Movie Review

“The Great Wall” (2017)

Warning: this whole thing is one big whatever the “Asian equivalent of a Sambo Alert” might be.  Here there be dragons.

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Just saw “The Great Wall.” It was 100% what I thought it was: white hero saves China.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with that: if Chinese made a movie set in America with a Chinese star, he would save the day. Why? Because Chinese, predictably, will prefer to see a Chinese star. That’s human nature. Asians will have a special preference for Asians, blacks for blacks, whites for whites. We will expand that to include certain members of “the other” but in general, whether we want to admit it or not, that’s the way to bet. The problem isn’t the movie (which was fun, although I wondered why the hell the Chinese didn’t use that damned McGuffin  gunpowder more, instead of dangling women like hors d’oeuvre yo-yos) but lets have some truth here.

 

  1. The issue was always getting a white hero in there, to appeal to white Americans. In all our cinematic history, there may have been a couple of “honorary white” actors like Morgan Freeman or Will Smith, who might have stepped into the role of “window into the exotic”   Damon supplied (he plays a Westerner in Asian to steal gunpowder…and why didn’t they use it against the monsters more, from the damned beginning, concentrating all fire on the queen for about two hours until she and all her guards were cinders?  Oh well), but in general, of COURSE that’s what they were doing. Nothing wrong with it, except the perceived need to lie, or the obliviousness.
  2. OF COURSE Matt Damon was Tarzan, the traditional “one of us who becomes one of them and is better at it.”   Again, I’d bet there are stories like this in all cultures. Everyone wants to believe they are the best, sexiest, strongest. People who claim this isn’t true of GREAT WALL obviously fell asleep during the critical plot turns of capturing the monster, and the climax of the film.  Little major points like that.   In the former scene, there are thousands of Chinese soldiers watching as two white guys sally out and catch the beast. And at the end, out of a billion Chinese,  Matt Damon’s brawn and brain are 50% of the team that solves the problem.   Again, nothing wrong with that, except the lying or obliviousness.
  3. There would be nothing overall wrong with the movie, except it is part of a pattern.  What’s the pattern?  Let me ask you one question: what was the last major studio film starring an Asian American?  I mean Chinese, Japanese, Korean, you know. “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson is half Samoan, which is kinda sorta Asian…which is a lot like pointing to Vin Diesel as “proof” that blacks can be sexual in boxoffice giants.   You are missing the point, and I think, deliberately.  Where is Donnie Yen? Or an Asian American without godlike martial skills?  I’ll tell you where–in the background, or not in your Multiplex at all.  Why?  Because people like to see themselves. Let’s be honest, shall we?  When you say “they wanted an American star” or “A Western Star” you mean “they wanted a white star, because white people control Hollywood and drive the box office, and like other human beings they want to see themselves.”    If you’re white, should you feel guilty about this?  Nope, because everyone else feels the same way.  I’m just saying “tell the truth, dammit.  Or wake up, because you’re driving while asleep.”
  4. Poor little Matt Damon.   I heard people defending him.  Why blame the actor? He just wanted to work with a beloved director and have a free Chinese vacation and make a few more million dollars.  He did those things. Huzzah.  But what he DOESN’T have the right to do is to do them, and not be criticized for doing them.  Is it his fault that this situation exists?  That there aren’t any American films with Asian-American leads?  No, it isn’t.  But neither was it specifically the fault of any of the actors, producers, or directors who made the countless films that  excluded Asian Americans and/or cast white people  in makeup in their roles and/or changed the backstories so that white people could play them.  In no case that I can think of did anyone ever say “we didn’t want to cast/see an Asian in that role.”  NO ONE EVER SAYS IT.  Someone, therefore, is lying.     There is always an excuse (sorry, I mean a reason).  And it is predictable that 90% of the people who lost the role will complain, and 90% of the members of the racial group advantaged by the change will look the other way and say “who, us?”
  5. Damon is probably a nice guy, but he is as blind or dishonest as anyone else.  On “Project Greenlight” he got into it with my friend, producer Effie Brown, on the question of diversity.  So far as he was concerned, diversity is only important IN FRONT OF the camera.  Not BEHIND the camera.  You know what happens when you don’t have representation BEHIND the camera? You end up explaining this shit again and again and again, to people who are profited by remaining oblivious.  When you have representation BEHIND the camera, magically and mysteriously, the right decisions begin to be made, and statistical parity is approached.   Odd how that happens.  You also get more human characters who are treated better. Prime example: WALKING DEAD.   No black creative talent?  The black male characters are treated like dirt, emasculated with less force or Yang energy than white women and children.   Are killed protecting white people, and so fragile that a single zombie child ends them. Put a couple of Asian-American writers on the staff? Glenn gets laid, is forceful and resourceful, and can be BURIED in zombies and get away without a scratch.   Oh, please…if you want to do this crap, be my guest. But don’t think you can keep lying about what you’re doing, or shame me for pointing it out.  Bring a lunch.

 

So there ya go.  In a better world, “GREAT WALL” is just a “B” monster movie with “A” production values.  A popcorn movie.  But in our world, where I cannot even remember the last Asian American who top-lined a major American film, it is another example of a very specific trend.  Did it get unjustly maligned?   Only if you don’t care about the pattern, IMO.  Was Damon unjustly blamed?  Same answer: he can do what he wants. And we have the right to comment on it, just as some of you will criticize my criticism.   If you have the right to criticize ME, I sure as hell have the right to criticized THEM.

Am I “telling China what to make?”  Hell no, I’m commenting on it. Do you really not understand the difference?   My concern isn’t Chinese, who are surrounded by films and culture that reflect them, and for whom Matt Damon is appealingly exotic, as well as a way to siphon up white dollars.

My concern is for Asian Americans, my brothers and sisters in a fight to make America live up to its promise, or tell the truth that it has no intention to do so.  You can’t have it both ways.

