A confusion in proportion

I finally saw the Wrinkle in Time movie. Like everyone else and their dog, I’m disappointed, of course. But I find it particularly frustrating that it wasn’t just a straightforward failure. The dramatisation (rather than communication by internal monologue) of Meg’s social conflicts and frustrations, as well as of Charles Wallace’s precocious oddness, actually raised my hopes.

I wish they’d taken the same approach with the rest of the story. It seems to me as though they thought it was now too old hat – that nobody would be wowed any longer by a centaur angel, so we had to have Reese Witherspoon as a giant flying lettuce; or that the psychological and social terror of a pulsing brain on a dais would seem visually pathetic, so we had to have monster neurons instead (…except that looks just as or even more ridiculous).

Likewise, it shows a lack of faith in the story, that they thought they had to raise the stakes by making Camazotz and IT galactic centres of evil, rather than simply a specific instance of a wider conflict. I think it’s ultimately misguided to think that we can only care about Meg’s story if she is battling some singular ultimate ill, if Camazotz is the start and end of evil. Their move makes the universe seem smaller, not bigger.

I think of some of the iconic moments that have always stayed with me: Mrs Whatsit as a dumpy bag lady falling over her chair with sandwich in hand; Calvin dropping to his knees before the centaur and being told “Not to me, never to me”; Charles Wallace succumbing to arrogance in Camazotz; Mr Murray succumbing to despair; Aunt Beast’s food! Aunt Beast!; Meg’s sobbing heroism in agreeing to return for Charles Wallace. These were cut out, and with them went so much: the wiser heart beneath odd appearances (I mean, Mrs Whatsit just became Reese Witherspoon); the ideas of appropriate reverence, humility, moral reserve; love as nourishment; not just that Meg’s faults have value but how… and they weren’t replaced.

I’m not generally concerned about slavish faithfulness to source material, if changes enhance rather than detract, but all of this did raise the question in me: why adapt a story you don’t trust? The resulting film was colourful and reasonably entertaining in an undemanding way, but I think it ultimately failed because it kept wildly overcompensating out of a lack of confidence in itself. (Ironic, given its themes.)

In a way, I think this dynamic is exemplified by how they handled the role of Calvin O’Keefe. Calvin is in many ways a wish fulfilment fantasy for angry weird self-hating-but-also-arrogant preteen girls-who-are-into-dudes (I think he may have been my first literary crush). The film duly plays this up, quite successfully at first. But it also misses that part of his appeal is that he’s his own person, into his own things, and that he relates to the amazing worlds that they travel to in his own way. Without this relation to everything else, his attraction to Meg becomes less meaningful, and less flattering. Yet in this adaptation, as time goes on, his role becomes more and more simply to direct absurdly moony gazes at Meg, follow her lead and compliment her hair. The reality is that his affections are worth more when they aren’t all that he is. (The storyline about his father is pretty cursorily tacked on.)

It’s this sense of proportion – a recognition that the humbling largeness of the world enhances rather than diminishes us – that the film ultimately lacks.

The Last Jedi


(This post is probably of no interest unless you are a Star Wars fan, and possibly not even then. It also draws a lot on analysis I’ve read elsewhere, so I’m making no claims to original thought here, just putting together various observations that I agree with.)

The first time I watched TLJ, I was mightily confused, and not entirely sure whether I was disappointed. Partly it had to do with pacing. There is a hell of a lot going on in the movie; there are, I think, slightly more frequent jump-cuts than in its predecessors, and no contemplative sequences similar to the beautiful introduction to Rey’s scavenging in TFA.

Another point that bothered me was the shift in tonality, and in particular, the daft humour. Star Wars has never been sophisticated (I mean, lol), but this film takes the goofiness to new levels. See also: everybody shitting on Hux; Luke tickling Rey with the leaf; and the First Order laundry room. (Hilarious though that admittedly is, it seems straight out of Eddie Izzard’s Death Star canteen or that SNL sketch about Matt the Radar Technician. I don’t generally really like overtly self-conscious movies and it seems a departure from Star Wars.)

