Deconstructing the Furies of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

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WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

In Greek and Roman mythology, the furies (or Erinyes—“the angry ones”) are creatures represented as the female embodiments of justice and vengeance, born from the primordial goddess of Night more powerful than Zeus himself, and tasked to punish the unjust. Well-meaning civilians honored the furies as patrons of legal and moral order, and although often depicted as hellish beasts arising as bats or as storm clouds, they were also not incomparable to the three Graces of charm, beauty, and creativity.

How fitting, then, that director George Miller would clarify his continuation of the Mad Max saga—this time, a film led by female defenders of justice in a crazy, mythical future—with the subtitle Fury Road.

And with actual storm clouds, to boot.

I can’t be sure that Miller or his cast intended this interpretation of the title, since the dominant emotion on screen certainly screams of fury in the vernacular sense, but I’m almost certain that they did. After all, I don’t think anyone who hires Eve Ensler for the specific purpose of consulting on all things feminist would overlook the obvious equalization and overwhelming competence of the women in this film, and how the very appearance of them in the male-dominated world of action blockbusters might as well rarify them as otherworldly creatures.

But it isn’t just their number that makes Fury Road’s women notable. Rather, it’s their characterization amidst their surroundings that seems to have garnered people’s attention and praise. Neither the camera nor the titular male hero, for example, observe them as sexual objects, as the repeated line “We are not things,” illustrates. Female lead Furiosa, after all, doesn’t even arrrive on screen with all her body parts in tact, eliminating a sense of perfection in favor of the intricacy and resourcefulness symbolized by a prosthetic arm. The women are also allowed to feel sadness and doubt, emotions too often lost on all kinds of action heroes, regardless of gender (and also used to great effect, I might add, in Netflix’s amazing take on Daredevil, another action series way ahead of the curve, in my opinion).

They’re also allowed to be pretty old, which is pretty awesome.

Even the subtleties of Charlize Theron’s constantly-watering eyes—on the verge of tears or just withstanding the biting dust?—spoke volumes about the complexities of heroism. She is, like the mythical furies of ancient Greece, a tenant of a sort of underworld, accustomed to witnessing suffering and subjugation, dedicating what may be the last of her life to punishing the perpetrators. In this instance, the symbolism also suits the specific pain of female suffering, a feeling of social lowness also attributable to recognizable phrases like “the glass ceiling,” beneath which many women find themselves. And yet, even in a hellscape, the film hangs tight to themes of fertility and growth, and not just the biological kind. Here, even an elderly woman world-wearied of the fight for justice still tries at every opportunity to plant seeds of flowers and fruit, filled with hope—another theme of the film—that one day they might prosper into a new environment. Change, after all, doesn’t happen overnight. It must be tended with patience by people like Furiosa, who withstand all sorts of bad weather until the roots take hold.

Behold, the tears of badassery.

But it must also be tended by people like Max, which is why I’m frustrated to hear remarks’ like ones I found by self-proclaimed feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian, who wrote:

“Mad Max’s villains are caricatures of misogyny which makes overt misogynists angry but does not challenge more prevalent forms of sexism. Viewers get to feel good about hating cartoon misogyny without questioning themselves or examining how sexism actually works in our society. It makes me profoundly sad that mainstream pop culture now interprets feminism to mean ‘women can drive fast and stoically kill people too!’”

Her last statement, especially, fails to take into account the work these action sequences do to to enhance the equalizing goal of the movie. Fury Road may not give a lecture on the history of sexism and how it works in society, but it does suggest an idea of how sexism might be undermined and conquered.

To see this, people like Sarkeesian must be willing to observe the film’s male leads as well, and note how Miller manages to subvert even traditional action-movie characters into something beyond driving fast and stoically killing people—which, I might add, is a gross oversimplification of Fury Road’s plot.

If someone could explain this, though… that’d be great.

