Thursday, March 31, 2016

Startlingly relevant

I promise that I like normal comic books - I'm currently reading Squirrel Girl and Giant Days, I just finished the six-issue run of Coming of Rage; there are normal, day-to-day supers and horror books in my life. I guess I just like giant political memoir comics better in some ways. Maus is almost incomprehensibly good, probably my favorite comic book of all time, and now that I've read Persepolis I have to say that it's reasonable competition for the title of greatest illustrated war story.

Which is saying a fucking lot - Persepolis is different from Maus in many ways; Satrapi is telling her own story whereas Spiegelman tells his father's story; Maus is the story of concentration camps and adults struggling to survive while Persepolis is about Satrapi largely evading the war as a child sent away by her parents, but both are compelling, simply-but-beautifully illustrated stories about people stifled by a world they have little control over and attempting to live in spite of facing unexpected horrors.

Marjane Satrapi's story follows her as a child in Iran and a teen and young adult in Europe before returning as an adult to Iran to find the changes that have warped her world since her parents sent her away to protect her. The difficulties Satrapi has acclimating to the various cultures she is a part of are communicated beautifully and pathetically - she doesn't hide the ugliness she experienced from others or that came from herself but honestly examines the person-to-person conflicts that can hit so much closer to home than news of a bombing or the sham election of a leader. Satrapi rarely has to fear for her life and physical safety the way that the Jews in Maus do but she is constantly afraid for her way of life, for her identity. She struggles under religious conservatism in Iran but is also injured by racism and xenophobia in Austria - in fact the problems of enlightened Europe take a greater physical toll on her than the bombings of Tehran took on her family and reconciling those experiences becomes a tremendous source of conflict within her that makes it impossible for her to maintain a foothold in the shifting sands of her life.

There's so much that happens in Satrapi's narrative that it feels cheap to attempt to summarize it here but I will say that this character spoke strongly to me - from a childhood of lofty, thwarted dreams to a lost adolescence isolated from home and family to a young adulthood hemmed in by a foreign morality Satrapi is pulled in dozens of directions and has a hard time finding a solid center to build a life on. And while I've had the privilege of growing up largely without the fear of war or bombs I can relate to the glazed confusion when being presented with a world that seems to be shedding the expected skin to expose something uglier underneath.

Satrapi's introduction makes it clear that she is writing to counter the image of Iranians as terrorists and religious extremists. She talks about a world rife with European xenophobia that bares its teeth at children fleeing a war. She talks about living in a country where women have few freedoms and fewer rights. And she talks about a wish to leave that behind in a brighter future, something that has unfortunately not yet come to pass. While this memoir is only 15 years old it seems unbearably optimistic in a world where I see all people from the Middle East being stereotyped as terrorists, where global xenophobia is rearing up against children fleeing wars, and a world in which women's rights have regressed in many places. I want the same future that Satrapi wanted, I just didn't have her words to make clear what was missing or how much we still need it.

I hope it happens. And I strongly recommend reading Persepolis to hear an Iranian voice calling for what so much of the world believes no Iranians want.

     - Alli

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis.  Pantheon Books. New York: New York. 2004. (2000).

Monday, March 28, 2016

Mommy martyr

I really like reading books that were considered obscene when they were written and comparing them to the standards of today. Usually it's a huge letdown and a frustrating reminder that huge swaths of English Lit were composed by people being stifled under a code of morals that is utterly foreign to me. DH Lawrence doesn't quite fall into that category, but it's a near thing.

Of course, everyone always seems to want to talk about Lady Chatterly's Lover, which I've not read so I figured I might as well tell you that up front. Haven't read it, probably won't. But I did read Sons and Lovers because I picked up a copy at a used bookstore, and I find myself fairly impressed.

Lawrence did a beautiful job of crafting a complicated, messy, ugly little family in this novel. The characters are round and almost uniformly loathsome in one way or another. Gertrude is vindictive, Walter is abusive, Paul is aloof, and I want to criticize Miriam and Clara but to be totally honest I think Lawrence was unkind enough to his creations. The Morel family is of interest to me, but Paul's lovers seem like straw women more than they seem like fair targets. Paul has an inner life and inner workings, Miriam and Clara are portrayed only as reflected huger for Paul.

