Saturday, February 4, 2017

Breaking Bad: What Makes A Man Himself?

spoilers for season 2 of Breaking Bad and mild spoilers for Better Call Saul

Forgive me my heresy, but it is not yet decided whether Breaking Bad has taken its place among the pantheon of great stories. Anyone at a party would disagree with me, calling it the first great masterwork of the new television movement, or probably just the "best TV show ever". They would cite its critical reception and the ongoing enthusiasm of those who enjoyed it. But in reality, it's only been three years since Breaking Bad ended, and so it remains to be seen if this suburban parable of a high school chemistry teacher who was so much more and so much less than at first he seemed will last beyond the lifespan of its milieu.

I have no interest in making a claim one way or the other, but in rewatching the show I want to zoom in on a few particular arcs of the show's second season, looking for themes, character, and meaning. Just as scholars have debated for centuries the content of Shakespeare's plays, a great work should stand up to scrutiny and teach us about ourselves, the world, and the way we live.

Breaking Bad's first season was only 7 episodes. With the starting gunshot of a cancer diagnosis, it gave us enough time for Walter White to start cooking meth, under duress to kill a man who'd tried to kill him and might kill his family, to bluff his way into negotiations with a terrifying drug dealer named Tuco, and to begin a series of deceptions that corrupt his relationship with his family.

The second season has almost double that time: 13 episodes, during which the layers of what we thought we knew about Walter are peeled away, revealing a core that is by turns exhilarating, hilarious, sad, and frightening. And it doesn't stop with Walter. Almost every character has moments of complex personal origami, moments where we see them as more than just their image, more than just their job, more than just their relationships with others. It seems that the writers of Breaking Bad are teaching us: optimistically, they reminds their audience that human beings are not simply a sum of their reputations or achievements. More frighteningly, they warn us that a vast disconnect can exist between what we say we are or what we want to be. In many ways, we can be much less than we pretend to be.

Image result for walter white season 2 stills

Walt has many titles we could give him and roles he has chosen to play. At the show's beginning he is a teacher, a father and a husband, but the pilot shows us a corruption in each. As a teacher he is mocked and ridiculed and has to work a second job to support his family. As a father, he feels disconnected from his son Walt Jr. and perhaps fears that he has passed on mortality too strongly to his disabled son. As a husband he is disrespected and feels completely sexually disconnected from his wife. The discrepancies between the life he wanted to live and the resulting existence are a major motivator for him to take on the new roles of criminal, drug dealer, and eventually drug lord.

Season 2 takes many occasions to show what each of the characters are trying to be. Human beings generally define themselves around major milestones, and the characters of Breaking Bad each have their own. The major shapes: being a parent, a teacher, a lawyer, a cop - become the lines in the coloring book, and each character tries with their behavior to become or at least convince others that they are who they say they are. Some are more effective: Tuco, in trying to be seen as a brutal drug lord, kills one of his underlings with almost no provocation and proves that he is what he claims to be. Skylar lives up time and time again to the responsibility as a wife to care for her family and her husband, even when Walter is lying to her and she knows it. Some, like Skylar, genuinely believe that they are what others see. Others, like criminal/lawyer Saul Goodman, know that a good facade is all you need. 

Even Hank says to Gomez after pumping up the DEA with false hopes of finding Tuco: "Appearances, Gomey. It's all about appearances." And in a way, Breaking Bad admits the truth of this. Jessie's reputation as the blowfish makes the streets fear him. Walter's reputation as Heisenberg opens doors and intimidates with extreme effectiveness. But the show is much more interested in the moments of discrepancy, when characters are not exactly what they say they are. As we learn in the show, this is more common than not.

Image result for breaking bad beautiful stills

The obsession with appearances can lead to moments of humor and delight. There's something genuinely funny about Tuco, just after putting down his assault rifle, cooking breakfast for his aging, crippled Uncle Hector. He cares about his family. He's more than we thought.  Not a half hour later, Hank surprises us all by proving he's as good under pressure as he pretends to be, taking on a wounded Tuco in a gunfight with only a pistol against Tuco's assault rifle. He's brave and cool under pressure. He's more than we thought. A hilarious surprises comes in the form of Saul Goodman's sharp cunning: kidnapped by Walt and Jessie and taken into the desert, we quickly realize that this chubby lawyer making his money off of public masturbators and down-on-their-luck criminals has, in fact, been at gunpoint before and talked his way out of it. In a surprising power play, not a minute after being on the chopping block,Walt and Jessie are putting money into his pockets. He's brilliant. He's a survivor. He's more than we thought.

(A brief side note: on second watching and after two seasons of Better Call Saul, it is heartbreaking seeing how fall Jimmy McGill has fallen. This is a man who had meaningful relationships that have fizzled to nothing. Now he's reduced to hitting on his secretary in the parking lot. Talk about someone having more to him than we know about.)

Image result for saul goodman fan art
art by punktx30

But on the obverse of this coin is a danger and a fear. These characters' places in society depend on fulfilling their roles. Tuco would be weakened if someone thought he had a heart. Saul survives by being underestimated by everyone. Everyone in this world knows that there are consequences if you step outside your bubble, but in season two many character are brought to their limits. Skylar, under extreme stress, smokes cigarettes while pregnant and justifies herself. Marie is discovered as being a kleptomaniac and has to accept it in order to heal her relationship with her sister. The responses of these characters to these tectonic shifts reveal what each of them decide about what makes a person themselves.

In many examples, people decide to bury or forget what makes them less than their identity:
In Episode 4, "Down", Jessie tries to bring back the glory days of his band (the horrible name Twaughthammer is mentioned) with an old friend to ask for housing help. But the old friend is a dad now, wearing a striped polo and trying to get his two-year-old to eat carrots. He has left Jessie's world behind a long time ago, and that's easy for anyone to see. He's decided to make himself a good guy, and that means forgetting that his life with Jessie existed, so much that when his wife shows up, he won't even let Jessie stay the night. It puts his position and identity in danger.

Hank, meanwhile, has to come to terms with a part of himself after killing Tuco. Though he acts proudly in the moment, he finds himself having panic attacks in the elevator, freaking out. When his promotion takes him to El Paso, his fear causes him to run and accidentally saves his life while letting another agent die. How can Hank define himself if he is not the brave cop full of bravado and jokes? At work he keeps up appearances, terrified that therapy would get him resigned to a desk job. Even bedridden, he pretends that nothing is happening. The idea that he might be less than he claims leads to pretending that his troubles are not happening. In a sense, what makes Hank himself is the fact that he buries his inadequacies. He is creating himself by choosing what is "him" or "not". Since his anxiety does not fit who Hank is, he decides it is not happening.

Image result for hank schrader

One of Walt's buried secrets has been buried for decades, and though it is never completely unearthed it obviously is one of the major contributors to his unhappiness. In one of the most visceral scenes of the entire season, Walt and Gretchen meet for lunch after Gretchen learns that Walt has been lying about Gretchen and Elliott paying for his cancer treatments. The show gives us no flashbacks, no unnecessary hints. This is only the third episode Gretchen has appeared in. But both Walter's refusal to accept their money and their scene in the restaurant reveal that Walt has buried something deep about Gretchen in his soul. 

It is revealed in the restaurant that Gretchen and Walt were once a couple, and were considering being married. A few lines (including the clinical "I have not told Elliott. That's a determination I have yet to make.") make it clear that Gretchen is Walt's intellectual match in ways Skylar never appears to be. But her pushing about why he has lied leads him to a cold statement: "I don't owe you an explanation." Gretchen emotionally asks "What happened to you? Really, Walt? Because this isn't you." An understanding she thought was mutual turns out to be completely wrong.