All of the interactions between Max, the slave Nix (played by Nicholas Hoult) and the rest of the female cast, for example, unfold in ways that simply don’t  rely on the presupposition of sexism. Neither the camera nor Max/Nix ever gawk at the women’s bodies in an overtly sexual way, regardless of what they look like or what they wear. In fact, although the film obviously depicts the physical abuse and subjugation of women, Max experiences some of these things for himself as “Blood Bag,” Nix’s way of reducing Max to only his body. Contrariwise, when Max meets up with Furiosa and the wives, he never thinks twice of Furiosa’s physicality (not even the strangeness of her missing arm), and never expects her to be anything less than his equal both in and out of combat. Max is also willing to cooperate with Furiosa during a scene where he fails to use two of his last three bullets to take out an approaching threat, instead letting Furiosa, the better shot, use his shoulder as a mount to snipe them away. And in a surprising overturn of the “Blood Bag” situation from earlier, Max—previously forced to siphon his blood to Nix—chooses to give his blood to a dying Furiosa of his own volition, becoming a hero not through “driving fast and stoically killing people,” but through healing.

♪ Give a little bit… give a little bit of your blood to me… ♪

Nix, too, previously depicted as a loony villain intent on achieving glory in a fiery death in Immortan Joe’s service, also achieves heroism through sacrifice. He may still die a fiery death, but he dies it a free man, thinking not of being the “manly-man” he’d been taught to be, but acting out of the love he learned from the wife Capable.

For a film so full of death and destruction, I find Fury Road so notable for the way it uses these events to make way for the ideas I mentioned earlier—of hope, growth, and rejuvenation. Not just through the act of a woman fighting to save other women (which is already rare enough in action films), but for the men who see them as the heroes they are. Max—and later Nix— doesn’t view these women as creatures in need of a helping hand or a charitable push, but as people to admire and emulate, and to whom he would sacrifice part of himself to ensure their victory. In the final scene, they have left the truck’s secret compartment, succeeded in the secret mission, and hoisted onto a platform before a cheering crowd, finally raised above the hell of their desert life. Perhaps it takes a little fury, after all, for a woman to serve justice in plain sight.

Watch the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road below:

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The Limits of Storytelling in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

As I shuffled out of the movie theatre after Avengers: Age of Ultron, the number-one movie in America, I wondered why I hadn’t liked it. I knew Hawkeye’s secret family had nothing to do with how I felt (the scenes at his safe house may have been among the most interesting parts of the film). I didn’t even care about Black Widow’s infertility (I could have sworn that the “monster” she referred to had nothing to do with her lack of babies and more about the fact that she used to live of life full of remorseless killing). I enjoyed the first Avengers well enough and I like Thor and Captain America and Iron Man and the rest of the team. But I just didn’t care about what happened to them this time around, and I suddenly cared even less about Joss Whedon’s protestations and explanations I’d been reading about for the past week. And I like Joss Whedon, too.

Instead, I started to hear the voice of my latest creative writing teacher echoing her first and foremost critical question of sub-par short stories: What is the emotional truth? In those types of student stories, the rest of us reading them were usually uncertain about what we should have focused on—what character, what scene, what event, what theme—and why we should care at all. We could conjecture and conjure sub-text that might make certain themes appear, stitching our own links between disassociated acts to try to make them come together as a whole, intentional message, but sometimes we all had to sit back and realize that the story just wasn’t working on those levels and needed to be fleshed out. It needed life. Soul, even. So my teacher would ask us her first question in a different way: What makes the story live?

Thor getting struck by the lightning of knowledge (or…something) in a random sea cave doesn’t count.

But what does “emotional truth” even mean, and what does it have to do with the enormous, thrashing mashup that is Age of Ultron? Most working definitions might call forth the importance of creating empathy, allowing for deep connections between readers and characters through the conflict of the narrative and the meaning inferred between the lines. It’s supposed to create a “truth”—an interpretation of the world or a worldview, perhaps—that often rings truer whilst reading the fiction than it would whilst reading plain facts in the news or a dissertation. It’s supposed to give the readers something to take away.

I’m speaking now of fiction in literature, but the same elusive concept can be applied to comic books as well.

