Hunting for Hedonia (2019)

I am a luddite by nature, so the ethical and hypothetical questions raised in the documentary Hunting for Hedonia make me absolutely terrified of the future. That’s not exactly what I expected from the film, since so much of its subject is rooted in the past. The central topic of this documentary is research in the field of Deep Brain Stimulation – wherein the physical pleasure centers of the human brain are activated by electric pulses via surgically inserted wires. It’s a technology that was first developed in 1950s New Orleans by Dr. Robert Heath of Tulane University. Seeking to depopulate the grim mental institutions of the era that treated patients like prisoners, Heath and his team experimented with this radical technology to cure the most hopeless cases of clinical depression and put an end to the practice of lobotomy. Their success led to more exploratory applications of the tech that immediately crossed major ethical boundaries and retroactively damaged the reputation of the research among their peers. Now, modern neurosurgeons are rediscovering the benefits of DBS independently of Heath’s forgotten, discredited research and finding entirely new, complexly fucked up ways to abuse the tech – hinting at a terrifying near-future we’re somewhat helpless to avoid.

The horror and the wonder of DBS is that it really works. Patients suffering from extreme, incurable cases of suicidal depression, addiction, OCD, and Parkinson’s have had their lives saved by this experimental frontier of neuromodulation. This combination of psychology & neuroscience that engages the physical location of pleasure in the brain (Hedonia) has produced unignorable results in patents who have been failed by medication & talk therapy in the past. That doesn’t mean DBS is a perfect, foolproof science, though. Side effects in “cured” patients have included unexpected increase in rage & loss of impulse control, suggesting that these neurosurgeons are tapping into capabilities of the brain that we don’t yet fully understand. That’s where the terrifying vision of our near-future abuses of DBS come in, as excited, capitalistic interest in the re-emerging field is getting ahead of the technology’s currently limited applications. There’s money to be made in being able to alter the functions of the human brain – cosmetically, recreationally, militaristically, and so on – that raise dangerous ethical questions not yet fully ironed out by its application in the medical field, where it’s actually warranted. The scary thing is that these boundaries have already been crossed in the past, as Heath & crew contributed to nefarious DBS applications like participation in MK Ultra & gay conversion “therapy” (read: abuse) and yet no one seems to have learned from their unforgivable mistakes.

As a documentary, Hunting for Hedonia is most valuable for its ability to explain the full scope of DBS’s history in concise layman’s terms. It covers the horrific past of its abuse, the promising present of its success in the therapy field, and the terrifying future of its rapid, unavoidable escalation in a modern capitalist paradigm. Considering its detached narration from the expertly icy Tilda Swinton and its innocuous score, I don’t think the film necessarily leans into the eeriness of its subject in a flashy or deliberate way. If anything, it often plays like a well-behaved, informative BBC documentary instead of a work of art. Still, I was thoroughly creeped out by its subject’s ethical implications for our insidiously techy future, to the point where its 1950s lab footage & Rotoscope animations felt like vintage sci-fi horror from the drive-in era. That feeling of unease was only amplified by catching a screening of the film at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, where local neurosurgeons familiar with Dr. Heath’s research were muttering to each other about what a genius he was before the lights went down. I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t you see what he’s done?! Stop before it’s too late! Soylent Green is people!” in protest. Then again, DBS has obviously already helped people in desperate need and my luddite skepticism of its grim implications for the future are so far hypothetical in nature. That screening felt like an ethical Litmus test, and it’s unclear to me which side of the divide failed it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman’s process for creating the look of his 1990 experimental feature The Garden was to put the film through an exhausting gauntlet of format transfers. Shot on super-8, then recorded to video, before finally being printed on 35mm film, the physical shape of The Garden had been put through the ringer to achieve its deliberately scuzzy, highly color-saturated patina. The general effect of the film on the audience is much the same. Non-narrative, mostly dialogue-free, and constantly shifting in both mood & technique, the film feels more like a process meant to break its audience down than it does a piece of creative entertainment. It opens as a vibrant, playful experiment in overlapping visions of homoromantic tableaus & Biblical Christian iconography, but its titular Edenic tone is gradually soured into a somber, morbidly violent affair that loses all of its initial energy to disorganized doom & gloom. It’s exhausting, purposefully so, and it’s easy to leave the film feeling just as worn out as its imagery was by the time it reached its final form.

My assumption is that Jarman intended The Garden’s soul-deep exhaustion to be a kind of diary of his own emotional state in the early 90s. Suffering from a series of AIDS-related health crises at the time of production (a sign of declining health that would eventually end his life just a few years later), Jarman filmed this disjointed series of Biblical tableaus & scenes of homophobic violence around the bleak exteriors of his coastal home in Dungeness, England. Self-described early in the proceedings as a tour though a “wilderness of failure,” the film’s backslide from paradisiac peace into morbid atonement serves as a kind of eulogy to the loss of an entire queer generation to a single virus, one which would eventually claim the filmmaker himself. We open with James Bidgood-esque visions of queer love & harmony (similar to Todd Haynes’s contemporary work in Poison), but the onscreen couple being depicted is eventually arrested, beaten, and shamed into disorder & dissolution. Religious imagery like a lynched Judas dressed as a leather-clad punk shilling credit cards, a young Tilda Swinton appearing as a Madonna figure hounded by paparazzi, and old women playing wine glass tones as the twelve apostles at the Last Supper interrupt this reverie, until it finally sours into an official funeral for the real-life dead in Jarman’s familial circle. The film can be occasionally beautiful, but it’s pretty fucking grim on the whole.

