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Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Time Travel Project: Introduction

In The Time Travel Project on November 26, 2012 at 9:29 pm

I have always had fantasies about time travel. When I was younger I’d wonder about the possibility of meeting a future version of myself, someone who could give me advice on what I needed to know in order to handle the future. Because there were so few black people in Yakima, where I spent most of my childhood, sometimes when I would see a black man I would wonder if that was me from the future, come back to keep tabs on me, waiting for the right time to reveal to me who he was. It turned out, of course, that he was just a random black man from the present, or at least I assume that since he never talked to me. Also,as an adult I know I have yet to time travel except at the normal, slow pace of one second per second into the future. Thing is, when this assumed future-self never revealed himself to me, it kind of bummed me out. It’s weird to think that as a child I was lonely for my adult self.

Well, now I am my adult self and while I can’t return to the past, I can communicate across the span of years. I have kept a journal since I was 13 when I was expected to write one for Mary Crago’s 9th grade English class. It was a practice that I continued outside of school, even to this day. Some years I was more prolific than others, but I never set it down for good. It’s the one writing exercise I constantly practice. As a result, I have kept personal messages to myself throughout 28 years of my personal history. I can tell you what it was that I have been worrying about, thinking, feeling since I was thirteen.

This is a unique opportunity for personal correspondence. I am planning on reading these journals and writing back to me in the past, hoping to give him that advice he never got, that insight into the future that would help him realize that everything turns out okay in the end.  But honestly, this advice isn’t for him. It’s for me. It’s really about talking to the internal, unresolved teenager that needs some mentor to help him through his/my struggles. It’s really self-mentoring in the present. It’s also, hopefully reacquainting myself with myself. There are weeks where it feels like I lose track of who I am, my values, my passions, and my vision of who I intend to be. I expect these intimate message will remind me of those things.

So, in the future, you can expect me to type up some of those long-past journal entries. This is just the introduction. I will title and tag them all with “The Time Travel Project”.  For the inaugural post, why don’t we look at one of the earliest journal entries that also has to do with time travel?

“Sept 27, 1984

“I would like to have Leonardo da Vinci as a friend and learn about how he thought up ideas for the helicopter and other inventions. I would like to know him not so much for the paintings he did but to find out how a man from the renisance (excuse my spelling) could come up with such incredible ideas.”

That had to be a response to, “What historical figure would you like to be friends with?”. I don’t really have much comment here. I have evidently always been a nerd. That’s nothing new or shocking. I guess it wasn’t clear that I wanted to be a writer at this point because I’d probably go back and befriend a famous writer, possibly explore the Harlem Renaissance (thank you, spell check) : Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay. But I can’t fault young me for wanting to quiz Leonardo on his creative process. I am pleased to recognize that young me’s intellectual curiosity has remained and continued into present me.

Elba. Idris Elba.

In James Bond, Movies on November 20, 2012 at 3:57 am

Have you heard the rumors about a black James Bond? This is old news (as far as the internet is concerned), but while I have seen doubts about the movie-going public’s ability to accept this possibility, I have yet to see anyone discuss the history of filmmakers’ reluctance to cast black men as sexually voracious heroes.

Before I get into my take on this, let’s unpack the history of this rumor.

On October 23rd, The Huffington Post posted an interview with Skyfall cast member Naomie Harris. She’s currently shooting a film with Idris Elba, who is well known for playing Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire or DCI Luther on the BBC series Luther.

In regards to her current cast member, she said, “[Elba] said that he met Barbara Broccoli [James Bond producer] and that it does seem like there is a possibility in the future that there could very well be a black James Bond.”*

The internet took this to mean, “Idris Elba is James Bond!” Surprisingly, the reaction to this I’ve seen from everyone, online and In Real Life, is “Hell yeah!” I was surprised because, while being a London native, Elba is black, and this kind of racially blind casting has been publicly decried by hardcore fans in the past. Case in point: when Elba himself was cast as Heimdall, a Norse god, for the Marvel film Thor, comic nerds and mythology scholars cried foul. However, everyone I’ve come across seems to recognize that Elba, regardless of race, expresses the right combination of coolness, charisma, and danger that is essential for playing secret agent James Bond.

But hold your horses, internet. Neither Elba nor the Broccoli production company has verified this rumor. Also, the current Bond, Daniel Craig, is contracted for two more movies as 007. So your excitement might be a bit premature.

And although the majority of Bond’s audience seems to think the idea is cool,** will mainstream filmmakers think it is viable to cast a black man as a character who is known for his sexual aggressiveness? James Bond travels the world, and has sex with women of every nation, ethnicity, and race, most of them white. Unless they severely limit where Bond travels to in the future, a black James Bond will be having a lot of interracial sex.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Why would this be a problem? I’ve seen all kinds of interracial relationships in movies in the last 20 years.” Sure, but the vast majority of them were between a white man and a black woman. Zoe Saldana, Thandie Newton, and Halle Berry are three actresses that pop immediately to mind as black women who’ve had white male love interests in their films. Halle Berry, in fact, played the love interest for James Bond in Die Another Day.