At 2012’s Baltimore Comic-Con, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort spoke about the importance of emotional truth when reviewing stories for the brand’s famous super heroes.

“The trick of stories is to reveal an emotional truth,” he said. “You want to effect the reader, make them feel…something.” In other words, just as X-Men is a metaphor for tolerance, or Thor a metaphor for the bond between family, a story must in some way resonate with readers regardless of whether they’re already fans of hammer-wielding thunder-gods.

Or some sort of mutant with inspecific superpowers who can destroy entire races and create alternate universes where some people are dead or else just really messed up, and with only a flick of her red, glowing wrist. Which, admittedly, is hard to relate to.

Still, I found that the question of emotional truth, even by Brevoort’s simple definition, is often difficult for writers in my class to answer, especially when the story on the table may have been the result of hurried stress in the midst of other school assignments, and not a true vision desperate to be told. I wonder if the same thing could be said of Joss Whedon and the famous difficulties encountered during the production of Age of Ultron.

Above, Joss Whedon laughs to hide his pain.

Interestingly, Tom Brevoort’s role as an editor, not a writer or an artist, is crucial to discussing these problems about how to draw out the ever-necessary emotional truth of not just a story, but a whole comic book—or, for the purposes of this blog, the massive, overarching film franchises like the entirety of Captain America, or the epic super-franchise of The Avengers.

In the same talk, for example, Brevoort speaks about the importance of the editor’s role as the “first reader”—essentially the first audience—of the book, whose primary role is to “figure out whether the story works, [whether] it’s exciting, and, ‘do I care at all.’” He suggests that Marvel stories “are ultimately about individual people” and that every story they do is “usually about metaphor.” And if the individual people are important to the story, then their identities and roles are also important. An editor, Brevoort said, needs to ask, “Why is this is a story that can only be told with these characters? If this is a story that can be taken out and do a global find and replace for Spider-Man, this is not really a story about Spider-Man.”

Actual reaction shot after reading the ‘Age of Ultron’ script.

Lastly, Brevoort makes special mention of a misstep especially pertinent to Age of Ultron: “You don’t want to just make ‘stories about stories,’ meaning books that just reference other comics, or exist only to fix a continuity mistake from five years prior.”

Why, then, does the Avengers series break almost all of these story-telling rules from the mouth of Marvel itself?

Age of Ultron, after all, disregards individual stories in favor of an enormous ensemble cast, twelve of which are superheroes or exhibit superpowers (counting Idris Elba’s brief appearance as Heimdall and Ultron just being Ultron), to which Whedon admittedly tries to attach some emotional truth, but not always successfully. For example, Ultron spouts his lines about God versus Man, freedom versus restraint, preservation versus evolution, but we see little evidence of internal conflict until his final confrontation with Vision at the end of the film. The audience is told through Ultron’s spooky renditions of Pinocchio’s “I’ve Got No Strings” that he desires freedom, but what does the film actually show the audience about Ultron’s sense of being bound? If he truly does desire freedom as a rational being, then why does he seem written off as insane or maniacal? He even calls himself “evil” after calling the Avengers “good people.” Ultron, then, risks falling back into the trope of a simple antagonist, even when the film wants to paint him as a complicated creator-god.

We get it.

When the Vision—arguably the most characterized protagonist in the film—confronts Ultron at the end of the movie, we don’t even know why we should believe that Ultron really is “afraid of death” when we’ve been given no sense of Ultron’s relationship to ideas of mortality.

And despite Whedon’s apparent amusement at fans’ confusion in response to the Black Widow’s romance with Hulk, is it that hard to believe that the last Avengers movie and Natasha’s arrow necklace in The Winter Soldier seemed to be leading audience to believe that she and Hawkeye really were more than friends? And that her relationship with Bruce appeared from nowhere? Even in Age of Ultron, Natasha still seems more attached to Hawkeye, who goes to locate her while Bruce doesn’t seem too outwardly concerned. If so many fans perceive so many continuity issues in this matter, than perhaps they might actually exist in spite of Whedon’s protestations.