And besides that, they aren't the focus of the story. Paul is the son and lover (in some ways) of Gertrude, and that's the relationship that I come closest to interpreting as obscene in the story. People like to tease the idea of mama's boys but the character of Paul lives only for his mother - he creates for her, he returns to her, he spurns his lovers and abandons his friends for her. Of course, Gertrude too has essentially abandoned her husband and the care of her other children to focus her love, care, and disappointed hopes on her middle son. The toxicity of the mother-son relationship in the story is fascinating, it fairly hums with control and unexpressed longing and threats. It comes uncomfortably close to being the story of a son who is a lover, but doesn't quite cross that boundary.

So of course you have to ask why not - if Paul and Gertrude are devoted to one another and eschew basically all other relationships what is Lawrence trying to say with that? I think, like Hardy (who was also criticized for obscenity in his time) Lawrence is discussing the problems inherent in the falsely modest morality of the day - if Paul and Gertrude didn't feel compelled to participate in relationships they would prefer not to then they wouldn't have to survive on scraps of adoration from one another. I think that Paul is given liberty from the choices his mother made because of his mother's sacrifices.

And Miriam's. And Clara's.

Paul is saved from the fate of his parents, but only at the expense of three women's lives. Gertrude (and are we making a callback to Hamlet here, Mr. Lawrence?) suffers her relationship with her husband for decades but the suffering doesn't really start until Paul's birth, when she chooses to stay for the sake of the boy. Miriam doesn't understand Paul but is strung along by him for years as Paul struggles to understand himself. Clara, who is married to another man, is frankly and physically used by the man-child up until his mother's death saps him of the strength to pretend he cares for her.

Clara is interesting, and I think she's the key to the whole thing. Clara is married but living apart from her husband; she's a suffragette; she's relatively self-sufficient. She doesn't need Paul - even when she believes herself to be in love with him - and she doesn't need to be passed back to Mr. Dawes either, but allows both of those men to have a foothold in her soul. And she only returns to Dawes when Paul proves himself deficient - Dawes, for all that he's a fool, will hold her as an equal. He wants her, she wants him, he can forgive her her leaving if she can forgive his jealousy. Paul held himself apart from other mortals, struggling to live up to his mother's ideal of him and to replace his father as a man and doesn't do particularly well with either attempt.

I do find myself frustrated with the focus on the success and needs of men at the expense of the success and needs of women in this novel - men are allowed to work toward goals while women are allowed only meager gains, which usually consist of the attention or approval of men. I suppose I could write that off as an artifact of the era, if I didn't keep running into the same thing in novels written now. So I feel somewhat petty holding a novel written 103 years ago to standards that still aren't being met now, but on the other hand Austen started getting published 100 years ahead of Lawrence and seemed to speak to greater choices and hopes and dreams for women than the disappointments offered to Gertrude, Miriam, and Clara.

     - Alli

Lawrence, DH. Sons and Lovers. Viking Compass. New York: New York. 1975. (1913).

Forgettably entertaining dreck

I'm sure I've seen Jurassic Park 3 at least two or three times. I'm positive that watching it this weekend wasn't my second-ever viewing. I think. It's hard to tell - I knew almost every beat of the movie but I honestly can't tell if that's because of overexposure or because it's just so damned predictable.

Let's get this out of the way - the original Jurassic Park is fucking genius, I love it and you'll never convince me that it's anything other than a great film. Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World is underrated and a wonderful weekend romp - perfect popcorn. Aaaand Jurassic Park 3 is basically every late-night monster/adventure movie you've ever seen. It's not unbearably awful, just predictable (and therefore sort of boring) and not terribly clever.

I may be a bit biased - I've got a major crush on Jeff Goldblum and I think Laura Dern was just unspeakably cheated out of a chance to shine in the sequels, so JP3 doesn't offer me a lot of what I love about the first two movies. Sam Neil is tolerable, Bill H. Macy is utterly wasted, and Tea Leoni is nearly unwatchable. The two kids (handsome young archaeologist and actual child) are relatively inoffensive. The dinosaur design is awful. Which is a huge disappointment because fantastic monsters has always been the greatest feature of the Jurassic Park series.

Again, this movie isn't the absoloute worst. Not by a long shot. It's just vaguely entertaining, eminently forgettable crap that you can easily waste an afternoon on. But there's the catch: your time will feel wasted instead of well spent, and that's a bit of a downer when you're watching an adventure movie full of dinosaurs.

     - Alli.

Friday, March 25, 2016

One for the money


I really wanted to enjoy Pimp; from everything I'd seen about it before I cracked the cover I was intrigued. The book and its author have had a lot to do with certain aspects of African American artistic culture in the second half of the 20th century and I wanted to get wrapped up in that. Unfortunately I couldn't bring myself to enjoy the book on a deep level because holy shit is is misogynist.