As an aesthetic object, The Garden is wonderfully exciting in its stabs of surreal shot-on-video era imagery. Its experiments in Ken Russellian green screen fuckery in which the entire sky is supplanted with flowers & other poetic, Polaroid-grade images are especially wondrous. The film also clearly has a sense of humor, despite its overall descent into despair, often breaking for absurdist musical numbers – such as a bargain bin music video for the showtune “Think Pink” from Funny Face. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film I’d recommend watching at home, though, where smartphones & other distractions are readily available. Even seeing it digitally restored in a proper theatrical environment (thanks to Zeitgeist’s summer-long queer cinema series Wildfire), I struggled to stay awake for the final 20-minute stretch. Not only is the film deliberately draining its trajectory from Eden to funeral service, it also suffers from the same attention-level difficulty that many feature-length works from directors who mostly work in short films suffer, the same exhaustion that tanks a lot of Guy Maddin’s films. As interesting as each homoerotic image, Biblical tableau, or outbreak of bigoted violence may be in isolation, they never really congeal as a cohesive, unified collection.

Jarman was at least aware of how miserable & patience-testing The Garden would be for his audience. The opening introduction in his woefully sparse narration includes the invitation, “I want to share this emptiness with you.” By the closing sequence wherein Tilda Swinton’s Madonna figure conducts a memorial for the homoromantic Eden lost over the course of the picture (a quiet ceremony involving cheap paper lanterns), I definitely felt that emptiness to some extent. It wasn’t the most pleasant or even the most clearly decipherable feeling to leave a movie theater with, but it was effective nonetheless. If you ever find yourself braving this “wilderness of failure” to “share this emptiness” with Jarman, just go into the journey armed with patience & a willingness to feel hopelessly miserable by the end credits. An experimental art film dispatch from the grimmest days of the AIDS crisis will apparently do that to you.

-Brandon Ledet

Suspiria (2018)

On an aesthetic level, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspriria bears very little resemblance to Dario Argento’s Supsiria. If anything, this 40 years-later reimagining of that cult-favorite resembles an entirely different flavor of intensely stylized, European arthouse horror: Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. Guadagnino’s picture may have maintained the witchy dance academy setting & central character names from the Argento original, but it ditches all of that film’s intense giallo cross-lighting & prog rock sensibilities for the cold, greyed-out concrete & infectious madness of Possession. Where Suspriria (2018) deviates in tone & imagery from its source material, however, it did zero in on the most vital aspect of Argento’s work: excess. Everything about Guadagnino’s Suspiria is indulgently excessive: at 142 minutes, it’s structured as six acts & an epilogue; Tilda Swinton appears in multiple roles among an already sprawling cast of witchy women (including actors from the original film); unsatisfied with merely being a stylish tale of witchcraft, it also attempts to engage with the politics of post-war Germany; it features an original soundtrack from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The most Suspiria (1977) thing about Suspiria (2018) is that it’s wholly confident that every self-indulgent impulse it has is worth exploring; the only difference in that respect is that the Argento version was more frequently correct in that shared delusion.

One of my favorite tactics that carries over from Original Flavor Suspiria to Nu Suspiria is that neither waste any effort hiding that they are about dance schools “secretly” run by a coven of witches. In the original, this mystery is “spoiled” by an early sequence of a frightened dance academy student fleeing into the woods while the prog band Goblin whispers, “Witch, witch-witch-witch” over the soundtrack. In the new version, that same freaked-out runaway character (Chloë Grace Moretz) blurts, “They are witches” in blatant terms to her old-man psychiatrist (a gender-blind cast Tilda Swinton) before continuing, “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate.” The psychiatrist, of course, believes this paranoia to be delusional and a large part of the narrative likens his dismissal of her cries of witchcraft to the ways he failed his long-gone wife during The Holocaust. That post-war grief & guilt swirls outside the dance academy, while inside the flesh-eating witches in question are undergoing a more insular political crisis of their own. Unbeknownst to the young dancers in their care, the women who run the academy as an incognito coven are experiencing a kind of civil war on two key issues: choosing new leadership & selecting an unwitting student for a mysterious ritual that will secure the school’s future (at the student’s own peril, of course). That freshly-arrived American student’s name is Susie Banion (Dakota Johnson in a role originated by Jessica Harper), who is afforded her own lengthy backstory in a distant Mennonite community, just in case the narrative wasn’t already overstuffed without it.