Walter's voice and demeanor change again as he growls back: "What would you know about me, Gretchen? What would your presumption about me be, exactly? That I should go begging for your charity? And you, go waving your checkbook around like some magic wand is gonna make me forget how you and Elliott - how you and Elliott cut me out?" She hisses: "That can't be how you see it!" He laughs at that, but she insists on her version of the story: "You left me. You left me. Newport, 4th of July weekend. You and my father and my brothers. And I go up to your room and you're packing your bags, barely talking. What, did I dream all that?"

Image result for walter and gretchen breaking bad fan art

When he still does not consider her side of the story, she tearfully says "I feel so sorry for you, Walt." He leans forward and in a ringing voice, says, "Fuck. You." And she leaves.

I am obviously partial to the scene for several reasons. The writing is gorgeous, leaving almost everything unsaid and yet so much hangs in the air around them that it's easy to draw out the real story. The performances show so much more than the simple anger and confusion and reveal what's beneath it: love. respect. and deep, untended hurt.

And it shows us how much Walter has shaped his perception of himself. How he's twisted his history with Gretchen into a grudge, hidden it deep inside him to hide his pride, his dissatisfaction with his marriage, his envy of Elliott and Gretchen, and his bitterness about the life he now leads. In going down his path towards becoming Heisenberg, he is slowly unearthing the things that led him to it.

Walt's identity on paper dictates that he should be a happy, courageous survivor, grateful for his life, his family, and the people who support him in his illness. But on almost every count, Walter shows us that none of this is true. He has impressed us already with his display of pyrotechnics against Tuco in season one. He's escaped death on multiple occasions by his cleverness and force of will. He's beginning to like what he's capable of. He's beginning to enjoy it. He is choosing to build a new self, a new Walter, who takes on a new name.

But beneath all that, the writers of Breaking Bad are warning us that Walt is much less than he thinks he is. His antics at his remission party, giving Walt Jr. shots of alcohol and, when Hank intervenes, his shout of "My son! My bottle! My house!" begin to reveal that despite his noble stated intentions, Walt cares more about power and less about his family than he believes. More heartbreaking, the episode before this, he receives news of remission with embraces and tears of gratitude. He is surrounded by people who care about him, and has a thousand reasons to be happy. But the most permanent remnant of the remission is left on the towel dispenser in the bathroom when Walter, in a fit of rage and triumph and self-hatred, punches it until his knuckles bleed. Chosen identity, buried things, and choices seem to make a man himself, but what is Walter becoming?

It might be a difficult question to ask, but what are we becoming? The trappings of success (a family, a job, an identity) are not enough to truly make us us. Breaking Bad forces us to consider what we really are, to look down into that crawl space and see what's hidden there, just below the floorboards. We may not like it, but if we want to truly live well, we must face it.

Image result for walter white breaking bad

Throughout the season, several black-and-white flash forwards hint at the plane crash that ends the season. They show a plastic eyeball floating in the White's backyard pool. A scorched purple stuffed animal. And in a magical realist bit of misdirection, the bodies shown on the White's front porch, the glasses put into ziploc bags,and the cleanup crew in what look like radiation suits seem to hint at a horrific fate for Walter's family coming just around the corner. We imagine that by the end of episode 13, Skylar and Walt will be the ones in the body bags, that the glasses will be Walter's that he lost when some horrible justice took his life.

But this misdirection did not come true the way we might think. What really happens is a disappointing ending to the season, and intentionally so. Watchers know what Walt's lies and crime and violence will lead to, and they assumed that this foreshadowing was a prophecy for literal consequences.

But in a sense, those flash forwards ask us to consider if, underneath the shellacked appearance of good people doing good things, there are figurative dead bodies in the driveway. Walter missed the birth of his daughter to make a drug deal. He let Jessie's girlfriend, his ray of hope, die because it suited him better to have her dead. In this season, he is creating rifts with Skylar and his son that he may never repair. Beneath the surface, he has already broken his family. He has already ruined his home.

Because he has chosen to destroy himself.

Image result for breaking bad beautiful shots

Friday, February 26, 2016

Here's the Post-Apocalyptic Mormon Video Game I Made

Okay, weird confession time. This one's inspired by Graham Ward, who shared his Hobbit supercut. I worked really hard last year on a big crazy thing, and what's funny is that of the hundreds of thousands of people who now know about it, only a few of them are my friends.

So, if you're interested in Mormons in modern culture, or in video games, or stuff I make, here's a way to experience it.

Modding. Definition: "The act of changing a game to make it another, or add features previously unavailable, old, or previously nonexistent. It is commonly done in PC games."

Last year I spent about 1,000 hours building a mod for Fallout:New Vegas, a 2008 video game that featured a story about post-apocalyptic Mormons. I appreciated the treatment of Mormons but thought it could use more depth and story, and so I taught myself how to program and basically built a huge interactive theater piece inside this game, which was then brought to life by a ton of my friends.

HONEST HEARTS REBORN (the name of the original expansion, 'Honest Hearts' ,with the added “Reborn') tells the story of a post-nuclear-war Mormon missionary named Joshua Graham, who left his faith while a young man and started a horrifying journey as a warlord and oppressor. During this game many years later, Joshua returns to the place where he served his mission (Zion National Park, where I went on a trip with my brother last August), finding the people who he both helped and hurt as a missionary. It's a reflection on how our choices not only change us but the whole world around us, and a reminder that we always have a choice when bad things happen to us. Though I have a pro-Mormon storyline, the player can choose how the story ends, and it isn't just black and white.

The game was at first received pretty well by the online community, with tens of thousands of views within days of release and thousands of downloads. In the last week, though, a petition went out for the mod to be played through online by the dweebiest (and most popular) Fallout youtuber. He decided to do it and since then has uploaded a 5-hour-long series of videos playing through my game. With his videos, my game has now been by hundreds of thousands of viewers.

WARNING: Swearing, video game violence, and extreme nerdiness in this video.

The video has lots of swearing, video game violence, and general stupidity (the narrator's reputation is mostly about his nerdy jokes) but what amazes me is that hundreds of thousands of people are interested in this. Viewers said they cried during a recording where a young missionary tells a radiated mutant that God has a plan for him, and will never let him down. One quest has you ask a priesthood leader to give a blessing to a man who ruined that leader's life, convincing him to look past his biases and do what God would have him do. In preparing for the final battle, you can talk to some tribal people who made a covenant not to murder anymore, and ask them if their adult children would be willing to fight, mirroring the Stripling warriors.

The reactions to religion in the mod have obviously been mixed, with one calling it "Christian propaganda" and a reddit ex-mormon page sharing it as "precious". But what people have liked is the ability to use many approaches to help the characters make complex moral choices. I didn't want to write Joshua's story to be propaganda. He is as likely to go on a murdering rampage as he is to come back to God, and I wanted to make that possible, easy, and, in its way, a satisfying ending. I don't believe that spirituality offers the most clean-cut, euphoric ending 100% of the time. A life with God is complex. But I wanted to explore what those things meant for me.

