When the Joker gets serious

I saw Joker a few weeks back, and while it was a hard film to watch, it was an interesting film, especially when read as an homage to eighties-era Scorsese films. And of course Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the disturbed and isolated man who would become this version of the Joker, is fascinating. The combination of his delivery, the intensity and brutality and concreteness of the moments of violence on-screen, and the disconcerting music made watching it a rather distressing and memorable experience. It’s a good film, and there’s a lot to chew on about mental illness, societal responsibility, and the politicization of individual disaffection and violence. I don’t think it offers clear answers to these larger implicated questions; everything is complex, disturbed, and somewhat peripheral to Fleck’s awareness, and it is through Fleck, a very unreliable narrator, that we perceive his world.

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I’ve been meaning to say something, anything, about this film since watching it. But it’s been hard for me. Sam was very deeply affected by the movie, by its tone and its sounds and Fleck’s pathetic isolation and silent misery, his eagerness for approval even when perpetually faced with dejection. A particular moment hit us hard: when we see his notebook of stand-up material, with the page that reads, to paraphrase, that the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t. Sam’s mental health struggles are nothing like Fleck’s, but there are enough connections to be made in the broad strokes that she could, as a naturally empathetic person who tends to believe the worst about herself, see elements of her own life and mental illness in his experiences. She actually had to walk out of the theater within the first half. While Fleck’s condition might not look, in particular, like anyone else’s, his experience is nonetheless grounded in that of those suffering with severe mental illnesses. And it is impressive that Joker makes us, whether we want to or not, sympathize (or even empathize) with this man until we reach a point where we cannot any longer. He crosses a line, many lines in fact, lashing out violently, going further than necessary, delighting in that violence, embracing the darkness and chaos, finding humor and delight in the suffering of others. We can sympathize with him until he shows us that he has no sympathy or compassion himself, that he has been twisted into something tragically evil. Still, Fleck is a man who needs help, and the system fails him at every critical step throughout the film.

It’s sad that so much of the conversation around The Joker was focused on whether he emulated or idolized disturbed, extremist white men like contemporary “incels.” If incels choose to idolize him, they are very clearly missing the point. He is not a hero. But this is reflected within the narrative events of the movie. Fleck is disturbed and violent; he’s not an icon of the oppressed or impoverished or disaffected. And yet we see people rallying around him, taking on his clown identity as though wearing Guy Fawkes masks. They misinterpret his illness as inspiration, all evidence to the contrary. Fleck cannot understand the political ramifications of his actions; he cannot accurately interpret why people are choosing to use his likeness. He sees himself as apolitical–this isn’t quite true, but his actions are devoid of a political purpose, and the political is broader than his individual situation, which serves as a single anecdote to showcase the failings of Gotham (a very obvious New York stand-in here) in its care for its most vulnerable members. Even the mob-like activism that forms around Fleck seems unclear about what exactly it is for. They definitely don’t want a Mayor Wayne, and they think that rich people suck. We don’t see any solutions, except for anarchic violence. And that violence seems to mostly come from white men. White men unhappy with the perceived elite, lashing out any way they want, with the goal of causing pain and terror, tearing down rather than building up. On the one hand, we have the unconcerned wealthy, represented in the white male mayoral candidate of Thomas Wayne, and on the other we have other white men who would choose to blow everything up when they feel slighted. It feels as much a moment of the eighties in which the film is set as it does a moment for our modern era.

I want to make a hard pivot here to the Telltale Batman games. Joker prompted me to give the first five-episode game another try, this time on the Switch. I plowed through it over about a week, playing roughly an episode a night. Then I moved on to The Enemy Within, again moving at the rate of about an episode a night. These games really shine in their narrative, their characterizations, their willingness to do fresh and wildly divergent things with established Batman lore as contained within their pocket-universe continuity, and their ability to give the impression that your choices really matter and that those choices often cause as much harm as good. But for this post, I bring them up because they also portrayed mental illness in a mostly sympathetic way. It’s interesting, though hardly original, to reflect on just how many Batman villains suffer from a mental illness, and how those mental illnesses often are totally distinct, even as the villains (and Batman himself) might just get labeled “psychopaths.” In the Telltale games, you have some choice in how you play your Batman and thus how you respond to others, but it’s hard not to see, for instance, how much Harvey Dent suffers with his compulsions. He’s driven by a series of very traumatic events that finally drive him to a psychotic break and a spree of violence.  I tended to play my Batman as merciful and focused on justice, so my Bruce Wayne often empathized with his foes, acknowledging their suffering, pleading with them to seek help.

