Feelin’ Good: What ‘Green Book’ Got Wrong and ‘Period’ Gets Right

1.
We’re back to this. Or, more accurately, we never left it. Who is “allowed” to tell what story? Back in 2016, when the novelist Lionel Shriver delivered an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival wearing a sombrero, a heated debate ensued about cultural appropriation. Shriver is white and wore the sombrero as a dig at students of color at Bowdoin who’d taken issue with a tequila-themed party where students donned miniature sombreros. Shriver said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.”

Both “supposed to” and “allowed” miss the point rather spectacularly (not to mention Shriver’s omission that the miniature sombreros in question were vaunted on Instagram). Many have written/spoken about this in the years since Brisbane, myself included. Shriver’s and others’ fear-mongering pivot to the so-called tyranny of political correctness diverts attention from poorly executed portrayals of a culture or character of color, pointing instead to oversensitivity and intellectual inferiority when anyone questions the moral and/or aesthetic quality of these portrayals. In the end, I’ve found that the debate comes down to something rather ugly: a battle over who’s really being oversensitive and intellectually simple-minded.

With the controversy over Green Book’s Best Picture Oscar win, it’s tempting to say, Here we go again. The director, Peter Farrelly, is white, as is screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Vallelonga, on whom the main white character is based. The film has had a polarizing effect, with fans lauding its feel-good interracial friendship as the message of hope we need, and detractors criticizing its reduction of racism to a matter of moderately wonky individual attitudes requiring a few key adjustments—nothing a little quality time with an exceptional black man like the composer and pianist Don Shirley can’t fix. Further fueling the controversy is the fact that Shirley’s family spoke out strongly against inaccuracies in Shirley’s portrayal.

2.
But are we back to Brisbane? I think yes and no. Green Book evidences for me a different problem that’s emerged in recent years—both before and after Shriver-gate: white storytellers, recognizing that white-centricism is under scrutiny, rarely now write stories featuring all-white characters. In other words, the market for stories about white people who have no intersections or collisions with people of color has narrowed. While this may be a positive evolution generally speaking, a result is that the instinct to “just add color,” a thinly layered splash here or there, has pervaded many books and films.

Case in point: I recently served on a literary awards committee and was required to read some 60 to 70 debut novels. A significant number of books by white authors either took place in non-white countries and/or featured non-white primary or secondary characters. Most of these novels did not impress me: I found it was not difficult to distinguish between a story about significant relationships between people of different races and a story to which an author had “added color.” In some cases one could almost feel the anxiety motivating the story’s setup—I’ve got to have nonwhite characters—along with the inadequate if well-intentioned response—and here they are!

A crucial question is, why have you “got to?” I’ll defer (as I’ve done previously in interviews and conversations) to Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie, who points us to the fundamental element of motive: whatever is driving your inclination to write or investigate outside of your own culture or experience—anxiety or curiosity, commercial or moral interests, guilt or authentic engagement with power dynamics, savior complex or humility—it will show. The other thing that shows is the creator’s actual lived human relationships to/with the culture and/or character being depicted. To paraphrase the writer Danielle Evans, who tweeted eloquently on this subject in the aftermath of Brisbane, if you are white, who are the people of color in your life, and what is the quality/nature of those relationships? Start there, before imagining you can write well in this vein.

3.
No one but Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley will ever know the true nature of their relationship. Which is why, in my opinion, Green Book is not the story of “a true friendship,” as advertised. Rather it’s the story of a white working-class family man’s exposure to a new (new to him) sort of black person—erudite, fastidious, a genius musical talent. Don Shirley is so unlike the black people that Tony knows that he is both surprised and miffed when whites in the South physically and verbally harass Shirley and enforce racial segregation. Tony’s oddball role as Shirley’s driver and de facto bodyguard during his concert tour through the deep south becomes a personal journey of reorienting his passive racism—the racism of Italian-American cultural provincialism—toward a more noble awareness of the indignities black Americans face and his obligation to act in the face of such indignities.

A film about “a true friendship” would have co-protagonists. Green Book has a lead and a supporting role. Here I disagree with Octavia Spencer’s assessment of the Don Shirley that Green Book presents—not a “person of color with agency” (per her statement as to why she executive produced the film) but rather a differently objectified figure. A non-stereotype, yet still an underdeveloped, alt-version of the “magical negro,” and mainly a vehicle for loveable, plain-spoken Tony to confront blind spots and work out, in attitude and action, his individual moral development.

The specifics of Don Shirley’s family’s objections to the depiction—as estranged from his family, a lone and pathologized figure—are thus utterly relevant: Why is Shirley embarking on this tour of the deep south if, as one of his trio’s musicians says, he doesn’t have to? What does he really want from his driver, and why does he pursue Tony of all people? The complexities of Shirley’s context, background, and motivations are unexplored and distractingly thin. All we know—all that matters in the film—is that Shirley becomes dependent on Tony to save him, repeatedly, in brutal and humiliating situations. The “friendship,” from Shirley’s side, thus becomes based on gratitude (granted, Tony is also grateful, for Shirley’s assistance in writing love letters to his wife; but the exchange is hardly one of equal stakes). At the very end of the film, Shirley’s gratitude reaches its climax when Tony and his loving Italian-American family “save” Shirley from his loneliness on Christmas eve: They welcome him to the family dinner, doing the heroic work of refraining from racial slurs and everything.

In short: Green Book is a white-framed story, by and about white people, that gives white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves in relation to white-on-black racism, and to which some interesting color has been added. The fact that Mahershela Ali brings his virtuosic talent to playing the colorful character adds gravitas and an illusion of depth and complexity.

In my initial considerations of the film, I intended to interrogate in a broader sense the “feel-good” value of art and entertainment—to propose that it’s natural to want to feel good, but that we need to weigh that desire against the consequences of comfy passivity. Now, I’m actually hoping anyone who felt good at the end of Green Book (I’m looking at you, Academy, along with millions of moviegoers who “liked” Green Book, in their hearts and on social media) will interrogate that they felt good—about a film that calls itself a “true” friendship story when, in fact, it “protagonizes” the white character and makes a prop of the black character, thus shrinking systemic racism into a tiny individualized package. What’s more, Green Book manages to both propose an over-simplified solution to racism, i.e., adjustments to personal prejudice, and distance the majority of white people from even that bit of work by virtue of its 1962 deep south setting: oh those bigots, weren’t they awful?.

But enough about Green Book. 

4.
For comparison, let’s look at the winning film for Best Documentary Short, Period. End of Sentence, through a similar lens. Who made the film, what is the frame, who are the protagonists, what is supposed to “feel good” and why?

Frankly, when Melissa Berton, a white woman who co-produced Period—a 26-minute documentary about the taboo and health risks around menstruation in rural India—stepped up to the mic on stage at the Oscars and exclaimed,
This film began because high school students here, and our great partners at Action India, wanted to make a difference, a human rights difference—
my skepticism antenna went up. Behind Berton stood four of those high school students (now college students)—white women who graduated from the Oakwood School, a private school in North Hollywood with a $40,000 annual price tag. Who will be portrayed as leading actors here, and who the supporting roles, I wondered.

In 2013, girls from Oakwood involved with Girls Learn International, with Berton as their faculty advisor, attended the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women and became aware that the majority of females in rural India had no access to sanitary napkins and thus suffered embarrassment, ostracization, and health risks while managing blood flow. Also, many girls dropped out of school shortly after they began menstruating. The Oakwood girls were appalled and wanted to “do something.” At the same time, they’d learned about a social entrepreneur in India named Arunachalam Muruganantham, who’d invented a sanitary-napkin making machine that could be operated by village women themselves. Berton and the Oakwood students raised money for the machine, materials, and—because they wanted their project to reach beyond the village itself—a documentary film. Working with the grassroots feminist organization Action India, they identified a village—Kathikhera, in northern India—where the machine could be put to use.

The optics at the Oscars and in relation to Berton and Oakwood concerned me, in large part due to memories of the 2005 Oscars, when British photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels—about Briski’s project of teaching photography to daughters of sex workers in Calcutta’s red-light district and trying to place the girls in European boarding schools—won for Best Documentary. The controversy around that film—its making, its aftermath, and its success—are best summed up by feminist/queer theorist and English professor Frann Michel, who wrote in 2005:
“Born Into Brothels” might seem to suggest that the residents of Sonagachi are without resources or collective organization, and that escape from the neighborhood is the only possibility for saving the children. In the film, Briski even describes the children as “doomed” in their home environment.
Michel goes on to detail the longstanding local activist efforts—establishing significant social, education, and health services—of the sex workers themselves, notable Indian artists, academics, and government officials, and local NGOs. And she concludes:
[T]o the extent that the film implies that Briski worked alone, without the assistance of local activists, it overestimates the powers of the crusading individual.

Moreover, the film’s emphasis on “good”—that is, boarding school—education exacerbates its focus on individual rather than communal solutions. Even if all eight of the children profiled in the film had been “rescued” by such education, the lives of other Sonagachi residents would not be improved… “Born Into Brothels” is a powerful film in its ability to tug at the heartstrings of westerners. But to the extent it suggests that the only solutions lie in individual outsiders rescuing individual children, it presents a misleading story and indeed an unnecessarily despairing picture of possibilities for change.
It would seem that the next generation of documentary filmmakers (and socially engaged white American girls) learned something from the conversation generated by Brothels’ success—a conversation that existed long before Brothels but came to the fore in 2005.  The Oakwood girls partnered with a 40-year-old local organization—the aforementioned Action India—and recognized that lasting change would only happen if the women of Kathikhera took ownership of the project and its development—making, packaging, and selling the sanitary napkins, and braving difficult conversations about what they are doing and why.
They don’t just want to donate money and buy the girls a pad machine. They want to go there. They want to speak with the women… They want to install this machine and make sure that we’re giving the power entirely to them to create these pads and to become empowered and independent.
Enter Rayka Zehtabchi (her words above), an Iranian American and recent USC film school graduate, who directed Period. When it came time to bring on a filmmaker, a film industry veteran and Oakwood parent named Garrett Schiff contacted cinematographer/editor Sam Davis, who in turn recommended Zehtabchi, his close friend and USC classmate. It would seem then a fortuitous accident that not only is Zehtabchi female (Schiff was explicit in expressing this requirement) but also a person of color. In a short video for the 2015 Kickstarter campaign for her narrative short Mataran—about an Iranian mother deciding whether to pardon, or approve capital punishment for, her son’s murderer—Zehtabchi said this:
I’m an Iranian American, and I’m very much aware of the Western viewpoint on Iran.  A lot of the negativity that is associated with that comes as a result of the political situation in Iran [which] has the second highest rate of executions in the world, behind China. And their method of execution is hanging.
While, by her own admission, Zehtabchi knew nothing about menstrual hygiene or cultural taboos around menstruation in India, she did know that acute awareness of “the Western viewpoint” (from a non-Western viewpoint) was crucial to any project made by Westerners about a non-Western culture. Specifically, Zehtabchi understood that certain non-Western cultural practices (in this case, the taboo around menstruation and managing periods with unsanitary cloths) would incite in Westerners a negative response—repulsion, condemnation, pity; and it was crucial that the film depict these realities and their contexts through the subjects’ points-of-view, not the Western gaze.

Period is also executive produced by Indian film industry veteran Guneet Monga, with interviews assistance from one of her company’s junior producers, Mandakini Kakar, and Action India. Whoever initiated these recruitment efforts, which would crucially determine who was “in the room” as key aspects of the project developed, should be commended.

And here in an interview from MoveableFeast, Zehtabshi, explains precisely why:
Before going to India, there was this idea of making a totally different film about the group of high school girls in Los Angeles who are starting this whole movement and working with a group of women in India [to] help start this sanitary pad business. Melissa Berton…got all the high school girls involved in this whole mission and got us communicating with…the inventor of the pad machine…when I went to India…to start shooting, the machine [had been] installed and it became very clear that the focus and the center of the story was specifically the women in this one village because it was so powerful to see how much this one machine was affecting all the people…
And once again we are back to white framing as default; primary and supporting roles; and the power and privilege to “protagonize.” Whose idea was it to make the girls the main characters?  To whom did it become “very clear” that the village women should instead be the focus? Were there some who needed convincing or enlightening? Who was in the room when that conversation occurred, and would this shift have been possible without Zehtabchi, Monga, Action India, etc. as prominent voices? We may never know the answers to these questions, but I dare say I have a reasonable idea; even as I hope I’m more wrong than right.

