Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Black Panther at Lawyers, Guns & Money

In my latest Political History of the Future column at Lawyers, Guns & Money, I discuss Black Panther, a genuinely remarkable movie that sets a bar that other MCU films are going to struggle to clear.  There's been a lot of fascinating conversation about this movie, not least its importance to African-Americans as both the first MCU movie to star a black man, and a representation of a fictional African nation that is powerful, self-sufficient, and never colonized.  In this essay, I discuss how that act of worldbuilding puts Black Panther squarely in the tradition of utopian SF, and how its utopia is enriched by the film's deep interest in blackness and African heritage.  As I write in the essay, it's interesting to compare Black Panther to Star Trek: Discovery, and find that the movie delivers exactly what I was looking for in that show.
Beyond its importance as a work of worldbuilding, however, what excites me about Black Panther—and sets it head and shoulders above any other work in the MCU, as far as I’m concerned—is the fact that it’s a story about worldbuilders. "Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved", T'Challa is informed by his sister, the bright-eyed inventor Shuri (Letitia Wright). And indeed, Black Panther and Wakanda are full of people who, despite living in a seeming paradise, keep asking themselves how they can make it better, and what responsibility they have to help improve the rest of the world.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Through a Mirror, Darkly: Thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery's First Season

Well, folks, what is there to be done about Star Trek: Discovery?  Four months ago, writing about the season's first few episodes, I said that there were things about the show I really liked, and things I really disliked, but that it would probably take me until the end of the season to decide where I stood on the matter of the whole.  But here we are, nearly a week after the finale, and I'm no closer to a conclusion.  Neither, it seems, is the rest of fandom, which often feels like it's watching and reacting to several different shows.  And no one, no matter their opinion, seems very clear on what Discovery is.  Is it a bold reinvention of the franchise for the Peak TV era, or a shallow action-adventure whose ambitions often outstrip its capacity to execute them?  Is it the spiritual successor of the reboot movies, reveling in Star Trek tropes and fanservice without understanding the franchise's meaning, or is it a genuine attempt to grapple with the core ideas of Star Trek fifty years after its inception?  Is it, in short, Star Trek?

I don't know the answer to this question, and what's worse, I'm not even sure how to begin answering it.  Part of the problem--and also, I think, the reason that so many viewers and reviewers have had such wildly divergent reactions to this show--is that Discovery tries to do so many different things in its first season that it's hard to know how to begin assessing it.  So let's start with a plot summary.  Set about a decade before the original Star Trek, Discovery centers on Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), an up-and-coming young Starfleet officer on the cusp of being named to her own command.  Raised by Vulcans[1] after the death of her parents, Burnham sees herself as a completely rational person, but (like most actual Vulcans on Star Trek) she turns out to be more driven by her emotions than she's willing to admit.  When a routine mission on her ship, the Shenzhou, becomes the Federation's first contact with the Klingons in decades, Burnham advises her captain, Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) to fire first.  When Georgiou refuses, Burnham commits mutiny in order to protect her ship from what she sees as an incurably violent, bloodthirsty species.  This ends up devolving into a battle in which Georgiou is killed, the Shenzhou is destroyed, and the Federation and Klingon Empire are left at war.  Burnham, meanwhile, is stripped of her rank and sent to prison.

That's all in the first two episodes.  When we catch up with Burnham again, the war has been raging for several months, and her prison transport is picked up by the Discovery, a science vessel retasked to the development of technology critical to the war.  Discovery's captain, the rule-breaking, charismatic Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) recruits Burnham to his crew, arguing that she can help alleviate her guilt and the damage she caused by helping him to research a new propulsion system that could shift the tide of battle.  Working with engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and eager cadet Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Burnham helps to develop a "spore drive", which rides a network of fungal blooms that span the multiverse, allowing Discovery to travel in the blink of an eye.  Along the way, the show visits with two ambitious young Klingons, Voq and L'Rell (Mary Chieffo), who dream of uniting their society under a single political and ideological banner; introduces security officer Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was imprisoned and tortured by the Klingons, and who develops a romantic relationship with Burnham after he joins Discovery's crew; and pays an extended visit to the infamous mirror universe, where Georgiou's evil double turns out to be the emperor of the fascistic, xenophobic Terran Empire.

As I said, a lot of different things to try to accomplish in a single season.  And, in almost every case, Discovery's execution of these ideas has serious and specific problems.  Which means that it's hard to talk about my criticisms of the show without coming off more negative than I actually ended up feeling about it.  Before we get to that, then, let's talk about a few of the things I liked about Discovery, especially the ways in which it deviates from the Star Trek template that I initially found dismaying but which ultimately felt right.  I liked that the show takes a while--nearly half the season--to assemble its core crew, giving individual characters, and even Discovery itself, their own proper introduction rather than just plopping them all together at once.  I liked--after some initial reservation--the fact that the show is so locked into Burnham's point of view, which made it feel like a very different sort of story while still remaining recognizably Star Trek-ish.  I liked how, especially in the first half of the season, the show combines the needs of continuous storytelling with fairly well-structured, and even, in some cases, self-contained episodes.  I even liked the weirdness of the technology, which has been so derided in some quarters.  "The ship runs on mushrooms" sounds pretty silly, but if you think about it, a "mycelium network" along which a spaceship can travel in an instant is not actually a more ridiculous idea than a warp drive, and there's something to be said for expanding our idea of what SFnal science looks like beyond physics and into biology and zoology.[2]

Most of all, I liked Burnham, who feels layered and multifaceted in a way that I associate with the best Star Trek characters, a fully-rounded person who tries to approach every turn in her life with generosity and an open mind.  In my first write-up of the show, I called her
a wonderful blend of intellect and temper, calm reasoning and self-destructive urges. The badass/fuckup combination that failed so catastrophically with NuKirk works wonderfully here, mainly because the writing and the performance combine to create the impression that Michael is always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices--even the bad ones. If she's not quite the Hornblower-esque figure that the original Kirk was, she's a fascinating modern variation on it--not least for being a black woman.
I stand by all this, and over the course of the season I continued to enjoy how Discovery used Burnham.  The show recognizes that the only thing to be done with a character as furiously competent--and yet as prone to boneheaded decisions--as Burnham is to keep piling challenges in their path.  Some of these challenges are emotional--grappling with guilt over her betrayal of Georgiou and her responsibility for her death; facing up to the fact of having failed for the first time in her life; falling in love with Tyler--while others are practical--in the mirror universe, Burnham goes undercover as her double in order to secure information necessary for Discovery's return home.  And it's always a pleasure to watch her grapple with them, with a combination of determination, intellect, and vulnerability.  No matter how messy or flawed the rest of the show ends up, the fact that Discovery is Burnham's story means that there's always something true and worth watching at its center, and it's this, more than anything else, that makes me feel that there might be a good show lurking here.[3]

But then there are those flaws, and the problem with them is not so much that the things that are bad about Discovery outweighs the things that are good, as how they reveal the limitations of the show's understanding of Star Trek, and of its ambitions within the franchise.  Take, for example, the show's handling of Klingons.  It would be one thing for Discovery to so thoroughly reinvent this foundational Star Trek race, right down to redesigning their makeup in a way that makes it difficult for the actors to emote (which is exacerbated by the choice to saddle them with lines in phonetic Klingon rather than English), if there was a stronger sense of what the show was trying to achieve with this.  But after an entire season that featured the Klingons heavily and included two major Klingon characters, I still have no idea what Discovery wants me to think about them.

