May 28, 2015

Queer Review: The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix
Directors: The Wachowskis (Credited at the time as The Wachowski Brothers)
Writers: The Wachowskis (Credited at the time as The Wachowski Brothers)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker

What is The Matrix but the greatest science fiction film of all time? Few films can match what The Wachowskis accomplish here, in this tale that takes some of the densest metaphysical questions that have ever been asked and uses them as the basis for a high octane, adrenaline fueled action flick, which also happens to serve as a modern re-telling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programer in search of the elusive Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who Neo (Thomas's hacker alias) believes holds the answer to the question: "What is the Matrix?" On his journey to see Morpheus, Neo manages to make contact with Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), a female hacker whom everyone thinks is a guy. When Neo finally manages to meet with Morpheus, he finds that the answer is more complicated then he imagined and that the reality he has believed in his whole life has been a lie.

The Queering
A the time The Matrix was first released, Lana Wachowski was still going by the name "Larry" Wachowski and the film was credited to "The Wachowski Brothers" rather than the moniker "The Wachowskis". Looking at the first Matrix movie now, it's possible to see a great many transgender subtexts that were not as obvious when it first came out. For starters, there is Trinity, a female hacker whom everyone thinks is a man (as commented on by Neo when the two first meet). The fact that people think Trinity is a man in the Matrix, is also brought up in The Animatrix short A Detective Story, where the titular detective assigned to track down Trinity, constantly refers to Trinity as a man. This essentially makes Trinity a women who is in the process of either escaping from or attempting to destroy an artificial reality where everyone thinks she is a guy.

Other examples are more subtle but definitely are there. Take Neo, a hero who -- outside of scenes where he is required to fire off endless rounds of ammo from a variety of firearms -- is not generally presented in overly macho terms, at least if one were to compare him to the mold created by 80's action heros like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. As it is, Neo has to deliberately reject his old, gendered name of Mr. Thomas Anderson and has to correct Mr. Smith (Hugo Weaving), who constantly insists on using the old name. Then there is Switch, who in earlier drafts of the script, was supposed to change gender upon leaving or entering the Matrix. In the version that made it to screen, the character is instead presented as androgynous in both worlds.

These trans subtexts I would argue, tie directly in with the films' main themes regarding the nature of reality. As the Oracle points out to Neo, all knowledge begins with knowledge of ones self. In order for Neo to be able to do anything as "The One", he must first know what he is and what he is capable of. As the story progresses, a key plot point revolves around Neo being unable to access his abilities until he has knowledge that he is the one. In other words, Neo becomes "The One" through self actualization and increasing his self awareness of who he is.

Of course by now, it has been pointed out by others that The Matrix is basically a modern day retelling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The story of Plato's cave is one where an entire group of people is kept prisoner for their entire lives, forced to stare at flickering shadows on a cave wall. Because these shadows are all these prisoners experience, they assume that the shadows are all that there is to reality. One day, a prisoner finds himself able to escape his chains, and makes his way up out of the cave. As he travels out of the cave, he becomes scared and disorientated by the new experiences he undergoes. Once outside, he is blinded by the bright light of the outside world. Eventually his eyes adjust and he sets out to explore the new world. Afterwards he returns to the cave and attempts to free the other prisoners, only for most of them to not understand his story about the outside world.

Many of the elements of that story are present here. Neo is the prisoner who manages to escape and like the Prisoner, he is blinded by the bright lights of the outside world. "Why does the light hurt my eyes," Neo asks Morpheus. "Because you've never used them before," Morpheus answers. Presumably, the reason the Washowskis use white transition shots so frequently is to reference this element of the story. Furthermore, as Morpheus mentions to Neo in the scene with the Women in the Red Dress, many people who are kept prisoner in the Matrix, will fight to stay a part of that system, rather than accept the truth.

While what The Matrix ultimately offers up is primarily a cerebral experience, it is also worth mentioning that the action scenes are pure visual spectacles, (the film is still famous for introducing the world to the Bullet Time technique). While the sequels were disappointing, the first film in The Matrix Franchise still holds up today.

It would be worth doing advanced math problems involving matrices, if the reward was being able to see The Matrix

The Rating
4 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 18, 2015

Fury Road: Mad Max Reboot or Remake of Communist Manifesto?

(Mild spoilers ahead)

So, my partner and I saw Mad Max Fury Road last night in the theater. It was pretty spectacular, even compared to other spectacular works of epic epicness. Right now there are more than a few people out there pointing out that there are a few feminist themes running around amidst all the testosterone. Some men have even go so far to condemn the film for tricking people into seeing a feminist film. (And this is a bad thing because...?)

What I haven't seen is a lot of people pointing out are the rather subtly overt communist themes that are also scattered throughout.


-The Bourgeois Big Bad (BBB) owns the means of producing water and the main plot ends up being resolved by a coup to redistribute water production to the masses.