I don’t know if a harder, crueler Batman wouldn’t have provided as many moments to view the villains compassionately. But my Bruce never gave up on Harvey. And in The Enemy Within, he never gave up on John Doe, the nascent Joker. In Telltale’s Batman games, John Doe is a known entity in Arkham Asylum. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and eager to please his heroes. But he mocks and subverts authority figures (at first, just behind their backs) and delights in violence. Over the course of the games, especially the sequel, you have the option to influence how John Doe develops; you in effect determine what sort of Joker he will be. He has three key role models: Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Harley Quinn. If you show him trust and respect, he will reciprocate. And he quickly learns that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, but he doesn’t let on right away. Because I quickly grew attached to this outcast, so lost on release from the mental institution and so eager to find connection, I was determined to try to help him find a path of stability. The two main outcomes are either a cruel, unhinged villain or an excessively violent vigilante. Either way, he eventually becomes so violent and destabilized that Batman must defeat him. At the end of my experience, a vigilante Joker finally went too far, feeling betrayed by Batman and gruesomely killing several law enforcement agents. Batman and the Joker had a brutal fight. In the end, when Joker was finally subdued, I still chose to reinforce to him, when he asked, that we had been friends. The worst thing for the Joker was that he had to return to Arkham, back to the beginning, which seemed to be a denial of his development as a person, at least in his mind. But because I had treated him as a friend, the final scene of the game depicts Bruce, as Bruce, visiting an obviously delighted Joker in his cell.

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The games did so many interesting things with new and established characters, but I just wanted to focus on their depiction of the Joker here. It was impressive that the game could clearly show that he was doing vile things, for which incarceration and (probably permanent) removal from the public was appropriate, while still showing that he was struggling with a variety of mental illnesses that propelled him down his path. Joker should not have been out on the street, unsupported and unattended to. As a result, he did horrible things. He was still a human, regardless.

Of course, most people with mental illness are never going to be violent. And there are many types of mental illnesses, most not creating a profile of the “criminally insane.” But there are some people out there with severe mental illnesses, who could hurt themselves or others, and the existing mental health and justice systems just aren’t adequately helping to avoid disaster. Arthur Fleck and John Doe are not representative of someone suffering from bipolar disorder or anxiety. But it was refreshing to see these properties seriously wrangle with the troubled mental states of the Joker and other Batman characters, rather than taking it for granted that they were reducible to terms like “evil” or generically “psychotic.” Think of other big-screen depictions of the Joker: Nicholson’s prankster-gangster, Ledger’s chaotic force rejecting any single narrative or any ability to understand him, or Leto’s abusive and animalistic thug. Even though Leto’s Joker has a defined background as a mental patient who escaped via manipulating and dominating a psychologist, his mental state is of no concern to the events of Suicide Squad. He’s melodramatic and high-octane, a caricature. Nicholson and Ledger are foils and obstacles to Batman. Nicholson’s version creates Batman by killing his parents; Batman creates the Joker by knocking the murderer into a vat of chemicals. Joker emerges fully formed as a lunatic with a deadly sense of humor. And Ledger’s Joker defies characterization; as masterful as Ledger is in the role, his version of the character is more a philosophical conundrum, a challenge to Batman’s attempt to restore justice and order to Gotham. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and we are not allowed to understand such a man.

Works like Joker and the Telltale Batman games show us humanity in a deranged villain. We don’t need to defend his actions or provide excuses for his behavior; we don’t need to take his side (and we shouldn’t). But we should examine how our society allows these personalities to form, allows violence and bloodshed to be unleashed before we think to even get involved. And what of the many more who never become violent, who perhaps languish in poverty or homelessness, ignored by us all? The Joker forces us to see him, just as select offenders involved in sensational crimes force us to see them. But we so often choose to ignore the suffering of others, so long as they never redirect that suffering toward us.

Further Reading

Hoskins, “Justices sharply split on insanity defense case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 23 Dec 2010.

Mental illness and violence,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School, Jan 2011.

Odendahl, “Indiana’s struggle with insanity defense mirrors coming SCOTUS case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 5 Sep 2019.

Raphelson, “How The Loss Of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led To A Mental Health Crisis,” NPR, 30 Nov 2017.