Relatedly, the dialogue doesn’t always feel as natural in the mouths of the characters as it did in TFA (where I think the sheer wonderfulness of the characters and the new emotional and thematic questions more than make up for the reuse of original trilogy plot devices). There are also some “out of galaxy” language moments. Instead of bantha fodder and scruffy-looking nerf-herders strong enough to pull the ears off a gundark, we have references to “rabid curs”, “murderous snakes” and “cops”, all of which really ought to have been easily corrected to appropriately dorky alt-galaxy mood music. Even that great move from Hux where he spits out “Long live the Supreme Leader” is tonally somewhat out of place in a galaxy which is not supposed to share our culture.

But the biggest issues for me were those of theme and plot. Many people have pointed out that the Canto Bight side plot seems entirely superfluous because the mission fails and it seems, at first glance, to change nothing about what has happened. And while I think Kylo Ren emerges as a superbly realised character, simultaneously drawing the viewer in and endlessly disappointing us in equal measure, I had Feelings about the apparent unavoidable conclusion that he is a simple asshole who will only ever really be overcome through simple violence. Of course it would be hard on any serious moral analysis to ever properly redeem him (hello, genocide), but I feel for Han and Leia, damn it, and I didn’t want Han’s death to be in vain. TLJ seems to snuff out any last hope for even facile Vader-style “redemption”. I found it painful and discordant and on some level unacceptable that even Luke and Leia, at the end, are willing to write him off.

On re-watching, I’ve come round to really liking the film. One analysis I read of the business with Canto Bight is that it was about the danger of impulsiveness and individual heroism instead of collaborative trust. This seemed merely half-convincing at first, when the mission seemed to be “only” a failure, I became much more convinced when I saw it pointed out that it was only Poe blabbing to Finn and Rose that enabled DJ to sell information about the transports to the First Order – thus significantly changing the course of the battle. The mission did, after all, have stakes. They just weren’t the ones I was looking for (ahem).

I also realised that much of my impatience and failure to understand the plot with Poe and Holdo stemmed from my own (wait for it) sexism. Holdo, and I think this may be intentional, pushed a lot of prejudices for Star Wars fan. The perfectly coiffed hair and elegant robes activated suspicion in me; I found myself wondering from the start if she would be a “traitor”, and because Poe is set up as a straightforward hero, Poe’s own suspicions seem to validate the viewer’s. It was actually a great set piece about interrogating our notions of heroism, which of course, the whole film is about.

Likewise, I realised that my own investment in Kylo Ren’s “redemption arc” was something that Rey shared, and which impelled her to go running off to “save” him to begin with – despite the flimsiness of the “evidence” that he was going to come! back! to! the! Light! To appreciate the film’s moves in this respect, I had to be willing to critically distance myself from that investment. And if I laud the move to make Rey’s parents “nobody”, because I didn’t want heroism to come from bloodlines, why should I keep the original trilogy’s insistence that if all is put right in the royal Skywalker family, all is put right in the galaxy? Why does the “fall to the Dark Side” of Ben Solo need any more special explanation than Jabba the Hutt’s villainy? Why should this one asshole’s redemption take up three films when Finn conscientiously objects from day one of TFA?

In all, I think that TLJ has done something pretty cool in terms of taking viewers’ expectations about heroism and critiquing and subverting them. I think those of us who love Star Wars ought to come out doubting, because the film questions some of the sources and forms of that attachment, but in an intelligent way, in the cunning construction of story, and without losing the overall celebration of true heroism – with lessons learned by Rey, and Poe, and Luke alike. One moral of the story is, per Kylo Ren, LET THE PAST DIE. KILL IT IF YOU MUST. I don’t know if the world needed more Star Wars movies (probably not), but I accept that if it’s going to have them anyway, they may as well do cool new things. And I think TLJ did.

PS: I accept that there are serious logical inconsistencies in the warfare tactics etc. but I don’t really care. In TESB they appear to be able to walk around in the mouth of an asteroid-dwelling space slug without pressurised suits. Light craft have their own gravity fields (and the bombers can “drop” bombs in space?!). It’s Star Wars. It’s not supposed to make sense – in fact, the “explaining” in TLJ was one of the things I didn’t like so much about it, and which I felt set up unnecessary expectations of sense-making.

Also, given that new Force powers have been added in just about every single movie (Vader throws shit around in TESB, Palpatine Force lightning in ROTJ, Kylo stops blaster bolts in TFA), I’m just not wedded to any fixed canonical concept of what the Force can do. (Though I’ll accept Han’s insistence that Finn is probably wrong on the subject.)