You know, until black people started complaining, minstrel shows merrily lampooned us in blackface, and we were told complaining was absurd: it was a sign of respect and affection!  And if we weren’t in movies, why make your own! And when we appeared only in secondary roles, well, you’re not “the majority”…it’s nothing personal. Nothing racial at all.  And if we died more often, or never got laid, well, that was just the script, and maybe those black actors just didn’t WANT to do love scenes…

EVERY SINGLE STEP we were told we were wrong.  Everything I’ve ever spoken of in this regard, gaslighting was attempted in return: I was told I was wrong, racist, exaggerating, pushing too hard and too fast, and should wait a little while longer…

Screw that.   We pushed, and we’re still pushing. Want our money?  Tell our damned stories, and hire our people.  PERIOD.

And I am so damned happy the Asian American community is finally making its voice heard.  Some innocents will be caught in the crossfire.

Innocents have been getting caught in that crossfire from the beginning. The only difference is that now, not all the blood is ours.

That’s war, but we didn’t start it.

 

Namaste,

Steve

“Get Out” (2017)

Comedian Jordan Peele made his directorial debut this year, and it is as assured a first movie as I’ve ever seen.   Technically it is very nice, even beautifully done, but it is in dealing with the internal logic of the film that he shines.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers, and so will stick with what we know or can conservatively infer from the trailers, even in the “spoiler” section.

Oh, and man, this entire review needs what I call a “Sambo Alert” because it deals with race as honestly as any movie I’ve ever seen in my life. But note something: there are two core philosophical questions in life: “what is true?” which deals with objective reality, and “who am I?” or “who are we?” which deals with the inner realm, opens the door to discussion of our subjective experience.

“Get Out” has what I would consider some logical lapses on the “What is true?” level. But on the level of “Who Are We?” especially the “how do we see each other?  What do we FEAR is true?”   Man oh man…this is a movie that couldn’t possibly have been made by a major studio just twenty or even ten years ago.  It is a movie that deserves dissection, debate, criticism and praise.  It will trigger laughter and outrage and deserve both.

It is not “could this happen?” or “is this logical?” but “do whites and blacks really have these feelings about each other?”

My experience says: our history would be very very different if they did not.  Our history is what it is.  The feelings and fears are real, even if our head says “this makes no sense!”

I love it.

Chris Washington (an amazing Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (a terrific Allison Williams), are an interracial couple taking their relationship to the next level: home to meet her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford also stellar).   Chris’s ABC (“really good friend.”  Ask a black friend if you don’t know) comic relief Lilrel Howrey warns him not to go off to White People Land for this meeting. Once Chris arrives in the secluded little town, he almost immediately senses something is off.  The parents are enormously open and welcoming…but make a few too many positive references to race.  The dad would have voted for Obama a THIRD term, don’t you know.  The black groundskeeper and housekeeper are just like family, don’t you know.

Let’s just say that your guess is correct: Chris and Rose will face challenges. Yes indeed they will.

“Get Out” is beautifully directed, tightly structured. I’d call it a satire of racial stereotypes masquerading as a horror movie…except that these stereotypes have been the cause of such pain and fear and death and  guilt and denial for centuries that if there is a greater horror in American history,  save for the Native American genocide, I don’t know what it is.   Continues to poison us to this day.  And Chris, and the audience, will have to ask themselves over and over: is there really anything wrong here?  Or is it just the over-defensiveness that most black people feel, the questioning of what is behind white smiles.   What do we really think of each other?  And can love really conquer all?

Oh, boy.

Saying anything else would spoil the fun. Again, I can find flaws, but if you go with it, plunge into the “dream world” through the doorway opened in the first act, the rest of it flows beautifully.   On the level of that fear and hope, it makes more sense, speaks more directly to certain issues than any film I can think of that didn’t have IMPORTANT OSCAR BAIT appended to the title.

It is fun, it is scary, it is entertaining, it is made with skill and passion…and ultimately it is important. Not Oscar Bait, thank God.  But its very pulpiness is a kind of genius.

See it with an audience!  Preferably an integrated one.  Then go for coffee and discuss.

 

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Warning: Spoiler AND Sambo Alert territory.

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The ultimate reveal strikes me more as an expression of Jordan Peele’s personal angst about the cost of assimilation that black people pay, every day.  More about his own biracial identity than anything strictly logical and reasonable.

The racial aspect, in other words, isn’t totally connected to the theme: logically, it could have worked as well with class.  But in the minds of black people AND white people…in the view of America, especially those who buy the Southern Apologia concerning genetics and history, class and race are inexplicably intertwined.  I’ve had too many conversations with people of a certain political orientation, politely afraid that blacks will be permanently locked in the underclass.  Not because whites are especially evil, of course, but because black people, well…just don’t have enough little gray cells.

That’s the balancing poison, don’t you know?  Blacks are stupid, whites are evil.  Don’t act surprised: that’s the privately held assumption by racists on either side.

That lie, that one group is less worthy or valuable or capable than another, is the secret fear behind so many polite conversations. The thing rarely said.  And it corrupts the narrative.   An example: let’s say you suggest an Italian restaurant for dinner. Your girlfriend says no: she doesn’t like pizza. You mention a wide menu.  She says she doesn’t like the decor. You say they’ve redecorated.  She says she doesn’t like that neighborhood at night.  You say let’s go for lunch instead.

For an hour, she gives objections, you give answers.  Things get tense. And you start realizing: THERE IS A REASON SHE DOESN’T WANT TO GO THAT SHE ISN’T SAYING.  And finally, after an hour of wasted time, she confesses: she doesn’t want to go because her ex-boyfriend owns the place, and she doesn’t want to see him.

Ever had an argument like that?  Where what is REALLY thought isn’t said, and once its said all the odd conversation makes sense?

Race in America is like that.  Between people who have the same attitudes about Nature and Nurture, everything, all our history makes sense.  But if one person thinks “Nature” and won’t speak that unpopular opinion, and hides it behind polite obfuscation and political slight-of-mouth?   You’ll argue for hours and never, ever come to a conclusion.