All I’m saying is, one of them went out of their way to buy this on Etsy or something.

Why, too, render Quicksilver’s death unemotional and inconsequential by means of failing to develop his character, especially since, as a new character, that should be the first thing accomplished? Why is he reduced to a punchline, his constant frown the only evidence of his war-torn past? Since Whedon admitted to shooting an alternate version of the film where Quicksilver survives his wounds, we can only assume that Quicksilver didn’t need to die to make the story work. Come to think of it, I reckon that an argument could me made wherein none of the original Avengers actually need to be themselves to make the story work.

Here’s Quicksilver trying to catch up to a plot that started eight zillion movies before he arrived.

After all, the story seemed to want to be about Ultron and the Vision in the first place, as both were given some of the most compelling dialogue hinting at “emotional truth” the film had to offer, and yet both characters were sidelined in favor of action sequences and wise-guy cracks from the rest of the Avengers. I would argue, for example, that the most telling moment in the film arrives when the Vision sees his physical form for the first time, reflecting over the human-made lights of the human-filled city, visibly moved by his new birth. How ironic that a robot and an android would offer us the most compelling view of humanity in a movie filled with super-humans.

Or just views of the peaceful Sokovian landscape.

Perhaps this comes down to my own selfish wishes in the end. I wanted to learn more about Pietro’s conflicts before he died, and about Wanda’s relationship to her brother. I wanted to learn more about how Ultron and the Vision feel about their inhumanity. And I wanted to learn more about what rest of the Avengers felt about any of this at all.

I’m tempted to think that something so populated with characters as The Avengers just can’t work out the way fiction writers and Marvel creators intend for good storytelling, and that the story of Age of Ultron lost itself before it really began, failing to weave an “emotional truth” until it appears all at once at the end of the film. But since Marvel seems to be intent on making superhero movies until the end of days, that gives plenty of time for all the evolution Ultron kept talking about. Perhaps then, at the close of the last Avengers, we will see the story that has been hiding between the lines all along.

Watch the trailer below:

‘Elf’ and the Triumph of Multiculturalism

There’s been a lot of hatred and prejudice clogging the news outlets this winter, even during a time of year when a large percentage of the world is supposed to celebrating the arrival of Christmas and flurries of warm, fuzzy thoughts. Even if you’re not celebrating Christmas, there are still plenty of reasons to have warm, fuzzy thoughts. And the warm fuzzies, you know, can cross cultures, languages, climates, and skin colors. They can be profound, too, or silly.

In the midst of so much intolerance and confusion, of bitterness and cynicism, I feel, once again, that a little bit of a good movie can do a lot to bring to mind the silliness of war and the healing power of peace and understanding, even under the most ridiculous of circumstances. Which is why, today, I recommend—seriously—the movie Elf.

I’m not the least bit kidding when I say that Elf is maybe one of the most accessible portrayals of cross-culturalism in popular film. And despite its abundance on several networks during Christmastime, it’s film that a lot of people, I think, wouldn’t automatically approach with a critical eye, probably because it includes Will Ferrell in yellow tights eating syrup spaghetti and belching for ten seconds straight. That’s totally understandable.

But if someone were to explain Elf’s plot to someone who had never seen it before, I don’t think the explainer would be able to ignore some key elements that come to light once the movie is broken down to the bones. Especially during these modern days when so many aspects of other “cultures” or “races” are proposed to be unavailable and incomprehensible to people outside those specifications.

Ferrell plays Buddy the elf, an adult human raised from infancy in the culture of the North Pole, but who struggles to fit in with his family and peers due to physical differences that limit him from participating comfortably in their lifestyle.

While Buddy loves the world he grew up in, he jumps on the chance to find his birth father and experience New York City, hoping to expand his family and bring Christmas cheer to as many people as possible.

