Thursday, February 16, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Why Hugo?

There's just over a month left in the nominating period for this year's Hugo awards, and if you're hanging out in the same fandom spaces as I do, you've probably made the same observation I have: the conversation surrounding this year's Hugos has been surprisingly muted, to the point of nonexistence.  Certainly when you compare it to the veritable maelstrom of public commentary (including in venues well outside of fandom and penetrating quite deep into the mainstream press) that accompanied the awards in 2015 and 2016, when the Rabid Puppies succeeded in infesting the nominations with barely-literate garbage that reflected their fascist, racist leanings, only to get smacked down during the voting phase.

There's obviously no mystery as to why the Hugos aren't really on anyone's mind this year.  Not only did the results of last year's voting phase indicate that the Puppies and their legions of flying monkeys had grown tired of a game in which the prize was clearly never going to be theirs, but there are, unfortunately, much bigger things to worry about.  We're living in the midst of tremendous social upheaval, with racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric gaining terrifying inroads on many stages--in the rise of the far-right in Europe, in the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim violence that followed it, in the consolidation of power by wannabe tyrants like Putin and Erdogan.  And, of course, in the US, with the election of Donald Trump, who has amassed around himself a coterie of shady characters with strong roots in fascist and neo-Nazi groups, and who has galvanized his followers to racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim violence throughout the US.  Every day seems to offer more proof of the weakening of democracy and the rule of law, next to which a fandom award that is of interest to perhaps a few thousand people world-over seems pretty damn trivial.  Like a lot of critics, I'm having trouble justifying to myself the choice to write about the latest film or TV show, much less the inside baseball of Hugo commentary.

At the same time, however, I think a big part of why we're not feeling motivated to talk about the Hugos this year has to do with how connected they are to everything that's happening around us.  I wasn't the only person to say, on November 9th, that the Hugo voters in 2015 and 2016 showed more good sense than the American electorate--see, for example, N.K. Jemisin's blistering commentary, which draws the same connection.  As many people have pointed out and demonstrated since then, there's a line that connects racist and misogynist geek groups like GamerGate and the Rabid Puppies to the American alt-right and its bases in websites like Breitbart.  All of these groups root their appeal in the curdled, unjustified entitlement of white men who believe the world owed them something, and who are willing--happy, even--to burn it all down if they don't get it.  For probably a large confluence of reasons, the voters for the Hugo award were able to look at this group and see them for exactly what they were (even when provided with cover by groups like the Sad Puppies and their leaders).  The American electorate, for an equally large confluence of reasons, did not (or, at least, a sufficiently large margin in a few key states didn't--the electorate as a whole rejected Trump quite decisively).

The issue, therefore, is this: it's not just that the Hugos are trivial, but that the Hugos are solved.  If last year and the year before, we had a strong argument for seeing participation in the Hugos as an important and even progressive act, this year it seems largely meaningless, precisely because the difference between the best-case and worst-case outcomes is so small.  Let's say the Rabid Puppies come back for a third try this year, and manage to get their trash on a lot of ballots.  So what?  They'll just get knocked down in the voting phase again, and the only people it'll really matter to will be the ones who lost out on a nomination--and I say that as someone who did lose out on a Hugo nomination, twice, as a result of the Rabid Puppies' actions.  Given the current state of the world, lousy Hugo nominations are pretty far down my list of things to get upset over.  And on the other hand, if the Puppies have given up (or, more realistically, moved on to greener pastures, of which there sadly seems to be an abundance), I think we all know by now that the result will not be some progressive, radical-lefty shortlist.  The Hugo will go back to what it has always been, a middle-of-the-road award that tends to reward nostalgia and its own inner circle.  Yes, there has been progress, and especially in the shadow of the Puppies and their interference--2015 best novel winner Cixin Liu was the first POC to win in that category, and 2016 winner N.K. Jemisin was the first African American.  But on the other hand, look at the "first"s in that last sentence, consider that they happened a decade and a half into the 21st century, and then tell me that this is something to crow about.

