This month, Colleen and I have decided to discuss trilogies, but despite last month’s promise, it’s not what you may be expecting… kind of like if you were suddenly pulled out of some pink goo and told that reality is an illusion. Kind of exactly like that. Also, the podcast is a little longer than usual, but we’re still charging you the unbelievably low price of free! And we may have neglected to explicitly reference the names of the second and third sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, respectively), but we trust you already knew that anyway. Enjoy!
Imagine you’re sitting in a movie theatre waiting to see the latest Spider-Man reboot. It goes: popcorn, previews, teenagers throwing gummi bears at your head, more previews, opening credits… wait, what’s this? Who’s that black guy? Is that… could that be Peter Parker? What the hell? That doesn’t make any sense! Peter Parker is WHITE, godammit.
Okay, I know your mind has just been blown to bits by this radical interpretation of a fictional character, but please consider this: what does Peter Parker’s ethnicity or skin colour change? When you think about his backstory, his family life, his love for the redheaded girl-next-door, or the story of his transformation from geeky high school kid to badass superhero, does his skin colour actually matter in any of that? Would he not have taken up photography? Would he not have blamed himself for the death of his uncle? Would he not have recognized that with great power comes great responsibility? No. The answer is no. If we changed his hair colour to blonde, would that be blasphemous? What about his eye colour? Again, the answer is no. None of that matters to who the character actually is or the story, so why can’t we change it?
It seems pretty clear cut to me, but there are plenty of people getting all in a huff about the Twitter campaign (and Facebook group) to cast African-American actor Donald Glover as the next Spider-Man. While it seems like most people have hopped onto the bandwagon, some have insisted that it would be untrue to a classic and beloved character. In fact, in a recent interview Stan Lee (the comic god behind Spider-Man) said that it would be “confusing” to have a black actor play Spider-Man. And a few other comments I read about the idea also used that word: confusing.
If you think it’s important to stay true to the original incarnation of an iconic character, remember a couple of things. In the recent rebooted Battlestar Galactica series, two characters were changed from man > woman and from black > Asian without disrupting the precious sanctity of the original show. And in the Iron Man movies, as well as the upcoming The Avengers movie, Nick Fury is a white character played by Samuel L. Jackson. [Edited later: Take a look at the comments section below, where it’s pointed out that there actually is a black Nick Fury in the comics.] So, really, does the change hurt the movie? Frankly, if we have to put up with the unending barrage of remakes being spit out en masse by Hollywood, we should at least let directors and producers mix things up a little. If you don’t have any changes to make, or anything new to add to something, then don’t bother. And changing the ethnicity of Peter Parker? That’s something new, at least.
Of course, there is a dark side to casting an actor who doesn’t match the ethnicity of a character. Jake Gyllenhaal recently played the titular role in Prince of Persia without being Persian. And there has been a bit of backlash against M. Night Shyamalan for casting mainly white actors in Asian roles in the upcoming The Last Airbender. [Edited later: I’m having a hard time figuring out the ethnicity of the actors from this movie, aside from that guy from Twilight and Dev Patel. I assume that information must be out there, though, if people are upset that they’re “white”. If you can throw me an informative bone here, that would be great. Also, if you’ve watched the original Avatar: The Last Airbender, can you pinpoint for me exactly what the ethnicities of the characters are supposed to be? They don’t explicitly say, do they? They’re just “fire nation” etc. Based on what I know so far, it sounds like when M. Night says he saw the characters as ambiguously mixed, I gotta’ believe him. And that Noah Ringer’s gotta’ have some Asian in him.]
Personally, I have to admit it’s sad to see a white A-list actor play a character that could have been played by a minority; frankly, it seems like a missed opportunity to be more inclusive. But, at the same time, is that a double-standard? If Peter Parker can be played by a black actor, why can’t Prince Dastan be played by a part-Swedish, part-Ashkenazi Jewish actor? (Yeah, I IMDB’ed that.) Are we more comfortable with non-white actors playing traditionally white roles than the other way around? Is this a “give the minority” a chance issue? Are we just tired of seeing white actors getting all the roles? (And, let’s be honest, 99% of all the characters based on old movies, T.V. shows and comic books are white, so where does that leave everyone else when all Hollywood wants to make are reboots?)
