Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Politics of 'Princess and the Frog''s Representations

Sean recently called my attention to this article by Neal Gabler about the forthcoming animated Disney feature, The Princess and the Frog (2009). The intent, clearly, is to head-off potential criticisms for its depiction of race. Case in point is the relatively mild debate about the new film (be sure to read the comments at the bottom--my favorite is the obliviously hypocritical: "It's people like you that like to start DRAMA!!!").

Opening tomorrow, The Princess and the Frog is the entirely animated story of an African-American princess living in 1920s New Orleans—the first Disney animated film to feature a Black lead.

While media scholars have stopped asking the question of how "positive" or "negative" Hollywood representations of African-Americans are, it persists in popular culture. Such questions are often too historically and culturally-contingent to be of much use as generalizable categories, but general audiences often hold on to these ideals as they do Oscars--there needs to be a (completely arbitrary) narrative of achievement to stabilize a personal set of beliefs.

After working ginglerly, at times even inaccurately, through the history of Disney's problematic conception of non-white identities, Gabler ends with the following utopic pronouncement:
But when "The Princess and the Frog" opens in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 25 and the rest of the country on Dec. 11, it may turn out not to be a contradiction of Walt Disney's racial vision; it may be a fulfillment of it. And Walt will be resting quite comfortably in his grave.

Gabler's a smart guy, who's done the research on Disney (he's one of the few to have access to the archives), but he's trying too hard to put a good spin on something that just cannot be idealized for historical and cultural reasons. It is what it is.

It's not a "good" thing that Disney is finally telling a story with an African-American heroine--its at best an ambivalent mitigation of a problematic past that cannot be erased, or overcome. And no, Douglas Brode's revisionist, quasi-academic book does not present a convincing argument about Walt Disney's early commitment to multiculturalism. When it comes to gender, race and class, Disney has been, and still is, always behind the curve.

The film's release, as Gabler's article shows, coexists with Disney's unflattering history--the fact that it took 70-plus years to finally center a film on this type of protagonist is always already as insulting and demoralizing as it is uplifting. And many audiences know this: “Why won't they release Song of the South?,” asks an anonymous poster sarcastically on the popular film website, Ain’t It Cool News, “you know the one where the black lead wasn't allowed to attend the premiere? ZIP A DEE DOO DAA!.”

In March of 2007, Emil Thomas wrote in the Sun Reporter, an Oakland paper geared to an African-American audience, about the forthcoming film. “Over the last 70 years, Disney has created a pantheon of eight princesses . . . ,” he wrote, “None are African-American.”

As with most discussions of the new film, Thomas sees Princess and the Frog’s racially utopic potential as co-existing with Disney’s problematic legacy. He added that:
Not only has Disney neglected black females in their Hollywood dream factory, they have created some of the most offensive stereotypes of African-Americans. If you don’t believe me, check out Uncle Remus in Song of the South or the crows in Dumbo next time you get a chance. Far from being benign, such images damage the self-esteem of black children, while planting racist ideas in the minds of white kids.

However, Thomas at least was cautiously optimistic about the newest film, recognizing that it was an attempt to atone for past sins and that the new film could still have a positive effect on black and white children now, who might grow up to create a better future. “One small part of the remedy [to past discrimination],” wrote Thomas, “may be in the dreams we allow our children to dream.”

However, not everyone was as optimistic. That same month, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was much more skeptical about the forthcoming film. “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore discussed the film in relation to Disney’s history of representing (or not) African-Americans:
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He too noted the many numerous Disney princesses, including a half-human princess in The Little Mermaid (1989), that preceded an African-American one. Having a black princess in New Orleans invoked from him an implicit Katrina reference (“I saw blacks on TV there once, on roofs”). Wilmore too mentioned Song of the South as a rare Disney representation of African-Americans, along with the crows in Dumbo.

He then noted that there were no blacks in The Lion King, despite being set in Africa, and (satirically) that they edited out the sole African-American Dwarf, named “Angry.” Why? Because “Brothers don’t whistle while they work,” he told the show’s host, Jon Stewart. A few days later, Wilmore was interviewed by the New York Times about the piece, developing further the general critique of Disney’s decidedly white vision.