After having said all this, you're probably now expecting me to make some huge turnaround, to explain to you why the Hugos still matter, and why it's still important to talk about them and nominate for them.  But the thing is, I can't.  I still care about the Hugos.  I'm going to nominate this year, and around the beginning of March I will, as in previous years, post my own ballot for those of you who are interested in my suggestions.  And I think that you should try to nominate too, because there was a lot of work in 2016 that deserves recognition.  But if you're looking for me to make an argument for why nominating for the Hugos is important, I can't.  Because it isn't.

What I can say is this: last week I saw the movie Hidden Figures, which I enjoyed a great deal and definitely recommend.  I've seen some people talking about nominating it in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category, and having seen the film, I think it would be a perfect fit.  Not only would nominating Hidden Figures be totally consistent with Worldcon's decades-long love affair with the space program (which led, among other things, to Apollo 13 being nominated for a Hugo in 1996), but it would be just the right film to nominate in the (knock wood) post-Puppy world.  Hidden Figures is the perfect counterpoint to the narrative the Puppies (Rabid and Sad) tried to spin to justify their actions, as if science fiction and its awards had always belonged to conservative white men, who had been unfairly pushed out by a cabal of political interests.  It's a film that reminds us that just because the story we've been told and taught to accept doesn't include women or people of color, doesn't mean they weren't there.  Doesn't mean they weren't doing important, even vital, work.  And doesn't mean they don't deserve to be recognized.  If there's ever been a work that embodies the anti-Puppy stance--which just so happens to be the truth--Hidden Figures is it.

So no, nominating for the Hugos this year is not an act of resistance.  But I think that it can be an act of affirmation.  A reminder that just because the world is going crazy around us, doesn't mean we're not going to hold on to what's ours.  That just because we seem to be surrounded (and governed) by people who care about nothing and no one, doesn't mean we're not going to keep caring about things ourselves--even when they are completely trivial--and keep working to preserve them.  We worked hard, these last few years, to prove that the Hugo belongs to fandom, to the people who care enough about it to show up.  Even in the midst of turmoil, I think there's value in continuing to prove that point.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Make of Heaven a Hell: On the First Season of The Good Place

"Welcome! Everything is Fine." So says the big, friendly sign that greets Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) when she wakes up in a pleasant waiting room. She is quickly informed, by the genial Michael (Ted Danson) that she has died, and that because in life she worked tirelessly for poor and disenfranchised, she has gone to "the good place". This particular slice of heaven looks like a quaint, cod-European neighborhood, full of charming cafes and many, many frozen yogurt shops. Eleanor has her own house, designed exactly to her liking, and there she also meets her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who in life was a professor of ethics.

There's only one problem: Eleanor was not the selfless person that Michael believes her to be. In real life, she was selfish, manipulative, and narcissistic, committing evil deeds that ranged from the mundane (littering, constant rudeness) to the disgusting (selling useless diet supplements to the elderly, abandoning a dog-sitting assignment to go see Rhianna). Confiding in Chidi, and terrified of being sent to "the bad place", she convinces him to keep her secret and teach her how to be a good person. But when she inevitably missteps, the good place reacts violently. Stealing shrimp at a party causes giant shrimp to fly through the air, menacing the neighborhood's population. Destroying a cake whose baker worked for hours on it causes a sinkhole to open in the middle of town. Eleanor must then evade the investigations of Michael and his all-knowing assistant, the AI Janet (D'Arcy Carden), as well as the attentions of her neighbors, former model and socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and silent Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto).