It’s probably safe to say that no one loves the original Suspiria for the strengths of its story. Like most giallo-related media, it’s a film best appreciated for its overbearing sense of style more so than the cohesion of its narrative. This only became increasingly apparent as Argento attempted to retroactively make sense of his witchcraft lore in the Suspiria sequels Inferno & Mother of Tears, expanding the original film’s elevator pitch of “A ballet school run by witches” into an unwieldy (but still charming) mess now known as the Three Mothers Trilogy. Guadagnino greedily eats up this now-sprawling mythology and attempts to reinforce each element with even more over-explained backstory: how the dance school relates to its German setting; why Susie Banion is targeted and what her life was like before the ritual was initiated; how the coven negotiates & organizes its collective will across hundreds of women in three separate locales. Beyond skewing its overall aesthetic closer to Żuławski than any gialli, Guadagno’s Suspiria avoids becoming a pointless retread of its Argento source material by pulling its narrative to the opposite extreme – from vaguely stretched-out elevator pitch to overly complex, unnecessarily dense mythology. Paradoxically, the effect of that overcorrection is oddly similar to how plot & lore work in the original film; its narrative is such an overdose of information that very little of it sticks to the walls and what’s mostly left for the audience to digest is the overbearing sense of style it’s delivered through.

As much as I admire Guadagningo’s dedication to excess here, this is the exact kind of messy ambition that invites viewers to pick and choose individual elements at play to praise or critique—as opposed to the more unified vision of the Argento original, which is more of an all-or-nothing proposition. Personally, my favorite aspect of the new Suspiria is the purposeful ways that the act of dance (modern here instead of ballet) is linked to the practice of witchcraft, establishing a cause & effect relationship between dancers’ beautifully contorted bodies and their grotesquely contorted victims’, left to stew in their own piss & mucus. I was also in love with the complexly detailed imagery of Susie Banion’s nightmare montages, each individual flash of a tableau carefully staged like fine art photography. At the same time, there were two glaring stylistic choices that harshed my buzz throughout: a camcorder-level choppy frame rate effect worthy of a Milli Vanilli music video & the jarring inclusion of Thom Yorke’s crooning vocals in an otherwise phenomenal soundtrack. My aversion to those choices are likely personal biases, given that they’ve also bothered me in previous works (specifically, the choppy frame rate in Daughters of the Dust, and Sufjan Stevens’s voice in Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name), but I can’t help but find them cheapening & distracting all the same for crashing me down from the film’s otherworldly spell to a much more pedestrian tone.

There’s so much on the screen in Suspiria that most audiences will find something to nitpick in their personal experience with its relentless over-indulgences in gore-soaked, lore-obsessed witchcraft horror. I envy those who weren’t distracted by stray choices like Yorke’s mewing, appreciating this love letter to excess in its overwhelming entirety. I also pity those who can’t find anything to enjoy here; Guadagnino offers so much to choose from that if you can’t latch onto something the problem is you. I’m personally falling somewhere in the vast middle between those extremes—in impressed, but frustrated appreciation of the film’s dedication to the extremes.

-Brandon Ledet

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

Okja (2017)

In one of our very first posts as a website we declared Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer the Best Films of 2014. My assumption is that it rose to the top of our list that year mostly because it was so much movie. As with a lot of Asian cinema, Snowpiercer never ties itself down to a single genre or tone. It constantly shifts gears from humor to terror to action spectacle to political satire to whatever whim it feels at the moment as its story progresses from one dystopian end of its train setting to the other. It was near-impossible to know what to expect from the director’s follow-up, then, except that it might similarly spread out its eccentricities over a bizarrely wide range of cinematic modes. Okja is just as deliciously over the top, difficult to pin down, and tonally restless as Snowpiercer, although it does not resemble that film in the slightest. If a movie’s main virtues rest in its ability to surprise & delight, Okja is an undeniable success. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

Tilda Swinton & Jake Gyllenhaal star as the public faces of an evil meat industry corporation that’s attempting to improve its image with a new, falsely fun & friendly attitude. As part of this evolution within the corporation, they promise to breed a new form of domesticated animal to help maintain the world’s demand for (supposedly) non-GMO meat supply, a “superpig.” The unveiling of this superpig breed is structured as a kind of reality show contest and the movie follows one of 26 worldwide contestants within that frame. Okja, a superpig who has been raised free-range in the forests of South Korea, is officially declared “the best pig” (recalling titles like Babe & Charlotte’s Web), winning the dubious prize of being torn away from the little girl who raised her as a close friend instead of an eventual source for food. Before their separation, we get to know Okja as a kind, selfless animal with human eyes & a hyper-intelligent aptitude for problem-solving (not unlike the intelligence of a real-life pig). After she’s unceremoniously removed from her home and sent to face her fate as meat, we get to know the little girl who raised her as our de facto protagonist. The movie gradually reveals itself to be a coming of age quest to free Okja from her corporate captors, protect her from the well-meaning but idiotic animal rights activists who want to use her as a political pawn, and return her to her home in Nature. The rest is a blissfully messy blur of action set pieces, wild shifts in comedic tone, and a brutally unforgiving satire of modern meat industry practices.