Regardless of how the film ultimately works textually, The Princess and the Frog could never be a purely "positive" representation of African-Americans, in no small part because of its studio legacy, and will raise the same issues of ambivalence that Disney’s other films, such as Song of the South, have for decades. However positively or negatively one may read those other films and, in particular, its representations of African-Americans, it is a difficult historical fact to get around that the studio took over seventy years before it finally centered a major theatrical production around a character who was black, and such a decision will raise as many questions as it may answer.

While potentially progressive as far as the limited scope of textual representation goes, the delayed timing of The Princess and the Frog still hurts as much as it helps. But of course centering an animated story on a Black character still offers future progressive possibility—perhaps the hope that such stories can take the privileged white perspective at the core of Hollywood storytelling and (momentarily) disrupt it.

But the film's utopic potential (and I emphasize only potential) lies in the future--how it might affect, even empower, a young child today--and not in past, which must never be forgotten, or distorted, now.

Monday, May 4, 2009

On Trek

So, I have seen the new Star Trek, and here’s my (spoiler-free, I hope) review/analysis. I was one of the lucky ones to win passes to last Thursday’s Ain’t It Cool screening in downtown Chicago. The short version is that I found the movie entertaining and satisfying enough on initial viewing, but rather empty the more I thought about it. My reasoning for this, I came to believe, was because this newest iteration, by itself, cannot possibly sustain the weight of such a monumental franchise—no matter the strength of the story (functional, but utilitarian and a little uninspired) or the skills and chemistry of the cast (quite impressive and promising).

It is not only a matter of my lacking a connection to this new pastiche of a film (they are, after all, not the actors nor even quite the exact same characters I grew up loving); in the end, this film can only be judged according to the (new) franchise it does . . . or does not . . . spawn. If a whole new world is generated, if new storylines and themes that reach across multiple films are constructed, if truly interesting and original (by cinematic standards) philosophical concepts are unpacked, with the depth that only the narrative canvas of a true franchise can provide, if . . .—then this first initial film may yet be a considered a classic. But it could just as likely not be.

The question I have to Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman & Co.—is everyone here, currently basking in the glory of one event film achievement (itself possibly short-lived, depending upon next weekend’s box office), really in it for the long haul? And in that question, I do not just mean whether or not Paramount will milk this franchise for 5 or 6 more cookie-cutter summer popcorn flicks—that seems a given, though probably only as long as production costs are kept down and the base isn’t completely alienated. What I am asking about is whether or not the filmmakers behind this newest version are committed to telling a story whose multiple plot threads and themes will be unpacked across an entire franchise, which will in turn give this first film the depth it currently lacks.

Wrath of Khan is not only a great science-fiction film on its own, and not only important because it remains the greatest Trek movie and the one that saved the franchise after The Motion Picture. It’s particularly powerful because its sets in motion stories and themes that take two, three or even four sequels to address. One of my favorite moments in Star Trek VI (nine years later), for instance, is when Kirk finally comes to peace with the death of his son from III, who was himself first introduced in II—a plot line which gives Kirk in VI (and even frankly, in the hated V) much added emotional significance. “Other men have families, Bones," he says in The Final Frontier (1989), ". . . not us.”

There are moments in the new Trek, to be sure, which reference other films and episodes from the franchise—but they never seem to rise above homage and in-jokes (The Kobayashi Maru; the “I’m giving you all she’s got, Captain”), which are superficially, momentarily, satisfying, but which are fundamentally different from building any new narrative and thematic arches which can be sustained beyond itself. Yes, you’ve watched the whole franchise which before, but can you now create your own?

In short, this new film by itself is not enough—and the real work, the real challenge, for the cast and crew (pun intended) of Star Trek has yet to begin. Will this be a start of another Five-Year Mission, or the last spectacular tribute to a journey now long since passed? It may seem unfair to compare one isolated film to a whole multi-media, multi-textual, decades-long franchise, but that is the challenging paradox—the risk and the reward—that any film version of Star Trek (or other reboot) takes on today. And to not take that challenge seriously, to think that one can just start over with its own ideas, is to be doomed to fail.

