All posts by Achala

Rumblings of war too distant: American Gods on TV

Every good reader and writer knows that to build a good story, it requires a structure, and often, that structure is the bones of another, older tale. Almost every fantasy series does just this, bringing us into a world whose battle for existence is really just another in an ongoing conflict, only the gaps between them are so large that it feels new for those involved. A Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, even Harry Potter, many of them hint at what has come before, and often make it sound as though that battle, the one we just about missed, was actually the more exciting and epic and dark one; too bad we got the watered down present instead.

Neil Gaiman’s work of genius, American Gods, comes at this in a slightly different way. Here, the past, one of bloody glory and sacrifice, literally wages war with the present and future. The old gods, fearing irrelevance in the modern world, go to war against the smug new ones, and a crisis of belief envelopes the United States. ‘This is the only country that doesn’t know what it is,’ the mysterious Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow, our protagonist, at one point. The book was first published in 2001. The TV series debuted this year, but it’s eerily timely, considering everything that’s happening, not just in the US, but many other places in the world.

american godsMy relationship with American Gods is one of deep respect, bordering on an almost reverential awe. I think this is Gaiman’s greatest work, and nothing he’s done, before or after, comes close. It’s such an ambitious idea, to distill the soul of an entire country, and pour it into these forms from all over the world, but somehow, he managed it. The sheer audacity of it, to take all these immigrant stories and not just elevate them to the level of the divine, but to actually have the divine take form on your page and give it an almost disturbingly human quality, so the gods piss and fuck and act as ridiculously human–if not more so—than the believers they need so badly—this is soemthing that so few writers do with any grace, let alone the mastery that Gaiman displays. Our myth writers, who sell in the thousands, cannot compare. This, this is myth writing or retelling or casting or whatever you want to call it. It’s making the old new in such a way that you can see it happening, and only marvel at the sheer craft with which its done, like a glass house in which you can see all the beams and rafters, and appreciate the architect’s vision for what it truly is.

Anyway, enough blathering about the book. How did the TV series do? I was nervous, coming to it, which is why I put off viewing it for so long. The book was so cerebral, so intense an experience, that I felt no TV show could do it justice. The avalanche of great reviews calling it the show of the year and whatnot only made that apprehension worse. There’s something about extremely glowing reviews that puts me off; maybe it’s the hipster in me, who refuses to like what the mainstream has dubbed incredible. Not unless I dubbed it incredible first, ya know.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

So how does the show compare? Some of the key elements are the same: Shadow, a taciturn, brooding, muscular man gets out of jail to find that his wife has died in an accident. He is hired by Mr. Wednesday, a tricky old man who has some sort of grand plan up his sleeve, one which Shadow does not entirely understand. There is a crazy leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. The dead wife comes back to life and follows Shadow around. Gods old and new turn up in Shadow’s path and taunt or tease him, with lethal consequences or not depending on whose side they are on. And the whole is interspersed with flashbacks, stories of side characters, from the past or the present or in between, and how they came to America, bringing with them their beliefs and traditions, and their gods. Now, the gods feel abandoned, their followers turning to newer deities like Technology and Media (played by a totally-enjoying-herself Gillian Anderson), and the incense and sacrifice that once formed the staple of their diets, their very existence, is gone.

mr wednesdayThe casting is pretty damn good. Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday, and he does bring the character’s slippery charm and humour to the fore, but doesn’t let viewers forget that within, something else roils and churns, soething much older and more sinister. Ricky Whittle is broody and beautiful as Shadow, and I really liked Emily Browning as Laura Moon, or ‘dead wife’ as she’s more often called. The show has the added advantage of focusing on Laura more than the book did in some ways, following her journey, which parallels Shadow’s own. Just as Shadow journeys from doubt to belief and back, Laura, a much more nihilistic character, does the same, and Browning plays her clutching at meaning in an understated manner, which perhaps makes it all the more impactful. There also seem to be expanded roles for some of the side characters here, such as Bilquis, a fertility goddess, and Mad Sweeney, who really lingered on the edges in the book, only careening chaotically into the middle of the action now and then. I suppose this is done to pad out the whole season, and leave enough meat for a second, if not third and fourth as well.

