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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Selma

            Welcome to the first entry in my new ongoing series, Films for the Trump Years, where, for as long as is needed, I will regularly examine one or a set of films that are in some manner important or relevant to the social, political, and cultural struggles humanity now faces, both in the US in opposing the Trump administration, and across the world in general. 

            I’ve decided to begin as simply and as obviously as I can; with Avu DuVernay’s masterful (and shamefully under-recognized) Selma, one of the best dramatizations of the Civil Rights Movement and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ever made, and one of my top movies of2014.   

            In ways almost too numerous to count, the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s is the most immediate, pressing, and obvious historical example for the type of problems we are facing and what sort of civic engagement is needed now.  It’s the piece of our history most directly connected to current crises in our politics and society- the efforts of groups like the SCLC and SNCC led to, among other things, the Voting Rights Act.  The same Voting Rights Act that, after decades of campaigning by conservative lawyers, finally received a body blow to its integrity in the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, which severely scaled back the law’s capacity to support suits against discriminatory voting laws.  And, surprise surprise, in the years since this decision, the foundational right to vote has once again come under sustained, nationwide assault, culminating in the President himself asserting (falsely) that “millions of illegal votes” were cast in the 2016 election, which will invariably be used to justify further restrictive measures on this most basic of democratic rights. 

            The organizations behind the Civil Rights Movement and the tactics they refined through wave after wave of painful (and often deadly) trial-and-error also became a format that directly inspired later organized pushes for LGBTQ rights, gender equality, and many others; in fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another major achievement of this era, included a (at the time) largely unnoticed addendum banning discrimination on not just race, but sex as well, which became one of the legal foundations for the expanding fights for women’s rights just a few years later.  

            It’s also the forbear of Black Lives Matter, the foundation of which has been the need to highlight how so many of the exact same racial questions and issues raised by MLK and his contemporaries over half a century ago remain, in ways large and small, overwhelmingly unresolved, white protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.   

            Perhaps the saddest part of how viscerally relevant this era remains is that it, too, is an example of a time when the branches, power, and mechanisms of the federal government were in the control of peoples and parties more than willing to use them for anti-democratic ends.  The FBI relentlessly targeted African-American activists for illegal surveillance and blackmail, deliberately seeking to undermine or stop people like MLK from gaining the ear of the President and Congress.  Yet despite this, these fighters created enough sustained civic action that, in the face of all this inertia in the opposite direction, the government was eventually forced to respond appropriately, and this too can be an example and inspiration to us today. 

            Even though we are now faced with the blatant racism of Trump and many of his worst enablers, like Representative Steve King of Iowa and Attorney General Jeff “It’sPainful To Be Called Racist” Sessions (who, by the way, has already indicated he will pull back on federal efforts to fight civil rights violations in court), this is not so wholly different from what the Civil Rights movement faced, and today we have many more tools at our disposable to push back against their efforts than existed back then. 

            So where does Selma come in to all this?  Aside from being a great movie in its own right, superbly directed and brimming with amazing performances (especially David Oyelowo’s MLK), it is packed with moments, scenes, and snippets of dialogue that perfectly capture or represent the history its depicting and highlight why this story is still relevant today. 

            The scene featuring the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson is a prime example of how unjustified police killings of blacks have never not been a constant hazard of simply being black in America; what we are suddenly capturing and witnessing on camera in the past few years may seem “new” or “shocking” to whites, but African-Americans have known for centuries how cheaply and easily their lives can be sacrificed for trivial (or non-existent) reasons. 

            Government surveillance and blackmail efforts are highlighted in a scene where Coretta reveals to Martin that she’s received recordings of him having sex with other women, accompanied by death threats.  This reminds us that, like BLM activists today, MLK and his colleagues were seen as a threat to “how things are,” a bunch of agitators and thugs bent on creating a false narrative of nonexistent grievance.  And just like back then, such accusations today are wholesale lies meant to avoid the hard questions racial activism seeks to raise. 

