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Prequels Can Work

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 17 2016 · 228 views

Essays, Not Rants! 248: Prequels Can Work

Prequels, by their nature, face an uphill battle in that we know how they are going to end. We know that Logan is gonna lose his memories in X-Men: Origins, we know that Sully and Mike are gonna be best friends (but only one of them a scarer) in Monsters University, and we know that Anakin is gonna become Darth Vader. By explicitly being movies of the stories that came before, we enter into them knowing where they end up, and, well, already being spoiled.

But, if spoilers don't necessarily spoil, then this factor shouldn't necessarily make prequels less enjoyable. Monsters University is still plenty fun, mostly because we want to see how we get to where Mike and Sully are in Monsters, Inc. That the film starts with them in such different spots from where they are in the original. The journey to the familiar is where the excitement of the movie lies. Thing is, it’s easy there for it to quickly become just the retreading of what’s been done before or, at worst, a slow march to the inevitable. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side in Revenge of The Sith doesn’t feel like a character choice so much as a plot point hit because it had to happen.

Revenge of The Sith could have – should have – explored why Anakin opted for the Dark Side. What was it that drove a promising young Jedi to become a Sith lord? But rather than exploring any of that, the movie just trucked along about the ending of the Clone Wars, an Emperor rising to power, and an arbitrary turn to the Dark Side. Essentially, Sith doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. There’s little depth added to the events of the originals, we end up exactly where we started with little change in the narrative status quo – A New Hope has the precise same impact whether or not you’ve seen Sith.

And this is where I talk about Rogue One.

We know the Rebels steal the Death Star plans. The question is how.

So the easy thing to do would have been to have just followed the heist of the plans and let that be that. Rebel spies steal plans. Done is done. Instead, Rogue One contextualizes A New Hope.

For all its grandeur, the original Star Wars showed only a relatively small sliver of the galaxy (a backwater planet, the Death Star, and a Rebel Base) populated by farmers and outlaws, Imperial villains, and a handful of mostly-Rebel pilots. We begin in media res, with all the wheels already well in motion so we can focus on a farmboy from the middle of nowhere. Rogue One expands the scope of the story, showing more of the Alliance part of the Rebel Alliance and further emphasizing the threat of the Empire come A New Hope.

But the movie doesn’t over explain. The Phantom Menace felt the need to explain the mystical Force as microscopic organisms and C-3PO as a kid’s side project. Instead of feeling the need to, say, explain why the Death Star plans are on tape, Rogue One opts instead to fill in some plot holes and expand on things mentioned in the original movies (again: Alliance), but never seems beholden to what came before.

So Rogue One does what a prequel can do best, does what a prequel should do. It tells its own story that feels complete in and of itself, but in turn also adds a layer to the movie that already exists. A New Hope doesn’t feel any different knowing that it’s Hayden Christensen’s Anakin and all that under the helmet, but the final showdown against the Death Star takes on another level of meaning knowing what led to it.



Prequels get a bad rap because, well, a lot of them are bad. But Rogue One is inarguably a prequel (with a sequel already directed by George Lucas), and it’s one that does what those sort of stories can do. I’ve more rants essays to write about this movie, but for now, one thing that this movie does is prove that, hey, prequels can be really good.


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Thoughts on The Prequel Trilogy

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 10 2016 · 291 views

Essays, Not Rants! 247: Thoughts on the Prequel Trilogy

Last year I watched all three of the original Star Wars movies and commented on them in the lead to The Force Awakens. Since we’ve got another prequel coming out, I figured I’d do the same thing for the prequels before Rogue One (which I’m seeing on Thursday [!!!] on the biggest freaking screen in New York City[!!!]).

Now, I have a soft spot for the prequels, so this isn’t going to be the angry nerd ranting you may expect.

In fact, I think they actually aren’t all awful. This got a little longer than expected, but that’s because I have Many Thoughts on Star Wars.

