Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale: The Bitches Shall Inherit the Earth

Well, I finally watched The Handmaid's Tale this week. And I'm as depressed and incensed as I expected.

If you don't know what the show (or the original novel by Margaret Atwood) is about, here's a brief summary. Set in the near future, the world is dealing with plummeting fertility rates due to disease and pollution. The United States has turned into a totalitarian Christian regime called Gilead where every Commander with a sterile wife gets assigned a fertile woman to serve as the family's "Handmaid." During the month, the Handmaid is a servant who does the daily shopping. But one night a month, she gets raped by the Commander in a biblically inspired "Ceremony" to bless the couple with a child. Praise be.

I won't go into further detail because this show does a superb job of slowly revealing how such a dire state of affairs came to be. Like any great adaptation, the show is faithful to Atwood's brilliant source material but then takes it ten steps further by giving each character a robust back story and updating the timelines so that the story feels fresh and relevant for our present age. The writing on the show is stellar, the cinematography, production, and costume design is searingly beautiful, and the soundtrack is an absolute joy. In particular, the use of "Perpetuum Mobile" in the fourth episode stirred my soul to fever pitch. I have loved that song since I was a teenager and often thought about how I would deploy it in a movie or TV show; now I've heard it deployed perfectly.

The Handmaid's Tale also features the best cast on television, and I will be shocked if they don't win Best Ensemble at the SAG awards this year. This show places great reliance on close-up shots to capture every nuance and passing emotion on the characters' faces, as they live in an oppressive regime that won't let them express themselves in much more overt ways. Many times, even their costumes restrict them further, like the Handmaid's stifling headdresses or in one instance, a mask that means the character is only able to express herself through her terrified eyes and inarticulate screams. To watch each woman demonstrate her superior acting talent over the course of each episode is a sheer wonder.

Let's be clear: this is a violent and cruel story that will make any woman cringe with horror. Women are punished in graphic and bloody ways for disobedience and subjected to atrocities in the name of religious totalitarianism. But the reason it particularly strikes a chord is because it reveals how easily inaction and apathy can allow a democracy to disintegrate into a dictatorship. Watching the formation of Gilead is nauseating - first, women are subjected to casual misogyny and called sluts if they show up in a coffee shop in exercise clothes. Then, their credit cards are shut down and they are told they can't have jobs anymore. All assets are handed over to husbands (if you're a lesbian, good luck, you're a "gender traitor"). And all of this is perpetrated under the pretense of temporary security measures following incidents of domestic terrorism. By the time the main characters wise up and try to flee to Canada, it's too late. Martial law is in effect, and their lives will be irrevocably changed.

This is eerily similar to what we see in America today. We have a President who could easily foment war and impose restrictions on the populace in case of domestic attacks. If he is impeached, we will be in the hands of a Vice President who is so deeply Catholic that he believes homosexuality is a sin and cannot eat alone with a woman if his wife is not present. This administration is rolling back abortion rights, denying women access to birth control, and is led by a man who is known for rampant misogyny and sexual harassment. In such an environment, is it any wonder that women feel the need to embrace the book's pseudo-Latin motto of Nolite te bastardes caroborundorum (Don't let the bastards grind you down)? This is perhaps exemplified by the fact that this show will be returning for a second season, and unlike the novel, we are going to get the chance to actually see the resistance in action. In this adaptation, the women get the chance to fight back.

However, let's not forget that the society The Handmaid's Tale portrays may seem extremely dystopian but is actually a reality for many women around the world. In Saudi Arabia, women can't earn property or work without the consent of a male guardian. 200 million women living today have undergone female genital mutilation. Women are routinely being raped, subjected to acid attacks, and trafficked as sex slaves. American women might be more fortunate than most, but as the Weinstein scandal has revealed this week, women have been harassed and raped in Hollywood for years and some people still have the temerity to say the women "asked for it." So let's not pretend that we have to fight to avoid dystopia. Dystopia is already here. We need to fight to ensure it doesn't get worse. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Odyssey: Homer and Homecoming

I have been reading a lot recently, perhaps in an effort to lose myself in other people's stories and escape from the real world. As much as I love film and television (and am currently very busy keeping up with all the new fall TV and Oscar contenders), literature has always been my primary comfort. Books taught me about the world, about the past, the present, multiple visions of the future. They taught me about people and places, both real and imaginary, and when I was in school, nothing gave me more joy than opening up a crisp new textbook and getting a glimpse of what new things I was going to learn that year. Which brings me to An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn. It's a memoir, but it is also like attending a Classics seminar, and I devoured this book hungrily, marveling at this strange and wondrous manner of storytelling that gave me everything I had been craving since I left college.