            At the same time, this moment also provides us with a reminder that MLK, like all of the historical figures our culture likes to worship as something higher than human, was in fact a man like us, with his own weaknesses, flaws, biases, and shortcomings.  Much of the cultural rhetoric around Obama, or Bernie Sanders, or even Trump shows how dearly so many of us still want a political savior, someone just perfect with just the right ideas who, once in power, will magically fix all we see as wrong in the world.  This is a fatal fallacy.  We can’t expect sainthood to fix things- only we can do that, while bringing all our failings in tow, no matter contradictory or painful they may be. 

            To do that, we need constant organizations and tireless engagement with the systems we live in, even when we are fighting against their worst aspects.  It ultimately wasn’t his moments of soaring rhetoric that led to actual, legislative achievement- it was years of endless work holding drives, scheduling marches, and getting people’s names on lists.  This strategic aspect, as opposed to relying on high-minded ideals to inspire, lies at the core of Selma

            Above all else, though, one of the most important reasons to watch this movie and recall this part of our history is that it reminds us of just how much past generations have paid to earn the right to vote.  Far beyond the petty frustrations of taking a day out of a busy schedule to cast a ballot, people have (and around the world today, continue) to give everything, up to and including their lives, to win this most basic of freedoms. 

            And when we bear this in mind, how dare we not cherish and utilize that right to vote wherever and whenever possible?  Whether or not we find the particular candidates “principled” or “exciting” or “entertaining” enough, whether or not we like every single item on a party’s platform, whether or not we find a ballot initiative sexy or cool, how can we justify staying at home and disengaging when others have shed their blood just to be able TO engage with our government? 

            There are many books/movies/documentaries that powerfully capture this part of our history and highlight what it can teach us today (if you have the time, I particularly recommend Taylor Branch’s seminal trilogy America in the King years).  Selma is only the first of these I am featuring here, and it almost certainly won’t be the last, but it’s as good a starting point as any. 

            The Resistance continues. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review: Tiger Girl

Tiger Girl (2017): Written and directed by Jakob Lass.  Starring: Ella Rumpf, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Enno Trebs, and Orce Feldschau.  Running Time: 90 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            The German film scene has never been anywhere near as prolific as the more dominant industries in the US, Great Britain, India, Japan, or others, so it’s been an enjoyable relief to see a relative flurry of interesting works come out in recent years, from the brilliantly old-school Pheonix, to the internationally lauded Toni Erdmann, to more avant-garde, experimental flicks like Victoria and The NightmareTiger Girl, directed by Jakob Lass, firmly belongs in the latter category, a mish-mash of various styles and genres that, thankfully, succeeds far more often than it fails. 

            In another universe, this film would play out as the origin story for a comic-book-style tag team of female anti-heroes who take it on themselves to wreck whatever havoc they desire on the nightlife of  Berlin; Vanilla, an aspiring police officer/security guard who just can’t seem to cut it in her chosen line of work; Tiger, a wild, mysterious woman who is maybe stalking Vanilla, is maybe her guardian angel, or is maybe just one of those chance encounters that later proves seminal in one’s life.  Cue an upside-down shot of a baseball bat rolling across a grimy subway station floor to Vanilla’s feet, and we’re off to the races. 

            Whichever way it happened, they’ve found each other, and with Tiger’s utter fearlessness and Vanilla’s ability through her job to access official security outfits, with which they are basically permitted to go wherever they please, they just might be unstoppable.  There’s no real purpose to their wanderings and their random crimes, ranging from the truly petty (breaking a box of abandoned china) to actually pretty serious (battery and sexual assault on random, unsuspecting innocents).  There’s no greater scheme to steal from the rich and give to the poor.  They discover that they can get away with all of this, so they do it, simple as that.   
            I suppose the film could have played with the fact that the uniforms they wear allow them to get away with so much simply because most can’t bring themselves to say no to a person in uniform as some sort of broad takedown of our blind cultural trust for officials.  But that would require real work, and if there’s one thing Vanilla and Tiger can’t abide, its work.  Why bother, when whatever they could want is ripe for the taking?  The entire film is like the very concept of nihilism distilled into its purest form, where nothing matters and anything goes, set to rapidly edited, partially-improvised arthouse stylization. 

