Saturday, 6 February 2016

'Hymn for the Weekend': Are Coldplay Racist?

Coldplay are in trouble. Not, surprisingly, for producing terrible music, but for cultural appropriation. Their latest video, 'Hymn for the Weekend', has resulted in a major backlash and accused of being a checklist of Orientalist stereotypes. This is a terrible shame: the song was the only one worth listening to on their latest album and now they've gone and spoilt it by making a video even worse than that god awful one with the dancing monkeys. Click here to see the offending article. But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, what actually is cultural appropriation?

I must confess, for a long time I have been relatively muddle-headed on the subject. I knew nothing about it until some left-wing friends implored me not to wear a lei garland to a Hawaiian-themed party. At this point, everything seemed rather confusing. Who owned what cultural symbols and the terms of borrowing were all very vague, and I pondered if it was sinful to eat a burrito, and if I would be condemned to a diet of Yorkshire puddings and gravy forever. So, in order that you don't look quite as much of an idiot as I often do, here's a handy definition from Nadra Kareem Nittle, describing cultural appropriation as  'members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups - often with little understanding of the latter's history, experience and traditions'. Deepa Lakshmin expands, describing cultural appropriation as 'when a privileged group or individual borrows practices, traditions, clothes, and so forth from a marginalized group and is praised for being cool and unique, while the marginalized culture is looked down upon for participating in the same (their own) customs'.

So what about that burrito? Well, I freely admit that I do not have an understanding of Mexico's 'history, experience and traditions' when I struggle not to coat myself in salsa from a disintegrating wrap. It's also probably the case that Western franchises that sell burritos do much better than more authentic Mexican fare. Imagine that this hypothetical restaurant is adorned with copious Mexican clichĂ©s, sombreros around every corner (which, coincidentally, were banned by the University of East Anglia last year). Should I still be eating there? Or is it enough to maintain an awareness that this is not an accurate representation of the culture it claims to represent?

Me and the shirt (second from the right)
To be honest, I don't really know. A couple of years back a friend gave me an 'Indian' shirt as a souvenir from a trip to India, which I'm rather fond of. Other than being told I look faintly ridiculous in it, which to be fair is the truth, I've never been accused of cultural appropriation. Should I keep on wearing the shirt, despite knowing very little about India? If I educated myself about the shirt's cultural context, would that excuse me wearing it?

To get back to Coldplay for a moment, they clearly do not understand the culture they think they're representing. Beyoncé is seen at one point wearing a mattha-patti on her face when it's actually meant for the forehead, which Nishta Chugh fabulously compares to 'wearing your tie seven inches higher than where it should be'. Then it's slightly problematic that Martin and co. are 'portrayed as dynamic, modern Westerners who entrance the city with their formulaic pop song'. It's almost as if all those Indian children just exist to chuck paint at them.

There are those that defend the video. A quick glance at the YouTube comments shows that the vast majority praise it for it's positive portrayal of India. Lakshim even goes as far to say that 'the musicians feel secondary to the community in which they're performing'. I'm not too sure about that myself, but it's debatable. A good comparison is with The Staves' Indian-shot 'Blood I Bleed' video, a band who also have the advantage of not being Coldplay. You can watch it below:

'Blood I Bleed' does not burn you retinas with fluorescent primary colours, or feature the band cavorting around India like it's an exotic playground. The Staves sisters are nowhere to be seen, and instead we're given a polyphonic snapshot of Indians from various walks of life engaged in both mundane and life-changing acts. It may be better, but the question is, is this video still cultural appropriation? Is India still just been used as a pretty backdrop for an unrelated alt-folk song?

There are no easy answers. When does healthy cultural interchange become cultural appropriation? The Staves' video seems better than the Coldplay one, aside from its obvious musical superiority. But perhaps it is just generally a bad idea for Western artists to set their videos in foreign climes, as music videos are never going to be the most intelligent ways of exploring other cultures. I am sure there are genuine attempts by non-residents to portray the beauty of a country they do not have reliable first hand experience of, but when does a fascination with another nation become theft of its cultural belongings? Coldplay's intentions in this instance don't really matter. Even if they were trying to respectfully portray Indian culture, the fact they have missed the mark so dramatically ensures the video does more harm than good.

