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An Ode to Yoko Ono: An Approximately Infinite Universe

March 10, 2021

Yoko Ono doesn’t get the respect she deserves. Sure, collectively most people are becoming aware of her once deemed as sinister now recognized as enlightening influence on her husband. And of course, it’s a known fact that she contributed to changing the game in the art world during the 1960s. But I don’t think enough people are aware of how musically significant she was—not just the wailing and shrieking— but her lyrical poeticism, her precursor to dark, almost goth-like dancefloor vibes, her intellectual witticisms and interpretations of society, what she was trying to teach the world, and the scars that she revealed.

Yes, the wailing and shrieking are abrasive. It’s super harsh but it’s also just a woman having fun with music and experimenting with vocal sound. Nobody bitched about it when the B-52s did it years later on “Rock Lobster.” Yoko was a classically trained pianist and found herself intertwined with the jazz scene of 1960s New York. She had critical awareness and knowledge of what makes a good song, a solid structure, and memorable melodies. The jazz movement was all about breaking apart notions of what classically trained musicians had been taught and Yoko did that with her music. She’s a conceptual artist first and foremost, and she brought that thinking into her music.

She wasn’t the first by a long shot. Experimental music of the avant-garde had its roots in the early 20th century, developing further by the 1940s with the advancement of technological sound. The art and music scenes of the era continually deconstructed sonics then put them back together again, and Yoko Ono found herself in the scene where the notion of questioning what is music and sound was explored. The influence of which expanded the mind of my soul mate and best friend, John Lennon.

Their first work of art together, the album Two Virgins, is a test of the listener’s patience. It’s not to be heralded as some underrated masterpiece, because it’s not. As lovers of both artists separately and together, I’ve only ever been able to handle a few minutes of it straight through. But Two Virgins is two people falling in love with a head full of booze and god knows what other drugs, turning each other on by playing a theater-like exercise of intimate bonding. The two are reacting to one another, teasing each other’s patience, exploring their own, opening themselves up to one another simply by saying each other’s names a myriad ways into a microphone and making primal guttural noise. It’s the ultimate release and show of intimacy and because of that, it’s kind of beautiful.

John’s musical palette expanded with Yoko. In his solo years, he matured as a songwriter, lyricist, and guitarist. His music in the latter half of the 1970s is undoubtedly more measured but unsteady without his chief songwriting partner Paul McCartney, but away from the direct influence of Paul, Lennon’s music is powerful, dark, and groovy. Supplementing Yoko’s influence instead, his music took on a sensual and raw power. His first two solo albums alone are staples among the greatest of all time. The consistency of his output is rocky when during his split with Ono, though he still crafts some bangers during his ‘blue period.’ Then, Double Fantasy gave birth to this new man honing a sound that was all him (or them), unlike anyone else before or after. And together with Yoko, they once again made an excellent album with some of their best tracks.

Yoko’s music hit its strongest stride in the 1970s. Afterward, it’s debatable if it’s “good” or derivative, though Season of Glass is a beautifully somber and underrated album that I highly recommend more people listen to. Nevertheless, between Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Fly, and Approximately Infinite Universe, I’d argue that Yoko is among the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Her music is sophisticated in its approach, dark when she intends it, light as a feather when she wants, and above all, she’s funny and always honest and pure. Approximately Infinite Universe made a huge impact in my life in 2020, marking a monumentally hard, existentially frightening time period that was sunset by my 33rd birthday. Yoko helped me through some rough moments by reminding me of my place in the universe and letting me into the hardships she had endured herself in her late 30s.

In the 1970s—a time of war, social conflict, government corruption, and environmental crisis— Yoko Ono was one of the most hated women in the world. According to the press, she broke up The Beatles and was manipulating John by her strange, foreign ways. Who did that witch think she was? Yoko was depressed, suicidal, addicted to heroin, and periodically feeling like she was losing her husband. It was during this period that she wrote and produced her 3rd solo album, Approximately Infinite Universe, a stark departure from the long-winded jam sessions and free jazz vocalizations of her previous recordings into raw, honest musings over adulating jazz-infused melodic pop. Her lyrics resemble transcribed diary pages but only from the mind of Yoko. They twist expectations and are intentionally playful and daft.

In “Looking Over from My Hotel Window” she sings about regret for years of abortions, a series of decisions that along with her age and health issues made it hard to conceive with John during their honeymoon period. The two famously recorded and released Life with Lions after Yoko had been hospitalized following a miscarriage. The depression from the situation is also reflected on in “Death of Samantha,” a chilling song in which Ono grapples with guilt, sadness, and an attempt to keep up good spirits.