            Some of the more stunning moments in the film are when the entire movie shifts gears and becomes a surprisingly kickass action movie.  It’s no John Wick (what is?) but there is a remarkable smoothness and dynamism to the choreography of Vanilla and Tiger taking out a group of assailants in a subway station.  For my money, the movie’s high point is when the two randomly decide to pick on the curator of a modern art exhibit, who, quite out of the blue, turns out to be a fairly decent martial-artist herself (because, really, why not?). 

            Thankfully, there is no attempt to craft a backstory for either character, especially for Tiger, whom Ella Rumpf fills with an infectious charisma that turns her into the center of every shot she’s in.  This is one of those performances that define a film by giving birth to a character so wholly unique, that they can’t quite be compared to anything else.  It would have been all too easy to coagulate something or other about Tiger being abused as a girl or having her heart broken by a lawman as a go-to explanation for her virulent anti-socialism, but the creators of this film made a smart choice in simply letting Tiger be Tiger, in all her strange, oddball, possibly psychotic glory. 

            Sadly, Tiger alone isn’t enough to salvage some of the film’s lesser elements.  She has two friends caught up in a drug-dealing ring that are by far the movie’s weakest link.  Nothing about them is original or interesting, and every scene with them only serves to drag the film down from the potent highs it achieves at its best.  There’s simply too big a distance between them and the bizarre escapade montages of Tiger and Vanilla strutting around the city at night, pulling increasingly bizarre stunts, to ignore. 

            Though it is a touch too disjointed because of this, and does drag a bit too often, when Tiger Girl hits its stride, it doesn’t just fly, it soars.  It is by no means an easy viewing experience- anyone with an acute discomfort for ceaseless rudeness or wanton, unpublished public vandalism should tread carefully- but like much of its contemporaries on the current German film scene, Tiger Girl is certainly Something Else, and that alone makes it worth our consideration. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The (Lack Of) Problems with One Piece

            You’ve seen me take to this site to rant about my issues with Naruto.  You’ve seen me vent about the spectacular decline of Bleach.  But while those two former juggernauts each had their moment in the sun, faded, and then concluded, one of the former Big Three, One Piece, still remains a core part of Weekly Shonen Jump. 

            Created by Eiichiro Oda and running largely without break since 1997, currently at 861 manga chapters and 783 anime episodes (as of this writing), One Piece is not only still running, it has no apparent end in sight.  But unlike its erstwhile competitors, there is a strong argument to be made that One Piece has not only retained a consistent quality over the decades, but that it’s actually gotten better and more interesting as it’s gotten longer. 

            It would be easy to simply credit this to the fact that Oda is an utterly insane creative genius, and that much is certainly true; if he weren’t, he wouldn’t be able to artistically thrive as much as he does in an industry designed to utterly break manga artists both mentally and physically.  But as tempting as it might be to write off the phenomenon that is One Piece as a singular success too unique to be understood, doing so ultimately undercuts the artistic strengths that have allowed it hold up better than most other long-form stories, be they manga, comics, TV shows, or whatever.  It is insanely hard to create something this good for this long, but it’s not impossible to do, and it’s not impossible to grasp the whys and hows. 

            So let’s take a moment to consider this remarkable work; why has One Piece, as opposed to Bleach and Naruto, managed to get better, and not deteriorate, with age? 

1. The art style has remained consistent since Chapter One. 

            It's par for the course that the longer a series is, the higher the chance there will be a noticeable shift in the tone or style of the art by the end.  Sometimes this can have little effect on the overall quality of a manga, but in others it can end up being fairly detrimental.  Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece all started out with an exaggerated, rough-hewn look typical of most early chapters of a Shonen battle manga.  Each one showcased the particular skills or talents of the respective artist, gave the manga its own unique visual feel, and was a key part in each of them taking off and becoming the cultural juggernauts they are today. 

            They also allowed for a flexibility in what expressions the characters could make- the more detailed or serious or dramatic moments were beautifully crafted, but also switched effortlessly to more exaggerated or distorted figures in the sillier moments, and both could sit side-by-side on the page and still look like they were part of the same world.  Eventually, though, Bleach and Naruto began to slowly shift after about a few hundred chapters, taking on a more solid-looking style.  It looked more serious and “mature,” with harder lines, so it worked fine for the more serious moments of the story, but it no longer had the same flexibility as before.  The result was that whenever later chapters tried to shift back to more comic moments or throwbacks to running gags, it only broke flow and served to remind the reader just how much the feel of the series had changed over time. 