There are more specific reasons to say that the new Star Trek is not enough—for one, there is no way around the fact that this is just not a very clever story (interesting, perhaps, but by default as it charts a chapter in Trek hitherto largely unrepresented), nor does it contain a single particularly provocative idea, and being the long philosophically-oriented Star Trek, this is not a matter to take lightly. The story, as advertised (and feared), is a fairly lazy attempt to retell the original stories without being bound to anything that happened before. I am not one of those Trekkies who demands a strict adherence to canon (a lot of obscure canon violations--like how many levels there are on the Enterprise--I probably wouldn't even notice if they sat on my face), but the writers could have challenged themselves a little bit to be creative.

There was no reason this film, as with the franchise-tinkering of Khan, couldn’t have been told in such a way that would fit within the gaps of the original chronology, and thus been mutually gratifying. If anything, the bulk of the time-travel plot is not only uncreative but a huge waste of running time, as it detracts from what is ultimately this newest film's most important function--building familiarity and comfort with the new cast. Having Nimoy back is important for diegetic and for meta-textual reasons (and was by far my favorite part of the film), but this elaborate of a plot was not necessary to accomplish that.

And there are other serious problems with the plot beyond the laziness of time-travel—in particular, the convenient placement and meeting of not two, but three, separate important characters on the same random ice planet is so logically impossible to believe that it not only strains credibility, but just about ruined the entire film for me. It’s almost like the writers had a beginning and an ending to the story, but not a middle to bridge the gap, and took the laziest possible route to get from point A to point B.

And JJ Abrams’s continuously nasty tendency, carried over from the dreadful MI:III (2006), to shoot a big-screen film like it’s a television show, with close-ups and shaky-cam cinema-verite, is not just visually irritating, and makes the movie feel like Blair Witch in Space (seriously, Hollywood—that style DOES NOT make a film look more “realistic.” Please stop!). It’s also, more frustratingly, a waste of the beautiful sets and spectacular visual canvas that lies wasted in the background, struggling to break through JJ’s claustrophobic frame, which might work for a tense, intimate drama like Das Boot, but not for a sci-fi, action-adventure epic on this scale (although there is not a particularly memorable action sequence in the entire film anyway).

So, why did I enjoy the film experience initially overall? From the standpoint of a summer blockbuster, the film carefully and successfully balances action, drama, humor and suspense, which can, under certain circumstances, also be a bit of a backhanded compliment by coming dangerously close to be code-word for “entertainingly generic,” which is also probably partly why the film felt a little hollow to me. However, the film’s pacing, as well as its clear knowledge and affection for Trek, gives the film a sense of depth that sets it apart from other standard Hollywood fare of this kind.

Most importantly, the cast without exception is excellent. Chris Pine’s performance is hard to describe, but he absolutely nails the good-humored arrogance of Kirk, without ever once feeling like warmed-over Shatner. He may quite honestly prove, in time, to be the best Star Trek captain ever—the playful command and confidence without the ham. All performed admirably, Uhura and Chekov have been interestingly reimagined as characters, while Scotty manages to walk a tightrope as essentially comic relief without being an excessive distraction—Sulu’s role, meanwhile, remains a little less defined still. Karl Urban's version of McCoy is pitch perfect, though the character himself feels under-used.

Zachary Quinto’s Spock, too, was surprisingly convincing. The first clip I saw of him as Spock originally troubled me, as his voice seems to lack Nimoy’s pacing and gravitas, and I feared he was cast solely on his uncanny appearance. However, I was wrong: Quinto’s an admirable Spock. Unlike Pine, though, he’s more clearly trying to emulate the performance, and affect, of Nimoy—which may be an impossible task for any actor, given the perfect storm of actor and character which Nimoy/Spock is.

And of course Nimoy’s return here is deeply gratifying, and makes the whole film worth it—though I must say that his performance is “most curious” in the new Trek. Namely, Nimoy’s playing it way more laid back than he ever did before—in his one scene with Quinto, his voice and tone really do sound very un-Spock at times, almost like Nimoy as actor offering casual elderly advice to his successor. It will be very interesting to see what, if anything, they do with the elder Spock in the sequel, as his character’s arc does not end where I thought it would--his odd sense of placelessness at the film's conclusion feels strangely perfect, but also tantalizing mysterious in its narrative possibilities.