Daniel Mendelsohn is a Classics professor at Bard College and this is the story of how his 81-year-old father, Jay, enrolled in his undergraduate seminar on Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. The narrative unfolds as part textbook, part father-son memoir, and it is uplifting and heartbreaking all at once. As Daniel cobbles together the story of his father's past (a challenging task as he appears to have told each of his children different versions of every childhood story), he also grapples with his emotions as his father speaks up during his seminar, sometimes contentiously disagreeing with the idea that Odysseus was a hero, and then capitulating on other points as the bemused teenage students watch father and son interact.

Like any parent-child relationship, this one is fraught with challenges, but it is cleverly woven into the tale of The Odyssey, with the education of Odysseus and Telemachus paralleling the education of Daniel and Jay Mendelsohn as they come to understand each other over their shared study of this ancient text. It is also illuminating to read about the banter between the professor and the students and experience the "a-ha" moment when a student comes to a realization that the professor had been patiently nudging her towards for the entire semester. I felt like I was back in my Classical Mythology course as Mendelsohn painstakingly walked through this rich and complex text with a Classics professor's detailed love of language and an indescribable ability to find a sense of humanity in every situation that spans across the millenia and resonates with modern readers. The book also provided interesting insight into the angst and problem-solving racing through a professor's mind when faced with an uncooperative classroom. I've always known teaching was hard work, but for the first time, I truly understood how a professor is tasked with so much more than merely teaching what's on the syllabus.

I know this book cannot possibly be for everyone and will mostly appeal to people like me with a deep love of Classical Mythology and heartfelt memoirs. There are digressions about the Greek derivations of words that brought a smile to my face, and despite having no cultural similarity to the Mendelsohn family, almost anyone can empathize with the challenge of having a parent who is very different from you and trying to reconcile your love and frustration with them as you grow older.

Mendelsohn constantly references ring composition - the structure of The Odyssey with multiple flashbacks and flashforwards that move the narrative in oftentimes meandering circles that still manage to move us on to our destination. The structure of this entire book is a glorious ode to ring composition, flitting back and forth across his father's past and future, from their time in the seminar to the cruise they took afterwards to trace Odysseus' journey across Italy and Greece. An Odyssey is both a scholarly work of genius and an affecting and moving memoir, a storytelling tour de force the likes of which I have never experienced before. I loved every page of this book and it serves as a reminder of why great stories endure for thousands of years.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mrs. Fletcher: How To Be Woke in 2017

Tom Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher might be the zeitgeist-iest book I have ever read. The man has already established that he knows how to tell a story, but in this novel, he seems to tap into all of the worries and fears raging through America today, where some people are trying to acknowledge their privilege, others are utterly oblivious, and everyone is wandering around in a bit of a daze until they figure their life out. It's a fascinating book that has many witty observations, somber reflections, and at least one passage destined to speak to you in some profound way if you're a 21st century American.

First off, if you're a man, don't be put off by the cover and blurb about how this is a story about a 46-year-old divorcee and her sexual awakening. Yes, that is part of the story, but for heaven's sake, I've spent my whole life having to read novels and watch movies about men, I think you can handle a well-written novel about a lady for once. Part of the story revolves around Eve, the aforementioned divorcee whose son has just left for college. She must therefore come to grips with her empty nest and figure out how she wants to spend her time. She decides to take a Gender Studies class at her local community college, which is taught by a trans woman and has a diverse student population ranging from open-minded immigrants to crass white males, which makes for an interesting dynamic.