5.
Maybe in the end I am indeed interrogating the vital implications of “feel-good” when it comes to films engaging with social issues. As Americans, what we have historically and continually failed to recognize is the feel-good power of humility. There is an important distinction, for would-be liberal do-gooders, between self-congratulation—Look what we did! Isn’t it inspiring?—and self-evolution—Look at what the rest of the world has to teach us. The hard pill for many to swallow is that, in 2019, white Westerners with the best of progressive politics and intentions are as susceptible to the pitfall of privileged protagonizing as are 1960s bigots of yore, or even MAGA Trumpians. [Side note: while a comprehensive analysis of another 2019 Oscar contender for best short documentary, Lifeboat, is not the focus here, I encourage you to watch it for yourself and examine the ways in which the esteemed, experienced director hews uncomfortably close to white-savior/huddled masses tropes and images in this film about the global refugee crisis.]

I appreciate Zehtabchi’s artistic talents, but without her evident essential humility, her talents and good intentions could easily, unwittingly effect more harm than good. When asked in an interview with Ms. Magazine, “What was the most shocking or surprising thing that you learned throughout the filmmaking process?” Zehtabchi said:
I think it really taught me a lot about myself. I grew up sort of thinking I was always mature and worldly in a lot of ways. And I think I realized when I went to India—when I was exposed to this whole issue—that I really don’t know anything about the world…
A foregrounded humility is especially crucial as Period’s influence on mainstream conversations about global issues for women and girls increases. “The Pad Project”—the nonprofit that grew out of the Oakwood student’s efforts—promotes their mission with the tagline, A period should end a sentence—not a girl’s education. It’s a catchy, motivating slogan that elicits applause and makes us all feel good; but in fact the relationship between lack of menstrual hygiene and dropping out of school is more associative and anecdotal than rigorously evidenced. And this distinction matters. In an interview with NPR, researcher Marni Sommer said that hard research has yet to be funded or conducted on menstrual hygiene’s impact on education; in small focus groups, girls around the world identified menstruation as “‘one of many issues that makes engaging in and participating regularly in school problematic.” This, surmises the NPR reporter, is “a far cry from proving that the barriers to menstrual hygiene are causing educational harm.” Likely, multiple converging factors end a girl’s education and make managing periods difficult—including, for example, lack of running water to wash your hands and toilets with privacy locks on the doors. Says Sommer, “The studies out there are not looking at toilets…no one finds toilets sexy,” and the suggestion that a pad-making project will solve the problem worries her.

A final frustration with the tagline is the implication that addressing menstrual hygiene is urgent only insofar as it impacts education. Sommer feels strongly that being able to hygienically and unashamedly manage your period is a human right: “We shouldn’t have to justify that girls are deserving of an environment where they can just meet their basic bodily needs.”

6.
No one is suggesting the film shouldn’t have been made or that it hasn’t had a net positive influence. “The benefit of this movie,” says Sommer, “is that it opens the conversation.” And again, here, I appreciate Zehtabchi’s humility: the filmmaker herself, as far as I’ve seen, has not touted the tagline, and instead said of the film’s value:
it’s always been a wonderful conversation starter and we have a lot of interest from schools and universities and organizations that would love to eventually screen the film. That was the goal of the whole project in the first place—let’s start conversations about periods.
In this vein, I am happy to protagonize the girls, The Pad Project, the faculty advisor, the filmmaker, the producers, the parents who contributed money, everyone involved: Look at what they did: they started a conversation about a complex, ongoing issue. And yet, first and foremost, look at the women and girls of Kathikhera—Sneha, Rekha, Preeti, Shushma, Roksana, Preeti, Gouri, Shabana, Sulekha, Ajeya, Suman, Shashi, Usha, Sushila, Anita—protagonists in their own stories, their families, their communities, their economies, their complex and evolving lives—from whom the rest of us have much to learn.

Does Size Matter? A Conversation with Three Filmmakers

Lately I’ve been thinking about the size of art—specifically short forms across the genres. In literature, compression and brevity—aesthetic experiences as “bursts” of meaning, capsules of experience—have always excited me: The writers I most admire all work masterfully in the short form. Every word, every phrase, every image counts; every moment does “triple duty” in working to resonate layers of meaning.

As writers, we are always immersing ourselves in other art forms for nourishment. For me, film in particular has been a mainstay. As both viewer and fellow storyteller, I learn enormously from films—about narrative structure, emotional texture, visual and aural detail, dialogue, characterization, et alia. Here at The Millions, you’ll be hearing more from me about film and TV, starting with this conversation with three accomplished filmmakers—a documentarian, an animator, and a fictionist—about the short form.

The Millions: As both makers and viewers of short films, what do you think the short form can do better/more compellingly than (or perhaps just differently from) the long form?

Cecilia Aldarondo: Great shorts are these little gems that can sometimes make their mark on us precisely because of their concision. As maker and viewer, I am attracted to shorts because they enable us to dip our toes into an idea without having the burden of too much elaboration. As a filmmaker, I can treat a short like a game. There’s a low-stakes lightness to the process. With a feature, the pressures of fundraising and distribution can really tax the creative process. With a short, I don’t even have to worry if anyone sees it. I feel the luxury of experimentation. I also like to treat shorts as opportunities for collaboration—I can say to a busy friend, hey, let’s make this thing over a weekend or a week or whatever, and this low-pressure situation enables me to remember that art-making is supposed to involve play, failure, and elasticity, and how rewarding it can be to be new at something.

Sometimes, though, I do find the short form too slight, or too simple, for me to really tackle something. One of the current documentaries I’m making—a feature exploring the aftermath of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico—began as a short film. Very quickly I realized that I couldn’t do justice to the seismic nature of this disaster in a short form. It just didn’t work; the short was cacophonous and didn’t hang together. I also think sometimes filmmakers are more susceptible to triteness in a short; I feel like I’ve seen a lot of shorts fall back on cheap tropes that reinforce unhealthy stereotypes. I actually think it can be harder to be original in a short.

George Griffin: “Does Size Matter?” What is it, this short form, besides length?

My position is temperamental: I worship the letter, analogous to the drawing, the frame, the most elemental piece of motion picture film. Look at the letter G. It contains hints of an unjoined circle, itself hinged by a straight line. It exists alone, on a plinth, glanced at or holding my focus while I wander around it, close up or from across the room. Maybe it’s a clean Swiss font, or there are scratchy marks, drop shadows, curlicues. I draw it a certain way, maybe after numerous stylistic revisions, erasures, alternating colors.

Letters build words, which could arrange themselves into sentences, often leading to paragraphs clumped atop each other into stories. And that’s it. I can’t see anything longer through the fog: too far away. Well, not quite. Just as a longer form can contain more than one story, there can be a dialectic of story and counter-story. I have made both cartoons and what I’ve called “anti-cartoons,” and on two occasions have combined them into a single, somewhat longer film.

Just as early cartoons often arose from comic strips, perhaps the size/length issue will continue to be affected by the graphic novel. And maybe the cliché “poetic,” so often used to describe short film, can evolve into a real dialogue.

TM: George, how then do you think about “story?”  There is certainly a sense of narrative in your more recent films “You’re Outta Here” and “It Pains Me to Say This.” Do you tend to begin with characters and narrative, or does image or shape or color come first?  Is it different with each film?

GG: Since the ’80s, when I lost interest in “self-referential” art, I’ve returned to cartoons (even abstractions) which are drenched in narrative or at least memoirish detritus. “Outta Here” was a commissioned film/music video, for the singer/lyricist Lorraine Feather. I think it came out of her confusion/anger over a break-up. Maybe relief too. So, maybe a story can grow out of deep feelings; nothing new there, nor is humorizing the pain.

Another recent film, “Coal Creek,” has two stories loosely woven together. One is a fanciful documentary about John Kasper, a follower of Ezra Pound who left his bookshop in the West Village to fight against school integration in the ’50s. The other is a memoir of my liberal teenage years growing up near the specific school that Kasper targeted in Tennessee. The only on-camera narrator is the school’s janitor who had bravely walked to the all-white school as a kid. He says, “I saw Kasper. Oh, he looked a little like you!” My research also led to Kasper’s black girlfriend whom he had left behind 60 years before (she didn’t want to be part of the film). Imagine, “Coal Creek” could have been a mixed-form, anti-doc feature, not a 10-minute short.

Julian Kim: Where feature-length films invite people to a world, I think short films invite people to an idea. A short film is like a parable. It packages a simple message that is intended to inspire, provoke, reproach, and move those who watch it. But also, it gives room for the viewers to create their own narrative. Much of what is unspoken—backstory, setting, relationships, motivation—is completely up to the viewer to create. My favorite type of short films are the ones where the story lives on even after the credits roll. When the images flash before you as you lay yourself to sleep, you try to digest what you have watched. There’s an appeal in telling a story with a blank canvas for each viewer to contribute to and finish on their own.

TM:  Julian, who are some of your short-film filmmaking inspirations?

JK: I really enjoyed Martin Rosete’s “Voice Over.” Even though it has been about 5 years since I first saw it, the visuals and concept still resonate. Rosete did an amazing job utilizing one small incident and creatively expanding it into something so large and engaging.

I also found Andrew Ahn’s “Dol” inspiring. I love how he captures Korean-American culture without explicitly spelling it out. He subtly presents us the pain and internal conflicts experienced by the character. The story lingered with me for quite some time.

TM: As filmmakers, you all have a distinct set of economic/pragmatic factors to consider: One needs significantly—often prohibitively—more resources to make a feature-length film. That said, if resources were not a consideration, would you still make short films? Why/why not?

CA: Yes, I think so. The constraints on filmmaking aren’t always monetary—sometimes our biggest hurdles are creative. The stakes are higher with a feature not just because of the money involved, or the stakeholders we might have to answer to, but because of the time, energy, and risk we’ve expended to make it. Features take years, shorts can be made in days. Of course, some shorts require painstaking effort; brevity isn’t always the best measure of the risk, commitment, or suffering a project may ask of us. But in general, I feel that I will likely turn to shorts whenever I want to play or learn something new.

One catch that nobody tells you: It takes just as much work—sometimes more—to distribute a short. The festival applications are the same, the deliverables are the same. It can be a huge amount of work to get a short seen.

GG: I am not forced to make short animated films because of external pressures like economics. It isn’t a pragmatic choice. Again, it’s temperament, perhaps inherent, held aloft by reactions (both negative and positive) from other people. I can’t resist mocking the “why” question by answering, “why not?”

JK: My motivation as a filmmaker is to tell stories that can uplift our community and society. I am first and foremost a storyteller. Short films or feature-length films are just various sizes of a blank canvas.  I believe certain art pieces call for a bigger canvas to be on full display; confident, loud, and tall. On the other hand, certain pieces call for a more-humble canvas—intimate and personal.

It’s hard to pick either/or.  But if budget was not an issue, I’d definitely be motivated to make more short films, because it challenges me as a creative person to constantly think of a new world, a new narrative, and a new message. Short films push me to be more fluid as a storyteller.

TM: Julian, tell us a little about your Flushing Web Series and your recent short film  “Call Taxi”— both your artistic vision, and how you approached distribution/audience building.

JK: My collaborator Peter S. Lee and I started the Flushing Web Series because we wanted to highlight stories that were hidden in our community. While Flushing, Queens, has gained a reputation for diverse food offerings, it was still under-appreciated and overlooked as a major producer of culture and art. Our mission was to tell authentic and relatable stories. Through sharing with the public what growing up in Flushing was like, we were able to define our own identities both as Asian-Americans and as filmmakers.

“Call Taxi” was birthed after a tearful heart-to-heart conversation I had with Peter. I had shared with him my struggles as a son of immigrant parents who were growing old and physically weak. At the end of their “career” of dry cleaning, they had no real retirement plan. Their real retirement plan was to lean on me and I would have to dutifully take on that burden. I felt it unfair, but knowing my parents would not take a cent from me, I was simultaneously met with so much regret.

We posted our series on YouTube because of the breadth and reach of the YouTube community. It was the best way to get viewers. The response was overwhelming, and the community “liked” it and shared it. I remember even the older generations sending links to our film via text to other family members overseas. We were both thrilled and humbled that people were able to connect with the film, and that it stirred up conversations about their respective experiences upon watching it.

TM:  The Millions is a literary site, so here’s a genre-comparison question for you all: The short story is sometimes considered the highest form, associated with perfection of craft; other times it’s treated as the industry stepchild. Is there a similar ambivalence for the short film in your genre? Do you think this has changed/is changing?

Also, true or false: You can buy short story collections and read short stories in magazines; you can download singles from iTunes; you can enjoy/purchase small paintings. It seems harder to find/enjoy a short film as a consumable unit of art in its own right. If you agree, why do you think this is?

