Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

27 January 2021

COVID-19 Movie 'Songbird' is a Disaster – We Need Better Pandemic Stories [Trailer Included]

COVID-19 Movie 'Songbird' is a Disaster – We Need Better Pandemic Stories [Trailer Included]
COVID-19 Movie 'Songbird' is a Disaster – We Need Better Pandemic Stories (Image via STX Films)

If the reality of COVID-19 were not enough, you can now watch Songbird, a new blockbuster movie which pictures the world in 2024 trying to deal with the ravages of COVID-23, a new mutation of the coronavirus. As one reviewer writes, the film combinesa Romeo & Juliet-lite love story with a sub-Contagion thriller”. Hailed as the first feature film about the pandemic, released during the pandemic, Songbird has not received the warm welcome its producers might have hoped for.

COVID-19 Movie 'Songbird' is a Disaster – We Need Better Pandemic Stories [Trailer Included]
'Songbird' (screengrab)
One of the most generous reviews is from The Guardian, which described the film as “a fascinating historical document of how some creatives found their way around the rules during an impossible time for a struggling industry”. In contrast, Canada’s Globe and Mail, cautioned viewers to “physically distance” themselves from Songbird, which it described as “crass and gimmicky”. Other reviewers also saw the film as a “schlocky and opportunistic” production. Viewers, meanwhile, have criticised it as being in bad taste for trying “to bank on the current times and failing just about every step of the way”.

The range of these responses tellingly reveals the complexity of the bigger questions behind the film, namely: what role does culture play when it comes to disasters? This question is not new. Yet the seemingly never-ending current global health crisis gives it a sense of urgency.

Cultural representations of disasters can show ways to make sense of crises. Whether it’s the allegorical painting of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, HBO’s Chernobyl, or Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), a magical realist response to Hurricane Katrina, these cultural representations act as social commentaries. They anticipate political action, shape and express environmental ethics, and – most importantly – they can help us to imagine what a possible future could look like.

Not in the same boat

Films, TV series and books about disasters show, again and again, that there is no one way of experiencing any disaster. Zadie Smith’s recently published Intimations, an essay collection of pandemic reflections, describes this in clear terms: “The misery is very precisely designed, and different for each person.” As the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 clearly demonstrates, we are all not in the same boat. This has been captured by poetry, and confirmed by research.

The pandemic has not struck with the same force nor at the same time. What COVID-19 has revealed is ever-starker socioeconomic divides. The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on certain demographic and labour groups. It has cut a swath through the most vulnerable populations, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions as well as the key workers who are keeping the cities, hospitals, and schools running. In short, the impact of the pandemic (and we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg) is contingent on pre-existing, long-term, and sustained vulnerability.

COVID-19 Movie 'Songbird' is a Disaster – We Need Better Pandemic Stories [Trailer Included]
'Songbird' (screengrab)
In response to the profound suffering and disruption to all aspects of our lives, many yearn for some, even small, return to “normal life”. Yet, it is precisely this “normal” – the reality of fatal inequalities, racial violence, injustice, and disenfranchisement – that is the problem.

No return to the pre-pandemic conditions is possible, nor should it be wished for. Rather, post-pandemic recovery has to work to address and repair these long-term structures of injustice, racism, and political, social and cultural marginalisation. Good artistic works aim to recover these hidden narratives and voices, voices that need to be central to any long-term recovery processes.

Starting slowly

The future starts slowly. How it will look depends on long-term community efforts and – even more so – on policy changes and political decisions. Yet waiting for these might mean waiting too long. In the meantime, artists, neighbourhood groups, mutual aid and solidarity groups forge their way through the crisis, start this slow labour of recovering, already pointing towards what alternative futures, in a small way, might look like.

The future starts with listening to the discordant experiences of those most affected by the impact of the pandemic. For Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, reflecting on writing in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, it soon became clear that “the book that I’m going to write will take years”. Indeed, her novel Chernobyl Prayer took ten years to complete. This “novel of voices”, as she calls it, captures precisely those discordant meanings, ongoing sense of irreparable loss and confusion.

Understanding what the current pandemic means and what its real impact is will also take years. Undoing long-term vulnerabilities will take even longer. Yet this work has to start now and continue day in, day out. For British philosopher Nigel Warburton, Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) provides inspiration, with its depiction of “ordinary people rising to an occasion and doing extraordinary things”.

Whether an artistically uninspiring, ethically problematic contagion-themed love story where the pandemic is exploited as a jumping-off point can capture the many voices of the pandemic experience, sketch a horizon of post-COVID-19 life, or provide an inspiration for such ordinary work of slow healing and recovery, is highly unlikely. Tellingly, for one viewer of Songbird, in order to enjoy the film, one must “ignore what’s happening” in real life.