So, on the one hand, we want to be able to open up roles to people of various ethnicities without insisting that traditionally white characters be played by white actors, and on the other hand, when we do come across a non-white character, the audience seems to want to stay true to the ethnic makeup of that character and movie execs just want to cast a tan Jake Gyllenhaal.
And, of course, there’s some grey area. In 1982, Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian and half-English, played Mahatma Gandhi. Was that okay? Is he supposed to be 100% Indian? What about people who are 1/6 this, and 1/6 that? Who are they “allowed” to play? What about comedians who portray Barack Obama? Should they technically be half-black and half-white? When you start nitpicking about the ethnicity or skin colour of actors matching the genetic makeup of the characters, or people, they’re playing, you may end up playing a game of “trace the DNA” as more and more people have mixed backgrounds anyway.
I guess in a perfect world, there would be a diverse array of characters to play, accompanied by an equally diverse array of good actors to play them and no one would have to consciously try to a) mix it up a bit so it’s not all white out there and b) ensure that characters of a particular ethnicity get portrayed by actors of that particular ethnicity. But since it’s not a perfect world, what ethics dictate who should be cast in which roles? And who’s deciding?
Hey, want to listen to two friends debate (read: argue) the merits of two movies? Yes? Then I have good news! My friend Colleen and I have started a podcast. You can download our first episode here, or check out the “Podcast: Love this movie, hate this film” page where I’ll post them as they’re completed.
Thanks for listening!
P.S. Constructive feedback only, please. It’s our first time!
I’ve never watched Lost before, but since I felt really left out with the series finale craziness tonight, I decided to watch anyway. Here’s how that went…
9 – 9:07 Very confusing bits and pieces. There’s a doctor, and a guy who I guess used to need a wheelchair.
9:07 Priest named Desmond is orchestrating some kind of hostage situation that involves a fugitive and a corpse. I think he’s part of a crossover with Touched by an Angel.
9:08 I think the girl escaped to an island. Good for her. But everyone seems to have emotional baggage. Jacob seems to have been born again, or something. Or something.
9:09 A mission! To destroy a magical leprechaun in the Heart of the Island. Fun banter. Ominous close-up. Credits. Commercials!
9:14 Another hostage situation with a confused fugitive. If he’s driving a Hummer he must be a bad guy. Hey! It’s either Merry or Pippen! And he’s… goth. I think the big curly-haired guy is another Angel. A very badass Angel with a tranquilizer gun.
9:16 I think someone should be tending to that girl’s wounds. I can see the blood and I think her arm is broken. Where are their priorities?
9:17 Aragorn is captured. He calls the bald guy “Smokey.” Is he the Smoke Monster I keep hearing about?
9:18 I think one camp likes the Island. And the bald-headed guy wants to destroy it. I guess I’m rooting for the Island to stay put.
9:19 More characters! I don’t recognize these people from EW. They seem nice, though.
9:20 The T.V. screen goes crazy. I’m scared.
9:21 Ha, the kidnapping priest Desmond is now the hostage. How the tables have turned. Commercials!
9:26 I think the little guy in the back with the walkie-talkie is going to betray the bald guy.
9:27 Gah! More characters to keep track of…
9:28 Of course the black smoke is evil. I thought we were post-racial. Wait, there’s another island?
9:29 Now it’s a CSI-type thriller, possibly in the past, or future, or alternate sideways universe. With bedside drama and the FBI agent from V!
9:30 Japanese lady is having déjà vu for two. 😦 They’ve had some tragic love story. I’d watch that movie.
9:31 Hey! They speak English… Liars, trying to make that nice doctor look stupid. Commercials!
9:35 Boromir is running away to join Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli.
9:36 More hospitals. I thought this was supposed to set on an island.
9:38 These guys are being pretty dramatic about a grey hair.