CA: I don’t think I can answer this question about a film’s aesthetic value without reminding myself that no matter how radical or formally bold they profess to be, at the end of the day films (like all culture) are commodities, subject to the vagaries of capitalism. Right now the internet is dramatically changing the landscape for shorts and often privileging shorter runtimes over longer ones. The voracious screen culture we live in—and the rapidly shrinking attention spans that come with it—prizes brevity. Traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, the Guardian, The New Yorker, and Condé Nast have all radically expanded the number of short documentaries they produce and acquire. Some documentarians I know welcome this shift and have found themselves making more shorts than before because of it.

But this explosion of content has come with no regulation or standards. Filmmakers are regularly being asked to hand over their films for next to nothing—or nothing at all in exchange for “a wide audience.” There’s no transparency about what filmmakers are actually being paid, and this shift is further contributing to already rampant freelancer precarity. On top of this, media outlets frequently expect filmmakers to surrender creative control, and I feel that I’m constantly resisting the transformation of documentary into mere “content.” These changes have steadily diminished the question of craft, to the point that it seems scarily at risk of extinction.  (One major exception to these trends is Field of Vision and Firelight Media’s  “Our 100 Days” series, which commissioned a documentary I directed last year called “Picket Line.” FoV funds shorts with real budgets, and ensures directors have final cut of their films.)

TM: In the literary world too these days we often say it’s easier to get published, but harder to get paid. Is there any chance this is a positive change, or maybe zero sum—if artists are no longer linking creation with paycheck? We lose time (as we earn money otherwise), and cultural respect (people stop expecting to pay for art); but the capitalist commodification is problematic too, isn’t it?

CA: The union organizer in me is having a moment right now. I’m definitely not saying we should always be monetizing our work (that’s the other dark side to this era, in which we are all becoming brands). I’ve had some incredibly frustrating run-ins with mercenary artists who turn everything into a financial transaction. It’s awful. I’m constantly trying to circumvent the economics, in fact. I love nothing more than to barter favors with friends I like to work with—you scratch my artist’s back, I scratch yours. But the reality is that most creative people lack the ability to make art for its own sake. This is especially true for working-class filmmakers, and filmmakers of color. It’s an incredible privilege to make work without thinking about one’s bills. Part of what I’ve observed is that many organizations will use this “art for art’s sake” rhetoric to justify asking financially vulnerable artists to make work, give time, teach, mentor, all for free. We’re experiencing an unprecedented casualization of creative labor, and that makes me want to hold the line on making sure people who need to get paid get paid.

GG: It’s much harder to find individual or even collections of short films. Maybe we aren’t aware of the many genres of short forms produced by “content providers” that tumble chaotically, incessantly, out of our devices: movie trailers, music videos, advertising and public service spots, pleas for political support, YouTube videos of funny pets. Yes, most viewers see the short film as a stepping stone to feature films, a kind of proving ground, grudgingly honored at the star-studded Oscar awards ceremony. (There is a perennial rumor that the category will be exiled to the technical awards dinner.)

Compared to other short forms, including painting and sculpture, which can be read/viewed/reviewed at one’s own speed, continuously or episodically, all films, short and long, must be viewed exactly as projected on a bright screen in a darkened room. These involuntary, pre-determined conditions are both a strength (exciting tempo, spectacle, illusion, propaganda) and a weakness (boredom), abetted by the sonic envelope of music, lyrics, dialogue, or silence.

Compared to mass entertainment (including gaming), short films live in a cultural niche found in international festivals specializing in documentary, animation, identity affirmation, narrative, even preceding feature films at the local art cinema. Also check out retail sites, museum programs, and public library media sections.

TM: Literary writers too often express that reading literature has become a rarified, niche activity, and serial television is where would-be readers now immerse themselves in complex story and character. George, do you think there is an analogy for short films? You mention gaming: Is this a place where creative talent is finding its audience and industry? Are there other short-film filmmakers you admire who are finding their way into more mainstream outlets?

GG: The world of gaming, television, and serial streaming entertainment is too far off my map to be of much help to this discussion. I do like the dialogue and art direction of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” yet could never see the characters as really animated; they are already cartoons. Certain animators have moved from shorts to features through the conventional route: directing, animation supervising, designing, storyboarding, all as part of a studio team financed within a mass-market context. The other “road not (often) taken” involves a narrower, more personal, formally experimental journey. The most successful example is Bill Plympton, whose main strength is roughly penciled grotesquerie, wildly irreverent humor, often delivered in short doses. Nina Paley’s mastery of line and character in motion was bound together with the music of Annette Hanshaw in “Sita Sings the Blues.” And Signe Baumann’s “Rocks in My Pockets” described her, and her family’s, history of depression, rendered in a dead-pan pictorial design and monotonous, uninflected narration, all quite informative and mordantly hilarious. All three artists have funded their projects through crowd-sourcing, and as they don’t have (to my knowledge) major distribution, the audience is unfortunately limited to festivals and perhaps specialized tours and cinemas. Baumann’s subject enabled her to find audiences among therapeutic networks: patients, academics, and practitioners. Her current feature project is focused on marriage.

Finding a cinematic analogy to the novel is less likely among animators than live-action/narrative filmmakers. But when we throw in mixtures including documentary, widely-used (and misused) techniques like rotoscoping, glued together with compositing, then one never knows…There are surely many more animators who have brought their features to the festival circuit and moved to wider audiences. Critics like Amid Amidi and historian-artists like John Canemaker would have a deeper, more up-to-date view.

JK: Short films were always considered unprofitable because distribution for them was hard…until the Internet happened! The way we view “films” is changing. We are now in a world where 15-second vertical stories are the way we consume storytelling. I feel like the people of the new generation are on YouTube more than they are in theaters. They watch gamers stream, rather than watch a sketch comedy show. For a traditionalist like myself, I find it unfortunate that an increase in viewership is directly related to a mere strong thumbnail and a compelling first six seconds. It ruins the artistic merit of filmmaking, where pacing is so important. However, I’m sure there is a different side to that, especially to those who embrace this new wave. I think there is a demand for short films in this current market, but I personally do not see most content as the highest form of filmmaking.

I believe great short films as a consumable unit of art exist out there, but I agree that it is harder to find them. I do think content on the web is created specifically to capture the ephemeral attention of the audience so it’s hard to find a calming or powerful short film beyond all the noise of makeup tutorials, vine compilations, and music covers.

TM: Julian, tell us about a great short film you’ve been inspired by, and also how you discovered and encountered it.

JK: Some years ago, I fell upon “Kung Fury” and “POWER/RANGERS” on YouTube and was amazed by the sheer production scale. I also enjoy light-hearted and easily consumable content produced by Wong Fu Productions and Jubilee Projects. Much like how you can find a great novel or good read by spending significant time in a library, taking the time to browse YouTube increases the probability of encountering good video content.

TM: I’ll end with a question—for Cecilia—about a “happy medium” form. Tell us about your documentary “Memories of a Penitent Heart”—about your uncle, a gay man who died of AIDS amidst the disapproval and denials of your Catholic Puerto Rican family—which played on PBS’s POV. What is the nature of this middle length—analogous to the novella, perhaps?

CA:  “Memories”’s theatrical length was 72 minutes long—already lean for a documentary feature. For the TV broadcast, POV asked us to cut the film down to exactly 53 minutes, or what’s known as a broadcast hour. This is another instance of industry forces rubbing up against creative impulse. I had zero desire to cut the film down, but since it was my one shot at a TV broadcast, I basically closed my eyes, handed the film to my editor, and said, “Do your worst.” She’s such a damn good editor that the broadcast hour worked—but in my opinion, we sacrificed breathing room and lyricism. For a film about loss and memory, this is really significant. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it when they otherwise wouldn’t have, and that’s the Faustian bargain a lot of filmmakers make, but my film is a lean and lyrical 72 minutes—and it’s on iTunes!

Image Credit: Unsplash/John Moeses Bauan.

Who Gets to Change? Representation in ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’

The crowd erupted Oscar night when Frances McDormand took the stage for Best Actress and announced, “I’m hyperventilating a little bit so pick me up if I fall over because I’ve got some things to say.” It was classic McDormand for those who’ve followed her since her other Oscar performance in Fargo: A little 30’s screwball comedy, wide eyes and manic gestures, that can drop into a tell-it-to-you-straight tone. She went on to call out the industry and asked actors to consider an inclusion rider, a contract clause that would pressure a movie to hire more diverse casts and crews.

Her new film, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, nominated for Best Picture, also aspires to tell you something straight, the rage of a small-town mother. Mildred Hayes’s teenage daughter was raped and killed; in response, she rents three billboards that call out the sheriff for failing to solve the case. Reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable. Rotten Tomatoes’s “top critics” gave it a 94 percent “fresh” rating. One, Alexandra MacAaron of Women’s Voices for Change, said, “The movie is one of the angriest films in recent memory. Yet it has moments of unlikely (yet hilarious) comedy and sincere tenderness, along with acts of nearly unwatchable violence.”

It’s the violence off stage that drives the rage. When the movie opens, McDormand’s daughter is already dead. Now, we have the freshness of a woman in a role usually reserved for grieving, vengeful fathers like Liam Neeson (there’ve been so many men in the role there’s a listicle). Unlike them, McDormand doesn’t have a clear target for revenge, since the killer may’ve been a drifter passing through. She does have the police to bother, comically portrayed by two likable actors, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. In fact, much of the movie is shot in a darkly comic tone that differs from the dread of classic revenge-flicks like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. It’s this tone that characterizes all of director Martin McDonagh’s movies. It worked to brilliant effect in his first, In Bruges, where the comic tenor is shattered by bouts of intense violence. Three Billboards so successfully combines that keep-you-off-balance tone with a great cast (indie favorite John Hawkes and Peter Dinklage) that it seems to have masked its racial problems to the critics.

Nineteen years ago, another Oscar contender, The Green Mile (also starring Rockwell as a racist redneck), was critically praised despite its plot reliance on the Magical Negro trope. (Michael Clarke Duncan was nominated for his portrayal).  Three Billboards doesn’t feature a valiant black character whose role is to teach the white protagonist—in fact, there are disturbingly no black characters featured for a movie focusing on racism. We see McDormand interacting with her black co-worker, played by Amanda Warren, in a way that suggests friendship. But we aren’t shown what that looks like beyond one scene that establishes she has the proverbial “black friend,” another trope, and assures us McDormand is cool and, for all her crass talk, humane. Soon, she hears that Rockwell’s character has thrown her friend in jail for McDormand starting trouble. Like Mitch McConnell, he doesn’t realize that she will persist.

We don’t see Amanda Warren’s character again until the end when she is released and back hugging McDormand. The other black characters also play limited roles: Darrell Britt-Gibson is Jerome, the young billboard-hanger yelled at by Rockwell’s character to make sure we know he’s the racist cop. Britt-Gibson returns to knock at McDormand’s door after the billboards are later torched. He, too, is around to show McDormand is loved by black people: He happens to have more posters they can all put back up together. Two other black characters in non-speaking roles pop in and out, Eleanor T. Threatt as a nurse and Wallace Sexton as an uncredited paramedic.

It’s never clear how McDormand has earned the love of all the people of color in town. Some “fat Mexican guy” gives the ad man’s girlfriend $5,000 to keep the billboards up. Again, this happens offstage. We never meet the man or learn why he is so generous. The suggestion is that McDormand is a surrogate for whatever implied injustices have been done to the brown people of the community, casting her as a white savior. The great Clarke Peters (The Wire) is wasted in the final half as the new Chief of Police. In his few minutes on screen, he does his role: He fires the racist deputy. The right thing has been done and now Rockwell’s character can face redemption.

Humanity. Justice. These are the roles, the symbols, the black characters play. Had Martin McDonagh attended a VONA writing workshop (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation), or the other too-few spaces that center the experience of writers of color, he couldn’t have avoided basic authorial questions like: What characters have plot arcs? That is, who gets to change? That is the heart of storytelling, the essence of humanity. To deny characters this degrades their role to functionality. In many cases, that’s fine; that’s what secondary characters do. Watson is there to tell Sherlock Holmes’s story. But even Watson was respected with a backstory and screen time.

So who gets to change? The two white people, like the ones English director Martin McDonagh saw from a bus window over 30 years ago. The angry white, the poor and racist. While touring America, McDonagh passed through Vidor, Texas, and saw three rough, handwritten signs erected by James Fulton: “Vidor police botched up the case;” “Waiting for confession;” “The could happen to you!” In 1991, Fulton’s daughter was found strangled in what was made to look like a car accident. Fulton, now 86, still believes her husband is the killer and that the Vidor police didn’t do their job. So, he put up the signs. “It was this raging, painful message calling out the cops about a crime,” McDonagh said. “The title came from the concept and the concept came from that image, which stayed in my mind for years. What kind of pain would lead someone to do that? It takes a lot of guts—and anger.”