While seeking an escape might not in itself be bad, as film scholar Alfio Leotta reminds us: “The kind of escape we seek matters.” It is thanks to the other worlds offered by books, films, that we can gain a better, more critical, but also more courageous, imaginative, view of the present we are in and, not least, of what can the future hold.

About Today's Contributor:

Kasia Mika, Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

30 November 2020

Marvel’s First On-Screen Muslim Superhero — Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel's Alter-Ego — Inspires Big Hopes


Marvel’s First On-Screen Muslim Superhero — Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel's Alter-Ego — Inspires Big Hopes
Some Ms. Marvel comic storylines have revealed her as a well-rounded character while others have advanced Islamophobic themes. (Marvel)

Amid the stress of a rising second wave of COVID-19, comic book fans found something to celebrate this September. Marvel Studios announced the casting of its first on-screen Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan, the alter-ego of Ms. Marvel.

Much like Canadian teen actress Iman Vellani who was plucked for this role, Kamala has been a virtual unknown outside of comic fandom despite being a sensation since her series debut at the top of comic book sales charts in 2014.

It should be no surprise then that Marvel Studios decided to capitalize on this success and signed Kamala for her own TV series on Disney+ for an anticipated debut in late 2021 or early 2022.

As a researcher who has examined Muslim superheroes in American comics, I find Kamala to be the most intriguing of all American Muslim superheroes. She has an ability to destabilize stereotypes of Muslims while reinforcing ideas about American exceptionalism. In the hands of different writers in various comic iterations, she has appeared as multi-dimensional and stereotype-breaking, but also as a one-dimensional figure that advances Islamophobic themes.

Marvel’s First On-Screen Muslim Superhero — Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel's Alter-Ego — Inspires Big Hopes
Kamala Khan is a Pakistani American who speaks Urdu. Panel from Volume 1, digital edition. (Marvel)

Muslim characters post 9/11

It may seem that Marvel Studios is taking a big risk spotlighting a Muslim character when we are living in a time of rising anti-Muslim hatred in the West. But while there has been a resurgence of Muslim superheroes in American comics after 9/11, some of these representations reiterate stereotypes.

Muslim characters underwent a mini-makeover in popular culture after 9/11. Characters emerged from being buffoonish villains to figures who gave off the appearance of depth while simultaneously regurgitating stereotypes. American studies and ethnicity scholar Evelyn al Sultany coined the term “simplified complex representation” to describe this approach in her book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11.

Certainly, Muslim superheroes were a thing before 9/11. But after 9/11, a spate of Muslim superheroes emerged, including characters like the orientalized Sooraya Qadir (Dust), who appeared in New X-Men in 2002, Simon Baz, member of the Green Lantern Corps featured in Green Lantern, and Josiah X who first appeared in The Crew. This is fascinating to me since superheroes often function as patriotic symbols, and Muslims are regarded as the quintessential “other” because Islam is usually framed as incompatible with the West.

After reading Sooraya Qadir’s debut, it became obvious to me that comics found a new way to sensationalize Muslim representation.

Enter Kamala Khan

To me, Kamala seemed to be the rare glimpse of hope that existed on the other side of the rainbow if we just characterized Muslims — who make up almost one-quarter of the world’s population — as something more nuanced. And she delivered on that front, particularly in her early days.

Readers met her as a Pakistani American that spoke Urdu. This means we saw representation of Muslims in the West escape the frequent stereotypical assumption that all Muslims are Arabs and vice versa.

Marvel’s First On-Screen Muslim Superhero — Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel's Alter-Ego — Inspires Big Hopes
This panel from Ms. Marvel, Volume 1, digital edition, written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona, depicts Kamala Khan as a believable character in a possible real-world setting. (Marvel)

Later in Magnificent Ms. Marvel #13, written by the Arab American writer, Saladin Ahmed, the sole focus shifted away from Kamala Khan when an Arab American sidekick named Amulet was introduced.

Successful sales, popularity

In Ms. Marvel’s earlier volumes written by the Muslim writer, and white Muslim convert, G. Willow Wilson, we saw Kamala anointed with her superhero mantle to the tune of Amir Khusro’s poetry. We saw her juggle her schedule between battles and mehendis, and even got a glimpse of her great-great grandmother’s move from India to Pakistan during Partition.

Back then, I remember comic book store clerks telling me how popular Ms. Marvel was with customers. The print collection of the series sold half a million copies alone. As Wilson notes, the first issue had had eight separate printings and its digital edition became Marvel’s best-selling digital comic of all time. Its first volume, released in 2014, was ranked again amongst the top five in sales rankings in September 2020.