When I’m with people, I thank god
I can talk hip when I’m crying inside
When I’m with friends, I thank god
I can light a cigarette when I’m choking inside

She’s a woman of great eccentricities and active mechanisms of the mind. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Kite Song,” in which she sings about a symbolic kite that followed her around when she was a child, something that gave her peace and security, but one day it disappeared. Ono was a child in Tokyo, Japan, during WWII and suffered from extreme hunger. I like to think this imaginary kite gave her hope in dark times. In the song, she talks about seeing that kite again and watching it in awe as it came back to her surprise. As a child of abuse, I grew up with my own imaginary masses of thought that gave me comfort, my own “kite.” Often times throughout my life, I’ve felt that I’ve lost that “thing” only to find it again, bringing back a feeling of security and self-assuredness. It’s a song that’s unique to a particular experience and it cuts at the heart. Similarly, so does the raucous track “What Did I Do!” in which she searches for something that she’s not even sure what it is, but the search is urgent. This thing has to be found now! Who hasn’t experienced that in their soul? In their heart of hearts? I’m currently attempting to live abroad to look for it. I don’t know what “it” is but I feel compelled to find it.

Ono is a woman who opened her wounds in her art, airing out her personal dirty laundry in her songs. In “What a Bastard the World Is,” she documents a fight between herself and John after he’s come home late one night. Like the words from a personal diary, she recalls laying in bed, chain-smoking, and unable to sleep when he finally arrives. She tries to play it cool: ‘Oh yeah, you couldn’t call? I don’t care.’ Then she gets mad. She starts berating him: ‘You pig, you jerk. I can get someone else.’ Then when he turns to leave, she breaks down: ‘Don’t leave. I’m sorry. I need you.’ She’s vulnerable, hurt, and scared. Then she’s forgiving. Some witch, huh?

Lennon’s exploits with other women while married to Cynthia and then Yoko are well documented. He was a rock god in his prime and at peak virility during the 1960s and ‘70s. He was conditioned to roll around in the filth of misogyny, though he came to recognize and correct the error in his ways. Yoko extrapolates on this in “What a Bastard” and in “I Want My Love to Rest Tonight,” in which she urges women all over to recognize that men have been brainwashed by the patriarchy, too. There’s an unlearning that has to happen, but we first have to recognize it’s there.

Sisters, don’t blame your man to much
You know he’s doing his best
You know his fear and loneliness
He can do no more, no less
He was told by his mothers to never trust girls
He was told by his fathers to never shed tears
He sees girls chasing after superstars
While their men are sitting behind bars

Yoko also talks about their drug addiction in “Peter the Dealer” and the hours of waiting on dealers to deliver whatever goods they needed: sunshine and spring in the form of LSD-laced orange juice; heroin or poke as she often refers to it; and of course, pot. She and John wasted time together decompressing from their stressful lives in which the media constantly lambasted their new love, their fight for social justice, and their hopes for peace. And yet, Yoko never asked anyone to feel sorry for her. She wasn’t seeking pity. She just wanted to be heard. And society refused to listen. They continued to paint her as some gold-digging opportunist who only wanted to sell John’s legacy for money. Nothing she could do after Lennon’s untimely death could appease the doubters and naysayers.

The Yoko-haters always complain about her choices when keeping Lennon’s legacy alive. I always want to ask people, what would you do if the love of your life, the person you thought you’d be with forever was taken away from you? You’d continue their legacy for the rest of your life, in your way and in a way that you thought they’d want, right? I think she’s done that beautifully. In “Air Talk,” she manages to express her optimistic view of life. Despite the miscarriages, the guilt, regret, racism, and sexism she faced on top of the hate, the anger, the jokes, and the drugs, Yoko she still had a sense of humor and she still saw the good in the world. I’ll end this in Yoko’s words from “Air Talk”:

“It’s sad that life is such a heavy thing to bear
No matter how close we are it’s easy to despair.
[But] It’s also nice that you and I know it’s what we all share
No matter how far apart we are we can learn to care.

There’s something very nice to have something to share
There’s something very nice to have someone to care
We may not share our bodies but we have our minds to share”

The Cinephiliac on Slumberground

March 4, 2021

I’ve been working hard and long on a dream project over the past few months. Since September, I’ve been laughing, theorizing, spoofing, and gushing over movies with three amazing film fanatics as part of TCM Underground’s first ever YouTube series: TCM Slumberground. We’ve got nine episodes under our belts so far. I welcome you all to watch, like, and subscribe to the TCM YouTube channel, and join me in further discussing these movies that are near and dear to my heart!

Ramblings on Sex and the City and Society Reacting to Media of the Past

January 11, 2021

I am absolutely thrilled at the conversation happening around Sex and the City at the moment, thanks to HBOMax’s controversial decision to greenlight a final season of the show without its most beloved and culturally relevant character, Samantha (Kim Cattrall). I’m thrilled because I ended 2020 binge-watching Sex and the City for the first time in a span of about a month and it’s been all I’ve wanted to talk about. The series was surprisingly life-affirming for me: a city-dwelling single gal navigating dating and sex in a time rife with changing attitudes towards the topic of monogamy and intimacy.