It's been repeatedly noted that in the second wave of the Golden Age of TV, comedy is more often a site for innovation and artfulness than drama. It’s a genre whose definition is wide enough to encompass the depressive musings of Bojack Horseman, and the zaniness of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Created by Michael Schur—who has run the gamut of comedy styles in his own career, writing for the American The Office and Saturday Night Live, producing The Comeback and Master of None, and creating Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-NineThe Good Place might be the first comedy to derive most of its humor from its fantastical, elaborate worldbuilding. Every episode opens up our understanding of the good place and how it functions, from the Minority Report-esque screens and interfaces with which Michael and Janet try to repair the damage caused by Eleanor, to casual observations like "Any place or thing in the universe can be up to 104% perfect. That's how you got Beyonce." When the neighborhood is visited by representatives of the bad place (led by Adam Scott in a performance so perfectly nasty that one can hardly recall his turn as the lovable dork Ben on Parks and Recreation), they signpost their evil by talking up their love of The Bachelor and performing karaoke to the speeches of Richard Nixon.

Though its premise initially looks like a Three's Company-esque comedy of lies and misunderstandings, what really drives The Good Place's story, and its jokes, is our feeling that there is something not quite right about the world as it has been presented to Eleanor and her fellow dwellers in the good place, and our desire to work out rules that don't quite seem to make sense. As Eleanor learns more about her new surroundings—and as she scrambles to game them in an effort not to be discovered—she uncovers other cracks in heaven’s foundation. Jianyu turns out to actually be Jason Mendoza, a "professional amateur DJ" from Florida whose hobbies included throwing molotov cocktails at his enemies' boats, and who died during the commission of a particularly dumb robbery.

It's a conceit that seems designed to appeal in particular to genre fans, with our fondness for working our the rules of an invented world--and the aspects of those rules that are being kept from us.  (It's interesting, for example, to read Emily Nussbaum's write-up of The Good Place in The New Yorker.  One of the finest TV critics currently writing, Nussbaum nevertheless tends to write from the perspective of a viewer who lacks genre reading protocols, and it was striking to me that she initially took the show at face value, whereas I assumed almost from the beginning that there was more to it.)  There's a long tradition of fantasy worldbuilding of the kind Schur does in The Good Place, which imagines the afterlife in mundane and sometimes openly bureaucratic terms—everything from A Matter of Life and Death to Beetlejuice. The Good Place builds on these works when it encourages us to question the ethical underpinnings of its afterlife, even as it insists on them. As Eleanor says to Chidi soon after figuring out the full extent of her predicament: "This system sucks! What, one in a million gets to live in paradise and everyone else is tortured for eternity?" 

Even if you ignore the obvious cruelty of this arrangement, there are some serious questions raised by the good place's execution of it. Tahani, for example, raised billions for charity, but she's also vain and self-absorbed, and in flashbacks we learn that her good works were all designed to get her the attention that her parents lavished on her conceptual artist sister. Chidi, on the other hand, is a genuinely kind and decent person, but he also achieved nothing in life, spending it writing a magnum opus that turns out to be unreadable, and frustrating his friends and loved ones with his constant indecision. It's hard to see how either of them could have earned a place in paradise. And at the other extreme, Jason may be the only truly bad person on the show, but his crimes were committed more out of stupidity than malice, and by the end of the season he has come to play the role of the holy fool, perceiving truths about the good place that his friends are too harried to notice. The system of points by which people are classed into the good place or bad place—good acts earn you a certain number of points, while bad acts cause them to be deducted—is also something of a head-scratcher. Do we really want to accept that good acts cancel out bad acts, and vice versa? And is it fair that Tahani, who was raised in wealth and privilege, should be rated on the same scale as Eleanor, who has been on her own since her teens?

It's obvious that these are all questions The Good Place wants us to ask, but what's interesting is that this questioning serves dual purposes. On one level, it's a way for the show to introduce some basic but also fairly meaty concepts of ethics and morality, which are also discussed through Chidi's lessons to Eleanor (and later also Jason) and her attempts to implement them. Is an act good in itself or is its morality judged by its consequences? Is Chidi required to help Eleanor, even if doing so causes him anxiety, and keeps him from his true soulmate? Are Chidi and Eleanor's lies and deceit always wrong, or are they justified because their ultimate goal is to keep Eleanor and Jason from suffering? Are Eleanor's attempts to grow as a person genuinely good, or can they be discounted because their motivation—to avoid an eternity of torture—is so obviously self-serving?