I remember thinking that this Urdu-speaking Muslim powerhouse could be the start of a new type of Muslim character. She was proof that creators didn’t need to recycle the tireless oppressed Muslim woman or terrorist Muslim male tropes for sales.

G. Willow Smith discusses Kamala Khan as ‘A Superhero for Generation Why.’

Introducing Islamophobic themes

But following the success of the Ms. Marvel series, Kamala appeared in Marvel’s Champions series about a team of teenage superheroes. Perhaps Marvel intended to further boost the popularity of the already-successful Ms. Marvel series by bringing in Mark Waid, a high-profile non-Muslim white writer, who authored the popular comic series (and award-winning graphic novel) Kingdom Come and others.

In Champions, some tired stereotypes surfaced. In the third issue, the team flies to a fictional South Asian country. There, they rescue hijabi Muslim girls from violent men who conform to stock villain Muslim stereotypes like the terrorists seen in Hollywood movies such as True Lies.

Here, Kamala is effectively used as a racist weapon against brown men and is depicted to suggest proof of western superiority. Sadly enough, I was concerned she could be used this way before she actually was.

I was reminded that such tropes may exist simply because of implicit bias as opposed to profitability.

Celebrate and watch

Marvel’s First On-Screen Muslim Superhero — Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel's Alter-Ego — Inspires Big Hopes
Kamala’s selfie with Wolverine, from ‘Ms. Marvel’ Volume 2, digital edition. (Marvel)

For now, we should celebrate the debut of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Muslim superhero. I have hope that the Disney+ series will do her justice as its showrunner is the stand-up comedian and writer Bisha K. Ali, known for incisive commentary.

However, Marvel plans to move Kamala eventually to the silver screen and there’s already talk of a Champions type of superhero team series featuring Kamala.

If anything of the likes of Kamala as a racist weapon to prove western superiority is featured, I can’t say there will be much cause for celebration.

About Today's Contributor:

Safiyya Hosein, PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture, Ryerson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

11 February 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King: Why King Arthur Films Are The Perfect Antidote To Epic Brexit Posturing

The Kid Who Would Be King
The Kid Who Would Be King  (20th Century Fox)
King Arthur probably never existed, but from a cinematic point of view, he may as well have done. Few figures, mythical or historical, have reappeared as frequently on the big screen. This winter, less than two years after Guy Ritchie’s 2017 King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, comes a new take on the tales: The Kid Who Would Be King. But what is the appeal of this particular tale? And above all, why now?

The Kid Who Would Be King, like Ritchie’s film, is another take on a familiar trope. Like any legend, the Arthur myth is a cinematic template on which storytellers can impose their own ideas – and these variations can tell us a lot about the times and places that produced them. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), for instance, with its medieval plagues and Marxist peasants, reflects parodically on the construction of national mythologies. Notably, this was at a time when Britain’s imperial and economic influence had dwindled.

The contexts of Brexit, inevitably, provide a backdrop to the more recent films. The Legend of the Sword is a popular retelling in every sense. Ritchie transposes his familiar London “low-life” milieu to the world of the Round Table, with his muscular Arthur a brothel-raised orphan, backed up by a multicultural array of petty thieves and streetfighters. The war here, with his usurping uncle, Vortigern, is more a people’s rebellion. Yet the film still ends with the newly crowned king demanding fealty from the Vikings, while rejecting their demands for British slaves.

Ritchie’s film was greeted in some quarters as a film about Brexit, but it could just as easily be an allegory about the Corbynite “revolution”, if you wanted it to. Yet it does draw on some of the Arthurian fables’ more nationalistic elements. The more dewy aspects of the legends – the Sword and the Stone, the Lady of the lake, Avalon – were recounted by Thomas Malory in 1485 and form the basis of all the most popular Arthurian retellings. Yet these largely obscure the King’s earlier, more militaristic depictions.

The circa 1400 anonymous poem Morte Arthure, for instance, focuses on Arthur’s resistance to paying Roman taxes and his campaign to reassert British dominion in Europe. The poem commemorates national Empire-building, as much as it mocks and scorns “continental” manners and morality. Transposed to our populist era of “hard men” politicians, Ritchie’s brawny Arthur comes with interesting connotations, inadvertently or otherwise.

A very British epic

More to the point, Arthurian films tell us about the cinematic contexts that produced them. Monty Python’s muddy take on the story may take its cues from realist European films such as 1973’s Lancelot du lac – but its cut-price epic style is born of the group having no money to spend: a common issue with British films of the impoverished 1970s. The Holy Grail’s contrast to Hollywood’s widescreen spectacles, such as Knights of the Round Table (1953) or Camelot (1967), is part of its comic point.

Similarly, The Legend of the Sword’s debt is less to contemporary politics and more to the recent traditions of epic film. The film inherits much of its style and narrative tropes from Ridley’s Scott’s Gladiator (2000), the epic that revived the genre, and demonstrated the international appeal of ancient stories.