A big part of the problem is that Discovery's story about Klingons often feels more like a story about Burnham.  She starts the season hating them and seeing them as irredeemably violent and bloodthirsty (with some justification, since she witnessed Klingons killing her parents as a child), and ends the season realizing that while there's still a great deal about their culture she can't respect, these are nevertheless people living their lives, and deserving of the basic rights that entails.  This is fine--if a little basic--as character arcs go.  But most Star Trek fans will have gone into Discovery knowing the Klingons much better than Burnham, and for us, what the show chooses to do with them feels shallow and unconvincing.

Co-creator Alex Kurtzman (yes, that Alex Kurtzman) has spoken about his desire to develop the Klingons as more than a violent Other, but this is something that was already done by The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, with far greater nuance and complexity than Discovery manages.  The Klingons who show up on Discovery, in comparison, feel rigid and joyless.  There's none of the warmth, humor, or depth of character that even minor Klingon characters on previous Star Trek shows demonstrated as a matter of course.  Weirdly, hardly any of them bring up honor or its importance to their worldview.

This might work if Discovery's purpose was to dismantle the romanticized view of the Klingons that some fans have developed (though, again, this is something that Deep Space Nine did twenty years ago, and much better).  But what it offers instead is effectively a validation of Burnham's view--Klingons as a monolithically violent culture with few redeeming qualities.  It's as if Discovery's purpose with the Klingons is to say "even people whose culture is inherently violent deserve basic compassion", but this is a great deal less thought-provoking than the show clearly believes, not to mention not very applicable to the real world.[4]

And if that seems like too much of an old school fannish complaint, too rooted in my familiarity with the franchise--which is, after all, trying to reinvent itself, and perhaps attract a new audience--then how about the way Discovery uses plot twists?  There are two major ones in the first season.  In quick succession, it's revealed that Ash Tyler is actually the Klingon Voq, physically transformed and brainwashed into believing that he is human, and that Lorca is actually his mirror universe counterpart, who escaped into our universe after a failed coup attempt against Emperor Georgiou.  There's a level on which both of these twists have thematic weight.  Tyler's horrified realization of what was done to him is a rare depiction of a male character coping with violation and its aftermath (and it also challenges Burnham to accept that she could have loved a Klingon), while the revelation of Lorca's identity makes sense of the increasingly uncomfortable way in which he pushes past Starfleet norms over the course of the season (it also explains why he recruits Burnham, since in the mirror universe the two were lovers).  But the aftermath in both cases is truncated--the Voq personality dies soon after it's introduced, leaving Tyler back in control of a human-looking body, and Burnham and Emperor Georgiou kill the imposter Lorca within an episode of his unmasking--and gives the impression that these twists existed for no reason other than themselves.  Taken together, they create the sense that the season--perhaps the show as a whole--has no weight or substance.

It certainly doesn't help that when those twists are swept away and the time finally comes for Discovery to make an argument for itself as more than just an action story, as a part of the Star Trek narrative, it makes such a hash of things.  Returning from the mirror universe sans the fake Lorca (but with Emperor Georgiou in tow, because apparently being a Nazi cannibal isn't enough to get Michael Burnham to leave you to die if you look like her dead mentor), Discovery finds itself nine months in its future, with the war against the Klingons nearly lost.  Georgiou offers her expertise as a wartime consigliere, arguing that the Federation is constitutionally unsuited to an all-out war for its survival.  She offers to guide Discovery to the Klingon homeworld in what is meant to be a strike on military targets, but behind their backs she turns out to have made a more sinister deal with the remaining Starfleet brass, to detonate a supervolcano under the planet's surface and render it uninhabitable.  When Burnham and the Discovery crew learn about this plan, they refuse their orders.  Burnham makes a deal with L'Rell, giving her the supervolcano detonator so she can use it to claim leadership of the Empire and end the war.[5]

This isn't bad, exactly, and the moment where Burnham and the Discovery crew learn about the plan and reject it out of hand is genuinely moving precisely because there's no doubt or debate.  It is simply obvious to the entire crew that this is not who they are and that they must find another way.  But it's also very neat--the one mutiny at the beginning of the season in which Burnham rejects Starfleet values in order to protect Federation lives paralleled by another mutiny at the end of the season in which Discovery refuses to destroy the Klingon race in order to save their own.  One might even say glib.  As Zach Handlen writes in his review of the finale, you can very clearly imagine Discovery's writers deciding on this clever structure, making a half-assed attempt to write a middle story that would actually earn it, and then giving up with the job half-done.

Much like its handling of the Klingons, Discovery's attempt to examine what the Federation means and how it functions under pressure is interesting in theory.  This is, after all, a utopian vision invented fifty years ago by a man who was possibly a rapist, which takes as its template a society that in the real world was rooted in imperialism and exploitation, whose self-image as benevolent and free was at least in part a fantasy designed to paper over oppression.  There absolutely is room, and perhaps even a necessity, to take a serious look at that utopia, especially in this current moment, as we watch the liberal democracy that inspired Gene Roddenberry to imagine the Federation devour itself from the inside out.  But what Discovery ends up delivering is, again, a combination of things done better by Star Trek shows in the 80s and 90s, and original ideas that are extremely shallow and poorly handled.

Lorca is a prime example.  For most of the season he poses a serious challenge to the viewers, not just in how he conducts himself, constantly pushing against Federation values and norms, but in the way that he nevertheless gains the crew's loyalty for his intelligence, his determination, and his ability to think his way out of problems.  This didn't exactly make me happy, but what I wanted was for the show to face this uncomfortable contradiction head-on, to have Burnham recognize the fact that the man she's following is betraying the ideals they've both sworn to uphold.  Revealing that Lorca is actually from the mirror universe does away with all that complexity.  It makes him--and, more importantly, the other characters' loyalty to him--something that can easily be squared away and dismissed.  An episode after his death, it's easy to forget that he ever existed (which, among other things, feels like a waste of Isaacs's fine, magnetic performance).

What's even more problematic about the attempted genocide storyline is how it reveals the shallowness of Discovery's idea of Star Trek.  Like the reboot movies before it, Discovery seems to think that the most--perhaps the only--interesting question to ask within the Star Trek universe is "should we have a Federation?"  Does it, for example, make a civilization weak to live in peace and prosperity?  And what happens when such a society meets an existential threat?  Does it give up its values and civil liberties in order to survive?[6]  But the thing is, this is literally the most boring, basic question one can ask about Star Trek.  The real challenges posed by a society like the Federation aren't questions of if, but of how.  How do you create a truly just, fair, equal society?  How do you balance freedom of conscience and opinion with your core values of tolerance and peace?  How do you prevent the exploitation of those who are weaker than you?  How do you help people outside your society, and do you have the right to encourage them to be more like you?