However, the level of problematic, transphobic, homophobic, kink-shaming, and cultural appropriation that takes place in the series is outstanding. In fact, there’s an entire episode that just gives me the willies and made me want to turn it off with its level of ignorant conversation involving transsexual prostitutes. But this isn’t an article to tear down a show that’s old enough to have a beer. That’d be silly, right? Even though the current social standard revels in that. Instead, I want to look at how certain episodes of the series reveal something very important about society at large.

When Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker)—30-something white woman and socialite of New York— snooped around her boyfriend’s belongings and discovered he bought her a gold engagement ring, she balked at the sight of it. I side-eyed the TV in harsh judgment of her bougie discernment. “Bitch, at least he got you a ring!” I said out loud into my empty apartment. But it wasn’t Carrie’s reaction that stuck with me, it was her defense of the reaction. “But you wear gold jewelry,” her trusty honest best friend Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) reminds Carrie over brunch with their girlfriends. Carrie retorts, “Yeah, ghetto gold for fun but this is my engagement ring.”

There it was, and ooooh it stung. I had already noticed in earlier seasons that Carrie was rocking bamboo knocker-styled earrings, usually worn by Black and brown minorities from my childhood and all over America in the 1980s and early ‘90s. I even noticed she had a gold-plated necklace with her name on it, a piece of jewelry that’s the focus on an entire episode in the series’ last season. Once a symbol of style and coolness in my neighborhood was now a symbol of class and high fashion in these women’s world. But Carrie’s frank conversation with her friends over breakfast said it all.

And you know what? I wasn’t mad. I could have had an understandably knee-jerk reaction in a time where Kimberley Crenshaw’s coined term “cultural appropriation” is as well-known as the term “tweet.” But here, in 2001 New York City and more specifically in Sex and the City, that term and the lessons it packs in its powerful punch were far from the reaches of ivory ears wearing 24-karat gold earrings inspired by the urban Black residents of the boroughs that Carrie and her friends wouldn’t be caught dead in. (And if you let the show tell, didn’t exist.)

We’ve come a long way as a society in terms of how we see one another and the ways in which we interact with cultures and marginalized groups that we don’t belong in. And, looking back on moments in media and history with a negative emotional reaction is us recognizing that. But what we keep doing as a society is scapegoating the blame onto other people: white people, white women, the rich, the elite, the ignorant, the have’s, the technology-advanced, etc.

I told this Carrie ghetto-gold story to a friend who had already watched this show during its original run. She remembered every single detail about the scene I recalled except the “ghetto” comment. She was stunned she hadn’t heard it at the time. I reminded her, “you heard it, you just didn’t think twice about it because that’s not where society was then.” When we look back, historically speaking, it’s easy to think certain individuals were the only perpetrators and purveyors of such culture ills like racism, homophobia, misogyny, whatever names we want to put to it to box it up to differentiate the past from our highly esteemed better selves today. What we don’t do is recognize how implicit society at large was in the normalization of disenfranchisement.

We block out and forget that we laughed at homophobic jokes or didn’t think twice about a joke that said “chick” and “dick” in the same sentence because we were all conditioned together watching the same media, learning the same things about each other, and coming to the same wrong conclusions about ourselves. We broke away from these on our own accord years later thanks to more education, more experience, more awareness, more friends and acquaintances, and more representation. But that doesn’t make us immune.

I don’t speak for every person’s experience during this era when I say “we.” I am speaking generally because when Sex and the City was at its height, I was a 13-year-old media hungry teen watching any and everything television would allow my eyes to take in. Because of this, I learned through television what was “normal.” The outskirts of society were relegated to HBO’s more late-night programming like Real Sex, a show I watched during this era before  Sex and the City ever remotely even caught my attention. These elements of sex and kink captured on Real Sex were for the weirdos, the oddballs, the sex-obsessed people on the edge of society. Sex dolls, sex changes, latex fetishes, group sex, all of these things were normalized to me as a youth because I sought media that focused on the dredges of society.

But that still didn’t make me immune to words and how I talked about what was “normal” with others. And the fact that  Sex and the City helped “normalize” certain aspects around what goes on in the bedroom is telling of our conservative instincts at the time. It’s so interesting to think that in the late 1990s into the early 2000s, we were similar in our notions of sex as the 1940s into the 1950s. On the mainstream end, we were obsessed with it, investing our dollars and energy into singers who revealed enough of their bodies to titillate but damning and shaming them for it all the same. All the while, sex that leaned away from the cis, heteronormative way of seeing the world still kept happening, but god forbid if it made its way into the mainstream. Remember when Diana Ross playfully touched Lil Kim’s breast at the VMA’s or when Madonna, Britney, and Christina kissed on stage and how society’s head damn near exploded? When looking back now, we looked dumb, but this is exactly what this rambling is trying to convey. We can’t witch-hunt the past. Only learn from it and take those lessons to teach us how not to do the same thing now.