PPS: I’ve also come round on the subject of the villains, which I had initially been lukewarm about, for fear that they just wouldn’t be very imposing in IX. The First Order is scary shit even without a figurehead. Kylo Ren may have been a fool in the moment but it may be a very different story with the triggers in his personal history- Luke, Han and Leia – out of the way. It’s true Hux is subject to a lot of physical comedy and made to seem a bit ridiculous, but I don’t think we should underestimate him – the infinite flexibility of his toadying is actually quite formidable; as I saw pointed out somewhere, there’s something pretty impressive about how smoothly he drops the next “Supreme Leader” on Crait. And I’m looking forward to the inter-villain conflict which has now been telegraphed for IX.

The Handmaiden

Note: this is really spoileriffic.

I wanted to, I really wanted to, but I didn’t much like THE HANDMAIDEN.

It was, I’ll grant, visually enchanting. Every frame is beautifully composed—in the opening minutes alone, the mere placement of household objects and the light falling on a car in a forest gave me as much pleasure at looking in a screen as I’ve had in some time.

But the film was filled with baffling storytelling choices that, as time wore on, went for me from mildly irksome to confusing to downright unpleasant.

I admit that my view is coloured by my strong sense of the film’s departures from Sarah Water’s novel FINGERSMITH, on which it is based. I find it hard to know exactly how I would have reacted coming to the story cold. But I don’t see fidelity to source material as an end or virtue in itself. For instance, the transplantation of context to Korea and the introduction of the element of cultural colonisation of Korea by Japan, to me, enriched rather than detracted. So my feelings aren’t (only or mainly) the fangirls’ cry of “They got it wrong!” It’s more that a knowledge of their deliberate redirections makes the substantive failings of the film—and the politics of its choices—clearer.

Anyway, my complaints, in vaguely chronological order (since that is also the sequence in which my irritation mounted):

Initially, I was lightly troubled by how heavily they play on Hideko’s beauty in constructing the romance between the leads, beginning with Sookee being (somewhat unconvincingly and soap operatically) dumbstruck at the sight of her. In general, I’m not a fan of any romances that begin with being blown away with one party’s looks; and this certainly compared unfavourably to the growing fascination across distance that is slowly built up in the novel.

It didn’t help that Hideko is a much more unsympathetic character than her novel equivalent. Sue and Maud are no saints, of course: FINGERSMITH’s power comes from its dramatisation of two individuals finding love and recognition in a kind of radical equality of sins—they both entered exactly the same callous plot to do each other in, at the behest of the same greed which seems like the only freedom they could ever enjoy. Mutual honesty and forgiveness come from realising they made their choices from the same trap—a prisoner’s dilemma—and that they are stronger together than pit against each other.

But relations between Hideko and Sookee are much more unequal. In the film, it is Hideko—rather than Rivers and Sucksby—who invents the madhouse scheme. Hideko is the prime mover, Sookee only the pawn. And Hideko’s cruelties to her servants and to Sookee (including striking both) are much more intense and gratuitous than Maud’s. By doing away with the plots to do with maternal love and mistaken identity, the idea of equality between the two and their common identity is also undermined.

But this could have perhaps been forgiven, as weakness rather than failure, had the film not gone on to pander to precisely the kind of degrading fetishisation of their sexuality which is supposedly being criticised in Hideko’s uncle and is coterie. It’s a delicate balance which is walked in FINGERSMITH: sexual frankness is both a tool for damaging and exploiting Maud and a source of her liberatory connection to Sue. But THE HANDMAIDEN seems to me to tip toward reproducing rather than challenging dehumanising views of the protagonists’ sexuality.

Beside the ways their connection (as described above) is undermined, there’s the dreadful move of having the Rivers analogue (the fake Count—I don’t think we ever learn his real name?) “fall in love”, whatever that means and for whatever it’s worth, with Hideko. This takes place for no discernible reason other than presumably once again her enchanting appearance, since there is no warmth between them whatsoever. This undermines the supposed contrast between the mercenary and exploitative relations exemplified in how the Count/uncle treat Hideko and Sookee, and how the two women treat one another. Why is the Count’s “love” different from Sookee’s or Hideko’s?