I first saw The Phantom Menace for my eighth birthday, in theaters. I loved it and Qui-Gon was (and is) my favorite. These days I still think it’s the best of the prequels, because though it’s a bit irrelevant as a whole, it is relatively well put together. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.
  • After the typically Star Wars offbeat gag of the droid coming out we get to see two Jedi in their prime kicking butt. It’s also a great visual introduction to them, showing us the Force, their ability to block blaster bolts, and how lightsabers can cut through walls. Instant exposition!
  • The conversations between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are such fun, with Qui-Gon’s brashness and Obi-Wan’s chastising despite being the apprentice.
  • One of the biggest flaws of this movie is its unconnectedness. Scenes seem to just happen and characters say things without much cause and effect (ie: Panaka’s “I don’t think this is a good idea” and Qui-Gon’s “You must trust my judgment” has them carry on to Tatooine without issue).
  • Argh, Anakin’s introduction to Padmé shows the issue with telling instead of showing. Anakin tells Padmé he’s gonna leave this planet. In A New Hope we see Luke Skywalker longingly watching the binary sunset. We feel Luke’s want, but are told about Anakin’s.
  • “The Queen’s wardrobe, maybe…” Gotta love Obi-Wan’s dry humor.
  • And with Shima’s introduction The Phantom Menace already has more speaking female characters in its first forty minutes than all of the Original Trilogy (Captain Madakor in the beginning, Padmé, Sabé, Jira the saleswoman, and Shima vs Leia, Beru, Toryn Farr, and Mon Mothma).
  • The lack of music for most of the Podrace is striking; the engines make their own soundtrack.
  • Anakin having to leave home would have meant so much if we actually gave a hoot.
  • When the vote of no confidence is called, Chancellor Valorum sits down out of the light and into shadow. Gorgeous visually.
  • There are still moments in the movie that are just so cool, like all the Battle Droids unfolding as the Trade Federation theme plays.
  • AND DARTH MAUL. AND DUEL OF THE FATES.
  • Seriously though, the lightsaber fight in Menace is one of the coolest things in the Star Wars movies, period. It’s so cool you don’t really care about the lack of narrative purpose. Plus, each combatant’s fighting style reveals character, another cool touch. Its effective, wordless, visual storytelling makes the Gungans & droids, space battle, and palace raid feel clunky.
  • Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul is such a great duel.

Whenever I watched Attack Of The Clones as a kid I'd always fast forward through the romance between Anakin and Padmé, preferring to stick with Obi-Wan's more interesting plot. Which kinda made sense given how awful these scenes are as an adult. That said, Across The Stars is a magnificent piece of music.
  • And within its first three minutes Clones does what the Originals never did: pass the bechdel test.
  • Obi-Wan at the bar with the deathstick pusher is a wonderfully funny gag.
  • Anakin and Padmé striking off together should be fun, flirty adventure, but it's played so darn drily and self-serious.
  • Anakin is so friggin creepy in his romancing.
  • Obi-Wan's plot is actually engrossing, which makes the stagnancy of Anakin/Padmé so frustrating.
  • ...maybe it's Hayden Christensen that's the problem here. His deliveries are a far cry from Han's gruff charm (which is the benchmark).
  • It's like Anakin doesn't believe in subtext. Or a filter.
  • Shimi's death is legitimately tragic...
  • ...which is undercut by Hayden Christensen's overacting. He really might be the problem.
  • Christopher Lee is excellent. And Dooku and Obi-Wan's conversation is so well done.
  • The movie seriously gets better after Dooku shows up.
  • Anakin and Padmé's entrance into the arena: really cool, really effective; just wish their scenes before actually made us care about them!
  • The prequels in general, but especially this one, take themselves so seriously. Where's the fun romantic adventure that was a hallmark of the originals?

I saw Revenge of The Sith in England the day after it came out. Was really excited and really liked it at the time. Watching it again a few years back I was frustrated about how flat Anakin's arc felt (especially in light of the Clone Wars show) and, with it, the entire tragic thrust. It’s the messiest of the movies, with some of the prequels’ best moments, but also the weakest.