I feel really grateful. I didn't want to do this for money or anything, really. I just cared about the story and wanted to make it, and see if I could. The fact that anyone watches it at all, and more, likes it, makes me feel absolutely incredible.

for your enjoyment, here are some comments:

When I announced this mod, a young man sent me this heart-warming message on reddit:

Wow, this mod is like a Dream come true for me! I have [very] personal ties to real-world Utah and Zion so I was EXTREMELY excited to play Honest Hearts when I got into New Vegas. I was alas, sad that the only part of the DLC that really wowed was how nice the canyons looked. Suddenly knowing it's being remade into what looks like a glorious masterpiece is mind-bogglingly awesome!

A mormon player named linnes16 said:

Well. I'm impressed with this mod. Not only did it overhaul Honest Hearts. It did it in a very respectful and smart way. They dug much deeper into the Mormon side of the DLC then the vanilla did. And it did it with knowledge of what us Mormons actually do and believe. (Obviously theres a lot more that we do and believe, but that's for another day).”

Crushric said: “I adore this idea and mod and everything it stands for.”

NILLOC916 said:
this is one of my favorite story mods...The voice acting is great, I actually felt sad hearing the "Testimony" holotape. Plus the story has some interesting options, unlike many story mods or even questlines in the base game, I'm unsure what to do and may end up regretting a decision.”

Super awesome mod, way better and more moving then the vanilla was!... It was an awesome first mod! It more more moving and lore-friendly then vanilla, and Graham had a more interesting and cohesive feel to his character. The story and diverse amount of locations and npcs were staggering and impressive! Keep working at it dude, Id love to play it again!”

Saturday, December 26, 2015

I Can Do This: Belonging & Inheritance in "The Force Awakens"

"The Force Awakens" made me think a lot about my place in the galaxy, and the place of my friends. Hopefully these thoughts can do some justice to that.


In a movie of this size and history, it's not surprising that the movie made a lot of sappy and silly nods to its predecessors. But I am not really a sucker for blank nostalgia, and so most of the moments in "The Force Awakens" didn't illicit so much as a grin from me. All the re-introductions, from Han and Leia and the Falcon to 3PO to Luke Skywalker himself, made me think "Ah, so that's what they decided to do." I was waiting for them like someone watching a horror movie waits for the scary "boo!" moment, with the same half-cringe on my face. That's not what interested me.

I got teary-eyed, yeah. It was amazing seeing some gifted storytellers and seriously divinely-inspired art designers rip back into this universe like they're all snorting the cocaine of the science fiction gods. But there was one moment that made me absolutely thrill.

Early on in the film, our two protagonists Rey and Finn are sprinting away from bad dudes who are chasing them down for something valuable they have. Rey is a worse-than-destitute scavenger who days ago was scraping out a life in a busted AT-AT on a quarter ration of blue food, and Finn was a runaway soldier from a group he doesn't believe in. These guys are nobodies.

But they've got to survive and get away. Rey leaps behind the controls of a spaceship and Finn straps himself behind a gunner's turret. Dehydrated and totally unsure, he gasps: "I can do this. I can do this." Rey, sweating and eyes scanning everything, breathes: "I can do this. I can do this."

And they don't have a choice. They do. The ship rumbles into the air, they shout jargon and desperately try to keep in the air, and by the time it's over they come back with utter surprise and amazement at each others' success. "How did you do that? You were amazing! No, you were!"

Star Wars started as a story that valued the power of Greek tragedy and stories of prophecy and destiny. But Star Wars has come to represent something else. Over years of movies, novels, and games that has spread over a galaxy's worth of lives, the message is this:

There is a place for you here.

At first the series had something for everyone: cool sci-fi, banter and romance, and even some spirituality. "May the Force be with you" has become a watchword, a symbol of the connection we all have. But years later, people know the ins and outs, from mynocks to midichlorians. Even new converts to the Star Wars canon know Boba Fett, a guy who had 4 lines in the original trilogy! (My college roommate named his car Slave One after Boba Fett's ship, a name never mentioned in the movies.)

Now it provides stories for so many people on so many levels. If you don't feel like a Jedi, there are smugglers and ships to be had. There are wars to be fought for the Republic or the Rebels or the Resistance. There are strange creatures to feel akin to: Twi'Leks and Ithorians and the whatever-Yoda-was and the whatever-Plo-Koon-was and even Samuel L. Jackson. It's an inhabitable universe, and to joke about the silly names does nothing to diminish the power of a universe that empowers people, and has empowered them since its creation.

How did a story of an exclusive order of glow-sword-wielding priests become the populist anthem of generations? How did a dorky space opera fill every household and inspire people to tears and shouts of joy? I don't really know all that, but I think it bears a message for us, and J.J. Abrams' newest installment made me think of three in particular:

First, There is always something to learn. 

Life moves really, really fast. I mean, look at any single shot from "The Force Awakens". I bet you 5 bucks at least one person is running in that shot. If not, there is something important and sci-fi-ish happening. If not that, there is sweeping John Williams music playing or about to play. Now give me 5 bucks.

My first genuine response to "The Force Awakens" came during the rolling opening credits. Mention was made of "The Resistance's best pilot" who we learn later to be Poe Dameron, and I got tiny chills. "Ooh, someone new," I thought, and I wasn't disappointed. Poe is a powerful character with a strong will, deep love for others, and most of all, enthusiasm and passion for his talent. He's a pilot, and we get to see that excitement over and over again.

Rey is similar to Poe, even if she lacks his opportunities. While he's flying for the Resistance like a boss, Rey lives in squalor, salvaging little pieces off of ships. But Rey is constantly learning, and working to learn, and this defines her more than her unassuming beauty or her connection to the Force. (For example, when she turns a lightsaber on for the first time, there's a reason her fast learning doesn't surprise us.)

I loved watching Rey in her house, eating her little power-bread and sitting with her rebel pilot's helmet on. For me, it totally beats the Luke-looking-out-at-twin-suns moment, and Rey is a cooler, more interesting person than him.

If I was orphaned and abandoned on a desert planet, I would probably get pretty down on myself. But Rey's reaction is the one that I truly hope to have in my life to adverse circumstances: Learn and grow. Rey becomes an expert on technology, on her world, and on the people in it. She observes closely, she understands systems, and she tries to improve them, rerouting a power problem in the Millenium Falcon and opening doors in the First Order base.

There are lots of things to learn about the Star Wars universe, if you were ever interested and know how to read a Wiki. But more importantly, there are so many things to be learned about the real universe. Wouldn't it be incredible if every time you encountered something you didn't understand, you learned until you did it? What if you approached a computer this way? A car? A business? A family? A nation? You could learn so much, so fast.

And true learning doesn't make us cynical. Ignorance is so often full of boredom and disinterest. True learning inspires awe. When Rey sees a green planet for the first time, her face is full of wonder and curiosity. That may not have been what motivated her to learn in the first place, but learning helped her feel it.

Second, not everyone has vision, and this is beautiful. 

In real life as well as in Star Wars, some people have Vision. Some people can connect to the Center of things in ways that nobody else can. They lead. They help others see things differently. Sometimes charismatic but often not, they transform the shape of the future, and help us understand the past. They are like Jedi.

(Disclaimer: Jedi are not better than anybody else. Sometimes people who could be great real-world Jedi become real-world Sith instead, and sometimes people who want to be Jedi end up working for the Sith because they aren't. Some markers of the Dark Side? Jealousy and bitterness are major ones. If you feel your genius and vision is not being listened to and others are foolish, maybe you're stepping in the wrong direction. You could probably just write a movie blog and pretend people read it to temper your self-obsession. :)

(2nd Disclaimer: Is it okay not to be a Jedi? I think so. If you want to be important just because of the rush of it, then maybe you're looking at it the wrong way. Though the Star Wars movies make it look like that Jedi are the most important, I think truly important people are endlessly empowering others. Hopefully there will be some more chances to see this in other Star Wars films. If not, I'll make one. With Legos and stop-motion.)