Made at huge expense by Warner Bros at its Leavesden studios – and with the creative input of Harry Potter producer Lionel Wigram – Ritchie’s movie was itself seen as another global franchise in the making – until it flopped at the box-office. Ironically, then, this fiercely British film is “British” only in a limited sense. Like the Harry Potter films, it exemplifies the globalised nature of cinema: a “local” story financed by multinational capital, shot in a Hollywood-owned British studio and made for worldwide distribution.

Rejuvenating Arthur

By contrast, The Kid Who Would Be King offers a twist to this model. Here, the global genre of the epic is localised and brought down to earth – in this case, by transferring the legend to a modern secondary school, with a cast barely into their teens.

Other recent films have trodden the same ground. Edgar Wright’s 2013 The World’s End (another Working Title production) was a jokey modern take on Arthurian myth, its 12-pint pub crawl – led by fallen leader Gary King – its own legendary Grail quest. It’s also familiar territory for Kid Who Would Be King director Joe Cornish, whose 2011 debut, Attack the Block, banded inner-city youths against an alien invasion, as well as the Metropolitan Police.

This focus on the young in The Kid Who Would Be King is both cinematically welcome and topical in light of the generational schisms and social divisions highlighted and brought about by Brexit – a point highlighted by Cornish himself. By putting Excalibur in the hands of a gawky schoolkid, Cornish’s film offers a lighter-hearted alternative both to epic cinematic follies and delusions of national grandeur.

Joking it may partly be, yet with its allegiances to Britain’s future generation, the film becomes another politically charged return to this most potent national myth.The Conversation

About Today's Contributor:

Neil Archer, Lecturer in Film Studies, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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22 October 2018

Game of Thrones: imagined World Combines Romantic and Grotesque Visions of Middle Ages


Winter's coming
Winter's coming (HBO)
Take the dragons and the zombies away from the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire novels and you are left with the seemingly authentic portrayal of a pseudo-medieval world. Indeed, Martin was inspired by historical events such as the Wars of the Roses, the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War.

It is no surprise that Game of Thrones is being used to stimulate interest in medieval studies. Westeros is replete with medieval staples such as knights, queens, broadswords and castles. It’s packed with recognisable medieval characters, including Machiavellian schemers, brutal warriors, noble heroes, paternalistic lords and power-hungry aristocrats.

Of course Game of Thrones is fundamentally ahistorical, taking inspiration from popular myths about many different periods and places. But while it illuminates little about the past, it reveals much about how we imagine that past.

The grotesque
Medieval scholar David Matthews suggests that modern views of the Middle Ages can be categorised as either romantic or grotesque. Game of Thrones features both elements in spades.

The likes of vicious, spoiled king Joffrey Baratheon, his scheming mother Cersei Lannister and psychopathic warlord Ramsey Bolton signify the grotesque. They represent the idea of the Middle Ages as a violent and lawless era. That notion was created by the literati of Renaissance Italy as they sought to rediscover the learning and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Such views were reinforced by the Reformation, which equated Catholicism with medieval folly.

These attitudes were strengthened during the 18th-century Enlightenment. The “light” of modern reason and objectivity was contrasted against the superstitious “darkness” that had supposedly characterised the medieval period. In this way, the Middle Ages became a foil against which to measure the achievements of modernity.

If the Middle Ages have become a shorthand for brutality, they can also highlight the supposed inadequacies of non-Western societies. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, it has become routine among Western officials and journalists to label Islamic extremists as “medieval”. In 2015, US Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina even claimed that her degree in medieval history would help her fight Islamic State.

Such attitudes can be identified in Game of Thrones. The brown-skinned slave-trading Dothraki are portrayed as a Mongol-esque horde whose primary characteristic is primitive savagery. Daenerys Targaryen, a claimant to the throne of Westeros who liberates thousands from servitude in the neighbouring continent of Essos, is portrayed as a white saviour bringing freedom to oriental slaves.

Mother of dragons, liberator of slaves: Daenerys Targaryen. (HBO)
Meanwhile in Westeros, where the central story unfolds, slavery was outlawed centuries ago. The underlying assumption here is that societies progress towards civilisation over time. The imagined land of Westeros borrows much from an earlier period in Western development. But the eastern continent of Essos is home to societies bearing cultural hallmarks aligning them with the Middle and Far East. Some of them are presented as more refined than their Western counterparts, but also more amoral, thus echoing Western views of the east that have been powerful in our own world since the Crusades.