In short, the outstanding cast of this newest Trek is under-served by the screenplay. Or maybe I’m still so invested in the original characters that even a pedestrian screenplay and a talented but disorienting cast can’t bring me to quit them just yet. Star Trek’s value ultimately will be dictated by whether, in 20 years, it is seen as the promising start of the next generation of Trek (as well it could still be), or whether it will be seen as a final, loving tribute to the first generation.

When the crew of the Enterprise is finally united at the end of this film, heading off for its new five-year mission, I got excited, and optimistic—and the voice-over there (without giving too much away) is a particularly touching addition. But I got excited not because I’m sold on the newest Star Trek crew—but because the real journey, the real challenge, is just beginning, in ways the franchise itself may not yet fully realize, or appreciate.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

All of this has happened before . . .

. . . . but after tomorrow night, it won't happen again.

That's a reoccurring theme in Ron Moore's reimagined series, Battlestar Galactica--a series quite unlike the `70s original (for which I have no childhood nostalgia). Both detail the near-annihilation of the human race by the "Cylons", a machine race, and the subsequent fleeing of the remaining survivors across the galaxy for safety. Working on a much wider narrative canvas than its predecessor, the remake has developed a deeper, more complicated story, and resonating themes about commitment, faith, loyalty, compassion, prejudices and self-preservation.

The saying is meant in part to explain the cycles of destruction and rebirth that the show has been working through and towards, and which will no doubt explain in large measure whatever happens tomorrow night. But it is also a nifty description for the show's dedication to serial storytelling, with multiple, overlapping storylines across several episodes and even seasons and weekly cliffhangers.

Its difficult to "explain" Battlestar Galactica's story to a newbie, or its appeal--not because its too smart or complicated per se, but because its narrative scope is so immense. Its something--a narrative affect, a deep sense more so than an idea--that has accumulated over the span of four seasons, which defines its appeal to me. If you haven't watched from the very beginning, it is absolutely impossible to appreciate the series finale tomorrow night.

That is what seriality is to me--an affect, that which is generated through the differences in repetition. We are invested in the stories and the characters, of course, but when we sit down to watch a new installment, or rewatch an old one, it is always as much about the ritual of viewing as it is about specific knowledge, and our commitment is provoked by a deep affective bond we've formed through that ritual with the sum total experience of the show.

Does it really matter how the show ends? I'm more inclined to suggest that what really matters tomorrow is that it is ending.

This is my last night of anticipation.

But of course I'm also curious about what will actually happen. (GEEK ALERT) I remain convinced that Gaius Baltar's journey is the core of the show, that he is the embodiment of humanity's strengths, weaknesses and contradictions on BSG, and so he will somehow play a very central, pivotal role in the very ending, despite his (typical) act of cowardice last week. I do not think Kara's mystery will be fully explained. I think the "opera house" dreams refer not to Kobol but to the "Colony," the ship where Hera is being held captive, the place built by the final five, and which they are coming to find her. I think the vision of Baltar and the 6 coming to take her away might be a reference to the Head Baltar and Head 6, not the actual characters. They are quite likely the faces of God. I think that BSG is describing our own pre-history. And I think it is quite likely that everyone will die. . . but not in an apocalyptic sort of way which marked the show's beginning. Everything is pointing towards a rebirth, led by Kara (end GEEK ALERT).

So, I care about the story itself. Its just that it, whatever it ends up being, tomorrow night won't change my commitment to the show. And I look forward to tomorrow night not to finally "know the truth," but because I will never be able to look forward to any new BSG episodes again, and so this is it.