  • The opening crawls do such a great job in letting the movies open in media res without too much exposition.
  • That opening shot that goes from the Venator to the ETA-2s that race along it and plunge into the battle below is so good.
  • Rescuing Palpatine feels a lot like the cold open-esque ones of Empire and Jedi.
  • A Hispanic actor was cast as Bail Organa, someone mentioned in the originals as Leia's father. For all the complaints George Lucas gets, there was noticeable diversity in the prequels' casting (Panaka, Tycho, Queen Jamillia, Mace Windu, etc). Small parts mostly, but an effort nonetheless.
  • The political intrigue with the Council having Anakin spy on Palpatine is kinda interesting, if half-baked.
  • Anakin and Padmé's discussion on the war, however, wasn't even put in the oven.
  • Ian McDiarmid gives Palpatine such menace and subtext.
  • Padmé is so useless in this.
  • The duel between Grievous and Obi-Wan is shot with far too many close-ups (as was Dooku vs Anakin). Compare it back to the fight with Darth Maul where we could actually see the fight and close-ups were saved for special occasions.
  • Anakin's fall to the dark side is a result of that sitcom trope where the woman walks in and her boyfriend's all "this isn't what it looks like!"
  • Which means that Anakin's fall is so weak, so unearned. It's the big turn, but it doesn't work!
  • The Order 66 sequence is downright inspired, especially the choice of shots for Ki-Adi Mundi's death and cross-cutting to Yoda.
  • Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa is wonderful. Why wasn't he in the movie more? Why isn't he hanging out with Padmé and doing stuff?
  • Holy snap, Yoda is on an assassination mission. Why isn’t this addressed?
  • The two final duels are pretty cool. Especially the music.
  • Oh that clash with the lava in the background. A+
  • Seriously. Obi-Wan vs Anakin is great (if you get past some of the silliness). I just wish the movie had done more to really sell us on how much they loved each other and made the fight genuinely painful (ie: Iron Man vs Captain America in Civil War)
  • But “I have the high ground” is a poor note to go out on.
  • Dear god, Ewan McGregor is so good as Obi-Wan. You can feel his heartbreak in his 'goodbye' to Anakin.
  • Vader's masking, chilling.
  • ...why does Padmé die? Argh.
  • The final sequence with Leia and Luke ending up on Alderaan and Tatooine is downright beautiful. It's such a strong visual ending to a lousy plot.
  • To be honest, Lucas' prequels are best when his characters shut up and he lets the visuals and music speak.



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But For Different Reasons

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 03 2016 · 178 views

Essays, Not Rants! 246: But For Different Reasons

I first saw (500) Days of Summer when I was eighteen. Fresh outta high school, I was one of five people in the theater. I loved it, and would go on to watch it in theaters two more times when I moved to Singapore a month later, and then again when I bought it on BluRay. I loved it for its emotional honesty, for the way the film depicted Tom’s thought process on screen. But like Tom’s own relationship with The Graduate, my own love of (500) Days of Summer was based on a bit of a misreading.

See, I, for a variety of reasons, identified with Tom more than I should have. I thought Summer in the wrong and pitied him for pursuing a woman who didn’t feel the same way as him. I have a totally different read on the movie now, seven years later, but let’s stay here for a moment.

I misread the movie (because the wonderful thing about fiction is its give and take), and I liked it a lot. But the reasons I liked it were, in my ways, a little off. It doesn't mean that I shouldn't have enjoyed it, just that what I brought to it and wanted from it (Tom and Summer should be together!), meant that what I got out of it was filtered through it (at least the devastation from Summer prompted Tom to get his stuff together, and hey, there's Autumn!). Thus my own catharsis through it is, well, different from how it works now.

Now, seven years later and hopefully a modicum wiser, I still love the movie. But, as you may have guessed from what I've already said, for very different reasons. Tom seems now less a hopeless romantic and more a selfish git who fancies himself one. He's made sympathetic through the film's storytelling, but Tom really isn't a great guy. The takeaway from the film is instead a cautionary tale about expecting some sweeping love story to solve all your problems (it's also a brilliant deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl).