Revisiting “Dinosaur”

Disney+ appears to have very little dinosaur-related content. That made it pretty easy to view it all already: the National Geographic special Bizarre Dinosaurs, the Pixar film The Good Dinosaur, and the 2000 Disney adventure movie Dinosaur. I of course enjoyed it all. The production values of Bizarre Dinosaurs were a bit low, but the science documentary still showcased a lot of interesting fossils and theories with soundbites from some of the most well-known paleontologists out there. The Good Dinosaur, like virtually any Pixar movie, told an emotionally powerful story with a lot of cuteness, humor, and drama; I teared up at times, and my heart swelled at others–for instance, when we encounter the Tyrannosaur cattle ranchers. But Dinosaur was the movie that stuck with me the most, which is funny, because I don’t recall it being that good. I think I first saw it in theaters, but I don’t remember the experience; my impression at the time was that the dinosaurs looked good, but the story was boring. I was a huge fan of The Land Before Time series as a younger child, so even at age twelve, I found Dinosaur to offer little more than a retelling of that classic original film.

Dinosaur still isn’t a great film. It’s derivative, with a predictable narrative arc and expected character archetypes. Its parallels to The Land Before Time are strong: a young, orphaned herbivore joins with oddballs and outcasts from across species to make a journey across blighted lands to a fabled lush and fertile valley, all the while harried by dangerous carnivores. Even the opening feels like an attempt to update and extend The Land Before Time‘s sequence of misadventures for an imperiled egg before an eventual safe hatching. Still, the dinosaurs do look amazing and life-like, even when they talk (of course they talk; it’s a family movie, and it seems that kids can never be trusted to enjoy visual storytelling about more naturalistic animals). The settings are gorgeous as well, and there’s always something worth seeing in virtually every pane of the film.

But the reason I wanted to talk about Dinosaur now is because I was shocked by how contemporary the film’s themes appear. In this movie, a major natural disaster occurs, resulting in tremendous loss of life and the depletion of sustainable ecological systems. The prehistoric protagonists must venture to their nesting grounds in the hope that these lands have survived through the devastation. But reaching these nesting grounds can no longer be accomplished through the traditional, tried and tested means. Too many will be lost to thirst, fatigue, and predation if they are driven too hard. The old resources they depended on to make it are gone. The old herd leader chooses a path focused on austerity and sacrifice; he believes that if he pushes them hard enough, even if they lose half the herd, at least the strong and “deserving” will have survived. In contrast, young protagonist Aladar was raised not by dinosaurs but by a family of closely interconnected lemur-like creatures; he sees the value in all life and argues for protecting and caring for the old, weak, and infirm. He finds creative solutions to problems, and in the end, it is only his discovery of an alternate route to the nesting grounds, and his determination that the herd stick together even when confronted with a predator, that almost everyone makes it through okay. The old herd leader is faced with a literal rock wall preventing the advancement of the old way, but he doubles down on his course to the very end, leading to his doom.

Whether deliberate or not, the movie thus appears to have things to say about progressive change in the face of conservative resistance, about the need for communal effort in a society that has been built on individualist striving, and about the inevitable replacement of the old and staid with the young and new. These messages seem just as relevant now than ever, especially as our older generations’ leaders cling to their positions of power despite unrest and a desire for change among Millennials and Gen Z. There is an increasingly foolhardy and angry adherence to old ways, even when the crises of today, especially climate change, require drastic action and new solutions that may require considerable sacrifice, communal resilience, and adaptive thinking and behavior.

The strongest message I took away is that, no matter how dire the situation is, we must continue to hope. We can’t give in to fatalism, no matter what. It’s easy to read the initial devastating rain of meteors, followed by what appears to be a truly massive asteroid, as representative of the Yucatán impact that may have spelled the end for the dinosaurs. It smashes down over the sea; it causes colossal environmental destruction in a large swath around it, including further inland; and it appears to result in changes in climate (although the central dinosaur migration appears to be a regular occurrence during a dry season, so the dust storms and sun-obscuring clouds might have been intended to be more routine and less ominous than in my interpretation). The Cretaceous-era dinosaur lineup is of the right geologic age, mostly, and while the dinosaurs represent a bit of a geographic hodge-podge, the main villain Carnotaurus is from South America. More importantly, even if we aren’t witnessing the eventual end of the dinosaurs, we all know how the story of these marvelous creatures ends, and the movie doesn’t shy away from this. The last line of the film is as follows: “We can only hope that, in some small way, our time here will be remembered.”

There are many times when all hope seems lost. The lemur colony that serves as the adopted family of Aladar is almost completely wiped out very early in the film, and it is unclear until the end if there will be any others of their species to propagate future generations. One of Aladar’s early allies is an elderly Brachiosaurus, and we are told that she is the last of her kind. The environmental devastation and resultant changes to the landscape, including depletion of groundwater and the blockage of a major pass through a ring of mountains, create situations that initially suggest doom. Yet Aladar and his friends always find hope and keep on pushing, typically arriving at creative solutions that can only work through communal effort and group care. Surviving, living for another day and raising others up along with them, is an important enough goal, even if they can’t solve the broader problems of their time.