Blacks aren’t as smart, whites aren’t as sane.   Innately.  Genetically

That’s the hidden belief behind the PC argumentation. And people are “PC” to both the Right and the Left.  Anyone who says different is pimping an agenda.

“Get Out”  is indeed “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” meets “The Stepford Wives.”   There’s another, pulpier B-movie I could throw into the equation, but that would be telling.

Let’s just say that I’m sure I’ll have a lot of conversations about this.   I’ve heard complaints about how the movie has too many evil white people. I haven’t noticed those people complaining about   the endless films (“The Green Mile”, “The Mist”, all the Dirty Harry Movies, etc) where all black characters are evil, or frickin’  die.  I personally have enjoyed some of those movies, and grasped that that’s just the way the world is: people play those games and expect you to smile and take it.  Well, here what was done t’was done consciously and with serious intent.  If you complained about “Captain Phillips” you have the right to complain here.

Otherwise, IMO, you can shut the hell up.

Oh, this one is gonna make a ton of money.  Like most great genre filmmaking it takes a very real emotional powderkeg, dresses it up in distracting clothing and blows it up in your face.  And when it explodes, it will open the door to other filmmakers to create successes and  cultural conversations that have never taken place in our history, just as “Django Unchained” and “Creed” did.  In many ways I am enormously happy with the 21st Century, really.

Problems?

Sure.  But if you think they’re the worst problems we’ve faced, you rather obviously haven’t been listening to what black people have been screaming for 400 years.

To reference a particularly nasty joke, everybody takes their turn in the barrel, lads and lasses.

Welcome to the struggle.

Namaste,

Steve

(Afrofuturism indeed!  Can’t wait to discuss THIS one in our class.  If you want to be a part of that discussion, be sure to join us at http://www.afrofuturismwebinar.com!)

Thoughts on “Get Out” (2017)

Good Lord.

GEt out.jpgJordan Peele’s “Get Out” is at 100% on RT. All the time T and I were shopping “My Soul To Keep” or “The Good House” we were told again and again there was no really successful black horror. “Can we change the race of the leads?” was the most common question. “Can we remove the social subtext?” was woven into every conversation, every development process.

I gritted my teeth.

When I was 30, I knew that the world wasn’t quite ready for me. That I might have to wait another thirty years or more before America moved far enough beyond past social realities (the legacy of slavery and segregation) and demographics such that I could speak my truth to a large enough audience to make a case to Hollywood that a major film would succeed–and trust me, the only language Corporations speak is money.

 

Well, if “Get Out” succeeds, it is another amazing step. Like “Black Panther” and “Django Unchained” it literally fills in image systems that have been gaps in the cinematic/cultural lexicon, pointing out a path of success.

The conversation will change: “oh! It’s like `Get Out’, only with X.” Yeah, that’s it. I knew that if I could keep my heart alive, treated this as a marathon rather than a sprint, I could outlast the fear and the monsters sufficiently to find a Tribe willing to hear my songs. The only question was: would I be too tired, too beaten down to see the opportunities?  Scar tissue is inflexible.  Emotional scar tissue is perceptual tunnel vision.

Would I be able to see the opportunities,  be so wounded by failures, defeats, betrayals and accidental slights that I wouldn’t be able to see allies, mentors, and potentials all around me?   Bitterness is a poison to the soul.

 

So I decided to love life.   To be strong enough to be soft.  Embraced yoga, martial arts, meditation, and the company of people of all races and political persuasions, if they were wiling to see my humanity.  Took my three years in Georgia as a chance to see that yes, the South is both wounded and anchored to its history, and eager to move beyond it, almost desperate to be forgiven and accepted as human…and to see that that “Southern Hospitality” really is a beautiful and genuine thing.

 

To forgive my country for not living up to its promises. To love human beings for being imperfect, and therefore be able to forgive myself for being afraid. To give myself permission to fail. To find the faith to get up again, and again, and yet again…

 

Knowing that this day would come.   People think it absurd to be so excited about watching a black guy in a cat suit sprint through traffic.  They have never stood in my shoes, never understood what it was to watch “When Worlds Collide” and see only white people saved from extinction, and know the filmmakers didn’t give a damn what it felt like to be a black kid watching that.   To be able to predict that Paul Winfield would be eaten by cockroaches in “Damnation Alley” because the audience wouldn’t want to see him compete for the last woman in the world.

 

Countless times I’ve been told to shut up, stop talking about these things.  People have tried to gaslight me. Tell me to be ashamed of being a Social Justice Warrior or even have the temerity to try to define the term to denigrate it.

Screw them.

I will define myself.   I know who I am, better than you possibly could.  And if you try to define me, I know I know myself better than you know YOURSELF.   Had you any real self-knowledge, you’d lack the stupendous ego to think you can define others.  Or the fear to need to.

I am not my scars.  Not my disappointments, not my pain, not my fear, not my anger.  As a forest is the space between the trees, I am the space in which these emotions and events have occurred.  So long as I keep my ego small, I don’t crash into the obstacles, can navigate in the clear space.

 

I am love, not fear.  Love for my own soul, my dreams, my family and friends, my community, my country, my world.  THIS is why a gentle boy spent forty years learning how to kill people.  To be able to offer peace to anyone who would extend a hand to me.

 

“Get Out” is “The Stepford Negroes”, a meditation on the fear of assimilation, fear that hatred lurks behind the smiles.  Built on real concerns, it would seem (I’ve yet to see it) to do what great horror, fantasy and science fiction does: externalize our dreams and nightmares so that we can wrap our minds around them.  To water the poison until it makes you dizzy rather than sick.

 

Jordan Peele survived, and has questions about how and why and what next.   I am so proud of him.  And of myself.

I survived too, dammit.  I’m still here.  And seeing a world that some part of me doubted I’d ever see.  I managed to tamp those voices down, but they were always there. Oh yes, they were.

I survived.