The cuteness of Okja herself and the film’s occasional dedication to a kids’ movie tone (despite its constant violence & f-bombs) make it tempting to look to Babe as an easy animals-deserve-empathy-too comparison point. The truth is, though, that Okja more closely resembles George Miller’s terrifying action movie nightmare Babe 2: Pig in the City, where the grand adventure staged to bring its very special superpig home is a nonstop assault of bizarre imagery & comedic terror. There’s a constant threat of danger in Okja, ranging from car chases to meat grinders to stampedes through an underground shopping mall. The CGI in service of this spectacle is shoddy, but in a flippant, Steve Chow kind of way that is so irreverently cartoonish it could not matter less. Oddly, the performances work in much the same way. Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson all stand out as intensely bizarre sources of nervous energy that exist far beyond the bounds of human nature, but in such a casually absurd way that it somehow fits the film’s ever-shifting tone. Gyllenhaal likely wins the grand prize in that respect, often resembling more of a rabid duck than an adult man. In any other context he’d be too broad or, frankly, too annoying to function as anything other than a distraction, but it’s somehow just the jarringly over the top touch the movie needs.

Okja is too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods for it to be wholly described to the uninitiated. It’s both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I can try to describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. Just like with the similarly divisive Snowpiercer, I can’t promise all audiences will be onboard for the entire ride (Gyllenhaal in particular is sure to be a frequent point of contention), but Okja does offer something that’s increasingly rare in modern action adventures of this blockbuster-sized scale: the wildly unpredictable. You may not appreciate every individual turn in its impossibly twisty road, but oh, the places you’ll go.

-Brandon Ledet

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Doctor Strange (2016)

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Earlier this year Boomer wrote a wonderfully incisive piece on the political reasons he’d be abstaining from watching Doctor Strange until he could conveniently view it for free, thus decidedly not contributing to its already massive profits. So much ink has already been spilled here & elsewhere on the myriad of ways the film fumbled the issue of racial representation in its casting, particularly in the controversy of awarding Tilda Swinton the role The Ancient One, a character that traditionally would be played by an Asian man. Director Scott Derrickson has since admitted in interviews that in trying to avoid the “Fu Manchu” stereotype pitfalls of that character’s source material he had made an even bigger mistake in whitewashing the role, a transgression that many Hollywood productions have been indulging in lately. As Boomer & many others have already covered in their thoughts on Doctor Strange‘s insensitivity to whitewashing & cultural appropriation (not to mention its intenional omission of references to Tibet), including Derrickson himself, it’s no surprise that the film had several glaring problems in the cultural mindfulness department. What has been surprising, though, is that Doctor Strange has been earning very high critical marks outside of that controversy context. Some have even called it one of the best films of the MCU, comparing its wide appeal to the first Avengers film & Guardians of the Galaxy. I personally don’t understand the praise, as its storytelling structure dialed the franchise all the way back to the first Iron Man, with almost a decade of MCU creativity & innovation lost in the process.

The one thing that really worked for me in Doctor Strange was the exact selling point that put my butt in the seat in the first place: the visuals. The film has a kaleidoscopic, Inception-inspired way of folding space & time in on itself to create a psychedelic viewing experience unrivaled in most straightforward action adventures of its ilk. Even within Marvel’s own ranks only the microscopic & subatomic shenanigans of Ant-Man come close. Entire cities geometrically fold over like complicated origami. Galaxies expand, contract, and implode as characters’ astral projections tunnel through them. Time inverts, changes direction, and ties itself in knots as both complications and solutions to the Good vs Evil plot. And yet, for all of Doctor Strange‘s mind-bending, gorgeous, playfully surreal visual treats, the story they support is one of the laziest, most simplistic stabs at hacky comedy & unearned redemption narratives since the lifestyle porn beginnings of this franchise in Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man feature. It’s a dispiriting backslide into the worst corner of the MCU, where an egomaniacal monster is celebrated for his immense skill & wit instead of being shamed as the villainous shit that he so obviously is. I don’t regret catching this film in its IMAX 3D format while it’s still screening at every conceivable cineplex, as it gave me the best possible shot at enjoying what was truly a beautiful application of CG psychedelia. I just left the theater feeling more than a little let down by the story that technology was wasted on.

Heartless ass Stephen Strange is the Western world’s foremost neurosurgeon, a fame-obsessed brute who plays pop music trivia during intense surgical procedures, lives in a fabulously expensive apartment the audience is meant to envy, and scoffs at any philosophical ideas that cannot be explained through logic & modern science. His hubris is temporarily put in check after a violent car wreck destroys his most precious assets: his hands. It’s a classic tale of ironic tragedy that dates back to horror cinema as old as The Monster Maker & The Hands of Orlac, if not further, and Strange intends to right this universal wrong by traveling to Nepal and getting himself some of that good old-fashioned Far East mysticism. He’s shamed & trained into momentary submission by the aforementioned Ancient One, who, while dressed in the garb of a Tibetan monk, is actually a centuries-old Celtic woman, for what little it’s worth. We’re then bombarded with a whole lotta Marvel bloat: two(!) new-to-the-franchise villains, a loyal crew of underserved sidekicks, astral projections, alternate dimensions, space-time continuums, all kinds of nonsense. Before you know it, two post-credits stingers later, the whole thing has blown over without leaving much of anything in its wake.