In a political climate where it can be tempting to give into fatalistic apathy, this message of hope and action for change, no matter what the future looks like, is rather inspiring. It was surprising to find this message in, of all places, a family film about dinosaurs.

Changing hunters

In my review of Tales of the Bounty Hunters, I started by saying that I wanted to some day talk a little more about how these bounty hunters have changed in their depictions between Legends and the Disney canon. That day has come. I’ll admit that the timing is awfully convenient, what with a show about bounty hunters in the new Star Wars canon premiering this Tuesday. It’s truly just a coincidence, though, or if it isn’t, my subconscious was primed for thinking about bounty hunters given the marketing for this show. Either way, it’s not exactly new ground for this blog (examples one, two, three, and four for consideration).

One thing this post is not meant to be is a biographical sketch of the characters from Tales of the Bounty Hunters, or a careful examination of the differing details of their interpretations across Legends and canon sources. You want that, go to Wookieepedia. What I want to do is talk about how I reacted to some of these changes, and how my opinion might have changed in revisiting a work that was so nostalgic for me.

To begin, I found Dengar’s transition from Legends to canon to be most welcome. In the new canon, he’s consistently been portrayed as a sarcastic, playful personality. He seems to enjoy being around people, even if he’s still a little bit of a sociopath. We are still missing a lot of details in his arc, but we see him go from a member of Boba Fett’s bounty hunting team in The Clone Wars to an aging, sardonic loner desperately yearning for a reconnection with others in the Aftermath books. It seems like his adventures during the reign of the Empire are still mostly untold. I haven’t kept up with the comics in a long while, but it seems like they’ve slowly included some Dengar appearances in which he seems to be much more grizzled. It’d be interesting to learn why exactly he became more hardened and violent and if those wrappings ever became actual bandages.

Regardless, Dengar’s fun now. He’s charismatic on-screen (and on the page), even if most of the other characters find him annoying. I’ll take this depiction over “Payback,” the dour ex-Imperial serial killer bent on revenge from Legends. Plus, the broader story of Dengar now appears to have all the elements of a story of loss, pain, and recovery that formed the core of the older version of Dengar. We’re still missing what caused that pain for him in the middle of this arc, as far as I’m aware, but maybe we’ll see it someday. I prefer Dengar finding salvation in found family over a romantic entanglement, anyway.

Bossk also seems a lot more “fun” in the new canon. He’s loyal to Boba Fett in The Clone Wars, at least. I’m fine with this version of the character; he’s not a mentor, exactly, to Boba, but maybe he’s a sort of weird uncle. That we don’t really have a clear picture of how Boba and Bossk fell out is an unfortunate gap. Bossk’s fate is equally unclear; by the peak of the Galactic Civil War, we only have a snapshot with his cameo on board the Executor. I don’t really know how to feel about this version of Bossk. The original incarnation of the character was so scary, vile, and outright evil. Then again, it’s interesting that Bossk’s character traits went on to largely define Trandoshans as a whole, then in the new canon, with greater individualization within species, Bossk is given a friendlier identity while a faction of Trandoshans is still characterized as Wookiee-hunting psychopaths within The Clone Wars.

Meanwhile, IG-88 doesn’t really seem to have been changed at all. There are a lot of other IG-model droids, from the Clone Wars onward, and these other versions often get used instead of IG-88 himself. That’s been a deliberate choice; in an interview with IGN, Dave Filoni explained:

So a droid like IG-88, if you know the Expanded Universe and the Star Wars history, there are a lot of stories around him or what might’ve happened to that particular droid. So out of respect for people that have been with this franchise a long time, it’s like, “well if we do something with this space, would that be contradicting those stories?” So it’s better just to say, “Well, there’s other droids,” it’s not like it was a unique assassin droid.

I appreciate Filoni’s tendency to bring in things from Legends as reasonable and to leave Legends elements ambiguously canon where possible instead of always explicitly contradicting them with new material, but I also find it ironic that he says that it wasn’t a unique assassin droid, when “Therefore I Am” is very much so about how IG-88 was a unique prototype (something already undermined in Legends with ideas like the IG lancer droids). That all said, I wouldn’t mind a revamped version of IG-88 that more fully explores the contradiction between his lofty ideals for a droid revolution and his practices of overwriting programming and operating through brutal violence. Why does he want the droid revolution? What are his end goals? Something more than simply being disgusted with organics could be really interesting, especially in the wake of L3-37’s debut (and IG-88’s plan to become the Death Star II could provide an interesting mirror to L3’s becoming part of the Millennium Falcon).