Namaste,

Steve

http://www.afrofuturismwebinar.com

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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I watched “The Towering Inferno” a couple of weeks back, which is a hot mess (pun intentional) but also serious fun, probably my very favorite of the era’s “disaster movies”.  It has everything, including Paul Newman and Steve McQueen upstaging each other every chance they got.

 

Over the weekend I decided to watch my second favorite, “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), and enjoyed it just as much as I ever did, right up to the moment, spoken of by my new friend David Gerrold at the time, when they ran out of money at the end, and couldn’t do the “pull back” to show the full capsized ship as the final shot of the movie.  Its kind of amusing to realize that movies DO run out of money, and can’t add planned SFX shots, (like when Scaramanga shoots Bond’s airplane in “The Man With The Golden Gun” and no laser beam comes out of his Solex Agitator-powered death ray, because Saltzman and Broccoli had run out of money and couldn’t afford to pay the SFX studio. So he aims, and oops!  No ray…but the plane blows up anyway!   But I digress).

 

I enjoyed “Poseidon”, cheesy music and dialogue and overacting and all.  I loved Ernest Borgnine’s adoration of his ex-hooker wife Stella Stevens, and Red Button’s loneliness and desperate attraction to Maureen McGovern (who made a mini-career out of singing doomed love songs in disaster movies: “There’s Got to Be A Morning After” in Poseidon, and “We May Never Love Like This Again” in “Inferno.”  Someone, somewhere, needs to get the memo that hiring this lady for your party isn’t the world’s best idea.)

 

Anyway, the relationships were strong enough to connect the dots on the effects and the stunts, so that you FEEL them.  Ouch!   And it works, probably better than it should.  I just love watching crowds of people scrambling for survival, and individuals rising to courage and leadership under stress.  Great stuff if you love cheese.

 

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WARNING!  SAMBO ALERT!

 

Not about “The Poseidon Adventure.”  There ARE no black people, and that’s fine.  Statistics allow that completely, especially at the time, so I didn’t and don’t care.  Beside, I knew that if there HAD been black people….they’d probably die.  First.

 

Like in 2006’s remake “Poseidon.”   Where Andre Braugher played the ship captain, and was gone in the first wave of death.   I can’t tell you how irritating it is to be able to predict stuff like that, and sit there looking at the only person on the screen of your ethnicity, and know that the people who made the movie (who are NOT your ethnicity) valued him so little that they will kill him rapidly, and that they know the audience who also fails to share his ethnicity will not care.

 

There is an interesting psychological dissociation that takes place when the only person who looks like you in this sense dies.   It is uncomfortable as hell (on an unconscious level everyone understands this, which is why it NEVER happens, and has NEVER happened, in an American film to white people.  There is no such thing as an American film where all the white characters [meaning anyone with a speaking role] dies while non-white characters survive.  Not one.  Not even black exploitation movies, which is bizarre, and suggests some very very deep unconscious conditioning.  But I digress.  And yeah, some of you will try to tell me that this or that movie disproves my thesis.  You are wrong.)

 

In the movie “Psycho” Hitchcock (and perhaps Robert Bloch before him) used an interesting technique to manipulate the audience.    Janet Leigh would seem to be the star of the movie. She is a pretty blond who apparently drives the story with her sexuality and moral errors, who drives to the Bates Motel and during a conversation with the odd Momma’s Boy Norman Bates regrets her poor judgement and decides to redeem herself.  All well and good.  It is a “damsel in distress” set up.    But then…she is killed, brutally.

The only human being you have identified with for the first twenty minutes of the movie DIES.   The camera lingers on it, and it is SAVAGE.   It is hard to overestimate the emotional impact of that death.  Not sure American audiences had ever seen anything quite like it.

 

And…those audiences, who had identified with her, were suddenly bereft of emotional anchor.  We drift around, wondering who the hell to identify with. And finally, with no other choice, settle on Norman Bates.  He’s weird, and a peeping Tom, but was kind to her, and loves his Mommy.  He becomes the center of good in the film, and we breathe a sigh of relief: we have to identify with SOMEONE, or we’re lost.  We all know how THAT turned out.

 

Note: In respect to the following observations, I’m not suggesting that anyone is deliberately manipulating image systems in movies like “Poseidon.”  I don’t think people are that smart.  But an interestingly similar situation on a cultural level exists, and it is negative as hell for black people.

 

When I was a kid, and went to see a monster movie or action movie with a black actor somewhere in the cast, my black friends would ask me: “how did they kill the brother this time?”   In other words, by the age of twelve, we already understood how the culture valued us. Let’s be blunter: what white people thought of us.  Hey, if you’re not comfortable reading that, think about how it felt to LIVE it.  I’m not saying blacks wouldn’t have done exactly the same thing if the situation was reversed and we were able to think ourselves the center of the universe.  That option was removed from the descendants of slaves.

Africans might be healthy enough, though.

 

Anyway,  consider this: once you see the pattern, and go to a movie like 2006’s Poseidon remake, and KNOW that the black person is more likely to die, it diminishes your likelihood to identify with him.  But you need to identify with SOMEONE.  So what do you do?  You identify with a white character. That’s right.

 

Get this straight: you are watching movies made by white people, for white people, in which the value system is laid out clearly based on who is most likely to survive (a white female of breeding age) and who dies first or most reliably (anyone non-white) but in order to enjoy the movie, you have to identify with the people who discount you, rather than the people of your own group.   Learning self-hatred much?

 

But I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve started having a different reaction.  Not healthy, exactly, but healthier than identifying with the people who seem to want me dead (cinematically speaking, of course.  Ahem.  Would it be too much to suggest that those who failed to empathize with Trayvon Martin might reasonably be predicted to be among those least likely to care that Andre Braugher died?  Nah. That’s crazy).  Now note: some of you are going to say: “it’s not racism, its just economics” which makes me laugh.  It is economics because racism/tribalism diminishes identification, so that the white majority wants to see “themselves” as the center of the universe: sexier, stronger, smarter, like all healthy human groups think of themselves.  So the economics are just an indicator of the underlying issue, and it is a distraction and avoidance to say “its just economics”.  It’s like say, “Hey, that’s not water.  It’s ice.”