Some really intense person on Wikipedia says that Jedi are "an ancient monastic, spiritual and academic meritocratic organization...[the Order] mostly consists of polymaths; teachers, philosophers, scientists...the Jedi study, serve, and utilize a mystical power called The Force". Being a Jedi would be an incredible experience and an incredible burden, and definitely where I would want to be were I in the Star Wars universe, if mostly for the deep conversations and lightsabers.

The burden is revealed a little bit in Rey's vision near the middle of "The Force Awakens". At the pirate conclave, Rey faces a vision of the force that terrifies her, that shows her the darkness of her past and the incredible challenges of her future. The experience is so harrowing that she says she will never come close to it again.

So, a message to those who might secretly be Jedi, but don't know it: sometimes the Light Side will scare you. It might pull you to overturn old stones and re-open old wounds and help you find healing. It might call you to be thousands of times better than you are now, but don't worry. It will help you. If you don't follow that whisper, it may be that no one will take your place.

And an even more important message: if you are not a Jedi, and you know it, first of all, you might be anyway so look at the last paragraph.

But if you aren't. If you haven't felt the Force, or don't really feel like you have a mission, keep an eye out for these people. Look at Finn! Finn wields a lightsaber, fights a Sith Lord, connects all the major players in the film, and is deeply important! And though he may be a Jedi, let's say for my purposes that he isn't.

Finn recognizes something incredible in Rey. He is the key force (intentional word use) that propels her to taking hold of her destiny. So if you are not a Jedi, find them. Find people with vision. Listen to them. Help them. Argue with them when they are wrong, push back when they are stubborn or selfish. Inspire them. Only with your help can they change the galaxy.

They might be holding the torch and leading the way, but you might be the one flying overhead in an X-wing. They might be the writer of the next big epic, but you might build the world their characters live in. You might walk beside them, or run beside them. Even just being there is worth the whole ride.

Third, you are not small.

There is a place for you. Not just in the Star Wars galaxy, but in the real one. I loved, watching the film, that we got to see a trio of new heroes who came out of nothing, with no prophecies or powers, become a part of the story. I don't think JJ and the other creators did this accidentally.

Star Wars VII is claiming Lucas' universe as collectively ours, introducing new heroes, planets, and visual ideas, and this is no small thing. Our generation is inheriting all sorts of things: our nation, our world, our challenges, our philosophical inheritance.

We don't have to be afraid that we won't measure up. The difference between Han Solo and Finn is that we know Han's story, but Finn's is just beginning. The difference between George Lucas and J.J. Abrams is that one came before the others. The difference between Star Wars and the next beautiful science fiction epic is that Star Wars has already been seen.

We don't have to be afraid that we're not special enough. What made those before us special was not their parents, or their upbringing. Having amazing parents can lead to a Kylo Ren as easily as a Luke Skywalker. What made them special was their natural abilities, combined with their choices. They had to learn, they had to fight to get better, and you will too.

So if we're learning lessons from "The Force Awakens", how about these: Try to find others who will be on your side. Only Sith go at it alone. Friends may be hard to find, and they may at first glance just be orphans on a garbage planet, and some might argue with you, but you can find true friends. And there's nothing more sure to keep you from the Dark Side.

Right now, you may feel like a nobody. You might be scraping out a life in a busted AT-AT with a quarter ration of blue food. But you are the only you there is. Keep learning. Find what you're passionate about. And when the time is right, jump up into the pilot's seat or take hold of the lightsaber and remember:

You can do this.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Become Who You Were Born to Be: Destiny in "The Return of the King"

I have been thinking about destiny lately.

I don't mean that in a self-centered protagonistic sense. I mostly mean it in a Lord of the Rings sense.

My Grandfather says that The Lord of the Rings is mostly a profound moral work because of its sense of Providence--the idea that individuals are being led forward by a powerful force for good, that leads them to final endings of goodness despite travelling through dark clouds and moments of grief. Along the way, so many characters find that they were made for something greater than they knew. That they had a destiny.

I don't know if I've got one of those. Of course my clinical mind wants to reject the idea, looking around at how normal my surroundings are. How there are no meteoric rises to being wonderful or powerful, how it's all just one little step at a time. I imagine you think similarly--you sometimes dream of wonderful things, but can feel held back by a world that has no interest in you, or by the (perhaps) truthful evaluation that some of your dreams are ridiculous and improbable.

If you're interested in reading that your wildest dreams will come true and exactly as you planned it, you won't find it in this article. The destiny I see in the universe is hidden, does a wonderful job of making itself invisible, and sometimes only is visible to others. But I do believe that we have incredible capacities as individuals, for caring, for strength, for inspiration. And that kind of destiny--unexpected, beautiful, personal--is all over The Lord of the Rings, and particularly The Return of the King. And I think it can teach us something about our own destiny.

Here goes:

Aragorn's journey in The Lord of the Rings is so well-worn to us that every step of it seems natural. Somehow, the fact that the pipe-smoking, black-hooded ranger who heals with a weed called Kingsfoil is a logical person to magically become the King of Gondor, Leader of the Armies of the West. But taking away the deep cultural impact that the series has had on us, Aragorn becomes a dark, fascinating figure and a powerful archetype for destiny, and nowhere is his personal transformation and character power clearer than in his eponymous film: The Return of the King.

Before the films, Aragorn was a ranger. To claim that he was a wastrel and an evader is not a wholly accurate portrayal, but there is a sense that he faces up against smaller challenges rather than great ones. As will be mentioned later, he even suggests to Sauron that he has hidden from him. Though he knew what he was destined to be, there is evidence that Aragorn stood on the sidelines, hanging back out of fear, apprehension, or doubt.

Late one night at the Rohan encampment, Elrond comes to Aragorn with a warning and a gift. The warning is that they will be outnumbered by the secret fleet Sauron has enlisted, and that Aragorn needs to find more troops. When Aragorn expresses doubt that he will be able to inspire the army that might be able to help them, Elrond shows Aragorn the gift he's brought, saying "They will answer to the King of Gondor."

The gift is a new sword, called Anduril, reforged from the broken shards of his ancestral line's sword. Elrond hands Aragorn the sword and says:

"Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be."

With these words, Aragorn reaches a turning point in a transformation that began when he agreed to help Gandalf lead the Hobbits to Rivendell, that continued when he joined the Fellowship, and that grew to maturity.

Aragorn's transition to kinghood presents some fascinating ideas about destiny:

1. Aragorn both honors and defies his family by taking on his role.

   The family of Kings is not without their shames or problems. Isildur, Aragorn's forebear, defeated Sauron but eventually succumbed to the temptation of the ring. That long line of crowns and swords that came in the generations before Aragorn was poisoned by greed and selfishness. No doubt part of Aragorn's hesitation was the knowledge that he, too, was subject to temptation.
   (Arguably, his temperance saved him from a similar fate. Would it have been better to have a hero boldly barreling in, assuming he would be unshakable? Isn't that what happened to Boromir?)
    But Aragorn honors the family line. The symbol of their greatness, the sword, is reforged to serve his reign.
     For those among us who come from families with difficulties, is it necessary to split completely from what fostered us? or is there a way of taking the good shards of a broken thing and improving it?
     Embracing destiny is not, as many assume, simply an arrogant "self-making". Aragorn has no fantasies about this. He graciously accepts the help given him and the traditions given him by his royal line. He sees their flaws clearly enough to avoid their mistakes. With the help of the past and hope in the future, he generates something new.

