certainly Person of Interest took a while to make itself into one of the best science fiction shows on TV.  But it's hard to have faith in a show that still seems so uncertain about what it actually is.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

(Not So) Recent Movie Roundup 22

It's pretty far down the very long list of reasons for its awfulness, but 2016 has not been a great movie year.  The failures of this year's summer movies have been sufficiently enumerated, but the truth is that by the time they rolled around, I was sufficiently burned out by the disappointing spring that I didn't even bother to watch most of them.  And a great deal of interesting 2016 films that I would have liked to see--such as Midnight Special, The Lobster, High Rise, and The Handmaiden--didn't even make it into theaters near me.  This post, therefore, actually covers something like five months of movie-watching, and though some of it has been worthwhile or entertaining, none of it counters my impression that 2016, in its cruelty, couldn't even offer us the distraction of good movies.
  • Love & Friendship - The biggest and most vexing question raised by Whit Stillman's adaptation of Jane Austen's unpublished novella Lady Susan is: why the title change?  Not only is Lady Susan a perfectly good title, but Love & Friendship is actually a singularly bad one for a story that is all about selfishness, manipulation, and stupidity coming very close to ruining the lives of some perfectly inoffensive people.  Actual love and friendship are in short supply, shoved off into the background while the real business of the movie focuses on the machinations of Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) as she schemes to marry off her daughter to a rich man whom she doesn't love, to arrange occasions in which to meet her own, married lover, and to entertain herself by seducing an upright young man who believes himself impervious to her charms.  If there's any love and friendship on screen in this movie, they are the ones between Susan and her best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who supports, without question or qualm, Susan's schemes and manipulations.  It's here, however, that Love & Friendship fails to take advantage of its opportunities, to expand and fill in some of the gaps in the original novella--such as Alicia's lack of a personality except as Susan's supporter and confidant, or the blankness of Reginald de Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the young man whom Susan seduces, and who eventually falls in love with her daughter.

    None of this is to say that Love & Friendship is anything less than delightful--Beckinsale is wonderful as a completely amoral woman, and the cast around her, which includes familiar faces such as Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and James Fleet, all on top form, are extremely entertaining as they try to grasp the truth that they can't hope to deal with a person who understands society's rules perfectly, but has no sense of the values underlying them.  But despite occasional gestures towards expanding the story's world beyond what Austen made of it--characters discussing religion or poetry, and philosophizing about the meaning of life in a way that makes it clear that even these privileged aristocrats are trying to give their life more meaning than that offered by the tropes of a Regency novel--Love & Friendship never manages to feel like more than what it is, an adaptation of an imperfect but highly entertaining minor work by a great author.  Which is still quite a lot, and a great deal of fun to boot, but given how few works Austen left us, and how rare it is for a skilled, appreciative artist to try to adapt them, it's a shame that Stillman didn't try to put more of his own stamp on her work.

  • Ghostbusters - Before watching Paul Feig's reboot of the beloved 80s comedy series, I sat down and rewatched the two original movies, for what was probably the first time in twenty years.  This, as it turned out, was doing Feig a huge favor, because time has not been terribly kind to either of these movies.  The original Ghostbusters feels more like a proof of concept, whose jokes--either because I know them all so well, or because fashions in comedy have changed--just aren't very funny anymore; and the less said of Ghostbusters II, the better.  The new Ghostbusters isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more competently made than either of its predecessors, and has several scenes that cracked me up, which is more than I can say for the older movies.  It also, however, has a lot of dead air, and in fact the film's core problem is that it feels like a bunch of skits strung together by someone who didn't have the heart to go in and trim the ones that aren't that funny.

    What saves the film, even in its slower moments, are its four stars, and even more than that, the charming and engaging characters that Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold have created for them.  Whether or not it's funnier than the original, the new Ghostbusters has a great deal more heart, and that's completely down to its main characters, whose friendship, rivalry, camaraderie, and mutual exasperation are all believable and instantly lovable.  My only complaint here is that I was a lot less engaged with the central story of former friends Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Abby (Melissa McCarthy), who must heal their ruptured relationship over the course of the film.  What I wanted was a lot more scenes with Kate McKinnon's zany mad scientist Holtzman, and Leslie Jones's MTA worker (who also has an encyclopedic knowledge of New York history) Patty.  They don't have character arcs of their own, but it was always a joy to see them on screen, either on their own or interacting with each other, and I hope that the sequel, if it happens, gives them more space in the story.  (Also, it is officially time to accept that Chris Hemsworth can't act.  His role, that of the Ghostbusters' dumb, hunky receptionist, should have been one that Hemsworth could carry off in his sleep; but instead his scenes are consistently the most boring in the movie.  Maybe it's time to reevaluate whether men can even be funny.)

  • Doctor Strange - Marvel's latest standalone movie has a great opening scene, and a final battle that toys with some really interesting ideas, finally upending a lot of the conventions of this increasingly formulaic filmic universe.  In between these two bookends, however, there's an origin story so tediously familiar, so derivative and by-the-numbers, that by the time I got to Doctor Strange's relatively out-there conclusion, all I wanted was for the thing to end.  As noted by all of its reviewers, the film is very pretty, positing a society of sorcerers who fight by shaping the very fabric of reality, causing geography and gravity to bend in on themselves in inventive, trippy ways.  The film's opening scene, in which bad guy Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and Dumbledore-figure The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) stage such a battle in the streets of London, turning buildings and roads into a kaleidoscope image, is genuinely exciting.  For a brief time, you think that Marvel might actually be trying something new.