 

This is like a ship sinking (back to the Poseidon imagery) and there are two lifeboats filled with white people.  A black passenger swims up to the first one.  On it is a Klansman who says: “get out of here, nigger!” so he swims to the second, where there is a very polite British officer who says: “sorry, old chap. But this boat is reserved for white people.”

 

And the guy drowns.  Functionally, was there a speck of difference? No there wasn’t. But that second guy sure was polite. And it wasn’t that he hated black people….he just reserved the seats for “his own.”

 

And somehow, people find that far more acceptable, even if the result is identical.

 

Well, you know what I do when I see a movie with a single black character who dies? Or worse, SEVERAL black characters who ALL die?  Especially knowing that, on an unconscious level, the assumed result is that I will identify with the white characters thereby damaging my psyche?

 

I do something rather ugly. But fun. I start enjoying watching the white characters die. Yes, I do.   In “Poseidon” I sat munching popcorn as every fatality occurred.  Nice effects!  Ooh, I bet THAT shit hurt!

 

Yes, I do.

 

And in The Mist, when poor Andre Braugher and a black soldier died, leaving no one on screen with a speck of melanin, I enjoyed watching the white characters get munched, and actually LAUGHED at the “tragic” end of the movie that had the rest of the theater crying and devastated.  Funniest thing I’d seen in months.

 

Yes, I did.

 

Watched it again recently, and realized that there was, indeed, one black guy in the crowd with one line of dialogue.  Technically a character. And we didn’t see him die, so technically it wasn’t a total wipe-out. And felt just a LITTLE bit bad about my prior response.   Just that much humanity allowed me to extend my humanity to the white characters, and suddenly the ending DID feel a little more tragic…

 

And when Tananarive suggested that we turn the movie off before the end, I didn’t protest. I knew I wouldn’t laugh this time.  I “got” the father’s anguish, and the existential terror and pain and guilt…

 

Ugh.  And hated the entire pattern of films I’d seen my entire life that had triggered that response in me, made me less than the totally empathetic human being I aspire to be.  But…I’m only human. And that response is STILL healthier than identifying with people who devalue you. That kills your soul.  Well, they both kill your soul.  Pick your poison.

 

Sigh.   We’re all of us only human.  And it is good to see things changing.   Maybe I’ll be able to drop my guard a little more.

 

As soon as there is an American film, any film, in which all the white characters die, while some POC survive. There has to be one. I’d bet it is almost unknown, unseen, a failure, because white audiences just didn’t like it.  And maybe even white technicians, film editors, and distributors didn’t bring their A-game to the project.    Didn’t have anything to do with THAT aspect, of course.

 

Of course.   That would be pretty sick, right?

Almost as sick as laughing at the end of “The Mist”

 

 

Namaste,

Steve

“Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead (2015)

Just finished watching the movie about the National Lampoon (and especially Doug Kenny) “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.”  It really is savagely funny and simultaneously pitiful, about the genuinely crazy smart people who flowed from the Harvard Lampoon and Second City improv group, creating the explosion of print, radio, recording, stage, television and film comedy that defined the 70’s, and then splintered and died.  Its rise and fall were best exemplified in the life and death of Doug Kenny, who was at the center of much of this, and died in a still-unexplained fall from a cliff in Hawaii.   Suicide?  Accident?  Drug murder?    As one of his friends said: “he slipped while looking for a better place to jump.”

 

I remembered much of this history, but never put it all together in one place.  And it is both hysterical and tragic.  Even at the time, I remember thinking that much of the material in LAMPOON was the funniest stuff I’d seen in my life, much sharper than the other major humor magazine, MAD.

 

Much, much meaner too.  And under the hah-hah seemed to be the assumption that the writers and artists were the smartest, best guys in the room (which was problematic as they were rather…monochromatic, shall we say? And non-whites never appeared in Nat Lamp without attention being drawn to their non-whiteness…)

 

Watching “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” I also remembered something else I thought about the difference between Nat Lamp and MAD: Nat Lamp was punching down.   Mad seemed to be punching up.   There was a humanity in MAD magazine.  I never saw them being cruel for its own sake.   It seemed to me that if you got hit by a car outside the MAD offices they would rush to get help, concerned with your injuries and comfort.  And that if the same thing happened outside NatLamp, they would call 911…but be snapping selfies with your bleeding corpse, and cracking jokes whenever no one was looking.

 

Ultimately, NatLamp crossed the line for me.  No, it wasn’t the infamous “If Teddy Kennedy driven a Volkswagon he’d be president today” ad.  It wasn’t the “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll shoot this dog” cover, which I thought was a stitch.  Not even the Guns and Ammo parody article: “Teddy Kennedy: Not Whether but When” article (they did seem to have something about Teddy).

It was the  “Forgotten but not Gone: When will Mamie Eisenhower die?” contest in about 1975.   That was a real “WTF” moment.  This woman wasn’t a public figure any longer. It seemed needless, simple mean-spiritedness.

Hearing specifically about the ego acting-out, the cocaine (there’s a real short-path to a negative rewiring of your brain), the childlike dominance games, and self-destructive behavior behind the scenes made sense: some of these, some of the very smartest among them were  brilliant people who believed in nothing but themselves, and ultimately understood that they were nothing.  “Is that all there is?” is the inevitable result of living for yourself and reaching the mountaintop.

 

MAD, frankly, seemed based on a very Jewish sense of reciprocal obligation and the absurdity of human beings doing anything other than loving each other.  Very very different.  It makes sense that Nat Lamp would attack MAD, while to my memory, MAD never mentioned National Lampoon.  For all his madness, William Gaines, publisher and editor in chief of MAD was a mensch.   According to people like Kelly Freas Gaines was also the adult in the room, creating a safe place for these nutty big kids to play.