So yeah. I still love the movie, albeit for a few different reasons. Which is really a testament to the film itself, that it's able to make a sympathetic character out of someone as glaringly flawed as Tom; enough that a glowing positive interpretation of him is honestly quite valid.

You're just missing the point.

Now, the point of any piece of fiction can be argued ad nauseam, and (500) Days of Summer itself remains open to a variety of opinions as to what is its point exactly, but to stop an understanding of the film at it being ‘just’ a love story with a downbeat ending. There’s more to it than that, and an arguably more complete catharsis can be found when you realize that it’s Tom’s willingness to fix himself and find happiness outside of a relationship that helps him get his life back on track. Or is it — since the button with Autumn casts Tom’s development into a measure of question.

I find that this is something true of a lot of stories. Pacific Rim is plenty enjoyable for getting to watch giant robots and giant monsters beat the stuffing outta each other, but its commentary takes it to another layer, just like how Godzilla is all the more enriching in light of the stances it takes on nuclear weapons or the environment (depending on if it’s the original Gojira or Gareth Edwards’ recent outing). There aren’t really ‘wrong’ ways of loving a story,* there are just different reasons for it. I figure part of really appreciating fiction is being willing to let your understanding and appreciation of a story evolve. Who knows, it may get even better.






*For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring flat-out misinterpretations like a white-supremacist/Aryan interpretation of The Lord of The Rings, something Tolkien himself decried. There’s a certain amount of latitude to finding meaning, but there’s also a point where sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe that’s another rant for another day/


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I Ain't Saying I'm Excited But

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Nov 27 2016 · 267 views

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But What About The Men?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 26 2016 · 220 views

Essays, Not Rants! 245: But What About The Men???

I write a lot about women in fiction on this blog, to the point where I’ve had friends term it a feminist blog. But if you’ve ever wondered “jeez, Josh, you keep talking about women this and feminism that, what about the men!?”, well, this rant essay is for you.

One of the many things I like about (500) Days of Summer, is Tom. Not that he’s a particularly great guy or anything like that, but that with Tom we have a male protagonist who is allowed to be emotionally vulnerable. Misguided as he is, he's afforded the latitude to be ecstatic and heartbroken with everything in the middle bearing shades of another. Put colloquially, Tom gets to feel the feels, and the movie doesn't punish him for it.

See, fiction typically doesn't give male characters emotional breadth. Think of just about any other romcom; sure, Matthew McConaughey and Patrick Dempsey get sad and have their epiphanies, but do the films explore those feelings to the extent that (500) Days of Summer does?

There's a tendency in fiction (and it's a tendency reflected from reality) for being emotional to be seen as feminine, and thus unsightly in a male character. There's a a reason "man-up" is said to guys who are scared or weepy, and not when someone's winning. After all, we all know real men don't cry. There are of course the occasions for manly tears: sacrifice, like the titular soldier crying over what others sacrificed for him at the end of Saving Private Ryan; brotherhood, like Channing Tatum crying at his partner's funeral in End of Watch; or good old dead loved ones, like Maximus’ breakdown in Gladiator. These are the moments when manly men, pushed over by grief and patriotic duty, cry manly tears. But heartbreak over a breakup? That usually gets us a scene like in That 70s Show, with Eric Foreman lying in bed after breaking up with Donna, his sorrow played for laughs. It’s funny because Eric’s not the manliest of men and here he is trying to enact a form of masculine sadness but is really just pathetic.

Compare that portrayal to (500) Days of Summer when we’re allowed to wallow with Tom while he deals with his breakup. We see the repeated dullness of Tom’s life and how life seems to have lost meaning. There are still some great gags, but we're laughing with Tom out of commiseration, rather than laughing at him as we do Eric. The film's commitment to exploring Tom's feelings, oft accentuated by its stylized editing and use of voice over, means that we are firmly with him here. It's not ‘manly’ – and it doesn't have to be – but he's far from pathetic.