9:39 Another plane crash with new survivors? Or is the pilot an original survivor? How long has he been floating in that water?
9:40 Damn. She really hates that bald-headed guy. Where did that gun come from? This is probably how she ended up in jail in the first place.
9:41 Okay, I’m dropping the LotR metaphor now. Commercials!
9:45 Aw, they call each other “doctor”, like “honey” or “sweetie.” Gag.
9:46 Oooh, Desmond is a weapon. I’m intrigued. Although, why doesn’t Desmond just run away? The bald guy only has a little knife. Also, Jake is going to kill the guy whose spine he fixed? Is that irony?
9:47 “I believe in you, dude.” Gag. I thought he was supposed to be badass. Where’s his tranquilizer gun?
9:48 So confused.
9:49 I guess that little waterfall is a wormhole or something. Cool. Commercials!
9:53 “You can’t let other people decide who you are, dude. You have to decide that for yourself.” Gag.
9:55 Syed to the rescue! Like Batman. Another love story… but inter-racial this time. So, do all these people have amnesia or something? Yay! Ian Somerhalder. I know him from The Vampire Diaries.
9:56 Another angry chick with a gun. Named Claire, apparently.
9:58 Desmond keeps talking about going towards the light. Does that mean what I think it means?
9:59 So confused.
10:04 Ohhhh, Claire is the pregnant sister. I’m getting’ it, I’m gettin’ it…
10:05 Angry chick reunion at a benefit concert with a very mismatched band.
10:07 The place at the bottom of that waterfall looks very mystical. No! Don’t step in the water! You’ll wake up the water zombies! Wait, no, that’s Harry Potter…
10:09 What the hell just happened? Did he pull out the stopper in some mystical drain to Hell? Uh oh…
10:10 Wow, Jake cannot take a punch. Commercials!
10:15 Damn, this show has everything. An impromptu birth backstage at a concert! Wow…
10:16 Damn, more déjà vu.
10:17 Oh, for heaven’s sake. Fastest delivery ever. Did she even cut the umbilical cord?
10:19 ANOTHER love story.
10:20 I can’t tell which one is the “real” world…
10:21 Earthquake! And panic music! And rain! It’s like someone is shaking the giant snow globe they’re all in.
10:22 Why didn’t they repair that plane five seasons ago? Locke probably stopped them. He’s super evil.
10:23 Showdown!… and commercials…
10:29 “What happened to your neck?” Oooooh, the worlds are bleeding into each other. So, is this going to be awkward when Locke wakes up?
10:32 All these moments where people are remembering their Island selves (I’m assuming…) are very touching. I’ve never even seen the things they’re remembering, but I’m so moved. Also, Jack is definitely going to be the last to remember. Loser. Commercials!
10:36 Where did those ladders on the side of the cliff come from?
10:38 All you need to fix a plane is duck tape. Noted.
10:39 Hmmm… maybe if you have that déjà vu experience in the sideways universe, you are free from the Island in the… uh, Island universe?
10:40 What is their attachment to the Island??? Gawd, learn to let go, guys.
10:41 They’re kissing each other goodbye, probably forever, and I’m just thinking about how uncomfortable it must be to be wearing wet jeans on a tropical island. Commercials!
10:46 Ha! See? Duck tape.
10:48 “Maybe you should read the machine its rights.” lol I’m going to remember that trick the next time a vending machine eats my money.
10:49 I feel a happy ending coming on. Uh, not that kind of happy ending. Commercials!
10:57 Somebody always has to be the suicidal hero.
10:58 “The Island needs you”? Is this like Little Shop of Horrors?
10:59 Ewww, don’t drink that dirty water. Magical dirty water.
11:02 How did she swim with what appears to be a broken arm?
11:03 Yay! Claire is going with them! No loose ends! I wonder where her kid is…
11:05 Yes, now put the phallus back in the hole and everything will be alright.
11:06 Free! Free at last! I hope they have enough gas to get… anywhere.
11:08 Jeez. Jack looks like he’s lost his mind. Commercials!