It's been close to twenty years since any work with Star Trek in the title even tried to address these questions, and in some ways Discovery feels like it's going backwards.  Even as it prides itself on honoring Federation values in its big moments, it misses their complete violation in its small ones.  When Burnham arrives on Discovery in a group of other prisoners--who are apparently being press-ganged to work in dilithium mines--they're greeted by security chief Landry (Rekha Sharma), who remarks that "I see we're unloading all kinds of garbage today".  When Lorca and Tyler are held prisoner by the Klingons and mount an escape, they leave behind a fellow Federation citizen who had been informing on them to their captors, even though he begs to be taken along.[7] Worst of all, only two episodes before Discovery's crew refuses to blow up Qo'noS, they blow up the Imperial City-Ship in the mirror universe, with probably tens of thousands of people on board, without anyone even mentioning the subject of collateral damage.  At best, this is sloppy writing.  At worst, it's an indication that Discovery's writers have only the faintest, broadest understanding of what Federation values are.  That whenever they're not writing a story that is explicitly about Federation values, they default to some kind of space opera standard where heroic characters shoot first, think only of themselves, and don't care what kind of society they live in.

At the same time, there are moments where it feels like Discovery does know what it means to be Star Trek, where it remembers that this franchise isn't just--much less primarily--about big moments of sacrifice, but about small moments of decency and kindness.  It's Burnham fighting for the space animal that Discovery has been using as a navigator in the mycelium network, which is suffering from the ordeal.  It's Saru (Doug Jones), Burnham's former crewmate on the Shenzhou, who resents her for Georgiou's death, but still shows her kindness and hospitality when she arrives on Discovery, because she's a disgraced prisoner whose life sucks at that moment.  It's Tilly sitting next to Tyler in the mess hall after the Voq personality is exposed and removed, reminding him and the other officers that he deserves their compassion.  And it's also Tilly, in a later scene, putting herself between Tyler and Burnham, who isn't ready to talk to him about their relationship.  It's Admiral Cornwall (Jane Brooke) bonding with L'Rell over their shared courage and toughness, without losing sight of the things that set them apart.  It's Tyler joining in with a bunch of blustering Klingons as they play a gambling game, and finding joy in his hybrid nature for the first time.  Most of all, it's Captain Georgiou hearing Burnham's reasoned, logical argument for why she should attack the Klingons, and saying simply: "Starfleet doesn't fire first".

As a lot of people have noted, Star Trek shows have a history of starting out quite wobbly.  Discovery has enough good points that in theory it too could pull off the transformation that Deep Space Nine or The Next Generation achieved in their second and third seasons, and become a truly top notch series and a worthy addition to the franchise.  On the other hand, that kind of improvement doesn't tend to happen in the era of Peak TV.  It requires more episodic storytelling, fewer overarching storylines, and a willingness to play around that most modern TV shows don't have, and which Discovery hasn't really demonstrated.  Put another way, to ask whether Discovery could become a good show is really to ask what it is that currently makes it bad.  Is it simply a matter of execution, or is it that the people making it don't really know what they're trying to accomplish, and what the significance of the universe they're working in is?  I have sufficient respect for the bones of the show--for Burnham, and the other characters, and the moments where they feel like Starfleet officers--that I'm willing to stick around in hope, but I really don't know yet whether that hope has any basis in reality.

[1] Raised, in fact, by Sarek (James Frain), which is just one of those things about Discovery--like the prequel setting--that you have to sigh and accept as the price of admission.  On the whole, Discovery is pretty good about not wallowing in fanservice, including in how it uses Sarek.  But there are moments--chiefly the season's closing scene--where its obvious lack of faith in itself as its own story is genuinely embarrassing.

[2] Also, the mycelium network is one of the few instances in which Discovery does any meaningful kind of worldbuilding, expanding the boundaries of the existing Star Trek universe.  Even allowing for the fact that the show's story focuses on war and not exploration, there's something awfully limited and narrow about how it draws its world, as if its writers were afraid to go past the edges of the map they'd inherited.  But with the network, they give their universe a new dimension, even if they're going to have to do some fancy footwork to explain why no subsequent Star Trek show ever used or mentioned this technology.

[3] For a contrasting perspective on Burnham, see Angelica Jade Bastién at the Vulture, who argues that the constant piling of challenges on Burnham's shoulders is emblematic of the "she can take it" attitude towards black women in pop culture.  I don't agree with her take--Burnham feels a lot less acted-upon to me--but I have to admit that she's given me a lot to think about.  I do, however, absolutely agree with Bastién's frustration with Discovery handling of gay themes.  The show's production crowed for months about featuring televised Star Trek's first gay couple in the form of Stamets and his partner Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) only to kill Culber part way into the season.  Given how unforgivably long it's taken this franchise to give the LGBT community its due in this supposedly egalitarian future, this was a slap in the face, and no amount of mealy-mouthed promises that Culber will return in some form (so far he's appeared as a sort of ghost who haunts the mycelium network, which apparently justifies Stamets having almost no emotional reaction to the death of the man he loved) can make up for it.

[4] This isn't the only place where Discovery's seeming ignorance of Star Trek shows past the original series can feel frustrating--I had to hold myself back from making this entire essay merely a list of things the show attempts, and which Deep Space Nine did better back in the 90s.  I will, however, note that mirror universe Georgiou is basically the Intendant, right down to the bondage gear and evil bisexuality.  But while Deep Space Nine at least started out by taking a serious look at the Intendant's moral depravity--like the fact that she sexually abused enslaved people--Discovery very quickly ends up where the later DS9 mirror universe episodes did, treating Emperor Georgiou as a fun, camp villain.  There's obviously a lot of fun to be had watching Michelle Yeoh play a remorseless thug, but coming only a single episode after this Georgiou waxes nostalgic about depopulating Betazed, or cavalierly consumes the brains of sentient aliens, the tonal whiplash is a little hard to take.

[5] Further to my thoughts above about Discovery's weird take on the Klingons, it should go without saying that a Klingon threatening to blow up Qo'noS unless they're made Emperor would be seen as completely without honor, and thus not a fit leader.  And from a purely practical standpoint, there's no way L'Rell can hold on to power with only this single, apocalyptic threat to back up her reign.  But at that point there's only ten minutes left in the season so you just go with it.

[6] Not to keep harping on this, but this is also a question that Deep Space Nine dealt with, at much greater depth and complexity, in 1996.  And it wasn't even one of the better Deep Space Nine stories.  Just watch Deep Space Nine, is what I'm saying.