The romantic
There is also much to admire in the protagonists we root for. Daenerys, the heroic Jon Snow and the honourable and doomed Ned Stark are examples of the “romantic” Middle Ages. They are brave, honourable, noble and just, sitting within a vision of the medieval past informed by ideas about chivalry and morality.

Such figures hark back to older views of the Middle Ages as a heroic age in which individuals could make their own moral choices. Think of T. H. White’s Arthur, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and the numerous retellings of the Robin Hood legend. Looking further back, we see these same tropes in Thomas Mallory’s Arthurian romances, themselves composed at the very end of the medieval era.

In all cases the main characters champion the oppressed and challenge established authorities which lack moral legitimacy, just like our heroes in Game of Thrones.

But the aristocratic status of the Starks and Targaryens also represents social order and cohesion. These rival families do not seek to tear down the existing hierarchy in Westeros, but rather to remodel it along more just and benevolent lines. This tallies with an image of the Middle Ages as a golden era of stability, when everyone knew their role and had clearly defined responsibilities towards one another. For 19th-century thinkers, including John Ruskin and William Morris, the medieval period was a model through which humanity might from escape from the cruel vicissitudes of industrial capitalism.

Character development: Arya Stark. (HBO)
Yet the powerful women in Game of Thrones are indisputably modern. Daenerys, Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark, who has grown from tomboyish daughter to deadly assassin, are symbols of feminist empowerment, taking on roles traditionally reserved for men. Interestingly, the only character truly adhering to knightly ideals is Brienne of Tarth, who dresses and behaves like a knight but cannot actually be one, because of her gender.

That said, the degradation and abuse that many female characters endure – which sparked accusations of misogyny – is of course grotesque rather than romantic.

Achieving balance
What Game of Thrones does so well is balance these elements. Too much violence and many fans would turn off in disgust. Too much high-minded moralising and the show would feel sanitised and lacking a genuine sense of peril. Perhaps that is why the adventures of characters such as Arya, Cersei’s brother Jaime Lannister, their enforcer Sandor Clegane and above all the charming and Machiavellian Tyrion Lannister make for such compelling viewing. They operate in the borderlands between the “grotesque” and the “romantic”, making them admirable and repugnant in equal measure.

Tyrion Lannister: scheming, charming, charismatic. (HBO)
More broadly, the series tells us something about how its audience may feel about society today. Most of us are glad to have advanced beyond the barbarism we associate with the Middle Ages. But many also feel that values of duty and social responsibility have been lost along the way.

How we conceptualise the present is inevitably influenced by how we imagine the past. In terms of selling a story, therefore, the accuracy or otherwise of the medieval vision that Game of Thrones presents is irrelevant.The Conversation

About Today's Contributor:
Richard Marsden, Lecturer in History, The Open University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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14 October 2018

First Man: A New Vision Of The Apollo 11 Mission To Set Foot On The Moon

First Man: Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.
First Man: Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon. (Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures)
The Apollo 11 lunar landing was the first time humans stepped on another celestial body, and the events leading up to that historic moment – which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year – are depicted in the new movie First Man, out in cinemas now.

Director Damien Chazelle has delivered an intense film about astronaut Neil Armstrong, who made those iconic first steps.

But this is no triumphant paean to the Cold War Space Race, and you’ll find no trite comparisons of Apollo technology to the computing power of today’s smart phones here.

Drawn from the official biography by James R Hansen, Armstrong is portrayed with muscular introversion by Ryan Gosling, grappling with Armstrong’s renowned discomfort with the public demands of the space program, his role of husband and father, the intellectual and physical challenges of the quest for the moon, and a series of deeply personal tragedies.

In other words, the First Man on the Moon is shown to be a fallible and complex human being.

The man and the Moon 
In a quiet opening scene, Armstrong sings a lullaby, I See the Moon, to his infant daughter, echoing the transcendental fascination with the Moon held by generations of sleepless parents and children over the course of our evolution.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong the father.
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong the father. (Daniel McFadden)
Armstrong is haunted by the Moon and death throughout the film. His lunar quest is tied indelibly to his relationship with his daughter.

Shot often from Armstrong’s perspective, this film is an exploration of apparent emptiness – of space, the Moon, and a man in grief, accustomed to loss and most comfortable when cut off from those closest to him.

The Moon landing is the backdrop, the ultimate distraction from his world of pain, and Gosling plays it beautifully.

We’ve been there before, in film 
For almost as long as there have been moving pictures, we have had movies imagining space flight. In 1902 Georges Méliès directed and starred in what is considered the first science fiction film, the influential A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage Dans La Lune).

Space films developed a few recurring themes since then. There’s the heroic manly astronaut addicted to risking life and limb. With the notable exception of Hidden Figures, women tend to be shown marooned at home, anguished and accommodating of their physically and emotionally distant husbands. Then there’s the passionate flight director, swearing to all who will listen that he’ll get the astronauts home safe.