-The BBB uses religion as an opiate to keep the masses under his control. There are a couple of ways that the religion is a drug connection is made. For one, the Mad Boys are conditioned to kill themselves in the service of the main baddie and are shown using chrome spray paint as an inhalant before committing kamikaze suicide bombing runs. At the same time, these suicide attacks of the Mad Boys is given all sorts of religious overtones. Then there is a scene where the BBB lampshades what he's doing by telling people not to get too addicted to the water that he's rationing out to them. The BBB does this in a scene where he plays Moses producing water from rocks.

-People are frequently reduced to commodities to be exploited by the big bad. Examples of this include humans being used as sex slaves, milk mothers, and blood bags, with each group being ultimately separated from that which they produce.

Queer Review: 50 Shades of Grey (2015)

50 Shades of Grey
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Writer: Kelly Marcel. Based on the novel by E.L. James.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden

In spite of what has been written about 50 Shades of Grey, it is difficult for me to argue that the final product that reached movie screens represents anything other than an anti-BDSM, pro-abuse propaganda piece. I have nothing against BDSM and although I don't consider myself a pro-BDSM advocate or anything, I support peoples right to engage in such activities. As it stands, there is nothing pro-BDSM about 50 Shades of Grey, which presents the activity as something that practitioners should be ashamed of.

Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is an ordinary college student about to graduate with a degree in English Literature, who ends up interviewing the mysterious Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). In spite of her clumsiness, or perhaps because of it, Christian appears attracted to Ana during the interview, and afterwards, she finds herself thinking about him during quiet moments. Eventually, Mr. Grey starts to stalk Ana, showing up at her place of work, buying expensive gifts for her, and generally being a creep. Which Ana oddly enough finds attractive. After being mysterious, and vague about what he really wants with her, Christian eventually reveals that he is a BDSM Dom and proposes that Ana could be his sub. In spite of not being interested in BDSM, Ana naively continues to think that she and Christian can maintain a normal relationship. Unsurprisingly, what develops is about as unhealthy as unhealthy can be.

The Queering
50 Shades of Grey was originally developed as a fan fic based on The Twilight Saga before being published and released as it's own book series. Only rather than featuring vampires, 50 Shades of Grey has BDSM. While I have never read any of the books in either series, I did watch the first Twilight film and the similarities are striking. The female leads are both underdeveloped and both find themselves falling for mysterious man-childs. Stylistically speaking, both adaptions appear to have been influenced by the Chris Columbus School of Adaptation. This means remaining as faithful as possible to the source material, while including as much stilted camerawork, stilted dialog, and as many stilted action/sex/singing scenes as possible.

As for claims of 50 Shades of Grey being pro-BDSM, it's hard to reconcile such a view given what is on screen. Ana consistently seems repulsed at the thought of being a submissive to Christian. For his part, Christian expresses extreme self loathing because of his partaking and getting off on doing BDSM. There is no indication that this self loathing is caused by anti-BDSM stigma but rather appears to be the result of a writer who legitimately believes BDSM to be a bad thing.

This is a critical point to understanding if a work of art is for or against LGBTQ folks, when such a work shows us engaging in self loathing: What is the cause of the angst? If the work in question shows that the loathing is the result of societal prejudice, and the character has overcome the self-loathing to become confident with regards to their sexuality and/or gender identity, then the work should not be considered anti-queer. However, if the work shows the character needing to be "cured" or otherwise overcome their gender identity or sexuality, then it absolutely should be reviled for being a transphobic or homophobic crapfest.

Given the ending of 50 Shades of Grey (and having read what others have written about where the series ends up) I get the impression that this particular story is following the latter trajectory.

Otherwise, there are a few other parallels between BDSM and queer identity present in the film. For starters, the way Mr. Grey gradually builds up to the reveal of his sexual proclivities strongly suggests an individual who is coming out of the closet. In fact, that's where most of the BDSM activities take place in the story, in a locked closet (or rather dungeon as it's called by the characters).

Then there is the idea of sin and seduction that parallels ones anti-LGBTQ narratives are built upon. Specifically, the way sin, in the religious sense, is frequently shown to require a recruiter to lure people into engaging in a sinful activity. Once the victim has given into the temptation of a sinful lifestyle in question, the victim can thus be punished for their weakness and even start to engage in luring others in as well. Consider the ultimate fate of Eve in the story of Genesis or how in the 1961 film Boys Beware has the underage protagonist being punished for having sex with a pedophile, in spite of the fact he had been the victim of statutory rape. Note how the sin narrative erases the idea that anyone would have a natural inclination towards an activity that society has deemed as sin. Also note Ana's frequent incredulity at the idea that anyone would enjoy subbing for a dom.

For those interested, here is the film Boys Beware for you to... enjoy.

In 50 Shades of Grey, Christian is mentioned as having been seduced into the BDSM lifestyle by an older woman when he was all of 15. Of course, now that Christian has been seduced into the lifestyle he is now both a lurer and a sinner who should be ashamed of what he is. Again, the idea that anyone would be naturally inclined towards engaging in BDSM is all but assumed to be impossible.