At the center of all this and, apparently, all things in the Universe is the film’s main problem, Stephen Strange himself. The movie asks, “Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?” with the intent to humble him, but the answer the story gives is that he is Everything. No other character is afforded a second of importance that isn’t in some way tied to Strange’s magnificence. His unconvincing turnaround from badboy heel to crowd favorite babyface is made more important than the potential collapse of the Universe. He immediately masters an ancient art others have been steadily studying for decades, yet his rich white man in the East vacation is supposed to be a humbling spiritual journey. Much like with the irredeemable blowhard cad Tony Stark, the audience is asked to sympathize & laugh along with a jokester bully here, buying into a reformed badboy storyline at a moment’s notice, with no significant behavioral or personality change and a very brief loss of wealth & social status. In my recent dive into the entirety of the MCU, I’ve found that I connect with truly good, sincere superhero archetypes like Captain America much more easily than I do with sarcastic anti-hero villains in superheroes’ clothing like Stark, so my distaste for Dr. Strange as a character is certainly the result of a personal bias. I enjoyed this film well enough on a purely sensory level, but was overall soured by its narrative return to an Iron Man aesthetic. Given the immense popularity of the Iron Man franchise & this film’s early critical praise, I expect to be in the minority on that point, but I’m okay with that.

It’s easy to see on a strategic, Kevin Feige level why Marvel felt the need to bring in Dr. Strange as connective tissue in its ever-expanding universe (well, “multiverse” now, I guess). The psychedelia, witchcraft, and real world magic Strange brings to the table easily makes room for Feige & company to tie in the outer space reaches of Thor, Thanos, and the Guardians with the Earthbound characters of the Avengers and the inner space microverse Ant-Man antics. Why tie all of that narrative glue to a character who both closely resembles a protagonist you’ve already built your franchise around and whose origins are so hopelessly backwards in their racist depictions of Eastern stereotypes that you have to rewrite & whitewash them into a barely more acceptable compromise? There are more Marvel characters than I could ever care to count and surely somewhere in there one of them could’ve been a less problematic and more narratively distinct franchise-unifier. Off the top of my head, my two favorite characters in the Marvel pantheon could’ve easily done the job: Howard the Duck & The Son of Satan. I’d understand how past financial performance would set a bad precedent for Howard’s inclusion (despite his outer space origins & the casual disruption of the rules of reality in his often magical villains), but The Son of Satan could surely carry all of Strange’s multiverse-spanning psychedelia without any of the cultural baggage inherent to his origin story. And these are just two characters I know about, not being at all well-read in the vastness of Marvel folklore.

The point is that if Doctor Strange was such a difficult work to adapt with a culturally sensitive eye, there’s really no reason that it should‘ve been adapted at all. There must have been other, better options. This feels especially true once the cookie cutter mediocrity of the story sinks in. For all of the film’s reality-shifting visual creativity, it winds up feeling like so many Marvel origin stories we’ve already seen in the past, never justifying a necessity for its existence as an isolated property instead of as a connective piece for a franchise, which is a total shame & one of Marvel’s most frequent blunders. Maybe if I had any particular affinity for (the eternally forgettable charisma void) Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor I might be singing a different tune, but even my beloved Tilda Swinton couldn’t save this film from banality and she was backed by some of the most beautifully disorienting imagery I’ve ever seen put to use in action cinema. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.

-Brandon Ledet

A Bigger Splash (2016)

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threehalfstar

Chalk up A Bigger Splash as yet another fine example of one of my favorite dramatic subgenres: The Party Out of Bounds. A wealthy, white music industry couple get away from it all on a Sicilian island only to be rudely interrupted by a loud mouth producer/ex-lover and his hungry-for-trouble daughter. At first the couple tolerates the boisterous presence of their old friend but as he continually overstays his welcome the situation turns violently sour & then breaks in half. I love bottled up dramas when folks sickened by each other feel compelled (usually by a dangerous combination of lust & alcohol) to verbally duke it out in a cramped space instead of calling off the party & sending everyone on their not-so merry way. In A Bigger Splash‘s best moments it’s a wonderfully sadistic drama in this way, cramming four stage play-ready characters into a tight space & turning their cautious love for one another into murderous hatred.

Tilda Swinton stars as David Bowie’s less ethereal stand-in, an on-hiatus rock star recovering from a vocal surgery in romantic bliss with her recovering alcoholic husband. Their serene getaway is short-lived as the party’s crashed by the hopelessly crass, self-absorbed social terrorist music producer who haunts their past. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastic job as this obnoxious catalyst, turning the pathetic sadness of reliving your glory days into a mission statement & a battle cry. Dakota Johnson rounds out the cast as the producer’s hot-to-trot daughter, a literal siren on the rocks intending to seduce the blissful couple into annihilation from the other end. This is a huge step up for Johnson, who’s coming off a hot streak of stinkers like 50 Shades of Grey & How to Be Single to put in a well-measured performance that proves she can (emotively) duke it out with the best of them. Swinton is as consistently magnetic here as always, even with the power of speech mostly removed from her arsenal. It’s Fiennes who’s given free reign to chew scenery, though, and he does a wonderfully maniacal job driving the party as far out of bounds as he can, at times recalling Ben Kingsley’s dastardly crass performance in (the far superior work) Sexy Beast.