If McDonagh had stopped and talked to the people of Vidor he would’ve discovered the guts it took to live there. The majority of lives that have been changed in Vidor are black, not white. Located in southeast Texas, the area has long been known as Klan territory. As recently as 2006, a white resident felt comfortable telling a reporter he wished blacks and whites were still separated. Another said, “”I don’t mind being friends with them, talking and stuff like that, but as far as mingling and eating with them, all that kind of stuff, that’s where I draw the line.” So many black families have left that the city has put up its own billboard with the close-up of a little black girl in hopes of showing tolerance and bringing people back.

Just up the road in Jasper, 49-year-old James Byrd was notoriously murdered in 1998 after being dragged behind a truck by Lawrence Brewer, a former “Exalted Cyclops.” The incident led to the passage of a 2009 hate bill. Brewer was not nearly as congenial as Sam Rockwell, whose character’s history of beating a black prisoner, again, takes place offstage and is never explored. Would we feel the same way at his redemption if we’d viewed him committing the act? Or if his pistol whipping of the ad man was a person of color and not a whiny white teenager? As NPR journalist Gene Demby tweeted, “you can say that it’s not supposed to be about the black characters, which: okay, but McDonagh also didn’t have to write the cop as a racist. He could’ve just wrote him as a generic asshole. But since he did write him that way, then we should talk about how he treated that idea.”

Three Billboards does suggest that education and love, as we see between McDormand and Rockwell at its conclusion, is the redemptive key. Scholars like Prof. Ibram X. Kendi suggest otherwise: Self-interest drives racist thought and racist thought grows out of discriminatory policies and structures. Despite Rockwell’s torturing of a black man, we see his gosh-shucks police chief tell him in a letter that he’s a decent person, and that he has the makings of a detective if he can get out of his own way. Who wouldn’t agree with the comic-wisdom of Woody Harrelson’s folksy voiceover? Critic Francine Prose did in The New York Review of Books, calling the character “a profoundly decent, intelligent, hard-working, and conscientious man.” Only the ignorant, poor, and angry–like Rockwell’s character–can be racist, not his middle-class boss caught up in the legal system. There are echoes here of how pundits explained the presidential election as white working-class anger despite evidence that the white and wealthy overwhelming gave the victory to Donald Trump.

The heart of the problem lies in McDonagh’s directorial choices. The few critics, predominantly people of color, who found his movie manipulative (here, here, and here) and historically tone deaf agree this is our generation’s Crash: where white characters learn a lesson on the backs of black people. The sexual violence, the rape of McDormand’s daughter, is equally problematic, though not mentioned even in passing in The New York Times review. After all, who could question a grieving mother? But as The Independent’s Amrou Al-Kadhi asks, “Why is it that even when telling the stories of women, conflict is centered round the white male struggle?” The use of rape as a plot point joins a growing trend that has hit a fevered pitch, with Game of Thrones the main culprit. “In 2017, rape on screen almost feels passé: it’s the suggestion that comes up when you’re stuck for a story arc on a slow afternoon in the writers’ room,” The Guardian’s Zoe Williams writes.

It’s obvious McDonagh wants you squirming in your seat—and in In Bruges it worked. (Though it’s interesting to note that not all critics agreed, including the ones who felt he used Irish characters, and Irish state funding, to his own purpose.) But crossing the ocean has been problematic for the English-born director. He is also a playwright, and in his first American play he employed the same shock value he used on his working-class Irish characters in previous plays. In A Behanding in Spokane, Christopher Walken plays a man who’s surreally lost his hand and has searched for it for 27 years. When he finds one, it’s not his but the black actor Anthony Mackie’s, whose character of “Toby” is “played like a character that would be ripped to shreds on social media if he graced a film or television screen in this day and age.” The effect on the reviewer-of-color: “It nauseated me.”

Rape, gender, race–McDonagh’s thrown it all in. He even added a literary touch. Look closely when McDormand’s character is buying the billboards; the ad man is reading Flannery O’Connor. Clearly this is an homage, and we should expect violence to lead to an emotional lesson, maybe grace. McDonagh brings his many talents to the film–making someone laugh at violence is a difficult thing to do–and was helped along by strong performances, most notable, of course, that of Frances McDormand. Who doesn’t want to watch a brilliant actress stomp around dressed like Rosie the Riveter giving overt racists hell? (We’re never told why she dresses like that; she works in a gift shop.) It’s as if the image, like the billboards McDonagh saw passing through Texas, were too enticing to bother with the film’s many flaws around race. Was it laziness? Ignorance? Why did all those that reviewed it found it praiseworthy? These are not questions from the P.C. Police but meat-and-potato storytelling considerations, though McDonagh thinks differently. “I can’t happily defend [the movie] at any stage. I think it’s a really good film, and I think often the backlash is kind of a knee-jerk reaction maybe.”

To return to McDormand’s admirable speech: A clue to why this movie was made comes after she announces, “I’ve got some things to say,” exciting the crowd. She thanks the director, humorously adding, “We are a bunch of hooligans and anarchists, but we do clean up nice.” It’s in this vein of anarchism that I think we find a closer explanation for McDonagh’s movies, the work of a provocateur. Why not throw the kitchen sink of hot-button issues at viewers and see how they respond? Sensationalism as a tool for story chaos. Unlike Flannery O’Connor, who knew the South and cared about her characters, McDonagh’s movies are more interested in emotional pyrotechnics, leaving the heavy lifting of character development to its actors who are very good. And if no one asks questions that any VONA workshop might about core issues of representation, we’re destined to see more Oscar nominees like Three Billboards, Crash, and The Green Mile perpetuating the treating of people of color like props—and more positive reviews. It might not matter if McDormand’s call for inclusion riders comes about. Five black actors were in the film about racism that won her an Oscar. We barely saw them.

Shakespearean Echoes: Game of Thrones as History Play

Beneath all the well-worn fantasy tropes and flashy special effects — the CGI dragons, the armies of evil ice zombies, the clichéd Christ allegories about magical heroes coming back from the dead — at its heart Game of Thrones is really just a giant mashup of European history. Twenty-five million or so rabid fans are certainly looking forward to watching computer-generated dragons torch equally pixelated ice demons in the new season that starts this Sunday on HBO, but the biggest thrills in Game of Thrones arguably come from seeing real-world history recreated onscreen in the guise of a fractured fairytale. Like Homer’s mythical reimagining of the Greek past or Sir Walter Scott’s best-selling historical novels in the 19th century, HBO has come to dominate the 21st-century cultural landscape by producing the most spectacular history lesson on TV.

The historical parallels in Game of Thrones are almost too easy to pick out. (Unless you’re looking for non-Western history; then you’re mostly stuck with flat racist stereotypes. More on that in a bit.) The continent of Westeros, where the show’s main action takes place, is shaped like Britain and Ireland, and the massive ice wall that keeps out the Wildling barbarians from the North just so happens to be at the exact same spot where the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Celtic tribes. Similarly, the civil war at the center of Game of Thrones mimics the 15th-century War of the Roses, when the houses of York and Lancaster fought a bitter internecine battle for the English throne — in Westeros, the Lancasters go by Lannister. The Ironborn raiders, who sail around in longships, are stand-ins for the Vikings, while the Free Cities on the continent of Essos represent the Italian city-states, right down to the island-city of Braavos, which is duly filmed in Venice. And the Valyrian Empire, which was famous for its engineering feats and military power, has crumbled into a pile of elegantly twisted ruins reminiscent of ancient Rome.

It isn’t just the real-world history behind Westeros that draws in fans, though. The made-up history within the show, much more than the dragons and ice zombies, is what drives the story forward. The plot hinges on big revelations about the personal histories of individual characters (who are Jon Snow’s parents?) and the larger political history of Westeros (who is plotting with Varys to restore the Targaryen Dynasty to the Iron Throne?). Readers of the original books by George R.R. Martin will appreciate just how critical the fictional history of Westeros is to the epic war the story depicts. Martin delights in taking long, world-building digressions to explain the minutiae of Westerosi history, from ancient patterns of human migration to the tangled lineages of important noble families, the source of all present-day conflicts. With a less agile and inventive writer, this would be a mind-numbing drag on the narrative, but in Martin’s lively prose, the history lessons can be even more entertaining than the fight scenes.

The classicist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn says that Martin writes with “Herodotean gusto”: Martin describes the wonders of the Westerosi landscape and the wars between its peoples in the same exuberant and exorbitantly detailed style as the (partly) factual travelogue, conveniently called the Histories, in which the ancient Greek Herodotus invented the genre of history-writing in the 5th century BCE. But Game of Thrones is better seen as a 21st-century echo of William Shakespeare. Martin’s plots borrow heavily from Shakespeare’s English history plays and the late-medieval time period they portray. More importantly, both Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation have a distinctly Shakespearean view of how history works and why it matters.

When King Robert dies in season one, it sets off a war of succession between his friends, brothers, bastards, and opportunistic lesser lords that might as well be the War of the Roses. Shakespeare, of course, wrote eight or so plays about the War of the Roses and its backstory, starting chronologically with Richard II — in which Henry Bolingbroke usurps the throne from Richard II and names himself King Henry IV — and tracking the complicated fallout from Henry’s rebellion in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, & 3, and Richard III. (You thought Hollywood was obsessed with sequels.) Both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones use the War of the Roses to explore how rulers seize and justify their power. In Richard II, when Henry usurps the crown through raw military force, he also makes sure that Richard II legally abdicates the throne and names Henry as his heir. In Game of Thrones, Cersei tears up King Robert’s will, bribes the city guards to help make her the Queen Regent, and forces the legal regent Ned Stark to publicly confess to treason. In these fictional recreations of factual events, both Shakespeare and Game of Thrones turn English political history into a tutorial on the workings of constitutional government. It’s political science 101, with dragons.

Importantly, Shakespeare shows us the big-picture political clashes of English history from the viewpoints of individual characters — that’s why there are so many soliloquies in his plays, times when a single character onstage shares his or her hidden thoughts with the audience. In Henry IV Part 1, for instance, Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when it’s time to fight a war to protect his father’s kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective soldier. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion is a drunken lout who likes witty banter and chasing after prostitutes and has to wrestle with what he truly believes, but when his father orders him to defend the kingdom, he turns out to be a highly effective . (He also channels John Falstaff, the charismatic, ingenious outsider of Henry IV Part 1: Tyrion faces social stigma as a dwarf, where Falstaff is mocked for his “fat-witted” enormity.) Game of Thrones, like Shakespeare’s play, uses an outcast with a brilliant mind, a sharp tongue, a taste for wine, and a non-normative body to explore what makes a good leader and what obligations we owe to our family and country.

Take a final example, this one directly from Martin’s books. When the rebels overthrow the Targaryen Dynasty, they kill the king’s two small children, Rhaenys and Aegon. But Aegon, it turns out, may have survived — or at least a young man who claims to be Aegon arrives in Westeros with an army to retake his father’s throne. This mimics the bizarre real-life tale of Perkin Warbeck, a twenty-something pretender to the English crown who claimed that he was one of the two young princes famously murdered in the Tower of London by their usurping uncle Richard III. Perkin Warbeck crossed the English Channel to Kent in 1495, supported by nobles from Scotland and mainland Europe, and led a series of armed revolts before he was finally captured and hanged in 1499. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Ford wrote a play called Perkin Warbeck that tells this story in order to ask a fundamental question: what makes the king the rightful king? If you remember Varys and Tyrion’s drunken banter about what makes a good ruler on their road trip in season five (not to mention countless other characters’ disquisitions on the nature of power), you know that’s the big question at the heart of Game of Thrones too.

In his history plays, Shakespeare reimagines the English past in order to ask, again and again, what makes the king the king. Is the rightful ruler chosen by God, or determined by laws and constitutions written by human beings? Is the ruler simply the person with the most money and military power, or should the ruler be the person with the best record of actually getting things done? Game of Thrones uses European history for the same reason: to stage a debate about how leaders gain and lose the legitimate right to rule.

Martin’s books and HBO’s show give a dazzling array of different answers to that question. For Cersei, the answer is raw power — swords create legitimacy, and she refuses even to pretend to care about her subjects. For her son Tommen, the answer is religion: the backing of the Faith conveys political legitimacy. For Stannis Baratheon, the answer is law and blood, the laws of succession that determine who should wear the crown when each king dies. For Jon Snow, the answer is that a good ruler should be elected and should have the right intentions and high moral principles. Jon’s followers, of course, end up killing him because he follows his principles. Then again, Jon also gets resurrected like Christ.