Ultimately, given the way both films ignore actually abusive behavior -- be it stalking, sexual assault, or statutory rape -- in favor of condemning sexual activities frowned upon by society, 50 Shades of Grey becomes the equivalent of Boys Beware with regards to BDSM films.

If you ever have the misfortune to hear the line: "Mr. Grey will see you now." - take it as your cue to leave.

The Rating
0 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 6, 2015

Queer Review: Get on the Bus (1996)

Get on the Bus
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Reggie Rock Bythewood
Cast: De'aundre Bonds, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Richard Belzer, Gabriel Casseus, Albert Hall, Hill Harper, Harry Lennix, Bernie Mac, Wendell Pierce, Roger Guenveur Smith, Isaiah Washington, Steve White, Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Andre Braugher

The Million Man March on Washington DC in 1995 was an event organized by the controversial Louis Farrakhan and was designed to improve the image of black men by challenging negative stereotypes. That at least is what the textbooks say about the event. What Spike Lees' film Get on the Bus about The Million Man March does is paint a more intimate, on the ground perspective of a group of black men on their way to the rally.

The story begins by introducing the characters we will be spending the next two hours with boarding the bus. Once the trip has begun, conflicts between as the men begin to clash with each other. Gary, who is both biracial and a police officer whose father was killed in the line of duty, becomes a source of tension that is exacerbated when it is revealed that Jamal (Gabriel Casseus) is a former Crip. Flip (Andre Braugher), a snobbish actor, becomes virulently homophobic when he finds out that Randall and Kyle (Henry Lennix and Isaiah Washington) are a gay couple in the midst of a breakup. Evan and his son Smooth (Thomas Jefferson Byrd and De'Aundre Bonds) who are handcuffed together because of a judge's order after Smooth was caught robbing a grocery store. Further problems arise when the bus breaks down and a new bus driver who happens to be Jewish is brought on as a replacement.

Through it all, Xavier (Hill Harper) a film student makes a noble effort to document the proceedings. As tensions flair, guidance is provided by George (Charles S. Dutton), who organized the trip, and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), an elderly man who it is eventually revealed to have a serious heart condition that threatens his life.

The Queering
It is perhaps because my recent film viewing has been exceptionally selective, but I feel that there has been a strong aversion in recent years by filmmakers to avoid actually addressing complex ideas or real life issues in films. As it is, I found myself surprised at the philosophical depth displayed by Spike Lee in Get on the Bus. Lee has always been a controversial figure and accusations against him for being divisive are everywhere. But as it is, every time I watch a Spike Lee Joint I find it to be an exceptionally thoughtful and balanced effort.

Get on the Bus manages to explore a variety of political issues all the while never losing sight of the characters. The dialog at a couple of points comes across as stilted, but given the nature of the production (filmed on a low budget over 16 days) that's to be expected. The issues that are addressed by the characters range cover just about everything from the root causes of economic deprivation faced by African Americans (is it the result of discrimination or welfare causing the breakup of African American families) to what it means to reform oneself after a hard life of crime. At one point, a character points out the problematic symbolism of Evan arriving at the rally with his son in chains.

As the story unfolds, much of the conflict is driven by the prejudices of the characters. The replacement bus driver, Rick (Richard Belzer) finds himself the target of anti-semitic remarks and quits as a result. Several black women express the view that the march is both exclusionary and sexist. Randal and Kyle find themselves the target of homophobia. It's fascinating how Lee was able to present a microcosm within the film of the march that includes most of the criticism against it and Louis Farrakhan without any of these elements coming across as a forced attempt at balance -- or at least none of it felt forced when I watched it the film while unaware of the criticism against Farrakhan for being both anti-semitic and homophobic. While the March is presented as having the potential for positive change for African-American Men, Lee still makes sure to include a cross section of this criticism.

As for the gay couple Kyle and Randal, they are presented as just as dedicated to the march and as integral to the group as any other main character. Furthermore, the unique prejudices they face are presented as no less significant to them than those faced by the other characters. That is there is no game of oppression olympics being played out here. When Kyle reveals that he served in the Marines, he talks about having to face both racism and homophobia when he tells of an incident where he was wounded by friendly fire:
When I woke up, they were laughing and talking about how...they killed two birds with one stone. One nigger, one faggot.

External obstacles to the group include a scene where they are pulled over by a State Trooper in Tennessee. The scene makes us wonder if someone broke the rule the group was given at the beginning about not carrying illegal substances and is about to be arrested.

In spite of the obstacles that the group faces (which are frequently set up to mirror the obstacles and discrimination that African American Men face in our larger society) the movie ends on a note of hope. In the final scene, a prayer is read which had been written by a character who passed away just when the group had reached Washington. It includes the following quote from the Book of Job:
For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down...
... that it will sprout again...
... and that its tender shoots will not cease...
... though its roots may grow old in the earth...
... and its stump may die in the ground.
Yet at the scent of water...
... it will bud and bring forth branches like a plant.

Definitely would be worth a difficult bus ride to see Get on the Bus.

The Rating
3 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.