[7] Obviously, as it turns out neither Lorca nor Tyler are Starfleet officers, but at that point they both think the other is (and Tyler still believes that he is one as well), so there's no justification for them betraying their putative oath so severely.  Also, no one who hears the story later on seems to think there was anything wrong with their actions.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 28

Here we are again at that special time of year where every single one of the previous year's prestige movies and Oscar hopefuls gets dumped in Israeli movie theaters at the same time.  I've found myself scrambling from one screening to another, just trying to catch up to movies that reviewers abroad have been talking about for months--I suspect I will have seen more than half the total movies I'll watch in 2018 before the end of March.  So far, my reports are mixed.  There are a lot of interesting movies among this year's Oscar nominees, but few of them have lived up to their reputation.  Of the five movies I discuss here, one is remarkable, two others are intriguing but frustrating, and two are genuinely bad.  Let's hope I fare better with the next bunch.
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgos Lanthimos follows up the bizarre but oddly lovable The Lobster with a stranger, colder work that challenges viewers (like myself) who were willing to follow him into the woods of that earlier movie to keep going.  Perhaps what's strangest about The Killing of a Sacred Deer, however, is how similar it is to The Lobster in its style and approach, even though its tone and subject matter are much darker.  Successful heart surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) is having regular meetings with Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a deceased patient, buying him expensive gifts and inviting him to meet his family: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic).  The early parts of the film operate within the familiar forms of a psychological thriller, introducing a seemingly normal (if suspicious) situation and slowly amping up the wrongness, as Martin insinuates himself further and further into Steven's life and makes more demands on his time.  But because Killing is written with the same stiff, oddball speech patterns, the same indifference to the norms of polite conversation, that Lanthimos used in The Lobster, it can be hard to tell where the wrongness we're supposed to notice ends, and where the kind that is the hallmark of this director's movies begins.  When Steven straight-facedly informs a colleague that Kim has recently started menstruating, or Bob and Martin debate whether the latter has sufficient armpit hair, that's a weirdness that is simply part of the film's world.  But when Bob, and then Kim, suddenly begin to suffer from a mysterious paralysis, and Martin informs Steven that he must choose which of his family members to kill before the illness kills them all, that's a weirdness that everyone notices (even if it takes Steven and Anna a while to believe in it).

    Killing is thus a parody of thrillers in which the unacknowledged guilt of overprivileged men comes back to haunt them, and a completely earnest example of one.  It is also an urgent, compelling movie.  Between the cast, Lanthimos's deliberate direction, and the intrusive soundtrack, the film expertly ratchets up the tension of its situation, and makes its characters, robotic as their speech and behavior can sometimes seem, into people whose fate we care about.  (In particular, Kidman is great at finding a person at the heart of her strange character, whose fear, desperation, and anger are palpable even as she explains to her husband that he should kill one of their children because they can still have another one.)

    Nevertheless, Lanthimos's style and the chilliness of Killing's story make for a challenging combination.  For all the distance it imposed from its characters, The Lobster was ultimately a compassionate film.  It saw them as foolish and weak, but also took care to remind us that it was the world they lived in, with its arbitrary definitions of what an acceptable relationship looks like, that allowed those traits to grow paramount and destroy the characters' lives.  Killing has no such compassion.  It derides Steven, who beneath his guise as a strong, benevolent patriarch is fundamentally weak, incapable of admitting fault, and constantly looking to make his horrific situation easy on himself regardless of how much pain that causes the rest of the family.  But it offers no respite in the form of Anna, Kim, or Bob, who as soon as they realize that Steven needs to choose between them start turning on each other and trying to manipulate him into making a choice that leaves them alive.  Even more disturbingly, as Steven's weakness becomes apparent, they turn to Martin, who embodies the virtues of male strength and decisiveness that their patriarch has proven himself incapable of.  It's obvious that Lanthimos is trying to comment on the destructiveness of male pride and self-regard, but in a film that lacks The Lobster's oddball warmth, that condemnation quickly becomes indistinguishable from depiction.  By the time the film ends, there's no one left to feel sorry for, and one is left with the feeling of having watched something expertly-turned but fundamentally empty.

  • Molly's Game - There's really only one reason to seek out this movie, and that's the morbid curiosity aroused by the idea of Aaron Sorkin writing a female lead.  The result feels not unlike the famous comic strip needling Frank Miller for his inability to write women who are not overly-sexualized prostitutes.  Not that Sorkin is as casually demeaning as Miller, but that the attempt ends up being so revealing, not only of his hangups about women, but of his obsession with elites.  The titular Molly is Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a bright overachiever who stumbles into running high-stakes poker games for movie stars, CEOs, and trust fund kids, and after a decade finds herself at the center of a RICO case when it turns out that some of her clients were mobsters who were using her games to launder money.  The film alternates between flashbacks that narrate Molly's rise and fall, and two-hander scenes with her lawyer Charlie (Idris Elba, who rattles off Sorkin's dialogue with an ease and naturalism that puts nearly all the actors who have done so before him--a rather storied bunch, as you'll recall--to shame), who is initially reluctant to believe that Molly ran a clean game and had no idea who her shady players were.  (The film is based on a book by the real Bloom, who obviously has every motivation to make herself seem as innocent as possible.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to treat the film's Molly as a purely fictional creation, since between Bloom and Sorkin I have no way of knowing how close she is to the truth.)

    As much as the question of Molly's guilt dominates the film's early scenes, this is not the trial that it eventually puts her on.  The idea that she might have been in deep with the mob is quickly dismissed, and the film even makes a reasonably compelling argument that the seizure of her assets and the exaggerated sentencing recommendation made by the prosecution are intimidation tactics meant to secure her cooperation as a witness.  But what really occupies Charlie, and the movie, when they try to figure out its main character is the question of class.  By which I mean not the socioeconomic state, but the mode of being--is Molly a person of character and integrity, or is she a fame-whore?  This is, to state the obvious, a ridiculous question--on the one hand, completely irrelevant to the issue of whether Molly deserves to go to prison, and on the other hand, completely inadequate to summing up her moral failures.  By her own admission, Molly built her career by roping in enthusiastic but outmatched players for her regulars to fleece, and created an atmosphere of male hedonism and entitlement that she both despised and used to get rich.  The film hangs its approval of her on the things she didn't do--she didn't employ leg-breakers to collect her outstanding debts; she refuses to name the famous players in her games, or reveal the dishy tidbits of gossip she collected about them.  But not doing bad things doesn't make you a good person, and being morally upright in a den of debauchery and corruption that you yourself built is not the testament of good character the film seems to think it is.  If anything, it makes Molly look kind of stupid.  She had the privilege, resources, and skills to make a successful legitimate career at anything she put her mind to, but instead she chose to live half in the shadows, and ended up where people who do that usually end up.

    A much more plausible reading of the story Molly's Game tries to tell is that its title character is simply someone who found an easy, glamorous way to make money and rolled with it without thinking about the consequences.  Instead, the film tries to paint her as a saint for running a semi-honest game and refusing to name her players.  More importantly, it refuses to even consider the possibility that Molly was just as star-struck as her clients by the rooms she was moving in. Which feels not just like an expression of Sorkin's issues writing women, but bound up in his ideas about class, in a way that ends up exposing how much those two hangups have to do with each other.  When Molly first asks Charlie to represent her, he refuses because he sees her as someone who is cheap and tawdry, a tabloid queen who wrote a book to cash in on her infamy.  Even if you tried to ignore the way the film ties feminized behavior to a lack of integrity, Sorkin makes it impossible--Charlie, who is making his daughter read The Crucible, describes it as a story about "what happens when teenage girls gossip".