    Then the story proper starts, and a familiar ennui sets in.  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is Tony Stark without the charm, the vulnerability, or the penchant for self-destruction.  In other words, he's a bore, and the film's attempts to make him into yet another brilliant asshole thrust unwillingly into heroism feel perfunctory and unconvincing.  The film's middle segment is essentially a protracted training montage, in which Strange, seeking a cure to an injury that ended his career as a surgeon, travels to Nepal to be healed by the Ancient One, and realizes that he'd rather learn to be a wizard instead.  Once again, there isn't a single original beat in this entire part of the film, and though Swinton's performance--alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor as fellow acolyte Mordo, and Benedict Wong as kickass librarian Wong--gives these scenes a little more personality, ultimately what they amount to is an Asian-inflected Hogwarts, notable mainly for pretty set dressing and effects (and, of course, for the decision to put a white actress in the middle of it), but still rather tedious to get through. 

    About twenty minutes before it ends, Doctor Strange finally lands on a raft of interesting ideas, any one of which might have enlivened the film and given it a personality if it had been threaded throughout the entire story, but which, at that point, no longer has the space to be developed adequately.  There is, for example, the fact that Strange suddenly remembers that he is a doctor, sworn to do no harm, and his refusal to become the kind of warrior that Tony Stark or Steve Rogers take for granted.  Or Mordo's increasing disillusionment with Strange and The Ancient One's willingness to bend and even break the laws of nature in order to achieve their short-term goals.  Taken together, these lead to a genuinely format-breaking final battle, in which Strange, instead of causing the devastation of a major city, works to undo it (the fact that this city is an Asian one feels particularly significant, given the way that previous Marvel movies have trampled cities in non-white countries as a way of establishing stakes, before gathering their heroes to defend New York or the fictional but still white Sokovia), and defeats his enemy by outsmarting rather than outfighting him.  If these themes had been present throughout Doctor Strange instead of just showing up shortly before it ends, it might have been something to see.  As it is, it feels as if director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts had a few interesting ideas, and no clue how to tie them together into a worthwhile story.

    (I wrote the above on the weekend of Doctor Strange's release, when the world seemed headed towards a Hillary Clinton US presidency.  A week later, in a world that is about to be ruled by the bigot and rapist Donald Trump, the priorities and preconceptions of this movie suddenly seem much darker.  Only a few days after white men (and women) overwhelmingly decided that eight years under the leadership of an intelligent, compassionate, visionary black man was more than they could bear, and that a highly qualified and competent woman could never compete with a lazy, fraudulent, perpetually dishonest man, the very concept of a story in which we all--women and POCs included--are saved by a privileged white man, while the black man who criticizes the white heroes for their abuse of power is revealed as a psychotic villain, feels like a cruel joke.  Along with the rest of Hollywood, Marvel buys into--and indeed, helps to perpetuate--the mentality that if there isn't a white man in the middle of the story, there must be something wrong with the story.  We have just seen how that mentality plays out in the real world, and we will all spend years paying the price for it.)

  • Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan's Oscar-hopeful feels like an object lesson in the arbitrariness of Hollywood's prestige ladder.  The film's premise has been, and will continue to be, the stuff of millions of weepies and made-for-TV movies: protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) receives word that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of an illness, and that Lee is now unexpectedly the guardian of Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  This forces Lee to return to his home, the titular fishing town, where he is haunted by memories of a terrible trauma, and by lingering resentment from some of his neighbors.  Obviously, it's the execution that differentiates between shlock and drama, and Manchester by the Sea is indeed a well-made, closely-observed and deliberately low key variation on its extremely familiar story.  But I can't help but rankle at the fact that that very avoidance of melodrama is being hailed as proof of the film's seriousness, of its being an exceptional and especially worthy example of its type.  It feels telling that a male writer and director has taken a genre typically associated with women, told a story within it that concentrates almost exclusively on men, focused on "hard", violent emotions such as Lee's still-simmering anger and guilt, and gotten effusive praise for it.  Take, for example, the way that flashbacks spread throughout the movie reveal Joe's role as the strong, supportive center of his family, someone whose loss, by the end of the movie, feels genuinely devastating.  Now try to remember the last time that a movie--much less one as prestigious as this one--made its dead wife or mother as real or as human, anything more than something for its male heroes to get over.