2. He cares deeply about others while avoiding a savior complex.

   Aragorn's relationship with Eowyn (who I'll talk about at length later in this commentary) teaches another fascinating lesson about his destiny.
   In the key conversation with Elrond, they recite a shared bit of Elven lore: "I give hope to men. I keep none for myself." This mantra could turn Aragorn into an overreaching self-destroyer, trying so hard to make everyone happy that he can't, in the end, do anything. But Aragorn sees limits. He understand the value of the feelings of others, encouraging but not making them dependent upon him.
    During The Two Towers, Eowyn, niece of Theoden, falls in love with Aragorn. He is encouraging to her, believes in her strength, and goodness, but has no interest in her romantically.
    When he leaves for the Dimholt Road after his conversation with Elrond, Eowyn confronts Aragorn. He asks her why she's come, and she answers "Do you not know?"
    A man with a savior complex, or a man who thinks any greatness involves sexual prowess or treating romantic success as some kind of badge of honor, might prolong her interest. Kiss her and ride off, or more than that. But Aragorn is honest, clear, and caring:
    "It is but a shadow and a thought that you love. I cannot give you what you seek. I have wished you joy since I first saw you."
    A person with a destiny, according to this example, doesn't consider the love of others as his highest reward, but for them to be free and happy as possible.

3. Aragorn fearlessly faces up to his past and possibilities of failure.

      In another key scene from Return of the King, Aragorn makes contact with Sauron. He goes into the king's chamber in Minas Tirith and uses a black seerstone like a crystal ball to communicate with the Lord of Darkness.
     When he lifts the stone and sees Sauron, he says, defiant despite his reasons for fear:
     "Long have you hunted me. Long have I eluded you. No more."
    In this moment Aragorn faces up against his fears of the past and of the future.
    Aragorn believes that who he is, now, is enough. He has faith that even the difficulties of his past have made him who he is and will lead him down a similar path for the future. Facing his destiny isn't a calloused sense that "I am what I am and I won't change". Instead it's a developed something, a musculature that is inherently good. Whatever changes happen, a man has the discipline to hold to what he knows his good. The actor who played Aragorn, Viggo Mortensen, kept this motto on his mirror: "Adapt and overcome."
    In his final speech at the Black Gate he reiterates this idea:
    "A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship--an hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down--but it is not this day!"
    In the Aragorn archetype of destiny, there is no time like the present.

Aragorn is the archetypal hero: a man who comes from ignorance and weakness and, via his honor and resourcefulness, achieves a destiny that allows him to save others.

Admittedly, however, Aragorn was in a logical and systemic position to be placed in his position. Despite his apparent worthiness, "destiny" may have had nothing to do with it. And at least judging on the type of government kingship entails, it's unreasonable to think that all of us are going to be Aragorns, living up to some kingly destiny.

I think many people do have kingly destinies--incredible futures that will involve them changing the world in some large and institutional way. But for many others, I think Eowyn elucidates some important principles of destiny.

Eowyn is a proper feminist character. When Aragorn asks her what she fears, she says "A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all change of doing great deeds is beyond all thought or desire." A daughter of the House of Rohan, Aragorn assures her she will do things of value, but in a moment of crisis he warns her: "There may come a time for valor without renown."

For many people (both men and women) without an obvious a chance of open power as Aragorn, this idea can give either encouragement or bitterness. But here are three reasons that I think Eowyn is as incredible a hero as Aragorn:

1. Eowyn challenges the boundaries of her society without ire for those in charge.

    Feeling marginalized can often be a prerequisite for striking out against those with power. Throwing fits, getting newspapers to write scathing articles about your enemies, name-calling, etc. It's a well-worn story that rarely does much besides make people angry at each other.
    Eowyn has a clear vision of her destiny: to fight and defend the people she cares about. Even in a society where she doesn't necessarily have a chance to do so, she manages to do so without such conflict. She surreptitiously joins the ranks of her Uncle's army, marches to war with the rest, and helps as much as she can in their effort. Did she have to deceive to do it? Yes. Did she make an incredible difference? Absolutely.
    In many cases, careful combat against institutionalized evil seems justified. But these people are her family, her people. Would Eowyn really want to tear down her own city because of some tapestries on the wall or some of the stones in the foundation? Instead, her actions honor her people and allow her to help in the way that she intends to. She didn't lose vision of her destiny simply because other people told her she couldn't achieve it.
     As a woman, Eowyn creatively seeks opportunities to give her destiny voice, and with equal creativity finds her way around cultural barriers that might stop her from meeting it.

2. Eowyn saves others.

     Eowyn's relationship with Theoden and the events at Pelennor Fields are a reminder that destiny can often be more meaningful, and incredible when it revolves around individuals than it might be when it ends with fame, fortune, or power.
     It should be noted that Aragorn barely saves anyone in the Lord of the Rings films, and sometimes with a bit of drama. He mostly saves Frodo from Weathertop, he serves as a messenger before Helm's Deep, and coincidentally stops Eowyn from dying during Pelennor Fields. But Eowyn's personal defense of Theoden is one of the most stirring events in the books.
    During their fight with the orcs, the King of the Nazgul, the Witch-King, riding a freaky dragon thing, screeches down out of the sky, grabs Theoden and horse in one mouthful, swings them around and slams them down on the ground. (We're assuming a broken back for Theoden, if not much worse.)
    He is about to suffer a shameful, torturous death, when Eowyn, in disguise as a man, steps in between them.

    The Witch-King laughs. When he was a mortal man it was predicted that he would never be killed by a living man, and so he is all confidence. This is the creature which, moments before, broke Gandalf's staff. To say that he's powerful is an incredible understatement.
    Eowyn, meanwhile, is horseless, armed with a completely regular sword. Unlike many others, she has no real titles to defend her. She professes that she will "hinder" the Witch-King. What uncertain language! Is she doubtful of her own strength?
    But from nowhere! and from no one but herself, she takes courage. She "laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel.
    "'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn am I, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and my kin...I will smite you if you touch him.'


    "The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith was silent, as if in sudden doubt. ... [T]he helm of secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears gleamed in them. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes."
     Almost as remarkable as her courage and her love, Eowyn fights the Witch-King. "A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly" that felled the beast. The Rider's mace shatters her shield and her arm, but given a moment to find the last of her strength, she stabs him through the face and destroys him.
    In the book Eowyn collapses immediately and misses Theoden's death, but in an inspired choice, in the film Eowyn is able to be the recipient of her uncle's gratitude.

    She refuses to believe he is dying, insisting "I am going to save you."
    With a grim smile, he answers "You already did."
    If, in whatever judgment is to come, there is some scale of who matters and who doesn't in life, I think it's rather clear to everyone that it isn't based on fame or accolades. In that scale, Eowyn's destiny is just as heroic as Aragorn's. For some, she may seem to be defined by her boldness and defiance of the tradition she lives in. But even if those barriers were taken away, she would be defined by her love and loyalty to the people around her. The greatest destiny of all is to save others.

3. Eowyn accepts healing from others.

    Lastly, here's a minor anecdote from Eowyn, which I think makes her an interesting archetype: her experience in the Houses of Healing. After the battle with the Witch-King, Eowyn spends most of the book out of commission, overcoming the wounds she suffered. She incidentally meets Faramir here.
    But I was interested to see, and this is in the book as well, that Aragorn is the one who heals Eowyn. The little weed "kingsfoil" is actually a powerful healing agent, and he uses it as one of the powers he has been granted as a part of his role and destiny.