The other part revolves around Eve's son, Brendan, a star athlete and high school stud who suddenly discovers that college is about more than being popular. He thinks he has found his tribe of frat brothers and football players when he arrives at Berkshire State University (a school he mostly picked because of its renowned party scene), but things quickly spiral out of control when he gets involves with the feminist president of the Autism Awareness club at a Black Lives Matter protest and finds himself completely out of his element.

In those above paragraphs, you may have spotted all the buzzwords of the past few years. This is a book about everything plaguing America today and how a mother and son are trying to navigate the complexities of being white people in a sea of social justice causes without committing horrific faux pas. Every supporting character is equally tortured, regardless of skin color or gender identity, because while they might have their own pet cause they're fighting for, they are up against a number of other causes that they're not quite sure they know how to deal with.

Mrs. Fletcher is a complex and wonderful read, extremely funny but also a revelation. Perrotta treats his characters with both scorn and empathy, mocking them for their failings but also giving them chances to better themselves and learn more about the world around them. This is also the perfect novel about our online age where Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can define a person's existence and both educate them on what's happening in the world while making them feel like they're missing out on everything. It is also a damn good story, a page-turner with twists that will make you laugh out loud and cringe with disbelief. So pick it up and give it a try. You might broaden your horizons. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Young Jane Young: Women Face Repercussions

Gabrielle Zevin's Young Jane Young is one of the most inventive novels I've read this year. It tells a wildly compelling story about a woman who has an affair with a married Congressman and then faces the aftermath while he emerges relatively unscathed and continues his political ambitions (sound familiar?). Men reading this blog, I urge you to pick up this novel and give it a whirl: it is superbly written and might give you some insight into why the women around you think the world is so unfair.

The story is told in five parts from the perspectives of three generations of women affected by these events. Aviva Grossman is the name of the young college intern who had the affair. Over the course of the novel, you get to hear the story from her indignant Jewish retiree mother in Boca Raton, from the Congressman's wife, from Aviva's daughter, and from Aviva herself. The fifth part of this novel is my absolute favorite, a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative outlining the various choices that Aviva made when she began her internship that led to the affair and its repercussions. It is funny, poignant, and searingly incisive about how our actions can have long-ranging consequences that alter not just our own lives, but the lives of everyone around us.

Of course, the most relevant part of this book is that it is told solely from the perspective of women. And because Zevin is playing the long game, you don't simply get each character's initial reaction, but their evolution as they come to grips with the events and have to deal with the ramifications. There's a fair amount of slut-shaming and guilt, then a certain defiance and indignation at Aviva's unfair treatment, and then a repetition of the whole cycle once Aviva's daughter gets older and discovers her mother's past. All of these narratives are woven together masterfully, playing off each other in perfect harmony and reaching a sweet crescendo in that final section that wraps up the entire story and reveals all the secrets that have been lurking in the shadows for the past 300 pages.

Young Jane Young is the work of an author at the peak of her abilities. It is un-put-down-able, a binge read that is as entertaining as it is enlightening, featuring a cast of fictional women that I would love to get to know in real life. It has a blistering plot, solid character development, and an unconventional structure, all factors that intertwine to make this one of the most enjoyable books of the year. Seek it out and discover who Young Jane Young is. She's a character you'll never forget. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Dunkirk: War Is Hell

Dunkirk is written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It stars a troupe of British actors depicting the horrifying and heroic events of 1940, when Allied troops were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, at the mercy of repetitive bombing by the German Luftwaffe while the British Navy struggled to evacuate them as the water was too shallow for their ships to land. Instead, a crew of small civilian boats, ordinarily used for fishing or sailing tours, were tasked with crossing the English Channel and rescuing desperate soldiers, ultimately leading to the miraculous evacuation of over 300,000 soldiers. It's a moving story, and in the hands of Nolan and his team, a powerful one.

I accidentally watched this film in IMAX but I am glad I did. This is a movie that is meant to submerge you into the deepest, darkest, and most frightening aspects of warfare, and doing it while the Hans Zimmer soundtrack is thrumming through your veins via IMAX speakers and Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is searing itself onto your retinas is quite the experience. The story follows three timelines to capture the action on the ground, at sea, and in the air, each one grueling and exhilarating in its own right. It also depicts a full spectrum of the aftermath, from shell shock and guilt, to relief and grief; it is honest and unflinching about the heroism and tragedy involved in this evacuation.