However, when the leads are a black man and a white woman, the only time a sexual relationship happens between them in mainstream cinema is when the controversy and trouble of the interracial relationship is the point of the movie. Idris Elba, in fact, starred in a movie, Obsessed, in which the physical attraction between him and a white woman was shown to be something that was, not only taboo, but dangerous. On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Pelican Brief, starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. In the book by John Grisham, the two lead characters have a romantic relationship. Yet this is totally absent from the movie. Honestly, I can’t recall a movie since Shaft (1971) where a black heroic male lead has sex with a white woman.

This leads me to believe that commercial filmmakers see a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman as something that is still too taboo for most audiences. It’s as if stereotypes of white feminine purity and black male savagery are still in effect in the public imagination. These are tropes that have existed since the beginning of cinema history. They have their cinematic origins in, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) in which the Ku Klux Klan form after a white woman dies hurling herself off a cliff to avoid being, presumably, assaulted by a pursuing black man. Keeping black male and white female leads from having sex in modern movies is the cinematic equivalent of protecting the virginity of white women from the dark, lustful impulses of the Negro.

In light of this, and that Craig is Bond for two more films, I think it’s more likely that Elba is being tapped for a role other than 007. My guess is he may replace Jeffery Wright, who we saw in Casino Royale as CIA operative Felix Leiter. He could also play the Caribbean MI6 agent Quarrel who was seen in Dr. No, but hopefully with Bond treating him as an equal this time instead of his servant.  There’s also the possibility of Elba as a villain and that idea gives me goose bumps almost as much as the idea of him playing Bond does.

But who knows. I could be totally wrong and Elba is the next Bond. Maybe the world is ready. After all, in the ‘60s both Batman and Star Trek had episodes that featured the white male leads kissing a black woman (Catwoman and Uhura, respectively) and despite fear of sponsors pulling out, or stations in the South dropping the show, both shows survived and remain iconic. And let’s not forget the U.S. reelected a black president and Washington State legalized marijuana and gay marriage. Within that context, a black James Bond doesn’t seem that controversial.

*Go here for the full interview

**I haven’t done any actual polling myself. I’m just judging by the reaction I’ve seen.

Bond Movies Catch up to Books in Quality After a Mere 50 Years

In James Bond, Movies on November 13, 2012 at 2:33 am

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond 007 film series, and while I have identified myself as a serious James Bond nerd, and I loved this year’s film, Skyfall, I have always had very mixed feelings about secret agent James Bond.

When I was a kid, I hated his movies. I thought they were stupid, that Bond was a smarmy jerk whose entire purpose was to get laid and make corny jokes while killing people. While this was the reason a lot of people believed Bond was cool, he reminded me too much of the bullies that harassed me throughout junior high, high school, and later. He was kind of a killer frat boy for the British government. And this is not even to mention how absurd and cartoonish his adventures became. Dick Tracy was grittier and more realistic than some of Roger Moore’s Bond films.*

However, I’ve always been interested in cultural icons and popular mythology and so out of curiosity I read Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, when I was a teenager. Through Fleming’s writing and characterization, I suddenly found James Bond intensely fascinating.

The main difference between Book Bond and Movie Bond is that Book Bond, while being an intensely dangerous individual, was undeniably vulnerable: physically, psychologically, emotionally. By contrast, Movie Bond was an invulnerable super-hero. Nothing phased him, not the violence that he doled out or was directed at him, not any physical encounter with any number of women, and not the constant death of those women either. **

Book Bond did not enjoy violence. He was effective at executing it, but he didn’t make witty remarks after killing someone. In fact, at the beginning of the book Goldfinger, he’s getting drunk in an airport bar to drown his depression over having killed an assailant at the end of what should have been a bloodless mission. He was also not immune to the violence inflicted upon him. In Casino Royale, Bond considers leaving MI6, not because he’s fallen in love (which is what the movie heavily implies) but because his near-death-by-torture has him rethinking his ability to handle the danger of espionage. This also has him rethinking the ethics of “The Great Game”. The fact that he’s fallen for Vesper is another nudge towards resignation, instead of being his prime motivation.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I think Book Bond is a wonderful human being, just a three-dimensional one, especially in comparison to Movie Bond. His author, Ian Fleming, didn’t see Bond as a role model by any stretch of the imagination. In a letter to his editor, Fleming wrote “I had become increasingly surprised to find that … young people were making a hero out of James Bond.”*** So Fleming decided to write The Spy Who Loves Me as a cautionary tale to show how “Bond himself is in fact no better than the gangsters [he fights in the story]”. If Bond’s a hero at all then he is a classical, not a modern, one: powerful but very flawed. And while his exploits make for entertaining reading, he is definitely not someone to be admired or emulated.