When he enters the world of New York, Buddy becomes an immigrant. He bears the evidence of cultural difference in his clothing, his gait, his social interactions—all of which are normal to him, but strange and uninviting to the native New Yorkers he encounters. He also hilariously misunderstands the workings of the city itself, using revolving doors as theme park rides, playing hopscotch on crosswalks, and eating cotton balls at the doctor’s office, mistaking them for candy. Buddy is a true “Other,” a term made famous by postcolonial writer and critic Edward Said to describe the way marginalized groups are often perceived as weak, bizarre, and unequal to a group in power (which, as colonialism has taught us, is not always the majority group). He even makes his own father uncomfortable.

Later, under his father’s insistence that Buddy try harder to integrate into New York society, Buddy lands a job at a toy store where he meets Jovie, a woman who, although a New Yorker herself, is certainly more withdrawn from society than Buddy is. She, not the “immigrant Other,” is the one without a voice in this scenario, suggesting that even a native inhabitant of a certain place or culture can be made into something of a subaltern, something of a silent figure whose true story we may never know. Despite her amazing talent for singing, for example, Jovie fears performing for crowds more than anything else. Ironically, it’s Buddy, cast out from his father’s attentions, who is the first in the film to hear her sing and recognize her gift.

But the film doesn’t let these alienated characters remain within the critical opinion that different worlds and ideas cannot combine into something harmonious. In fact, the longer Buddy stays at his job, expressing his own strong suit for décor and general Christmas cheer, the more his boss and coworkers recognize his differences as valuable, unique talents. And after leaving his doubtful stepbrother Michael amazed with his skills in an over-the-top snowball fight against some school bullies, Michael suddenly becomes more interested in Buddy’s previous life. The two become close friends, marking an important moment in which different outlooks or experiences do nothing to prevent the closest bond of all—the bond of family.

In the end, Buddy, his human family, and Jovie save Santa and his crashed sleigh from becoming stranded in Central Park by—in a literal interpretation of the harmony that comes from breaking down barriers—“singing loud for all to hear.” Jovie finds her voice, Buddy finds acceptance, Michael finds passion, and Buddy’s dad uncovers the reality that even two people sprung from the same branch can be completely different, and yet still fall victim to the transforming emotion of love. The cultural connection is complete, and in the epilogue, the audience finds out that Buddy and Jovie even start a family at their own at the North Pole, a literal rebirth of an ideal union between once-conflicting worlds.

And the best part of all: Buddy succeeds in gaining acceptance in the new world without having to change himself. His elf culture remains perfectly intact, as do his personal nuances (like insisting on sitting on Papa Elf’s tiny lap back at the North Pole), suggesting that integration can be achieved without sacrificing individuality. The merging of the two worlds requires more tolerance, not less oddity.

This may seem like an overreaching analysis of a movie about an adopted Christmas elf and his grumpy old man, but sometimes it’s good to find un-marketed layers of the media we absorb every day. Because if people spent more time figuring out what makes people come together instead of arguing about what keeps them apart, then even the most trialing of experiences can become an opportunity to mend bonds and revive the equally distributed treasures of diversity.

Will the New ‘Star Wars’ Have Anything to Say About 2015?

A moment from the trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
A moment from the trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Last week, the first teaser trailer for J.J. Abram’s upcoming Star Wars continuation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, hit the Internet, inspiring sentimental awe or newfound rage, depending on where you looked. Already, a few retrograde objections have appeared in opposition to the skin color of John Boyega, the first actor—supposedly with a lead role—seen in the trailer. In our increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural world, conversations about race continue to appear in the sphere of political and pop culture in a way that they perhaps did not in the year 1977, when the first Star Wars film was released. Then again, a black man in a lead role—especially in science fiction—was a little harder to come by.

But that doesn’t mean that Star Wars was simply that—a science fiction adventure preoccupied with other worlds. In fact, the original film incorporated many political and cultural themes of the 1970s, some of which might be totally invisible to a young viewer in 2015, when the newest film will be released.