I mean, obviously, yes, we're talking about a book that tells the story of a pimp before the 1950s, clearly this wasn't going to be a rallying cry for the equal treatment of sex workers. But neither should it have been a constant confirmation that sex workers are indeed thieves who are forced or coerced into sex work. Iceberg Slim may have been a stone-cold pimp but that ain't a patch on the modern Chicago Burlesque scene or the escorts on Tinder who have a great time running their own lives.

There was a lot to recommend about Pimp - Slim's frustration with the white supremacy that surrounds him and his attempts to subvert that supremacy by ignoring a system that will treat him as criminal regardless of his behavior is understandable and commendable. The utter exhaustion with the white man that Beck voices through his younger avatar is something that still rings unfortunately true.

But I just can't get behind how the book views women. I'm hoping that Beck's attitude about women in general and sex workers in particular had changed by the time he actually wrote Pimp, but I find it unlikely. There's such vitriolic contempt for sex workers in this story that it's hard to imagine the kind of people underneath the caricatures - something that isn't true of the pimps, police, and day-to-day folks you're introduced to. Only the sex workers, women terrorized and threatened into obeying the orders of a particular man above all others, are portrayed as conniving subhumans out to wrong the men who terrorize them.

And I can't get behind that. The story was compelling, the language felt natural and easy, and the author wrote in a way that was calculated to make sex workers seem subhuman and untrustworthy. And all that it made me do was want to get out of this story that thought so little of women in general and sex workers in particular.

     - Beck, Richard. Pimp. Holloway House Publishing. Los Angeles: California. 2006. (1969).

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A new dimension to a well-loved universe


When I first got married the only books I brought from my parents' house to my new home were 3-7 of the Harry Potter series. I didn't own one and two. It's not that I was intentionally setting myself up for privation - my parents' house is about half a mile from where I live now and I thought the stay here would be much shorter so I didn't want to move too much stuff only to have to move it again. So in the first six months of my marriage I read from Azkaban to the Deathly Hallows seven times. But it has been probably five years since the last time I read Sorcerer's Stone.

My sister got me the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for Christmas, setting up what I'm sure will be a traditional gift for the next six years (excellent!). I finally got around to reading it in a single sitting this week. I had forgotten how quickly the first book in the series slips away - it's such a fun little jaunt, full of world-building and character creation and just getting to sink into the start of a story that feels like home to me.

The Sorcerer's Stone really is a true children's book - it's simply written and easy to digest. It moves at a breakneck pace and hauls you along for the ride, like a Gringott's goblin. It's hard to even write about - I feel like so much has already been said about the Potterverse that there's not much more ground to cover.

So I'll focus on the one new thing here: the illustrations. They're stunning and a wonderful addition to the series. The detailing of Diagon Alley, the heartbreaking sadness of the Mirror of Erised, Hagrid's upturned-ship hut, Minerva's impeccable style, Snape's jars of slimy things - it's all fantastic and adds a depth to the world that I wanted to see so vividly as an eleven-year-old reading along my first trip to Hogwarts.

If you haven't read Harry Potter I'd heartily enjoin you to do so - it's a good story and one that can easily become a part of you that you carry everywhere in your heart. If you don't want to that's fine, but I can't say I understand why you wouldn't. It is, simply, magical.

     - Alli

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Scholastic Press. New York: New York. 2015.

Cops and rabbits

I feel incredibly conflicted about Zootoopia. It's adorable and beautifully, lovingly animated so I've got no beef with that. It WANTS to have a really fantastic message. The characters are, for the most part, fun and funny and entertaining to watch. It probably isn't a total waste of money to go see it. And that ends the spoiler-free portion of my review.


Buuuuuuut it's SUPER pro-cop in ways that are VERY uncomfortable. Especially since the film very badly wants t at least seem anti-racist but doesn't quite pull it off.

Judy becomes Zootopia's first ever bunny cop. Within a very short time she's assigned a case against her captain's wishes by leveraging a city official's preferential treatment of her against her captain. She solves the case by:

1 - Recording a suspect who was unaware that she has a recording device
2 - Blackmailing that suspect to participate in her investigation
     (2b - in doing so she agrees to ignore evidence of felony tax evasion)
3 - Illegally accepting favors from her blackmail victim to access DMV database information
4 - Entering private property without a warrant under false pretenses
     (she saw a "shady character" enter so had probable cause, but it was her blackmailed associate
     entering the locked lot to retrieve the blackmail material she'd been holding over his head)
5 - Illegally accessing city surveillance footage with her city contact.
6 - Entering ANOTHER private property without a warrant.