It might be ironic to know that this time last year I had never seen a single episode of the show, even though I can remember as far back as the fall of 2003--living in Oklahoma--and seeing the mini-series hyped on TV. It was only around early April of 2008 that I finally decided to rent the mini-series from a local video store because I was burned out on old Star Trek episodes, and so many different people had been raving about this show for a long time (its hard to believe now, but I was once actually offended when a friend suggested to me that I might like the show. With the exception of Trek, I do not see myself as a "Sci-Fi" fan at all, and BSG looked to me like another Babylon 5 or Stargate Atlantis.

I was hooked by the end of those three hours. And thanks to my department's media library, I was able to check out the box sets and plow through the first three seasons of the show is a little over a month. Then with the help of new episodes of season four on "Sci-Fi Rewind," I was completely caught with the show before the first half of season 4 had even concluded . . . less than two months after watching my first episode.

There is something profound about how DVD and the internet is fundamentally changing not simply the transmission of television, but also its very aesthetic--a new age of seriality, and of narrative ambition. Freed from a sole dependence on the fragmentation of syndication, thereby necessitating that each episode be a self-contained whole, television series can now tell larger, more complicated stories, one hour at a time, because DVD and the internet make it so much easier to follow along, or to get caught up to speed. Or to experience the entire journey, for the first time, all at once.

Until a month ago, I had never watched a "live" episode of BSG, and yet I knew the whole story by heart.

That's something the cinema cannot provide. Secretly I have been far more enamored by television in the last five years than film. The experience of an epic television journey (on DVD), be it BSG, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Office, or what have you, has each been a more rewarding experience than any two hours I've spent in the multiplex during that time.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Star Trek , Canon, and the Myth of Mass Appeal

Happy new year, though--as with many things in life--my first post of 2009 looks a lot like the last ones of 2008. Namely, my fascination with the evolution of franchise box office numbers continues. On the other hand, this first post of the new year clearly implies a shift in attention from one franchise to another.

With the Bond franchise momentarily dwindling into the background for the next year or so (although I will probably blog at some point in the new year about what the next film should do), I've begun turning my attention to the franchise installment I'm most excited about for 2009--Star Trek, which is due in the beginning of May. I have blogged about the film before, and many more of my posts in the new year will undoubtedly focus on this film.

I've spent the winter break reading autobiographies from Nimoy and Shatner, and so that (plus the media blitz surrounding the new film) has got me looking ahead. Here's a glimpse at the other Trek films, ranked 1-10, and adjusted for box-office inflation. Again, as with Bond, I used box office numbers and ticket inflation numbers from Box Office Mojo to deduce the adjusted totals and rankings.

Not really any big surprises here, though I was not expecting the first two TNG films to have each out-grossed the last two TOS films. On the other hand, it is amazing to me that for all the grief it takes, the first one--Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)--remains by far the box office champ. This is, mind you, a movie that Paramount hated so much it pretty much fired everybody involved behind the camera and started from scratch. This is a movie so hated that even no less a legend than director Robert Wise was not invited back. He and fellow legend Gene Roddenberry were essentially shelved for an unknown TV producer (Harve Bennett) and a largely untested writer-director (Nicholas Meyer)-both smart moves, though. Pretty harsh response to a film that grossed, in today's dollars, $231 Million!

But, of course, that's the rub. $231 Million really isn't that much money relative to other blockbusters and blockbuster franchises, especially as the highest-grossing entry. Let me put that in perspective--take this past year's box office champs. TMP's total would do no better than #4 on the list, behind The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Indiana Jones--each of which made considerably more. TMP would finish barely ahead of Hancock!

The great "cross-over" hit, Voyage Home, meanwhile, made the equivalent of $209 million, which would only place it seventh in 2008 alone. That one didn't make much more than Wrath of Khan ($190m), which isn't considered a cross-over hit.

I only point this out not to disrespect my beloved franchise, but because there appears to be a myth evolving around the newest entry that there is this large, mainstream, audience "out there" to be grabbed--much larger than the core of Trekkies--and that said audience must be appealed to in order for the franchise to be revived. But, as the numbers show, it was never a matter of reaching a huge mainstream audience, but in consistently satisfying the existing die-hards.