Daenerys is the most interesting case. She experiments repeatedly with how to legitimate her rule, from blood (her father was the king) to marriage (her husband was the Khal) to divine right (she appears to be the magically anointed savior of the world) to moral principles (she frees the slaves) to pragmatic success as a ruler (she spends multiple seasons bogged down in Meereen trying to improve her subjects’ lives). Her career as a queen is like a laboratory where Martin tries out the different styles of leadership represented in Roman and English history.

Daenerys’s attempts to rule also reveal the profound shortcomings of the focus on European history in Martin’s books and HBO’s TV adaptation. Daenerys swoops in like a deus ex machina on dragonback to liberate the oppressed people of color from Game of Thrones’s equivalent of the Middle East. In doing so, she (and the books and TV show) writes out the many historical non-Western models for political legitimacy (Al-Farabi, say, or Ibn Rushd; Confucius, or the Bhagavad Gita) and implies that it takes a white person to run an enlightened political system based on individual liberty. This isn’t very surprising: Art reflects the society around it, and plenty of Americans couldn’t believe a black man was the legitimate president of the United States. On the other hand, Game of Thrones goes powerfully in on the idea that a woman can be the most legitimate political leader in a crowded field. For Daenerys in this upcoming season, the woman card might turn out to be a winning hand.

Game of Thrones’ obsessive anxiety about the roots of political legitimacy helps explain why it’s such a smash hit right now. The question of what makes a ruler legitimate has been the central issue in American political life for the last fifteen years, from the mainstream to the fringe. Who won all those hanging chads in Florida in 2000? Was 9/11 an inside job? Was the Iraq War a legally and morally legitimate use of force? Was George W. Bush within his rights to have terrorism suspects indefinitely detained and tortured? Was Barack Obama really born in America, or is he a secret Muslim agent smuggled in to undermine the country? Did Donald Trump work with the Russians to steal the presidency? Can international climate accords legitimately control what America does? Does the press bravely speak truth to power, or is it all just fake news?

The world of Westeros, like the European history on which it’s based, implies that political legitimacy is both real and perceived: it rests on the power to rule, but it also lies in the eyes of the beholders, the everyday citizens who see their leaders as legitimate or not. Appearances, as Shakespeare knew, are everything — all the world’s a stage. Or, as Shakespeare’s ruler Queen Elizabeth I put it, “we princes, I tell you, are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world.” It’s a lesson that George R.R. Martin’s characters have to learn. Robb Stark, for instance, manages for a while to maintain both the moral high ground and the military successes necessary to make himself a king. But when his underlings think he has acted illegitimately — breaking his betrothal to the Freys and letting his mother get away with freeing Jaime Lannister — they abandon him and kill him. In Game of Thrones, peaceful government depends on a system of political legitimacy — an agreed-upon set of norms about who gets to rule and how — but most of the time, that rule collapses into chaos and bloodshed.

The show ultimately reminds us that the institutions that create political legitimacy — our laws, beliefs, customs, and constitutions, the stories we tell ourselves about why our leaders get to lead — can be as fragile as Ned Stark’s neck, ready to explode when the next tyrant with a fop of yellow hair like Joffrey Baratheon slouches along. Behind the idealistic fantasy battle between good and evil, Westerosi history, much like our own real-world history, implies that if we want good government, we have to fight for the institutions that protect political legitimacy and preserve the rule of law. But neither our history nor Martin’s made-up one promises we’ll win.

Is This Me? The Handmaid Narrative on Page and Screen

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[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

The final episode of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale—like the rest of the show—is far more suspenseful than the original 1985 novel written by Margaret Atwood. Hulu’s Offred engages in several radically defiant acts; you worry more for her safety than you did in the book. But while these additions to plot probably make for better viewing, they obscure the central brilliance of the novel, which took its power from the mundane horrors of the handmaid Offred’s everyday life.

In the show, a subversive handmaid tells Offred to pick up a special package for safekeeping. After she obtains the parcel, Offred marches home proudly. “They should’ve never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” she says of the state-mandated red garb she must wear. Offred, like her fellow handmaids, is forced to undergo a ritualized rape so that she can bear children for the well-to-do men of a totalitarian state. To endure this servitude, Hulu’s Offred finds solace in small acts of resistance.

But the original Offred, Atwood’s intended Offred, is far less politically active. In the novel, Offred recalls her feminist mother, whose activist leanings she always had trouble relating to. Even the regime of Gilead does not radicalize her; indeed, she is outwardly compliant—she attempts to get pregnant from a tryst with her assigned commander’s driver, at the suggestion of her mistress, his wife, Serena Joy.

The show, however, features Girl Power Moments set to danceable tunes. One of these intrusive songs is the otherwise wonderful Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It plays when, having stood up to the insidious Aunt Lydia, Offred and her fellow handmaids march down a wintry street, Offred leading the red cloaked women. Hulu’s Offred takes strong political stances against the regime under which she suffers. This, of course, is not worthy of recrimination—there is much to admire about her character. But her political bent makes her more unique, more of a leader than an Everywoman.

While transforming Offred into a stereotypically empowered representation of a woman may make the show more appealing to some viewers, I found it disheartening. To me, the book drew its magic from Offred’s stance as a witness. Not everyone is able to act in open defiance when the stakes are truly life and death, nor should people in unjust situations be blamed for their inability to escape them. The book offered another option for the oppressed; Atwood’s Offred finds, to steal a phrase from the French philosopher Hélène Cixous, “a way out” through the simple act of telling her own story.

2.
Offred’s narration, though fiction, falls within a long tradition, as first-person narratives of life in bondage date back to colonial times. In the late 17th century, Mary Rowlandson wrote one of the first so-called captivity narratives about her experience as a hostage of Native Americans. The book, which was immensely popular at the time, has a didactic, moralizing quality. Rowlandson tells her story and at the end determines that her time in captivity was God’s punishment for the selfishness she indulged in prior to being kidnapped.

While the bondage narratives of the 17th and 18th centuries were predominantly written by and about white Americans, the bondage narratives of the 19th century were mostly written by and about black people who had been enslaved. The former category, that of captivity narratives, was largely about enforcing racist stereotypes that helped justify colonists’ mistreatment of Native Americans. The latter category, on the other hand, generally worked to tell individual stories, with the aim of aiding the abolitionist cause. The audience for both was almost always educated white readers.

Oddly, given the problematic racial politics of the The Handmaid’s Tale, both book and show, the narration of Atwood’s Offred has much in common with 19th-century slave narratives. As with famous examples like Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, the textual version of The Handmaid’s Tale makes its potent political statement through the act of recounting what daily life was like, rather than through more explicit political commentary.  “I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery,” wrote Northup at the end of his story. “Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the ‘peculiar institution.’ This is no fiction, no exaggeration.”

The process of mapping a fictional sex-based oppression narrative onto the historical trope of race-based slavery yielded imperfect results in both the novel and show. The book’s aracial approach—minorities have been rounded up and sent to the so-called “colonies,” is particularly troubling, especially when the novel uses a historically black narrative format. The Hulu show, on the other hand, as Angelica Jade Bastién writes, features a somewhat glib “post-racial” approach. Minorities haven’t been sent to the colonies and are featured as prominent characters (Offred’s husband, daughter, and best friend), but the show fails to realistically address how race would function in an American religious authoritarian regime like that of Gilead.

3.
That Atwood’s novel is a futuristic bondage narrative becomes overwhelmingly evident in the final pages of the book, which come in the form of an appended “Historical Note.” Offred’s narration ends mysteriously with her being taken away from Commander Waterford’s house in a van. The epilogue is set at a University of Nunavit conference set in 2195, many years after the collapse of Gilead.

A professor named Piexoto gives a talk on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has been discovered in the form of 30 tape cassettes in a footlocker. In this metafictional moment that departs from the confessional realist style that dominates the novel, Piexoto discusses scholars’ intense examination of the tapes in order to verify their accuracy and determine the speaker’s identity—a pursuit which ends in frustration. He reveals that he believes they were made after the fact while the narrator hid in a house along the Underground Femaleroad as she attempted to escape Gilead. His speech’s opening reveals a good deal about the society that has replaced Gilead:
This item—I hesitate to use the word document—was unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what at the time prior to the inception of the Gileadean regime, would have been the state of Maine. We know that this city was a prominent way station on …the ‘Underground Femaleroad,’ since dubbed by some of our historical wags ‘The Underground Frailroad.’ (Laughter, groans.) For this reason, our association has taken a particular interest in it.
Piexoto questions the legitimacy of Offred’s narrative, reluctant to call it a document but rather demoting it to the rank of “item.” Furthermore, Piexoto’s insensitive crack about the “The Underground Frailroad” is only made worse by the fact that he has just read a narrative detailing the horrors of gender oppression and has gained little from it. It is this bleak ending that suggests the limits of storytelling and the bondage narrative: unlike with activism, or even a more active text like the Hulu show, the apolitical bondage narrative does not imbue every reader with a more progressive set of politics; the interpretation of any personal narrative is subject to the whims of readers the narrative’s creator never chose.

In the final episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred opens the secret package she was told to keep safe and finds writings by women who have also been enslaved as handmaids. She is overjoyed by reading the accounts of other women in similar situations. She falls asleep reading these accounts, and the next day she, as previously mentioned, refuses Aunt Lydia’s mandate that she and her fellow handmaids stone another handmaid to death. It’s a somewhat clunky plot mechanism for generating Offred’s inspiration, but it seems to be the closest the final episode of the Hulu adaptation comes to making a nod to the narrative origins of the story.

4.
Though the novel’s “Historical Note” undoes the explicit political force of Offred’s narration, the book—somehow, incredibly—affirms a farther-reaching and perhaps even more important message. Because if you can’t change the world you live in, you can find your way out of it. Hélène Cixous wrote that women writing their own stories was a way to escape patriarchal society. In a 1975 essay called “Sorties / Out and Out / Attacks, Ways Out and Forays,” Cixous writes that self-expression could help women combat their oppression. “It is writing in writing, from woman and toward woman, and in accepting the challenge of the discourse controlled by the phallus, that woman will affirm woman somewhere other than in silence.”

Breaking one’s silence, if oppressed as Offred is, is a vital means for survival. In both the show and the novel, handmaids like Offred are forced to be obedient. “Blessed are the meek,” Aunt Lydia tells them. Eyes down and hands folded, she tells the woman—whom she calls “girls”—when they first, after being captured, enter the handmaid training center. Then later, when they are out in public, they avert their eyes and wear absurdly modest bonnets that cover most of their faces. Its visuals like this that remind me of a line from Cixous’s essay: “Is this me, this no-body that is dressed up, wrapped in veils, carefully kept distant, pushed to the side of History and change, nullified, kept out of the way, on the edge of the stage, on the kitchenside, the bedside?”

At the end of the novel, though her story is co-opted by an insensitive historian, the answer to Cixous’s question for Atwood’s Offred, having spoken her truth, is most certainly, no. As for how the Hulu adaptation would answer that same question, I think the answer is more complicated, as Hulu’s Offred has shown herself to be a more actively resistant heroine. Perhaps she won’t be recorded in history in the same way Atwood’s, but in the end, both representations show women who are doing what they need to survive—and that’s what matters most.

The Video Word Made Flesh: ‘Videodrome’ and Marshall McLuhan

Max Renn is president of Toronto’s Civic TV, “the one you take to bed with you.” He’s always looking for the next provocation to broadcast: sex, violence, and mayhem are all welcomed. Screen shock is victimless, he claims, saying “I give my viewers a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations.” But Max wants more for his meager Channel 83. He’s “looking for something that will break through.” He finds the ultimate shock in the form of a pirated video: a dramatized snuff-film called Videodrome, shot in a small red room, with black-garbed torturers and their female victims.

Videodrome, David Cronenberg’s classic 1983 film, is perfect viewing for 2017 — the year a man baptized by television becomes president. The film is an homage to all things small screen: local-access, low-budget, low-resolution. Max, played by a smirking James Woods, will do anything to titillate his viewers, but he’s a sneaky moralist. “Better on TV than on the streets,” he says of violence. Max thinks that he’s controversial, but he soon learns that other provocateurs have what he lacks: a philosophy.

In response to criticism of his network’s programming, Max appears on a television talk show, where he flirts with Nicki Brand (played by Debbie Harry), radio host of The Emotional Rescue Show. They go back to his apartment, and he jokingly asks if she wants to watch Videodrome to get in the mood. He’s taken aback when Nicki likes it, and further unsettled when he sees gashes on her neck. Max prefers fantasy, but Nicki’s flesh has been wounded. When she later jokes that she’s going to audition for Videodrome herself, Max pleads for her to stay away from those “mondo video weirdo guys.”