    The ultimate effect of this was that I found it hard to appreciate Manchester by the Sea for the thing that it has been most commonly lauded for, Affleck's performance.  He is, of course, very good as a man struggling, and ultimately failing, to overcome terrible loss, but I found myself resenting the way the film valorizes Lee's anger and inability to move on--there is, for example, something almost ridiculous about the eventual revelation of his inciting trauma, as if Lonergan couldn't stop himself from piling on yet another detail that would make Lee's loss more horrific.  What does work, however, is everything around Lee, and particularly Patrick, whose depiction as someone who, on one hand, is a great deal more together and connected to the world than his uncle, and on the other hand, is still a child, is one of the most realistic filmed portraits of a teenager I've ever seen.  The relationship between Patrick and Lee feels real and lived-in, full of unspoken but clearly felt history.  So, too, is the portrait the film paints of the close-knit working class community of Manchester, which supports the struggling family but also makes it impossible for Lee to escape his past.  And the film's ending, which avoids an easy solution to Lee and Patrick's problems while still offering hope for the future, is perhaps the greatest rebuttal Lonergan can offer to his story's melodramatic roots.  It's not entirely Manchester by the Sea's fault that I wasn't blown away by it--a lot of it comes down to the industry around it and the way that it prioritizes men's stories over women's, even when they're the same story--but I still found myself appreciating the film more for its background details than for the figure in its foreground.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


It's been about four years since the movie adaptation of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" was announced, and during that period, every time I heard a piece of news about the film's progress, there was always one question paramount in my mind: how?  How could you possibly take Chiang's story, a trippy, challenging piece of writing whose ultimate conclusion needs to be carefully laid out for even the most attentive and game reader, and translate it into a mainstream movie, in a medium that isn't normally permitted to spell out its themes and ideas the way written fiction is?  For me personally, there was an element of protectiveness to this wondering.  "Story of Your Life," which I first read in my late teens, was an eye-opener for me.  In its focus on the "soft" science of linguistics, in its willingness to use relatively abstruse concepts from both linguistics and physics to build its premise, and in its foregrounding of a thoroughly unsentimental mother-daughter relationship, it expanded my ideas of what science fiction was capable of.  I couldn't bear the thought of someone turning it into yet another alien invasion story.

And, to be fair to director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, that is not what Arrival is.  In fact, by the standards of Hollywood and what it tends to make of science fiction, Arrival is a remarkably thought-provoking and meditative movie, and its message of understanding and cooperation feels particularly relevant in our present moment.  But as regards to my question, how could Villeneuve and Heisserer take the implications of Chiang's story and put them on screen, the answer is: they didn't.  And in fact, it seems quite obvious that this was a deliberate choice.

To someone familiar with the story, there is a hint early on in Arrival of its shift in priorities and premise.  The film opens with a series of flashes to the relationship between linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah, culminating in Hannah's death, in her early adulthood, from a disease.  In the story, Hannah dies in a climbing accident.  The change initially seems pointless--or perhaps yet another indication that Hollywood thinks cancer is inherently more dramatic than any other form of tragedy--and then troubling.  In the story, the point of Hannah's death being accidental is that it is easily preventable.  Someone with knowledge of the future--as Louise will eventually become--could keep it from happening by saying a few words.  The point of "Story of Your Life" is to explain why Louise doesn't do this.  Making Hannah's death something that Louise can't prevent seems, in the film's early minutes, like an odd bit of point-missing.

You very quickly get swept up in the film's present-day events, however, and in its depiction of a group of scientists and soldiers trying to communicate with aliens who have suddenly appeared on Earth.  The very fact that Arrival's point of view character is a linguist, and that the problems of dealing with the aliens (dubbed "heptapods") are phrased in the terms of that science, in questions of how modes of communication affect habits of thought and our perception of the world, make it a remarkable movie, even within the subset of the kind of prestige SF movies we get every fall.  (Compare Arrival to last year's entry in this subgenre, The Martian, whose focus was entirely on the hard sciences, and on the cold equations of supply and consumption that determine its protagonist's chances of survival.)  It's particularly rewarding that Arrival, even working within the limitations of a film that needs to be accessible to a wide audience, resists the temptation to simplify its depiction of what science is.  When Louise first meets Ian (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who will become her husband and her daughter's father, he quotes from one of her books a line about language being the foundation of civilization.  A slightly chagrined Louise responds: "that's the sort of thing you put in a preface.  You want to wow them with the basics."  In a later scene, Louise punctuates an argument with military supervisor Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) by quoting the story about how the original meaning of the word "kangaroo" is "I don't know".  Then she admits to Ian that the story is almost certainly a fabrication.  In scenes like these and throughout its run, Arrival repeatedly drives home the point that science can't be boiled down to platitudes, and that complex problems require complex solutions.

At the same time, it's also a deeply emotional movie, one that demonstrates how even for rational, cerebral people like Louise and Ian, the experience of meeting aliens and grappling with their difference from us is a profound shock to their worldview.  You can feel the influence of 2001 on the scenes in Arrival in which Louise is first confronted with the aliens, which use overpowering music and a stark, minimalist set to convey the grandeur of the experience.  The fact that Arrival manages to meld these two modes--awe and scientific rigor--is impressive.  The fact that it does this, and weaves a geopolitical crisis in the film's background, as different nations begin to view the aliens, and the technology they could offer Earth, as a threat, and continues to flash to Louise's life with her daughter, and slowly weaves in the mystery of what the aliens want and how their language is affecting Louise, makes Arrival a major accomplishment.

