MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, May 31, 2018

May 31, 2018: BlockbusterStudying: Coco


[Although Black Panther has already busted just about every conceivable block, Memorial Day launches the summer blockbuster season. So this week I wanted to return to some BlockbusterStudying, focusing especially on big hits from last year. Add your BlockbusterStudying thoughts, please!]
On the animated film that’s at least as culturally and historically important as Black Panther.
First things first: I haven’t had a chance to see Pixar’s latest film Coco (2017) yet, and so can’t speak in any specific way about either its details or its quality (although it’s Pixar and not in the Cars universe, so I’d be shocked if it’s not at least pretty darn good). My two favorite film reviewers, my sons, did have a chance to see it recently, and report that it’s “very good,” “a bit sad but with a happy ending,” and “not like any other animated movie,” which is the particular aspect of the film that I want to focus on in this post. Coco is the first film with a nine-figure budget (it reportedly cost upwards of $175 million to make) to feature an entirely Latino cast, with 12 year old newcomer and lead Anthony Gonzalez supported by established greats like Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Edward James Olmos, and many more. That might seem like a given for a film set in Mexico, but of course it’s anything but; just look at the cast for Disney’s Mulan (1998), which despite being set in imperial China featured non-Asian voice actors like Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, Eddie Murphy, and Marni Nixon in prominent roles.
So Coco represents an important step in casting such big-budget animated (and non-animated) films, and one that nicely lines up with current conversations about diversity and inclusion riders, #OscarsSoWhite and Hollywood whitewashing and how to challenge and change such trends, and more. But the film is just as important, and to my mind even more so, when it comes to the questions of representation and identity that I discussed in this post on The Princess and the Frog (which, to its credit, did feature a largely African American cast voicing its African American characters, although the romantic lead Prince Naveen was voiced by the Brazilian American actor Bruno Campos). As I noted there, no genre of films connects with young viewers more consistently than animated films, and so casting such films with actors who reflect diverse communities—in any and all cases, but even more so when the film’s story and setting connect to those communities and their histories and stories—is a vital way to make diverse young Americans feel included in our collective conversations.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that an all-Latino animated film like Coco is at least as important, culturally and historically, as is the overwhelmingly African and African American cast of Black Panther. Of course the actors are not visible on screen in an animated film in the same way that they are in a live-action one, and that difference is not insignificant when it comes to representation and perception. But kids (especially this born digital generation of kids) can and will look up the actors who play characters in an animated movie, will seek our interviews or behind the scenes clips, will learn more about the communal effort of making a film. And in at least some ways, doing so and finding out that the voice actors are just as consistently Latino as the film’s characters and setting could be an even more moving and powerful moment (for any kid, but doubly so for a Latino kid) than seeing actors who look like us on screen. One of many reasons to celebrate Coco, and to root for more blockbuster animated films like it in the years to come.
Last blockbuster tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other blockbusters you’d highlight and analyze?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

May 30, 2018: BlockbusterStudying: Wonder Woman


[Although Black Panther has already busted just about every conceivable block, Memorial Day launches the summer blockbuster season. So this week I wanted to return to some BlockbusterStudying, focusing especially on big hits from last year. Add your BlockbusterStudying thoughts, please!]
On the historical women who would especially appreciate this wondrous one.
I wasn’t quite as enamored of Wonder Woman (2017) as most viewers—this isn’t a non-favorite series, so I won’t go into all those details, but overall I would say it was a pretty conventional superhero origin story, if with of course an important gender reversal. But one thing that did really affect and impress me about the film was its emphasis on philosophical and historical pacifism. The entire reason Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves her island paradise in the first place is because she learns about the ongoing horrors of the Great War and becomes determined to stop them; granted she does so because she believes correctly that her people’s longstanding enemy Ares the God of War has returned and is behind the war (this is a comic book superhero film, after all), but it’s perfectly easy and appropriate to see that character as also a metaphor for the forces that drive nations to war and of its accompanying horrors and destructions. In any case, Wonder Woman’s central motivation and goal is profoundly pacifist, no small thing in a blockbuster action film.
No small historical thing either, of course, but in that sense Wonder Woman is part of a large and existing community and historical trend: the link between women’s rights activists and anti-war efforts. Forgive me for quoting myself, but these two paragraphs from this prior post on anti-war suffrage activists highlight these historical women who I’m pretty sure would be first in line to support this film:
“Such dismissals of anti-war protesters were nothing new in American society, of course. Whereas the Vietnam War became so broadly unpopular that its anti-war movement garnered as much support as it did critique (although the aforementioned stereotyping of the protesters still occurred to be sure), the World War II and World War I anti-war movements were far more nationally unpopular and subject to the same kind of attacks. During both wars, many of the most prominent pacificists, both in America and around the world, were also women’s rights activists; a trend exemplified by Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who opposed both world wars and who represented the sole Congressional “no” vote against declaring war on Japan on December 8th, 1941. Rankin’s political career survived her World War I pacifism, but her opposition to World War II proved not only politically costly but personally destructive, both in media coverage and in threats on her life. (She did not run for reelection, but did live to lead an anti-Vietnam War campaign in 1968!)
The virulent opposition to Rankin and her pacifist colleagues could be attributed solely to pro-war agitation and fever, and certainly that’s been a consistent part of such wartime historical moments and narratives. But I think it would also need to be analyzed in conjunction with the equally virulent and too-often forgotten opposition faced by suffragists and other women’s rights leaders. In that linked post I highlighted the shockingly nasty children’s book Ten Little Suffergets (c.1910), which offers a particularly vivid but far from isolated illustration (literally and figuratively) of such anti-women’s rights attitudes. If we have largely forgotten this kind of widespread anti-suffragist vitriol, one clear reason would be our collective recognition of just how fully those women’s rights activists were on the right side of history—a lesson that we perhaps have yet to learn when it comes to our anti-war movements, contemporary and historical.”
Next blockbuster tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other blockbusters you’d highlight and analyze?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