Unfortunately, A Bigger Splash has an occasional tendency to release steam from the dramatic pressure cooker in a way that relieves the central tension a little too easily. I’m thinking particularly of the flashbacks to Swinton’s & Fiennes’s glory days as a coked-up power couple on top of the rock & roll world. There’s too much escapism in those moments, distracting from the cramped discomfort of the the mounting resentment at hand even when they refer to past conflicts. That might be a personal bias, though, as it was the exact same problem I had with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs film last year. I also thought showing Swinton performing her rock act in these flashbacks was a mistake. The film puts so much pressure on her voice/the music to be amazing that there’s no possible way for the reality to live up to it.

Still, director Luca Guadagnino does a great job here of turning a small cast drama into an intense visual display and a powder keg of lust & hurt feelings. Every body involved is a target for sexual leering. Unusually sharp focus of food, drink, and spinning records intensifies the sensual bacchanal of the central conflict. Up-close, direct to the camera line delivery recalls the discomfort of a great Bergman monologue. Even though he makes a few missteps in turning down the heat when it should be blasted, Gudagnino gleefully searches for the Devil in the details & employs an especially game Fiennes as a romance monster hellbent on tearing the whole world down so he can start from scratch (or dry hump the ruins). Although A Bigger Splash isn’t wholly successful, it is a remarkable experience that refuses to shy away from the violent urges of romantic jealousy & party-out-of-bounds societal unraveling. It’s impressive even when it stumbles and easily could’ve been much less memorable in less capable hands.

-Brandon Ledet

That’s So Ava!: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)’s Potential Second Life as a Multi-Cam Sitcom

There’s a certain crop of 90s art house films that I can never quite fully give into despite their consistently positive reputations. Titles like Clerks, Slacker, and Living in Oblivion are supposedly essential to the voice of a disaffected, laid back generation of arty farty types, but I often have a difficult time connecting with what they’re selling (possibly because they pretend not to be selling anything at all). Gen-X cinema often purported to be the laid back slacker counterpoint to the over-enthusiastic, grandiose generations that came before, but in actuality felt more try-hard & fresh out of art school than ever. The king of this I Don’t Care At All (But I Secretly Care Too Much) aesthetic is, in my mind, one Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s intentional art house pretension leads to some interesting moments that all too often get drowned out by the suffocating self-indulgence that surrounds them. There are some amazing small moments & images in Jarmsuch titles like Mystery Train, Broken Flowers, and Coffee & Cigarettes, but all three of those examples leave me so frustrated because they ultimately feel like wasted potential when considered in their fatally affected totality.

As much as I can be frustrated with Jarmusch’s overall product, I genuinely enjoy his sillier flourishes. Besides poking fun at his own self-serious mystique on the show Bored to Death & appearing as the “French fried potater” salesman in Sling Blade, the director always includes a flight of fancy or two in his works that catch my attention & delight me. Bill Murray serving diner food to the Wu Tang Clan, Steve Buscemi getting hung up on Lost in Space trivia, and (in my only pet favorite from the director’s catalog) Roberto Benigni annoying the piss out of Tom Waits are the kinds of breath-of-fresh-air moments of sublime humor that nearly save his work for me. Nearly. If Jarmusch dealt exclusively in broad, yuck-it-up comedy instead of using it to punctuate his more intellectual tendencies toward existential self-reflection I might even be willing to call myself a fan.

I waited as long as possible to catch up with Jarmusch’s most recent work, the vampiric existential crisis piece Only Lovers Left Alive, despite my burning fan worship of bonafide changeling Tilda Swinton (who was on fire that year, considering her work in Snowpiercer & Grand Budapest Hotel). Something about the film’s promo material struck me as a lowkey remake of The Hunger (I still don’t think I was entirely off-base there), which is one of those delicately immaculate cult films that probably should not be touched or even cautiously approached. Buried somewhere deep in the film’s ennui & self-pity, however, was one of those typical Jarmusch saving graces I’m prattling on about here. Mia Wasikowska, who has dazzled me before in titles like Crimson Peak & Maps to the Stars, absolutely steals the show in Only Lovers Left Alive. There’s some kind of self-important rock star cool at the heart of Tom Hiddleston & Tilda Swinton’s titular vampiric lovers that honestly bores me to no end in the film, but Wasikowska’s wonderfully disruptive, chaotic presence brings the film, well, back from the dead with the minuscule screentime she’s allowed. Swinton’s matriarch vampire Eve (her vampy hubby’s name is Adam btw *puke*) is struggling with the tedium of centuries-long survival, but her younger, still-stoked sister Ava is a frivolous hoot. She consistently fucks up, wreaks havoc, and over-indulges like a spoiled brat, a behavioral pattern Adam indicates is habitual . . . which finally brings me to my pitch.

Imagine for a minute an alternate, preferable universe in which Only Lovers Left Alive isn’t a stuffy art house film about addiction or romantic ennui or whatever, but instead a multi-cam sitcom with a laugh track in which Wasikowska’s vampire brat Ava crashed the gloomy party every week in spectacular fashion. I want to go to there. Adam & Ava have an exquisitely balanced Odd Couple dynamic. His gloom & her glitz clash beautifully & hilariously, but aren’t given nearly enough screen time to fully play out. Fairly soon after Ava arrives from Los Angeles & burns Adam’s entire life to ground, he’s stuffing her into a cab so that he can pout & whither with Eve in Europe somewhere. Boring. It’s not fair to me as a trash-loving citizen of the movie-going audience. I demand more goofy, disastrous Ava antics, preferably delivered to my television set on a weekly basis with a laugh track prompting me on when to chuckle & slap my knee. Wasikowska delivers a stellar performance here as a bubbly (unintentional) antagonist brat & I could watch her do that shtick for at least 100 syndicated episodes of a formulaic sitcom.