Max soon learns from an agent who secures programming for the station that Videodrome is an actual snuff film. Partially because he wants the show for Civic TV — but mostly because he fears for Nicki’s safety — Max tries to find the origin of the video. The trail leads Max to the Cathode Ray Mission, its red and blue sign complemented with the Sacred Heart. A crowd of homeless people sift into the building, where they kneel in front of televisions. They suffer from the disease of electronic disconnection: “watching TV will help patch them back into the world’s mixing-board.”

Max is there to find Brian O’Blivion, who is described as a “media prophet professor.” The mysterious professor is absent. “I am my father’s screen,” his daughter Bianca says. She recognizes Max from the show, quipping “you said some very superficial things: violence, sex, imagination, catharsis.”

In his audio commentary for the film, Cronenberg admits that the professor was inspired by the “communications guru” Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan taught at the University of Toronto while Cronenberg attended, but to his “everlasting regret,” he never took a course with the media icon. Cronenberg said that McLuhan’s “influence was felt everywhere at the university” — a mystical-tinged description that McLuhan would have appreciated.

McLuhan earned his doctorate from Cambridge with a dissertation on 16th-century satirist Thomas Nashe. He once sullied the comic strip Blondie for its representations of masculinity. By the time Cronenberg was enrolled at the university, McLuhan was that now rare commodity: a public intellectual. An honest-to-God pop philosopher. Jefferson Pooley notes that McLuhan underwent a “metamorphosis from pious agrarian to media mystagogue.” By the time of The Medium is the Massage — now a half-century ago — McLuhan was giving presentations to IBM and General Electric, and regularly appearing on television.

Tom Wolfe visited McLuhan, and narrated with disbelief: “he sits in a little office off on the edge of the University of Toronto that looks like the receiving bin of a second-hand book store, grading papers, grading papers, for days on end.” Douglas Coupland thinks what is most endearing about McLuhan is that he was “a classically trained scholar realizing that there’s this thing coming down the pipe — the Internet — yet because he didn’t understand the ultimate interface, he was frustrated in his inability to describe it clearly.” Here was a digital Johannes Gutenberg, suited up as “this fuddy-duddy guy in 1950s Toronto.”

How do we expect our prophets to appear? McLuhan was old school. He was the oldest of institutions, in fact; a Catholic. A convert by the way of G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain. McLuhan said converts enter the church through the back door — “coming in through the effects of the church, and not through its teachings. When you come in the front door you have first to swallow all the doctrines and all the teachings, which is what happens to the kids you see in school.”

McLuhan considered prayer “constant, nonstop dialogue with the Creator.” He attended Mass daily; he was known to sometimes shorten his classes to attend midday service. His son recalled they would say the rosary as a family at night. Like many converts, McLuhan was conservative in his approach toward the Vatican II reforms. He was not particularly fond of the institutional church, and was surprisingly critical of the Jesuits — those fellow global-villagers.

From the outside, these contradictions might seem to denude his identity. Yet paradox is not only endemic to Catholicism, it is downright Christological. Here was an old man telling us about new media. McLuhan taught us that the difference between aphorism and bumper stickers depends on the medium. He was misunderstood, appropriated, re-mixed. He said of his own work “I don’t pretend to understand it.” No sola scriptura here.

Hugh Kenner once wrote “Like Andy Warhol, whose works we don’t need to see to appreciate their point, McLuhan is the writer his public doesn’t need to read.” Of course the reference to Warhol — a fellow eccentric Catholic, who called Videodrome “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” — is apt. No doubt that Videodrome is a McLuhan-drenched film, but does the film share his Catholic ethos? (For McLuhan, Catholicism was the medium, the message, and the massage).

McLuhan was a scholar of James Joyce, a purveyor of print. He documented the advent of the electric eye, but he didn’t desire it. Although he had “nothing but distaste for the process of change,” he said you had to “keep cool during our descent into the maelstrom.” Max can’t keep cool. He is infected by Videodrome; the show’s reality subverts its unreal medium. Max discovers that Professor O’Blivion helped create Videodrome because “he saw it as the next phase in the evolution of man as a technological animal.” Sustained viewing of Videodrome creates tumors and hallucinations. Max is being played by the remaining originators of Videodrome, whose philosophy sounds downright familiar: “North America’s getting soft, and the rest of the world is getting tough. We’re entering savage new times, and we’re going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them.” Videodrome is a way to identify the derelicts by giving them what they most crave — real violence — and then incapacitate them into submission.

McLuhan’s idea that “mental breakdown is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information,” and his simultaneous interest in, and skepticism of, the “electric eye” finds a gory literalism in Cronenberg’s film. Videodrome is what happens when a self-described existentialist atheist channels McLuhan — but makes McLuhan’s Catholic-infused media analysis more secular and raw. Cronenberg was able to foretell our electronic evolution, the quasi-Eucharistic way we “taste and see” the Internet. The film’s gore and gush might now strike us as campy, but Videodrome shows what happens when mind and device become one. “Death is not the end,” one character says, but “the beginning of the new flesh.” We’re already there.

Arrival Is a Movie About Movies (Not Language)

I have a dwindling reserve of patience for movies that treat death as a handy time-saving hack that can be deployed against characters (to push them around as the plot requires) or audience (to elicit sympathy without the hassle of creating characters strong enough to bear empathy). I gave up on X-Men: Apocalypse right when it cynically introduced a wife and daughter for Magneto solely so that they could be promptly murdered in order that he would lurch back to the dark side. So the first five minutes of Arrival — in which Amy Adams’s character, Louise, has daughter, loses daughter, is sad — did not endear the movie to me. No, we have not given you any reason to be emotionally invested in this character, I heard Denis Villeneuve sneering in my ear, but you must feel sorry for her all the same, and here are the tremulous strings of an emotive Max Richter track just to make doubly sure you do.

So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Arrival was actually doing something quite different (confident that its acting and atmosphere would be strong enough to retain the attention of more sceptical audience members). Eventually we learn that this sequence — and the other, briefer glimpses we see of Louise and her daughter later on in the movie — are not flashbacks, but flashforwards; not memories, but premonitions. Louise’s ability to understand the written language of the extraterrestrial heptapods has granted her the power of foresight and we don’t have to feel sad for her after all because none of this tragedy has actually befallen her yet.

The relationship between Louise and Ian, played by Jeremy Renner, also comes across like a cliché at first. Of course they’re going to fall for each other — even though she’s the wordy one and he’s the sciencey one! They’re so different! — because they’re the protagonists of a blockbuster movie, and that’s what the protagonists of blockbuster movies do (and because, as we know — or thought we knew — Louise is a divorcée who has lost a child and thus especially in need of the restorative succor of True Love). But again, something different is happening: yes, Louise is falling for Ian, but she does so with (in spite/because of) the knowledge that they will ultimately fall apart in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. This is not the typical emotional timbre of a relationship that springs from a meet-cute.

But these subversions of cinematic tropes assume a certain degree of familiarity with movies and the way they work. The relationship between Louise and Ian is formed from lightly sketched cinematic signs (the camera lingering just slightly too long on the reaction shot) that we recognize from the hundreds or thousands of onscreen romances we have witnessed before. And we assume that the emotionally ambiguous expression on Amy Adams’s face is sadness because we expect characters to respond to sad flashbacks with sadness. Eventually she vocalizes her feelings, stating that she doesn’t recognize the girl we have been seeing with her onscreen — and in that stunning moment we realize that the emotion she has been experiencing is, in fact, confusion, and that the scenes we thought were flashbacks are not flashbacks at all.

These twists are dealt with quite differently in “The Story of Your Life,” the Ted Chiang short story from which Arrival was adapted. The will-they-won’t-they is resolved earlier on (they will), and the true chronological sequence of events is never concealed: from the very beginning, the life (and death) of their daughter is described in the future tense, while the interactions with the heptapods are in the past. The surprise lies not in the sequencing of events, but at which precise point Louise, the narrator, is positioned on that timeline. We assume at first that she is using a kind of “historical future” tense: looking back from a time after she has met some aliens, had a child, lost her child, and her entire career has unfolded:
I remember one afternoon when you are five years old, after you have come home from kindergarten. You’ll be coloring with your crayons while I grade papers.
Gradually, however, this insistent use of the future tense, preceded by the jarring simple present “I remember,” becomes more conspicuous. We realize that this is actually just regular, vanilla future tense, describing things that have not happened yet, with the certainty granted by her newly acquired powers of clairvoyance. She is telling her story from a particular moment (as the present tense sections that bookend the story make clear) that is post-aliens but pre-daughter, and she is remembering forwards, not backwards.

The fact that this reveal depends on grammar is entirely appropriate for a story so preoccupied with language. “The Story of Your Life” is unafraid of spending time exploring such nuances as the distinction between glottographic and semasiographic writing. The discoveries about how the heptapods’ language works (and Louise’s consequent transition from a “sequential mode of awareness” to a “simultaneous mode of awareness”) unfold naturally from the linguistics. In Arrival, however, the process that forms the crux of Ted Chiang’s story is mainly connoted through visual shorthand — the elaborately annotated whiteboards that films use to indicate unfathomable genius, and the furrowing of Amy Adams’s brow — and that most cinematic of conceits: the montage (with a Jeremy Renner voice-over).

Because despite name-dropping Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and hiring an actual consultant linguist, Arrival’s interest in language is essentially superficial. The plot requires Louise to gain the ability to see the future, but what if Louise was an engineer instead of a translator, or a specialist in toxins? What if the MacGuffin was not the heptapod language itself, but a piece of machinery or alien milkshake? Arrival would certainly be a lesser movie — lacking the thematic resonance with the breakdown in communication between different nations around the world — but it would still work.

Yet this doesn’t mean Arrival is an unfaithful adaptation. The act of translation is not just a case of switching words from one language to another: it requires countless extralinguistic tweaks and alterations to account for differences in the target culture. And there is more to the adaptation of a short story to film than simply producing a visual rendition of what is written on the page (so it’s no wonder that the movie’s screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, felt “an emotional connection” to translator Louise). The change in medium itself necessitates additional changes. Some of these are purely practical: the lifespan of the daughter is shortened in the movie, for example. In “The Story of Your Life” she lives to the age of 25 and dies in a climbing accident. If she had lived that long in the movie then Amy Adams’s face would have had to be digitally wizened in the flashforwards, and the twist would be no twist (for either us, or her). Thus, in Arrival the daughter must die young, from cancer — the default trauma of cinema, with the most easily recognizable visual code (the bald head of chemotherapy, the blue palette of the hospital lighting).

But some of the other tweaks are self-conscious acknowledgements of a more profound shift in focus. As Jordan Brower has noted in the LA Review of Books, the two heptapods, named Raspberry and Flapper in the original, become Abbot and Costello in the movie — Hollywood allusion. And the sad Max Richter theme that plays such a key part in setting the mood at the beginning and ending of the film — “On the Nature of Daylight,” from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks — is tantamount to a cinematic citation, having previously been featured in several other movies (notably Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island in 2010 — another adaptation of a story that plays tricks with memory). Because the plot of Ted Chiang’s story is so intricately meshed with its medium — the very words that comprise a short story, and the way that we process a linear narrative as we read it off the page — it would be impossible to make a film that engages with language in the same way. The continuous interior monologue of “The Story of Your Life” is the exact opposite of the discrete visual slices that make up a movie. So Arrival doesn’t bother trying: what it does instead is mirror its reflexivity. Where “The Story of Your Life” is about language, Arrival is about movies.

Nowhere is this more true than in the finale (which is a completely new addition to the story, extrapolated from a brief governmental intrusion into “The Story of Your Life”). In the same way that Arrival toyed with the trope of the tragic backstory (not unlike the recent HBO show Westworld, which also played with our assumptions of linearity) and the inevitable romance of the two romantic leads, it subverts our expectation of a climax that imperils the very existence of the Earth, which our protagonists will then defuse through their heroic behaviour. How does Louise save the day in Arrival? By literally seeing the future. We, the passive audience, watch along with her as she observes herself, in the future, having the conversation that will provide her with the information she needs to avert catastrophe. To save the day, she must become as us: a watcher of movies.