It's easy to object to 'Hymn for the Weekend', which is essentially a half-understood mish-mash of stereotypes that appeal to Westerners who know very little about India. The question is, how much of an understanding of the culture do you have to have before it stops becoming cultural appropriation and a mere fashion statement, and starts becoming cultural exchange? There is an argument to say that no matter how much you know about a country, attempting to portray it in art is dangerous ground if you're not a resident. But then again, if your music video does not feature any glaring factual inaccuracies or disturbing post-colonial undertones, it's probably OK. I hesitate to state this with any certainty, as I'm sure there are many people who disagree with me.

Anyhow, that concludes our adventures in cultural appropriation. If you have any thoughts or objections, don't hesitate to comment below.

Note: A previous version of this article referred to a 'traditional Indian shirt'. In fact it was nothing of the sort, and worn predominantly by Western admirers of Indian culture and religion rather than Indians themselves. Considering the nature of this article, it was a pretty ironic mistake, so apologies if my ignorance has caused offence.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

'Jessica Jones': Cheating at Feminism?


Rami Malek in Mr Robot
A few nights ago, I was happily watching the excellent Mr Robot when I noticed something seemed a bit off. This was it: all of the female characters spiral around protagonist Elliot (Rami Malek) like satellites to his questionable sex appeal. Think about it: Angela (Portia Doubleday) was set up as the primary love interest from episode one; Shayla (Frankie Shaw) is actually in a relationship with him; and Darlene (Carly Chaikin) has the oddly erotic habit of turning up in his flat unannounced.

In the light of the Oscars Race Row, I'd been reading about the Bechdel test, and possible equivalents which measure the under-representation of actors of colour, and came to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way we tell stories if everything has to revolve around white and male people.

This led me to recall my brief and intense affair with Jessica Jones, and think how this series got so many things right which Mr Robot got wrong. And then I thought about a possible feminist interpretation of the story arc, and got quite scared. In the world of Jessica Jones every relationship ends in some form of abuse. Literally. Jessica and Kilgrave; Trish and Simpson; Wendy and Hogarth; Jessica and Luke. It's quite alarming. Another thing, every single male lead is involved in abuse, i.e. Kilgrave, Luke, Simpson and even Malcolm to some extent. Yikes!

The original Jessica Jones  comic

To make things worse, the justice system is revealed to be woefully inadequate to deal with Kilgrave (just like the pitiable number of successful rape prosecutions), so in the end, the only option is to kill him. This is a pretty bleak world we're seeing here! The only relationship which is healthy, and does not end in one party trying to kill the other, is between Jessica and Trish. One small ray of light then.

Naturally I fled to the internet, to see if some people who were cleverer than me and knew more about feminism could help. The most interesting thing I found was the level of debate between writers like Brydie Lee Kennedy in The Independent, who praised the show's depiction of sexual abuse and Jessica as 'a survivor, shaped by her experiences but not crushed by them'and Megan McArdle, who controversially described the series as 'sort of cheating at feminism'.

Before I start to wade into it all, let me take this opportunity to reassure you that I am in no way attempting to convey my opinions as fact. The writers I am critiquing undoubtedly know more about feminism than I do, I just happen to disagree with some of the points they make specifically about Jessica Jones.

If you're going to talk about feminism and Jessica Jones, you've got to mention Kilgrave, played perfectly by David Tennant. McArdle described the villain 'as too small to be particularly interesting, or even scary', and Kwame Opam complains of his portrayal as 'a one-note embodiment of pure evil'. They couldn't be more wrong. Kilgrave is the most charming character in the series, and is perversely a very comic character. I couldn't help laughing when he tells a man to throw coffee in his face, even though I really knew I shouldn't.

