The Middle Of The World: How Barry Jenkins Makes A Movie

Moonlight was the winner of the 2016 Academy Award winner for Best Motion Picture (we all remember the memes). I always remember it as a simple yet masterfully executed example of direction on Barry Jenkins’s part. Let me show you what I mean.

Toward the beginning, in the first third of the film, there is a scene where Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches young Chiron to swim, or rather, how to float on his back in the water. Juan describes the feeling of floating in the water as “being in the middle of the world”. Which is why I find this particular shot so poignant.

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Juan is in the exact center of the frame, and the depth of field around him is incredibly shallow. He and the tree in the foreground are really the only things in focus; the trees and picnic tables in the background are blurred. Even Chiron is slightly out of focus. It’s impossible for the viewer’s eye to be drawn to anything but Ali.

This is more or less Baby’s First Lesson On Cinematic Framing–have the most important element in your shot be the main point of interest by focusing on it. That’s kind of a no brainer. But it raises the question: why isn’t the main character–Chiron–also in focus?

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We switch from a stationary shot on the beach to a handheld camera in the water, making the scene feel much more personal (as if the viewer is in the water with Juan and Chiron) and illustrating the intimacy of the scene. It was difficult for me to get a screengrab that was in focus because of the movement of the camera, but when you watch the scene, Juan is the only thing that is stable in the take, a stanch contrast to the waves dipping in and out of the frame, all while cradling Chiron and keeping him from sinking. This is very obviously a metaphor for Juan being the only stable support in Chiron’s life. It’s also reminiscent of a baptism, pushing the motif of Juan being Chiron’s savior. Juan’s name is even a Spanish variant of the name John–as in, John The Baptist.

For those of you who haven’t seen Moonlight, it’s a key development in Chiron’s character that he idolizes Juan. Juan is not his father or any relation, but he’s more of a parent to him than Chiron’s own mother is. More than that, he is Chiron’s mentor, his role model–and (like I said) in a way, his savior. The only other character who arguably is as important in Chiron’s life is Kevin, his best friend and later love interest. But for the younger years of Chiron’s life–the years that shape him as a man–Juan is the middle of the world.

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Irene Adler: Lost In Translation

To modern filmmakers, she is always the love interest. I have seldom seen them adapt her in any other way. In their eyes she is an archetypal femme fatale who is smart, and usually nefarious, but mostly sexy, and always powerless to Sherlock Holmes’s superior brain and also because she’s feemail, and as we all know, feemails are weak and can’t help but fall in love with the hero.

And yet there is but one woman to them, and that woman is the eternal Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable, but always sexy, memory.

“A Scandal In Bohemia” was the very first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read. She’s immediately introduced as the woman (The Woman) who utterly defeats Sherlock Holmes, the only one he respects and sees as an equal. As a burgeoning young feminist (and lesbian), I was so excited about this powerful woman who managed to gain the respect of Sherlock Holmes of all people.

I was subsequently disappointed with her many adaptations…

The Story

Irene Adler was an opera singer who has an affair with the King of Bohemia. They apparently had a compromising photo taken together, because all these years later, when the King is getting married to some other lady of nobility, Adler informs him that she has the photo of them, and that she will absolutely send it to his future in-laws. It’s not really clear why she wants to ruin the King’s reputation. It’s clearly not out of jealousy because she doesn’t care about the King. She doesn’t want money. She just wants the truth about the King to be known for what he really is.

This leads the King to hire Sherlock Holmes to steal the photo from her, since all his other attempts to get the photo have failed. Holmes manages to trick Adler into revealing where the photograph is hidden, but when he goes back for it, she and the photograph are gone, because she’s outsmarted Holmes. She’s no longer interested in ruining the King because she’s in love and she and her new husband have run off to America together. The end.

Historical Context

Arthur Conan Doyle was pretty liberal for a white, middle class man of the Victorian Age. He was friendly with Oscar Wilde and didn’t believe that homosexuality was deviance, but rather like a mental illness (and that was actually a progressive point of view for that time); he wrote a story about an interracial relationship (that produced a biracial child) in one of his stories–and it was actually sympathetic to the white woman who loved a black man; and for the most part he seemed to respect women as people. Doyle is like Star Trek: The Original Series–definitely suffers from the social prejudices and attitudes of the time, but still forward thinking in historical context.