Emily Browning as Laura Moon
Emily Browning as Laura Moon

There are downsides to this padding—and that means that the ‘conflict’ doesn’t really start until well into the season, if then. Some of the episodes are stuffed with too much long drawn out conversation, which works well for a comedy, or more ‘realist’ drama like Mad Men, but here runs the risk of being boring. I could have done with less hijinks with Laura for instance, and more of Mr. Nancy, the form of Anansi the Spider. Or perhaps more of the old gods and their stories, and less of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow conversing? Shadow is never the most entertaining conversationalist, so really, these are one man shows that we could have done without.

Would I recommend it? Let me put it this way: you can live without watching it. It’s stylistically done, yes. Some of the acting is great, yes. But does it string together well as a story? So much that is great about the Gaiman novel is that though it appears a little fragmented, though it takes a while for the shape of the ‘quest’ to come together, and even then it is only a small glimpse of what we must understand as a much larger battle that human minds cannot possibly comprehend, the whole works together. This? It’s a bit draggy in parts, and too incomprehensible in others, and overall, lacks the big picture amazement that say, Game of Thrones or Legion have. Hopefully it’ll be tighter next season.

But if you haven’t already, go read the book. Trust me, that is one thing you will not regret.

A Potterish Confession

I like to think that I am well placed to write a memoir. Not because I’ve led a particularly interesting or unique life, or can offer sage advice to people, but simply because I have so much of my interactions and encounters stored in some form: recorded in the leaves of a religiously-kept diary, or long, sprawling emails to friends, or impressed on my mind. I like to remember and keep a note of my days, in some form or the other, and now, thanks to things like Whatsapp, I can turn back the pages of chats and find trivial events, random observations made in the moment, basically the stuff of dreams for my to-be biographer and, of course, my no-doubt by-then faltering memory.

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But some things don’t require me to turn back to archived conversations, or dusty journals (jk, my journals are totally well preserved and continue to be a source of much entertainment for me). One of those things is my first meeting with a certain boy who lived.

Would it shock you to learn that when I first heard about this Harry Potter person, I was less than enthused? I remember it so clearly. It was during the morning assembly in school, and I was in the sixth grade. A boy from the fifth grade had been called up to speak to us, for some reason. He’d read this new book that was becoming all the rage, over in the UK. It was about a boy who found out he was a wizard, and discovered, along with a tragic legacy, a wonderful world, full of magic and monsters. The boy’s name was Harry Potter, and the book he inhabited was named after him, and some Stone or the other. I wasn’t impressed enough to listen to the title.

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Yep, that was how I met Harry. I was so underwhelmed by the mention of him that I totally ignored the title of book he came from. Not exactly the start of an epic romance.

But obviously fate had other plans. A while later, my mother mentioned to me that she’d been hearing about these ‘Harry Potter books,’ written by a woman in the UK. Apparently the children of her friends abroad were obsessed with them. I probably reacted in a typically pre-teen manner, ie, said ‘Whatever’ and gone back to my own life. She persisted though, and asked if I wanted to read them. ‘I’m too old to read about wizards,’ I said snottily. ‘I bet it’s like those Blyton books,’ I thought. For me, British books were stodgy, and old fashioned, and just so weird. I was all about American books you know, where kids didn’t do weird things like obsess over a meal called ‘tea’ and talk in slang that I didn’t understand. I guess this was my first brush with cultural exclusion or whatever, but I was too young to understand, or particularly care about it. Also, and I think this is particularly relevant now, there seemed to be more kids who looked like me, or at least were non-white, in American books. I hadn’t yet read a British book which was not about fairytale creatures in faraway woods, or all-white all-English schoolgirls in improbably located schools by the sea.

In my childish, xenophobic fashion, then, I rejected Harry Potter for a second time. But, as Ian Malcolm once said, life…finds a way.

prisonerUndeterred by my lukewarm reaction, my mother went and bought one of those Harry Potter books. (#NeverthelessShePersisted) It was Prisoner of Azkaban, picked up probably because it was the thickest, and I was in a phase of wanting to read ‘big’ books.  She told me to just ‘try’ it. Though the blurb didn’t thrill me, I did notice there was a girl on the cover. So I thought, okay, maybe this won’t be all bad, and I opened the book.

 

And then I couldn’t stop reading.