George Lucas admitted to some trickle-down influence of Apocalypse Now into the making of Star Wars as a reflection on the Vietnam War (in which, much like in Star Wars, a huge and oppressive government is faced by a small, ideological group of dissidents). Original drafts of the film even included a planet called Aquilae (ultimately scrapped in editing) specifically designed to resemble North Vietnam, and whose system has largely been conquered by neighboring gangsters.

In this way, an argument can be made that Star Wars contextualizes the United States as the Empire, and the rebel forces (Luke Skywalker and the gang) as the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. So that even in a distant star system, our real world comes back to meet us.

I reckon that J.J. Abrams must be aware of this secret history, and hopefully he captains a ship worthy of the same real-world wonder Lucas managed to bring to a film about unrecognizable aliens and spaceships the size of moons. I hope that he took a good look at this second decade of the 2000s and found a place for it in a galaxy far, far away.

Miyazaki Is Not the End of 2D Animation

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Concept art for Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea (2014).

The inimitable director and animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement late last year, when he revealed that The Wind Rises would be his last film ever. What people didn’t expect, though, was the subsequent announcement of halted production and the possible end-all demise of Studio Ghibli, the animation film studio inseparable from Miyazaki and his decades-long leadership.

At 73, Miyazaki hasn’t exactly short-changed the world in his contributions to animation, since several of his films remain among the top-grossing in Japanese history, and 2001’s Spirited Away became the first Japanese-style animated film to win the Academy Award. But even he has revealed an inkling of the greater pessimism that permeates through much of the animation world. The truth is, traditionally animated films just don’t promise the financial rewards now reaped by 3D animation and industry juggernauts like Disney and Pixar (which, ironically, have both admitted Miyazaki and the work of Studio Ghibli as major influences in their own production).

Miyazaki's character, Totoro, makes a cameo appearance in Toy Story 3.
Miyazaki’s character, Totoro (right), makes a cameo appearance in Toy Story 3 (left).

If the voice of the Internet is to be believed, the exit of Miyazaki from the world of animation means the end of hand-drawn films as we know them—perhaps the end of a certain quality we’ve come to expect, whether in aesthetics of storytelling.

But another truth remains: traditional animation may not hold as heavy an influence over the film industry as it once did, but it is not, by any means, dying. The end of Miyazaki is not the end of the art form, nor is it the end of foreign markets making claims on America’s preference for homespun films. Perhaps the retreat of 2D-animation from the popular market might in fact force more creativity from those who still choose to produce hand-drawn pieces, thereby offering an expanded view on what can be done—and done best—with traditional animation and increasingly non-traditional storytelling.

One strong possible contender for the 2015 Academy Awards, for example, comes from Oscar nominee Tomm Moore, who brought the beautiful The Secret of Kells to American audiences in 2009. His next film, Song of the Sea, promises everything that Kells did, and more. Inspired again by ancient Irish legends—this time not of forest deities, but of the seaside myth of selkies, women who transform into seals—the film also uses 2D animation to its unique advantage, showcasing visuals simply unmatched in the lexicon of animated films typically catered to modern audiences.

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Every background seen in the film is hand-painted, an increasingly rare feat in animated films, and draws heavily on the style of crisply-detailed, cyclically-natured illuminated manuscripts recurrent in Irish art history. Like Miyazaki’s films when they first hit the scene, Moore’s films illustrate worlds little seen in any type of cinema. And based on the reviews already written for the film, Song of the Sea also isn’t afraid to offer morally-ambiguous characters (like its Yubaba-esque “Owl Witch”) often left out of animated features, especially those aimed at children.

The point is, departure from Japan and its familiar powerhouses doesn’t mean the end of 2D animation. The medium’s options are literally limitless, given that every shape, movement, and color comes directly from the artist’s imagination.

Perhaps traditional animation might even gather some strength from its minimization in the grander field of cinema. Farther and farther away from the guiding hand of corporate legacies, social politics, and recycled design (*cough*Frozen*cough*), maybe 2D animation might emerge again as one of the most innovative, provocative forces in the future of entertainment.

To gauge for yourself the steadfast integrity of 2D animated film, check out the trailer for Song of the Sea below.