 

Nat Lamp was a bunch of very funny children who were encouraged to self-destructive behavior, encouraged to burn so that the suits could warm themselves at the fire.   And when Doug Kenny, arguably the smartest of all of them ascended to the peak of financial success, Hollywood fame, and began to flirt with notions of suicide (along with his good, good friend Chevy Chase), wondering whether his death was accident, suicide, or drug murder is a pointless exercise: he was on the road to collapse, and the specific mechanism is nothing but a symptom.

 

“Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead” is a cautionary tale, in its own way much like “All That Jazz”.  I fear for anyone who watches it and gets the wrong message.  Like “Wolf of Wall Street”, without context and philosophical perspective, it would be as easy to miss the point, focus on the orgy of sex and drugs and money and miss the devastating hangover that came the morning after.

 

Namaste

Steve

Assassin’s Creed: 20% on RT

 

I hear the “Assassin’s Creed” movie is seriously terrible.   I don’t doubt it: the dual-level VR future/past storyline seemed seriously bizarre when I first heard about it, long long ago…

 

True story: I was hired to write novels from the original Assassin’s Creed game.   Three of ’em, and was half-way through the second when the entire thing was cancelled.  It seems that the folk sat Ubisoft were paid a visit from some soft-spoken Middle-Eastern gentlemen in suits who said they were the descendants of the original assassins, and didn’t appreciate their culture being appropriated.  This was not too long after 9/11, and I guess the Ubisoft guys had visions of their cars blowing up and chickened out.  Oh well, I still got about 2/3 of the money, and eventually re-wrote the first book and published it elsewhere (see link)…

 

Its a shame, because I was having fun, and the third book would have detailed a forbidden and forgotten episode from the Crusades, when the armies of Saladin and Richard the Lionehearted joined forces to fight a Lovecraftian nightmare in the desert…oh well, it wasn’t meant to be.      

 

https://www.amazon.com/Assassin-Other-Stories-Steven-Barnes/dp/0975915681/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1482465408&sr=8-1&keywords=Assassin+Steven+Barnes

“Star Wars” is back!

 

rogueone_onesheeta_1000_309ed8f6Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens tomorrow (well, there will be special showings tonight!) and I promise I’ll be there.  There are the special effects, and the stirring music, and the familiar characters and settings. But all of these things are merely in service to the story, and when that story is expressed clearly and creatively, a BILLION people worldwide respond by buying tickets.

It is the Lifewriting position that this core story can be extracted and used not only as a “plot” or “structure” guideline, but also used to guide the PROCESS of writing a story, and further, the actual path of your life.  Last Saturday we analyzed a story using the “Hero’s Journey”, Joseph Campbell’s explanation of this pattern (somewhat modified by yours truly, so that it works in all three arenas), and if you haven’t listened, please do yourself a favor!

http://www.talkshoe.com/talkshoe/web/audioPop.jsp?episodeId=1133166&cmd=apop

You will hear me go through all of the steps in relation to the story (the “War Artist”, a good one!) but you’ll profit by also reading the story and asking your own questions.

You’ll hear me address the following questions:

  1. HERO CONFRONTED WITH A CHALLENGE.  Who is the hero? What is the challenge she faces?
  2. REJECTS THE CHALLENGE.   What negative emotion blocks her or slows her?
  3. ACCEPTS THE CHALLENGE.  What motivates her to move through the challenge and begin her process of change?
  4. ROAD OF TRIALS. What ACTIONS does she take to solve her problem? Where does she go?  What does she do?
  5. ALLIES AND POWERS.  Who helps her along the way? What capacities does she have that enable her success? What does she have to learn, and how does she have to grow?
  6. CONFRONT EVIL–DEFEAT.  What is the greatest barrier she encounters?
  7. DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL.  What are the negative emotions that swarm up and engulf her, rob her of her strength?
  8. LEAP OF FAITH.  What external or deep internal strength or resource helps her through this moment?
  9. CONFRONT EVIL–VICTORIOUS.   What internal or external demons does she defeat, and what is the reward?
  10. THE STUDENT BECOMES THE TEACHER.  What is the lesson?  What higher or deeper level does she expand to?

Note: this pattern is very broad. Subtler stories will use a portion of this pattern, or invert it, or minimalize or exaggerate it–this is where the “craft” of writing comes in.

But the “art” of writing is in CONNECTING THIS EXTERNAL STRUCTURE WITH YOUR OWN INTERNAL JOURNEY.  Finding the metaphorical truth that will resonate deeply with your readers.

So…write a story about YOUR OWN journey to write a story…or any other struggle in your life.  Find these steps.  Emphasize them until you can see the connections.

I challenge each and every one of you to do that.   

Then…if you really want to thrive, CREATE A “STORY” ABOUT THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, looking at:

  1. The challenges you will face
  2. The fear you will feel
  3. The motivations to move through the resistance
  4. The actions you will take
  5. The resources and strategies and allies you will need to gather
  6. The major barriers that others have hit along their paths to accomplish similar goals.
  7. The nature and intensity of their depression and despair
  8. The type of faith or commitment that beat that fear
  9. The way others crashed through those barriers
  10. The joy of moving to the next level.

Do this, actually imagining the steps, researching the prices others paid, committing to the process, taking the actions and mastering your emotions…you will build a new and better life.

Namaste,

Steve

(I actually created the world’s only self-improvement book based on Star Wars and other famous Science Fiction/Fantasy films.   Get your copy on Amazon at:  http://amzn.to/2gP9myj)

Regaining Balance

Michelle Pinkus threw a good party this last weekend at Loscon.  I needed it: the last two weeks I’ve done a LOT of caretaking for people in a range of emergencies, some talking suicide, many in despair and depression, some dealing with serious health issues and other things…at the same time that I’m juggling multiple projects and waiting for sloooow motion feedback on Hollywood projects.  Sigh.

The aggregate of all of this is that by Friday morning I could feel I was off balance. Not hugely, but enough that it was palpable.  So off to the convention.

Today is “Love yourself” day–take care of yourself, especially if you are a caretaker.   Thought I’d make a few observations about how I did this at the convention.