It’s a real triumph that First Man (mostly) avoids these cliches and genuinely gives us something new, and somehow more real.

The dangers of space were not exaggerated, and started with the terrestrial training. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) ejected seconds before the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle crashed and burned at Ellington Air Force Base.
The dangers of space were not exaggerated, and started with the terrestrial training. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) ejected seconds before the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle crashed and burned at Ellington Air Force Base.(Daniel McFadden)
There are a respectful number of references to other movies such as The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and 2001 A Space Odyssey that embed First Man within the well-established tradition of cinematic space flight.

These references highlight this film’s differences, drawn from the well-grounded depictions of Armstrong and his wife Janet, played by Claire Foy. The sequences between husband and wife are emotionally charged, rather than sentimentalised. The scenes where she listens to the radio feed from the landing are riveting. It is hard to imagine more Oscar-worthy contenders.

An emotional time on Earth for Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy)
An emotional time on Earth for Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy). (Daniel McFadden)
Flagging outrage 
The film does not sanitise the space program. Embracing the politics of the day, Chazelle recreates the protests around the Apollo missions.

Many people are shown questioning its value. Journalists demand to know how much it is worth, in lives lost and in dollars.

But First Man refocuses the emphasis of the Apollo 11 mission from US nationalism to Armstrong’s personal journey, and this doesn’t sit well with the current far right in Trump’s America.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio is angry that the planting of the US flag – an action symbolising the colonisation of territory – is not shown (although the flag appears more than once).

Some are calling for a boycott over the flag issue. Armstrong’s colleague on the Apollo 11 mission, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, has also implied his dissatisfaction with the film in a tweet.

Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, said the omission was not political; instead he chose to focus on the “unfamous stuff” as well as Armstrong’s experience and character.

The flag was controversial even at the peak of the Cold War. The United Nations Outer Space Treaty, ratified by the US just two years before, forbids territorial claims in space. How could an American mission claim to represent humanity if it included a symbolic act of American colonialism?

Fortunately, the response of the international community was to celebrate the collective human achievement rather than the national one.

More than a national effort: (left to right) Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) and Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) head for the Moon.
More than a national effort: (left to right) Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) and Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) head for the Moon. (Daniel McFadden)
There were numerous international contributions made to the Apollo missions. Australia provided tracking stations – famously, Armstrong’s first footfalls on the Moon were transmitted through the Honeysuckle Creek station, outside Canberra.

Australian space scientist Professor Brian O'Brien, then at Rice University in Texas, designed a dust-detecting experiment that was left on the surface of the Moon.

When the Moon is not enough 
There is an element of anti-climax about the film’s conclusion. As with Apollo 13, we know how it’s going to end.

But First Man does so on a carefully crafted note, a plausible hypothesis suggested by biographer Hansen that may have been designed to further humanise the inscrutable astronaut. The scene implies that the emotional distances he has to travel on Earth are greater than those which he crossed to the Moon.

Where we go from here is the question. Do we show the moral courage to take on the difficult tasks and solve the earthbound crises facing us today, or do we channel our energies and enterprise into becoming a multi-planet species?

Now that we have “conquered” the Moon, perhaps the only mission worthy of Armstrong’s legacy is to be humble, thoughtful and inspired about our place in the universe, while we still have one.

About Today's Contributors:
Alice Gorman, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Space Studies, Flinders University and Heather L. Robinson, Research Associate & PhD Candidate, College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

7 October 2018

Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker Excels And Inspires As The BBC's Time Lord


Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker is the 13th Doctor
Jodie Whittaker is the 13th Doctor (BBC Images)
SPOILER ALERT: this review assumes you’ve seen the first episode of the Doctor Who series starring Jodie Whittaker, and includes detailed plot and character information from the outset.

The 13th Doctor Who, played by Jodie Whittaker, falls into this story in the middle of the action, crash landing on a train where her new companions are trapped.

In case you’ve been hiding on Mars (or Gallifrey), her first appearance is given a pulse of the famous theme music for identification purposes – not that anyone in the massive earthbound audience will need much persuading that Whittaker is the Doctor.

She plays an absolute blinder throughout, ranging from quietly amusing moments such as asking to have a police car’s “lights and siren on”, through to smelting her own sonic screwdriver. There’s also some convincing stunt action on show – and a moving account of long-lost family thrown in for good measure.

But the classic BBC series’ new showrunner, Chris Chibnall (the writer of smash-hit drama series Broadchurch), is preoccupied with overturning expectations in “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”. The episode begins with 19-year-old warehouse worker Ryan (Tosin Cole) vlogging about the “greatest woman” he’s ever met – but just who is she? Before long, Ryan’s grandmother Grace (Sharon D Clarke), her second husband Graham (Bradley Walsh) and a former schoolmate of Ryan’s, police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), are united on a train that’s under attack near the city of Sheffield, England.