And then she, who fought so hard for bunny acceptance, throws the entire carnivore kingdom under the bus and subjects 20% of the city's population to unwarranted suspicion as a result.

I've talked about DUE FUCKING PROCESS on this blog before. It's kind of a big deal for me. And obviously the laws of a fictional animal city are going to be different than the laws of any real-world place but teaching that blackmail is an acceptable practice for the hero cop in the story is a little fucking problematic.

Because she's a private citizen when solving the second big mystery of the movie it's somewhat less reprehensible that she (at the very least) is guilty of breaking and entering, grand larceny, and reckless driving of a FUCKING TRAIN, but again the crimes in Zootopia are solved by committing more crimes. Kind of a problem.

And the way this movie handles racism is an oroboros-like knot of issues. Judy faces prejudice because she's a cute little bunny (at one point stating that it's okay for a bunny to call another bunny cute but it's gross for another animal to call a bunny cute) and attempts to overcome her own prejudice against foxes but then it turns out that it's another cute little herbivore who's attempting to drum up hatred and fear of predators. Soooooo how does institutional power play into this dynamic? Apparently the predators are the minority in this situation but they're also (typically) the ones with a greater ability to exercise physical control of other animals. How does intersectionality play in Zootopia? Does an otter experience the dual prejudices of being seen as both cute and a predator? Does an elephant experience microaggressions about her memory while also experiencing size privilege (clearly, if the Tommy Chong water buffalo scene is any indication)? How does sexual dimorphism play into this? Assistant Mayor Bellweather clearly experiences prejudice because she's small and cute and harmless but she employs a group of large rams to act as her goons - they're the same species so how does that work or is it a problem of intra-cultural misogyny? Which is probably realistically too much to get into in a kid's film but it highlights the fact that species-based-prejudices-as-a-metaphor-for-racism is maybe not the best way to discuss racism. There's a difference between prejudice and racism, and that difference is institutional power. But in this story the Mayor is a lion, the police chief is a bull, and the cute bunny and the sly fox both experience species-based stereotypes that limit their ability to fully participate in society. So who's racist? Is it the predators or the prey? Because it can't be both - otherwise it's prejudice, not racism, because one group needs to have the institutional power for racism to be the issue. In our world it's white people who are racist, even though white people are a global minority, because globally whites hold greater institutional power. So are the predators the white people in this story? Who are forced out of their places by a biased majority? Because that's gross as fuck. It's probably more fair to say that large herbivores are the ones with the most institutional power (several times it's reiterated that there are more herbivores than carnivores) and they don't experience the same size-based prejudice that small, cute animals experience. But that kind of makes Judy Hopps a White Feminist (tm) sort of figure - a member of both a powerful and an oppressed class who learns her lesson and acts as a savior to an oppressed class she isn't a member of. Which is also gross as fuck.

I don't know, it's a kids movie and they bit off probably more than they could chew by trying to handle two big mysteries based on oppression in a single flick.

It was okay, and other than "blackmail is cool if you're a cop" it probably isn't actively harmful and most of it will probably sail over the head of the intended audience.

     - Alli

Thursday, March 10, 2016

No mistake

 (ugly crying)

Let's get the obvious out of the way - I'm obsessed with Mike Patton and I'm a huge FNM fangirl. No problems with that, no shame - he's a fascinating musician and FNM is a bloody fantastic band. Now. Patton's been busy. After the release of Sol Invictus with FNM last year Patton's label put out Nevermen, a self-titled album, created by vocal trio Mike Patton, Dosone, and Tunde Adebimpe only six days before the experimental vocalist announced that his second record with John Kaada was going to come out in April.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck I can't begin to tell you how excited that makes me.

But anyway. Nevermen. It's out, it's a great album, the tour is cancelled (which is making me miserable) and if there's a second album it's probably going to be a decade in the making. Which sucks because, again, it's a great album.