Worse, Hideko begins to sexually perform for the Count—and also the viewer, who seems increasingly to be made to take the role of the film’s voyeurs. I don’t count in this the part where she kisses him to drug him, but I can’t find any other way to describe the fact that she masturbates in front of him on their wedding night—if the point was only to fool Sookee, making false noises would have sufficed.

The part which to me most encapsulates the increasingly voyeuristic tone of the film is the closing scene, where Sookee and Hideko re-enact one of the scenes which Hideko had had to describe to her uncle’s audience. Confusingly, they do this with very stagey symmetry, on what I remember (perhaps wrongly) on rather uncomfortable looking furniture, taking positions and roles that are remarkably reminiscent of women laughing alone with salad.

A final, relatively minor, gripe: FINGERSMITH is not subtle. Nobody would accuse the film-makers of lack of drama for simply transcribing its matters to screen. So why they had to dial everything to do with Maud’s uncle up to eleven really escapes me. Is it not enough that he’s a nasty pervert who makes a young girl read erotica to men for fun and profit? Does he also have to be a wife-killer—with an underground torture room—complete with rape-octopus—who wants to marry and fuck his ward—and who can mobilise all the country’s border guards to search for them? Calm down a bit, guys.

So, yeah. I wanted to like THE HANDMAIDEN. But I didn’t.

Children, Wake Up

This will surely destroy any vestigial appearance of literary seriousness I may have, recommending Star Wars slashfic, but I am absolutely loving the incredible work on characterisation in Children, Wake Up, a series that begins with three chapters of Kylo Ren/General Hux pornography (uh… yeah), continues with five chapters of romance, and is currently taking off with 28 chapters of political (?) drama. I found the huge clumsy “HEY THIS IS STAR WARS” elbow digs in Episode VII trying, but the reversal of the parent-child dynamics was an emotional masterstroke. The fact that Kylo Ren is mildly comical only made it all the more poignant. This fanfic series is doing a fantastic job of exploring the potential in that.

Otherwise, for the first time in a very long while, I haven’t really been reading, so there is little to report from the world of text. This is mostly because I’ve taken up watercolour painting and am mildly obsessed with trying to get the lighting right on some succulents right now. I’m sure literature will return eventually, but not yet, not yet.

The return of something or another

Been awhile, eh? My word world has been quiet. Against all better judgment (and every single source you could consult), I have been watching the film adaptation of Possession, which is terrible in every way imaginable and then a few more. As it seizes every opportunity to alienate the Byatt reader and must surely be incomprehensibly dull to everyone else, I can’t quite grok who the target audience is meant to be. Perhaps the same baffling market segment who enjoy Gwyneth Paltrow. Yet I find myself still watching. (Yes, I’m the sort of person who keeps pressing a bruise.)

More edifyingly, I am reading Piketty. The first 150 pages or so are, strictly speaking, purely accounting; but who knew accounting could ring with such clarity and insight? How do we manage to gabble and bicker so much about resources without simply taking stock of where they are and who they belong to? I feel a little like someone is showing me that I have lived on our earth without ever having a simple description of the shape and size of its continents and oceans. It makes me feel a little stupid. In the best way.

The Arrows of Time is a bit of a departure from its predecessors. Both the science and the gender politics are comparatively less prominent; instead, we get more of a straight-up space travel thriller, with some familiar Egan ruminations on the nature of free will. (The setup is very much reminiscent of The Hundred-Light-Year Diary, one of the short stories in the collection Axiomatic.) I was sufficiently engaged to want to keep reading, and to feel satisfied that the whole trilogy has seen a resolution (a planet saved from destruction, hurrah!), but it wasn’t nearly as special as the rest of Orthogonal.

Things have otherwise been quiet on the reading front, as I’ve been hugely busy with Day Job. I’m pleased to say that revisions for the novel are underway, though, and after some to-ing and fro-ing we’ve nearly settled on a title, which I hope to be able to share with you soon.

In the meantime: you probably meant to do so anyway, but you really should go see Catching Fire, which is a significant improvement over the first film in the series. It’s shed the pointlessly sick-making cinematography, and the trilogy’s underlying themes about the effects of violence and hierarchical control on the authenticity of human relationships are presented a lot more clearly. The film’s emotional moments are powerful but also refreshingly economical for a Hollywood action movie. I’m now greatly looking forward to Mockingjay, though given that I wept while reading practically all of the source material, I think I’m in for some teary evenings.