    Molly's journey of proving her worth, then, is a journey of demonstrating that she is above petty, girlish preoccupations with fame and celebrity.  This all culminates in a truly dreadful scene in which Molly confronts her domineering father (Kevin Costner) who explains to her that the reason she chose to torpedo her prospects by running a poker game is that she was trying to get back at him for cheating on her mother.  Throughout the film, there have been faint hints at an alternate explanation for Molly's actions, her simmering rage at the entitled, sneering men who will never see her as their equal.  But this scene takes that rage and pathologizes it, by pretending that all of these men were merely stand-ins for Molly's father.  In other words, this is what you get when Aaron Sorkin writes a heroine: someone who, in order to prove her worth, has to demonstrate that she transcends womanhood; someone who spends the entire movie earning the approval of men; and someone who isn't even allowed to feel anger at this situation before being informed that her problem isn't the world, but her own personal hangups.  Honestly, I shouldn't have expected any better.

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Martin McDonagh's third film has proven extremely polarizing, garnering both raves and condemnation.  But given how much I enjoyed his previous In Bruges, I was still surprised by how much it fell flat for me, its formal experimentation and political commentary constantly ringing the wrong, sour notes.  I do, however, feel like I've got a handle on why this film seems to divide its audience so starkly.  Despite its heavy subject matter--the aftermath of the brutal rape and murder of a young girl, and simmering racial tensions and police brutality in the titular small town--Three Billboards is a comedy (it actually deserved to be classed in the Golden Globes comedy category far more than Get Out).  What's more, it's a comedy that relies for its effect primarily on shock and outrage, on the vicious insults lobbed back and forth between its characters, the sudden violence that erupts between them, and their cavalier way with both racist insults and the accusation of racism.  That's the sort of thing that either really works for you or really doesn't, and in my case nearly every scene where Three Billboards tried to get a rise out of me, whether through shock or laughter, fell flat.  The film ended up feeling stagy and contrived, its characters elevated only by fine performances, not a cluttered, unfocused script or McDonagh's direction.

    The three billboards of the title are rented by grieving mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand).  Their text--"Raped While Dying" "And Still No Arrests?" "How Come, Chief Willoughby?"--is intended to needle the town's police department, who have failed to capture the killer of Mildred's teenage daughter Angela.  While Mildred's righteous rage is sympathetic, it's made clear very early on that it's also at least partly misplaced.  Despite severe problems in his department, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is a decent man who earnestly tried to solve the murder, but simply had no evidence to go on.  To add insult to injury, he's dying of cancer, which Mildred knew when she paid for the billboards.  For the rest of the film, Mildred's anger drives her to greater extremes of hostility and violence, even towards people sympathetic to her cause.  What's also made clear, however, is that the town is far more outraged by Mildred's actions than by Angela's murder--the latter they find regrettable but somehow within the "normal" scheme of things, whereas Mildred's choice to lash out in anger and tar an upstanding member of the community is perceived as beyond the pale.  She quickly starts receiving public condemnation, threats, and even outright violence.

    This is--or should be--the beating heart of the film, and yet Three Billboards can't seem to keep its focus on it.  It veers off in odd, increasingly theatrical tangents, such as a mid-story twist involving Willoughby that's meant to be touching but just comes off as melodramatic (and which results in him functioning as McDonagh's mouthpiece, informing the other characters who they are and what they want).  A few of these set-pieces land, most notably a confrontation between Mildred and Willoughby in which they trade increasingly nasty, personal insults until he suddenly starts coughing blood, horrifying them both.  But for the most part, I found the characters' behavior inhuman.  When it's revealed, for example, that not only were Mildred and Angela fighting the last time they spoke, but that Mildred ended the fight by saying "I hope you get raped", I had to roll my eyes.  This isn't the behavior of a well-written character.  It's McDonagh putting his finger on the scale, trying to wring the maximum amount of drama out of a story that would have been much more dramatic if it had simply been allowed to breathe.

    And then there's the matter of the film's handling of racism.  One of the reasons that the disparity between the reaction to Angela's murder and to Mildred putting up the billboards doesn't get the space is deserves is that most of Three Billboards's second half is focused on the character of Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a deputy in Willoughby's department with a history of violence towards people of color.  Dixon is initially portrayed as stupid, belligerent, and, yes, racist, but in the second half of the film he undergoes a moral awakening and comes to support Mildred in her quest for justice.  This has led to a flurry of condemnation of the film.  Though I'm not categorically opposed to redemption stories for characters like Dixon--if we're going to spend so much time with toxic male characters, it might be nice to see some of them realize that they want to be better, and make efforts to achieve that without someone else having to "save" them--I have to agree that the execution in Three Billboards is appalling, and like much else about the film, suffers from the script's sloppiness.

    Firstly, there is the way that Dixon's malice is minimized, and even made fun of.  Though the other (white) characters condemn him for his racism and racially-motivated violence, they also treat it as something of a joke.  It's as if racism were a cudgel that the various white people in the movie can use against each other, not something that affects actual marginalized people--as when Mildred hurls Dixon's past abuse of a black prisoner at him as a way of putting him on his back foot.  When the few black characters in the movie interact with Dixon, we see contempt, but not fear, as if Three Billboards genuinely doesn't realize that to some people, Dixon isn't just stupid or mean, but genuinely dangerous.  And when Dixon starts his process of growth, his interactions with people of color end.  In a touching scene, he apologizes to the man who rented Mildred the billboards, whom he had previously viciously beaten.  But this victim is white, and there's no sense that Dixon's growth involves recognizing the debt he owes to Ebbing's non-white residents.  This leads to the film's strange ending, in which Mildred and Dixon join forces to deliver vigilante justice to evildoers.  You can sort of see what McDonagh is going for with this final twist--the idea that these two damaged, rage-filled people can find absolution by having each other's back--but in the context of the story Three Billboards is telling, this once again feels like a poorly thought-out plot twist that doesn't really land.

  • Call Me by Your Name - Luca Guadagnino's gorgeous, heartfelt movie takes place over a single languorous summer in rural Italy in the early 80s, where Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the precocious 17-year-old son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlberg), falls in love with his father's summer assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer).  Viewers coming in knowing that Call Me by Your Name is a love story might find themselves feeling frustrated, as Elio and Oliver spend so long circling around each other and, in some cases, falling out of each other's orbits.  They spend as much of the first half of the movie's two-plus hours swimming, lounging on the grass, exploring the countryside, and hanging out with the other young people from the village, as they do pining for each other, much less making concrete steps towards acting on their attraction.

    This frustration, however, is very much a reflection of Elio's own feelings.  One of the things that Call Me by Your Name manages, which hardly any other story of first love even attempts, is to bring across the fact that Elio is in many ways still a child.  He can be intelligent and thoughtful, but also silly or moody.  He and Oliver go back and forth between serious conversations about music and philosophy, immature sniping that doesn't acknowledge the real reason for the tension between them, and boyish roughhousing, and for a while it's not clear which of these Elio truly wants--not even, one suspects, to himself.  Choosing to open himself up to Oliver means letting go of that last bit of his childhood, not just in the sense of surrendering his romantic and sexual inexperience, but also of having to engage with the world as an adult, not an indulged, favorite child.  It's been said many times, but whereas straight romances often sand down their characters' personality in the pursuit of vague notion of "love", gay romances seem to have an easier time treating their lovers as human beings with their own idiosyncrasies.  This is what happens in Call Me by Your Name, in which Elio's progress towards being able to articulate his desire for Oliver, and to demand that it be taken seriously as the feelings of an adult rather than a child's crush, is at the heart of the seemingly meandering first half of the movie.  (It's for this reason, also, that despite everything else going on right now, and despite Hammer being and looking much older than his character's age, the romance in Call Me by Your Name never feels exploitative.  We're never in any doubt that this is Elio's choice, and that he came to it on his own.)