Zuckuss and 4-LOM became such weird, splintered characters in Legends. Zuckuss had multiple personalities; 4-LOM had a memory (and personality) reset. These elements appear to have been attempts to explain too many stories about these characters from different writers with different visions who didn’t bother to make for a consistent presentation. That said, I like the earlier versions of these characters. Zuckuss is a thoughtful, meditative, tradition-bound member of a mystic hunting tradition. 4-LOM is a constantly adapting droid who believes that he can program himself to allow for intuition and to maybe even access the Force. It doesn’t seem like the duo have appeared much in the new canon yet, so it’s hard to say how their personalities will cement.

Boba Fett has had the biggest transformation, from weird zealot-murderer to vengeance-obsessed clone; in some ways, he’s become more like the old Dengar. I like the newer version of Boba Fett better. The biggest mark against Boba Fett is that he has an unsatisfying ending. His death was treated as a sort of joke in Return of the Jedi. In a way, Attack of the Clones makes his death more of an inescapable tragedy; his “father” tried to raise a better version of himself, and Jango’s untimely death set Boba down a path that would see him die in a similarly unceremonious way at yet another elaborate execution gone wrong. Legends tried to make Fett virtually indestructible, overcoming the Sarlacc so that he could go on to be a continuing threat to Han and his family. But I think Fett’s life from Kamino to Tatooine has a better, self-contained arc, even if his on-screen death will always be a silly footnote.

As a special addition, I have to mention Greedo. Greedo’s formative Legends tale was in “A Hunter’s Fate,” collected within Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. There, he’s a young hotshot who’s basically goaded, unprepared, into a fight with Han so that his bounty hunter “friends” can in turn collect a bounty on the inept Rodian. Whatever happened in that cantina–Han shooting first, second, or simultaneously–fits comfortably with this narrative. Greedo was unprepared and couldn’t outgun Han. Greedo’s new canon version is actually frustrating to me; he’s been in operation for at least a couple decades, with an active involvement in the underworld of the Clone Wars era, and yet he still bumbles a point-blank shot at Han. It’s a wonder that such an incompetent gunman could have survived in his line of work for as long as he did. If Lucas had simply left Han to shoot first, this wouldn’t bother me as much–Han would have been taking out a threat proactively, before the dangerous hunter could get a shot off. But if Han fires second, or even simultaneously, it becomes difficult to understand how Greedo, with weapon rested on the table before him the whole time, could have screwed up so badly.

Obviously, the above only reflects my opinions and interpretations of these characters. Bounty hunters are on my brain. I’d love to hear which versions of the characters you prefer and why, or even which versions of the characters you’re more familiar with. And as a separate prompt, are there any other characters who have had particularly successful/unsuccessful transitions from Legends to the new canon? Do you see new characters, like IG-11, that are filling the role of a Legends character in new stories? I hope to see some interesting replies!

A little here and there

I’ve had a lovely weekend. Today was really special in particular. It was a beautiful day. My wife and I put a lot of time and attention into training the puppy today, and it’s really shown off. We’re reinforcing learned tricks and introducing new ones and we’re happy with the pace, especially since she hasn’t been to obedience school yet. She seems so smart and picks up on things really quickly. Other than that, my day has been a little bit housework, a little bit yard work, a little bit of catch-up on my day job, and more than a little bit of leisure time.

If you can’t tell already, this is one of those meandering posts where I don’t have much to say but still wanted to check in. As per usual with these sorts of posts, I’ll at least briefly discuss the things I’m into that may or may not pop up on the blog in the near future.

After two months of homeownership, I finally pulled the Nintendo Switch and games out of storage in the guest bedroom. The first month was busy enough that video games were the last thing on my mind. The last month has been a little more focused on movies and reading, with admittedly way too much familiar TV thrown in. But I started getting the itch. Putting Desert Child on hold for a moment, I picked up Hello Neighbor. That’s a game that has an interesting concept but struggles in execution, and I’ll probably have more of a review when I either finish a play-through of the (relatively short) game or get exhausted by it, whichever comes first. For point of reference, I’m in the middle of Act 2 of 3. It’s a game where I wish I’d relied more on the available reviews. But of course, reviews are a subjective thing, and even a “bad” game can be something to be enjoyed. Just by way of example, I loved the simple action-RPG-lite beat-’em-up gameplay and branching story of X-Men: Destiny, even while recognizing that most of the complaints about that game were pretty valid (in fact-checking my memory of this game and reviews of the time, by the way, I was surprised to see that it had been de-listed from online stores and had unsold copies destroyed because of a legal dispute; now I really regret my decision to get rid of my copy, even though it was a game I likely wouldn’t play again and was taking up limited shelf space).