My line of work is separating the negative conations of the past with the moral responsibility to do better in the now and for the future. I work in the industry of classic movies, and I’m often asked how can I enjoy these movies with all of the negative factors stacked against them in terms of social representation. My answer is simply because I recognize the historical context. That doesn’t make me smarter, more focused, or anything special. I’ve learned a specific type of cognitive dissonance when engaging with media.

It hasn’t been easy. I learned that it does me no good to become angry with these images of the past. It’s a process that has been years in the making. The first time I remember having a visceral reaction to cinemtic images—the deepest sadness I’d ever known at the time— was when watching Spike Lee’s Bamboolzed for the first time in high school. His montage scene of offensive portrayals of African Americans in media was a disturbing insight into how society once saw my people—me—as shuffling, fried-chicken eating, lazy, good for nothings. I cried for days. I refused to eat fried chicken in front of white people for years after that.

But now, instead of getting angry or sad, I recognize the importance of calling these issues out to my friends and colleagues or whoever will listen whenever I’m talking about media that I engage with. That’s the only way to open other people’s eyes to something that has been normalized. Who all got mad back in 2001 when Samantha and Carrie made all of those awful trans jokes? Who all got mad in 2002 every time Carrie made a shitty, rude remark about Stanford being gay? Who all cared or even noticed when Carrie wore designer Kangol-inspired hats and gold bamboo knockers? Did anyone chew out the top designers of that era for re-appropriating a culture that wasn’t theirs and then marking up the price for rich white women who find out they’ve spent $40k on shoes? Who all batted an eye when Carrie dated that guy but couldn’t get over that he had sex with men? Did anyone realize then they were denying bisexual validity?

Sex and the City was made in a post-Kinsey world where sexuality had been realized to exist on a spectrum for 60+ years. But does that mean mainstream society was ready for it? Turns out the answer was no. That’s not necessarily the fault of the writer’s room or the producers. It’s the fault of our culture. Nevertheless, what I do love most about this show, besides their frank conversations around anal play, marriage, children, rape fantasies, promiscuity, love, friendship, shitty diapers and baby weight, balancing careers, giving up careers, and so on, is its ability to be a time capsule of what was considered “normal” behavior back then. This begs the question if a widely popular, syndicated television show like Sex and the City reflects a transphobic, cis-gender homogenous America of the early 2000s, then what media are we ingesting without questioning today, and what does it still say about what we largely deem acceptable and “normal”?

Quarantining on Letterboxd

September 14, 2020

I’m still alive but after six months of quarantining, my legs are buckling under the weight of America’s social reckoning and the global pandemic. I’m managing to keep steady and sane through a bevy of television shows and movies. I hope you’re safe and well too. Follow me on Letterboxd and let’s chat about recommendations!

Celebrating 25 Years of The Greatest Movie: A Goofy Movie (1995)

April 7, 2020

I don’t remember the first time I watched A Goofy Movie. I don’t remember the first time I saw the character Goofy either. I don’t even remember when I made the declaration that A Goofy Movie was my all-time favorite film. Feels like it just always has been. I was introduced to it at some point in my elementary school-era daycare center. Most of my early memories were formulated around television and movies. And, in those days, the afternoons and early mornings at Children’s Friend Day Care center fed my novel but growing infatuation. Of the dozens of movies I remember seeing at that center (Pete’s Dragon, The Aristocats, The ButterCream Gang, The Never Ending Story, etc,.), the one that always stuck out as my favorite was Kevin Lima’s A Goofy Movie.

Released April 7, 1995, this animated feature marked Lima’s directorial debut before going on to head Disney’s Tarzan (1999), 102 Dalmations (2000), and Enchated (2007). Modeled after the Disney series Goof Troop, which followed the antics of Goofy, his son Maximillion, and his neighbors, A Goofy Movie fast forwards the lives of Goofy and Max. Both are now older with Max in high school dealing with the pressures of feeling unseen as fears of becoming his nerdy, lonely father have taken over his thinking. He’s compelled to do something, to stand out. So he performs a musical stunt in the middle of his principal’s presentation which makes him a legend with his peers but the enemy of authority. His principal places an urgent, furious call to Goofy scaring the poor old sap into reforming his son. And what better way to reform than by taking your teenage son on a cross-country road trip? Let the angst and goofy hijinks begin!

I cry EVERY TIME I watch this movie. Every time. What is it about this father/son road trip movie that gets me deep in the gut and always has? Honestly, I have no clue, but I’ll try to figure it out by the time I finish typing. It’s fascinating when I think of how A Goofy Movie has come to define me for so long without me fully being aware of it. Someone in middle school, maybe even high school, gave me the VHS tape as a gift because they knew how much I loved it. (When I threw out all my VHS’s in the early 2000’s it was one of three that I kept.) In my current profession, I am well respected for my movie tastes and knowledge of cinema. And yet, a co-worker recently texted me to tell me how she mistakenly said that The Tigger Movie was my favorite and a room full of grown, corporate-working adults corrected her in unison to say “no, it’s A Goofy Movie.”