At the same time, the obvious flaws in the good place's idea of goodness are signs that the audience should be questioning the cosmology that the show lays before it. To put it another way, if you're unhappy in heaven, does that mean that there's something wrong with you, or that there's something wrong with it? That Eleanor and her friends are increasingly caught up in a web of lies which forces them to scramble in order to keep ahead of Michael's investigations might be an indication that even in paradise, committing bad acts has its consequences. But equally, it could be a sign that all is not as it seems.

It's here that we see why The Good Place had to be a comedy—and one whose tropes hew closely to the conventional sitcom form. Comedy runs on conflict, and in a sitcom it is totally normal that, just as Eleanor and Chidi are chafing at their enforced closeness and the need to pretend that they are soulmates, Michael would ask them to cohabitate with another couple, who just happen to be a private detective and a marriage counselor. So it takes a while for the audience to consider that this is actually a very strange thing for him to do, and especially in a place that is meant to be completely responsive to its residents' needs and desires. Through its choice of genre, The Good Place teaches us to see its contrivances as mere tropes, when really they are something much more significant, clues to the true nature of the show's world and story.

As he did in Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur emphasizes friendship and community as a path to self-improvement and even redemption. It's no coincidence that Eleanor's badness in her life on Earth is manifested mainly through her unwillingness to form close bonds, and her belief that she can go through life owing no one and being owed nothing. In that sense, she strongly resembles Community's Jeff Winger, and like him, her growth into goodness involves (and is perhaps driven by) becoming a sort of guide and protector to a group of misfits who may outstrip her emotionally and ethically, but who also don't quite know how to cope without her.  But here, too, The Good Place complicates the situation by injecting it with a philosophical weight that relates directly to the show's questionable construction of its paradise. Eleanor can become a successful good person—which is to say, a good friend—because she used to be a bad one. Because she understands manipulation and deceit, she can spot them when they are applied to her and her friends. Because she spent her life gaming systems, she can do so again in the system of the good place. Being a bad person in heaven may end up being Eleanor—and the other characters'—salvation.

The inspired use that The Good Place makes of its genre, to both conceal the cracks in its worldbuilding and suggest that the audience take another look at them, makes it interesting to compare it to another ambitious, high-concept show whose first season aired in the fall and winter of 2016, Westworld. Strange as it may sound, the two series share many similarities. They both take place in constructed worlds overseen by a mysterious, white-haired figure. Both tell stories that center around those worlds malfunctioning, while constantly suggesting that these malfunctions might all be part of a plan. In both shows, the constructed world advertises itself as a place that gives its residents everything they want, even as the truth turns out to be more complicated. Both shows feature characters who are constantly being reset and rebooted, but who advance towards personhood through those repetitions (in The Good Place, this is mainly Janet, but late in the series it's revealed that the human characters, too, can be erased and reset). Both are ultimately about their characters growing towards a fuller, more complete form of humanity. Both are, in addition, meta-commentaries on storytelling and their own genres. And both end on a twist that completely upends our understanding of their world and its purpose.

What this comparison reveals is, first, how hard the project that both The Good Place and Westworld set themselves actually was, and how great the gap is between achieving it and falling short. The Good Place delivers its twists—and its payload of philosophical (one might almost say radical) musings—with a lightness and an ease that are truly delightful to behold. It's an accomplishment that makes Westworld's trudge towards revelations the audience had long since guessed seem even more laborious in comparison.