As for TV, I started The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which I can only watch when my wife’s not around (she hates puppetry, and stop-motion as well), and I’ve continued to slowly move through the quite fast-paced and bite-sized Adventure Time because I can only watch it when my wife is around (we were stalled for a long time because she just wasn’t in the mood, which is just baffling to me).

I’m reading too many things and moving too slowly, so I don’t have any interesting updates there. I did, however, learn from my wife that Netflix is going to release a series about Madam C.J. Walker, based on On Her Own Ground, in 2020, so that’s kind of a weird coincidence.

To close out my pop culture consumption, I don’t really have any movie updates, either. I’m mostly just eager to see The Rise of Skywalker in December (though weirdly I might be more excited for the next Jurassic World movie and associated TV series, even though I’ve still got quite a while to wait on both–I do love me some dinosaurs).

And…that’ll just about do it! Have a good week, folks.

Revised, never finished

The Indiana State Museum IMAX sometimes shows classic films, in addition to the expected blockbuster new releases and nature documentaries. I’ve been trying to take advantage of that, seeing films in IMAX that I’ve never seen in theaters at all before. This summer, I got to see Jaws and Apocalypse Now on the big screen. They’re both movies I’m rather fond of–you know, they’re classics, most people are fond of them–and so was excited to get to see in this format.

Apocalypse Now was a very interesting example because it was a version of the film that I’d never seen before. At home, I have a copy of Redux, which is of course already an altered, expanded version of the original. This, however, was the Final Cut, a 40th-anniversary re-release and restoration. In one of the promotional trailers for this new version, Francis Ford Coppola states that he wanted to “make a version that I like” that’s “longer than the 1979 version but shorter than Apocalypse Redux.” He says he recommends it as his “favorite” (note: not definitive) version.

I love this movie, and it looked great in this format. It was still wild to see yet another version of the film, one that felt in ways different in tone and pacing (and a little different in story) than the Redux cut that I’d become familiar with. It had actually been a few years since I’d last watched any version of the film, so the whole experience was a little dream-like as I tried to register what was different, what I had simply forgotten, and what I had perhaps misremembered. It was a good experience.

What mostly got me thinking with this new edition was how movies, like books, are never really final products: they’re just eventually published, released to an audience. They might continue to be revised over time; another easy example is the revision to The Hobbit to adapt Gollum to his characterization in The Lord of the Rings. Even published works get revised, growing and changing over time beyond simple corrections of errors.

Yet modern fans often look to “extended cuts” of films as more comprehensive, purer, canonical versions. It’s a tempting impulse: if a film adds in more scenes, then it seems to be more “complete.” I think part of that mindset can also be traced to the existence of deleted scenes as additional features on DVD and Blu-Ray releases, suggesting that a film is simply trimmed down, instead of conveying the reality of multiple scenes, and multiple takes of scenes, being combined, reoriented, re-cut to fit a final vision.

I think it’s also why fans viewed the Star Wars Special Editions so harshly, since those edits were viewed perhaps as more “comprehensive” or “canonical” than the previous versions, “replacing” more favored versions of scenes, never mind the consistent stream of minor edits and adjustments to the films over time (it didn’t help that it became very difficult to locate new releases of anything approaching the original versions after that).

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It’s fun to see Apocalypse Now: Final Cut defiantly offering another take that is, in many ways, less comprehensive than a previous release. And this version is not offered up as canonical–merely the director’s preferred version of the film. It encourages the viewer to observe the film as a constantly growing organism, living even after release not just because of continued developments by the creators but because of an ongoing dialogue between creators and viewers. After all, Final Cut is only presented as another version, a version favored and recommended by the director but not insisted upon as the ultimate or purest version of the film.

Maybe this sort of thing, this announcement and release not just of a longer film but a changed and favored film, happens more often than I realize, but Star Wars and Apocalypse Now remain for now the two most prominent examples (far removed from bizarre and easily parodied fanboy cries for a “Snyder cut” of any given DC film, for instance). I’d like to see more of that, more remixing of classics (old and new) by their creators to further deconstruct the idea of a rigid, “pure,” and ultimately lifeless work of art locked, fossilized, into a moment in time.

Reviews: Ulam / Call Her Ganda

I went a little movie-heavy this week. On Saturday, I watched both Ulam: Main Dish and Call Her Ganda (both available at the Indianapolis Public Library!). Both were documentaries but quite different in subject matter, tone, and style.