    I think it's important to realize that Eowyn doesn't begrudge this. No matter who we are or aren't, it is valuable to take advantage of and be appreciative of the destiny others have that we do not. Often, seeing the glory showered on others by fate (or whatever resembles it in the universe) we can feel bitter that we don't have such things. But in my experience, the world is brimming with Providence. Destiny becomes an interweaving fabric of acts performed by the many.

In conclusion, Eowyn is a boss, with a message about destiny that any of us can hold onto. Whether or not we are assigned some position of importance by the winds of fate, our influence can be monumental.

Even if I've focused on two characters, and the division has been mostly about gender, the idea of destiny is not so divided. Many women will be in places of prominence when men will not, and vice versa.

But I am still struck by the phrase of Elrond's.

Become who you were born to be.

In terms of fame or power, we can't really know what we were born to be. But that's not really what matters. What matters is not the quality of our lives but the quality of ourselves.

I think all of us, in some small sense, know what lies within us. I think all of us know the avenues we can begin to explore that will make us what we truly can be. You were born to do it, but you have the choice to become.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Madness is Beautiful: "Mad Max"

***spoilers follow***

It's a rare action movie that will survive without snappy dialogue and cheap one-liners, or thrive without buxom babes falling head over heels for handsome heroes. It's a rarer action movie that can transport its audience to a truly complex world, spur reflections on our cultural obsessions with war and power, and carry a feminist message in its blood-soaked hands to the hearts of a new generation of young people.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" does all that, and I haven't even mentioned the freakin motorcycle stunts.

Technically not even a reboot, the Mad Max franchise is continued here by director/writer George Miller (who also, um, wrote both of the Babe films?) following another chapter in the life of a mentally-damaged survivalist keeping himself alive in a deep-orange post-apocalyptic wasteland. In "Fury Road", the survivalist (named Max) finds himself embroiled in a feud between a water-hoarding warlord named Immortan Joe and his five wives, who attempt to escape the malformed tyrant's clutches and find the Green Place, a mysterious land where the fabled Many Mothers live.

Though the film moves so quickly that you hardly notice this strength, Miller makes short work of attaching us to Mad Max. Within the first five minutes, the bearded wanderer is taken captive by chalk-covered War Boys who serve Immortan Joe. They shave him down, gag him, tattoo his back with important details (blood type, genitals intact, high octane) and he feverishly attempts to escape, all the while haunted by the skulls and faces of people whose deaths he inadvertently caused. (Also he eats a two-headed gecko.) But despite a thrilling chase scene (fast forwarded for added manic energy) Max's leap for escape only gets him a glimpse of the towering citadel of stone where he's kept before he's dragged back.

This is a man held together by tenacity and guilt, and there's no one better to pull off that role than Tom Hardy. No longer inflated to play Bane, only a few shades of the Batman villain's voice come across in Hardy's muttering, frantic-eyed portrayal. Under a grated muzzle, in bulky costumes or toting strange weapons, it's nice to know that there is a powerful actor underneath the effects.

While Max is imprisoned, we get a long, hard look at the world he lives in. And it's a hard look. Immortan Joe is an oversized warlord encased in white powder like his followers, transparent plastic armor, and a toothy mask that doubles as breathing apparatus. What's beneath that mask we never get a good look, but the double chins and wild yellow eyes communicate enough.

While his followers communicate in a mixed garble of what might have once been english, Joe is eloquent as he speaks to thousands of deformed and pathetic subjects. While they club each other to death over the light spray of water from what seem like infinite tanks, he chides them, "Do not become addicted to water. You will grow to resent its absence."

As part of this routine of despotism he sends off a War Rig on a supply run for the all-important guzzoline and bullets, driven by one of his highest-ranking servants, the one-armed cyborg Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). But as he sends her off, something appears to be wrong. He sprints through his thriving gardens, contrasted sharply to the drought of his people, opens the vault to his grand-piano-and-pool-equipped bedchambers, and finds the words "Our Babies Will Not Be Warlords" painted on the floor. It turns out that Joe's wives have stowed away aboard the War Rig and Furiosa is underground-railroading them the hell outta dodge.

Furiosa is a wonderful character with as much complexity as Max. Her rig is an example of her own planning, full of secrets that Max and the others explore. She has been engineering this kind of opportunity for years, and it shows. Charlize Theron has a tough job being the most talkative character in an alien wasteland, and sometimes she seems a little too normal, too contemporary. But these faults are easily forgotten.

It is in Immortan Joe's retaliation that Max, still a slave, has a chance at the narrative, because a young War Boy, too dehydrated to fight, decides that joining the search party and driving a pursuit car might be his chance at Valhalla, and to have the energy for the chase, he straps Max to the front of the car and uses him as a human IV. When the resourceful wives and Furiosa take down the War Boy's vehicle, Max takes control and joins forces with them in their escape.

And that's the first half an hour, minus some amazingly-choreographed action sequences and beautiful nuances. Some images slam into your brain as if they'd always been iconic: War Boys pulling skullish steering wheels off an altar like Crucifixes and kissing them, Max coming around the side of the truck and finding five beautiful, exhausted-looking women in white taking a drink from a hose like some greek painting of naiads. Motorcyclists vaulting over the truck and tossing down grenades seems more like ballet than war. It's just a gorgeously depraved story in a richly-depicted world.

A lot of people are praising Mad Max for its surprising depth, its feminist messages, and for its strong characters, while some think it's a glorified car chase. So what is it?

It's fantastic science fiction.

Science fiction is very rarely escapism, as Marvel and its subsidiary brothers would like us to believe. Following with tradition, the film's world is full of symbols and touchstones that are not only commentaries but a sort of prophetic warning of what our present actions mean. This is not a genre for the thoughtless or isolated. The fact that it happens to have enormous action scenes (one too many, in my opinion) and to be largely enjoyable doesn't take away from how deep it is.

Our protagonist is a nameless wanderer, haunted by the dead and devoid of any dietary scruples, and in that sense he's a symbol of post-apocalyptic man: built only for survival, full of personal dissonance, but largely incapable of changing it or facing it. The world around him is a harsh and dramatic allegory which, of course, asks us to take sides. The War Boys, Joe's servants, are desperate to please him, filled with hope of Valhalla, selfish and self-deprecating. The wives are the oppressed women of the world, hoping for a life free of the violence and objectifying society they come from. It is, as has been said in many places, a massive feminist anthem.

Whatever one may say about its message, seeing the feminist agenda in this light helps one recognize its gravity. Immortan Joe's world of imprisonment, chastity belts, and disregard is not far from many past societies, and the war-and-power-mongering insanity of his people is frightening to compare to our own. In this story, who do we want to be as men or as women? Are we fighting for our personal Valhallas, or scavenging for survival without thinking of others? Are we holding ourselves back by allowing others to see us as objects when we could make positive difference, or be a part of a society that will recognize our contributions? Is it easier to just be beautiful, or just be strong, rather than to be truly selfless?

The other aspects of the film's lore require more attention and add their own thematic questions. The Gasoline-traders and the Bullet-Farmers are mentioned early on, and in good fantasy fashion each have their own twisted, beautiful moments and shocking visuals. The Many Mothers, when they appear, are welcome and wonderful--old women full of wisdom and experience but not all that much hope.