It’s important to note that this is a story about the sexism of the Victorian age. The only two reoccurring women in the Holmes serial is Holmes’s landlady and Watson’s wife (or possibly wives because Doyle was shit at continuity). Women in Victorian literature didn’t have much agency. Even in Jane Austen novels, the female protagonists’ arcs often revolved around finding a husband. This is why Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House was such a scandalous piece of literature. The main character, Nora, forges her father’s name in order to borrow money (because women weren’t allowed to own property or take out loans), and ends up leaving her shitty husband at the end. In most places, the play was banned from being performed at the time. Compare characterless homebodies like Mrs. Watson or Mrs. Hudson/Turner to a strong female character like Irene Adler, who has her own career, has affairs out of wedlock, and never once loses her power to a man. She outsmarts the smartest man in London, and leaves behind a letter that essentially says, “Suck it, Your Majesty, I do what I want.”

But why is this a feminist narrative? Well, I’ll explain, but first I have to explain the concept of…

The Unreliable Narrator

What’s important to remember as that this story is framed as a personal account from Watson, who doesn’t know what really happened between Adler and the King apart from the King’s own telling of it. We’ve already established Watson as an unreliable narrator (he can’t even remember if he’s married half the time), and so what we’re really getting is a tenuous third-hand account of the story of Irene Adler and her affair with the King. We never hear Adler’s side of it, so we have only the King’s point of view to go on–and of course that view is going to be biased toward the King. “Boo hoo, I’m just trying to get married for political gains and that mean old slut Irene Adler is trying to ruin it for me.”

When you really get down to examining the narrative beyond Watson and the King’s opinion of it, Irene Adler is the antagonist of SCAN–but not the villain. This is one of the rare instances where Holmes finds himself on the side of wrong. The King is trying to cover up a past affair before he marries somebody else so he doesn’t look bad, and Adler is trying to expose a powerful man as the jerkass he really is before he becomes even more powerful by marrying someone we get the sense he really doesn’t care about or love.

Why It’s About Sexism

At the beginning, Watson explains that Holmes calls Adler The Woman because she’s apparently the only female opponent that’s ever bested him. Before Adler, Holmes was actually pretty chauvinistic toward the intellect of women, and it isn’t until Adler knocks him down a sexist peg that Holmes realizes the error of both the King’s and his own ways. Holmes is humbled by the experience and realizes that she’s the real hero, and he admires her for her cleverness. He keeps her photo as a means of reminding him not be such a sexist dick.

For some reason, this always gets mistranslated two ways: 1) a smart, sexually liberated woman is inherently villainous, thus we get adaptions like Guy Ritchie’s movies and BBC Sherlock where Adler ends up working for bad guys (and it’s almost always Moriarty). Notice that she is almost never the one in charge; she’s always Moriarty’s stooge. Because God forbid a woman just be clever and do things on her own. And 2), a man can’t POSSIBLY admire a woman without wanting to have sex with her. Irene Adler spoke to Sherlock Holmes maybe twice in canon, and once was to ask him to be a witness to her wedding—to someone else! They were never interested in each other, and yet, in nearly every adaptation, she’s Holmes’s paramour.

Also, you’ll notice that Adler is always portrayed as very, very smart, but NEVER smarter than Holmes. She’s usually a damsel Holmes has to save. Because again, nothing is more threatening to a man than a woman who doesn’t need him. It drives me absolutely insane that modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes take one of the few proto-feminist characters of Victorian literature and diminish her into a sexy bad girl. I guess they just didn’t get the point of the story. Either that or modern filmmakers are scared of the gay subtext in Holmes and Watson’s friendship and decided to disparage that way of thinking by giving Holmes a girlfriend and Adler was the obvious choice she’s feemail and on Holmes’s level. Of course, we can’t have her be smarter than him! That would be like saying that men aren’t the best! Because women always have to be less good than men and fall in love with them and hey wouldn’t it be great if she were a dominatrix who prances around naked and also punches people but needs to be rescued by Sherlock Holmes because he’s just soooooooo irresistable even though you said you were a fucking lesbian FUCK YOU STEVEN MOFFAT-

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah.