Reflections on Dylan Thomas and the Poetry of ‘Interstellar’

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Interstellar enjoyed a well-received wide release a couple of weeks ago on the tail of much praise and fanfare and several posts on my own Facebook feed from people celebrating its beauty and achievement. And I agree—Interstellar is mostly a fantastic film (besides the obvious problems of paradox that always mess with wormholes), and had I more time before this post’s due date arrives, I could think of a hundred things to which I’d like to apply a little personal philosophy, or a little analyzing, or just a little happy rant about Hans Zimmer’s legendary score, among other things.

But since I have not the time, I’d like to substitute my working history as an English major and talk—just talk—about what made this film especially meaningful to me, by which I mean one of the film’s grandest recurring themes: the recitation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

The poem in its entirety reads as follows:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Or, if you like, you can hear it read by Anthony Hopkins, who I’m pretty sure does a much better reading of the poem than Dylan Thomas himself, for some reason:

I have been told time again, in the tradition of many famous authors and poets, that a good reading of a piece of art must—more often than not—eliminate the presence of the artist completely, focusing clean on the subject at hand and the message within. But the thing is, there is a message without the text, and I have usually found that a piece of poetry is almost always improved in scope when it is considered hand-in-hand with the life and times of its author. In the case of Interstellar, even a little foreknowledge about Dylan Thomas and the strangeness of “Do not go gentle” in the midst of his chaotic life and lexicon amplify the film’s cathedral tones to new depths.

Thomas lived a fleeting life, dying before the age of 40 during a flash of fame—not unlike the sudden destruction of a fiery star. And burning he was; a drunk, a liar, a “lord of misrule” wearing the mask of recklessness, never in one place or state of mind for long. He seemed to be, like the workings of the universe itself, something of a wild card.

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And yet “Do not go gentle,” written just a few years before Thomas’ death, takes on an unusual physical form to have been birthed from such a character. It is, compared to much of the rest of his work, a rather mathematical poem, arranged in a formal poetic style called a villanelle: a 19-lined poem with the rhyme scheme ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA in which there must must be two refrains and two repeating rhymes. The first and third lines of the opening tercet must be repeated alternately in the last lines of the next stanzas. In the final stanza, the refrain must serve as the poem’s two concluding lines.

A careful poem for a careless man whose personal involvement with this poem enlightens one of Interstellar’s central themes: the desperate boundlessness of love.

Thomas famously wrote “Do not go gentle” under the inspiration of his deteriorating father—an eerie detail, again, given Thomas’ own death not far on the horizon (dare I say… the event horizon?) As if it could be written from a child to his father, but also, perhaps, to the poet, from himself. This secret history gives enormous power to Interstellar’s narrative, which sees a father denying the inevitable fate of the deteriorating Earth for the slim chance to save his children’s future in a “rage against the dying of the light.”

One of Interstellar's teaser images.
One of Interstellar‘s teaser images.

In this sense I must absolutely disagree—through pure virtue of this poem’s inclusion in the film—with critics who write that Cooper’s relationship with his children is too understated, too poorly crafted to amount to its intention of being the driving motive in Interstellar, and thus kills its emotional core. In fact, it is the perfect characterization of the microcosm within “Do not go gentle,” which witnesses the remoteness of fathers protested in echoing cries by Thomas’ child-voice—the desperate sob for reparation from an infant creation to its aloof, spiraling creator. And it’s true—to Interstellar’s Murph, Cooper is her whole world. And if we were to take anything at all from this movie, it’s the refrain that “love transcends space,” even the space between a parent and his children.

In simple terms, the poem serves as a love song to humankind, by humankind, but also as a brush against the interaction between humans and the universe.

Nature, as Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brant suggests, is terrifying an intense, but not evil. It can be met with. We can observe its craft, much as Thomas does in the careful, defiant lines of “Do not go gentle.” The poem is both rebellious and respectful—the exact same approach used by Cooper as he faces his mortality in the unfathomable dimensions of space-time.