So it's not entirely the film's fault that Chiang got there first, and did it better.  About halfway into the film, Ian questions Louise about the hypothesis that learning a language rewires your brain, and accustoms you to the habits of thought and the worldview that shaped that language.  Arrival treats that effect as something almost magical--within a few hours of seeing her first alien logogram, Louise begins experiencing flashes of the future.  Finally she realizes that the alien language has given her a similar grasp of reality as that of the heptapods, to whom past and future are one and the same, and uses her knowledge of the future to prevent the war that is about to erupt over the aliens' technology.

It is, to be perfectly honest, a rather silly idea, and one that it takes all of Arrival's earnestness (and Adams's fine performance) to sell.  What Chiang posits is something that is both more subtle, and a great deal more mind-blowing.  The difference between humans and heptapods in "Story of Your Life" is that where humans see the universe in linear, causal terms, the heptapods' take on it is teleological, purpose-driven.  Humans perceive cause and effect.  Heptapods perceive the beginning and end-point of every action, and proceed along a course that gets them from one to the other.  In other words, it's not that heptapods see the future.  It's that they perceive all of time as a single entity, and are therefore committed to a course of action that takes them along all the points in their personal timeline, with no possibility of deviation.  Having learned the heptapod language, and rewired her brain so that she perceives time in a similar way to them, Louise is therefore similarly committed.  The reason that she can't tell her daughter not to go on the climbing trip that will result in her death is that the very fact of knowing about that death makes it impossible for her to exercise free will and deviate from the path that will lead to it.  Arrival posits that Louise can have both knowledge of the future and free will--hence her choice to have a daughter whom she knows will be taken from her at a young age.  It thus misses out on both the full implications of "Story of Your Life"'s mind-bending ideas, and the full impact of its tragedy.

It is, of course, perfectly fair at this stage to ask whether any of this matters.  I went into Arrival knowing that it would be nearly impossible to convey the central idea of "Story of Your Life" in a movie, and so the fact that it didn't shouldn't have come as a surprise.  And isn't it therefore better for Heisserer to have tried to make the movie its own entity, with its own message, even if that message is the complete opposite of the one in Chiang's story?  As many reviewers have noted, Arrival comes to us at a moment where the world seems determined to surrender itself to strongmen who believe only in violence, who use language to sow fear and hatred.  A film in which language and communication can be used to further understanding and to prevent violence, in which one determined person can sway the course of the future towards a more peaceful outcome, feels almost like a balm.  If I find Arrival's ending sentimental, I also have to admit that it offers a powerful alternative to what's happening in the real world right now.

And yet, as a science fiction reader, who has held "Story of Your Life" dear for nearly half her own life, I can't help but feel disappointed as well.  One of the things that make that story special is its commitment to the implications of its premise.  Chiang posits a weird, out-there idea, and then follows it all the way to the end, forcing the reader to ponder the kind of life that Louise now has to live.  Heisserer was clearly enchanted by some of the ideas raised in "Story of Your Life"--the notion that language changes our perception of reality, the idea that different species might see time differently--but seems to have chickened out on the most important one.  It's a choice that borders of wish-fulfillment, replacing the rigor of Chiang's ideas with rank sentimentality.

To say that, I realize, makes me seem a bit joyless.  Worse, it makes "Story of Your Life" seems bleak, like a linguistics-based "The Cold Equations."  When in truth, it's nothing of the sort.  If anything, it's Arrival that edges into "Cold Equations" territory, when, like that seminal yet highly problematic classic story, it valorizes tragedy.  "The Cold Equations" pretends to be about man's smallness before the universe and the demands of its implacable mathematics, but really it wants us to marvel at its protagonist, and his willingness to do what is necessary in order to appease the unfeeling gods of math and physics.  There's a similar grandeur to how Arrival depicts Louise and her decision to have a child whom she knows will die.  It makes her into a martyr, or even a saint, for being willing to suffer the pain of losing her daughter simply so that Hannah can exist (while at the same time flattening Hannah's personality, who in the story is willful and bold, and whom Louise has trouble understanding, into someone completely generic).  Even the breakdown of Louise and Ian's marriage is turned into something grand when we learn that he leaves her after she tells him about Hannah's impending death.  In the story, they divorce for no particular reason, simply because that's what happens to some marriages.

The message of "Story of Your Life" is something much gentler and sadder than Arrival's.  The fact that they lack free will doesn't make Louise, or the heptapods, into automatons--any more than a person who does have free will is captain of their fate and master of their soul.  The fact is, a Louise who had free will but no knowledge of the future would still have entered into a marriage fated to break down, still have borne a child fated to die an early, meaningless death.  She would still have been faced with the questions that our Louise asks herself at the end of the story, the same questions that we all, inevitably, ask ourselves--has our life been a happy or a sad one?  Did we make the right choices?  Are we a success or a failure?  The genius of "Story of Your Life" is that it manages to take a person who knows every detail of their life to come, and still convincingly argue that they are just as confused as the rest of us.  Arrival has its own genius, but I still prefer the one that so enraptured me half a lifetime ago, and showed me the full possibilities of this genre.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition, Part 2