    Even when that threshold is crossed, Call Me by Your Name finds ways of making the romance between Elio and Oliver feel like something that is about them specifically.  In their first love scene, they spend several minutes simply holding each other, overjoyed to finally be able to do something they've clearly been holding themselves back from for weeks.  Unlike the novel on which it was based, Call Me by Your Name avoids explicit sex scenes and nudity (male nudity, that is; there is a tossed-off scene of female nudity that feels all the more jarring given how carefully the film otherwise avoids prurience).  But it is very frank about the role that sex and physical desire play in Elio and Oliver's relationship, whether it's the difference in their experience, or their frustrated need to touch each other in public, or their joy in each other's bodies.  The film is also surprisingly, and refreshingly, uninterested in making homophobia or social disapproval the crux of its story.  These forces exist in the background, and Oliver in particular is clearly experienced at navigating them and teaching Elio how to do the same.  But this isn't a story about shame or self-loathing, and it ends on a profound note of acceptance--not just of Elio by his parents, but of Elio by himself.  The crux of Call Me by Your Name is the idea that love should be experienced, even when it's scary or socially unacceptable, and even when it's likely to lead to heartbreak.  It holds out the hope of a world that respects and accepts that love no matter what form it takes, and gives young people like Elio the space they need to explore who they are.

  • Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson's latest study of a deranged genius cloaks itself in the guise of a measured costume drama.  Set in the aristocratic circles of 50s London, the film follows society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he embarks on the latest of his affairs, with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a much-younger waitress he meets while on holiday.  It's clear from the film's opening scenes, in which Reynolds's previous girlfriend is efficiently gotten rid of by his sister and business partner Cyril (Lesley Manville), that these romances are common for Reynolds and generally follow the same trajectory--a period of intense infatuation followed by a sudden loss of interest, then wounded exasperation as the latest paramour tries to understand what she did wrong.  As his first encounters with Alma make it clear, Reynolds uses his lovers as muses, draping them with ever more elaborate and sumptuous gowns (the film is, if nothing else, an absolute delight for costume aficionados).  But it's not just when they wear his clothes that he seems to want them to be obedient dummies--a running theme through the film is his sporadic frustration at Alma making noise while at the breakfast table, which Reynolds finds unbearably distracting.  It's a portrait of the indulged, cossetted male artist, his selfishness and tantrums tolerated, and even encouraged, on the grounds that he needs total acquiescence to do his work.  The fact that Reynolds' art is rooted in the feminine, and that he is surrounded by women--not just Alma and Cyril, but also his clients, and the seamstresses who make his vision a reality but don't earn the designation of artist--is a reminder that the indulgence he enjoys is rooted less in his artistry (which is very real) but in his gender.  That he is able, by pretending weakness and delicacy, to bully all the women around him into thinking only of his needs and desires, never of their own.

    It's a brilliant depiction (not least because of Day-Lewis's performance, which turns on a dime from fussy and wounded, to outraged and malicious), but what Phantom Thread does with it, and with Reynolds and Alma's relationship, is unformed, maybe even glib.  It's clear from the first moment that Alma believes in Reynolds in a way that no one before her has, even as she sees his shortcomings more clearly.  In an early sequence, she is outraged on his behalf when a wealthy patron falls down drunk while wearing one of Reynolds's dresses, insisting that this is disrespectful to him as an artist.  But Alma also loves Reynolds for his presentation of himself as weak and childish.  She enjoys indulging him and taking care of him, and becomes frustrated when the real man--who is merely spoiled, not vulnerable--starts chafing against her attempts to become a true partner in his life.  Her solution to this--which is essentially to force Reynolds to become the weak, dependent person he has been pretending to be--should be a brilliant turn of the screw in what has turned out to be a twisty psychological drama.  But it ends up feeling empty and contrived.

    A big part of the problem is that we never get a strong sense of who Alma is and why she acts as she does (despite Krieps's captivating, emotive performance).  Is she a canny operator who realizes she's landed on her feet and will do anything to secure her comfort?  Is she a psychopath molding a victim into a perfect partner?  Is she a normal woman who has fallen in love with a monstrously selfish man, who must become a monster herself in order to keep him?  Or is Phantom Thread genuinely a love story, between two extremely weird people who just happen to be perfect for one another?  The film doesn't seem interested in answering that question, or even in stressing the ambiguity.  It appears content to luxuriate in its fine performances, gorgeous cinematography and music, and of course its beautiful dresses.  But there's something far nastier and cleverer at the heart of this story, and this is never developed as fully as it might have been.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Winter Crop, 2018 Edition

I don't always do reviews of the new TV series of the winter, which seems like a shame when you think about it.  As I've noted for several years in my fall reviews of new network shows, there's hardly anything worth looking for in that arena (always excepting The Good Place), and winter seems to be when the stranger, more interesting material gets released.  This year has been no exception, offering up a new superhero series with an intriguing twist on the concept, a strange science fictional spy story, and a well-made social drama.  I don't know if I'm going to stay in love with all of these shows (three episodes in, I'm starting to lose patience with Counterpart, for example), but they have a hook that the fall's carefully samey procedurals don't even try for.
  • Black Lightning - There's a scene about halfway through the premiere episode of the CW's latest DC superhero show that really made me sit up, and think that maybe we were about to get a genuinely revolutionary take on this increasingly problematic concept.  Retired superhero turned school principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) has just rescued his daughter from the clutches of a gang boss, in the process causing panic at a nightclub.  Wandering outside the club in a daze, he's discovered by some cops, who immediately train their guns on him and order him to "get [his] black ass on the ground".  Jefferson could comply--as he did earlier in the day when he was pulled over for "fitting the description" of a liquor store robber--and his powers mean that he isn't in any immediate danger.  Nevertheless, a long litany of frustration, including from the earlier run-in with the police, takes its toll, and he clenches his fists and lets fly with his electric powers, leaving the cops alive but on the ground as he power-walks away.

    It's a scene that feels important for two reasons.  First, because of how rarely black heroes--and black superheroes in particular--are allowed to express anger, much less allow themselves to be overcome by it.  Think, for example, of the MCU's black heroes--Falcon, War Machine, Luke Cage, and Black Panther--and how often they're positioned as the level-headed, or cheerful, counterpoint to a hotheaded or angsty white hero.  Even as heroes of their own stories, these characters are expected to proceed with calm deliberation, and are rarely allowed to express rage or frustration--in Civil War, T'challa is seeking justice for the recent murder of his father, and yet he spends the film acting cool and collected, while Captain America and Iron Man's every temper tantrum is indulged and excused.  For Black Lightning to allow its titular hero to feel rage--to make that expression of rage our introduction to him as a person with powers--feels like a thesis statement, as well as a deliberate rebuke to the stereotype of the angry black man.