Skyfall is so good because the filmmakers bring this vulnerability and gritty, flawed heroism to the core of Movie Bond. It is easily the best Bond film not adapted from an Ian Fleming novel. I’m still mulling over if it’s the best film in the franchise’s 50 year history. Skyfall reveals the current series of Bond films starring Daniel Craig to be a serious reinvention of James Bond in much the same way the BBC TV series Sherlock updates Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In both franchises, the technology and time period have been brought to the 21st Century, but what’s essential about the character is kept intact.

Director Sam Mendes also does with Skyfall what he does best. While this is definitely an action-thriller with plenty of stunts, sex, and violence, Mendes weaves in a subtext that places Bond in a contemporary family drama turned on its ear (ala his previous work: American Beauty, Six Feet Under, Road to Perdition). Though the film’s plot is concerned with retrieving a hard drive containing a list of undercover MI6 agents, underneath it all M, played by Judi Dench, is the strict mother and Bond is the rebellious son. The family, AKA The British Secret Service, is already in trouble at the story’s beginning and then events shake them up further and they find they must come together and reconcile or be destroyed by the coming crisis.

I do still have my mixed feeling about James Bond and our fandom around his adventures. What does his popularity say about our beliefs around masculinity and macho in our culture, the glamorization of government extra-legal powers in espionage fiction, our respect for violence as a sign of strength? I have so much more I could say about Bond, and I probably will. However, for now I will acknowledge that I am happier than I have been previously about the state of the James Bond films if Skyfall is any indication for the future.

*I’m not even making a joke here. Read Dick Tracy vs. Mrs. Pruneface and then watch The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker  and tell me which was less ridiculous.

**Yes, there’s the exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it’s considered a minor footnote in the history of Movie Bond, as opposed to a defining characteristic.

***Source: James Bond: The Man and His World by Henry Chancellor

What Lana Wachowski taught me this week

In Creative Inspiration on November 6, 2012 at 2:41 am

So the movie Cloud Atlas opened last week and there’s been a bunch of press about one of the directors, Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski.  Lana teamed up with her brother Andy and Run, Lola, Run director Tom Tykwer to make Cloud Atlas and the Wachoiskis are appearing in press junkets and interviews after having avoided the press for years.

Unlike much of the press or internet chatter, I haven’t brought up Lana in order to throw out my opinion about her or transgenderism. Listening to a recent speech and interview she gave, I have come to a monumental discovery about the creative life, at least for me, and I wanted to share it.
The first part of my discovery came from listening to Lana’s Wachowski’s speech when she received the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award. She described growing up with a feeling of shame over difference and disconnection that I believe most of us feel at some point in our lives to some degree.

We often feel reluctant to let ourselves be known, to do what we are compelled to do, to engage the world creatively and honestly. We feel out of place, like we are freaks. And because we are the only ones like us, no one really wants to hear what we have to say, and we will never be loved. When creative people fall into this mindset, we often think, “why bother creating anything if I’m the only one interested? I will be unable to communicate my vision because I am the only one like me.”

The extreme version of this self-doubt expressed itself when Lana decided she was so out of place she should take her own life. Luckily, circumstances did not allow that to happen. Her career in film has been a perfect example of how the opposite of this doubt is true. She and her brother created The Matrix, which changed filmmaking and opened peoples’ minds to new ideas on the nature of reality. They wrote and produced V for Vendetta (arguably the best adaptation of any of Alan Moore’s graphic novels) and introduced the general public to new ideas about the nature of freedom and revolution. Just ask those hackers form Anonymous. And now Cloud Atlas, which admittedly is getting mixed reviews, is an ambitious project not pulling any punches in tackling philosophical and culturally significant issues.

Lana Wachoiski’s life is complete proof that — instead of shutting down, giving up, or checking out, — our self-doubt is the exact reason why, as artists, we must proceed.

I realized this after hearing Lana Wachowski’s interview on The Nerdist podcast. She was there to promote Cloud Atlas, but the conversation moved into discussing what it is that makes a life-altering film experience.  And it was this statement she made that connected the dots for me: “Art is the invitation to abandon your perspective.”

Art becomes life-altering when “you are given the opportunity to abandon the gravity of your perspective,” she explained. In the moment when we’re truly engaged with a story that is making the world new for us, it is often due to being shown the world in a new way, a way that we would not have imagined for ourselves if we had not been shown it through the story.

If Lana Wachowski had given into her doubt we would have missed out on several unique movie-going experiences. Her singular sense of who she was and how the world is was required in the collaborative process to make her films as powerful and memorable as they have been.

It follows that one must be capable of being able to translate a unique perspective to others in order to create engaging, life-altering art. If one feels completely unique and out-of-place, despite what one may feel, this is not a curse.  This is actually the exact reason why we must engage the world. This is what is required to craft memorable art. There is no one else like you and the world will never receive your gifts if you hide. Take it for the blessing it is and get to work. But also work in order to prove wrong the fear that your worthiness depends upon how well you destroy your difference. It is the exact opposite that is true.

Watch Lana Wachoiski’s speech. This is amazing.

And listen to that Nerdist podcast interview.