11:13 So is Ben going to just live out in that courtyard? Work out his issues?
11:16 Aw, Hugo is so sad. He’s got big shoes to fill… I’m assuming. Rise to the occasion, Hugo! Aw, he gave Ben exactly what he needed.
11:18 Everyone who’s had their memories restored seems so Zen. I guess Jack has the most emotional baggage.
11:21 Aw, it’s a little multi-faith chapel. How P.C.
11:22 Oh, snap. Someone lost the corpse. Oh, wait, not exactly… “Jack, I am your father.”
11:24 *tear* I guess dying can’t be easy… So, I guess the Island is, like, transitional therapy for newly dead people?
11:26 Wait, wait, no, the Island was real, and this sideways place is a place they made up to find each other… in death? Or, afterlife?
11:29 I still don’t get it. But at least everyone looks happy. Puppy!
11:30 To the blogs!
At the risk of sounding like I’m obsessed with this show, here is another post on Ugly Betty, starting with some random oil paintings created by Betty’s on-screen boyfriend while they were broken up, which appeared in a fourth-season episode (they were later auctioned off IRL to raise funds for Save the Children).
You can see the rest here. I think you have to remember that they were created by a heartbroken ex, otherwise they’re kind of offensive.
[SERIES FINALE SPOILERS AHEAD]
The series finale aired this past Wednesday, and I have to admit I got very emotional. I don’t even watch the show regularly, but when I do, I can’t help but relate to Betty’s character – from not being conventionally pretty to trying to make it as a writer. But the final few episodes really hit close to home with Betty trying to decide between risking it all to move to London for a job that she feels is right for her and staying put in New York and playing it safe.
At one point, she worried about leaving her father alone (since her sister was also planning to move away at the same time), and she asked if it was selfish of her to leave. She got quite a bit of grief from her father who tried to convince her to stay, and I could understand her guilt for leaving him alone. She also felt like she was being naive or foolhardy for leaving a reliable job at a magazine that was estalished, where she had spent 4 years working her way up, to pursue a more interesting position at a magazine in London that was just starting.
Ultimately, though, she got her happy ending (as so often happens in TV shows). She took the riskier option, and left everything to pursue her dreams. The montage at the end of the episode shows her adapting to London life, working hard, making friends and generally being pretty happy with her decision. I think there’s a pretty clear message there. Oh, and by the end, her father gives her his blessing to go. Awww… (That was partly sarcastic.)
Sometimes when I find myself pulling meaning, guidance or relatability from entertainment – like I am right now – I feel silly for a moment. And then I realize that stories exist for a reason. Besides entertaining us, they offer truth, often universal, and almost always simultaneously mirroring and influencing our lives. Yes, even silly TV shows that are often guilty of being oversimplified and somewhat unrealistic have something to offer, depending on what you’re looking for.
And then, when I think of my silly dreams to be a writer and I worry that not only is it unattainable, but that it often feels simply unimportant, I think about how much TV shows, books and movies have made my life better, and then it doesn’t feel so silly.
As if there wasn’t already so much evidence in support of this sad, sad truth, here’s another.
1. Born with perfect teeth, Betty grows up to be a bitchy, materialistic… meanie because without that imperfection to keep her grounded and humble, she doesn’t know how to be a good person.
2. Betty’s older sister, Hilda, who is known as the “pretty sister,” is actually ugly (read: fat) in this alternate universe because there can only be one pretty sister and the other one is ugly (again, read: fat). And, of course, Hilda is pretty miserable and never had a kid in high school (because being fat is better than birth control).
3. Mark, who is generally very put-together and confident in the show, is a miserable push-over and lacking in self confidence in this alternate reality because the Evil Betty took his job and was mean to him. Of course, this miserable version of Mark is ugly (read: wears glasses and has somewhat greasy hair).
I know the show is an ongoing commentary (of sorts) on popular definitions of beauty, but their usual comments on the subject don’t tend to bother me. This episode, however, bothered me. Why did having perfect teeth make Betty a vain bitch?