Thomas wrote in a letter once, “I like things that are difficult to write and difficult to understand. I like redeeming the contraries….” Perhaps, then, this is the lens through which we must encounter the universe of Interstellar and “Do not go gentle.” Perhaps it is the lens through which we must encounter all things.

Choosing the “Best” Movie of the Year Doesn’t Take “Balls”

A scene from Slumdog Millionaire, winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture.
A scene from Slumdog Millionaire, winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Flipping through the Internet today, I landed upon two things that caught my eye: the first, an article on Flavorwire about how the film adaptations of The Hobbit have gone “horribly awry,” and the second, a Grantland piece about “narratives that doom Oscar movies.”

The Grantland article argues about what the author calls “X” movies—movies with particular, often rather gritty qualities that critics and fans seem to promote as the film most deserving of the Academy Award—and “Y” movies, the pictures that end up winning the Academy Award because “Academy voters have no balls.”

This is something every movie fan has heard before. Even I was annoyed to watch The King’s Speech (a “Y” movie) defeat The Social Network (an “X” movie) in 2010, something the author also complains about because, he writes, “I was more challenged and excited by what The Social Network had to say about our world than I was by what The King’s Speech had to say about somebody else’s.”

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The King’s Speech
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The Social Network

I guess that’s a pretty qualified, intellectual reason to preference one thing over another, and the author does not, by any means, claim that one type of film is better than another. He goes as far as to admit that “X” movies typically rally young men more than any other categorical group, and that the qualities that produce a “Y” movie—“more written than directed, more interested in content than in form, humanist, sincere, “relatable,” emotional, often optimistic”—are not at all poor qualities in a film.

What bothered me, though, was the constant assertion that choosing some movies as winners took “balls,” while others simply took their place as the safe, warm-hearted favorites of white-haired old men.

Certainly, as has been argued for “controversial” films like Brokeback Mountain, some films really do push traditional boundaries expected by the majority of filmgoers, but deciding that it might deserve the Oscar more than Crash does not make the voter “brave” or strident toward any grand, new future. Neither does preferring There Will Be Blood over No Country for Old Men, nor The Pianist over Chicago. And while the article itself may be a valid commentary on the Academy Awards themselves, haven’t we always known that the Academy isn’t all that film is about? That there are a thousand reasons why someone might think one movie is the greatest, most inspiring piece of art ever, even compared to a hard-hitter like Pulp Fiction?

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I’m still pretty sure that anyone would argue that No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were both pretty incredible and “ballsy” films, despite No Country ultimately taking home top prize. Definitely no “Y” in this equation.

I was actually surprised to see the author call Slumdog Millionaire (a winner in 2008) a “Y” film. Even though it did win Best Picture, I’d hardly say that Slumdog Millionaire and the people that voted for it have “no balls.” If I may throw in a personal detail, I more often than not cite Slumdog Millionaire as the film that made me a freak for all film—I thought it was the most magical, most complex, most beautiful, most musical thing I had ever seen at a movie theatre, and I still think that today. Had it been released again year after year, I still would vote it superior to The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and even 12 Years a Slave, but that has nothing to do with how ballsy I am. And frankly, I completely disagree with the idea that a film containing an optimist ending constitutes a film with “no balls.”

Who is one man to decide when the “wrong movie” has been awarded top prize? How is there such a thing as the “wrong movie,” especially considering how cultural appeals and ideas change through the ages?

A stunning first look at the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
A stunning first look at the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

On a minor, selfish note, who is one person to decide which films leave a valuable impact? The author of the Flavorwire article attests to the general mess of the Hobbit films thus far, and I do agree that even I—a huge Tolkein fan since I was a little girl—thought the premise of four films for a fairly small novel was overkill. But when I, personally, watch the first two Hobbit films, I absolutely melt. They are perfect, suddenly, because The Hobbit, read aloud by my father when I was small, was the first book that made me cry. The first book that introduced me to danger, to wit, to the beautiful significance of a weak, imperfect underdog saving his friends from the wrath of a terrifying dragon.

And I don’t know. I think that takes some serious balls.