May 29, 2018: BlockbusterStudying: The Last Jedi


[Although Black Panther has already busted just about every conceivable block, Memorial Day launches the summer blockbuster season. So this week I wanted to return to some BlockbusterStudying, focusing especially on big hits from last year. Add your BlockbusterStudying thoughts, please!]
[NB: some SPOILERS follow, so if you haven’t seen Last Jedi yet, go do so and then come back to share your thoughts here!]
On the thoughtful questions behind a controversial character arc, and why they’re so vital.
It’s not exactly breaking news to note that Mark Hamill did not initially see eye-to-eye with director and screenwriter Rian Johnson over his character Luke Skywalker’s role and perspective in The Last Jedi (2017). Hell, there’s even a new documentary called The Director and the Jedi that documents their disagreements, as well as their evolution toward a more shared understanding (one that Hamill now voices very eloquently). In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that I absolutely love the film, and especially really enjoyed both Luke as a character and Hamill’s performance (and it’s a tribute to him as an actor that he does such a pitch-perfect job despite his reservations). But I get where Hamill was coming from with those initial responses: for most of the film Luke is a bitter and nasty s.o.b., and one who specifically expresses opinions and perspectives that seem to dismantle quite thoroughly everything about the Jedi and the Force that constituted his character’s beautiful arc in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Yet as I argued in this post (still one of my favorites across the more than 2300 I’ve shared in this space), I believe that the character of Luke has always represented a complex combination of Jedi and anti-Jedi (at least as an influential character like Yoda defines the Jedi). More exactly, Luke has always relied on emotion as a guiding part of his embrace of the Force and role as a Jedi, despite Yoda’s assertions that emotions are dangerous or lead to the Dark Side. So the Luke that we meet at the start of Last Jedi—a Luke whose missteps and failures with young Ben Solo have made him question bitterly his own life and work, as well as the broader concepts behind the Jedi Order and even the Force itself—is just experiencing and responding to another set of emotions, ones still driven by love and family (Ben is his nephew, after all) but now coming from a far darker place. Without spoiling entirely where his character ends up by the film’s wonderful concluding moments, I’ll just note that anyone who sees that bitter Luke as the Last Jedi’s only or central version of this character and his perspective must have stopped paying attention a bit earlier than they should have (or taken a really long and poorly timed bathroom break).
However, I don’t think his character’s arc and evolution in the film is necessary to appreciate Luke’s bitter questions about the past and his ideals. Indeed, I would argue that another failing of Yoda’s seems to be that even after the disastrous events of the prequels—and his own direct role in Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the Dark Side, as I note in that hyperlinked post—he still when we meet him on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back holds to most of the same ideas about the Jedi, emotion, and the like. Even if those disastrous past events had not taken place, I don’t think anyone should continue to hold the same views across the arc of their life, not without careful and thoughtful examination of them and a willingness to critique and even perhaps set aside those that do not stand up to such scrutiny. While Luke might voice his examinations and critiques in a more bitter way than would be ideal (again, he’s an emotional guy!), the perspectives themselves are healthy and exemplary for any person late in his or her life. And [SPOILERS one more time] with the help of Rey, herself a combination of Jedi and emotion to be sure, by the end of the film Luke moves past those critiques and into a distinct but still heroic perspective on the Jedi and their role.
Next blockbuster tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other blockbusters you’d highlight and analyze?