And when they speak of Irene Adler, it is always under the dishonorable title…of Sherlock Holmes’s girlfriend. ~TRL

Three’s Company Too

Today I want to talk about polyships! Polyships deal with polyamory, where more than two people are dating each other at the same time. This is a little different than polygamy, where one person is married to multiple people (usually one man with several wives, like in the Mormon religion) or open relationships (which usually imply two people who are in a committed relationship, but permit each other to see other people outside of the relationship). Polyamory connotates three or more people seeing each other.* If you want to learn more about about polyamory, I suggest watching the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women–it’s about the man who created Wonder Woman, his wife, and their life partner.

(*Note, my definitions of these terms may not agree with other people’s, as everyone defines their relationships differently.)

So I want to talk about a few OT3s of mine, and I have to first bring up Sense8, that wonderful Netflix show that is a freaking love letter to the LGBTQ+ community. (Spoilers ahead.) There are two throuples (couples involving three people instead of two) in the show. Lito and Hernando were a gay couple (Lito identifies as homosexual, but Hernando’s sexuality is never specified, so he could be gay, bi, or pansexual), but they end up bringing a woman into their relationship, Lito’s coworker Daniela. She at first just wants protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend, but she eventually becomes a special part of Lito and Hernando’s relationship, and they form a family.

The other polyship was a bit of a surprise. Kala’s storyline was set up as a classic love triangle story. Even though she is in an marriage to Rajan, she is clearly in love with Wolfgang. Her arc is set up to lead the viewer to believe that she will ultimately leave Rajan for Wolfgang. But in the series finale, Kala is torn between Wolfgang and Rajan, whom she also ends up loving. And even though you would think Rajan and Wolfgang would be rivals and hate each other, they get along quite well. In the end, they decide to just Kala have both of them, and Wolfgang and Rajan actually end up loving each other as well. It was one of my favorite parts of Sense8.

So my first ever polyship was Steve Rogers (Captain America), Bucky Barnes, and Peggy Carter, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I headcanon all three characters as bisexual, and I think both Peggy and Bucky are great for Steve. And I think that over time, Peggy and Bucky could love each other too. They would all bring something to the table if they were in a relationship: Peggy, her strength; Steve, his loyalty; and Bucky, his sensitivity.

…and the sex would be amazing.

My most recent polyship, however, is from Wynonna Earp–that is, the titular Wynonna, Agent Xavier Dolls, and Doc Holliday (yes, THAT Doc Holliday). They’re another trio of bisexuals, according to me. It’s clear from the beginning that both Dolls and Doc absolutely adore Wynonna. And even though they hate each other at first, Doc and Dolls grow close and form a special bond. Even though all three of them are rough and tumble demon hunters, there is a special tenderness in the way they interact with each other. (MAJOR SPOILER) And when Dolls dies, Doc is just as broken up as Wynonna–which just proves he loved Dolls as much as she did. (Plus their ship name is the Ghost River Triangle, how perfect is that?)

So that’s my little tribute to polyamory and the awesome ships they produce. Let’s give them three cheers! (Pun intended.) -TRL

Where Is My Monster Girlfriend?

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I’ve been thinking about this ever since Lindsay Ellis put out this video (which is awesome, I highly recommend it) on the history of monster romances. Beauty and the Beast narratives are a long and time-honored tradition of story telling, and was most recently repeated by Guillermo del Toro with the Oscar winning The Shape Of Water. In stories like this, the dynamic is nearly always the same: unconventionally unhandsome monster man and conventionally pretty human woman fall in love. But it got me wondering: where are the monster girlfriends?