And so we should not be surprised that Arrival has received a clutch of Oscar nominations. La La Land should watch out: as The Artist, Argo, and Birdman have made very clear, these days the academy loves movies about movies

Poetry, Jarmusch Style

During college, two of my English-majoring friends had a running argument, years long, about whether “Pale Fire,” the 999-line poem that begins Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, is good or not.  The poem is attributed to the fictional writer John Shade, and the rest of the novel takes the form of an unhinged and digressive commentary on it by Shade’s neighbor.  There’s no doubt about the quality of the commentary (as commentary, as opposed to a satire of one), nor about the quality of novel, but what of the poem?  Usually, fictional works of art are framed as clearly good or bad by the larger works they are within, but occasionally their status is more interestingly ambiguous.

Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson follows a week in the life of Paterson, a Paterson, N.J., bus driver played by Adam Driver.  (Many of its jokes are of this sort.)  It is admirably quiet and prosaic, refreshingly so in a time when it can feel like 50 percent of films include the computer generated destruction of a metropolis.  It is also remarkably thought provoking, raising questions about why people write poetry, whether they need readers, and who merits the label “poet.”  More than any other, however, the film left me with the question of whether it — and Jarmusch — thinks Paterson’s poetry is any good.

Paterson writes, if the week we see is typical, about a poem a day.  We witness him thinking through the first lines over breakfast and his walk to work, then writing in his “secret notebook” (as his wife calls it) as he waits to set out on his first route of the day, on his lunch break, and at his basement desk at home.  Certainly the film seems to celebrate his words: paired with Driver’s voiceover, they are inscribed on the screen, both as they are being drafted and in apparently finished form.  Yet Paterson is uninterested in showing his poetry to anyone.  His wife seems to have read, or heard, a few of them, and constantly hectors him to make copies and share them with the world, but he is clearly reluctant to do so.

The counterpoint of Paterson’s wife, Laura (played by Golshifteh Farahani), suggests all the more that the film thinks Paterson’s poetry is good.  She flits from daydream to daydream about how she will become famous — for her cupcakes, or as a Nashville singer with her newly bought guitar — and the film gently mocks these dreams, as well as her many design projects around the house.  Yet no such mockery is pointed toward Paterson’s work.

Films can make any poem seem greater than it is, and of much deeper significance — or go too far in such a direction, turning it into overwrought bombast, as Dead Poet’s Society did for Walt Whitman and, more recently, Interstellar for Dylan Thomas.  Despite this, Paterson’s poetry still seems, at best, merely mediocre.  It is styled after that of William Carlos Williams, son of Paterson, N.J., and hero of both Driver’s character and the film.  Williams is repeatedly discussed, Paterson recites “This Is Just to Say” at his wife’s request, and his book Paterson is obviously visible on the main character’s shelf (along with other collections of poetry and Infinite Jest, a book I cannot imagine Driver’s character reading, which Jarmusch also visually fetishized, more convincingly, in Only Lovers Left Alive).  Unlike Williams’s poetry, however, Paterson’s seemed to me unnecessarily baggy, occasionally finding a good line or two, but only after far too much preamble, not just conversational, but plain in its diction and rhythm to the point of banality.

I was surprised to learn, then, that Paterson’s lines were in fact written, some especially for the film (others have appeared elsewhere), by the poet Ron Padgett, an award-winning member of the New York School (itself name-checked, via Frank O’Hara, in the film).  Unless Jarmusch means to insult his friend, this makes me think he means to present the poems as good.  Otherwise, why not write them himself?  Poetry of Williams’s sort is not hard to write, only hard to write well.  Did Padgett, in the poems written for the film, take on the persona of a lesser talent?  The film features one other poem, written by a 10-year-old girl with whom Paterson falls into conversation.  This one was actually written by Jarmusch, and the film presents it as no worse than Paterson’s (that is Padgett’s) work: Driver’s character seems genuinely moved by it, and he recites its opening lines to his wife later that night.  Does Jarmusch intend to lower Paterson’s status, or to elevate the young girl?

Paterson exists thought-provokingly, though I am not sure fully purposefully, in the space created by the ambiguity of whether Paterson’s poetry is any good.  If it were clearly bad, then the film would become cruel.  If it were clearly good, then the film would become something else, a hackneyed gem-in-the-rough story.  Twice in the film, Paterson is presented with the opportunity to call himself a poet.  Neither time does he.  He is interested in poetry, likes poetry, but he doesn’t even admit he writes it, neither to the young girl, nor to a Japanese poet on pilgrimage to the hometown of William Carlos Williams.   Where Williams was a doctor, Paterson is a bus driver and thinks of himself merely as that.  Unlike Williams, he writes only for himself.

Near the end of the film, Paterson’s notebook is destroyed (a move so heavily telegraphed that this really isn’t a spoiler).  His wife is devastated by the loss — clearly she daydreams about his future fame as well — but Paterson’s own reaction is opaque.  He says almost nothing: is he in shock or remarkably stoic?  Does he not especially care, or perhaps even feel a little relieved?  We briefly wonder if he will stop writing or, alternatively, now write to publish, his juvenilia swept away.  Instead, he simply returns to his routine, it seems: his poems, it is suggested, are for him, and him alone.  They help him find meaning in his otherwise routine life, and that’s enough — anything else would be too much, too grandiose, too, well, poetic, for his merely prosaic existence.

Women Seen and Heard: A Hollywood Trend Worth Celebrating

To be a woman in a movie is usually to be someone’s girlfriend, wife, or mother. If you’re single, you’re probably in a romantic comedy en route to marriage, or you’re in an ensemble comedy, lamenting the fact of your singleness. If you have a job, you’re likely a journalist or an assistant, but if you happen to be the boss, it’s at the expense of your personal life, which you secretly prize more than anything else. You’re probably straight, and you’re probably white. You’re probably quite thin with great skin and a large wardrobe. Your living space is probably very clean and well decorated. You’re probably smiling. Or laughing. If you’re crying, you look really beautiful while the tears stream down your face, and men fall in love with you.

Three movies I saw this year broke free of this mold: Certain Women, 20th Century Women, and Hidden Figures. Their titles could almost be interchangeable. They featured women whose characters, motivations, and desires were not defined by their personal relationships to men, but I can’t say I was aware of that while I was watching. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the films that I realized how radical their characterization was. While I was watching them, I simply reveled in seeing women that I genuinely admired and recognized from life.

Certain Women almost had a different title. Director Kelly Reichardt originally planned to call it Livingston, after the Montana town where it was filmed. While I can see the merits of that title, especially for a film that looks closely at daily life, the small choices and compromises that the characters make are so specific to the female experience that the title Certain Women strikes me as just about perfect. The film, adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, is structured like a miniature short story collection, and contains three short films about three different women living in present-day Montana. Ancillary characters vaguely link the women, but what really links them is a sense of restlessness. These women have jobs, autonomy, and a certain amount of authority, but they don’t move through the world as freely as they would like. They are reserved because they have to be, in order to get what they want. But that same reserve also leaves them lonely.

The screening I attended to was followed by a surprise Q&A with one of the film’s stars, Michelle Williams. In her conversation, she mentioned that Reichardt had insisted on a cinematography that did not include any “beauty shots” of the spectacular Montana landscape — no gorgeous “big sky country” sunsets, no framing of perfect views. Instead, she wanted the dramatic landscape to exist as it did for her characters; something they lived with and enjoyed, but which did not symbolize freedom, adventure, or conquest. This gave the film a quiet, lingering beauty and a kind of defiance in its unwillingness to engage with or evoke Hollywood’s usual myths about the American West.

In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening embodies quiet defiance in the character of Dorothea Fielding. A child of the depression, Dorothea marries late and has her first (and only) child, a boy, at age 40. The marriage doesn’t last and so she raises her son, Jamie, on her own.  This puts her out of step with her generation. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, but she tries. She buys an old house in Santa Barbara and restores it. She takes in younger, more radical boarders: an earnest, new-age mechanic (Billy Crudup), and Abbie, a 20-something photographer recovering from cervical cancer (Greta Gerwig). The film takes place in 1979, when Jamie is 15, and smack dab in his awkward teenage years. Dorothea listens to his records, Talking Heads and Black Flag, in an effort to understand him. Feeling at a loss, she enlists two younger women to help Jamie grow up and become a man. (Or is it to help her let him go?) One of the women is her housemate, Abbie, and the other is her son’s unrequited crush (Elle Fanning). Both women end up providing Jamie with a sentimental education that Dorothea doesn’t necessarily welcome and/or entirely disparage.

Every once in a while, a character in a movie reminds me so completely of my mother that I feel like I’m dreaming it. Dorothea is in her mid-50s, which is how old my mother was, the last time I saw her. She doesn’t really look like my mother, but her wardrobe reminds me of my mother’s, especially in the way she mixes comfortable shoes and pants with conservative blouses and jewelry. Dorothea’s demeanor also reminded me of my mother — a mixture of idealism and impatience, curiosity and constraint, delight and disappointment. It’s all tempered by a reserved deadpan that the other characters in the film sometimes mistake for humorlessness. Jamie apologizes for her, saying, “she’s a child of the Depression.” It’s his way of acknowledging that she was born too early to reap the benefits of women’s liberation. But the younger characters were born too early, too, and the film seems to understand that for women, freedom is always hard-won.

Which brings me to Hidden Figures, a film that tells the true story of the black women who helped to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, based on a book of the same title, by Margot Lee Shetterly. (And recently highlighted by my colleague, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, in her Year in Reading.) If it’s unusual to find a movie dominated by female characters, it’s downright rare to see film with black women in lead roles, not to mention a mainstream Hollywood film. And Hidden Figures is definitely a crowd-pleasing movie, with a lot of Hollywood moments, including Kevin Costner demolishing segregated bathrooms with a sledgehammer — a scene that was fabricated to show a white male character being a good guy. But the overwhelming message of this film, to borrow from a sign I saw at the Women’s March, was: Can you believe these women have to put up with this shit? In Hidden Figures, you meet three undeniably gifted people who also happen to be black women. One, Katherine Johnson, is a genius. The other two women, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are mathematicians who do computations for NASA. They have a lot to offer to the space program, but they are given jobs at NASA only because the powers that be are so desperate to win the race to the moon that they are willing to ignore gender and race when seeking candidates. Even so, the “colored computers” are forced to work in separate offices, use separate bathrooms, lunch in separate cafeterias, and drink from separate coffee carafes. They also receive separate, smaller paychecks.

It’s a blatantly sexist and racist situation, and there are a lot of show-stopping scenes to highlight that. Like when Mary (Janelle Monáe) petitions the court to attend night classes at an all-white school so that she can become an engineer. Or when Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) solves a crazy-long equation on a chalkboard to illustrate a new approach to a problem that has stumped her white male colleagues. Or when Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) earns a promotion by showing her white male bosses how to program the new, room-sized computer they’ve recently installed. I enjoyed these moments, but it was the smaller scenes of female solidarity that won me over. There’s the time when Katherine stays late and the other two wait for her to drive her home; the time when Mary is feeling down because she worries she’ll never be allowed to become an engineer and her friends throw an impromptu dance party to cheer her up; and then there’s the opening scene — which you can see in at least one of the film’s trailers — in which Dorothy fixes her broken-down car while the other two women deflect a nosy police officer. Finally, I loved the romance that blooms between Katherine and a veteran she meets at her church. Katherine is a widow with two small daughters. She lives with her mother and is not looking for love. But then the perfect man comes into her life and proposes marriage. It’s an utterly conventional subplot, but progressive in this scenario because Katherine is not asked to choose between her work and her personal life. She’s allowed to have both and is not conflicted by this dual identity.

Hidden Figures has exceeded expectations at the box office. It outsold Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on its opening weekend, a film that also features a female lead. It’s a sign of progress that two recent, popular films star women, but it’s worth noting that even when women are the lead characters in film, they speak only slightly more than the male characters and receive less screen time. When women are not the lead, or when they co-lead with a male character, they are seen and heard even less. These findings are according to studies undertaken by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Davis founded the institute to fight unconscious gender bias, specifically in films targeted to children and families. She works with film executives to create stories that are more balanced between male and female characters. Her prescription is simple: put women on screen more often and allow them to speak. That’s it. The female characters don’t have to be role models or hold positions of power. Roles don’t even need to be created specifically for women — more often than not, women can be cast in parts written for men. The point is for girls and women to be seen and heard on screen as often as boys and men are. It’s not a lot to ask and yet every time I see a movie in which female characters are allowed even half of the narrative, it feels like a small miracle.

Gilmore Girls: The End of Good Faith

1. American Graffiti Abroad
My wife and I started watching Gilmore Girls in Helsinki when our first daughter was a toddler. My wife is Finnish, and the show has been with us through the childhoods of all four of our kids.