Okay, I know, I know… I get the rationale that the inevitable difficulty that comes with having an imperfection (according to our society’s standards) can keep a person humble and builds character, blah, blah, blah… But I don’t agree with the idea that pretty people end up being vain or shallow. It’s possible to care about outer beauty without forgetting about inner beauty.
Planning an Oscar party? Need some best picture-themed food? Now that there are 10 best picture nominees, instead of 5, trying to devise an entire menu of themed foods is going to be twice as difficult this year. So let me help, and try a few of these ideas on Sunday, March 7. Warning: Lots of meat and alcohol.
Flaming German drinks, some serious Jewish appetizers and a cocktail that won’t alienate any guest:
Start with a German winter drink (meaning it’s served hot) traditionally served at New Year’s called Feuerzangenbowle (Flaming Fire Tongs Punch). [Inglourious Basterds] As a non-alcoholic option, offer glasses of milk.
Lighten things up with a high-flying drink and an exotic first course:
To go with the first course, serve this drink to your guests: the Paper Airplane Cocktail. [Up in the Air] For added excitement, use tiny plastic cups, serve it from a trolley, and charge $9 a glass.
Then, depending on what kind of bird meat you can procure, try either the Ostrich Chili-Corn Tamale or Partridges with Orange and Vermouth Sauce. [Up] Mmmm… Pair with any one of many salads from South America, like the Red Quinoa and Cranberry Salad or the Jicama and Orange Salad. [also Up]
Bring on the hurt with more drinks and a precious main course:
To wash the meal down, serve this charming cocktail: the Chili Bomb (Crown Royal and Red Bull). Do not offer an alternative. [The Hurt Locker]
Colourful desserts and British tea:
Offer these two dessert options to end the night on a colourful note as they announce which one of our culinary inspirations will be taking home the grand prize: Blue Tidal Wave Sorbet [Avatar] and/or these harmonious black-and-white cookies [The Blind Side]. Serve with English breakfast tea, or another British variety of tea [An Education].
By some random or divine coincidence, I ended up watching both Anvil: The Story of Anvil and Man on Wire tonight, in between which I also watched J.K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement address at Harvard University on TED.com. The coincidence? Besides all of these things being generally awesome, they each also had a “follow your dream” message to rub in my cynical face.
Anvil is a Canadian heavy metal band that rocked with Bono in the early ’80s, but lost momentum shortly after. During the filming of the documentary, they were struggling to keep going in between family life and ‘real’ jobs. (You can read a great review of it here.) The point is, they never reached the fame or success of The Rolling Stones, but they’ve matched their longevity. And they aren’t too proud to mail out demo tapes, borrow money to put out a 13th album, or to play to a crowd of 5 headbangers.
Lead singer and guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow says at one point, “The music lasts forever. And maybe the debt does, too. But the bottom line is the music lasts forever, and that’s the art, that’s the most important thing.”
Meanwhile, Philippe Petit is sneaking into the World Trade Center to walk along a tightrope over 1,300 ft. in the air. (Proper review here.) If you’ve seen this documentary, you will understand why I love his energy, and his enthusiasm. I think of this quotation from On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, when I listen to Petit talk about his motivation:
“The only people for me are the mad ones. The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. The ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, ‘Awww!'”
When Petit talks about his approach to life, that it should be lived on the edge, moving and creating each day like a work of art, it makes you want to do the same – to move, and move, and move towards something, anything – to fix your eyes on something and reach.
Petit describes the moment he heard about the twin towers being built, and the birth of his dream to walk between them: “Now I have acquired my dream. Usually, when you have a dream, the object of your dream is tangible, it’s there, it’s quixotic, but it’s there, nagging you, confronting you, but the object of my dream doesn’t exist yet.”
He then waited until the towers were built, planned for months, snuck in and danced up there for almost an hour. You have to respect that commitment. That alone – the certainty and conviction, that clarity of purpose – is something to envy. The fact that he succeeded (and didn’t fall to an untimely death) almost seems secondary.