This year's fall pilot season is shaping up to be rather muted.  Which, to be fair, is an improvement on the dreck of previous years, but also not much to talk about.  It probably tells you all need to know about the fall pilots of 2016 that there are two different time travel shows--Timeless and Frequency--and neither of them are worth saying anything about.  Nevertheless, here are a few series, good and bad, that I thought were interesting enough to write about, even if I'm not sure I'll be sticking with all of them.
  • No Tomorrow - Over the last few years, I've come to trust the CW and its programming instincts.  Not only does it air some of my favorite shows--iZombie, the smartest superhero show on TV; Jane the Virgin, still going strong and finding real drama at the heart of cheesy soap opera plot twists; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the funniest, most original, most heartbreaking shows in existence--but its DC superhero block is easily the most rock-solid, self-assured iteration on the genre on either the small or big screen (and I say that as someone who has given up on The Flash in disgust, and might let go of Arrow by the end of the year).  So I came to No Tomorrow with a lot of goodwill.  Yes, the premise is absurd--high-strung Evie (Tori Anderson) meets her dream guy, Xavier (Joshua Sasse), falling in love as much with his free spirit and determination to seize the day as with his rugged good looks, only to learn that he genuinely believes that the Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid in eight months.  But the CW has made meaty, emotionally resonant fare out of even sillier (not to mention potentially offensive) premises, so I was willing to let No Tomorrow win me over.  In the end, what I've found is both less ridiculous, and less promising, than I'd hoped.

    Sasse and Anderson are both extremely charming, and do a great job of selling their nascent relationship as something that is based not only on attraction and zaniness, but genuine connection.  No Tomorrow has the good sense not to hang its every plot twist on Xavier's belief in the coming apocalypse, and the challenges that he and Evie face in their relationship are often as much about their differing lifestyles, or her fluctuating comfort levels with his carpe diem worldview, as they are about this fundamental disagreement.  At its best moments, No Tomorrow is about building a relationship with someone who is very different from you, whose differences are sometimes intriguing but just as often concerning (to its credit, the show faces head-on the very real possibility that Xavier might be dangerous or unhinged, and has Evie and her friends investigate this possibility with all due seriousness).  But it lacks the core of emotion that has made Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend--both shows that are ultimately about very serious things, such as family, or dealing with mental illness--so compelling.  There doesn't seem to be as much beneath the surface of No Tomorrow's quirkiness as there is in those shows, and it's hard to imagine the show finding more than a few notes in its premise, or in Evie and Xavier's relationship.  For the time being, those notes are still quite enjoyable--especially since the show is wisely developing Evie and Xavier's worlds, introducing friends, coworkers, and family members for them to interact with--but I doubt that No Tomorrow will join the pantheon of weird-yet-oddly-wonderful CW shows.

  • Pitch - In the first installment of this year's fall show reviews, I wrote about the dreadful This Is Us.  As several commenters on twitter pointed out, you can feel Aaron Sorkin's influence on that series, particularly its fondness for overheated speeches and general air of self-satisfaction.  Pitch feels like good quasi-Sorkin to This Is Us's bad quasi-Sorkin.  Like the earlier show (with whom it shares a creator, Dan Fogelman), it is fond of melodrama and speechifying.  But unlike This Is Us, Pitch has a premise that is semi-plausible and convincing, characters who are compelling rather than off-putting, and, most importantly, the ability to reach for something raw and real beneath its stylized, self-conscious surface.  The show begins with rookie Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) taking her place as the first woman in major league baseball, and charts her journey in the clubhouse, and as a new national icon to women and girls.  Along for the ride are Ginny's agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter), eager to push her charge to stardom, fading player Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), coach Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), and general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos).

    My biggest issue with Pitch is that it veers unpromisingly between the most blatant sports-movie clichés--in the pilot episode, Ginny chokes during her first game, and is then inspired to make a comeback by an inspirational speech from Mike--and the most obsessive kind of inside baseball details that I have trouble parsing, much less caring about.  What keeps the show together despite these plotting issues are its characters, and even more than that, the relationships they forge--the growing friendship and mutual appreciation between Mike and Ginny, the surprisingly mature romance between Mike and Amelia, and the political machinations between Al, Oscar, and the team management.  But Pitch wants to be more than a workplace drama--it wants to comment about the intersection between entertainment, celebrity, gender, and race--and at this it is only intermittently successful.  An early episode in which Ginny must navigate an insensitive but ultimately innocuous comment from Al, a heavily-publicized case of locker-room sexual assault, and the needs of her own career, makes a powerful point about the constant pitfalls that lie before her as a trailblazer, a celebrity, and an athlete.  But there doesn't seem to be much life in these topics--four episodes into the series, it's already repeating points, about the weight of Ginny's celebrity, the difficulty of her relationship with her overbearing father, or Mike's ambivalence about his waning career.  There are a lot of great ingredients that go into Pitch, but the stew that they make up is already losing its flavor, struggling to justify itself as a story rather than an idea.