More importantly, the difference between The Good Place and Westworld seems rooted in the recognition that a serious story doesn’t need to be told in a serious way. Like many HBO shows, Westworld was criticized for mistaking violence (and sexualized violence in particular) for serious drama, and yet there was ultimately very little about the show that its viewers could take seriously. Its pretensions of philosophical weight could not be sustained by a story that ultimately just wanted to get us to the robot massacre. The Good Place has no such pretensions—in fact, it holds its cards so close to its chest that most viewers will spend the season wondering if they're imagining things when they question whether there's more to the show's world than meets the eye. And yet it is able to fully engage with some of the fundamental questions of how to be a person. To watch a show that is so unassuming accomplish all this is genuinely exciting—and drives home how absent that feeling of excitement was from most of Westworld’s first season.

The twist that ends The Good Place's first season is exhilarating and impeccably delivered, altering the show's entire world but also leaving many open questions about its cosmology. Not unlike Westworld, it sets up a scenario for the show's second season that is completely different from what came in its first, but which also promises to continue following in the grooves of a familiar story. Most importantly, it's an ending that leaves us genuinely anxious for the fate of its core foursome—for their ability to extract themselves from a supernatural bind, and their capacity to continue growing as people. It's proof, if any more were needed, of comedy's ability to engage with meaty issues in a way that is both thought-provoking and entertaining, and to tell a genuinely compelling story. As the audience will have suspected in the show's opening scene, everything is not, in fact, fine. But when Eleanor returns to the waiting room in the season's final scene, the new message on the wall might as well be speaking for the viewers: "Welcome! Everything is great."

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 23

The first few days of 2017 have been rather interesting, as some tweets of mine went unexpectedly viral and sparked an interesting conversation about how Hollywood perceives the behavior, and fantasy life, of male versus female characters (you can read the whole thing here).  But that feels like a distraction from the exciting news that there are finally films in movie theaters that I want to see.  For some reason Israeli film distributors have broken their habit of waiting until February to bring out the year's Oscar hopefuls, and of course there are the year-ending genre movies.  I didn't like all of these films, but I certainly enjoyed the experience of looking forward to them.
  • Moana - Disney's latest attempt to reinvent the princess movie takes two novel approaches: drawing on Polynesian folklore and mythology for its story, and recruiting Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the film's songs.  Heroine Moana (Auli'l Cravalho) is torn between her duties as the daughter of the village chief and her desire to roam the seas, but finds herself able to gratify both desires when she's tasked with restoring the heart of creation goddess Te Fiti, aided by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the demigod who originally stole it.  The plot is thus a picaresque, in which Moana and Maui encounter various dangers and challenges on their journey to Te Fiti, during which they also bond and help each other overcome their hang-ups.  It's a similar structure to Tangled--still, to my mind, the best of the modern princess movies--but Moana lacks that film's multiple intersecting plot strands and broad cast of characters, and ends up feeling simpler and more straightforward.  What it does have is genuinely stunning animation, especially where it draws on the scenery of the Pacific islands and the iconography of Polynesian cultures, and some excellent songs by Miranda, which pay homage to both the Disney and musical theater traditions while still retaining entirely their own flavor--I'm particularly fond of a scene in which Moana and Maui encounter a giant, jewel-encrusted lobster (Jemaine Clement), who sings a David Bowie-inspired glam-rock ballad, and then complains that no one likes him as much as The Little Mermaid's Sebastian.  But pretty much every song here is excellent and memorable in its own right.

    Even more importantly, the fact that Moana is a story about its heroine rediscovering her people's heritage of exploring and ocean-voyaging feels especially significant in one of Disney's rare POC-starring vehicles, and lends a particular poignance to what is ultimately a fairly conventional follow-your-heart-and-be-true-to-yourself message.  Nevertheless, it's hard not to compare the relative simplicity of that message, and of Moana's story, to recent non-princess Disney projects like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia, and feel that Disney is aiming low by merely refreshing this template with different world cultures.  Girls--and non-white girls especially--deserve stories as inventive and complex as the ones being offered to boys, and Disney might serve them better if it put heroines like Moana (and her heritage) in those stories instead of sticking to the tried-and-true conventions of the princess movie.