Ulam, directed by Alexandra Cuerdo, is a downright excellent documentary about the current state of Fil-Am cuisine. It’s a fascinating collection of spliced-together interviews with a diverse crew of Filipino-American restaurant owners and chefs representative of the burgeoning movement to create and celebrate Filipino (and Filipino-inspired) dishes. And there are plenty of beautiful meals to salivate over throughout! The movie functions as a little bit of a cultural manifesto and a call for Filipino-Americans to celebrate, embrace, and support Filipino cuisine, and for all other Americans to open their eyes and give the food the attention it deserves. The movie came out in 2018 and feels very contemporary, with many of the main figures of this new food scene providing extensive interview time. The interviews provided an intimate perspective for many of the subjects, and it was also clear that this was a true community of culinary creatives, even where divided geographically; they were obviously in communication with each other, explicitly and implicitly referencing this connection and using a shared vocabulary and ethos.

If there was anything I would have liked to see more of, it would have been greater geographic diversity. The focus is on the East and West coasts, particularly LA and NYC, and I get it: that’s where a lot of this is happening, and that’s where larger Filipino communities are. Still, I know (if mostly peripherally) that there are chefs doing things with Filipino food throughout the Midwest, working with pride either with “authentic” Filipino food or Filipino-inspired dishes, doing something more visible and upscale than cheap, hidden-away turo-turo joints. I have to assume that the same is the case in the South, as well. Of course, no documentary can cover everything, and showing Filipino restaurants serving real Filipino food by real Filipino-Americans succeeding in the major food-trend-setting cities is important, but as a Hoosier, I do get tired of the narrative that everything cool related to arts, culture, and dining happens away from fly-over country.

As an aside, I just so happened to watch this documentary shortly after reading the recent NYT article about the revival of interest in the work of Doreen Gamboa Fernandez. They go together nicely, but I’d recommend reading the article whether or not you watch Ulam. And as an aside to an aside, wow, Nicole Ponseca seems to be everywhere! The owner of Maharlika and Jeepney, she is a major figure in Ulam, she’s interviewed for the NYT article, and she’s the author of the not-quite-year-old, well-reviewed I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook. The cookbook’s great, by the way; it’s very inviting with tons of recipes, lots of beautiful photos, cultural tidbits, and a clear argument in favor of the popularizing of Filipino food and culture. It’s truly a great book for someone like my wife, who’s grown up feeling both pride and shame for her heritage, and for someone like me, who just loves good food. (And an aside to the aside to the aside: all the restaurants featured in Ulam look incredible, but at this point I don’t see how I could ever plan a trip to New York that didn’t include a meal in at least one of Ponseca’s restaurants.)

Call Her Ganda, directed by PJ Raval, is a heavy documentary about the tragic killing of a trans woman by an American marine in the Philippines, and the resultant publicity, trial, and international tension that resulted. The subject matter was important, but the execution was lacking. Frankly, this documentary tried to tackle too much. There are too many important subjects and themes that intersect here for something that runs less than two hours. A miniseries, or better yet a book, would have been more impactful. Some of the issues that are raised by this documentary and its central subject matter, in no particular order, include the following:

  • The Visiting Forces Agreement has provisions that are contrary to the sovereign interests of the Philippines and that keep the Philippines subordinate to the United States;
  • The treatment of LGBTQ people and issues in America and in the Philippines is hardly a finished story with a happy ending;
  • The transgender community continues to remain a particularly vulnerable, separate, and discriminated-against group that has not necessarily risen in treatment along with the gay/lesbian/bisexual community;
  • Even those who claim support for LGBTQ people/issues can still be transphobic;
  • Violence against transgender people remains a largely unaddressed problem;
  • There are rampant unresolved concerns with the exploitation of women and transgender individuals, especially revolving around the sex trade, and these concerns are not so easily addressed as siding with or against the legalization of sex work;
  • Transgender individuals in impoverished regions of the world, where they lack support and may face increased discrimination, often feel compelled to turn to sex work to survive;
  • Political movements can make unusual bedfellows for the convenience of shared use of an icon or moment (e.g., the intersection of LGBTQ activists and anti-American activists in relation to the death of Jennifer Laude);
  • The Philippines has a complicated history in relation to the LGBTQ community, with a pre-colonial acceptance of non-conforming gender identities that has been suppressed by centuries under the domain of the Catholic church;
  • The nationalist impulse that led to the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency has at least some connection to many Filipinos feeling ignored by their leaders, who have kowtowed to American policies that seem exploitative and actively detrimental to the well-being of the average Filipino;
  • Justice is limited to those of little means, and in the extreme poverty present, for instance, in areas of the Philippines, justice can be subverted in many ways with the addition of money; and
  • Justice can often be limited not just by corruption or poor enforcement but by inadequately written laws.