I try not to use hyperbole when I write, but honestly, reading Prisoner of Azkaban was a transformative experience, something I’ve felt with only two other books—Lord of the Rings (which I wrote about here) and Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies. I finished Azkaban and was so blown away by the ending that I immediately flipped the book back to the beginning, and reread the whole thing. I pressed it on my mother and told her she ‘had’ to read this book, because wow the plotting and the finale and mygodeverything. She was less impressed than I was, but admitted that yes, it was ‘quite good’. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t hyperventilating, but ah well, to each their own.

The moral of this story is: kids shouldn’t always choose their own books, because they can be kind of stupid.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed when I think about it, how reluctant I was to let Harry into my life. At other times, I’ll reshape the narrative to look like this, like a grand romance that was simply destined to happen, that I didn’t force into being. Isn’t that really the dream, to just sort of stumble into a love that’s epic and overwhelming, and wonder why you didn’t see it all along? Harry Potter has been that big romance for me, the sort that propels movies and sagas, inspired a blog, a book, and probably more things in my life than I can count.  I’ll always be grateful to Rowling for creating him and his world.

So here’s to many more years, Harry. May Hogwarts always be there to welcome us home.

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Wonder Woman: ‘To be human is to love’

 

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To be human is to love.

The superhero movie is many things: a reliable return on investment for producers and studios, a space within which the hottest actor/actress of the day can flex their muscles (literally) and ham it up, a bone for diehard comic fans to chew up and over as they argue about Easter eggs and continuity and elaborate theories. It channels explosions of energy and machines onto the screen, and provides some sort of entertaining catharsis; good wins the day, ultimately, after cheesy speeches about hope, and evil is safely put away, even if there is a hint (in post-credits scenes) that it will rise again.

bale With the glut of superhero movies and dramas reaching screens in the past few years, no filmmaker has left as indelible a mark on the genre as Christopher Nolan, with his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan reminded viewers that superhero movies can be ‘profound’, and underlined this by drenching his screen in darkness, and giving his Batman a moodiness and pathos that sets him apart from the far more campy versions brought to life by Michael Keaton or George Clooney. Bale’s Batman was so successful, critically and commercially, that DC, Batman’s owners, decided they would continue this formula for their other films, with varying results. Most of DC’s efforts have been panned, with Batman vs Superman reach particularly low standards, but finally, they seem to have gotten the memo that not all superhero films need be extended meditations on heroism and goodness in a dark world. Some of them can be this, and fun as well.

Enter Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins, whose previous credits include the Charlize Theron-starring Monster,  the movie stars Gal Gadot, former Miss Israel and a total badass. There was some griping when Gadot was cast (mostly because she was a relative nobody), but from the moment she lit up screens in Zach Snyder’s otherwise forgettable B vs S, I think most critics have been silenced. She is, to put it succinctly, effortlessly charismatic in this role, and brings Diana Prince’s blend of naivete, strength and integrity to life.

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Wonder Woman is a first for many reasons, most importantly its place as the first female-led and –directed superhero blockbuster in more than a decade, the first movement of a Queen in this elaborate game of chess DC and Marvel have suckered us into watching them play. How does it fare in these contexts, as a superhero movie in general, and one that stars a woman?

The answer: pretty damn well.

Wonder Woman is an origin story, a flashback shown to us after Diana Prince (Gadot) receives an old photograph from the seemingly-all-knowing Bruce Wayne. It’s a picture of her in her Amazonian armour, standing on a battlefield with a group of men. ‘Maybe some day you’ll tell me your story,’ Wayne writes. Diana reminisces, looking at the picture, and her memories unspool before us in the form of the film.

Wonder Woman, the comics character, has been around for decades, so her origin isn’t all that mysterious. She is an Amazonian princess, raised on the idyllic island of Themiscyra, by her mother, the queen Hippolyta. She is trained in warfare and combat by her aunt Antiope, trained ‘harder than any Amazon before her,’ though why is left unclear at first. The Amazons, a race of demigoddesses, were created by Zeus to promote a ‘greater understanding among men’, but retired to their mysterious island when Ares, God of War, corrupted the world of men and destroyed the gods. The Amazons hold Zeus’ last weapon to defeat Ares, and prepare for the day when they will have to rejoin the world, and destroy him once and for all.

Or so Diana has been told.

When Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy assigned to British Intelligence, crashes into the azure waters off the coast, he drags with him the fury and chaos of World War I. Diana finds herself confronted with what she sees as a ‘sacred duty’: to return to the world of men and save them from the corruption caused by Ares. She steals away with Trevor, asking her disapproving mother ‘Who would I be if I stayed?’ Self imposed duty and belief call her to arms, even if it means never seeing her mother, or Themiscyra, again.

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Thus begins Diana’s time in the world of men, a world that, Hippolyta claims, ‘does not deserve’ her. She and Trevor, accompanied by a band of misfits with their own sad stories, head to where the fighting is most intense: the Western Front. They are aided off-field by Steve’s secretary, Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) and the pacifist Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), a Cabinet member who insists on funding their mission to destroy a secret German weapons facility run by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Maru has created a horrendous weapon that has the potential to wipe out ‘millions’; Trevor and Diana believe that she and Ludendorff must be stopped at any cost.

As with all stories, there are twists and turns, some surprises, but also sweetness and sadness in equal measure. Diana is shocked by a world that seeks to shut her out simply because she is a woman, where soldiers and civilians are killed with impunity by generals hiding out in their offices. But still, she clings tight to what she knows: that she has a job to do, as an Amazon, and she must do it, no matter what.

What really stands out about Diana as a superheroine is this, her lack of confusion over what it ‘means’ for her to be a hero. Diana does not see herself as markedly different from the people around her. Her gifts are not burdens she carries (like Cavill’s Clark Kent), but things she must put to use to help those who cannot help themselves. She does not waste time wondering ‘why’ she feels the need to help people, what it means in the larger scheme of things. She does not quibble over killing, if it must be done. She’s a warrior, a tool, and she has a purpose. Not for her existential mulling over being a dark knight, or a god among men. ‘I can help them,’ ‘I can do it,’ ‘I am the man for the job’: these are her phrases, and they capture her superheroine manifesto, as well as anything Nolan’s Batman might have said captured his.

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Is Gadot’s Diana a feminist? In an interview, Jenkins pointed to one scene in the movie, where Diana enters the Cabinet Room at British High Command, a place of power from which women are banned. ‘She doesn’t think she doesn’t have a right to be there,’ Jenkins said. She believes these men should listen to her, because she brings important information, and she, more importantly, wants to and can help with the war. Diana has been raised in a place where gender is not seen as something to be commented on, certainly not something that should act as a stumbling block to what one wants to do. Even her first stunned comment to Trevor (‘You’re a man!’) is made as a general observation, rather than loaded with judgment and predisposition of what a ‘man’ might be like. She cannot comprehend why the modern world would not ‘allow’ women to fight in battle, or that her armour is ‘inappropriate’ in any way. It is impossible to stress how refreshing this is, to have a protagonist (who also happens to be a woman) focus solely on her mission and ideals, and refuse to dignify what she sees as amusing, if not outright ridiculous, conventions.

On the flip side, Diana’s confidence and lack of faith in institutions like marriage and sexist biases comes not from any sort of enlightenment, but simply because she was never exposed to the same. She has not struggled ‘out’ of these bindings; she just never had to deal with them. While this works for the movie, it does sort of problematize the idea of her as a feminist icon, a fact that critics of her nomination as a UN ambassador seized upon. But within the echelons of pop culture, and this movie in particular, Diana’s position as powerful woman works. Personally, I loved watching her kick ass, and would watch many more scenes of her doing just that.

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Wonder Woman ends with (spoiler alert) Diana thinking that ‘only love can save the world’. It’s a curiously sentimental line, one that might seem out of place in a movie-verse where we’ve gotten used to darker pronouncements about man’s innate evil, and the futility of effort. But here, it makes sense. There is something hopeful and, well, clear about Diana. It’s refreshing to meet a heroine who just does her job, something she’s basically trained all her life to do, because it is right. Not for her brooding or posturing, or staring into the dark skies, wondering about the personal and metaphysical implications of her actions. She cuts through all that bullshit with one flick of her lasso, and throws herself in headfirst, saving a world that might not always deserve her. But, as she herself says, ‘It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe.’ Diana believes she has to be there for the world, and do what she can to save it from itself. If that doesn’t make you love her without complication, I don’t know what will.