David Tennant as Kilgrave
If you listen to Tennant talk about his character in interviews, you can see there are depths to Kilgrave that many people are missing. He is a man who has never been able to establish a moral code as no one has had the ability to say "no" to him. He, like many men out there, does not know the meaning of consent, and didn't even notice that he'd raped Jessica. This is why Lili Loofbourow has written in her particularly perceptive article for The Guardian that the series is 'extraordinarily sympathetic to the men who succumb to the temptations of power'. Kilgrave may be a monster, but he's also a victim. He is allowed to explain to the audience that there is no way for him to know if the people he surrounds himself with want to be with him at all. He's a deeply lonely man: fabulously wealthy, but never seen in a healthy relationship with anyone. When Jessica is essentially torturing him, we're almost invited to feel pity. Yes, he often engages in comic-style-violence, but this only shows how out of touch with reality he really is.

Krysten Ritter as Jessica
Of course, there's much more to the show than Kilgrave. McArdle has criticised Marvel for writing a characteristically male part and casting a woman in the role. I personally disagree with this, and McArdle could be said to be contradicting herself when she later criticises the way Jessica's fear of commitment is portrayed in the same way as  'the heroine of every bad teen romance and bodice ripper I read at summer camp'. To address the male-role-as-female criticism, aren't we a bit beyond saying "men are like this" and "women are like this"? Surely it's common to have 'masculine' women and 'feminine' men, although it's obviously down to individual viewers to decide how successful Jessica's characterisation is. The second criticism is more valid than the first, although if you had to put up with Kilgrave, I'd imagine you'd have some commitment problems too!

This is only a brief foray into a rich topic for discussion, and please do comment below if you want to contribute or think that I've got something hopelessly wrong. The main thing to take away from all this, I feel, is that watching Jessica Jones is highly recommended. Even if you think it fails in its portrayal of feminist issues, it's still an enthralling piece of television in its own right, even if you're not a fan of superheroes.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

'The Danish Girl': Is Redmayne Right for the Role?

So, cards on the table, I rather enjoyed The Danish Girl. Walking into the cinema, my head was full of Hollywood's transphobia and Peter Bradshaw referring to the film's 'tasteful chocolate-box presentation' of trans issues. Both criticisms are obviously valid; you do end up peering through several layers of polish to catch a glimpse of the complexity lurking behind the cisgender Redmayne's doe-eyed face. All edges are nicely rounded off, easing consumption. But all the same, there was a lump in my throat. The same feeling, coincidently, I got at the end of Tom Hooper's previous take on Les Mis, but this time much more acute.

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl
And then I thought, maybe the film's accessibility is its greatest strength. Not many people brim with excitement at the thought of an 'edgy and unsparing glimpse into the transgender community' (unfortunately), but they might opt for 'a tragic romance and the story of one woman's quest to be herself'. The stringy score and ever-present prettily moist eyes should have been enough to signal that this film is aiming to take a difficult and complex story and make it Hollywood.

The cherry on the cake of this pristine flick would surely be Redmayne himself, wouldn't it? Fresh from his Oscar win, and enough of a heart-throb to attract unconditional internet adoration, surely he's perfect for the role. Well, not really.

'In a few years time, it will be as unacceptable for cisgender male actors to play trans women as it is now for white actors to portray black roles' is the confident assertion of Mary Cook in The Mary Sue. The basic argument for the immorality of Redmayne's casting is that transgender actors are marginalised enough as it is, rarely bagging cisgender roles and now even denied trans-roles. Plus, it speaks volumes having Lili Elbe, a woman, played by Eddie Redmayne, a man. It's hard to deny that the transgender rights bloggers have a point. Plus, in the eyes of some, Redmayne's got previous for (stunningly) playing motor neurone disease sufferer Stephen Hawking as an able-bodied man. To be honest, things aren't looking good for Eddie.