The cast is a mix of fresh-faced young actors (including Harry Styles in his acting debut) and seasoned professionals like Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy. Everyone does a phenomenal job at capturing the fear, agony, and resilience that is part and parcel of going to war, and when you walk out of the theater, you will certainly feel like you were put through the wringer yourself. There is very little dialogue; instead the movie aims to plunge you into the action where there is no time to talk, only time to make heartbreaking decisions that will change your life forever. The soundtrack is marked by a ticking clock that is counting down each second of this horror, which serves to highlight the urgency and sense of hopelessness these soldiers feel as they await rescue while the Germans periodically swoop in and bomb them on the wide open beaches.

Dunkirk is an excellent movie that is sure to pick up numerous accolades over awards season. With a runtime of 106 minutes, it is a war movie that doesn't need a lot of time to get its point across - instead it efficiently and movingly illustrates the trauma of being in a war zone and the absolute pointlessness of it all. While the Dunkirk evacuation may have been a miracle that resulted in hundreds of thousands of lives being saved, World War II ultimately resulted in 85 million fatalities. While Nolan is presenting one of the "good" stories, at no point does he shy away from the fact that there is nothing glamorous about warfare. It is bloody, it is brutal, people die, and allies turn on each other.

Of course, the movie ends with a soldier reciting Churchill's inspiring speech:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

These words have always sent shivers down my spine, but I never fully understood the context until watching this film. Therefore, Dunkirk serves as a reminder that while war is a horrible and damaging thing, the human spirit endures. Sometimes, there are things worth fighting for.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Groundhog Day: You've Never Seen This Before

This happens to me every year. I don't see a musical in ages and then I go see one on Broadway and have to keep pinching myself because I must be dreaming, there's no way all of that is happening on stage. Watching Groundhog Day yesterday was no exception, but it was also one of the best musicals I have seen in 16 years of living in Manhattan. My only regret is I didn't go sooner, and it's closing on September 17, so if you live in NYC or will be visiting before then, don't hesitate. Buy a ticket and make haste to the August Wilson Theater.

Where does one start with describing why this show is so phenomenal? Perhaps a brief synopsis for those who haven't seen the movie. It's the story of a cranky weatherman, Phil Connors (played by the talented and dreamy Andy Karl), who has headed to Punxsutawney, PA on February 2nd. He has to cover the annual ritual of Groundhog Day, where people wait to see if a groundhog will see its shadow, thereby predicting six more weeks of winter. He hates this holiday and thinks it is beneath him to cover this story; but in a bizarre twist, he gets stuck in an infinite time loop where he has to re-live this day over and over again. Every morning, his alarm goes off, and it's still February 2nd. What follows is a hilarious evolution: he is first certain he's crazy, then excited to take sleazy advantage of the opportunities these multiple re-dos get him, then depressed about being stuck in this day forever, and finally accepts that this is going to be his life.

Given that plot, this show is a miracle of set design and staging wizardry. It could get awfully boring to have to re-live the same day over and over again, but there is absolutely nothing boring about watching how the actors, stage hands, lighting technicians, and other backstage magicians work in concert to choreograph every aspect of this day so that things run smoothly in the background while Phil has a meltdown over the sameness of it all. Honestly, I could watch this show a dozen more times just to identify more nuances of stage and set design; one particularly standout moment is when they engage in the silliest and most inventive way of depicting a car chase on a Broadway stage.

Apart from the brilliant Andy Karl performance (and truly, it is brilliant, just the way he gets dressed each morning feels like an inspired choice), there is an equally brilliant and moving performance from his co-star, Barrett Doss. She plays Rita, Phil's associate producer, who thinks he's an asshole (her actual words) but becomes his eventual love interest, and she is the true heart of the show. With her beautiful voice and soaring romantic songs, she is the ideal complement to Phil's more sarcastic rock n'roll ditties, and the chemistry between the two of them is heartbreakingly excellent. In fact, it's in those moments, when you simply have the actors on stage singing to each other as snow falls around them and lights twinkle magically, that you forget you're watching a Broadway musical and instead feel like you're watching a real-life romance bloom in front of your eyes.