  • The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos's Cannes-winning sensation has a delightfully out-there premise--it takes place in a world in which the single are corralled into a resort where they have 45 days to find a partner, or they will turned into a an animal--and one of the many wonderful things about it is that it plays it completely straight.  Our hero, David (Colin Farrell), checks into the resort after his wife leaves him, but when a putative romance goes horribly wrong, he runs away to join a group of singleton rebels who live out in the woods, amongst whom romance is strictly forbidden.  This becomes a problem when David falls passionately in love with one of the rebels, played by Rachel Weisz.  The Lobster is, first and foremost, an uproariously funny movie, not just because of how straight it plays its ridiculous premise, but because of how it develops it with even more absurd details.  A major criteria for romantic happiness at the resort is that partners have compatible physical abnormalities, so David, who is short-sighted, is constantly on the lookout for a woman whose vision is similarly impaired, and seems genuinely to believe that he could never be happy with anyone whose vision is better or worse than his.  The rebels, meanwhile, inform David that they only dance to techno music, so that no one can dance with each other and thus potentially commit a romantic infraction.  And though the film never discusses its central fantastic concept, throughout its events the characters are joined by various exotic animals--peacocks and dromedaries and porcupines--who are clearly transformed rejects from the resort, and whom no one comments on or pays attention to.  The sheer audacity of the film's conceit, and the fact that it is developed so well and with such imagination, carries you through most of it without stopping to wonder what the point of it all is (as does the delight of constantly finding top-tier actors in such a strange project: as well as Farrell and Weisz, the cast includes Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and Léa Seydoux).  So when that point arrives, it cuts like a knife: the sudden realization that in a society that places absurd, arbitrary restrictions on what romance can look like, actual love is all but impossible.

  • Star Trek Beyond - The third in J.J. Abrams's revamped-and-not-at-all-improved Star Trek series both benefits and suffers from its connection to its two predecessors.  Benefits, because compared to the utterly lamentable Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, the fact that Beyond is merely tedious and predictable is enough to make it seem like something resembling a good movie, especially when you consider that Abrams has been replaced in the director's seat by Justin Lin, who at least knows how to stage an action scene as if he cares, even if none of the ones here are particularly memorable or exciting.  And suffers, because Beyond, which co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung clearly envisioned as an attempt to bring the new Star Trek back in line with the franchise's roots, depends for this task on the previous two movies having established certain characters and relationships to be broadly in line with what they were in the original series and movies, which means that it's relying on a foundation that hasn't been laid, and which in some cases blatantly contradicts what Beyond wants it to be.  William Shatner's Jim Kirk, for example, could (and in fact did) shoulder a storyline in which he becomes disenchanted with the Enterprise's mission of exploration and peaceful diplomacy, and considers leaving his command.  The same can't be said of Chris Pine's Kirk, who never seemed interested in Starfleet for anything beyond the gratification of being judged worthy to captain a starship, and who despite that judgment continues to be genuinely awful at all of the things that make a good Starfleet captain--as demonstrated by Beyond's opening scene, in which he hopelessly botches what should have been a straightforward diplomatic mission due to what looks like a simple lack of preparation.  The fact that Beyond constructs itself around this crisis is not, as the film clearly believes, a meaningful exploration of mid-life ennui, but yet another reminder that it has never been clear just why we should accept this Kirk as a hero--since he doesn't want to be one, and is in fact quite bad at it.