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
Is it possible to redeem Redmayne? He's not as bad as Jared Leto at any rate. Leto has gone around making jokes about cross-dressing after his role as a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club, and in the film, journalist and transgender activist Paris Lees picked up on the way Leto's character never bats an eyelid when repeatedly referred to as 'he' when she is, in fact, female. Redmayne, on the other hand, has done his research. He's been talking to the brilliant Lana Wachowski, part of the team behind The Matrix and Sense-8, and former Vogue model April Ashley. He's even won Lees' grudging approval, with her admitting that 'politically, it makes me groan. But if anybody's going to do it justice then I'm happy it's Eddie'.

Rather oddly considering the backlash, Redmayne seems to think he's doing the transgender community a favour, telling The Independent of his 'responsibility of not only educating myself, but hopefully using that to educate' others. What's even odder is that I sort of agree with him. Redmayne will have taken his fanbase along with him, and after seeing The Danish Girl, it's hard not to leave with an awareness of the incredible bravery of transgender men and women. Yes, this message would have been even more powerful if you had a trans actress in the role, but at least this way the message is reaching people which it usually wouldn't.

Paris Lees
Even if you do legitimately have a problem with Redmayne in the role, is it still possible to enjoy the film? You only need to head to film blog 'Fallen Rocket' to read an intelligent consideration of how buying a ticket for The Danish Girl affects Hollywood decision making, and it's hard to arrive at a clear answer as to whether supporting the film in this way is a good thing in the long run. Lees, however, is quite open about enjoying even the more-objectionable Leto in Dallas Buyer's Club. Show me someone who doesn't think that Hilary Swank was perfect for the role of Brandon Teena in Boy's Don't Cry and I shall be amazed.

It remains to be seen if Redmayne has done more harm than good to the transgender community, although I sincerely hope not as he is utterly brilliant in The Danish Girl. His discomfort in a male body is palpable from the start, and Lili becomes an increasingly complex character as the film progresses. But maybe, although its always a good idea to be aware of the political implications of a trip to the cinema, there's also a time to just switch off and enjoy a film without worrying about the morality of its casting.

In Defence of 'Lost River'

As soon as I heard that Ryan Gosling's debut film would be a surreal fable starring Saoirse Ronan and Matt Smith, I was deeply excited. Other people, I imagine, were excited back then too; but ever since it was almost universally panned at Cannes, the critics have had endless fun portraying Gosling as self-absorbed, imperfectly mimicking the directors he's previously worked with. The Guardian led the way, claiming that Lost River communicated nothing except Gosling's own importance, and rather brilliantly calling it 'a florid essay in hipster gothic'.

This seems a little unfair. I have seen many worse films than Lost River, most of them Hollywood blockbusters. True, the film's not entirely successful: in terms of plot it's fairly scantily clad (but then again, so was Drive) and seems to pass like a hazy, very pretty dream (but I think this is kind of the point). Yes, it is style of substance, but when it looks as good as this, you don't particularly care. The whole time we're immersed in the titular decaying town, from the wasteland which nature is slowly reclaiming to streets with houses in various states of decay. Then there are the many shades of purple (any significance?) which bathe Rat's (Saoirse Ronan) bedroom and the horror porn nightclub run by the oily Dave (Ben Mendlesohn). There are plenty of memorable sequences: Christina Hendricks taking her face off, Rat's grandmother perpetually watching her wedding video and an episode involving Matt Smith, a rat and a pair of scissors. When Billy (Hendricks) is trapped inside a menacing perspex sarcophagus we can feel her claustrophobia, and there's palpable tension when a very un-Doctorish Smith offers Rat a ride in his Bully-mobile (unfortunately, it's never actually referred to as such).