Ryan assumes that an unknown entity moving through the train carriages has killed someone. A classic Doctor Who set-up, you might think, only for the Doctor to counsel that, no, this death was more likely from shock – while linked to the alien incursion, it wasn’t intended or executed by a traditional monster. The expected storyline is quickly overturned.

Later, the Doctor comes up with an “Alien vs Predator”-style explanation of events, only to accept that unusually she too has got things wrong – this isn’t one alien against another, instead it’s a hunt for human trophies. And Chibnall wrong-foots viewers by depicting the character of Karl Wright, another passenger caught up in the train attack, as classic monster fodder – only to make him rather more “randomly” central to the narrative than standard conventions might dictate.

Shock of the new 
New can be scary”, the Doctor cautions her latest friends – while reflecting on the fact that – post-regeneration – she’s temporarily become “a stranger to myself”. And there’s a mission statement of sorts put front-and-centre, as she hails “Tim Shaw” – her name for the alien warrior chasing around Sheffield – with an inspirational account of transformative self-identity: “We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve, while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”

The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is preoccupied with gender – but probably not the one you were expecting. It is sometimes less about the Doctor’s newfound femininity (which gets some great one-liners) and more about wayward masculinity, represented by both Karl and “Tim Shaw”. The former is obsessed with inspirational quotes (“I am brave”, “I am confident”, “I am special”) while lacking many of these positive qualities, and the latter is an intergalactic cheat, insecure about his ability to become a leader.

There is, also, a stronger sense of male vulnerability in this tale than ever before: we have the story of Ryan’s dyspraxia to follow in coming episodes and it seems unlikely that Graham O'Brien’s cancer remission will be mentioned just this once (Graham is Ryan’s step-grandad as well as Grace’s partner, and is superbly played by Walsh).

Who are you? Grace, Yasmin, the Doctor, Ryan and Graham
Who are you? Grace, Yasmin, the Doctor, Ryan and Graham. (BBC Pictures)
Indeed, the decision to include these real-world problems – the energetic Grace having been Graham’s chemo nurse when they first met – strikes me as a genuinely brave move for a family entertainment show, and one to be applauded. This is a grounded, challenging view of Doctor Who – one which displays its humanity not via reassuring neoliberal tales of self-celebration, but instead through a (public service) sense of needing to “work through” difficulties.

However, given recent debates around “fridging – the trope where a female figure (often a girlfriend) has to be killed in order to motivate a male character’s angst-filled storyline – the demise of courageous Grace feels like a misstep. Her loss leaves a symbolic gap for the Doctor to fill, perhaps – as well as a reason for Ryan and Graham to become time travellers rather than wanting to return to Sheffield, 2018. But she’s the one character who instantly feels as if she should have been a “companion” to this Doctor.

Brave new Who-niverse 
The Woman Who Fell to Earth” is sharply directed by Jamie Childs (His Dark Materials) and benefits from some impressive incidental music from Segun Akinola (Dear Mr Shakespeare: Shakespeare Lives). Whittaker doesn’t put a foot wrong and – with a convincing group of new friends, a brilliant cliffhanger and a showrunner unafraid to incorporate mentions of cancer, chemo and dyspraxia – this looks to be a show in safe hands.

Male heroics will no doubt earn an ongoing place in the new “Who-niverse” – if Ryan and Graham can be shaped, inspired and remade by the transformational zest of Whittaker’s Doctor. In time, they will have an opportunity to properly learn the lessons of human rather than Time Lord regeneration, and how “we’re all capable of the most incredible change”.

This is a strong opening to a new phase in Doctor Who’s history: it is accessible, bravely grounded and inspiring in its own right. The Doctor is in.The Conversation

About Today's Contributor:
Matt Hills, Professor of Media and Film, University of Huddersfield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

3 July 2018

The Film, Mary Shelley, Shows Frankenstein Is Always A Story For Our Times


Elle Fanning as the author Mary Shelley
Elle Fanning as the author Mary Shelley. (IMDB)
The lives of young Romantic artists continue to fascinate filmmakers, from Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986) about Lord Byron, to Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) about John Keats. With the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein upon us, a new film focuses on its author, Mary Shelley.

Frankenstein was conceived by the 18-year old Mary Shelley while she was with her stepsister Claire Clairmont, the poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron’s physician John Polidori. The setting was grey, wet Geneva, in the so-called “year without a summer”, 1816, when the volcanic ash of a huge volcanic eruption in Indonesia blotted out the sun, wreaking havoc across the globe’s climate system. Crops failed, livestock died, famine was widespread, and the apocalypse appeared nigh — a perfect setting for a ghost story competition.