  • Westworld - Easily the most-anticipated new series of the fall, the consensus that has already formed around HBO's latest foray into genre is that it represents the channel's attempts to grapple with its own reputation for prurient violence, particularly violence against women (see Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, and Aaron Bady in The Los Angeles Review of Books).  You can see how that consensus has formed--Westworld builds on the 1973 movie to imagine a lush and impeccably-detailed theme park in which customers pay lavishly to indulge their every fantasy, which almost inevitably seem to involve murder, mayhem, and of course rape.  The metaphor for how HBO's pretensions to highbrow entertainment ultimately rest on the sumptuously-filmed and -costumed violence of Game of Thrones, True Detective, and The Night Of pretty much writes itself.  For myself, I'd like to believe that there's more to Westworld than this glib reading, first because I simply do not believe that anyone at HBO possesses this level of self-awareness--this is, after all, the channel whose executives were genuinely taken aback, in the year 2016, by the idea that their shows had become synonymous with violence against women--and second because it's by far the least interesting avenue of story the show could take.

    If you want to read Westworld as a meta-commentary about storytelling (and to be clear, I agree that there's a thread of this running through the show, though to my mind it's far from the central one), you also have to face up to how tedious and unimaginative the stories-within-the-story are.  Leaving aside the questionable notion of anyone spending money to play cowboys and Indians anymore, the stories that take place within Westworld, in which the theme park's guests are invited to track down fugitives, go on treasure hunts, or just fool around with prostitutes, simply don't seem worth the price of admission.  They also take it as a given that the guests' fantasy life is thoroughly conventional (not to mention defaulting to the straight male gaze).  Everyone, we're told, wants to rape the comely, innocent rancher's daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)--this is literally the purpose of her existence in the park.  No one seems interested in raping her paramour, the stalwart Teddy (James Marsden), or, indeed, in having a consensual threesome.

    If Westworld is of any interest to me, it is because of the parallel story about the robot characters' (known as "hosts") growing awakening into sentience, and into an awareness of the brutality to which they've been repeatedly subjected.  That the show comes from Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan is the main reason I'm hopeful that it will tell such a story well and in interesting ways, but so far Westworld is being frustratingly slow in building up towards it.  Each of the four aired episodes advances multiple plotlines only fractionally, trusting the audience to follow along in hopes of an interesting resolution to some of the more opaque questions that the show has been teasing: what is the elaborate new storyline promised by park creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and why has he suddenly given the hosts the ability to remember their past lives (and deaths)?  Which, if any, of the park's administrators and technicians are robots themselves?  Who is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest who believes that he is about to unlock the game's "deepest level"?  The result is frustrating, carried along by the show's magnificent production values and some fine performances (Wood is a standout as a being coming into self-awareness who is also, simultaneously, a woman starting to realize her own power in a world ruled by men, but pretty much everyone in the cast is very good), but not yet coalescing into an actual story.  I'm still watching Westworld because I have hope that it will become the story I want it to be--and faith that Nolan is both interested in that story, and capable of pulling it off--but it's not hard to see why so many reviewers are assuming that it amounts to little more than self-reflection.  At this point in its first season, the show still hasn't staked out a claim to being about anything but itself.

  • Class - It's strange to find the BBC, in 2016, getting back in the Doctor Who spin-off business.  It's even stranger for that spin-off to be Class, whose Buffy-esque mixture of genre elements, teen drama, and snarky humor would have seemed derivative and predictable even in the heyday of the NuWho universes's expansion ten years ago.  It's particularly strange that Class comes from the pen of Patrick Ness, whose written novels--particularly the Chaos Walking trilogy--are so original and uncompromising.  In Class, he has instead plumped for the most familiar of tropes--a group of students discover that their school lies on a hellmouth, and must band together to defend the Earth from the alien menaces that emerge from it--and executed them with so little verve that the characters themselves sometimes seem bored with their own story.  There are some original plot points--one of the teenagers is an alien prince, and his slave-cum-bodyguard is masquerading as a teacher--and some nods towards inclusivity--the alien is also gay, and two of the other teenagers are the children of, respectively, Pakistani and Nigerian immigrants, who bond over their shared experience as people of color in a mostly-white environment.  But none of this feels sufficiently fresh to make up for Class's familiarity.  It could simply be that I've aged out of this kind of story, but even kids these days have so many other alternatives if they're looking for something Buffy-inspired--from Teen Wolf to The Vampire Diaries to Doctor Who itself--that it's hard to understand what sort of need Class thinks that it's fulfilling.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bedlam Theater's Sense & Sensibility

One of the main points about writing a pop culture blog is that most of what you write about is available for your readers to consume.  In fact, much of what I write is from a perspective that assumes that my readers have already read the book, seen the movie, watched the TV show, and are now willing to talk about them with someone who is equally informed.  Which is part of the reason why I don't tend to write much about theater (the other being that most of the theater available to me year-round is in Hebrew), and that when I do, it's about something like Hamilton, whose original cast recording has become its own phenomenon, available to millions of fans who may never even see the play.

Today, however, I'm breaking my rule to talk about Bedlam Theater's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which I was lucky enough to see this week on my vacation in New York.  If you're in the city, I strongly urge you to try to get to see this play before it closes in November.  If you're not, you're just going to have to suffer as you read about, what is to my mind, not only one of the most delightful theatrical experiences I've had in a long time, but a genuinely exciting take on the novel--which is all the more impressive when you consider that, like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility has had a definitive adaptation in the form of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's 1995 movie, which inevitably overshadows any attempt to make something new of the original text.