    By the same token, the scenes between Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban's McCoy seem to expect us to assume a long, rancorous-but-ultimately-respectful friendship between the two characters which this version of Star Trek, and these actors, have never actually done the work of establishing.  Beyond's screenplay makes a smart choice when it splits up the main cast into small groupings, each with their own storyline, after the Enterprise is attacked and destroyed over a mysterious planet (in yet another case of the reboot movies borrowing a major plot point from the original movies and not knowing what to do with it; it's not just that the Enterprise's destruction in Beyond lacks the resonance it had in The Search for Spock; this is a movie that can't even achieve the emotional heights of Generations).  Some of these storylines, such as Uhura and Sulu taking command of the surviving crewmembers, or Scotty bonding with a feral but plucky castaway (Sophia Boutella, in a role that would be more enjoyable if it did not feel so out of place in the Star Trek universe, original or reboot), work well enough on their own.  But when the time comes to tie them all together, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that Beyond's story relies on us believing in the cohesion of its crew, and their faith in their captain, in a way that is simply unsupported by any of the films in the reboot universe, including this one.

    Beyond clearly has pretensions of engaging with Star Trek's core philosophy, but like its predecessors it runs aground on the fact that no one involved with the film has any idea what that philosophy is.  Characters spout words like "unity", "diplomacy", and "cooperation", but they seem bored even as they do so.  In a particularly tone-deaf scene, the film's villain, Krall (Idris Elba), explains to Uhura that its peaceful ways have made the Federation weak, and that conflict is needed for any species to thrive.  One might have expected that a Uhura, as a black woman, would be uniquely positioned to point out that the Federation's peace and harmony are hard-won treasures that humans only achieved after millennia of war, oppression, and genocide (a fact that is made all the more pressing when we learn Krall's true origin).  But that would require anyone involved with this movie to actually understand why peace and cooperation are good, desirable things, and it's clear that no one does.  Instead, the film treats Kirk's embrace of these ideals as a kind of favor he's doing to the universe, and then ends, as all the reboot films have done, with a single hero beating up on a single villain in order to save the day.  For all its pretensions of returning to its roots, Star Trek Beyond is still the same reboot Star Trek--utterly unclear on what made this franchise worthwhile, and completely incapable of staking out a claim for its own relevance.

  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Disney's first standalone in the Star Wars universe is very clearly an attempt to transform that franchise into something very like the MCU--a shared universe in which it is possible to tell stories in many different registers, genres, and scopes.  Whether or not the Star Wars setting can support that kind of expansion, however, remains to be seen, even after Rogue One, because the problems of this movie have a lot more to do with the perennial sloppiness in how Hollywood (and Disney in particular) constructs its action-adventure stories, than in the specifics of this particular story.  Rogue One's first half is quite promising, giving us a glimpse of the inner workings of the Rebellion, and of its internal rifts and disputes.  We get to see the psychological toll of constantly living on the knife's edge, not knowing who to trust since anyone could be an Imperial spy, fighting amongst different factions of the Rebellion over the correct tactics, making morally compromising decisions for the greater good, and above all, living in the constant awareness that it might all be for nothing, and that the Rebellion could so easily fail in the face of an enemy as powerful and implacable as the Empire.

    All of this creates the expectation of a tense heist/espionage story, as our heroes try to outsmart a much more powerful, organized opponent in order to retrieve the Death Star plans that will jumpstart the plot of A New Hope--something along the lines of a million WWII movies.  Instead, Rogue One plumps for a generic extravaganza of explosions and special effects, as our heroes launch a frontal assault against an Imperial records facility that doesn't make a great deal of sense, and completely squanders the bleak, paranoid tone of the film's first half.  It's not the first time I've gotten the sense that Disney's live-action division is weakest in its script department, and particularly those scripts that depend on something slightly more intelligent than fights and explosions (this has also been a problem of some recent MCU movies, chiefly Ant-Man and Civil War).  And unlike The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One can't shake off its script problems by relying on charming, engaging characters.  Heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is meant to be the film's beating heart, as the daughter of the scientist who designed the Death Star, and the person who convinces a rag-tag team of resistance operatives that a mission to retrieve the plans is worth the risk.  But Jones's polite, underpowered performance makes it impossible to believe that this is a woman who has been living on her own since she was sixteen, much less someone who could inspire the grizzled, morally compromised soldiers of the Rebellion to have hope in the impossible.  (It's genuinely depressing to recall that Jones's chief competitor for the part of Jyn was Tatiana Maslany, who would surely have made a meal of this dark, gender-swapped Han Solo type.)  Diego Luna, as the film's male lead, resistance spy Cassian Andor, has a great deal more presence than Jones, but his character arc is yoked to hers, requiring us to believe that she spurs a moral awakening in him, which I never did.