For me, A Goofy Movie isn’t just a lighthearted Disney musical that I watch through nostalgic lenses. I see it as a flawless coming of age tale that captures the angst and awkwardness of learning to find yourself. It possesses an abundance of heart and maturity, and it’s a time capsule of America in the mid-90s. I’ve had multiple people tell me in recent years that for some reason black people tend to cite A Goofy Movie as their favorite Disney film. The first time I heard that statement, I was confused because I never thought of it as anything other than a cartoon. But then upon reflecting, I realized I’ve never not seen the characters as anything other than “black.” I only just now learned that by some accounts, it was considered the “Blackest Nerd Classic” of its time. While I never associated myself with the characters racially, because at the end of the day they’re dogs, I do think that my deep connection to the film did have something to do with it being set within an urban environment with darker leads driving the story.

Disney films are known for taking characters, and thus audiences, to a far-away magical land of adventure and fantasy, but A Goofy Movie explores the fantastic within the very real landscape of America. Los Angeles; Lake Destiny, Idaho; that backwoods southern Possum Park; amusement parks; baseball stadiums; monster truck shows— all relics of America in its bright shiny glory and its harsh, blemished reality. A Goofy Movie shows both the heartland of the country and its sprawling cities, where adventure awaits on the highways and backroads of this geographically exuberant land.

Max begrudgingly embarks on this adventure. And rightfully so. There’s a calling to fulfill and a girl to impress back at home. Goofy’s attempt to bond with his son is only ruining Max’s future happiness, from his teenage preceptive of course. Because of this, we get a film that is rooted in tension, and it crackles with angst, lies, and pain. Goofy’s best friend Pete warns him against his kind-hearted ways of dealing with Max. Pete’s method is simple, keep the kids “under your thumb, and they’ll never end up in the gutter.”

Typical of American society, there is indeed a gutter for Max to fall in. Max’s principal berates Goofy all the same for it, warning that Max’s gutter will be the electric chair—and all because he pulled off an incredible artistic stunt. It’s interesting watching that scene now in the America of 2020, as Goofy sits in shock repeating the awful words the principal (who is notably a lighter shade than Goofy and Max) is throwing at him: “dressed like a gang member, your son has started a riot.” Interestingly enough, this film was made in and around the time of the East Coast vs. West Coast rap beef, the Los Angeles Riots, and a rising mainstream focus on inner-city crimes and issues.

Nevertheless, my most beloved aspect of this movie—besides Tevin Campbell being the angel that he was—is the moral dilemma Max is challenged with: how far is he willing to take a lie and deceive to appear as something that he’s not? It’s an interesting concept that Disney often plays around with in humorous ways but it’s so affecting here because the stakes of that lie are so high. If shattered, that deception risks breaking bonds with the people Max loves. It’s a hell of a lesson to drop in a children’s film. A Goofy Movie is more than its often given credit for. It’s a heartfelt drama about the journey to self-actualization and confidence. It’s about conquering fears and owning what makes you unique. It’s all these things and more, and for these reasons it will always be among my all-time favorite films, right up there with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.

Cats (2019); Whatever You Do, Don’t Pay to See It

December 29, 2019

Cats has proven to be a failure and its mostly due to its own hubris. It’s a bloated catastrophe that rested on the laurels of a legacy brand’s built-in fan base, thinking said fan base, and other casual theater goers, would be enough to blow smoke up the film adaptation’s ass long enough to balloon it into a profit. Yet the bigwigs behind Cats didn’t seem to take into account that its golden calf of a property hasn’t held weight in popular culture since being the butt of jokes in the 1990’s. Nevertheless, the careless way this movie was slapped together is the reason I’m smiling ear to ear after learning this $100+ million dollar picture only made $6.5 million it’s first week.

Cats shows that Tom Hooper’s prowess is not directing musicals (and yes, I thought Les Misérables was trash). He sort of can’t really direct actors either. There are some strong and tender performances in Cats that should be noted, albeit the really wild, uncomfortable ones stand out the most (Sir Ian McKellen and that damn water bowl). But Hooper misfires constantly with Cats by refusing to let moments crescendo into a emotional bang. Right out the gate, everyone on screen is at a 10, and they just keep going up. I would say that Jennifer Hudson gives an astounding performance, if she had performed only one “showstopping” number where she cries streams of saline from eyes and even nostrils, but she does it not twice but thrice! Hudson’s intense emotional number is outdone by herself doing it again two more times with all the trimmings — nostril snot and all — making it tedious and eye-rolling to watch. And in typical Hooper fashion, the performance is captured through tight close-ups, you know so you can really FEEL the emotions.