    Second, this scene feels important because it introduces, very early on, the idea that the police are not Jefferson's allies, in either of his guises.  As we learn in the same episode, the police department of Freeland, where the show takes place, has had a warrant for Black Lightning's arrest for a decade, even though other, white superheroes in the show's world have been allowed to proceed with relative impunity.  Despite centering around vigilantes, superhero stories tend to be deeply suspicious of characters who reject or act against the existing social order, and especially if they're reacting to prejudice or oppression.  But as I've written in the past, a story about an African-American superhero offers more opportunities to debate the necessity of extra-legal violence than shows like Daredevil or The Punisher.  It's an ambivalence embodied by Jefferson himself.  In his civilian life, he tries to teach his students to reject violence and pursue their dreams by excelling at school and giving back to their community, and he makes a compelling argument that he's done more good in this role than he ever did as Black Lightning.  But at the same time, Jefferson is drawn to violence, frustrated not just by police brutality (actually a secondary element in the show thus far, which generally depicts the police as well-meaning but overmatched) but by the gangs running roughshod over Freeland.  He makes an equally compelling argument that Black Lightning represents the community fighting back against the indifference, impotence, and malice that have blighted it.  In only a few episodes, the show repeatedly complicates the question of what role violence should play in its characters' lives, as when a gang boss informs a young boy that the system Jefferson is teaching him to participate in is irreparably biased against black people, and then tells our hero "you teach them your way; I'll teach them mine".

    Beyond all this heavy material, Black Lightning is also a CW superhero show.  Jefferson has an ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), who believes that his vigilantism constituted an addiction, and is heartbroken when the possibility of a reconciliation between them is scotched by his choice to once again don his supersuit.  His daugthers, Jennifer and Anissa (China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams), are respectively a teenager struggling with the burden of her father and community's expectations, and a young woman just discovering that she has superpowers herself (Anissa is also gay and in a relationship with a woman, which is not even that unusual for the CW's DC shows except that in this case both partners are women of color).  The opening episodes introduce a seasonal villain, Tobias (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III), with connections to Jefferson's family.  And the action scenes are vivid, thrilling, and most of all set themselves apart by positing a hero who is experienced and sure of himself.  The stage is set, therefore, for a superhero story that is satisfying and pushes just a tiny but necessary bit against this genre's blindspots when it comes to race and social justice.  I'm very interested to see what comes next.

  • Counterpart - Starz's new spy-fi show is one of those series that holds its cards close to its chest, trusting that weirdness and suggestion will carry a curious audience along despite the opacity of its storytelling.  In the era of Peak TV, this can be a frustrating approach.  There's far too much excellent material vying for our time and attention to justify any single show taking too long to stake its claim, at least at the level of making it clear what kind of story it's trying to tell.  But sometimes, the combination of an intriguing premise, a good cast, and high-quality execution will give a show the benefit of the doubt.  Counterpart has all three.  Set in a German city (and making much of its European location and the availability of actors of various backgrounds) it centers on Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) a low-level worker at a mysterious, secretive intelligence agency.  Howard's job consists of reading and receiving codewords from another operative separated from him by a glass divider, and Counterpart makes much of the bureaucratized weirdness of this setup, at once sinister and tedious.  Spurred by a recent accident experienced by his wife Emily (Olivia Williams), who lingers in a coma, a restless Howard tries to advance in his organization's hierarchy, at the the same time as a development in the upper levels of that organization suddenly makes him integral to their plans.  Called to a mysterious meeting, Howard meets another version of himself, and is informed that the purpose of his organization is to conceal the existence of, and maintain diplomatic relations with, a parallel universe.  The alternate Howard--who turns out to be high-ranking spy--reveals that a faction within his organization is pushing for a violent incursion into our universe, and he's crossed over to prevent this.  For some reason, and despite realizing that he is merely an office drone, he wants our Howard along for the ride.

    There is, quite obviously, a lot that remains unclear about this premise, down to very practical questions such as how there could be competing spy networks in the two universes if the only access point between them is so closely guarded on both sides that the alternate Howard can only come over for a set number of hours.  It still remains to be seen whether this is all part of a carefully thought-out design that the show hasn't yet revealed, or just the writers relying on the tropes of Cold War spy stories to create the impression of depth and sophistication where none exist.  What keeps me interested in Counterpart, therefore, is less the show itself and more all the other works it reminds me of.  Several reviewers have mentioned the combination of Fringe and Le Carré, but the idea of two worlds existing side by side is executed in a way that also reminds me of Miéville's The City & The City, and the premise of a small cog in gigantic and seemingly irrational spy machine is reminiscent of Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe books.  Like these books and shows, Counterpart has been very good at capturing small moments of weirdness that make its world feel real and lived in, such as the two Howards remarking on their choice to wear the same shirt, a woman seeing her alternate and responding with hysterical laughter, or our world's chief diplomat (Richard Schiff) trading for things like the locations of oil fields that the other side has surveyed.

    In its interactions between the Howards, too, Counterpart suggests a greater complexity than it has thus far shown.  Despite the obvious zero/hero contrast between the two men, the show very quickly makes the point that the real difference between them is that our Howard is kind.  He gives flowers to the nurses visiting his wife, and goes out of his way to make the other Howard feel welcome in his home.  The other Howard initially reacts with exasperation, but you can see him responding to this softer, better version of himself--which has its payoff when we realize that in the alternate world, Howard and Emily are divorced and at odds professionally.  Basically, all I have right now to keep me going with Counterpart are moments, and the suggestion that it might know where it's going.  But it's a sufficiently out-there idea, and sufficiently well-executed, that for now this is enough.

  • The Chi - Lena Waithe came off the second season of Master of None a newly-minted superstar, having penned the touching, autobiographical "Thanksgiving", about her character's gradual coming out over successive Thanksgivings, and her family's slow acceptance of her sexuality and partner.  Giving Waithe her own TV show was an obvious next step, but the result--though impressive--isn't what "Thanksgiving" might lead you to expect.  Set in a poor, black neighborhood in Chicago's South Side, The Chi kicks off with a murder, and follows a wide cast of characters along multiple storylines.  Aging hustler Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is stunned by the murder of his step-son, who the police assume was involved in drugs despite his parents' conviction that there is more to the story.  Upwardly mobile chef Brandon (Jason Mitchell) is equally shaken by the murder of his younger brother soon afterwards, and begins an investigation into it despite his girlfriend's demands that he leave it to the police.  Grade schooler Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) witnesses the second murder, and finds himself caught between Ronnie and Brandon and fearing for his life.  And immature teenager Emmett (Jacob Latimore) is forced to take responsibility for the first time in his life when an ex leaves their toddler son in his care, and may be drifting into illegal ways of getting the money he now needs.