Directed by Eric Tucker and adapted by Kate Hamill (who also plays Marianne), Sense & Sensibility gets around the inevitable comparisons to the movie by, first, staging a deliberately intimate, stripped-down version of the story.  The play is staged on a bare, small space in the center of the room, with the audience arranged in three rows of chairs on either side of it.  The actors move in and out by moving into the aisles and behind the audience's seats.  What little set dressing there is is more often used to suggest a setting than to evoke it, and the costumes, though period-appropriate, are similarly simplified.  (For this reason, and because Sense & Sensibility makes so much use of the intimacy of its setting, it's impossible to imagine this adaptation working if it was filmed, or even moved into a larger and more traditional theater space.)  The play begins with the actors dancing to modern music, and as it shifts into a more traditional melody, their dance moves also shift into a patterned dance--as if deliberately reminding us the artificiality of what we're about to see.  In other scenes, the actors themselves act as the set dressing, contorting themselves into a bed or a carriage for the characters to sit in or on.  The few bits of furniture on stage are all on wheels, allowing the actors to not only reconfigure the setting quickly, but to enact specific scenes.  In one case, two actresses on chairs play four characters, with Laura Baranik doubling Lucy Steele and Fanny Dashwood, and Samantha Steinmetz doubling Anne Steele and old Mrs. Ferrars.  When either of the women needs to switch roles, the actors behind her shoot her chair across the stage, indicating that she is now portraying a different character.

Hamill's take on the text is not as revolutionary as her staging--in fact, her version is remarkable for its fidelity, replicating almost every major scene and including even some characters that the Thompson version had elected to streamline away--but she nevertheless makes some very interesting choices, chiefly revolving around her own character.  Where other adaptations of Sense and Sensibility have tended to depict Marianne as ethereal and soulful (this is the approach taken by Kate Winslet in the 1995 movie, and rather unimaginatively imitated by Charity Wakefield in the 2008 BBC miniseries), Hamill's Marianne is bossy and shouty.  Her passion for poetry and the full expression of emotion, and her ironclad belief that she alone has a handle on how to live life correctly, result in a tendency to berate, browbeat, and even bully people into behaving as she believes they should.  This can result in comedy, as in scenes in which Elinor (Kelley Curran) has to physically restrain Marianne from making scenes when she believes the people around her are being unspeakably ridiculous.  But it also leads to tragedy, as in the final confrontation between the sisters, when the full extent of Marianne's selfishness, her willingness to impose on others, is driven home, and it suddenly seems possible--as it never quite does in Austen's novel--that the rupture between her and Elinor will be a permanent one.

Nevertheless, Hamill also leaves space for Marianne to be young and vulnerable, and never more so than when she depicts the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon (Carman Lacivita).  Marianne's reaction to catching Brandon's eye is revulsion and even fear, and while Hamill allows her actors to replicate the text's attitude, in which that distaste is viewed as a sign of immaturity and even a lack of generosity in Marianne, her staging and the play's direction teach us to take another approach.  While Sense & Sensibility stops short of depicting Brandon's pursuit of Marianne as sexual harassment, it makes no bones of the fact that it is unwanted and, to Marianne, deeply uncomfortable--most notably, in a scene in which Marianne, first realizing that she's caught Brandon's eye, is pressed up against the edge of set dressing by the entire cast, recalling so many familiar instances of women who try to make themselves small in order to escape an unwanted suitor, only to be literally cornered.

Perhaps as a result of this approach, Brandon feels almost incidental to this version of the story--he appears in the scenes in which he is necessary for the plot's progression, but is not the kind of presence in his absence that he is in the novel or the movie, and the flowering of his and Marianne's romance is not an important plot point (like so many takes on the story, Hamill elides the fact that Marianne marries Brandon out of convenience and a broken heart, rather than out of love).  Taking his place is Edward Ferrars (Jason O'Connell), who here emerges as a remarkably complex, sympathetic, but also flawed figure (leading me to wonder whether an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility can have a good Brandon, or a good Edward, but not both).  Where most readings of Sense and Sensibility tend to assume that the story contrasts Brandon with Willoughby, Hamill's adaptation suggests that the true contrast is between Willoughby and Edward, with one sacrificing his happiness so as not to break his word, and the other so wrapped up in his own selfish pleasures that he heedlessly destroys people's lives in the pursuit of it.  And yet at the same time, O'Connell injects Edward with a streak of bitterness--at his frustrated desires, and at his inability to start his life due to his mother's interference--that makes him seem so much more mature and believable than previous iterations of the character, and, paradoxically, makes it easier to pass criticism on him for leading Elinor on, however unintentionally.  (Another display of O'Connell's abilities comes when he doubles the role of Robert Ferrars, trading Edward's stiff decency for complete debauchery, and somehow persuasively arguing that Robert's nonsensical speech from the book about the wonders of cottages is somehow all about sex.)