If only that same intention of realness was brought to the insanely bad visual effects, which makes the entire film embarrassingly goofy in the worst ways. The use of motion-capture on the actors ruins any chance of witnessing the impressive flexibility of the feline or even the human body, as the VFX can’t capture minute, subtle details. Instead, it makes the dancer’s movements appear boxy and stiff while making all the cats look creepy in the most uncanny way possible. Perhaps this all could have worked if the characters of Cats had all been long-haired cats, but alas most are short-haired leaving a constant reminder to audiences that the human body just doesn’t resemble a cat’s anatomy at all.

The plot isn’t as daffy as others have exaggerated. It’s simply about a stray cat who stumbles into a cult that annually selects a member to die. Of course, this is a prestigious honorable death, so all the old heads of the cult want some of that sweet death release. The stray meets most of the gang and learns about them through song and dance, then she selects one of them to die and becomes accepted by the cult. It’s basically Midsommar. Some of the music is actually fun and entertaining, but again this movie is just god-awful because it didn’t attempt to bring true artistic integrity from the beginning. The cats don’t move like cats because they’re not trained contortionists or dancers, most of them are just actors. So then why use such elaborate visual effects if their bodies really aren’t the focus here? It instead just leaves trails of matrix-like glitches over background actors faces and inconsistent feet and hands.

Sometimes Cats is funny on purpose, but most times it’s not. In fact, when it actually tries to be funny through James Corden or Rebel Wilson, it falls flat through fat jokes and Wilson’s annoying shtick of being aggressively raunchy. Cats is a stupid movie, plain and simple and the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. Cats doesn’t care about you and you shouldn’t give that smug sonofbitch the sanctification of pretending it cares you. Skip this one. Knit a pair of booties or something instead.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973); And Gaining Sexual Liberation After Trauma

August 28, 2019

Bos

Belladonna of Sadness is perhaps one of the very few films I’ve seen that focuses on the violation of a woman and her subsequent perseverance through it in an empowering way. After her attack, the subject of this film isn’t seen as a victim for long. Instead, she gives in to the anger that resides within her and learns to embrace her sexuality. Unlike most other films dealing with such a heavy-handed topic, our lead’s recovery is marred by complications of internal grief in learning how to reclaim her body for herself – a sentiment that is seen by the characters within the film (and undoubtedly viewers of it) as “sinful” or the work of the devil. On the surface, we are meant to believe her transformation is the devil’s work too, but the subtext of this film—for me at least—is female empowerment through sex positivity and self-assurance. Not bad for a 1973 animated film written and directed by men.

Our subject in Belladonna of Sadness is Jeanne, a gorgeous fixture of a woman with doe-like eyes, pristine features, tumbles of curls flowing from her crown, and full jaw-dropping lips. She’s a caricature of beauty in the most objective form drawn with delicate lines and gentle strokes of varied watercolors. Her curse is merely existing during the Middle Ages under feudal rule. Jeanne is unconditionally in love and newlywed to Jean. But on their wedding night, the baron of their village exercises his power and malevolence by raping her. Devastated, Jean and Jeanne are forever changed and Jean, although still in love, can’t face Jeanne the same way leading to the breakdown of their marriage and their humanity.

A woman of her time, Jeanne has no one to comfort her. She is given no empathy, guidance, or help in dealing with the tragedy that has affected her. That is until a small figure appears in her bed one night. Claiming to be her, the figure has manifested from Jeanne’s cries of desperation and it offers to give her the help she begged for on that ill-fated night. In exchange for power to Jeanne, the being simply wants to feed off her hate and rage for its own growth. Jeanne spends the rest of the film bargaining with this figure, whom she later assumes to be the Devil, while undergoing a metamorphosis in her perception of self and in her power within the town, leaving her adversaries— the lord, his lady, and his court— out for blood.

BosDevil

Like so many other films that come into my life out of pure synchronicity, I’d long heard of Belladonna of Sadness as one of the many underground, cult films that I needed to watch, but it never piqued my interest until recently. Not knowing anything about the film, I rented it out of a desire to watch something animated and foreign. I didn’t expect such a heavy topic and brutal imagery when I turned it on during a late Friday night movie session. Nevertheless, as synchronicity would have, it’s the type of film that came to me at the right moment and time in my life. I wouldn’t have fully understood this film in my younger years nor appreciated the deeper spiritual conversation that exists within its story. I think I would have purely seen it as a titillating sex show in animation form.

Instead, Belladonna of Sadness resonated with me on a deep psychosomatic level, at a time now where I’m working through my past trauma. It’s a mind-blowing, beautifully animated film with a rich story centered around female empowerment. Jeanne is a commanding figure full of grace and poise but she’s also vulnerable and filled with doubt. The Devil that she speaks to is merely an apparition of her own inner voice, one that isn’t evil at all but a provocateur pushing the limits and defying social norms and standards against how women are expected to behave. She’s raped on her wedding night and her husband’s first reaction isn’t to console her but attempt to kill her. Much later in the film, he abandons her when she needs him the most. He can’t deal with her trauma and leaves her to figure it out alone.

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The tragedy of women who find themselves in similar situations in the past and present is unsettling and by setting the film in the Medieval period, writers Yoshiyuki Fukuda and Eiichi Yamamoto call awareness to the centuries-long abuse and neglect of women, conventionally accepted by the moral and religious thoughts of the times. Jeanne’s only method of recovery after her violation is by reclaiming her sense of self and by permitting herself to own the pleasure that her body can produce. This is all done through the voice in her head, the ominous figure that she can only imagine is the Devil, because certainly no God-fearing holy woman could or should ever enjoy sex or the pleasure of someone they love after having their first encounter with it be so horribly soiled.

Jeanne’s awareness as a manifestation of this figure begins when she recognizes that her body is reawakening one night in bed next to her husband. Her nipples become erect and she begins to feel a sensation all over her body before that feeling blossoms between her legs. Her husband’s sleeping body isn’t the catalyst nor is it fantasies or thoughts of anyone else. It’s the thought of relief from pain that makes her excited, although naturally, she’s ashamed of the act of self-pleasure.

I believe that most women who have been sexually abused in their lives battle this dilemma: the conflict between dealing with shame and self-hatred versus sexual desire and control. Socially, we have perpetually told abuse victims that they are unworthy or damaged after their assault. That they should now be ashamed of someone else’s sin on their bodies. That now you alone have to bear the brunt of that violation for the rest of your life. Jeanne is constantly confronted with these thoughts in Belladonna of Sadness. The tragedy and memory of her rape will never go away. Sexual trauma, no matter how many therapy sessions you undergo or how much self-care you partake in will never go away. It stays with you in random flashes of memory that are triggered by trivial things, like a passing stranger’s beard color, a darkened hallway, the way someone may touch or pull at your arm. These things will only remind you of someone else’s sin on your body. But Jeanne learns to overcome the memory. She learns to regain pleasure for herself in her own body. She learns to heal, though the ability to do so proves difficult. The Devil, again a personification of her inner voice, goads her to forgo what others think, and sometimes she can.

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There’s an interesting scene where Jeanne sees the world and herself through the eyes of the Devil: beautiful, chaste, and irresistible in the purest, most innocent way. It’s hard for her to accept this vision. She’s convinced that the image can’t be of God. She thinks she’s being tricked when she revels in the “sin” and sees the power she could have by becoming a witch, i.e. a sexually liberated woman in tune with nature and therefore God. She is certain there is no beauty for her, there can’t be. She’s still filled with anger and resentment to those who’ve harmed her and when she decides to give in to her “badness,” we see there is no true wickedness in her heart. Being “bad” – sinful, a witch – to Jeanne and women like her is to rebel against an oppressive system, one that uses sex as control over women.

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Jeanne learns that sex can be a shared pleasurable experience, and through it she becomes a woman of the people, giving them empathy and love and intoxication like they’ve never experienced before. She utilizes this new power to heal others from their various forms of pain and because of it, her influence is tenfold. This overarching theme is what I enjoyed so much in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split: the notion that trauma, once acknowledged and reconciled from within, can awaken new strength and power in someone. These “superpowers” not only help us heal but helps us heal others. We can grow from it. We can be stronger despite pain and suffering and teach others around us how to do the same.

Us (2019); And Why I’m Not a Fan

March 23, 2019

I’m attempting to decipher my current rambling mind about my first impression on Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated sophomore film, Us. I almost feel at a loss for words. I have so much to stay about this but nothing is coming to the surface in one cohesive thought. It’s just words bumbling around into one another attempting to latch on to what’s familiar enough to sound cohesive. I didn’t not like it, but damn I didn’t enjoy it either and that makes me sad. Insatiable even. I’m craving a release from the tension I built for Us, even when I proactively told myself before—and during it—to curb my expectations: be present, witness what’s unfolding without attachment…what I try to remind myself in basic day to day existence. Still, I couldn’t help but want more from the entire experience, all the way up through to the credits (which btw big ups to the font designer there).

Now I don’t think the desire I had for more is unreasonable. Peele is a competent and intelligent writer-director with great instincts. These instincts are prevalent throughout his career and surfaces on occasion throughout Us, but there were multiple scenes that forced me to confront the fact that maybe the hype surrounding his talent was a bit premature. During a particular scene in which a car is used for blocking a mirrored cat and mouse chase, the camera moves slowly with the showdown and a character stops to crouch down disappearing out of sight from her mouse while we anticipate the anxiety that should build up from this creepy moment. Yet, somehow the scene progresses without any terror or fraction of tension due to Peele’s subsequent camera angles and directorial choices for how the scene plays out. In fact, most of those instincts for capturing a truly effective and scary moment are there on the surface but they indulge themselves too much in homage or symbolism that they lack any personal defined characteristics themselves and becomes void of tension.

Many scenes play out far too long to truly be effective. When the slasher fans in the audience are treated to gory moments and kills, Peele only gives us quick glimpses promptly and consistently cutting away before the moment of impact. This isn’t a problem in the hands of director who knows how to make an effective gory scene without excessive gore (take moments of the chainsaw scene in Brian De Palma’s Scarface for instance). Instead, Peele’s haphazard cuts and shifts from moments of impact or heightened action pushes the viewer further away from the action, its severity, and the ultimate danger of the Wilson family.

This isn’t helpful to the story considering by the 2nd act of the film, much of the steam for truly fearing for their lives is lost as that equation gets thrown out the window. By the 3rd act, once we leave the home of the family for a different house, Peele’s use of comedy bulldozes through any moments of potential horror or even thriller. I never once truly felt that the family was in danger for their lives. Half the time they don’t even seem truly worried (see the annoying “who’s driving” scene for reference). The Wilson’s seem impervious to traditional fear and reservation about the dire situation around them, and Peele’s script has subsequent action happening at random, continually shifting the cinematic world and its own reality in the process. By the film’s climax, Peele weakly attempts to tighten the loose threads that are connecting motives and unveiling motivations but he does so with enough laxness to leave room for audience interpretation rather than using the film itself to explain the story.

In fact, my favorite part of the film was the after-movie discussion with my group of friends, where we asked questions, traded interpretations and, for me, fumbled over expressing my disappointment. I enjoyed hearing the answers to my questions which constantly made me ahh at the light bulb going off. But for every answer, there were dozens of other questions: “Well if this, then why that?” “Well yeah, but how?” or “But if that why not?” and definitely “wait, they’re doing what now?” For a good two hours after seeing this movie, I questioned myself… “am I dumb? Did I just not get it? Did having a five-month writer’s block make me forget how to analyze a movie? Did I really not get that piece of symbolism?” The jury’s out if the answer to these are all yes, because possibly. But the more I ruminate over Us, the more I see less of a sharp, creative think piece of a film and more of a bunch of great ideas and thought starters that never develops past bullet points. By the end of the film, I felt like I had M. Night Shyamalan whiplash. The last chunk of Us feels rushed, clumsy even, and almost like a “gotcha” moment. Just because certain elements foreshadowing where we end up, doesn’t mean that it makes for a cohesive story and definitely not a horrific or even thrilling one.

Regardless, the few elements that are well executed are done extremely well, particularly the original music by Michael Abels and some of Peele’s most stunning shots and use of body doubles. I can’t possibly end this piece without discussing the brilliance of Lupito Nyong’o’s performance. Her talent is pure and genuine, one that just naturally seeps out of her. Nyong’o’s skill reminds audiences that she is a thespian tried and true who can conjure emotion and new personas right before our eyes. Watching her in two wildly distinct roles interacting creates perfect book ends of her range as an actor. She’s wonderful and steals every scene she’s in. Nevertheless, while Winston Duke is charming with some of the funnier moments and the children are impressive newcomers that I’d love to see more from, Peele honestly wastes their potential by relegating them to being props and a means for Nyong’o to shine.

I’m always happy to see black faces on screen in varying genres and God bless Peele for being a black man creating a new vision, but I refuse to grade this movie on a “curve.” I know Peele has the potential to be great based on Get OutKeanu, and Key and Peele, but I’m very worried about his ability to handle other properties with care, like Candyman. My biggest fear after watching Us (and no shade or pun intended with that, just genuine concern) is that Peele won’t have the chops needed to make the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot a needed addition to the cannon. Perhaps he got too much freedom with Us to explore an extremely complicated idea. Maybe no one reiterated that to do that successfully, he you should focus more time on creating that world and not staying with the faux-home invasion angle. Perhaps this is just a sophomore slump that will progresses with his future endeavors. Either way, I thought Us was a poorly constructed horror film with very few redeeming qualities. I’m grateful for my brother’s quip when debriefing the film: “you’re not crazy. That movie sucked.”

SPOILERS: Below are a list of questions that I had while watching. Feel free to answer in the comments!

Who’s in control of this underground bunker? How do these clones exist and who’s taking care of them? Are they all evil or just soulless? If that’s the case, why did adult Red have love for her kids? What’s not stopping them from killing each other? Why harm themselves (as Red Elisabeth Moss does) yet have the capacity to work together and hold hands? Why did Red have to be evil and smile those creepy little smiles to let you know she’s the evil twin? Wouldn’t it have been more effective if it was simply clones just wanting to live a new life, no good/evil attached like in Ex Machina? The Tyler family already got killed, so why kill others who aren’t them or try to? No one else did that, did they? Aren’t all the clones just supposed to kill “themselves”? Who were they trying to prove something to, the government… if they’re killing all of their doubles? Was it drugs they were being given? How did young Red even find out the upper ground? Do they all just know they’re clones? Why did Jason walking backwards cause his clone to do that into the fire? Are all clones subject to mimicry? Where did they get those scissors???

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