Although it's sometimes difficult to decipher, there is some form of content at the back of the neon gorgeousness. The premise is that Billy and Bones (Iain de Caestecker) live in a stagnated town that's suffered massively from the damning of a river, some would say in a similar state of urban decay to my native Stoke. Billy, a little hard up, unwisely takes up her creepy bank manager's offer of a job, whilst Bones gets into trouble with Bully (Smith) for pillaging copper, and attracts romantic attention from Rat. So far so weird. The central theme is the sometimes unsayable ties which link us to our hometown. Is home a family, or a place? I imagine most of us would opt for the former, but if Billy and Bones left their home to be demolished, it's easy to see how that would feel like sacrificing a large chunk of the past. Yet the damning of the river is a handy metaphor for the unnatural halting of the process of maturing and letting go. Bones has never left his hometown, never been truly independent, and is therefore suitably juvenile. Bully, with his scissors and dubbing his turf
Bullytown, is no more than a horrifically overblown school-ground menace. In a scene which seems to have been cut, he was driven around in the Bully-mobile flexing his biceps whilst shouting 'look at my muscles!' through a loudspeaker. It's not so much that the town is dying, but it's trapped in a perpetual childhood. Bones still refuses to see his mother in anything but black and white, and hence is hugely judgemental of any whiff of a man on the scene. Billy, meanwhile, when forced to take her son to work, is chastised by the creepy Dave, who complains 'that's not very sexy, is it?'. She's lurched from the moral perfection that Bones seems to require from her at home, to a deeply disturbing voyeurism where showgirls pretend to hack each other to bits.

All this is very well and good, but none of these themes are particularly well developed by Gosling. There's so much happening that everything seems a bit slight. Bones only exchanges a few hostile words with his mother, so we're left to guess the rest ourselves. Similarly, Matt Smith is only allowed the briefest of screen time, much of which he spends screaming intimidatingly in the manner of a pantomime villain, and is only granted one (rather brilliant) scene to flesh out his character a bit. Ronan is brilliant is usual, with a character that suits her much better than the irritating American in How I Live Now, but her dialogue either simply advances the plot or is comically clunky (her attempts at flirting with Bones are far from subtle, but initially still seem to go over his head), so she's left to stay brilliant via those sad and expressive eyes of hers. De Caestecker, who does at least have the virtue of being on screen for much of the film, is hopelessly bland compared to the supporting cast, and only makes for a serviceable protagonist.

But ho hum. I think what really matters about Lost River is not the content, but the feeling. It's the oddest kind of fairytale, lit in bright neon and accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack of retro electronica. Like a fairytale, it is slight: the characters often aren't far away from archetypes and despite three or four main plot strands, not a lot ever seems to happen. But there is something haunting about it. Maybe it's just the little details; the walls of the dilapidated school still declaring that 'every child matters'; the kitschy television programmes Bones and Rat watch or that wedding video on repeat forever. There's a little bit of the past that we cling to, despite realising that we really should let go and it probably wasn't worth that much in the first place, and I think that's what Gosling was getting at when he wrote the screenplay to this odd film. Whilst acknowledging that it did disappoint my great expectations just a little, I'm glad I chose to satisfy my curiosity despite the warnings of the critics. It may not be the best film in the world, and Gosling has little chance of ever directing again after this colossal flop (most cinemas are refusing to show it, I had to watch it on Sky). But I'm glad it exists. The world is better for it.

'Girl, Interrupted': Mental Health and Misogyny

First of all, I quite enjoyed 'Girl, Interrupted'. It's another film about a psychiatric ward, like a more serious version of 'It's Kind of a Funny Story' and a less good version of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'. After pondering deeply for a short while, I discovered the film came to some truly baffling, and slightly offensive, conclusions.

Wiona Ryder as Susanna
For starters, there's the question of whether Susanna actually needs help.One would certainly think she does, the film opens with her having overdosed on aspirin, followed with a bottle of vodka, and her father's friend makes the damning comment 'you're hurting all the people you love'. We're reminded of the (I think much better) 'Prozac Nation', in which we're not only invited to sympathise with the protagonist suffering from depression, but also her friends and boyfriend who find her impossible to deal with. Plus she spends the film's exposition slipping Willy Loman style into the past (which is excellently done), and he definitely could have done with some help. But then, it is fairly strongly implied that Susanna is not 'crazy' (their words), primarily by her hippy taxi driver (don't ask) and one of the more sympathetic doctors (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who tells her she's a selfish and spoilt child. Should we be sympathising with Susanna, or telling her to pull herself together?