Unfortunately, Wasikowska feels like she’s performing in an entirely different movie form everyone else (Amy Heckerling’s underrated gem Vamps, maybe?) and, although I understand the sentiment is far from universal, it’s a movie I’d much rather be watching. This film’s Gen-X aesthetic hangover just doesn’t do it for me the way an Ava vs. Adam sitcom would. I’m totally okay with how vapid that makes me sound; I just also wish that I had the funding to make the ultimate reality where we had a That’s So Ava! sitcom meld with our own. The world would be a much better place for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Dr. Strange, Marvel’s Race Problem, and Conscientious Objection

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Marvel has a race problem. There’s really no arguing with that, unless you’re just not paying attention. So far, black men in the MCU have largely been relegated to secondary roles; Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes are great characters who play important roles in their respective films, but they’re still essentially sidekicks for the white main characters. Even in Age of Ultron, white newcomers Wanda and Pietro get more screentime than Falcon or War Machine; the two black characters are stuck on the second string. Idris Elba is awesome in the Thor films, but he’s still consigned to staying out of the action and isn’t treated with the same kind of importance in the rest of the MCU as other members of Thor’s supporting cast (like Stellan Skarsgård’s scientist or Loki, both of whom appeared in Avengers, with Dr. Selvig even making his way back to the action for Age of Ultron*). I understand that Gamora is green in the comics, but that doesn’t change the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy featured the biggest role so far for a black woman in this franchise but also saw her ethnicity being erased in the most literal sense imaginable. The problem isn’t that they kept Gamora green, it’s that it  took that long for a black actress to feature so prominently in one of these films. How many Asian characters can you count in the films? There’s Hogun, whose appearances in the Thor films maybe add up to ten minutes of screentime, and there’s Helen Cho, the doctor from Age of Ultron. But that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?

Frankly, it’s kind of pathetic that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to have more POC in major roles than the MCU proper has (with superpowered characters like Daisy, Jiaying, Giyera, Joey, Yo-Yo, and Raina along with non-powered people like Mack, Mike Peterson, Melinda May, Blair Underwood’s Andrew, Edward James Olmos’s interim SHIELD director, and others). It would be easy to say that, for instance, Jessica Jones has thirteen episodes a season and thus more time to develop the character of Luke Cage, or that Daredevil has more time to focus on Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, but that’s essentially making the argument that white characters are of primary import, and non-white characters need only be included “if there’s time.” I can already hear the objection that there’s a Black Panther movie coming out soon, so can’t I just be happy about that? And, hey, I am! But I can’t ignore that it took over a dozen films to get to the point where Marvel was willing to “take a risk” on developing a film about a black superhero. This is especially ironic given that the MCU wouldn’t exist were it not for the surprise success of Blade, which we’ve been talking about over in Agents for a while now (it’s not surprising that Blade’s importance has been largely erased from film history; how many articles have you read talking about how Deadpool is “the first R-rated comic book movie”?).

All of this is a long-winded introduction to say that Brandon and I will not be doing an Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature for Doctor Strange while the film is in theatres. He might take the opportunity to review the film independently, but I can’t in good conscience contribute to the box office for this movie. Batman v Superman was not a good film (rants from defensive fans aside), but there will be sequels because of what a financial success it was. Even though the contribution that I made to that success with my ticket fare is largely negligible, I cannot divest myself of some sense of responsibility. Doctor Strange’s whitewashing of the source material, and the blatant monetary reasons for doing so, are not something that I can condone or participate in, so I will not be seeing the film in theatres. Brandon may view the film in order to review it, but readers should not expect an Agents point/counterpoint review until after I have the opportunity to view the film without contributing to it financially.

If you’re upset about this, decrying that Doctor Strange has never been depicted as a POC in the mainstream Marvel continuity and therefore the MCU is not beholden to make him non-white in the adaptation, then my guess is that you are already in the comments section letting everyone in the world know that you’re a low-key racist. But if you’re still with me, here are a few things to bear in mind. First, the argument that characters who are white in the comics should remain so in any and all adaptations because it stays “true” to the original vision of the creators ignores the history of representation (and the lack thereof) in entertainment history. The reason that there aren’t that many black or Asian or Latinx characters in comics isn’t because this is a natural result of reader interest. The reason that the Jay Garrick and Barry Allen Flash characters aren’t white in the comics is because they are of a different era, when accepting that white maleness was the default was the status quo; we live in the future, and it’s time to accept that. When you’re looking at a medium that is 95% white characters, expanding the number of characters who are non-white from 5% to 10%, 15%, or 20% is barely progress, and yet there are people who will fight tooth and nail to keep Johnny Storm, Wally West, and Stephen Strange white.