    Far more successful are the film's supporting characters: Riz Ahmed as the fidgety but quietly heroic Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, looking for redemption on Jyn's mission; Forest Whitaker as the semi-deranged, paranoid leader of a breakaway group from the Rebellion; most of all, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as former Jedi monks and probable married couple Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, who squabble and watch each others' backs in equal measure. None of them, however, get enough space in the story to make up for Jyn's dullness, Cassian's muddled character arc, or the script's sloppiness.  Rogue One thus ends up being very promising in parts, and very disappointing in its whole.  If Disney wants to turn Star Wars into something like the MCU, it will have to stick to the more breezy, adventure-based genres, where unconvincing scripts and boring characters have less of a chance to register.

  • La La Land - The best compliment I can pay Damien Chazelle's throwback musical is that while I was watching it, I found its candy-colored world, in which characters repeatedly break out in rhapsodies to Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the dream of it making it there, a little cute and overdone.  And then when the credits rolled, I realized that I didn't want to step out of that world, with its melancholy, romantic tone, and its haunting musical refrains that I've kept on humming long after leaving the movie theater.  When I say that, though, I'm talking more about the film's background--its loving, gorgeously-lit views of LA landmarks and vistas, or the way it captures the strangeness of that city, and of its dream industry, and makes something charming out of a world that we've been trained to think of as cynical and exploitative.  I was a great deal less charmed by the film's main story, the romance that develops between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they both try to get their big break.  In the films that La La Land riffs off--everything from Singin' in the Rain to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg--we accept that the lovers exist in their own world that bends itself to accommodate their love story.  But either Chazelle isn't quite able to believably create a world like that, or (more likely) the film's modern-day setting makes it impossible for me to believe in it.  So the fact that Mia and Sebastian frequently engage in obnoxious, self-absorbed behavior--everything from standing up in a movie theater while the film is running, to constantly blowing off their loved ones because they can't be bothered to remember their appointments--made it really difficult to root for their happy ending.

    I was, however, a great deal more interested in Mia and Sebastian's professional travails--she's trudging from one unsuccessful audition to another and wondering if she might simply not be good enough to make it, and he dreams of playing "pure" jazz at his own club, but is forced to take gigs at restaurants and house parties to make ends meet.  I'm a sucker for stories that depict art as work, and artists as people who are working towards the perfection of their craft--trying to find their unique voice, and then struggling to find an audience for that voice.  But the failure mode of stories like that is to depict "real" artists as people who are constantly saying no to opportunities (or who regret saying yes to them) because the work on offer isn't pure enough, and who thus spend their life waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along rather than taking any chance to develop their craft and do the work they love.  La La Land falls into that trap rather frequently, chiefly in a subplot in which Sebastian joins a band led by John Legend, who combines old-school jazz with modern hip-hop sounds, to Sebastian's obvious dismay and disapproval.  (There is also, obviously, a huge problem with a storyline in which a white man is the sole keeper of jazz's true soul, while a black man degrades it by combining it with a modern black musical style.)  But in fairness to the film, it doesn't live in that mode--Mia, for example, makes the valid point that while she likes the music that Sebastian is playing, it's not worth it if doing so makes him miserable.  In the end, it's hard to tell where La La Land falls on the selling out/doing work wherever you can find it question--perhaps because the film's fundamental romanticism means that both Mia and Sebastian end up achieving more of their dreams than actual people in their situation would probably get to.  And it is that romanticism that stays with you when the film ends, and which makes its whole worthwhile despite my problems with its parts.

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.