Let’s take a look at Greek mythology, at one of the first monster ladies: Medusa. According to the account by the Greek poet Ovid, Medusa was once a beautiful woman who caught the attention of the god of the sea, Poseidon. Poseidon took Medusa in Athena’s temple, and as punishment, Athena turned Medusa into a hideous monster whose ugliness would freeze mortals on sight. (Which is kind of BS, considering Medusa was the victim of rape and clearly Poseidon was the asshole here, but…that’s another discussion.) Medusa does not get a happy ending; she is beheaded by the Greek hero Perseus.

In more modern days, the female monsters you encounter are usually found in horror. They are not the Romantic, sympathetic heroes; they are the horrifying killers that crawl out of your TV set or attack campers in the woods or they burn down the prom. And even then, characters like Samara and Carrie White are still humanoid. They’re not really beasts per se. Mermaids and sirens are creatures, but they’re usually portrayed as beautiful and magnetic as they lure men to their deaths.

Usually, when the B&B narrative is reversed, the woman isn’t a monster at all. The reason she’s unloved is because of some shallow aspect of society. Usually it’s because she’s fat. Or she’s a nerd. Or she’s a tomboy.

I’ve noticed a huge difference in how male monsters are portrayed vs female monsters, and how their stories resolve. The male monsters are nearly always flawed yet lovable, and female monsters are always vengeful and evil…and most are still attractive. See, there’s this drive to appeal to the male gaze that looms over all of cinema. The women must be beautiful whenever possible. Which is why stories about truly ugly yet sympathetic (maybe even lovable) female monsters have yet to be produced. Ugliness in men can always be forgiven; in women, it cannot.

Disney is the most egregious campaigner for this way of thinking. They have a real problem with ugly women being heroic and beautiful women being villains. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the evil Queen (who is fairly pretty) takes on the persona of an ugly hag to commit murder. When Disney adapted the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, they changed the story drastically. In the original story, the Snow Queen was the villain, and a beautiful woman to boot. In Frozen, the Snow Queen is a troubled, pretty anti-villain, and her sister is the true hero of the story. In Moana, Te Fiti has to turn into a scary lava monster before antagonizing Moana and Maui.

But of course, the best example is Ursula from The Little Mermaid. Disney made absolutely sure this woman couldn’t be considered attractive by making her fat and masculine.

(And this is not to say that fat women or masculine women can’t be attractive. I’m not saying that personally. I’m saying that this is how mainstream (male) filmmakers think. They make these decisions based on what convention deems to be beautiful: that is young, thin, and feminine. There’s a reason we haven’t had a fat Disney princess yet.)

So what I’m saying is, we see stories about women loving male beasts all the time, because society seems to view women as less shallow and more open-minded. But what about stories where men love female monsters? Well…I can only think of one off the top of my head: Cyberwoman.

“Cyberwoman” was an early episode of Torchwood, a spinoff of Doctor Who (it’s kind of like X-Files). The members of Torchwood find out one of them has been harboring a half converted Cyberwoman because she was his girlfriend before she got turned into a cyborg. And it’s the dumbest, most female-objectifying episode of anything I’ve ever seen. The Cyberwoman is basically a regular looking beautiful woman except that she’s in a metal bikini and wearing Cyberman headphones. She’s even got high-heeled silver platform boots. It’s…it’s so dumb.

Anyway, she ends up losing her mind and going on a murder rampage. She has to be killed twice before the episode is over.

And that how it always ends, doesn’t it? Where male monsters are always treated with sympathy and are redeemed, female monsters get axed. A prince turned furry beast gets the chance to earn the love of a beautiful woman and is saved in the end, while a poor girl who never asked to get raped and transformed into a gorgon has her head chopped off. There are no monster girlfriends. In fiction–in society–if a woman doesn’t have sex appeal, what’s the point of saving her? ~TRL

Don’t Let Boys Be Mean To You

My mother is a huge doormat.

Growing up, she always impressed upon me the importance of forgiveness, whether or not the party in the wrong deserves it–or even wants it. It’s no wonder that she stayed married to the same abusive man (my father) for 17 years until he died or why she was willing to let me suffer the daily torment of bullying until I was on the verge of suicide at age 13.

But that’s our burden as women: having to excuse bad behavior. Because if we don’t, when we speak up against the ones who are doing us wrong, we’re labeled as bitches, or that we’re too sensitive, or that we can’t take a joke, or maybe it’s that time of the month. Either way, our legitimately hurt feelings are just labeled as us being overly emotional, and are dismissed. And that’s wrong.

I had a bunch of guy “friends” in school, most of which thought it was hilarious to tease me and insult me nearly to the point of tears. I took their harassment and belittlement, because I knew if I protested, I would be considered too much of a girl to hang with the big boys. When I was 17, I once asked myself why I hated spending time with my friends. At age 21, I now realize they were never my friends in the first place.

But I’ve realized that no matter what friendships you think you’re losing, you have to stand up for yourself. You can’t just let bad behavior slide because “boys will be boys”. Boys will never develop empathy or compassion until we make them listen to us. So if someone is making you feel upset or comfortable, speak up. If you can see that your friend is being hurt by someone else’s words, don’t just laugh along with their abuser. We’ve been letting boys be mean to us just for the sake of getting them to like us for far too long, and it’s completely unacceptable. ~TRL

Our Last Day Of Freedom

The Internet is a great place, isn’t it? On the Internet, a Swedish kid with a webcam can pretend to be scared by video games and make an assload of money for every 10 minute video he cranks out onto YouTube. You can connect with anyone on the globe who has a computer, whatever pornography you want is probably somewhere out there, and a surly autistic white girl like myself can rant about TV shows till the cows come home.

For the poor and oppressed of America, the Internet was our land of milk and honey. In a world where money speaks louder than real human voices, a free platform like this was the only real way that we stood a chance to be heard. But no more.

Today is the end of the free Internet.

If you’ve been on the Internet for longer than a week, you’ve probably heard of net neutrality. And today marks the FCC’s repeal of it. Essentially, this gives big Internet service providers like Comcast and Time Warner the power to regulate their customers’ access to the Internet. Before today, all Internet services and websites were equally accessible thanks to net neutrality.

What does this mean for you, dear reader? Well, say you have a Netflix account. But say that your Internet provider has their own streaming service that they want to push onto their customers. They now have the power to slow your Netflix service down to the point of not being able to use it…unless of course, you pay extra for access to it. Think of it as a cable company selling you channel packages…except on the Internet instead of satellite TV.

This is capitalist greed at its finest. Politicians and big corporations do supervillain team ups like this all the time. A free idea exchange like the Internet is a threat to a totalitarian like Donald Trump. So he and his administration would do anything to shut us up. Like…getting in bed with big businesses that can manipulate the system and squeeze money out of their customers if certain restrictions on their power are removed.

Although weirdly enough, Chancellor Tiny Hands isn’t the culprit this time (at least, not directly). The man responsible for the repeal of net neutrality is a stocksucking reject character from The Big Bang Theory named Ajit Pai. He is currently the chairman of the FCC (put into that position by guess who?). Pai cares more about cozying up to ISP fat cats and his stupid fucking giant Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups novelty mug than the American people’s right to fair access to information, and the right to share it.

This isn’t just about the ability for bleeding heart feminazi Marxists like me getting to bitch about…whatever. This concerns everyone. From the college grad student doing research for their dissertation, from the unemployed stoner watching porn in their mom’s basement. This is just one more way your government is stealing your voice. We all need to prepare ourselves for a new age in America. Because this could be our last day of freedom. ~TRL

13 Months After 13 Reasons Why

Warning for discussions of sensitive material ahead, including suicide and rape.

(You see, Netflix? That’s what you’re supposed to do. Put a trigger warning beforehand.)

Hey, it’s Catherine. Catherine, the Red Lady. That’s right. Don’t adjust your…whatever device you’re reading this on. It’s me, live on the internet. No return engagements, no encore. And this time, absolutely no requests. Get a snack. Settle in. ‘Cause I’m about to tell you why 13 Reasons Why is garbage.

I read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher in high school. I knew going in that it was about a girl who commits suicide and then leaves behind a series of cassette tapes (what is this, 1994?) narrating why she killed herself, and why her classmates are to blame.

I wasn’t greatly affected by the book because a), I already knew what was coming, and b) I wasn’t suicidal in high school. Depressed, yes, suicidal, no. I didn’t really think much of the book to be totally honest. It was about Stephanie Meyer level prose. Just milquetoast teen melodrama.

Then about a year and a half ago I learned that that book I read in high school was getting its own Netflix series. And I remember thinking to myself, this could potentially be very bad. Suicide is a touchy subject for most people. That’s not to say there should be a taboo on the subject. I think a certain amount of healthy discussion can actually help prevent suicide. It’s all in how you handle it. The important thing is to show suicidal people the consequences of committing such an act, without glorifying suicide or shaming those who might be contemplating it–as if suicidal people don’t have enough to feel bad about. It can be a tenuous feat, which is why most people don’t even touch it. Between glorification and victim shaming, I’m sad to say that 13 Reasons Why succeeds in doing both.

It’s been roughly 13 months since the first season debuted on Netflix, so I think now is a fitting time to discuss it, especially since a second season is in the making why??? Why would they do this?????.

Everyone’s hot take on 13RW is that it’s suicide glorification…which is true. Hannah Baker leaves a suicide note behind for the express purpose of inflicting guilt on everyone she felt had wronged her. Suicide isn’t about other people. Suicides are singular events. People kill themselves because they truly feel they have nothing to live for. They aren’t thinking about revenge or how sad everyone will be about their deaths as they do the deed. They’re just thinking about how everything will finally stop, and maybe there will finally be peace.

Even though it’s mostly Hannah’s point of view guiding the audience through the flashbacks, it’s a boy named Clay who is the narrator. He was in love with Hannah, and only sees her as this guileless cinnamon roll who was too good, too pure for this world™️. Since the two main points of views come from the victim herself and the guy who was blindingly in love with her, of course Hannah’s death is going to feel romanticized.

But at the same time, 13RW also manages to shame suicidal people as well. It paints suicide victims as pathetic and vengeful, as people just seeking attention. Hannah’s tapes torture the people she talks about on them, and then she ensured those tapes were distributed. Not to her parents, who might be horrified to learn of what their daughter went through in that last year but at least they could make sense of this horrendous tragedy and not wonder forever if it was their fault…but to the people Hannah deemed responsible for her death. The backstabbing friends, the slut-shamers, the rapist, and the dismissive counselor. And also Clay; for some reason Hannah decided to torture him for 10 tapes or so before finally revealing that he wasn’t to blame because he was actually really nice to her. And then there’s the contingency that if the tapes are properly listened to and shared, an ally of Hannah’s was going to make sure the tapes went public. It was very clear that this girl was seeking revenge, not peace.

…oh yeah, and all the obvious ones, like the graphic rape scenes and Hannah slitting her wrists onscreen (in the book, she just takes pills, but I guess that doesn’t have any shock value), but everyone else has already covered that.

Look, I appreciate what Selena Gomez and the creators of this show were trying to do. Suicide and depression are serious topics, especially for teenagers, so they made a show specifically targeted at teens to dissuade them from killing themselves. But like the book, this series didn’t have anything poignant to say on the subject. It was essentially thirteen hours of angst and violence porn that only caused an upsurge in teen suicide rates. I haven’t heard of anyone who was comforted by watching the show–only traumatized or further depressed by it. I don’t know that there’s a positive way to portray suicide…but this definitely isn’t it.

And I beg of you, if you are contemplating suicide, consider this your sign not to. Talk to someone. If there’s not a counselor or someone close to you you can open to, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (America): 1-800-273-8255. Or if you’re not American, go look up the hotline for your own country. Because speaking as someone who has been depressed for years and feels as though surviving each day is an uphill battle, believe me when I say: there is always something worth living for. ~TRL

(PS, I wasn’t serious about that “no return engagements” thing, that was just a joke. I’m still going to make posts on here. That is, if I’m still able to if and after Congress repeals net neutrality.)