            One Piece, on the other hand, still has the same zany style is started out with, creating a world where characters can literally cry rivers, contort their faces in every conceivable way, and look deadly serious, and still feel like they are all happening in the same universe.  There’s a whole other article to be written about how fluid Oda makes the sizes and shapes of the people inhabiting this world.  It allows the series to constantly feel fresh and try out new designs, because the looseness of the style means anything really can happen, no matter how bizarrely insane the designs get.   

            And while we’re on the topic of art, style, and layout…

2. Every chapter is packed, with no empty pages or wasted space

            This is much more of a knock on Bleach than it is on Naruto, because by the end Kubo became notorious for padding out every single chapter with swaths of empty black or white shapes (sometimes whole pages of it).  This lead to an insane number of wasted chapters, where the story progressed at a snail’s pace, or circled around on itself and went nowhere, or where literally nothing happened, because there wasn’t any space left to allow anything TO happen. 

            There is none of that shit in One Piece.  The “worst” One Piece chapters are perhaps a bit boring, or forgettable, or too jumbled to make sense, but will almost always have at least one cool visual or decent joke, because each one is packed to the gills.  Not a single panel is left to rot.  And that’s key, because it means that even when something in the series doesn’t work, the passion and effort are always on full display, something that Bleach conspicuously lacked long before its ignominious end.  

            Speaking of space…

3. Pagetime between the main characters is (fairly) well-balanced. 

            One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto all have huge, sprawling casts with a staggering variety of characters and personas filling their worlds.  Maintaining the right balance between main and secondary characters in such large universes is extremely difficult, and while both started out very strong in this regard, there came a point where both Kubo and Kishimoto were clearly unable (or unwilling, or uninterested) in trying to even out the narrative focus between core characters (*cough* Chad, *hackhack* Sakura), with many popular secondary characters falling by the wayside as well. 

            One Piece does a vastly more solid job of making sure every member of the crew gets a few moments to shine in each arc, even when some play a more important role in one storyline than others.  Sure, there are nitpicks to be had that some characters go way too long without a cool fight or big story moment, and for narrative reasons some of the crew members will drop out of sight for a bit- nothing in this list is meant to argue One Piece is a paragon of perfection- but given how easy it is to fall short in this particular area, it is remarkably impressive how well Oda has handled this juggling act across several decades of publishing. 

4. The rules of the universe allow wiggle-room for superpowers without generating contradictions

            One of my biggest beefs with both Naruto and Bleach, by the end, was that, as each series went on, previously established in-universe rules for how superpowers worked (and, especially, what their drawbacks or costs were) were bent more and more, and eventually broken entirely.  This was clearly done in order to bring in different types of powers, allowing for other kinds of action, and to gradually up the stakes until literally all existence was in danger.  All of which are theoretically fine.  But by tossing out the limits that had previously served to ground the series, the creators ended up depriving what should have been cataclysmic and awe-inspiring finales of any tension.  Villains eventually had the power to do anything that let them survive that extra chapter, because….just, because.  More and more of the good guys morphed from interesting characters with unique and nuanced powers and styles into Goku Clones.  And after a few arcs of the same, that shtick just gets boring. 

            One Piece has never suffered from this problem, because outside of establishing the different types and degrees of powers that could be achieved, it never placed too much of an emphasis on strict laws regarding powers, because that was never the focus; the focus was enjoying Luffy’s wacky pirate adventures.  This, plus the ingenious use of the Devil Fruit concept, means that like with character design, One Piece has always felt like a universe where literally anything is possible and will happen sooner or later, and Oda has been able to introduce new powers and concepts with each arc without ever feeling like the series is breaking its own rules. 

            Continuing with the topic of story arcs….