Then there's the question of her diagnosis, which we are told is Borderline Personality Disorder. She complains after discovering this that the symptoms are just what it's like 'to be a person'. And with the summary we're given, we're attempted to agree with her: mood swings, self-alienation and 'promiscuity'. A quick look on Google added a few more symptoms which may make us take the disease more seriously: self-harm, delusions and hallucinations. There still seems to be the question of whether it classifies as a condition in itself or is just a handy label for people who don't fit into any other category, but either way, it's definitely not to be scoffed at.

Then there's the issues of Susanna's so called 'promiscuity'. She, quite reasonably, argues to Dr.
Bertha Mason: 'intemperate and unchaste'
Wicke that what is promiscuous for a woman is perfectly normal for a man, but then Wicke reveals the 'damning' news that she committed two sex acts in a day with two different man, therefore she must be a nymphomaniac. This is definitely very silly, and the look on poor Wiona Ryder's face suggests that she now thinks she's a nymphomaniac. Personally, it reminded me of Mr. Rochester calling his 'mad' wife Bertha Mason 'intemperate and unchaste' in 'Jane Eyre'. We're also reminded of the long line of Biblical temptresses (Eve, Delilah, Bathsheba, etc.), and the clear link some people seem to draw between women, madness and uninhibited sexuality.

Next, is the film criticising or celebrating the mental health institutions of the 1960s? It does look suspiciously like they're over-medicating everyone, including sleeping pills and laxatives. And there is the suggestion that you simply have to tell the doctors what they want to hear and confess a dizzying array of character flaws before they let you out. This is confirmed by Lisa and Susannah visiting one of the released inmates when they escape, only to wake up the next morning to her having committed suicide. Susanna begins with a more positive view of her condition, which is quickly shot down as fluffy 1960s hippyism, as the patient who is characterised by embracing her illness (Lisa, played by a fabulous Angelina Jolie) is a raving lunatic. The film ends with Susannah healed by the hospital's fabulous treatment, and let out after a year. Forgive me if I'm a little confused.

Lisa: 'already dead'
Now, Lisa and Susanna are juxtaposed in a number of ways. One of them embraces their condition and ends up in the hospital for life, the other plays the game and is released after a year. Potentially more importantly, Lisa champions openly telling people their flaws in utterly crushing tirades, and the other on the surface appears less judgemental, but in fact just writes down all her snide comments in her journal. Originally, Lisa's technique seems to be very, very wrong: her friend commits suicide because of her honesty and she doesn't seem to care. But then there's a rather unconvincing scene after the inmates have discovered Susanna's journal where Susanna is cornered by Lisa and is saved by telling her that she's 'already dead', at which point Lisa collapses into a teary heap. How is this helpful? Although some of Susanna's comments do at least seem constructive (telling her room-mate that she's living in a fairytale and secretly never wants to get back out into the world), she shockingly tells a patient who's set fire to half of her face that she only adopts a 'sweet' persona so people can bear to look at her. What's more, she's forgiven at the end! I wouldn't forgive her!

It has occurred to me that perhaps the reason that we can't solve these problems is because 'Girl, Interrupted' is a complex film about complex issues, with well rounded characters who we can never fully sympathise with or blame. Maybe we shouldn't be handed easy solutions on a plate. But the unconvincing ending where everyone forgives Susanna and the misogynistic suggestion that she's a nymphomaniac are definitely some of the film's weaknesses. And, is it just me, or do the soaring strings constantly in the soundtrack try and make the film a lot more uplifting than it really is,
Any film about mental health would undoubtedly be a matter of tiptoeing on thin ice, and this should not stop us trying to approach difficult subjects. Rant over.