Secondly, it’s important to look at who is being left behind. Stephen Strange and Danny Rand (of the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series) in particular are characters that would benefit from solidifying their ties to the Asian cultures that are relevant in their narratives (or, in Iron Fist’s case, connecting the character to something real rather than a fantasized fictionalized Asian culture). Iron Fist exists as a character because Marvel writer Roy Thomas caught a kung fu movie and thought it would be fun to do a kung fu storyline in the comics; Danny Rand’s basically a character that exists because of seventies films that reduced all cultures of the East into a single monoculture for the purposes of exploitation, just as Luke Cage was born out of the popularity of blaxploitation flicks. Yes, the character of Danny Rand is a white guy who is trained by the inhabitants of fictional K’un L’un, but he’s such an obvious choice to diversify the MCU that it boggles the mind that the powers that be chose to cast white actor Finn Jones instead of an Asian actor (off the top of my head Osric Chau comes to mind, or Godfrey Gao if you want to skew a little older). The Netflix adaptations up to this point had actually been somewhat radical in that they focused on characters who exist in marginalized spaces: the handicapped (Daredevil), women in general and abuse survivors specifically (Jessica Jones), and African American men (the upcoming Luke Cage). Casting a white actor as Iron Fist is a total fumble and isn’t even internally consistent with the other Defenders programs.

But when it comes to Doctor Strange, it’s not just a matter of severing ties to an exoticized and fetishized “Orientalism” that was the ground from which Iron Fist sprang. Stephen Strange, in all adaptations, is a conceited surgeon whose fine motor control is lost due to an accident resulting from his hubris, ending his medical career. Confronted by his limitations, he must be apprenticed to the Ancient One, a centuries-old magic user who trains young sorcerers; he is drawn to Strange because he believes that the younger man will one day become the new Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful wielder of magic of this generation. The history of the Ancient One is that he was born in a Himalayan community known as Kamar-Taj, in what is now Tibet. And that’s where Marvel runs into a problem.

It’s a natural end result of globalization (and cultural colonialism as American  media is distributed around the world) that the international market be taken into consideration with regards to marketing and distribution. Films can live or die these days on the international box office, and China is one of the largest consumers of American film as a consumer good outside of the domestic sphere. As much as we hear complaints these days from regressive pedants about media “pandering” to “SJWs” because of the inclusion of gay, trans*, queer, and POC characters (you know, like people who live in the real world), the most obvious example of pandering in film is the way that films set themselves up to play to the Chinese market. For the most obvious example, just look at the most recent Transformers film, which relocates its action to China in the final third of the film’s runtime, including product placement for Chinese companies that have no foothold in the U.S. You don’t have to pay that much attention to the news to know that Chinese citizens live under an information embargo, with strict censorship laws and an inarguably totalitarian government (unlike the U.S., where we live under a totalitarian economy that controls the government, but the internet is open enough that even flat earthers and anti-vaxxers can voice their absurd beliefs). Transformers 4 went so far as to actually prop up the Chinese government, which is, frankly, amoral. Can you imagine if The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was made in 1940 instead of 1953 and featured a 40 minute finale sequence set in Germany, with characters asking if they should contact Der Fuhrer for help fighting off a monster, because he’s such a good leader? Yeah, mull that over for a minute.

What does that have to do with Doctor Strange? Well, sweet summer children, the mythos of the comic is strongly tied to Tibet, which was annexed by China and placed under the control of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1951. Ostensibly, the PLA wanted to leave Tibet to operate autonomously, even guaranteeing the people of Tibet the right to religious freedom, but this was a colossal falsehood (the PLA was particularly anti-religious, and the Tibetan monks’ willingness to provide asylum and safe haven for rebels fighting against the oppression of the PLA made them particularly vilified). Tibetan sovereignty essentially died with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Chinese officials destroyed monasteries, temples, and religious icons in an act of inarguable cultural genocide. Religious leaders and highly educated people were forced to undergo re-education, and exposure of these atrocities to the public eye (most notably with the famous photo of the protestor in Tienanmen Square) brought some attention to the plight of the Tibetan people, but the fervor of Western support was shallow and ultimately short-lived.

References to Tibet in media are, obviously, strictly censored in China. The government bans pretty much any person or piece of media that mentions Tibet at all; the possession of a Tibetan flag is a criminal offense in China. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has effectively destroyed an entire culture and is actively working to erase the history of their atrocity and the people affected by it from the face of the earth, which is sickening. My problem with Doctor Strange is not merely that Marvel cast Benedict Cumberbatch instead of a non-white actor, or that they cast Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One, which is basic whitewashing of the character and problematic in its own right. My major issue is that, in doing so, Disney/Marvel is actively participating in the erasure and cover-up of a cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, all for the sake of ensuring that they can continue to see high profit margins on the international (and specifically Chinese) market. Marvel has changed their source material not to keep up with the times, but in order to cowtow to a regime. I am but one man, and a very privileged one at that, but I can recognize that this is amoral at best, and as such I will not be purchasing a ticket to see Doctor Strange. I hope that you will stand with me and do the same.

*I didn’t forget that Idris Elba is also in Ultron, but only in a dream sequence Thor has, which hardly counts.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond