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Race, Gender, and Cinematic History: Ramblings on Aida Overton Walker and Clara Bow

November 15, 2017

I don’t intend for this essay to degrade all men or shame them. That’s not my job nor do I care to do so. Anyway, I think our current climate is doing fine taking care of that. This is just a means to further extrapolate on the struggles that women, Black and non-Black, endure strictly because of our genetic makeup. Beyond that however, this is just an excuse to write about two amazing women that I feel aren’t heavily touted in history the way they deserve. I’ll start with an anecdote:

Over the weekend I went to a bar and began making small talk with a male stranger. Somehow, per usual with my conversations, the small talk turned into a deep political conversation teeming with complicated topics like race, crime rate, confirmation bias, and the current deluge of sexual assault allegations coming out of Hollywood and within the political sphere. In response to this part of the discussion in which myself and another woman sitting with him explained just how common aggressive sexual advances can be, the man responded to our explanation by saying that he knew of men that were raped and sexually assaulted too. “So women,” he said with his hands up in earnest sincerity, “I get it.”

While his assessment that sexual assault knows no discrimination is correct, what this guy could not comprehend in his drunken arrogance and privileged views on the world was one simple truth: no, you don’t get it and you never will unless you’ve personally endured it. The recent window of allegations that has opened may give us all a deeper look into the imbalance of power in the world—despite women comprising of half the global population—but it certainly doesn’t allow any of us to truly understand what women who come forward to reveal abuse, and those who don’t, are grappling with. I think it’s important that we all remember to not confuse sympathy with empathy because to do so is a fallacy that makes us believe we are able to handle the weight of someone else’s tragedies.

Our individual struggles are too nuanced and loaded to be written off as a simple “I’ve never encountered your pain, but I get it.” Similarly, women will never understand the weight of sexual assault endured by a man; nor will white people understand being Black and navigating through America; nor will able-bodied citizens grasp what it’s like to be a lifelong disabled body citizen. Even financial destitution can never be truly understood by someone who hasn’t endured it. Hypothetical mental gymnastics don’t solve these issues. However, I believe it is our duty as human beings to validate one another’s experiences and commit to making this difficult existence we are all born into easier for each other. If for nothing else but for the simple fact that we have all consciously agreed to take part in a society that places you at a disadvantage based on non-controllable forces and occurrences.

This realization seized me the next night after that bar talk when I fell into a rabbit hole of history. These days an internet spiral is more of a chore than a pleasure, but the other night I possessed a laser like focus when revisiting the lives of two women in the early 20th century: Aida Overton Walker and Clara Both. Both are idols of mine that have appeared in my life years ago through synchronicity. Bow during a silent movie obsession I possessed in my youth despite having never watched a silent film at that time, and Aida appeared during my research on Black women in cinematic history, although she’s never appeared in a film. On this night, while spending the better part of 3 hours deep diving into each woman’s life, my heart broke repeatedly at how their careers were eclipsed and their histories almost erased because of the times the lived in.

Aida possessed an arresting glow that went beyond physical beauty. She currently decorates my cubicle at work as a constant reminder of the glamour and resiliency held by Black women during the turn of the century, an era of unbridled determination and self-awareness that many aren’t aware existed then. Growing up, I was privileged enough to have countless Black women to admire. During my childhood, there was a boom of Afrocentrism that swept over the Black community and bleed into the mainstream culture. I had television, movies, and music to remind me of the beauty of my people, of our creativity, of our place in American society and our culture. We were fierce then, unrelenting. Most importantly we were multifaceted. We were nerds, thugs, models, cool kids, smart, intelligent and we knew our history. The exposure was short-lived. It seemed by the time I grew into my adolescence all of this disappeared. Our representation got squandered once again forcing us into one-dimensional caricatures: video girls, rappers, strippers; mammies, toms, and coons.

That knowledge of history was no longer present in my life within pop culture. I had to search for it and there was little encouragement to do so. That is until I watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled in high school. Lee’s biting commentary about a television producer finding unwanted success when he reverts to coonery shook me to the core. I was struck with an unshakable need to truly know the history of my people and not just our capture, enslavement, and civil rights achievements. Blacks have made profound contributions to American culture but most of us grow up only learning about 5% of it. Little white boys that I knew in middle school used to regurgitate the poisonous beliefs that Blacks hadn’t contributed anything to America. They thought we only made rare achievements now and then. This thought process was so prevalent that it began to leech into my subconsciousness. Though I luckily shook free of that belief, it taunts thoughts of Americans all across the country. Bamboozled helped teach me the importance of not only knowing my culture’s history but communicating that education so that it’s not rewritten by the wrong hands.

Aida Overtone Walker was aware of this over a century ago when she lit up the stage and captivated both American and British audiences with her talents. Considered the “Queen of the Cake Walk” (the electric slide of its day), Aida was a vaudeville triple threat. She didn’t seek to become merely successful on the stage, but she worked to change the hearts and minds of those who witnessed her. She wanted to uplift the Black race and refused to partake in the status quo of performing demeaning roles and donning black face even though her stage partners, husband George Walker and stage actor Bert Williams, did so. Aida’s fight for proper representation seeped into her performances and dance numbers which guided her overseas to London where she taught elite, high-class society members these lessons as well.

by Cavendish Morton, sepia glossy print on printing-out paper, 1903

At the height of Aida’s fame, a popular, often salacious dance was trending in the theatre world. The “dance of the seven veils” or “Salomé’s” dance, was a sexually charged number that Aida wanted to reexamine. Oscar Hammerstein, I invited her to perform her version of Salomé on his famed Rooftop Theatre. Instead of given audiences what they expected, she performed the dance with emotion, modesty, and creativity. From records of the performance, Aida delivered a truly feminist inspired performance that pissed off some because they wanted eroticism and impressed others. Aida was sick of seeing Black women be the object of sexual desire while being stereotyped as deviants. She showed that this dance, salacious in nature and usually written by men, could possess emotion and intention.

Aida became one of the only Black performers to showcase her talents in exclusively white New York theaters and is known for evolving her career into an artistic, highly influential one. Nevertheless, Aida’s career was short-lived and she died from kidney related illness in 1914 at 34 years old. It hurts me to my core that her beauty and talent managed to just miss the mark of getting crystallized on film. The same year that William D. Foster, one of the first African American filmmakers, completed The Railroad Porter in 1912, Aida and her longtime partner Williams cut ties over creative differences. A year later, Williams would star in Lime Kiln Field Day, the oldest surviving all-Black film. Although the film was abandoned during its post-production, the Museum of Modern Art recently restored and premiered it in 2014.

Two years after Aida’s death, Noble and George Johnson founded The Lincoln Motion Picture Company and produced socially conscious Black films setting the stage for Oscar Micheaux to follow in their footsteps making history as the most recognizable Black filmmaker of the early 1900s. Lack of funding and plain old racism prevented these companies and directors from continuing on, but imagine— just for a few seconds— how great it could have been had all these pieces fallen into enlightenment. Perhaps Aida would be arm in arm with Williams in the publicity stills for Lime Kiln Field Day. Perhaps her success and clout could have helped float the Black film companies of the time. Maybe America could have seen proper representation of Black women earlier than Hollywood allowed. It’s a silly fantasy, but as a classic film lover it’s one I’ll revisit for years to come.

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Now let’s talk about Clara, shall we? An actress that blessed the screen during the 1920s and 30s, Clara Bow possesses perhaps the most tragic tale of an attempt to break into the business as well the most inspirational story of how hope and determination can grant anyone the power to change their own destiny. Clara wasn’t supposed to be a star. She knew that and everyone around her knew it. She was a mealy little tomboy from Brooklyn who felt more comfortable hopping trains and playing baseball in the streets with the boys in her neighborhood. By her own accord, she never fit in and the girls at her school reminded her of this on a consistent basis. Clara grew up in a household with a mentally unstable mother, a father who worked relentlessly with bad luck on his side, and a house filled with painful memories and death. Clara found solace in the moving pictures which rustled a deep awakening in her soul that made her feel destined to be on the screen.

Doors tend to open when you’re determined and desire something. It’s up to you to walk through them when they do. Clara walked through, only to have subsequent doors repeatedly slammed in her face but she clung to the dream of being on the big screen to provide the hope for someone else that way the movies did for her. At 16, she heard of a contest for a bit part in a movie. She jumped at the opportunity although everyone made sure she knew what little faith they had in her attempts. By this point she was virtual outcast. Puberty had made her a young woman and to her despair all the boys she once called friends now treated her differently seeing her as a sexual object. She was regularly made to feel like the punchline of a perfect job by peers. Even when her own father attempted to defend her decision to go into acting to Clara’s mother, he told shat she may not be pretty but she was different.

Still, Clara tried. She won the contest and landed a role in a film. But life didn’t make anything for easy for Ms. Bow. Her part was cut when the film made its way to theaters. She dropped out of school having already missed multiple days commuting for the film. She spent the next 3 or so years hanging around studios and taking scrap parts. In that time, her mother attempted to murder her, had a nervous breakdown, then eventually died which sent Clara into depression. But just when her lips met the grainy refuge of rock-bottom she was offered a lead part. Her ambition and hard work was paying off and she continued receiving bigger roles but worked for hours on ends while her selfish agent manipulated her into thinking her career would fold at any moment.

The insiders of Hollywood kept the talented actress at arm’s length finding her tomboyish nature and honest candor off putting. Although she had become a huge star and a box office success by the late 1920s, she was struggling to stay sane as rumors about her private life clouded her reputation. She was made more of an outcast after baring her soul to the public through a short autobiography printed in Photoplay Magazine. The Hollywood elite recoiled at her brazen honesty. They steered clear of the tomboy from Brooklyn who was their equal. They excluded her from their inner circle as the press continued to hound her and fabricate atrocious stories about her life.

Bow was successful well into the Talkie Age and her talent continued to stay prevalent but her renegade personality left her on the fringes of what has been deemed worthy to be written about the same way the Hollywood elite scoffed at her in her heyday. With every inch of success that Clara achieved, scandal and hard times rocked her world. Before long the silver screen beauty with the expressive eyes and girlish charms retired from the business at 33 then spiraled into mental instability. After spending time in a sanitorium where she was given electric shock therapy on a regular basis, she left her husband and two children opting to live with a nurse until she died at 60. History attempted to erase Clara and many “authorities” on classic cinema history left her out of serious conversations on the silent era.

Bow’s initial treatment and Aida’s erasure from the conversation of important Black figures in history are examples and symptoms of a society that doesn’t value women or people of color. Thankfully, our cultural fabric is currently ripping at the seams and going through a massive shift. Thought most Americans aren’t aware how to respond to it, our status quo is changing and it’s for the best. Maybe now we can see prolonged peace and prosperity for those who’ve been given the short end of the stick for centuries thanks to racial inequality, gender bias, ableism, socio-economic discrimination, and ageism among the few. The unbalanced scales that have barely held us together as country are finally being recognized. To equalize the playing field and ensure we end the age of gender discrimination and white supremacy, we must first recognize the humanity in one another and respect each other’s history. We must stop treating the achievements of minorities as if they are one off, rare exceptions and instead properly give credit where it is due.

Perhaps it’s because the internet has made us impervious to ignoring our history. Perhaps we’ve just hit that inevitable point in the spiral where progressive tendencies are reaching out before conservatism makes its return. Either way the tides are changing and the struggles endured by minorities who fought to make a difference deserve their time in the spotlight so that we can all begin to empathize. If Aida and Clara’s own struggles taught me nothing else, it’s resilience in the face of resistance. It’s self-assuredness in spaces where others are unsure of you. It’s listening to that crackling fire within that drives you to believe in something more than yourself. I didn’t have to walk these women’s paths to understand their struggle. All I had to do was listen to their stories, validate their experiences, and promise myself that I will do what needs to be done to correct the problems they endured rather than contribute to it.

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Perfect Blue (1997); And Our Complicated Relationship with Celebritism

October 9, 2017

Watching Perfect Blue was intense, gripping even—so much so that I’m still processing my way through it. As a story, it does many things right in the realm of being an effective psychological thriller, and yet I still feel slightly unsatisfied and partially gypped. Perfect Blue is an anime that I suggest every cinephile that’s ever said or thought the phrase, “I’m just not into anime” watch, especially if films among the same vein as Jacob’s Ladder and Fatal Attraction, piques interest. It’s a beaming example of how animation can stand toe to toe with live action films even heightening a story in ways that live action can’t through fantasy. Satoshi Kon’s cerebral thriller follows Mima, a pop star that’s grown tired of her suffocating lifestyle as a singer and yearns for a change in trajectory. Having received praise for a previous acting gig, she sets her sights on becoming a thespian hoping to shed her good girl image with a role in a television drama akin to Law & Order.

However, not everyone is happy with Mima’s decision and she becomes just one of the many attempting to adjust to her career change. Unbeknownst to her, an adoring fan is vexed with Mima’s pop idol persona and angered by the shedding of her status as a singer and someone begins expressing their disdain in sinister ways. Meanwhile a website known as “Mima’s Room” appears online documenting the day to day feelings and actions of Mima the pop star to the complete shock of the real Mima. The resulting events cause the former idol to fall into a world of hallucination and depression as she begins to question if she’s even the real Mima or a fraud.

Don’t let the cartoon nature of this film turn you off if you aren’t savvy to the world anime. Perfect Blue is a chilling thriller that foretold the dark side of internet impersonation at a time when computers were still a novelty. In one scene, we watch as Mima is taught how to open a browser and search the web when she first hears about Mima’s Room. She adorably hunts and pecks at the keyboard upon initial use and finds delight in reading the silly diary entries that seems to have her persona down to a T. It’s only when she begins to recognize private thoughts and unconscious patterns sprawled out in this online diary that she grows uneasy. We then take a hard turn into the uncanny and unreal sending viewers and Mima down a rabbit hole of delusions as we experience her nervous breakdown unfold in dreamlike ways.

And perhaps this is why I felt largely frustrated when watching Perfect Blue and completely unnerved by the ending. Not simply because of the reality that people can become truly unhinged by the status of a celebrity. It almost seems like human nature to fawn over someone that has been deemed “famous.” Humans develop a physiologically reaction to another human being that has been socially adorned: we excrete sweat, the heart starts to race, the senses heightened, outbursts of crying can happen, fainting, and simply losing any sense of “chill” one may possess. Some fans take this reaction a step further by wanting to become their idol or inflict harm on their idol or others because of this obsession. These are all things I’m aware of. My own reactions to celebrities and the movie/show Catfish alone has been a reminder of that. What struck me most was the all to real social responses to Mima’s decisions as well as having to watch her struggle in dealing with the pressures of the spotlight alone.

What Mima experiences is an unfortunate scenario that many talents thrust into the spotlight have dealt with and many more will suffer from. This coupled with the blatant disregard for her mental health shook me to the core. I found myself angry throughout the film. I victim-blamed Mima throughout by barking at the screen how she should stand up for herself against doing things she didn’t want to do. It took a humanizing scene in which we watch Mima fall to her bed sobbing in frustration for me to remember why this young woman—or any woman in a business that is willing to throw you away for the next hot commodity— refused to put up a fight.

It’s the same reason that movie producer Harvey Weinstein and countless others like him have been able to abuse their power and sexually harass women for so long. Mima fakes smiles when her agent tells her to because she doesn’t want to appear unhappy or ungrateful. She takes on a challenging, unpleasant role in the drama series because she doesn’t want to disappoint the people who worked hard to give her extra lines. She continues to work on set because she feels pressured to, even after two co-workers are murdered and she feels responsible for it. She carries a mountain of guilt and uncertainty on her back that is only made heavier by a string of harassments thrown her way.

And not once does anyone in her team offer her a shoulder to cry on or suggests that she take a break. As Sadayuki Murai’s script reveals, society as a whole refuses to sympathize with celebrities. We instead treat them like work horses who are supposed to grit and bear whatever tragedy or hurdle is thrown their way because they’re making lots of money: You’re in the spotlight, so smile; Don’t whine about politics, you’re a millionaire; Don’t complain about how hard it is to be a woman or a minority, be happy you made it; Get over your “bad day”, you’re rich; Get your shit together because I’m paying you and you should be grateful; Never mind that you’re a human doing a job.

Mima begins to suffer memory loss, depression, fainting spells, delusions and all the other telltale signs of a nervous breakdown and though everyone around her sees it, no one responds. No one is there for her and instead they further gaslight her about the very real fear that she’s experiencing forcing her to suffer alone. This element of Perfect Blue is all too real and more chilling than the creepy villain and the heart-pounding venture that ensues. Perfect Blue reflects on where we were in 1997, far worse but virtually the same as we are now. When I think of the people whose lives succumbed to the fact that those around them didn’t reach out because they had something to gain, I’m infuriated all over again that the we as a society have trained ourselves to let people suffer alone instead of being empathetic and caring.

Murai’s adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel traps viewers into a web of scenarios that feel out of place only to act as a thread that connects us to a scene before or after. The colors are wonderful, the animation is tight and clean, and the ability to capture fear and tension within the story is tastefully done by Kon. It possesses all the best elements of a slasher film while being smart enough to present a social critique on how we turn a human being into an image, an avatar if you will, that we then project our own thoughts and beliefs onto. The most enlightening and tragic realization after watching Perfect Blue is that the true villain in Mima’s life is show business.

SEE IT. Then think of your favorite celebrity or persona. How would you react if they went against everything you thought you knew about them?

Ramblings on Noir City, Dragon Con and Representation in Media

September 6, 2017

Let’s talk about the past two weeks, shall we? I am finally coming down from a daily marathon of activities, events and general busyness. I have a new-found understanding of the Tasmanian Devil as I am now dizzy from spinning through life and consuming everything in my path. That grin and bewildered look on his face when he’d stop spinning is plastered on my own from being shell-shocked in some ways and ravaged by a drunken desire to begin spinning again. This daily marathon began last weekend when I joined Turner Classic Movies in Chicago for Noir City in partnership with TCM’s own Noir Alley. There I watched back-to-back noir films curated by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, while knocking back enough Rye whiskey to swear me off the sauce for a while.

On Noir City’s opening night, I found myself waiting with my co-worker for our ride to the Music Box Theatre. There she chatted with an older man, seemingly mild-mannered at first until we made acquaintance and began conversing. This older man turned out to be James Elroy, author of some of the most iconic true crime fiction novels of our generation. He was attending the festival to commemorate the 20th anniversary film adaptation of his novel L.A. Confidential and had the brilliant idea that we all ride together to the theater. Thank God for brilliant ideas! My ride with Elroy kicked off a deep dive into all the seedy, salacious drama and rumors of classic Hollywood… everything I live for! Elroy stunned my co-worker and I by dishing the dirt on who was well-endowed and who wasn’t; which actors were cruel assholes; which ones are currently involved in illegal, unsavory activities; and who are truly great people to work with: Joel Schumacher, Willem Defoe and Guy Pearce for instance. It was all unforgettable: off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.

The ride was an absolute hoot that ended at the theater where we got our drinks and seats before revisiting the ‘90s classic L.A. Confidential. But Elroy’s information dump wasn’t over. He took the stage alongside Muller to introduce the film, where he proceeded to let the crowd know how shitty L.A. Confidential is compared to his book… naturally. While Elroy crassly tore the film apart, he instinctively promoted his own work making me anxious to dive into his original story to see the discrepancies for myself. Though Elroy laid out why he doesn’t like the film adaptation (although he admits it is his favorite adaptation of his work, the worst being Black Dahlia of course), Curtis Hanson’s ode to the classic Hollywood era in all of its glamour and seediness speaks for itself.

L.A. Confidential is still a gorgeous film seeped in shock, drama and surprise. Hanson drew out stunning performances from his actors that felt natural to their individual personas while capturing a coolness that seemed effervescent only in the 1940-1960s. L.A. Confidential manages to be a great popcorn muncher while also proving itself as a much deeper musing on America during the 1950s; a time of moral hypocrisy, racism, stanch capitalism and the beginning of the L.A.P.D.’s reputation as a hard-nosed, sadistic task force shouldering militarization and questionable practices as opposed to protecting the community they served. This deliberate investigation is largely Elroy’s doing, but Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay does wonders capturing it.

As the days went on, I watched nine more films at the Music Box including Dragnet, a colorful precursor to police procedural dramas. Jack Webb’s film version of Dragnet premiered three years after the television series had already taken off and become a hit. The film version encapsulates everything about the series that made it so iconic and influential from its tight close-ups, voice-over narration and ear-catching theme. The rest of the festival included a slew noir films focused on heists and robbery mostly unknown by the general public.

Kansas City Confidential, High Sierra, Drive a Crooked Road and The Aura were all gems that I watched for the first time featuring familiar faces and intriguing plotlines. However, Plunder Road was the one that took my breath away. This leisurely paced drama follows a group of men during and after a gold heist as they deal with pending consequences for their actions and attempt to evade police while heading for the border. We know nothing about these men. We know nothing of their history together, their home life nor how they found themselves in a life of crime. Like all noir films, their conscious decision to commit a crime seals their fate, and yet I was utterly invested in their journey holding my breath as the film came to its close. Hubert Cornfield’s tasteful direction adds color and character to the thin tale of a heist gone wrong.

After watching three days of noir, I decided to cleanse my pallet with a midnight exploitation film. Sleep deprived and loopy, I forced myself to stay awake for Last House on Dead End Street, a horribly made film with a legend that loomed large. Roger Watkins, the film’s star and director, concocted a truly disturbing film that conjures up interesting musings on America during the time of its production in 1972. But for more than 20 years after it was made, no one knew anything about who created and starred in this low-budget trash fest as the credits listed pseudonyms. When Watkins, a former porn director of the 1970s, admitted it was his project he also admitted that most of the budget at the time was spent on amphetamines to curb his habit.

This film possessed some strange magic that kept me wide awake the whole way through and restless with energy afterwards. Last House on Dead End Street follows Terry, a newly released convict who enlists the help of a few twisted friends to take out his frustrations on a group of smut filmmakers. They do so in gruesome, diabolical ways while filming the entire process. As a post-war society disillusioned by the hippie movement and strung out on the high that the 1960s left, America was in truly dark times during production which reflects itself all over the screen. Terry and his minions resemble Charles Manson and his family, whose lifestyle and murders marked the swan song of the Free Love movement. By 1972, America endured a social crisis struggling to find itself as the government went on as if it were business and usual. Last House on Dead End Street exudes this crisis through its grungy, sexually charged story of torture and nihilism.

Now, I likely gave this film more credit than it deserves. Don’t go rushing out to find this because frankly it sucks. It’s a poorly made, thinly veiled slasher film that was made so cheaply that it required voice overs for the dialogue. Supposedly there’s a three-hour version of this film. God bless the fool that finds themselves watching it. The version screened at the Music Box was already filled with an excruciating amount of padded shots and a snail-paced narrative. The actors often repeat themselves and shots are repeated because there’s nothing to this story that requires more than half an hour to tell it. Frankly, Last House on Dead End Street was garbage, but as a fan of exploitation, underground cinema this whet my appetite along with the perfectly curated experience that paired a series of trailers (The Toolbox Murders, Exposed, Jacob’s Ladder) and a short film on dicks beforehand.

Chicago was a blast and as cute as it always is when I visit its touristy side. I followed up that weekend with Dragon Con, filling my time with informative panels and saw enough cosplay to make me almost dread Halloween. This annual celebration of all things geeky and culty brought folks from all walks of life out in celebration of their favorite fandoms both new and old. My love of horror as a genre became marked by an insatiable need to ingest more thanks to the twisted minds of the speakers on the horror panels. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of 1987: “the greatest year for horror”. We fawned over the 40th anniversary of Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria, while the Chiodo Brothers gave marvelous insight into the uncanny creepiness and social history of clowns (and I got to thank them for scaring the shit out of me as a child). I sat in a room full of Nightmare on Elm Street fans as we lauded The Dreams Warriors as the best in the series and I chatted ad nauseam about American Horror Story. I also learned the genius of mashing genres from TCM’s brilliant panel Noir… in Space! that focused on noir films that crossed over into sci-fi.

My entire experience at Dragon Con taught me what I want and no longer desire from my media ingestion as it ignited a desire that had sparked after completing the series The Last Kingdom. While watching the final episode about a Dane named Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who aided in uniting England as a continent and world power, I became incensed. Not only was the last episode just a frustrating watch, but I realized that once again here I was watching a show about white men doing white men things in a white centric world as if no one else existed during the Middle Ages. What were Africans doing at this time? How was Japan developing? What about India? How were other dynasties operating? What drama were they dealing with? Who were they having sex with or killing? Why are we still only focusing on Eurocentric stories that have been told in some way or another over and over again?

Dragon Con drove this point home as I saw everyone represented there. I saw a member of almost every race dressed as their favorite character. I saw a sliding scale of genders: men, women and everything in between. I saw people in wheelchairs, with walkers, with bodily braces and all having the time of their lives and looking stunning in their cosplay. The amount of diversity in gender, race and ableism was inspiring. It was refreshing. It was a reminder that humans come in all shapes and sizes and we need to stop swallowing bullshit stories that show the same type of people, the same types of bodies and the same expressions of love. There is no one shoe size fits all for humanity so why aren’t we as a whole demanding all these different sizes on film and television.

Although Dragon Con has work to do in their representation on the panels, the shows and films that are highlighted present viewers ways to see themselves. This is why I’m making it part of my personal crusade to only write about films and television shows that showcase underrepresented people. I learned so much from the panels at Dragon Con: a panel on Spiritualism and the Occult taught me that a woman ran for president in 1872 with a Black man as her running mate—Virginia Woodhull and Frederick Douglas (although he never accepted the nomination); during an Asian Exploitation and Horror panel I learned of the countless gems that Japan, Thailand, the Koreas, China and India have been making for decades; Movie Physics and Other Stupid Things taught me of the multiplicity within the science community and how collaboration is key to solving situations, despite most films regurgitating the false narrative of a single scientist saving the day.

All of this information placated my curious mind and retrained it to think outside of the confines that I usually do. In order to keep this focus, I must be weary of the type of media I take in. There is a reason America is undergoing another identity crisis. The racial makeup of this country is changing and many of us want to see that reflected in our government and media. The demand for proper representation and validation of our life experiences should not scare white people, and yet for no logical reason it does. A continuing perpetuating of that fear are the myths and false narratives created through the media they see.  When the same images of one group is repeatedly shown in negative ways, those who watch it begin to think it’s reality instead of questioning the products they indulge in. For this reason, our own president irrationality justified ending DACA, thereby putting children and Americans of color in jeopardy of their safety and livelihood. From now on, I plan to primarily highlight the films that get representation right and tear apart the ones that don’t. But until then, to anyone reading this please take heed: Do NOT dress up as Rick Sanchez of Rick & Morty for Halloween. It’s been overdone to the point that you won’t impress anyone.

Sincerely your friend,

The Cinephiliac.

Dunkirk (2017); And an Ode to the Mastery of Filmmaking

August 15, 2017

It’s fascinating that we keep engaging in war despite nearly a century of war movies being made. You’d think seeing the horrors of battle—oozing blood, dismembered limbs, psychological torture— repeatedly mapped out on screens would be enough to make us all nauseous by the very notion of war. But after watching Dunkirk, I was reminded that not all war films are created equal. There are various languages in which they speak and in a multitude of ways in which we interpret them. Some are bold, psychological experiments of how war affects people (Full Metal Jacket, Johnny Got His Gun). Others tend to be virtual forms of propaganda pushing subjective, often xenophobic viewpoints (Black Hawk Down, Top Gun, basically any war film from the 1940s and 1980s). Then there are the cinematically intense films cloaked in artistry that usually highlight the absurdity and folly of war (Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon).

In my personal venn diagram of exceptional war films, an outstanding one would blend anti-war sentiment with cinematic artistry. I never thought Christopher Nolan would be capable of entering either of these realms because his movies relay his technically-minded filmmaking style, but with Dunkirk he manages to partially slip through. Dunkirk isn’t the perfect war film nor is it the prototype of an anti-war film but it succeeds at being a clever, historical account of what was while illuminating the ridiculousness of what is in war. Whatever your opinion of Nolan may be now that he is over-saturated in the sphere of pop culture, you can’t deny that he’s responsible for some of the most renowned cinematic marvels since the turn of the century. I’ve always considered his storytelling abilities rough around the edges as some of his scripts allow for clumsy and dull moments in his films, especially under the scrutiny of multiple viewings.

A little of that redundant clunkiness is present in Dunkirk, but these moments are salvaged by Nolan’s immersive attention to detail and exceptional skill in creating a mood. Dunkirk unfolds in choppy sequence weaving separate time frames and spaces together to depict how a group of Allied soldiers struggle to evacuate the town of Dunkirk once they are surrounded by Nazi Germans. Pride gets some men through the carnage, while others rely on their will to live. All are trapped in unthinkable situations where death seems certain.

Dunkirk is another one of those “based on real events” type of film which gives it freedom to create realistic characters that get stuck in the actual events that took place. The script’s invented characters allows Nolan to coerce audiences into reckoning with the fragility of human life. We watch young men die in tragic, awful ways. Many die fearful and alone. By highlighting the will to live and what some people would argue is “cowardice” behavior from characters, along with a near immaculate technical focus on sound and editing, Dunkirk pars with the greatest war films in the realm of storytelling.

Watching Dunkirk was a visceral experience—partly because I was nursing a hangover and the resulting nausea in the warm, plush seats of the Cinerama Dome in Seattle. Although, mostly because Dunkirk was such an intense theatrical experience that seized my guts and kept me short of breath, anxious and uneasy. Never deny the power of a large screen and fantastic sound design. Watching Dunkirk unfold on an entire wall of a theater only immersed me deeper into the story. Dunkirk drops you directly in the midst of the dank, bitter war being fought while its nonlinear narrative whips you around and through timelines rarely ever given audiences a moment to catch their breath for too long.

This incessant action has its crests and troughs. On one hand, it makes for a gripping film that forces you to feel anxiety for the people we are following. Nevertheless, we hit moments that feel like a movie. Which invites proper criticism of Nolan as a storyteller. Dunkirk reads like a movie. It’s the type of film that feels unbelievable considering how many twist and turns get thrown at audiences. While that fault is Nolan’s to bear it doesn’t detract from how engrossing this film is. Despite its opulent tall tale of an already incredible real life story, Dunkirk manages to implant itself onto your psyche begging you to feel the tension of these men trapped and vying for an escape.

Nolan has a way of physically telling a story that offsets his subpar writing skills. While he may not be the best with crafting dialogue or situations, he possesses an innate ability to translate emotion and tension through mis-en-scene reminding audiences of his prowess as a filmmaker. Dunkirk is a powerful film, one that should be watched on the largest screen possible to fully immerse yourself in the gruesome reality of war.  I’m guilty of simply thinking humans can stop engaging in war and “give peace a chance.” but I’m constantly reminded, especially these days, that the difficulty lies in ideologies. Are you willing to die for your beliefs? Kill for them? If you thought someone else’s ideas threatened your life and your family, what are you supposed to do? These thoughts are complicated to explore and as films like Dunkirk show, the results are even more complicated.

SEE IT. On the biggest screen possible with the best sound available. 

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of The Lost Boys (1987); And How it Saved Me from Humdrum Films Like The Beguiled (2017) and Baby Driver (2017)

July 7, 2017

When you’re uninspired by the films that have currently been in circuit at theaters, you start to wonder if you’ve lost your taste for a good film or if everyone else is just smacking up stale mush due to starvation. When the last batch of movies you see in the theaters leave you cold with a lack of desire to even write about them, you start to worry if the major transitions happening in your life is killing your inspiration. Is writer’s block now just a periodic part of life? These are the existential thoughts I’ve undergone after watching Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and Trey Edward Schultz’s It Comes at Night; films that have all been critically lauded. I began to doubt myself as a critic and writer. But then, a ray of sunshine in the gloom happened. A burst of inspiration and excitement from monotony: I re-watched Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys.

Last week I went out with much gusto to see the long-awaited Baby Driver. That night I came and wrote a pretty shitty review of it just to get my thoughts out. I honestly didn’t even want to revisit the review to edit it because I was completely underwhelmed with the product I had watched. Forcing 700 or so words about it just felt grueling. The same thing happened last night after seeing The Beguiled. I was close to panicking at my lack of desire to put forth the effort to write about these films, although I’ve talked about them at length with family, friends and coworkers. And the only reason I wrote about It Comes at Night was because in the moment I was furious at what I had watched. It was during The Beguiled that I legitimately questioned the lull I was enduring, and wondered what was the last great film I had seen in theaters. I realized it was Get Out nearly 4 months ago further disappointing me that everything I had been throwing money at since had either been forgettable tripe or subpar popcorn munchers. But then the spark retuned to me when I thought about the last great movie I saw outside of the theater and yes it was The Lost Boys!

Currently my movie watching has consisted of a series of exceptional films from the 1930s and 40s but it took one extraordinarily silly film rooted in nostalgia to bring my creativity back to life. I could have written a half-assed uninspired piece on why Baby Driver’s stylish, chik tale of a heist gone wrong left me bored and underwhelmed due to the lack of umph that’s usually present in Wright’s quirky style and humor; or how the story seemed to drag on and the action sequences, though cool, just felt like cuts from an extended trailer. And I could’ve labored over a piece about how disappointing Coppola continues to be as a screenwriter by creating a faux feminist story set in the antebellum with no hint of feminism, diversity or fully formed perspective. But nah, I’d rather not. I’d rather talk about how The Lost Boys holds up as one of the greatest films of its time and one of the best vampire films of all time.

It’s a silly argument to make but I stand by it. It’s sleek, sexy, funny and it’s a perfect time capsule to everything hip and trendy of its time. It’s easy to laugh at the greased-up abs of that sax player during the carnival scene, or even roll your eyes at the overly theatrical framing of scenes especially in the vampire’s den. And you should laugh as well as roll your eyes because they are cheesy. It is a product of Schumacher and director of photography Michael Chapman’s visual eye. But just because we can admit that not all of these elements hold up anymore doesn’t mean that it’s not a fantastically chilling film. If you really watch The Lost Boys within the context of its time, it proves to be an engaging, creepy thriller about teenage angst and rebellion.

The Lost Boys is literally my life. It’s one of the few films that I have grown up with. It came out just a few months before I was born and for as long as I can remember I’ve watched more times that probably any other film thanks to the constant cable reruns throughout my early years. I hadn’t seen it in over a decade until a friend of mine texted me that she was watching it for the first time a few weeks ago. That’s when all the memories came rushing back to my brain and I developed the insatiable need to see it again. Was I misremembering its greatness? Would it be like revisiting  D2: The Mighty Ducks, a film that I adored in childhood but found godawful when I saw it again a few years ago? But then the stars aligned. I was reunited with a friend who immediately asked did I want to watch it when I brought it up.

If you’ve never seen The Lost Boys before and decide to watch it now, I can’t speak to what your experience will be, especially if the culture of the 1980s escapes you. For all of you who have ties to this film, who appreciate the 1980s for what they were, those of you who enjoy a great horror/comedy, it behooves you to rewatch this gem about a group of teens from broken homes who wreck havoc in a small town. What makes these “lost boys” and girl different from the likes of James Dean’s Jim Stark and his crew in Rebel Without a Cause is that these juvenile delinquents are blood thirsty vampires forced into the outskirts of society because someone has made them that way.

Michael (Jason Patric) and his younger brother Sam (Cory Haim) are pratically predisposed to fall into this world of delinquency when their mother moves them to the “murder capital of the world” Santa Clara, California after her divorce. Although they are staying with her father, Lucy (Dianne Wiest) is forced to work leaving her children alone for most of the day and night after a prospective suitor shows an interest in her. Her children become latchkey kids like many children prior to 1995. This puts them–Michael primarily– in direct contact with the local bad boys who draw him into their underworld of debauchery and recklessness, leading to a rift between him and his family and his own loss of identity. It’s up to Sam and his vampire hunting friends Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Allan to save Michael from himself and the pull of the vampire world.

The Lost Boys is a much more mature film that I remembered and Joel Schumacher, who I’ve associated with trash for years, proves that he was a more than capable director and storyteller once upon a time. Along with Chapman in tow, the two create a colorful world of temptation and seduction made even more satiating thanks to the talented crew involved with making the film. The script is witty and intelligent, the set and art design are tastefully zany, the costumes are sooooo 80s without being fully gross and embarrassing, the soundtrack is killer and everyone pulls their weight in developing their characters and carrying them into their arcs.

I was in a state of pure bliss watching The Lost Boys and was reminded that sometimes a good movie doesn’t have to do anything else but be what it is, and a great movie is one that can be even more than it thinks it is. Maybe I needed The Lost Boys because of this topsy-turvy alternative future we are living in, one where the hippies who gave birth to Star and Michael gave up during the 70s and 80s and let capitalism win. Maybe I needed to revisit a film that for an hour and a half took me away from the fight against tyranny and ignorance. Regardless, The Lost Boys revealed all the missing elements of the movies that I’ve been watching in theaters and why they’ve left me uninspired and detached. Sometimes it takes a silly vampire film from the 80s to do that. Thank you The Lost Boys and happy 30th anniversary!

Wings (1927); And Comparisons to Wonder Woman (2017)

June 25, 2017

For years I had been trying to watch Wings, ever since my crush on the adorably cool Clara Bow developed. I had always wanted to deep dive into her filmography to witness the evolution of a Brooklyn tomboy into a bonafide superstar, but Bow’s reign in silent cinema meant that sifting through her films would be difficult as many were lost or inaccessible. Wings, her most unanimously lauded film, became my primary directive. The film that won the first ever Academy Award for outstanding picture starring the biggest actress of 1927 was a fact repeated every time I glanced at anything related to Bow. Years ago, prints weren’t widely available until 2012 when the film was released on DVD. It took me 5 years to get my hands on a copy, and lordy, I’m glad there are DVD’s!

One thing I wish I knew going into this film—not that it truly mattered by the time I finished—is that Bow is not the focus of Wings at all: airplanes and William Wellman’s incredible direction is. Wellman was a phenomenally skilled filmmaker whose extensive career generated some of the best films of its time, but no other film highlights his finesse and poetic nature like Wings does. Wings is considered one of the last great films of the silent era. I would argue further that it’s one of the few genuinely great war films of all time.

Wings’ story of two fighter pilots off to war centers itself in WWI. Jack (Charles Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) are two men from different economic backgrounds who love the same girl. Initially there’s spite between them because of it, with David knowing the truth that Sylvia only loves him. Meanwhile Mary (Clara Bow), Jack’s longtime neighbor that he tolerates being around, is head over heels in love with him. But duty calls and both men must leave to fight. In basic training, they develop a bond and their resulting bromance is the crux of the story. Love and war takes its toll on both men giving Wellman free rein to treat audiences to a brilliantly emotional roller coaster packed with spectacle.

The war scenes are simply incredible. I watched in complete shock while screaming at my television in disbelief of the insane stunts that were being performed. Planes whip through the sky, zip into clouds, spiral towards the ground and crash flipping over with real bodies in them. Surely these had to be dummies in the cockpit. The first person medium close-ups in airplanes had to be faked somehow. A director would never put his actors in such dangerous situations, right? Wrong. Thanks to the short feature on the DVD that reveals the film’s production, I learned that “Wild Bill” Wellman was aptly nicknamed and he surrounded himself with a stunt team just as daring as him.

These pilots legitimately crashed their planes into the ground. The bodies that jump from burning helicopters in parachutes are real and they actually hit the earth on which they fall. Wellman and his camera operator Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast found inventive ways to showcase the authenticity of battle through camera rigs and placement. Because of this we are treated to some of the most stunning and immersive shots I’ve ever seen on film. Audiences ride through the skies with these actors. When one is hit and blood squirts from their face or mouth, the emotional impact it has is genuine. We don’t know many of these men falling from the skies but there’s an empathy for the extinguishing of life in the callousness of war.

Throughout the film I wondered what vets of the time thought. Did Wings hit too close to home? Was it authentic? Then I discovered that not only was it authentic, but many of the extras were actual servicemen who fought in the very battle that is depicted at the climax. Wellman and d’Arrast were also WWI vets which explains Wellman’s desire to get the action sequences right. All the complex pieces of real life and movie magic are masterfully controlled by Wellman whom orchestrates with agile delicacy. Nothing looks clunky or janky. Everything is immaculately in place at the right time creating an even paced film filled with all the feels.

A majority of film directors today can’t seem to handle melding both epic action and tender love with equal weight. But Wellman expertly does so in Wings, and what’s more he does it between Jack and David more than the unrequited love affair between Mary and Jack. David even shares touching moments thinking of his mother and in an impressive, masterful shot we are shown David’s dilemma going into war when he pulls out a bear from childhood. We don’t need title cards to express how this boy is now being sent off as a man and may never come back home. Bow is at her best illuminating her emotions with big eyes and possessing an infectious smile whenever Jack is around. She sells her emotions easier than ice cream on a sweltering summer day.

It’s stunning that 90 years later the biggest film at the moment is Wonder Woman, a film set during WWII about 30 years after the events in Wings. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins succeeds at attempting to follow Wellman’s lead on screen. Whether intentional or not, Wonder Woman directly lifts elements from Wings. Many of us in the audience of Wonder Woman roared in praise at Jenkins’ ability send chills when the Amazonian princess decides to walk through enemy lines with nothing more than her lasso of truth and sword. The same feeling I got during that beautiful moment of empowerment came again a week later while watching Wings when Allied troops cross over enemy lines beginning their trench war battle, a sequence that also conjures King Vidor’s epic WWI battle film The Big Parade (1925). In Wonder Woman, the scene in which Chris Pine tries to escape enemy territory by plane almost exactly replicates a scene in Wings when a character flies out of enemy area only to have his fate sealed.

Both films 90 years apart and from completely opposite ends of the spectrum are commentaries on war and the callousness of battle. Both use spectacle to emphasize the damaging nature that war has for everyone and not just those engaged in battle. While I enjoyed Jenkins’ feminine-driven perspective on the topic, I’m just completely amazed at how Wellman—almost a century prior—did it more effectively in ways that still hold up. I thoroughly enjoyed Wonder Woman, but I know the same won’t be said of it in 2107.

SEE BOTH.

It Comes at Night (2017); And Notes on Praising Mediocre Material

June 11, 2017

It Comes at Night is garbage–pure rotten crap. I hate to come down so harshly on someone’s personal art, but when that art seems so ambivalent to itself and life as a whole I feel that it’s begging for an odious critique. I haven’t been this annoyed by a film since Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber. Where Rubber felt like a trolling slap in the face to audiences, It Comes at Night doesn’t feel intelligent enough to even have a commentary or fully formed opinion on anything in particular. Instead the film unfolds as though it’s an undergrad’s introduction of a final term paper, which is probably why when the last scene faded to black and the first credit appeared on screen multiple moviegoers in my late night showing laughed out loud and I just audibly yelled “why?” at the screen.

Why did this receive widespread distribution? Who had the disposable income to throw thousands of dollars at such a half-baked idea? What did the producers of this film see in it? Why are people really praising the mediocre skills of Trey Edwards Shults?

To be clear, my frustration at this film wasn’t based on expectations. I knew nothing about It Comes at Night prior to walking in. All I knew was that when I asked a friend to hang out last week he suggested we see It Comes at Night. As someone who jumps to the notion of anything remotely related to horror/thriller I agreed without a second thought. I briefly skimmed the Rotten Tomatoes meter and saw that reviews of the film were mixed with a sharp divide between the fans and critics. This further intrigued. Would I take the side of the audience or the critic? Looks like I’m in the camp of the audience and I’m gunning for this movie’s credibility with a pitchfork in hand.

Initially, I wanted to read the review of every critic who rated this film highly just to make a personal point of ignoring films they praise in the future, but after getting two reviews in my eyes are sore from the amount of rolling they just endured. It’s irrational and unnecessary, I know, but I’m also punching into the keyboard at 1am, so I’m just going to revel in my initial reaction. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks of why It Comes at Night doesn’t work.

Set in some time and some place, a small family is in the midst of an epidemic. People have gotten sick and the family doesn’t know why or to what extent. All they know is that to survive they must stick together and kill anyone showing any signs of illness. Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the teenage soon of Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), possesses a heightened awareness of the situation and is the most emotionally affected by the turn of events and gruesome lifestyle his family has adopted. While Paul mercilessly kills those he deems worthy under the guise of keeping his family safe, Travis undergoes nightmares and hallucinations from the stress. When a new family crosses paths with the trio, Travis and his family fully come to realize how far they will go to survive.

Interesting concept, right? And sure it is. At it’s best It Comes at Night attempts to be a meditative piece on the frailness of humanity when fear takes over. Fear makes us loose sense of all rationality and good judgment– the current state of affairs in the world at large is testament to this notion. But let me emphasis the word attempt here. Just because It Comes at Night tries to be socially reflexive doesn’t mean it succeeds. In a drudging pace, It Comes at Night drones on and never quite says anything of substance by its end.

We are stuck with six characters we aren’t allowed to know. The only sympathetic characters among them–Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife and child–are constantly denied audience allegiance because the narrative tells us we aren’t meant to the trust them. So we wait for an hour and 30 minutes watching these people interact without ever knowing anything of value about them or about what’s happening around them. Any time we have the opportunity to gain some background knowledge on why we’re even here, Paul makes it a point to cut ties.

And then the film ends. Nothing to come away with, nothing to contemplate because it was all so shallow that you can debate it during its run time. Not only are we left with a film that doesn’t really say anything, but also one that lacks any truly compelling visual cues with an atmosphere of tension that is adequate at best. It Comes at Night felt like watching the pilot of a television show. It’s an interesting enough start that if this were a miniseries it could possibly blossom into something poignant and creepy. Rather than giving it that room to breathe, it became stifled of any momentum when it was made into a film, one that will burn and flutter away in the recesses of my mind after this review. I can’t wait.

AVOID IT. See Wonder Woman or something instead. 

 

Thoughts After Bingewatching 13 Reasons Why (2017)

May 2, 2017

*Note: this was written at 2am*

10 hours ago and six episodes into 13 Reasons Why, I told my co-workers that it wasn’t a “good” show, it was just “addicting” and that people contributing to the hype were just confusing the two words. Here I type after a 7-hour bender with the credits of the last episode still freshly seared into the black of the television screen—Crying. Head swimming.—Utterly sad, heartbroken and yet satisfied at its ending. After the halfway point of the series, 13 Reasons Why morphed from being a trashy, guilty pleasure that I could put on in the background to something completely powerful and gut wrenching. It wasn’t just a teen drama written by hipsters with at times terrible acting and cringe-worthy dialogue. After completing all 13 episodes—hearing all 13 tapes from Hanna Baker— I am wrecked at its portrayal of being bullied, shamed and existing as a human being in this sometimes completely rotten world we live in.

I may still be riding the high associated with bingeing an entire series of a show in a span of less than 48 hours, but 13 Reasons Why was life changing. I confronted some hard truths of my own life while indulging in this series. By its end, I found it to be a truly mature, fully formed thought experiment that tells one hell of a story in complicated ways. It won’t do that for everyone who watches it. In fact, it’ll turn a hell of a lot of people off. That’s to be expected. Hannah’s cautionary advice and the circumstances that surrounded it didn’t even register long term for half of the people directly affected by her decision. Some of the characters resorted to the same negative patterns and degenerative decision making that placed them there in the first place being unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture and face the gray areas of being put in a moral dilemma.

Hannah Baker’s story of her suicide is hard to watch and can get all into the nooks of crannies of your head. At least it did for me. It’s latent with moral ambiguity— a moral quagmire if you will—that begs viewers to understand the truth in the spoken words that I initially scoffed at during the first episode: “There are 13 sides to every story.” Each person’s side is rooted in their own experiences, their own perspectives, their own truths. Understanding this reality is imperative to understanding the popularity of this show and why I found it to be so profound despite its amateur, and at times off-putting shortcomings.

My introduction to 13 Reasons Why happened on an airplane ride last month. While on the plane taking deep breaths to ease the anxiety that always seems to creep up while sober and 40,000 feet in the air, I noisily started ogling the computer screen of the preteen looking girl next to me. Tucked between myself and her mother, this girl watched back to back episodes of a show that I couldn’t take my eyes off. Like the tapes that Hannah passed around between 13 friends, lovers and enemies, this girl passively passed on this show to me as I did for my significant other who stayed on the couch for much of my bingeing a month later. I’m not gonna lie, Dylan Minnette’s face caught my eye first. There’s something adorably innocent about the actor that translates perfectly into his character Clay Jensen, the protagonist whom we experience these tapes through.

My odd cougarish attraction mixed with fascination at the soundless images of a dead girl on a gym floor in a pool of blood made me desperately curious to what the hell this show was and why this kid was watching it. Once off the plane, a gigantic billboard for the show with Minnette’s face welcomed me to L.A. on the way to my hotel. I finally remembered the show two nights ago and decided to put it on. Y’all it was bad. The first few episodes are cheesy and extremely corny at times. In fact, all of the characters were incredibly unlikable and nothing more than transparent clichés of high schoolers. It was laughable, but I couldn’t help but find it endearing and captivating. It was like Memento; although you know the ending, you’re just itching to go through the journey to see how it gets there. Patience is virtue.

Whether I was merely incepted or the progression of the show really does get stronger, following these characters and hearing their stories becomes grossly engrossing and devastating. I found myself gasping for air and trying to contain my emotions by tape 11. By this point, the show shifts in tone and style. It’s raw and painful and the full circle revelation of it all feels too much. I got to release a much-needed breath of fresh air thanks to my own desires and expectations by tape 11, but that air staled quickly and disappeared again as more revelations unravel and other character’s truths waft in. Saving someone is not always possible. Sometimes you can do more. Sometimes you’ve done all you can. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do at all. Hannah’s complications stem from all three.

It took 13+ people to push Hannah Baker to a place where she didn’t want to live anymore. Where every fragment of her life stop mattering. For a lot of people who exist in this world it takes a lot less. For others, a lot more. Hannah’s life was marred by typical teen angst and poor decision making on her part, like everyone who navigates through life. But her story escalates by each decision made by the people she surrounds herself with and the way she interacted with them or the things they said and did to her or the things she did or didn’t say to them. “Fault” is such a difficult, loaded word, one that is brilliantly explored in 13 Reasons Why. We often look for “faults” or scapegoats in any unpleasant situation. Sometimes a situation is nothing more than a chain of reactionary forces linking themselves to create a breaking point. No fault of anything, just the magnetic pull of a specific place at a specific time that leads to a specific situation.

13 Reasons Why highlights this fact while sprinkling in all the nuances of making “right” and “wrong” decisions. This show cleverly zeros in on all the gray areas and emotional turmoil that rises in any given circumstance. Above all, it’s a show that begs viewers to just take a moment to truly address how difficult life can be and how at the end of the day even if you can know what’s going on in someone else’s head, you can’t feel their breaking point or carry their weight for them. Maybe it’s because they didn’t speak up. Maybe it’s because you didn’t listen. Regardless, it’s hard to say that it’s one person or 13 people’s “fault.” Even the designated “worse” person of the show is shown to be more than a one-note bad guy. There’s more to them than we may be willing to accept.

There is a lot of backlash against 13 Reasons Why and I completely understand it. The issue of suicide and rape is polarizing, one that will jolt strong emotions from viewers and unfortunately trigger many. Criticisms of the series range and some are reasonably explained here (warning: spoilers). While the writer’s qualms are completely validated, I admit that I don’t align with these points raised as I interpreted the series much differently. I mostly disagree with the argument that the show allows Hannah to blame the 13 people for her death, thus taking the agency and responsibility away from her.

In essence it does seem that Hannah attempts to do this does this, but the show doesn’t allow that to be the entire narrative. Multiple times throughout the series, characters express how Hannah’s tapes are Hannah’s truth, not there’s. Some of her truths are complete misrepresentations of the objective facts at hand. Such is life. No one person is the reason, despite Tony’s abrupt revelation to a character’s that it is. Clay wisely admits in the end that everyone could have done more, but as Hannah even reveals to the listeners, sometimes the signs of suicidal tendencies look like nothing. Suicide can be a blameless situation despite wanting to place fault on the shoulders of someone. You can’t save everyone, but the point of 13 Reasons Why is that it’s important to try.

We should all make the effort of being a support system to others once in a while. To take the extra 10 minutes to call a friend you haven’t heard from in a while to see how they’re doing. To truly hear and respond to someone’s drama even when you don’t want to. To communicate, let your guard down occasionally and let someone in. If not, we’re just repeating all the same mistakes laid out time and time again over the ages from societies who have already been there and done that. 13 Reasons Why is a reminder to viewers, a plead actually, to take the extra step and effort to be truly present and aware of your interactions with others and to realize when you need to ask help for yourself, sometimes more than you’re willing to.

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