  1. Sleep.   I made very sure to schedule more than eight hours of sleep Friday and Saturday night.   I didn’t get out of bed until my body felt “cool and light” which is my kinesthetic signal that I’m rested.
  2. Meditation.  Had really solid sessions Saturday and Sunday morning.
  3. Exercise.   Yoga Friday morning, and Saturday morning martial arts and Flowfit, my “travel exercise” plan.
  4. Morning ritual.   Very careful to do Tai Chi along with focus, goals, and chanted affirmations.  This is so powerful that I suspect you cannot do it and not have a transformation. Your ego will resist this, so you can literally measure your internal permission to heal and grow in whether you can do this on a regular basis.  It is fantastic to have such an “early warning” system for breakdown and going unconscious.  Get a calendar.  Just mark the days that you did it.   You’ll be able to get a quick, broad view of your week/month/quarter in a single snapshot.
  5. Got hugs.  LOTS of them.    Seriously nurturing.
  6. Had really fun conversations with lots of different people. Found out what was going on in their lives.  And, I admit…I ran off at the mouth a few times, just “let it go” and had fun.  Eyes rolled.   I enjoyed myself just too much.
  7. Helped people.   Went out of my way to find a few people who specifically needed to talk to me.  There is always someone like this, and finding them is one of the Mystery Tours most enjoyable at a Con.   
  8. Had a couple of “real” conversations.   Cons tend to have a lot of trivial talk.  But it is also possible to dig deep, and speak of very real things.  I had serious (but very enjoyable) conversations about love, stress, writing, race, gender, Libertarianism (so, yeah, I do pretty much understand the core ideas.  I’d wondered about that)  the election, and goal-setting.   Earned my air.
  9. Had a surprise.  Photographer Richard Man mentioned that he studied Tai Chi, and we had a chance to play.  Within three seconds I knew I was dealing with a person who has studied a VERY evolved structure, with real sensitivity.  What a joy.  “Push Hands” represents a single instant of interaction as two people move toward each other. While the form develops your connection to your own balance, “Push Hands” tests your ability to create a unity between two people.  Do this properly, and it is a dance. If one person’s structure has holes, you flow through and touch them so as to give feedback.  If they try to dominate you, their ego focus creates not only weaknesses, but a gift of energy–they spear themselves on your bones.  You don’t really need to do anything much but observe.  Richard was more fun to play with than anyone I’ve met in months.
  10. Did business.   Had multiple conversations with different people on our Lifewriting program.  We’re almost finished with the REVOLUTIONARY ART program (registration closes this Saturday, and won’t be open again until next February).  My goal is just one new student a day, which will take me to my goal in three years.  Got five students over the weekend, so I’m very very happy.
  11. Came home and watched Bryan Cranston in “The Infiltrator.”  Always love stories about undercover agents whose emotions get out of control.  The last sequence in this one was just absolutely crackling.  Best wedding ever.  I was howling.

All in all, a great weekend.

Steven Barnes

http://www.lifewrite.com

Casablanca and The Hero’s Journey

Always, always, we come back to the Hero’s Journey, which Lifewriting suggests is the combined wisdom of all the world’s cultures, stating in effect: “this is what life will be.” I could go over this a thousand times, and there would always be something new to say.  Let’s relate it to the classic film CASABLANCA.

  1. THE HERO IS CONFRONTED WITH A CHALLENGE: Rick Blaine is challenged to take a stand against Nazism.
  2. REJECTS THE CHALLENGE: For reasons of his own, he has decided not to care about the world outside his cafe.   “I stick my neck out for no one.”
  3. ACCEPTS THE CHALLENGE:  He is forced to care about life again when freedom fighter Victor Lazlo and his wife Ilsa, hunted by the Germans, enter his care.
  4. ROAD OF TRIALS.  Rick tries to avoid involvements but helps Ugate hide the “letters of transit”.  He helps the young lovers win the money they need to escape Casablanca.   And slowly opens his heart to Ilsa, first with a proposition, then with insults, and then virtually pleading with her.  She nukes him with the knowledge that she had been a married woman when they had an affair in Paris–that she in effect made a fool of him.  Finally, Ilsa, in desperation, tries to use a gun to get the “letters of transit” that would allow Laslo to escape.
  5. ALLIES AND POWERS.  Rick has courage, intelligence, wit, and the capacity to express and command loyalty.  Every person in his life represents a different aspect of his world or personality: Ilsa is love and commitment, Laslo is courage and patriotism, Ugate is animal cunning, Sam is loyalty and joy in life, Inspector Renault is duplicity and self-interest concealing patriotism.
  6. CONFRONT EVIL-DEFEATED.   The Nazis arrest Victor Lazlo.
  7. DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL.  Ilsa has put all her trust in Rick after revealing the truth: she abandoned Rick in Paris because her husband desperately needed her to enable his survival and continue his work.  Rick sees that it wasn’t her fault…or his fault…it was The War.
  8. LEAP OF FAITH.  That a cause is more important than even the love of good people who die and suffer in it.   He makes the only moral choice he can: to use the Letters of Transit to allow Victor and Ilsa to escape.  To do so, he kills the Nazi officer.
  9. CONFRONT EVIL-VICTORIOUS.  His courage inspires Inspector Renault to awaken his own patriotism: “round up the usual suspects,” deflecting suspicion from Rick.
  10. THE STUDENT BECOMES THE TEACHER.  Rick showed Ilsa was love really is, Renault was patriotism and sacrifice really is, and the audience what a great movie really is!

The preceding analysis is off the cuff.   You might interpret these “beats” differently, and that is both your right and responsibility as an artist.  If you apply this pattern to your ten favorite movies, an entire world of internal structure will be revealed.  As wonderful as that is, if you apply it to your own life, an entire world of new and wonderful possibilities is revealed.  It has worked for all of recorded history, and it will work for you!