For better or worse, American high school is now an international experience, shared around the world. My three daughters and one son are all in Finnish grade school or preschool, but many of the rituals of teen America have already entered their imagination, just as they entered mine when I was a boy in Seattle and D.C.  Helsinki mean girls operate differently from Hollywood’s Mean Girls, yet the movie helps frame the concept of teen cruelty here, just as Heathers and The Virgin Suicides help frame international views of why teens kill themselves. My own kids, from their distant Nordic nook, love Ferris Bueller and Willow Rosenberg, and they’re primed for American-flavored teen adventures they might never have.

Out of all the teenagers Hollywood has launched overseas, Rory Gilmore — the main character of Gilmore Girls — is the one I like best, at least in her high school years. It’s not just that she’s smart and fiercely dedicated to literature and learning. The teenage Rory has her weak points: her mistreatment of Dean, her self-absorption, her cluelessness about some of her impulses. In general, though, she maintains a core of common decency and fair play while facing off against a series of narcissistic little tyrants. The show’s central joke is the comedy of the bookish and reasonable Rory holding her own against people who bully everyone around them.

2. The Dorothy Parker Reader
Across the Internet you can find lists of all the books Rory read or talked about over the series’ seven seasons, which originally ran between 2000 and 2006. The lists conjure up not so much the millennial preferences of Rory’s generation as the Baby Boomer preferences of the series’ talented creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The novels are almost all safe, traditional choices, from Madame Bovary and Moby Dick to The Metamorphosis and Ulysses.

If Rory’s literary leanings tend to be old-fashioned, they reflect a larger retrograde bent in the series. As Rahawa Haile has deftly documented, the show reserves almost all its speaking roles for white actors, and compounds the problem by casting actors of color mainly as silent tokens. The town of Stars Hollow has less cultural variety than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and Rory’s classics-oriented reading choices can’t even make room for, say, The Tale of Genji or The Blind Owl. While Finland doesn’t have quite the same culture wars as the U.S., it faces similar problems with the rise of rightwing hate groups, and the overwhelming whiteness of Stars Hollow — like the whiteness of the casts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek — now looks more obtuse and offensive with each passing year. When I watch Gilmore Girls these days, Rory’s fixation on famous old novels by famous old authors feels less quaint and more ominous — more like a reinforcement of Europe’s new line of bigoted and belligerent reactionary nationalists.

Still, I’m wary of generalizing about the ways Europeans absorb U.S. films and TV shows, because America’s influence cuts in so many different and contradictory directions here. From a Nordic perspective, for instance, it’s obvious that Rory would join most Finns in opposing the EU’s current assortment of jingoist demagogues, and would fight back against the attempts of those demagogues to use her favorite authors for their narrow political purposes. Also, Gilmore Girls is popular in Finland in part because this is a nation of readers, and I know two young Helsinki journalists who — despite their anger at America for our military and economic activities — found Rory’s love for books an inspiration when they were growing up.

After all, how many other TV teenagers can convince you they’ve not only read Anna Karenina and Swann’s Way but have made their reading a part of their decisions and their personality? Rory’s books aren’t just fashion accessories, as they are with most TV characters. Her relationship with Jess turns on him filching her copy of Howl and then proving he can catch the Charles Dickens reference she makes (“Dodger”). At the same time, we see some of the limits of her connection with Dean when she tries to teach him how to read Leo Tolstoy.

More broadly, her devotion to the writing of Dorothy Parker sharpens Rory’s natural ear for snappy dialogue — and this isn’t simply an aesthetic preference but the key to her entire approach to life. She values good talk because she values the ability to connect with other people and to have them connect with her. The contrast between Rory’s sleepy-eyed manner and her Parker-like flair for keeping a conversation in play is a major part of the show’s appeal. Her closest friendships — with Lorelai, Lane and Paris — are built on quick, casual banter. The jokes aren’t laboriously set up for a punchline in the old sitcom style. They dart along, one after another, easy and light and always moving on. Trying a video game with Lane, Rory says: “So this is what teenage boys are doing instead of watching television? Seems like a lateral move.” When Rory reacts to a comment from Lane by saying, “Sarcasm does not become you,” Lane answers, “No, but it does sustain me,” and keeps talking. In season three, Lorelai tries to suss out the degree of Rory’s interest in Jess: “Okay, now let’s say he’s in the house and there’s a fire, and you can save either him or your shoes — which is it?” Rory hedges, saying: “That depends. Did he start the fire?” Rory and Lorelai can’t stand together at a checkout line without slipping into their usual patter:
Lorelai:  I hate crossword puzzles. They make me feel stupid.
Rory: Then don’t do them.
Lorelai:  But if you don’t do them, you’re not only stupid—you’re also a coward.
Rory:  Or you’ve got better things to do with your time.
Lorelai:  You think people buy that?
Rory:  The people who line up on a daily basis and ask you if you do crossword puzzles and then when you say no, challenge you as to why? Yes, I think they will buy it.
Lorelai and Rory are, famously, best friends as well as mother and daughter. Their friendship has its problems, but at its heart is the pleasure of their conversations. They’re bound to each other by language, their feel for the rhythms of each other’s phrases. Gilmore Girls belongs to the tradition of the great screwball comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and Talk of the Town: the skill of the writing is largely in the lightness of the touch.

3. Early Rory
Lauren Graham plays Rory’s mother to perfection: she makes Lorelai wickedly charismatic. Driven and resourceful and a bit devilish, Lorelai typically sports a big knowing grin that’s up for all kinds of mischief. She takes command of the series 30 seconds into the first episode, when she looks at diner owner Luke Danes with the profound desire of someone who needs her next cup of coffee and will stop at nothing to get it. She’s a treat, and she brings a delirious energy both to her work as an innkeeper and to her love for Rory.

Yet she’s also a bit of a monster. She insists that Rory tell her everything, and places practical and emotional demands on her daughter that would break many children. Pregnant at 16, Lorelai ran away from her rich parents and rich boyfriend to raise Rory on her own. Lorelai envisions Rory’s future as a rebuke to the privileged Gilmore background — though another of the show’s nice comic touches is its recognition of how much this background defines Lorelai and Rory, and how heavily they still rely on it. Lorelai has encouraged Rory’s childhood dream of going to Harvard, and together they’ve built Rory’s life around reaching that dream.

It’s a potentially ugly situation for Rory, especially since Lorelai has a habit of bending others to her will. As Rory, Alexis Bledel lacks Lauren Graham’s I-can-do-anything-I-want-with-a-line acting chops, but her unnervingly serene demeanor brings something original to the mix. She’s quietly compelling when she spars with her mother, and usually acts like the adult in the relationship. Lorelai, with her playful eat-the-world smile, is like an insanely cheerful cartoon character turning the barrels of a Gatling gun, shooting out swirls of rapid-fire sentences and mowing down anyone in her path. Rory is less overwhelming, but she knows how to put forward her opinions. In her low-key fashion, she refuses to let her voice get lost in the onslaught of Lorelai’s presence. She’s much tougher than people assume, and this makes listening to her a constant pleasure.

Rory prefers to work things out, to understand the other person’s position and find a shared solution. Lorelai’s nature is simply to push and push until she gets what she wants, even if it often turns out she doesn’t want what she gets. During the first three seasons of the show, when Rory is a student at the pricey private school Chilton, Lorelai and she bring out the best in each other. If Lorelai is a great mother — one of the most complex and intriguing parents on television — she owes part of her success to Rory’s strength of character. Not every child would’ve prospered under the Lorelai Gilmore regime.

 4. Occupying Paris
In high school, as Rory goes from bewildered outsider to top student, we see her at her best. Standing up to her mother has taught her how to stand up to the other megalomaniacs she meets: most notably, the immortal Paris Geller.

My kids are wild about Paris, and they’ve got a point. Paris is so mercurial—and Liza Weil inhabits the role with such virtuosity—that the character delivers comic bliss. Paris alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, between feeling superior to everyone and feeling crushed by her own inadequacy. She has a dazzlingly unhinged compulsion to scold people, and to control their every thought and deed.

As editor of the Chilton newspaper, Paris tries to sabotage Rory by giving her a lame assignment, a piece on repaving the school parking lot. Rory buckles down and does a good job on the article, and then confronts Paris directly. With calm force she explains that nothing Paris does will make her quit the paper. It’s the turning point in their relationship. Able to strike sensible compromises and work well in hostile circumstances, Rory also shows she can fight back when Paris is malicious or unreasonable. Bit by bit, Paris is impressed, and eventually becomes one of Rory’s best friends.

Rory’s success with Paris mirrors her success with the other little dictators in the series, like her charming but domineering grandparents Emily and Richard, and the pompous Stars Hollow autocrat Taylor Doose. (It’s easy for Europeans to imagine that if Taylor were French he’d be a Marine Le Pen supporter, and if he were Danish he’d vote DPP.) In situation after situation, Rory demonstrates the strength behind her decency, the ability to defend herself and assert her viewpoint while winning over those who at first want to control or hurt her. She lives out a fantasy of good faith—of a world where understanding beats aggression, and where intelligence and compassion defeat unfairness and cruelty.

 5. The Corleone Connection
Gilmore Girls is full of references to The Godfather, and Lorelai and Rory quote from the film repeatedly. The first three seasons of the show set up the possibilities for Rory’s future so we can watch her, in seasons four through six, grow increasingly unbalanced and misguided. She’s the Stars Hollow version of Michael Corleone: she changes from a fresh and appealing college student to someone who has lost her way, becoming a dark and negative image of her former self. In season five she drops out of Yale, cuts off contact with Lorelai, and devotes her time to Emily’s social circles and a relationship with the rich and creepy Logan. The change is nightmarish to watch, because we can see our own bad decisions in her, and our own fears about what we might become. Even after she returns to Yale, she keeps dating Logan, and it’s clear she still hasn’t fully come out of the crisis that started when Logan’s father told her she doesn’t have what it takes to be a journalist.

Because of a contract dispute, Sherman-Palladino left the series before its seventh and final season, and she was never able to finish Rory’s story. Now, thanks to the show’s popularity on Netflix, Sherman-Palladino has had the chance to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a revival in four 90-minute parts. She’s gone back to her original conception, and to her old plans for Rory. The revival is ambitious, and compared to the series, it places the emphasis much more on drama than on comedy.

The Rory we now find, 10 years after we last saw her, is slowly disintegrating, and we follow her as she falls apart. Her journalism career has stalled, and she seems to have lost the ability to finish an article or even pitch an idea. Some reviewers have blasted Rory for her lack of professionalism, but we know from her years on the Yale Daily News that the mistakes she’s making aren’t due to ignorance or stupidity. She’s sabotaging herself, and part of her knows it while part of her denies it.

At the same time, she’s carrying on a degrading affair with Logan, who’s engaged to someone else. The revival takes pains to show that Rory’s view of Logan is a fantasy, a damaging illusion. The long party sequence with Logan and his friends is a dream: at the start, a sign magically changes from the word “Flowers” to the word “Tonight,” and the sequence closes with Rory caught in a burlesque of Dorothy’s farewells in The Wizard of Oz. This is the Logan she wants to believe in, a Gatsby/Kennedy hybrid who would care enough to give her a final night of Jazz Age entertainment. The real Logan is much colder: he lets Rory break things off with him over the phone and simply goes on with his life. Always polite, always superficially concerned, he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort with her.

The revival’s last four words, which Sherman-Palladino always planned to use for the final scene of the series, turn out to be chilling. Rory says she’s pregnant, and since the baby is probably Logan’s, the effect is grim. Rory’s transformation is complete. The girl who planned to leave Stars Hollow and become an overseas correspondent is gone, replaced by this eerie ghost-Rory who might never find her way forward again.

The ending isn’t hopeless. Rory has started writing a book about her relationship with her mother, Chilton has proposed a job for her as a teacher, and her connection with Lorelai is strong. You can picture a happy future for Rory, if you want. Still, the overall mood of the revival is bleak, and the darkness that always hovered behind the comedy of Gilmore Girls has now swallowed everything else.

This makes the revival very much a show for our time. We’ve all sensed it, of course, these past few years: the feeling of disaster in the air, of violence and anger and a rampant, all-devouring bad faith. This isn’t an era when people like Rory flourish. Instead, they tend to fall into self-doubt and self-destruction, and to become as narcissistic and manipulative as the culture around them. Rory has always carried her share of flaws. We all do. If we don’t like what we see in her these days, it’s because Sherman-Palladino has been pitiless about showing what can happen to us when we go bad. The Gilmore Girls revival is an odd, somber way to end a series that built its reputation on quick-witted comic brio. Sherman-Palladino has shifted us from the realm of Dorothy Parker to the scarier and more disorienting realm of Jean Rhys — and the revival makes Rory’s teen years now look heartbreaking in their wasted promise.