5. Each arc is coherently structured and paced, and the stakes are always personal

            There have been tons of hints about the larger world and history of One Piece dropped here and there throughout its run.  And Luffy’s ultimate goal- finding “One Piece” and becoming the Pirate King- involve so many huge obstacles that there’s a lot of ways the story could build into a truly global conflict by the end.  But up to this point, even in the more significant story arcs like the recent Dressrosa Arc, the primary motivations for Luffy and/or whichever character has center-stage are always clear, focused, and often deeply personal. 

            What this does is make it possible to follow along and enjoy each step of the journey without needing to be obsessed with the larger story.  For the most part, you still don’t really need to have read ALL of One Piece to just jump right in to more recent arcs and enjoy the series for what it is. 

            Take the Marineford Arc, easily the largest and grandest spectacle of the entire series, which featured some of the most important narrative developments of the entire manga.  For all the scope on display, to a degree that to this day still boggles my mind, and for all the politics driving the actions of the Marines, Whitebeard, and others, Luffy remains the central character of the arc, and his only concern is to save his brother Ace.  He doesn’t care about Blackbeard.  He isn’t afraid to challenge either Whitebeard or Sengoku.  He just wants to save his brother. 

            The recent Dressrosa Arc was basically a dressed-up fighting competition, again with a very specific goal for our lead character- winning the fight in order to get back Ace’s Devil Fruit from Doflamingo.  In the current arc, the focus for our heroes is rescuing Sanji after his capture by one of the Four Emperors.  Like with the need to abide by in-universe fighting rules, this grounds the series enough that when it wants to get serious, it can, but it doesn’t have to keep upping the superpower stakes to make each new arc worth following- it just has to give us at least one compelling emotional reason to stick around and see what happens. 

            That being said….

6. The world-building (so far) has been superb

            ….Oda has also successfully combined the smaller stakes of each arc with some truly phenomenal world-building, the importance and strength of which has only started to become apparent since the Time Skip. 

            After the first several hundred chapters, there wasn’t much of a larger narrative to One Piece to speak of- a few hints about the Marines, the World Government, Celestial Dragons, and a secret history of the world were dropped here and there, but it was only in the run-up to the Marineford Arc that the trickle started to increase to a flash flood, and by the time the series went on break for the Time Skip, there were enough puzzle pieces in place to allow for some really intriguing speculation on how the larger One Piece universe operates.    

            Compare this to Detective Conan, another massive and long-running manga/anime franchise, where the broader story has not advanced or altered in any meaningful way since it first started.  Every time I consider this, I am blown away by how carefully Oda has crafted the larger bits of the picture in his story, usually by working in a few new pieces in the gaps between major story arcs by cutting away from the main cast for a week or two.  It’s such a remarkably careful job that I honestly can’t tell if he’s had all this planned out in his head from the beginning, or if he’s only recently started to consciously give a direction to the bigger plot devices of the franchise. 

            Either way, Oda has provided us with a textbook example of how long-form storytelling can be used to craft the sort of detailed universes that a much shorter book, film, or show can never create. 

            This leads me to my final point, which is….

7. The series doesn’t overextend itself by trying to be something other than what it is. 
            One Piece is a gag manga in an action-adventure setting about a group of silly, eclectic misfits and the hijinks they get into on the high seas. 

            And really, that’s it.  Yes, there is a larger, fascinating drama playing out regarding the Celestial Dragons, the Shichibukai, the Emperors, the World Government, the Revolutionary Army, and the Marines.  Yes, there are some great, emotional character arcs that have given the series some of its best moments.  Yes, the artwork is unique; the story arcs are almost always precise, and very well-constructed; the in-universe rules are fluid, but still easy to understand and follow.  All of this is a key part of the franchise’s enduring success.  But more than anything else, what has allowed One Piece to endure and thrive in a way its competitors couldn’t is that it’s never pretended to be something it isn’t.  Oda doesn’t punch above his ability. 

            One Piece, in a nutshell, has never sought to be more than the silly-as-hell gag manga that it is, and thanks to this loose attitude, when it does go big or emotional, those moments shine all the more.  They feel earned, and rarely repetitive or hammered-in.  And around those moments, the manga has never stopped being hilarious, clever, witty, and just plain fun to experience each week, so even if the larger story was panning out to be formulaic shit, the series would (I believe) still hold up remarkably well.  The fact that the larger story IS really good and interesting and well-crafted is just the icing on the cake. 