(As a side note, the Many Mothers are a good reminder that feminism is not new, even in this genre. Science fiction and fantasy's history of feminism stretches back long before the contemporary wash of facebook articles. Look at Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" or "Tehanu". Today's sci-fi & fantasy magazines are overflowing with fabulous women and feminist writers. Before descending into vitriol, opinion, straw men and argument, we should remember that feminism has a strong hold among intelligent, kind people of all political and moral walks.)

My short answer is, of course, to go see the film. It is disturbing in many ways, and violent. Its fight and chase scenes are excellently-choreographed, full of gasp-worthy moments, and its visuals are stunning.

My only major qualm with the film is about its ending. The story is a reflection on power as much as it is on women, as most of its characters obsess over cars and guns because they are representations of power. War is, in its basest sense, a testosterone-fueled competition about pride and victory. Thus it strikes me as sad that, in a way, the film's conclusion is that in order to save humanity, all you need is the right regime change. The final images of the film show its new victors being pulled up to the heights of the citadel by the same slaves who hoisted Immortan Joe. Will anything change. or will the cycle of tyranny begin again?

In my experience, equality of the sexes does not involve one person stepping out of a throne and another stepping in. The future I hope for is one where we change the way we see power.

True power in "Mad Max" is shown in both feminine and masculine ways. Of course there is the stoic killing of bad guys, but real power is the scene of forgiveness in the back of the rig where one of the wives touches the lips of a wrecked War Boy, showing him the futility of his search for Valhalla. Real power is the scene where Max tries to use his mumbling medical knowledge to save Furiosa's life. Real power is self-sacrifice, not in hopes of salvation, but because of real love.

Also, guys, that scene with the spiky cars. Dang, I loved that.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Unimpeachable Underdog "Hamilton" Just Werks

Early on, in his eponymous onstage role as Alexander Hamilton, composer-lyricist-bookwriter-arranger-actor Lin-Manuel Miranda refers to himself using the word "unimpeachable", and his onstage offering, a politically-steeped biography of one of the great Founders of the American financial system, fits the word precisely.

Off-Broadway at the Public Theater (but soon to swagger to Broadway, apparently at its own bravura-filled whimsy), "Hamilton'"s ambition crosses every border it reaches. The racial narrative of American history has never been treated more boldly, optimistically, or cleverly than here. It takes biographical drama and renders it 1) as simple and comprehensible as the masterworks of Disney's golden era and 2) a portrait so complex and understandable that it shocks, surprises, and delights. In terms of accessibility and musical sophistication, Miranda somehow wondrously creates a piece that is explosive, plosive, melodic, and quixotic, an album as full of jams and sick vocal licks as it is of dense lyric depth in rhythmically complex rap.

There's more, but you're not gonna believe me so I'll stop right here.

"Hamilton" tells the story of ambitious, quick-tongued, quick-witted Alexander Hamilton, a Caribbean-born unlucky kid plagued by failures, who writes himself out of poverty and tragedy, fights for American independence at George Washington's side, and argues a nation and a financial system into existence alongside the ego-driven bigwigs of his time. Does he sound like a 1700s financier or kinda like a rap artist? It should sound like both.

By all accounts, everything about "Hamilton" shouldn't work. It takes history seriously but makes jokes left and right, including a pop song sung three times by King George, characterizing him as a prissy, pouting monarch. Its cast, which includes at most four white people, colors in the founding fathers in a technicolor statement: "They were immigrants, we are immigrants. The question is not our color, the question is what we believe we can do." Also, it makes for a slightly more believable hip-hop musical that the cast of "Hamilton" bears no resemblance to any production of "1776".

Writer Miranda was inspired by Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, and his research reflects Miranda's nerdy love of history and his passion for stories. The first act, telling the revolution so fast and so thoroughly it'll give you whiplash, is well-researched, concise, and it also happens to be completely 100% perfect theater. It's got enough laughs, enough romance, song after exhilarating song, and the high-brow audience member will be wading up to her armpits in theme and characterization.

The second act reminds more of "In the Heights" with a lot of thoughtful songs accompanied with arpeggiated piano lines and emotive performances. The subtlety and combination of historically-accurate ideas is diminished as big words like "Forgiveness" get sung, like a big fat subtitle, by the background choir, or when Burr, in a fit of jealousy, busts out about his desire to be a part of the intimate workings of government ("The Room Where It Happens"), an emotion as applicable to career ambition or competition between friends as it is to American history. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler work overtime in Act Two to try to tell the rest of the story (which becomes significantly less compelling once the war is over) and at the same time bring it home to us as audience members. (Spoiler: They succeed.)

Although plenty of written genius fuels the success of "Hamilton", it is sustained and given life by its diverse, electrifying ensemble. The story is told largely through fluid scenes effected by an ensemble of six incredible dancers, who through a mix of hip-hop, period dance, and contemporary movement, make boots, breeches, and period jackets look really, really hot. The "Helpless" sequence, when Eliza Schuyler falls for Hamilton, the revolution battles, and the final bullet sequence particularly deserve attention.

Leslie Odom Jr.'s Aaron Burr, playing the man who would eventually kill Hamilton in a duel, is the unexpected narrator of the piece, entering to a chorus of snaps and a low piano with the wordy opening question:
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore (and a Scotsman!) dropped in the middle of forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished in squallor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
He ranges from funny asides ("trust me, baby, I'm a trust fund baby!") to a hero of his own story, to a jealous rival with grace and dripping confidence. Like almost everyone else in the show, his vocal performance shows a few points of weakness that only accentuate his charisma as storyteller. Ironically, he is arguably the protagonist, singing and rapping much more frequently than Hamilton himself.

Phillipa Soo (of "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812" fame) and Renee Elise Goldsberry shine as the Schuyler sisters, Phillipa as the ever-faithful Eliza who marries Hamilton and Renee as Angelica, smart enough to match Hamilton but also smart enough to know she should marry up. Their first number together (an "I Love New York" number in a musical about the Founding Fathers!) and the songs "Helpless", "Satisfied", and "Take a Break" bubble with energy. There are too many incredible riffs and moments of vocal prowess to bother trying to write them down, and man, it is unexpectedly boss to watch these girls pop little hip-hop heel moves in bustle dresses.
Phillipa's soaring, ethereal voice is used very well, and Ms. Goldsberry matches her skill, not to mention that she raps as well as the gentlemen, with thrilling ease. Miranda gives race a subtle scouring in the piece, and he doesn't forget women either in his telling. Even if they get less stage-time considering their lack of political involvement, their emotional weight in the story is more than equal to the men, and their performances as much rewarded or more so.

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Christopher Jackson must be mentioned. As a variety of major characters, including Hamilton's son Phillip, Thomas Jefferson, and Jackson as George Washington, these four men set the show on fire. Rapping, dancing, or translating George Washington's real-life final address as President into song, they are incredible.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton is darker, fierier, but just as joyous and boyish as Usnavi was. With a wheezy singing voice that belies the passion of his oratory, Hamilton is not always likeable, but he is always comprehensible, usually fascinating, and occasionally heroic.

Why does such an ambitious show, balancing high-brow biography, historical comedy, rap and hip-hop, succeed? First of all, it offers something for everyone, which I won't go into again.

Secondly, "Hamilton" invites us to reconsider how we look at history and how we look at our own lives. The figures that populate history were not defined by breeches and riding boots and quills, in the same way that we are not defined by fake glasses, the internet, or jeans, and by the end of the show the audience sees pretty clearly into the hearts of the men and women who helped in their way to make our country what it is. Instead of telling us which party to side with or who won the battle of history, "Hamilton" ends with a statement: We have enough time.