I've been hearing the sound described as industrial (and deranged, and electronic, and hypnotic) doo-wop, which is certainly accurate but also doesn't do justice to the complicated vocal layering that is present through every single minute of the record. My favorite song on the album (and also the first single released to tease the whole brilliant thing), "Tough Towns," is spine-tingling and melodic and full of snapping and spoken word in addition to the multi-layered melodies and harmonizing and just this tremendous, dizzying DEPTH to the sound. This song aches, it begs to be heard and demands your attention through the plaintive voices of the three powerful singers and the relentless praise-inspired beat.

The whole album sounds haunted. It sounds like sad voices moving down empty alleys or echoing off abandoned auditorium walls. Sometimes it's celebratory and bright, cheerfully marching along and cooing to the listener in a grating falsetto (as in the second single, "Mr. Mistake" - the only song on the album with a music video as of this writing), sometimes the music is sardonic and the singers sarcastic - "Non Babylon" is a great example; it's a song sung by a vocal trio, who insist there's no lead in their band, all about deriding frontmen (and I can't help but imagine that Mike Patton is envisioning The Real Thing era Mike Patton as the target for all the digs in the song).

There's some beautiful nonsense going on in the lyrics that doesn't seem so nonsensical while you're listening to the album. "Wrong Animal, Right Trap" has a mindless refrain of "this will simply not work, like barbed wire on pollen" that is repeated enough to almost make the words themselves lose meaning but since it's a song about containment it doesn't quite mesh as nonsense - after all, barbed wire IS a terrible method of trapping pollen. It's hard to describe - I can't properly discuss the non-nonsense in the songs without sharing the lyrics but as yet there aren't any lyrics available so I suppose you'll just have to go listen to the song above, then watch the "Mr. Mistake" video, then check out "Hate On," and then start getting into the remixes that Nevermen have shared.

Or you could go to the Ipecac Recordings merch site and buy the CD but it sounds like you might have to do a lot of searching and it might be hard if I hadn't turned this sentence into a direct link to buy Nevermen. Which you should do. Because it's a great album.

     - Alli

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

I don't want to talk about the movie I just miss him

My family watches Die Hard and Love Actually at least once a year (they're both mandatory parts of my sister's Christmas movie advent calendar). I've got a Harry Potter tattoo and spent my childhood watching Snape swirl his coattails on screen. I can't even tell you how many times I've read the Hitchiker's series, just that the film finally found a perfect Marvin. Dogma was my (perfect) introduction to the work of Kevin Smith, one of my favorite directors. "Because it's dull you twit, it'll hurt more" is a standalone threat/expression of frustration at my parents' house. What I'm saying here is that Alan Rickman was a goddamned treasure who made delightful films that have been important to me. His performance in each of the films above is a gem.

And then there's Galaxy Quest. 1999 gave us this perfect, flawless, hilarious, far-better-than-it-should-have-been film and the primary reason it's so wonderful is because of Alan Rickman's brilliant performance as Alexander Dane as Dr. Lazarus.

Dane is a marvelous character - talented but spoiled, justifiably frustrated but irritatingly whiny, clever but too impressed with himself and too critical of everyone else; he's a bundle of contradictions and subtleties that would collapse without an actor who can play a complicated role in a nuanced way. And Rickman fucking nails it. IN A FUCKING SPACE COMEDY. This is supposed to just be a stupid Star Trek parody, some almost-direct-to-DVD piece of junk with roles written for over-the-hill actors as a vanity piece. And Alan Rickman (and the rest of the cast too, honestly everyone in this film is so much better than we deserve) comes in with a performance that would have gotten ALL OF THE NOMINATIONS if it was in ANY OTHER GENRE.

That, by the way, is one of the sadder aspects of Alan Rickman's recent passing. The man was a brilliant actor, just tip-top amazing, and got hardly any industry recognition (a 1992 BAFTA for Robin Hood; a handful of awards for his role in a 1997 miniseries about Rasputin, and that's about it for the last twenty fucking years are you kidding me) largely because he did an amazing job in genre roles. His portrayal of Snape is perfect, but it's in a kid's fantasy movie. His VO work on Marvin is delightful, but it's in a sci-fi comedy. And Alan Rickman as Alexander Dane as Dr. Lazarus is one of the greatest performances ever filmed but it's in a sci-fi parody comedy so nobody in the industry sat down to marvel at what a pure piece of genius it is.

Alan Rickman was a beautiful gift to the world. I'm tremendously sad that he has left us, but I'm so grateful that he has left us a brilliant body of work to remember him by and gawp at in overwhelmed appreciation.

Thank you, Mr. Rickman, for making the movies that are part of who I am. You'll be sadly missed.

     - Alli