Aside from the main couple, however, I have to mention two supporting players of note. John Sanders plays Ned Ryerson, the annoying life insurance salesman who has a whole backstory that leads him to sing one of the most moving songs in the whole piece. And Rebecca Faulkenberry plays Nancy. Who is Nancy? Nancy is essentially a nobody in the grand scheme of this plot. But Nancy has the best song in the entire play, a meta commentary on what it is like to be a pretty blonde actress trying to make it when men run the show, and it is the most unexpected and fantastic diversion before the second half resumes course. It is also a testament to the variety of music in this show - it ranges from heavy rock songs, to funny country interludes, to stirring romantic ballads. The lyrics range from raunchy and caustic to romantic and heartwarming (what else could you expect from the genius mind of Tim Minchin?), and the entire show walks that tightrope from start to finish.

Groundhog Day is a transformative piece of art, taking a well-known movie about deja vu and turning into something that feels brand new. The actors are incandescent, the sets and staging are mesmerizing, the music is bewitching, the story is funny, ribald, and moving. It's the perfect package. And if I had the chance to re-live last night over and over again, I wouldn't even think twice. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

GLOW: Ladies, Get Ready to Rumble!

If you read my Wonder Woman post, you know that I tend to get choked up about overt displays of female strength and camaraderie. So I am unsurprisingly thrilled by Netflix's series, GLOW,  a fictionalized exploration of the making of the 80's show, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Featuring a cast of women in leotards kicking each other's asses in a multitude of ways, this is the show to watch  if you want to learn about how women work together when men aren't around.

First off, let's reiterate that GLOW was a real show that aired from 1986-1990. As a product of its age, it trucked heavily in sexist and racist stereotypes, while at the same time, managing to be a celebration of race and women simply due to its existence. It's that difficult conundrum of representation - if you rarely see any brown women on TV, it is super exciting to see one wrestling on your TV screen, even if she's doing it under the moniker of Beirut and threatening to be a terrorist who wants to destroy America. However, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the creators of Netflix's GLOW (and former writers on Orange Is the New Black - how's that for pedigree?), give us the behind-the-scenes look at how this crazy show got made, which proves to be even more entertaining than what made it to TV sets across the nation.

Most importantly, this show is FUN. It is well-written and well-executed, clipping through its 10-episode season at a brisk and never-dull pace. The focus is mostly on the two white women at the helm (Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, who are actresses I love from their work on Community and Masters of Sex), but I'm hoping the show follows Orange Is the New Black's lead and evolves into making this more of an ensemble piece with equal weight given to the other women. Right now a lot of the other cast members are playing to their racial stereotoypes, simply by virtue of the original GLOW being terrifically un-PC (after all, this was a show that had a black wrestler named "Welfare Queen"), but I'm hoping subsequent seasons give us more context into the backgrounds of these women and where their true motivations lie. The evolution of the characters over the course of the first season is already promising, deftly dealing with a lot of themes that TV usually handles supremely clunkily, so I have high expectations for upcoming seasons.

I would also be remiss if I didn't shout out the main man in the group, Marc Maron, who is playing Sam Sylvia, the leader of this motley crew, who has the unenviable task of wrangling together a bunch of novices and turning them into wrestling phenoms. At times, the show does veer towards giving him more screentime than the women who ought to be the focus, but all is forgiven because this is Maron being the most Maron-esque you'll ever see him. He is irritable, crass, rude, condescending, and then occasionally capable of great kindness and warmth before he returns to being an ass. It's a great character to have amidst all the estrogen, when deployed correctly.

The original GLOW was beloved by young girls, a weird little show that showed them something different from the usual fare on TV, and taught them that ladies didn't always have to be demure, docile creatures. Netflix's GLOW will be beloved by women of all ages for allowing more female and diverse racial representation on TV and giving us all someone to root for. It's not always a perfect show, but it is entertaining, warm, and witty, and I for one, cannot wait for the second season.