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We didn’t have a Black Friday sale yesterday, because our price for the first month is only $1, and we can’t do much better than that.  But what I will do is remind you that the enrollment for the LIFEWRITING:  REVOLUTIONARY ART workshop closes in one week, not to open again until February.

You still have time to participate LIVE in the final session, as well as access all the back-sessions, join our private group to explore the concepts more deeply, and access FREE downloads worth over 100.00.  All for a dollar. Then, if you don’t think this is for you, just cancel!

The stories you tell about your life determine the experience of life.   Story provides perspective, brings pattern out of chaos.   Whether you want to control your emotions, teach your children, sell to a customer, guide your employees, nurture a relationship, or win an election: control the narrative and you control consciousness itself.

Our goal is simple: One Million Awake, Aware, Adult human beings.  The strategy is even simpler: One Thousand Awake, Aware, Adult Storytellers.

If this sounds like you, please join us!  If you’ve already joined us, please pass this on!

Namaste,

Steve

http://www.lifewrite.com

http://www.createthenarrative.com

“Birth of a Nation” (2016)

 

Birth of A Nation (2016)

 

The story of America’s largest slave uprising, the Nat Turner rebellion, comes to the screen in a scathing film that is as controversial as a movie can be.   It doesn’t just “touch” what used to be the third rail of American cinema.  It embraces it with both arms and wraps its legs around the sucker until it smokes.  Prior to “12 Years A Slave” I’m not sure how long it had been since there was a serious major studio theatrical film on the subject of slavery that actually depicted slaves as human beings with “inwardness”.  Former slaves (“Beloved”, “Glory”), people on their way to being slaves (“Amastad”) and white folks talking about slavery (“Lincoln”).  But the thing itself?  What, “Mandingo”?   Please.  Maybe…”Skin Game” (1971) forty-five years ago?  With James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr.? Terrific movie, and it had to frame itself as a comedy to even be able to discuss or depict the issue.

 

Not an accident: the entire subject, 250 years which, depending upon perspective was either a glorious lost moment of American aristocracy (“Gone with the Wind”), or total crawling horror, the “original sin” of the American experiment.

 

So there is literally no way to make a film that would make both sides happy. Can’t do it.  People are welcome to believe that it was a benign institution “no worse than Irish indentured servitude” or that it was something of unique and pervasive destructive force, flensing millions of people of humanity while pretending they were born that way.  

I have no interest in arguing: you know which camp you’re in, and you know the implications of either path of reasoning.

 

“Birth of A Nation” is a single film in a sub-genre people were saying we’d seen “too much” of when it was a category contained almost nothing at all.  It is THAT painful a subject.   If you aren’t prepared to deal with real, crawling human horror, stay away.

 

That said, it is a flawed, wonderful, painful, and gloriously courageous movie in my humble opinion, hugely important and as much a litmus test for unconscious attitudes as one can imagine.  I cannot recommend it generally, as the story of a man who is brutalized to the breaking point (Remember Lonnie Athens rules to create a violent criminal?  Start with brutalization or “violent horrification”.  Bake for 250 years.  Serve hot) and the actions that result.  My own reactions spanned a wide range, but ultimately I walked out both crying and feeling happy that we are finally, after all this time, beginning to discuss this aspect of the past as we always should have.  

How many such movies should there be?  When there are as many hours of them as there have been of Civil War films, I will consider that discussion can validly begin. Until then, it is a distraction.

Nate Parker has made an important, scathing, difficult film, and I won’t rate it except to say it is both brutal and beautiful.   I didn’t want to discuss it until someone finally, on my FB stream, made a comment I knew was coming…

And it happened today.

At last!    Someone finally brought up the killing in “Birth of A Nation”, and whether the screen images matched the historical slaughter of slave owners (described in the post as “plantation owners”) and school children.   No, of course the filmed images weren’t as ghastly as the historical reality–but then that’s been true of 99% of the images of slavery as well.  Or the conquest of the Western frontier, or any number of other mythology-makers.   

One has two choices, basically: to ask what is different about the individuals that they would commit such acts, or ask what level of brutalization and dehumanization would create enough fear to create so much anger that it strips away social programming to manifests in such unspeakable horror.    I have no interest in arguing about it: the reader will sort themselves into their appropriate category based on how they react.

Those are the two basic positions:

Either we are different, and the different actions are expressions of some innate evil or good, or we are basically the same, and when you see differences in behavior across groups, it is wisest to assume that there is something different about the environmental conditions.  

To ask “how much pain would I have to suffer to strip away that much of my humanity?” is IMO the better path, and a path to wisdom and the resolution of apparent duality.

But the cost of that would be then asking of the slave owners: “what would have to happen to me that I would be willing and capable of applying or supporting the application of so much fear, pain, and horror to people to extract their labor to my benefit?  And to then support a cultural lie that they were born broken?”

The exact same willingness to see the basic nature of humanity, to go beyond the surface and ask: “why do we do what we do?” until we see that these actions are rooted in basic human fear and need…that exact same willingness is necessary to understand both.

 

To stop at the surface is to devolve into racism and bigotry: Nat Turner was a monster, as were his murderous followers who were sub-human beasts.  

Or: every non-Abolitionist white was a monster, and the entire fabric of white society was peopled by terroristic, murderous, raping, brain-washing, kidnapping and self-righteous sub-human beasts, deserving of what happened to them.

Or: we as flawed human beings are driven by fear and guilt, remain unconscious whenever it is convenient for us, consider ourselves so much better than those we need to hurt that it justifies whatever we do.  That this ability to reduce others to objects for our use or disposal can be seen in the behavior of almost any group who has ever stolen power from others.    There is no “terrible them.”  There is only “terrible us” when we fail to extend our humanity to others.

In other words: the harder it is for you to see how BOTH sides are behaving as humans do when they are unconscious to the spiritual reality of human Oneness…the more likely you would have been to do as they did.

That’s all it takes: to believe “they” are different.  That is the road to hell.   That is another tribe.   I won’t go that way, and neither will my brothers and sisters.

 

Namaste,

Steve

http://www.createthenarrative.com