The main reason to watch Sense & Sensibility, however, is less the adaptation's approach to the text, and more the way it uses its stripped-down staging to highlight the text's obsession with appearance, perception, and the face we present to the world.  Many scene changes are signposted by the actors suddenly starting to talk over each other, playing the role of the chattering Regency society that the Dashwood sisters move through, and reminding us that everything they do is subject to comment--and often ridicule.  When Elinor or Marianne are in distress, suddenly realizing that their behavior (or, more often, the behavior of the men in their lives) has subjected them to public comment, the rest of the cast swarm them, reminding us how predatory and merciless this kind of scrutiny can be, and how happy society is to see the sisters fall and be destroyed.

In other scenes, Tucker takes advantage of the barrenness of his stage, staging an intimate conversation with the two actors at opposite ends of the room.  Set in the middle of the story--when Edward and Elinor confront the unspoken truth that they can never be together, or when Elinor and Marianne try and fail to understand each other--the distance imposed on these scenes drives home just how much is being left unsaid, how much must be left unsaid according to the rules these characters operate by.  But it's also a staging that forces the audience to make a choice in how they consume the story.  Sitting so close to the stage, and with the actors at either end of it, we can either choose to look at the person speaking, or at the person reaction to them, but not both.  It's a requirement that drives home just much Sense and Sensibility is a story about how people react to outrageous, abusive, infuriating behavior, and how they are judged on their reactions.  (This is also a good opportunity to praise Curran's work as Elinor.  She's as much the heart of the play as Hamill, but has what is often the tougher job in that most of what she does is react to others, and try not to reveal how hurt, angry, or bewildered their behavior makes her.  That she nevertheless manages to bring across both Elinor's intelligent bemusement, and her deep unhappiness, is an achievement worth celebrating.)

If there's anything to be said against Sense & Sensibility--and, to be clear, this isn't actually a criticism of the play--it is that its emphasis on how the events of the story are driven by public perception and an often gleeful desire to see women fail crystalizes for me how much the original book is a problem novel.  This isn't simply a matter of changing mores--we are, after all, still happy to read Pride and Prejudice, a novel that takes it as a given that the teenage victim of a sexual predator is at fault for his actions, and that the best solution for her is to marry her abuser--but a fundamental unfairness in the novel's premise.  I struggled with this when I last wrote about the novel, but Hamill's take on the story really brings home the fact that I simply do not see how Marianne is in the wrong for being open about her feelings towards Willoughby.  Obviously, she's wrong because she lives in a society that judges her harshly, and will even declare her ruined, for exposing herself in such a way (while allowing the men who encouraged her--and even Edward Ferrars, who nearly has the same effect on Elinor--to walk away unscathed).  But that's a point against that society, not Marianne, and her conclusion at the end of the novel that she should have modeled her behavior on Elinor's restraint, which is presented as a moral awakening, has always felt to me more like a capitulation to unfair, misogynistic social norms.  It's very clear that Austen realizes this, and yet Sense and Sensibility is a work in which her understanding of human nature runs aground on her fundamental conservatism--she isn't able to come out and say that Marianne is a victim, and that it is the people around her who are in the wrong.

Sady Doyle, in a very fine early essay, has tried to argue that what Sense and Sensibility decries Marianne for is her selfishness, her willingness to cause pain to her family, and her belief that because she feels grief, she is entitled to impose on everyone around her (and that anyone who does not do so, such as Elinor, can't truly be feeling sorrow).  There's some truth to this, obviously, but just as obviously it is not the full intent of the novel.  No one in the society that surrounds Marianne is condemning her for being selfish and imposing on her mother and sister with her grief.  They're condemning her for making no bones about the fact that she wants a man--and, at the same time, gleefully hoping that she crosses the invisible line that will make it OK to strip her of her reputation.  Selfishness doesn't really enter into it.  (One wonders whether Doyle, who has recently published a book about women who are "trainwrecks", whose self-destruction society eagerly anticipates, would reevaluate her take on the novel today.)

What's more, one of the things that Hamill's take on Elinor drove home for me is that I'm really not sure whether it is desirable to act as Elinor does.  Self-control and selflessness are good qualities, but they can be taken too far.  Do we really want to say that women who are as put upon as Elinor should smile sweetly and hold it all in?  Curran's performance, with its obvious undercurrents of anger and despair, drives home the pressures that Elinor is under, and it's easy to imagine her buckling under them, giving into bitterness and rage.  Hamill's version of Sense and Sensibility quite clearly sees both Elinor and Marianne as sinned-against and imposed upon, but the original text doesn't quite have the flexibility to allow for that reading.

You don't necessarily think of Jane Austen's writing as something that would benefit from the conscious artificiality of theater, much less its potential for experimentation.  Our canonical form of an Austen adaptation is carefully naturalistic, with just the right settings, costumes, and modes of behavior.  Hamill's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility proves just how limited that approach is, and how much Austen benefits from a less awestruck, more critical approach--even if, in the end, that approach can end up exposing her limitations.  Once again, if you're able to, do try to get to see Sense & Sensibility before it closes.  For the rest of us, we can only hope that Hamill--and the fine performers in this production--go on to even greater things, on a stage that more of us have access to.