And on that note, you can also listen to J.K. Rowling give her take on failure and success to hundreds of Harvard graduates and their beaming parents. While her whole speech is worth a listen, what she said about failure was of particular interest to me. If you’re not already aware, the British author of Harry Potter fame was broke and nearly destitute when she wrote the first book and, obviously, has since been rather successful. Here, however, she talks about her lowest point after a failed marriage and having no job:
“The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass. And by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I may never have had found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive.”
“And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
I can’t help but find inspiration and a bit of solace in believing that there is an upside to failure, a “stripping away” of oneself, as she put it, that lets you figure out who you really are, that let’s you find your purpose.
Rowling also adds, “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction.” An excellent lesson for the kids, I think. At some point, you will have no one to blame but yourself for not getting where you want to go.
In short, I’m feeling rather encouraged and optimistic about things now. But if you still need some convincing, this ought to do it.
My thoughts on Avatar boil down to this: A story well told isn’t necessarily a good story.
James Cameron is a good storyteller, I’ll give you that, and I would cite either of the first two Terminator movies or Titanic as proof. But the story that is supposed to ground the lights and awe of Avatar just doesn’t hold up.
First, it’s just such a well-worn tale: The evil invaders versus the quintessential ‘natives,’ and the converted explorer who falls in love with the New World (and a very pretty native who embodies its values). (See: Pocahontas.)
It’s not that it isn’t a relevant tale with a strong moral lesson – it’s just so painfully obvious. What happens to a story when every characters fits an archetype? And because it’s such an obvious political analogy, we know who the bad guys are, and we know what road the main character is going to take because the good vs. bad lines have been so plainly drawn.
Second, the characters are not so much properly developed characters as they are players whose depth are sacrificed for the larger moral tale. I feel as though I should have been hissing at the screen every time the Bad Guy appeared, and there isn’t even an attempt to make the Na’vi anything more than an idealized society that makes human civilization look like total dicks.
The result of this black-and-white characterization is that I didn’t feel any emotions toward the characters. So-and-so died? Oh… I guess that’s sad?
Plus, I just didn’t buy the last-minute redemption of some of the secondary characters. It was only when they were physically destroying the Na’vi’s homes that some of these supposedly regretful characters shed a tear, or refused to cooperate. What am I supposed to believe? That before, when the humans were only going to coerce these ‘savages’ off their land to mine for Unobtainium (stupidest name ever, by the way), they were willing accomplices and then, when it’s time to actually force them out, they suddenly feel bad and they’re supposed to have what? Depth? Evoke sympathy? Fuck you. And it’s not like Cameron tries to expose this sham; I honestly think we’re supposed to hate the Muscley Guy in the Machine and everyone else was just following orders.
And I don’t care much for Sigourney Weaver’s character either. Is she supposed to be the beacon of rationality and morality in this tale? She’s a pawn on a corporate payroll with bloody hands. Fuck your good intentions or love for the Na’vi. She was smart enough to know what she was getting into.
So, scratch that. I guess I did feel emotions for these characters: Anger.
The only time I felt any sadness was towards the injustice of the whole affair – the heartless colonial mission that destroys societies for the Almighty Dollar. But that’s just not enough.
Besides, Cameron is offering up some really big ideas: colonialism, genocide (?), even mixing human DNA with Na’vi DNA, and there isn’t enough movie to show the complexity that necessarily goes along with these concepts – even in almost 3 hours.
I also felt like the ‘he-gets-a-second-chance-to-walk’ storyline was almost too much, like trying to squeeze one more element into already stuffed movie, although I think the idea itself was a good one.
All that being said, I’ll return to my assertion that it’s a story well told. You can’t argue that it wasn’t visually fantastic. Even the little things – the way the sun glinted off surfaces, or the way water fell – were awesome to see. It didn’t look nearly as cheesy as it did when he showed clips at Comic-Con in July. And in terms of pacing, editing, and even dialogue, it had its strong points. All of which made me want to like it more than I did. It’s just sad that for all its 3D wonder, Avatar is just a 2D story painted in fluorescent blue.