            Compare that to Bleach and Naruto; both, by the end, were literally promising the world in their final acts, with literal “end of life itself” stakes, and in both cases that proved to be a task beyond what Kubo and Kishimoto were capable of as writers and artists.  The stories grew, sure, but a breaking point was eventually reached, and neither series could ultimately recover from that. 

            Now of course, Oda could still fuck all this up.  He could still jump the shark in a thousand different ways.  Nothing is certain in our world.  But so far, at least, he has consistently managed to provide a truly joyful experience week after week that has, in so many ways, been a defining work in the Shonen Action genre. 

            And again, I am in no way suggesting that One Piece should be considered the Greatest Manga Ever, or anything close to the sort.  Are there better manga out there?  Tons.  Ones that are more daring, take more chances, tell deeper stories, reach greater artistic heights?  Absolutely. 

            And even within its respective cultural niche, One Piece certainly has flaws; Oda barely tries to differentiate the story’s women beyond Nami and Robin, and his boobs/”sexy battle wear” can be just as bad as Kubo’s; many of the intended emotional parts can go overboard and fall off into outright silliness (like the bloody monologue the Sunny got as it was burned at sea); the arcs are extremely formulaic, with a very precise pacing that is rarely deviated from; and yes, he probably isn’t building to some deep, meaningful, artistic statement about life and the human condition. 

            But even lower-brow art done to perfection is still art worth experiencing, remembering, and celebrating.  And One Piece is one of the greatest examples of this kind of story and this kind of manga in existence.  It deserves all the accolades it has gotten, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t end anytime soon.  So please Oda; take care of yourself.  We need your sense of humor in the world more than ever. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Films for the Trump Years- An Introduction

            In times like these, with right-wing populism, partisanship, and anti-intellectualism on the rise throughout the West, it is more important than ever that we utilize our art to push forward with the work of building a better future for ourselves and for our children.  It is classic modus operandi for aspiring autocrats to crack down on artistic expression and dissent, because they know that it provides one of the most fertile grounds imaginable for expanding the human consciousness, and there is nothing more terrifying to those who would rather turn back the clock to an imaginary, more “glorious” past. 

            We’ve already seen the first salvos of this in the United States, where Trump is resolutely following the heels of the Putins, Erdogans, and Politburos of the world by recommending eliminating federal funding for the arts, while egging on the long-running right-wing conspiracy theory that the liberal Hollywood “elite” seek to push an extreme progressive agenda on “real Americans,” and that this must be stopped at all costs. 

            Everywhere we turn, there is fear, anger, hatred, and ignorance.  And yet, I feel excited and encouraged by the opportunities these trying times present to us.  We’ve been down these dark roads before, and on many an occasion people have risen admirably to the challenges they faced.  One of our greatest collective traditions is to use our storytelling crafts to light candles within the darkness that, together, can paint a path forward for us when it at first seems there is none.  

            We are each now called upon to do our part, and as a historian who loves cinema, I intend to do mine by spreading the word about just a few of the great films that can provide us comfort, inspiration, and ideas, or provoke us to think deeply about a side of the human experience we hadn’t considered before.  The time for small thinking is long gone.  Let’s embrace with abandon our pasts and our arts, and let our imaginations run wild with the possibilities proffered to us by Fate. 

            With this, I am pleased to formally announce the start of a new long-running series on this blog; Films for the Trump Years.  In each installment (I am currently planning one a month, unless circumstances compel me to do more or less), I will look at one or a handful of movies- many historically-based, but also some fictional- that I feel have something to offer to our current cultural dialogue and reflect on why I recommend taking the time to see them.   

            I already have an extensive list of movies I plan to include, but recommendations and suggestions are welcome at any time, as there are obviously whole worlds of movies I haven’t yet seen, and by the end of this I’d like this list to be as expansive as possible. 

            That said, I have already settled on my first film, Avu DuVernay’s marvelous Selma, and should be up by the end of the month.  Until then, stay strong, hold fast to truth, and never stop fighting. 

            May we all live long, and prosper. 

-Noah Franc