There’s more, but that’s enough to make my point. The movie hops around, hinting at and sometimes exploring these different issues, but without a cohesive focus on one or two concerns, it feels too broad in scope. The movie resultantly feels sort of distant and removed. For such a shocking crime, the human element is faint. The mother of the victim is a compelling character, but she shares the screen with her attorneys and with a transgender Buzzfeed journalist covering the story. The journalist probably gets the most attention, but she seems so quiet and reserved, and too often the story seems caught up in her experience of a moment rather than the underlying story. (It’s actually baffling to me that the focus is on the journalist. This isn’t really a story about an investigation into a mystery; it’s pretty clear, at least as presented in the documentary, who killed Jennifer, why they killed Jennifer, and how they killed Jennifer. The real story is the impact to the family of the victim and how activists respond to and use this incident. One of the most articulate, energized, and engaging figures to appear was a Filipina transgender activist, but she only appears sporadically.) I hope that a more coherent take on this story and its many complicated issues is eventually made available–if you are aware of something like that, let me know.

Both documentaries were worth watching, and while I preferred Ulam, I recognize the importance of the subject matter of Call Her Ganda, especially when the transgender community is often disparaged or invisible to the larger population. It’s great that my library has materials like these in its collection, and I hope people check them out.

A weak week recap

I don’t know that I have much to say this week. We’re still adjusting to Rhodey’s absence in our home. After a week of struggling, we took today to get back to work on getting things unpacked, organized, renovated, etc. Today I tackled some yard work I’d let build up after Rhodey died. The previous owner kept a lovely lawn and garden, but in the months between her death and the home purchase, weeds crept in, and grasses spread like wildfire through the flower beds. So on top of the usual mowing and trimming and pruning, I’m finally getting around to beating back these vegetative invasions. My goal for this evening is to get as many of the books put away as possible. Truly, I don’t know that I’ll get that much done, or that I’ll continue it during the weeknights.

Speaking of books, I’m regaining my appetite for reading–or, really, my focus. I’m still all over the place with partially read books. Last week, I made a concentrated effort to finish A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell. I rather enjoyed it, but my (relatively) increased reading speed was largely motivated by the return date for the library. I racked up a little bit of a late fee there. Plus, it’s in demand, so I’m that jerk delaying someone’s hold. Not the main point: the main point is that Virginia Hall is a fascinating woman, the French Resistance is a fascinating movement within a period of history shrouded by great evil, and there are interesting parallels to today. Not the sort of book I usually talk about on this blog, but given that it helped jump-start my reading again, I figured it was worth a mention. (Thanks, Mom, for the recommendation however long ago that prompted me to place the hold in the first place.)

I still have a pile of books to get through, though. The list:

  • On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, by A’Lelia Perry Bundles (another library loan, and another of those books I don’t normally write here about, but I’m a fan of nonfiction, especially histories and biographies, especially those about Indianapolis and its significant residents, and even more narrowly, the people and culture of Indiana Avenue from its segregationist roots to its thriving status as an African-American arts and business district and its eventual destruction as the result of a complex variety of factors that, in general, don’t cast the city of Indianapolis, the state of Indiana, or IUPUI in the greatest light);
  • Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, picked up because a mutual on Twitter was raving about it (and I like it so far, largely due to some really wild world-building, but I haven’t gotten very far in, and this in fact started as an eBook library loan but transformed into an inexpensive purchase when the loan expired);
  • Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray, because (1) Star Wars, (2) Leia, and (3) Claudia Gray; and
  • Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters, one of the old Expanded Universe short story anthologies and an impulse buy for nostalgic reasons while at Half Price Books for something completely unrelated.

Oh, also, I haven’t even started it, but Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, recommended by a friend when I admitted to a lack of familiarity with this Daoist text (having only read the Tao Te Ching in college), is another book in my pile and another library loan.

I haven’t played any video games, old or new, familiar or unfamiliar, lately. Haven’t really been in the mood. I haven’t even hooked up the Switch in our new home yet. I’ve kind of been getting into the mood for mucking around in a Grand Theft Auto game. Before the move, I was playing Desert Child on Switch (which had been perfect timing, since I finally watched all of the Cowboy Bebop series), and I’m starting to feel the desire to get back to that. But I just haven’t had much of a drive to play games. Similarly, I haven’t really watched any movies lately, other than going to see a showing of Jaws in IMAX at the Indiana State Museum on Wednesday.

What’s everyone else reading or watching? Any recommendations that might tie into any of the above?

Here’s to a better week than the last one. Hopefully next week’s post, and my general mental state, will be more focused.