Unable to go boating or walking, and cooped up inside Byron’s chalet by the lake, Polidori drafted The Vampyre. But Mary Shelley (played by Elle Fanning in the film) won the competition with Frankenstein, her “hideous progeny” as she called it — the moving tale of the mad scientist Frankenstein and his abandoned, unnamed creature. While the poetry of Shelley and Byron is not much read today, Frankenstein is one of the world’s most popular and admired books.

Mary Shelley is the latest release by director Haifaa al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, best-known for her critically acclaimed Wadjda (2012). Al-Mansour directed Wadjda via walkie talkie from the back of a van in Riyadh because Saudi women are forbidden to mix publicly with men. Unsurprisingly, the film focuses on her country’s gender oppression: 10-year old Wadjda longs to own a bicycle so that she can race against her friend Abdullah but bikes are not for girls.

Mary Shelley transposes these themes of gender oppression to the business of writing and literary celebrity in the early-19th century. The film opens to the sounds of furious scribbling and incantatory snatches of lurid gothic prose, composed and jotted down by Mary, the 16-year old daughter of two revolutionaries, the political philosopher William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

With her mother dying soon after childbirth, the young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin is growing up in a straitened, loveless household run by a shrewish stepmother (Joanne Froggatt). An avid reader, especially of ghost stories, Mary longs to be a writer herself, the challenge being to find her own voice.

To assist her in this quest, the radical, young (but married) poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) arrives on the scene, drawn like a magnet to the child of two giants in his pantheon of free thinkers. After a brief courtship centred on Wollstonecraft’s grave and inspired by high-sounding poetry and the revolutionary ideals of sexual equality, free love and communal living, Mary elopes with Percy, taking Claire, her complicated and troublesome stepsister, along with her.

In its focus on abandonment and loneliness, and the ways in which free love and sexual liberation can go badly wrong for women, and even worse for their children, the film is fired by today’s #MeToo movement. Many of the painful, actual details of the writers’ lives are condensed, but the high cost of male libertinism is a message powerfully delivered by Al-Mansour. Percy’s abandoned first wife Harriet drowns herself, the narcissist Percy accuses Mary of hypocrisy when she refuses a sexual liaison with his friend Hogg, and Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) monsters the pregnant Claire (Bel Powley) by describing their affair as a “lapse in judgement”.

Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), and Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), and Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) (IMDB)
Although there are some good scenes on the fashionable science of galvanism, the film’s interest in the novel Frankenstein is marginal. Nevertheless it does something quite clever. It reads the miserable women as incarnations of Frankenstein’s cruelly abandoned creature.

One of the film’s most original moves is to bring the controversial Claire Clairmont centre stage, where she always wanted to be. Bolder than her stepsister, Claire tired of having to share Percy with Mary so she targeted her own poet, one richer and more famous than her stepsister’s. Graphic evidence of Claire’s pursuit of Byron, the rock star of his generation, has survived in her extraordinary letters to him, the first of which warns him that “the Creator ought not to destroy his Creature” in refusing her proposed tryst. She got her way and while Byron later acknowledged Claire’s child as his own, he suspected the “brat” was Percy’s.

Entangled sexually, Elle Fanning captures Mary Shelley’s quietly fierce but loyal nature. Although her idea of Heaven was “a world without a Claire”, she is always protective and compassionate towards her rival, an historical detail well conveyed by the film. Later in life, long after Shelley and Byron were dead, the now childless and still grieving Claire bitterly denounced both poets for their “free love” philosophy, a creed which made them “monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery”.

Frankenstein is a book which lives in its present moment. In 1824, it was mobilised in the British Parliament to oppose the abolition of slavery. The fear was that the suddenly freed slave would resemble Frankenstein’s creature, a man in physical strength and sexual passion, but an infant intellectually.

In our own times sympathy for the creature as victim often jostles with fear. Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2017), a novel set amid the violence of contemporary Iraq, features “Whatshisname”, a grotesque figure assembled from the body parts of suicide bombers and their victims. At first he seeks revenge for the dead that he embodies but he then turns to killing the innocent.

Last year also saw the publication by MIT of an edition of Frankenstein for scientists, carrying extensive footnotes concerning the creator’s duty of care towards his creation, be that a robot or an atom bomb.

Unfortunately, despite its powerful and innovative focus on the two injured women at the heart of this story, the film ends with a disappointingly conventional message. While Mary has found her authorial voice, she trails off into sentimentality when she reassures Percy (with a kiss) that, despite all the suffering entailed by his romantic idealism, she regrets nothing.

About Today's Contributor:
Deirdre Coleman, Robert Wallace Chair of English in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation

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