    The show that The Chi most strongly reminds me of in its first few episodes is Treme, not just because they both have a large cast of characters and take place in a small, poor, and predominantly black neighborhoods, but because both are characterized by a profound kindness and generosity towards their characters.  In the opening episode, Ronnie does something stupid and unforgivable, but despite our anger at him, it's impossible not to still see him as a human being, struggling with terrible pain even as he inflicts it on others.  In the same way, it's impossible not to root for Emmett as he takes tiny steps towards maturity, even though on the whole he remains a selfish man who expects his mother and girlfriends to pick up his slack.  Waithe has spoken about her desire to depict black men as fully human and worthy of sympathy, and this is obvious in the way that she refuses to condemn any of her characters, even when they do deeply unsympathetic things.  (A less encouraging outcome of this focus is that women on the show seem to be relegated to the roles of mothers, girlfriends, and baby-mamas, and rarely given the space or the opportunity to develop their inner lives as the men are.)

    It's interesting to compare The Chi's approach to its setting and premise to Black Lightning.  The CW show draws very broad lines between heroes and villains, depicting its setting as one in which law-abiding people are preyed on by gangs and drug dealers.  On The Chi, the lines are significantly more blurred, repeatedly making the point that all its characters exist at some intersection between legal and illegal, respectable and degraded--and that it is very easy to slip back and forth between these states.  Brandon, for example, may be from the neighborhood and attuned to its ideas of extra-legal justice, but he's not very street-smart, botching an attempt to buy a gun, and failing to read obvious signs of danger from the people around him.  This, too, feels like part of Waithe's project with the show, insisting that characters who commit crimes are not necessarily hardened criminals, and that in other walks of their lives they can be thoughtful, respectful, and vulnerable.  This can sometimes lean a little too far in the direction of excusing violent, anti-social behavior--again, especially as regards the treatment of women--but on the whole, I'm glad that The Chi is making its statement.  It's not so much that I think this is a better approach than Black Lightning's as that I find it terribly exciting that both shows can exist at the same time, exploring different attitudes to similar issues.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: A Few Comments As Nominations Open

The nomination period for the 2018 Hugo awards opened a few days ago, and will conclude at 23:59 on March 16th.  Anyone who became a member of either the 2018 or 2019 Worldcons before December 31st, 2017 is eligible to nominate (if you think you're eligible and haven't received an email with your PIN, there are details on how to get it here).  As has become my practice, I have a few comments as we go into this period.

First, if you are eligible to nominate this year, I'd like to urge you to exercise your right.  The Hugo belongs to all of us, and it is at its best when as many people as possible, from as many walks of life as possible, participate in it.  You don't have to nominate in every category (I won't be), and you don't have to fill your ballot in the categories you nominate in (ditto).  But if you've come across eligible work in this last year that you think deserves recognition, please take a moment to push it forward.  As usual, there are a ton of resources to help you find good nominees, from the 2018 Hugo Recommendation Spreadsheet (which you can also help update) and 2018 Hugo Wiki, to the Campbell-eligible authors list, to the Hugo fan and pro artist tumblr.

Second, I've been very proud, in the last few years, to put up my own ballot and suggest work that I think is worthy of consideration.  In particular, I've enjoyed the challenge of poring through the year's short fiction and finding genuinely exciting, boundary-pushing work every single year.  That said, looking at this year's shorter-than-normal nominating period, and especially in consideration of the fact that I have several writing projects planned for the next few weeks, I just don't think I'm going to have the time for that kind of reading project this year.  So, with apologies to both readers and authors, I'm taking this year off.  I still plan to post my ballot in other categories (in particular, reading for my New Scientist column last year means that I'm probably as well-versed as I'll ever be in the previous year's SF novels), and I may do enough novella reading to have nominees there, but I'm afraid that in the novelette and short story categories I'll have to wait and see what the other voters come up with.

Third, this is something that I was pretty sure I wanted to do last August, but I gave myself some time to consider it, and now I'm certain: I'd like it known that if I were to receive a nomination in the Best Fan Writer category for the 2018 Hugos, I would respectfully decline the nomination.

I've debated with myself about whether and how to make this announcement.  Not, to be very clear, because I'm uncertain about not wanting to be a nominee again.  Without sounding like I'm complaining--since it all turned out so wonderfully in the end--being a prospective and then actual Hugo nominee is one of the most stressful experiences I've ever had.  It certainly didn't help that the period during which I became a viable candidate coincided so perfectly with the various puppies' campaign against the awards, so that on top of the regular pressures of will I be nominated/will I win, I spent a lot of my time wondering whether my nomination would be scuttled by a fascist terror campaign (which is, in fact, what happened in 2015 and 2016).  By the time 2017 rolled around, I had been on the Hugo merry-go-round for four years, and it was pretty hard for me to enjoy the convention or the lead-up to the awards from wondering whether this was finally going to be my year.

So while I may one day want to be nominated for the Hugo again (and maybe in another category too, if I'm eligible), I have no interest in going through the whole rigmarole again so soon, and especially when you consider that there are several other great potential nominees whose crack at the Hugo was scuttled by puppy interference.  It seems like absolutely the right thing to stand back.

So why was I hesitant?  Because I don't think it's the place of prospective nominees to tell voters how to nominate.  A few years ago--before the puppies derailed almost all of our conversations about this award--it was the fashion for winners in some categories, and Best Fan Writer in particular, to request from the podium that voters not nominate them next year.  I agreed with the sentiment and respected the commitment these pleas showed, but I was also made a little uncomfortable by them--as I am by my own actions now.  I think it might be worthwhile to consider a cooling off period in some of the Hugo categories, that would preclude nominees who have won in the last two or three years from being nominated again.  But absent that rule, I feel like I'm telling people what to do with their vote, which isn't my place.

So why am I nevertheless making this statement?  Because I don't think that I need to.  As much as I tend to disagree with the Hugo voters' tastes, the last few years have taught me a deep respect for their judgment.  I think the same considerations I've listed here--she's already won, and there are a lot of other people who missed out on a nomination in this category because of the puppies--is going through the heads of a lot of people as they put together their 2018 ballots.  I think that, even without announcing that I will decline a Best Fan Writer nomination, I wasn't very likely to get one this year, which paradoxically makes me feel more comfortable about making this about my own needs.

And that is all I have to say about the 2018 Hugo nominations at this point.  I'll be back next month with my partial ballot.  Happy nominating!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, at Lawyers, Guns & Money

The first proper installment of my Political History of the Future series is up at Lawyers, Guns & Money.  The topic this time is Annalee Newitz's first novel Autonomous, about a corporatist future in which humans and sentient machines alike are subject to a system of indenture in which freedom is a thing to be purchased.
The title of Autonomous is a pun, and a thesis statement. “Autonomous”, in our understanding and in the current common usage, refers to machines that can function without human interference–autonomous cars, most commonly. Despite its connotations of freedom, it’s a designation that denotes inhumanity. It isn’t necessary, after all, to specify that a human being is autonomous. In the world of Autonomous, this is no longer the case. Its citizens–human and machine–are distinguished as either autonomous or indentured. So a word that connotes freedom becomes a reminder of how it can cease to be taken for granted, and a usage that connotes inhumanity is transformed in a world in which personhood is a legal state and not a biological one. In both cases, it’s a reminder that the hard-won ideas of liberty and human rights that we take for granted are not set in stone; that core assumptions about how society could and should function can change, in many cases for the worse.
Read the rest here.