Burr informs us, with bitterness: "Life doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and takes and takes."  Miranda's musical is not a call for justice as much as it is a great triumph of justice. Telling the Founding Fathers story as an immigrant tale reminds us that our differences don't divide us as much as we think. It also isn't a call to support one party or another.

I think, it's a call for excellence, for striving. Hamilton's life, hurried and untenable as it was, was full of purpose. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn't come out and moralize about whether Hamilton's choices were all good--that would defeat the historical genius of the piece, which fails to show clear winners or losers. Unlike other historical musicals, "Hamilton" doesn't pretend that there's a consensus, even in the past. He leaves it to us to look at history, and to look at ourselves.

Alexander Hamilton lived 49 years. He was born a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, and he grew up to be a hero and a scholar, a father of a crazy, incredible thing. He couldn't control who lived, who died, or who told his story, but he could choose to live a story that he wanted, whether or not anyone else saw it as he did.

The next question is painfully obvious:

What's your story?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Community's Production of "Into the Woods" Turns Out Real Nice

By Len Lansbury

If you've been to Quizno's this month, you've probably seen the posters outside the Disney Municipal Theatre Center for their little production of "Into the Woods" they're doing. Or better yet, you've probably heard about it from your neighbors. As the city's foremost independent journalist (freelance seemed too dependent) I'm here to tell you that it's a really fun show, the actors are having a good time, and it's probably good for your kids.

Some bigshot musicmaker from Broadway city let Disney do some adjustments of his award-winning musical. Here's the deal: It's a story of four fairy tales--Cinderella, Jack and the beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and one new one about a Baker and his wife--that intersect as each person seeks after their wishes. Cinderella wants to go to the ball, Jack and his mother wish for prosperity, Little Red just wants bread to bring her granny, and the Baker and his wife want a child. The result is a fast-paced, funny, and surprisingly emotional and complex story about wishes, what it takes to get them, and whether or not getting what you want actually makes you happy.


Most of you probably know that it's a really good musical. Though I am a respectable independent journalist, I will admit that I have friends who like "Broadway" and "musical theater" and "belting" and "booking", and they tell me "Into the Woods" is the most accessible musical by the incredible rhymer and morally elusive composer Stephen Sondheim, whose musicals "Sweeney Todd", "Company", "A Little Night Music" and many others challenge the happily-ever-after attitude of most musicals with biting wit and complex music. A couple of my Broadway friends also said his work is 'boring' or 'too complicated for me'. I guess I should say they 'were' my friends before I deactivated my myspace in disgust.

I agree with the people who like Sondheim, and "Into the Woods" is one of his best. Throughout the Disney Center's production, I was reminded how smart and beautiful it really is. It takes some getting used to in style, especially if you don't know musicals very much, but the performances and orchestration here are lush and bring the score to life for a contemporary audience. (Also, the script by James Lapine is reduced a little bit but generally remains unmarred.) Sitting down for the first number, a fourteen-minute introduction to the varying plots that culminates in all of the characters heading off into the woods, was completely exhilarating and nearly-perfectly-executed. Disney's sets are ominous and pretty, the costumes are vivid and evocative, and the overall effect is a little dark but pretty much spot-on.

But let's be honest, this is a musical, so the real concern here is not whether the themes are told properly or whether or not the material has inherent value. What really matters is who got cast as the leads. So is Disney's cast the best ever? Did the coolest, most talented, most deserving kids in the school actors in the tri-state area get the right parts?


James Corden and Emily Blunt play the Baker and the Baker's Wife, whose story becomes central to the musical. As the hesitant, stubborn, idiosyncratic Baker, James Corden's turn is comic without clowning, charming without posturing, and touching without being all that deep. He nicely fits this generation's ideal version of the good husband: kinda chubby, sensitive, with a beard. Next to him, Emily Blunt plays the Baker's Wife, a legendary role who wants to be an equal part in her marriage, but who also sees clearly that if she is going to get what she want, she might have to act selfishly. To be effective, the Baker's Wife needs to be both likable and cunning, and Emily Blunt pulls it off nicely. Whether anyone could have been that unabashedly beautiful in feudal fairy-tale land begs verisimilitude, but this is a musical. Could other actresses have done it better? Perhaps. But in a sense Blunt is the perfect choice for this current production. She is just famous enough for us to recognize her and just anonymous enough for us to want to see more of her.


Plenty of girls are gonna be ticked about Anna Kendrick, who plays the to-be-princess Cinderella. Kendrick's voice is mediocre, her look is awkward, and since she never seems to feel anything besides confusion it's difficult to care about her, or to connect with her eventual journey. People including my brother disagree with me about her, and that's fine, I suppose, but she didn't really do it for me. But like Blunt to a much further extent, Kendrick is Hollywood's current darling, and that's how these things work. I remember watching "To Have and Have Not" starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. At the end of the film the gorgeous Bacall leans against a piano and begins to sing. My mother and I, watching the film, burst into unquenchable laughter, hearing this beautiful woman singing in a voice that sounded like the Gettysburg address translated into cow-speak. De gustibus non est disputandum.


The rest of the cast does nicely. Meryl Streep is one of the great divas we cheer for and gives the iconic Witch basically everything she needs. I do wonder, however, if we might cheer too much for the fact that she gets to wear that cool dress and crazy blue hair than we do for her performance of "Children Will Listen". The Princes, played by Chris Pine and handsome blonde doofus, were just great for what we should expect from the Disney Municipal Theater Center--community theater with pretty people.

Johnny Depp had to be in it, because he's neighbors with the director and, I mean, he would feel weird. He's always playing some funny role in the musicals here and honestly, we'd be sad not to see him. It's a matter of comfort rather than artistic boldness that he be a part of it, and isn't that just fine? Jack and Little Red are great kids with some smart acting choices. I haven't mentioned their singing voices, mostly because the sound guy at the Center decided to autotune and adjust a lot of it. So they all sound a little bit like singing robots who like putting unnecessary scoops on melodies that would be fine without them. But it didn't bother me all that much. "It Takes Two", "The Last Midnight", "Moments in the Woods", "Steps of the Palace", and "No One Is Alone" are musical standouts despite.

In the end, no matter qualms about casting or slight changes to the script, it's wonderful to see a great piece of theater transferred to a place where it can be seen by lots of people and given to a new generation.

To be honest, I've always dreamed of seeing a perfect version of "Into the Woods", one that has me guffawing in laughter, sighing in love, and crying like a fool as the girl who came with me holds my arm in confusion at my weirdness. But I haven't seen it yet, and I might never. The really fantastic thing about musicals is that they come back, again and again, and like Passion plays or the pageants of old, they find new casts.


The stage will sometimes be manned by strangers and you will enjoy yourself and walk away with your belly full and your mind distracted. If so, they have done their job. You've had fun. Everybody's happy.

At other times those roles in the pageant might be filled by people who matter to you: the baker you know from town, that witch from next door who's been like a second grandmother to you, your nephew as Jack and your niece as little red. Or someone you don't know but who you've heard is a really good person, and whose virtues become a part of the character they play. Watching these intimate personages on stage, the story becomes different. Being in that theater at that time, you are a part of a bigger story, the story of our tribe, all wishing and wanting and blundering through the woods. When you walk out of that one, you might just know what it means that no one is alone. You might be careful the things you say. You might listen and learn.

Whether or not something like that happens at Disney Municipal Theater Center's production, we'll keep putting it on. We can all keep going and watching people singing and acting and stuff. That's a pretty good place to start.