As should be apparent by now, I am a little ambivalent about the new film. While I am excited about any attempt to revive the franchise (and I believe the TNG films were a dead-end--those characters were far more interesting when spread across an entire season of tv, and there was never an attempt to tell a larger story across several films, ala the TOS films), I am concerned about the fact that the new filmmakers haven't yet made a decent feature-length film (most notably, MI:III was a mess, and I was a fan of that franchise, too). And, yes, I am concerned about "canon"--the faithful adherence to the narratives and events that came before in other ST films and television episodes.

I swear I was never a fan of canon before this newest Star Trek film began building buzz. I've watched the original episodes once, maybe twice incidentally, never read a single fictional book about ST's world, and hardly followed any of the other series, though as a kid I did watch TNG a lot during its initial run. My devotion to ST stems from the single fact that I love the TOS films, but I have always embraced II through VI as much as its own (Harve Bennett/Nic Meyer-influenced) internalized diegetic world, than as a part of a larger multi-media story.

But there was something about the newest Trek film that suddenly concerns me regarding canon. Its less to do with whether a line in the new film, or a plot development, completely contradicts some obscure line from a 60s TOS broadcast (as is the case, for example, with the fact that Kirk only once very briefly met Pike, the Enterprise's first captain, and yet the two now have a detailed relationship in the film). Its not about nitpicking details. Its more about knowing and respecting your audience, and how those details may or may not speak to a careful, healthy, attention to a new thoughtful script in the here and now.

To be honest, the first full theatrical trailer is basically one big "FU" to the die-hards (which is not the same thing as saying it will be a bad movie, mind you--it may well be). In the first minute, the trailer goes out of its way to show its audience several blatant violations of canon. That's not a smart way to sell a movie--and, check the records, it was never "cross-over" fans that made the films a reliable franchise (even the success of I and IV were not that much more than the others, relatively-speaking). So throwing the fans under the bus--as the director has done during preview screenings--in favor of some mythical larger audience seems misguided, at best.

A better approach for the trailer would have been to start before the flashbacks (as the actual film does) and then work its way back to the big pay-off--a new version of the old crew. And a better approach for the franchise would be to re-build the shaky connection with its once faithful cult following (whom abandoned Nemesis), and then try to build from there. The assumption seems to be that the die-hards will show up no matter what (and I am sure most will), but that last TNG film is a reminder that nothing's a given.

Let me rephrase, I do not care about how faithful the new film is to the old stories in and of itself. One of my all-time favorite Bond films (Casino Royale) completely contradicts the basic premises of the earlier films. And my favorite TV show still on (Battlestar Galactica) took the story of the old version that I used to watch as a child, and started over entirely . . . for the better. I have no problem with significant change.

But I do care about the perception that the new filmmakers are, or are not, being very thorough or thoughtful in their own storytelling. And the "we will cover it all up with time travel" trick (gag), is not a sufficiently interesting nor creative measure. To me, it would be much more of a challenge for the new film to make a good faith effort to adhere to the existing lore of Kirk, Spock, etc.'s upbringing, than (as it appears to the die-hard Trekkie outsider) to just throw in a convenient deux ex machina that allows the filmmakers to create their own story from scratch. There is a fine line between creativity and laziness, and the latter rarely produces a memorable story.

Again, I obviously haven't seen the film, and I am excited to do so. Its entirely possible that the new film will have an internal narrative logic that not only makes sense, but more importantly, produces a Enterprise crew worth following further.

But I cannot emphasize enough that a successful new film has to go through the fans. The fans brought the franchise in the 1970s back from the dead, and it was the fans and their repeat business that sustained the franchise through nine films and several television series, long after the novelty of Trek had worn off.

There were only two times, prior to this newest one, that a Trek film was tinkered with to attract so-called "mass appeal"--the awkward humor of Final Frontier and the heightened emphasis on action in Nemesis. Those were the two lowest-grossing films in the franchise--how ironic (and not a coincidence). The humor in Voyage Home was more about taking a break from the darkness of the deadly serious previous two installments, than about finding a new audience--which was just a happy by-product of the shift in tone.

I wish the new film the best. It hasn't gotten off to a good start for me, but there's no point in rooting against my own self-interests. Yet there's still something to be said about the old (albeit sexist) truism--"dance with the girl who brought you."