It's important here to clarify that unmanly tears do not mean emotional breadth. Cooper in Interstellar breaks down and weeps while going through the archived messages from his daughter, but it doesn't affect him as a character. Cooper's still gonna do what Cooper is gonna do: space stuff. Interstellar never explores his emotional state, he remains a stalwart explorer.

I cite as many examples as I can because it's so prevalent else-wise. This is one of those things where the exception proves the rule. Scott Pilgrim is such an offbeat romantic lead, what without his conviction and confidence and all that. Instead Scott Pilgrim vs The World devotes much of its runtime to dealing with Scott's issues and baggage, affirming that those are important things, even if you're a guy. But Scott Pilgrim is in many ways a deconstruction, as is (500) Days of Summer. These movies take the romantic comedy and play with it, in the process giving us male characters who are allowed to feel the feels. Starting to see how atypical this is?



Men, of course, feel (Duh). But it goes against typical societal norms to explore or display those feelings, especially if they're really feel-y. Why? Cuz gender roles and the patriarchy cut both ways. The same force that prescribes women to be passive supporters also insists that men be unfeeling bastions. Aaaand yep, here's my twist: this is actually another rant essay on feminism. The same criticism that asks “Hey, why can’t we let a woman be the everyman?” is the same one that says “Hey, why do men always have to be unfeeling?”. So yeah, let’s see more Tom Hansens in fiction, though preferably ones who are less awful humans. And that’s what’s about the men.


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Rebel Rebel

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Los Legos Nov 22 2016 · 183 views

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Cue the Bowie.


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An Asian-American Superhero

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 19 2016 · 141 views

Essays, Not Rants! 244: An Asian-American Superhero

I wasn't sure how I felt about Silk when she first showed up in the Spider-Man comics, but it was when she got her own series – and a narrative no longer intrinsically tied to Peter Parker – that she really came into her own.

But on the on the one hand, yeah, another webslinging spider-themed hero? We've already got a lot with Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, and Miguel O'Hara in books of their own; do we need one more? The thing is, Silk brings with it – like each of the other spider books – a unique story and character.

Obviously, there's Silk/Cindy Moon herself. One of the things that hooked me into the book is something somewhat shallow, but terribly important: Cindy is Korean-American. Yes, I know, I'm ranting about diversity again. But listen. There are precious few Asian superheroes, even less so with their own books. There will always be a thrill in getting to see someone who looks like you represented.

But Cindy's Asian-ness isn't just a lip service done through line art and surname, the story in Silk features distinctly Asian elements.

So quick recap, Cindy got bitten by the same spider that gave Peter Parker his powers, but due to some bad news involving spider-killing vampiric Inheritors (it makes sense in context), Cindy was locked alone in a bunker until the threat was over. Released early, Cindy is looking for her family who have disappeared during the years she was away.

Still with me? Now here's the thing, the decision to lock Cindy away is not a malevolent one, in fact Silk does great work to ensure that while we know it's a really sucky situation, it was one done out of love. As Cindy follows the trail of her parents, she finds that they never stopped trying to find a way to cure her and protect her from the Inheritors. When Cindy finally finds her parents – after traveling to the Negative Zone, teaming up with a dragon named David Wilcox, and discovering her mother is the undead slaying Red Knight – it's a happy, heartfelt reunion.

Never along the way does Cindy ever think that finding her parents isn't worth it. She's posed as a villain for Shield and takes a job at J. Jonah Jameson's Fact Channel, all in an effort to discover what happened to her parents. The central theme of the arc, one espoused firmly by Cindy, is family first. It's a story of unquestioning filial piety, one that is returned in kind by Cindy's parents. Now, family loyalty is by no means a uniquely Asian thing, but Silk's emphasis on it allows the book to strike a wonderful narrative balance between an Eastern focus on community and the self-determinism more prevalent in Western narratives. Are you beginning to see why I keep harping on diversity being important?

That said, Cindy doesn't live a merry angst-free life. Her time in the bunker did a number on her, and so Cindy seeks counseling. Her sessions often provide narration for her adventures as she confides in her therapist, which is a fun narrative tool in itself, but the portrayal of therapy as being something both normal and healthy stands out as special in comics. It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather a way for Cindy to work out anger issues and the newfound stress of getting used to a modern life (and being a superhero). It’s a profound addition that subtly destigmatizes getting help while allowing space in Cindy’s life to focus on her family without too much angst.

You know what’s coming next: This is why diversity in fiction is important. Sure, you could have had the looking-for-family narrative with anyone, but by attaching it to a Korean-American family you instill it with a little more weight and offer a representation of a different way of looking at the world. Silk is a wonderful book because it does all that and tells a plain good story while it’s at it.



Man, ain’t diversity grand?


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Of Stories and Hope

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 12 2016 · 191 views

Essays, Not Rants! 243: Of Hope in Stories

I've never been a huge fan of tragedies. Don't get me wrong, I love stories like Othello, Whiplash, and Sicario; but those aren't the ones I count my favorite stories.

I sometimes joke that I tell hopeful stories because if I want stories of injustice and despair, I can just read the news. I skim headlines and it’s not hard to see Othello and Chinatown being reenacted in current events. There is, of course, a greatness to using tragedy to comment on the human condition and all that. But sometimes, you need more. As a kid bullied at school for being different, I would find solace in fantastical worlds where, well, things were different.

Having just narrowly avoided a deadly encounter with a Nazgûl, Frodo sits amongst the ruins of Osgiliath devoid of hope; the Ring he seeks to destroy has been taking its toll; nothing makes sense anymore, let alone his quest. But Sam, his erstwhile gardener turned companion, rallies the hobbit: “It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered” (The Two Towers, 03:21). When things got bleak and everything seemed lost, the heroes pressed on no matter what. These stories were the ones of importance, “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why” (03:22).


That’s how I opened my rationale (a thesis of sorts wherein I describe the focus of my four years of study at NYU Gallatin). Which, if you read my blog, recounting a scene from The Lord of The Rings in the first paragraph of my thesis really shouldn’t surprise you. I then go on to yammer on for the next several pages about the importance of stories as a means to define identity and convey truths. And something that stories can convey like no other is hope. They're where we get to watch good triumph over evil and see hope win. It's the total catharsis that Aristotle talks about in Poetics, or the ultimate boon of John Campbell. It’s that win, that “we did it!”

So why do those moments work? Why is Frodo and Sam preserving – and eventually overcoming Sauron – so powerful?

We know things by their opposite. Joy means nothing if we don’t know despair. In fiction, the bleaker things seem, the greater the catharsis of victory will be. Heck, Sam says it right there in his monologue, “when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.” The plot of The Lord of The Rings is a literal journey into darkness, with Frodo and Sam trekking into Mordor while Aragorn and the others face off an overwhelming army. Things couldn’t really look bleaker. There’s a reason Luke Skywalker only destroys the Death Star when it’s about to blow up Yavin IV: it’s the bleakest moment. The Return of The Jedi illustrates it even better; Luke’s decision to throw away his lightsaber and turn down the dark side doesn’t come when Palpatine is taunting him, it comes after he attempted to attack the Emperor and went on to give into his anger during his fight against Darth Vader. Luke’s rejection of evil only comes after we’ve seen him travel down that path, making it all the more powerful.

I think that may be one reason why The Empire Strikes Back stands as arguably the best Star Wars film. We end the movie with Han in carbonite, Luke missing a hand, and the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. But then Luke gets a new hand, a reformed Lando flies off with Chewbacca to find Han, and we see Luke and Leia standing in the medical bay of a Nebulon-B Frigate that’s just one ship in the Rebel fleet. As bleak as an ending is, there’s hope. We know that this isn’t the end for them, we know they’ll keep going because they’re holding on to something.

I love stories. I really do. I love how they make Sam’s beautiful monologue in The Two Towers feel perfectly natural and earned. I love how these other worlds — because every piece of fiction, no matter how realistic, takes place in another world — show us things about our own. I yearn for stories imbued with hope because, against it all, that’s how I want to see the world: one where hope and love will triumph. There is a time and place for tragedy, but there are days when you need to be reminded that there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.


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Selah.

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Life And Such Nov 10 2016 · 283 views

Love will win in the end.

Love has to win in the end.


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Wise Old Masters

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 05 2016 · 270 views

Essays, Not Rants! 242: Wise Old Masters

I have a very clear memory of being ten or eleven and watching Cartoon Network. I didn’t have cable growing up, so this was at a hotel or someone else’s place. I’d left Singapore and was in that whole growing-up-on-a-ship phase of my life.

Anyway.

Johnny Bravo was on, and for some reason or other the titular character had to learn some martial art or another. So he goes to a dojo, meets the guy, and asks him to teach him “the secrets of the East.”

This took me aback. That was their takeaway? Not, y’know, the whole modern metropolis thing or the food or anything; the old Asian guy teaching some martial art or another was their view of ‘The East’? Also, the heck is up with calling it ‘the East’?

I suppose it’s kind of special to be able to pinpoint your first conscious encounter with systemic racism (special in the way that it’s special you remember what class you failed in High School), but it is certainly something amusing to be aware of. Because, wouldn’t you know it, that is one of the prevailing images of East Asians in popular culture: the wise old master ready to teach you some oriental martial art.

And I suppose that’s one reason why I wasn’t bothered by Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just because it adds another woman to male-heavy cast in a male-heavy franchise, but it’s because it moves away from a particular stereotype.
Now, would it have been great to have an Asian actor cast as The Ancient One? Sure. But I’m sick of Asians having to be in fir into a few prescribed roles (wise old master, funny foreigner, engineer/doctor/smart person). There are these places where stories tend to default to having an Asian character, not unlike how the default everyman is a white dude. The wise old master is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that one of the funnest turns in Batman Begins is that Ken Watanabe isn’t Ra’s al Ghul, but is actually Liam Neeson (uh, eleven year-old spoiler, I guess).

The problem at hand is only letting people be a certain thing. If the only time/only way we let an Asian character be of importance is by making them a wise old master/funny foreigner/smart person, it perpetuates the idea that that’s all they/we are. It’s the same thing as the whole all-Asians-are-martial-artists thing where that is the only thing worth knowing about Asian countries. It’s why I celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for making an Asian character idiot bro. There is definitely a discussion to be had here about people and roles, but, again, I’m plenty happy with Tilda Swinton in the role, especially because she does such a great job at it. And hey, how often do we get to see women be the wise old masters?

I’m not so sure I’d call it white-washing either. I’m not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange’s backstory in the comics, but there’s little about The Ancient One that seems Asian outside of the, y’know, old master on a mountain top. His race (or gender, for that matter) isn’t too tied to the material: this isn’t kung-fu or karate (s)he’s teaching, it’s magic. Not Chinese magic; magic magic. I understand the problematic nature of taking a character who’s a minority in the source material and making them white in the adaptation, but there’s also the excision of a particularly frustrating stereotype from a narrative at play here. It’s not a simple one-or-the-other predicament, it’s a nuanced, messy situation. One that requires dialogue, not dogma.

Besides, Doctor Strange does decent in diversity elsewhere, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particularly enjoyable one-note supporting character (and the source of some of the best gags). Plus, the other sorcerer-students and doctors in the background are noticeably diverse, and the movie is one of few to feature a villain with henchwomen. It doesn’t mean it’s enough, but a cast photo that looks like this is a step in the right direction.

Now, there is room for discussion here and for me to be wrong – there always is. I suppose I’m just happy to see a wise old master that, well, isn’t an Asian guy with a long beard.






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josh

twenty-five


grew up on a ship


studied Narrative (Re)Construction

at New York University


frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

September 2017

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