The 90th Oscars - Why Dunkirk is Awful

Image shows the Oscar statuette with the Oscars logo superimposed over it on a brown background. I remain amused that everyone has given up trying to call this The Academy Awards.

Image shows the Oscar statuette with the Oscars logo superimposed over it on a brown background. I remain amused that everyone has given up trying to call this The Academy Awards.

by Terri

Did you see Dunkirk? I didn't. I don't know anyone that did. But the voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seem to have and really liked it.

I'm not generally one for Oscar predictions. The movies I like tend to get nominated solely in what I think of as the "technical" categories - Visual Effects, Sound Design & Mixing, Costumes, Makeup Design, Set Design, etc. You rarely see genre films nominated in the "important" categories - Best Director, the various awards for acting, Best Picture. So there's not a whole lot of fun in going "well, which genre film is going to be deemed worthy of which technical award?" I mostly watch for the host, the pretty dresses and the occasional acceptance speech that blows you out of the water

This year I honestly did not know who was nominated in half the categories. I knew that Get Out* was actually nominated for several of the Big Awards, and so was The Shape of Water. So good on the Academy for nominating an excellent and groundbreaking horror film (and the weird fish love story movie). On the other hand, it's become clear that though the Academy has spearheaded some diversity initiatives in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, the old guard still holds significant sway. 

The two films that exemplify the hold of that old guard are Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Both of these films are classic Oscar Bait. They're both World War II films centering entirely on White British People. Because Darkest Hour featured Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, that made it a shoo-in for at least one of the Big Awards it was nominated for. But poor Dunkirk only had Kenneth Branagh (and wasn't nominated for any of the acting awards, only Best Picture and Best Director). Since it wasn't going to win either of those awards, the Academy felt honor bound to elevate it beyond all sense. 

This mediocre WWII film won nearly EVERY technical award it was nominated for. Normally this wouldn't bother me so much. I like it when genre films win the categories they're slotted into, but no one cares who wins these Oscars. Except that Dunkirk won Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. The Last Jedi was nominated in both of these categories, and rightly so. If nothing else, the 6 seconds of silence when Holdo rams the Raddus through the entire First Order fleet (most notably the flagship) at lightspeed deserve both awards all on its own. And instead of awarding creativity and unique choices, the Academy tossed both of these awards to Dunkirk as a bone. What, me, bitter?

After that, learning that members of the Academy didn't even bother to watch Get Out surprised me not at all. It seems like every time we take a step forward, we have to take three backwards. At least Jordan Peele was acknowledged for his excellent original screenplay, and nominated for his direction and excellent film. Daniel Kaluuya's nomination for his performance in Get Out bodes well for the rest of his career. Logan's nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay gives me hope for Black Panther getting some nods outside the usual genre categories. And while I'll never see it, the fact that The Shape of Water was able to take Best Picture may mean that we're seeing some of those barriers break down.**

On a completely different note, the Best Original Song category was so crowded with excellence that it was hard for me to figure out which song actually deserved a win. I simultaneously wanted Mary J Blige to win because she was never going to get Best Supporting Actress and I wanted Remember Me from Coco to win because it was beautiful and poignant and made me want to see the movie. If you're going to pick a song from a sanitized and whitewashed fiction of PT Barnum's life then you can hardly do better than the ensemble unapologetic freak flag anthem of This Is Me,*** and Common and Andra Day in Stand Up for Something bringing out activists ranging from Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood to Alice Brown Otter of Standing Rock to Bana Alabed (an 8 year old author and Syrian refugee) was incredible. Even the mostly forgettable song from Call Me By Your Name was made wonderful by being introduced by Daniela Vega, an openly trans* actress of color. 

So once again, the Oscars were gratifying and disappointing. But there's hope that we're moving forward.

 

 

*This is just the one review actually written by a POC in the top ten Google results. There are more, fabulous reviews out there and you should find them and read them. 

**Though not enough - Patty Jenkins was profoundly robbed for not being nominated for her stellar direction of Wonder Woman.

***Totally worth not getting singing and dancing Hugh Jackman at the Oscars, in my opinion.

The Last Jedi - Thoughts & Reactions

By Terri & Ariela

Poster for The Last Jedi

Poster for The Last Jedi

Hoo boy, that was a movie, right?

Now that we have both seen it, and we suspect that most of you who want to have seen it to, here are our thoughts on it. For those who have not seen it yet, this post consists almost entirely of spoilers.

Terri's Thoughts

Once again, Disney's acquisition of LucasFilm and making sure that George Lucas isn't allowed anywhere near a Star Wars script or director's chair has paid off. I loved this movie.

Now, I will not say it was without flaws. It was perhaps 3 movies crammed into one, and ended at least twice that I could see. But the structural and pacing problems paled in comparison to the excellent dialogue, beautiful sets, profound character development, wonderful storytelling, and kickass representation.

For once in my SFF life, the strongest and most powerful characters in a movie were OLDER WOMEN! General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo took no nonsense and made the hard calls. I do not know how I'm going to get through Episode IX without either of them. And they were deeply feminine women. As someone who sees femme as a deeply performative aspect of her personality (rather than natural and inherent), this was unique. Generally I can identify with women in an SFF setting because they are tough, wearing pants and covered in Space Grease/wearing Practical Fantasy Armor. For once, I was identifying with women wearing massive quantities of jewelry, fancily styled hair and dresses. This was new, and also has resulted in my deep need to do a screen accurate recreation of Vice Admiral Holdo's costume. 

As to some of the complaints about the powers of the Force, they didn't bother me at all. This is where I have to admit that I have been reading Star Wars licensed fiction since I was 14 years old, starting with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy. I gave up somewhere during the New Jedi Order novels. Why is this relevant? Two reasons.

Reason one: as far as those novels were concerned, the prequels didn't exist (most of them were written long before any of those movies had been made). So there was no understanding of the Jedi Order before Obi-Wan Kenobi starts training Luke Skywalker on the Millennium Falcon. Need a character to accomplish the impossible? Pow, they're a super strong Force user. Jedi can't form attachments? Luke gets married and has a kid. Leia doesn't know how to do much with the Force? Well, that's largely because she's spent too much time being in government. So no, ForceTime didn't bother me. Neither did Leia rescuing herself from being blown off the bridge. Oh, and Luke can project himself across the galaxy? Kyp Durron pulled starships out of gas giants with the Force. There's a character whose mind was dropped into another body with the Force. So spare me your complaints about Leia saving herself. The Force can do whatever the script writer needs it to do. 

Reason two: I am an unabashed Star Wars fan. I've read the books (and was deeply sad when Disney axed that canon), watched the Only Relevant Films more times in my childhood/adolescence than I care to count, used to play a Star Wars parody game on my computer in my bedroom, owned Star Wars Monopoly and kicked everyone's butt at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I used to play Princess Leia in my imaginary games. I am one of the people who isn't really capable of much deep critical thinking about a good Star Wars movie.  I will gladly read and watch other people's critical thoughts about the topic (and often appreciate their insights), but don't have the mental distance from what I love so much to be able to think about it in a way that examines it. So I largely gush, while Ariela below will provide you with more critical insights.

Ariela's Thoughts

Where Terri is a lifelong and devoted Star Wars fan, I am a much more casual appreciator. I enjoyed the original trilogy, but I didn't see it properly until I was in high school and I didn't adopt it into my core fandoms. So my expectations going in were very different.

I can see why this movie is divisive. Some of the most cherished tropes from the original trilogy are torn apart here (mostly to my satisfaction). It had some problems and I get that if you didn’t like the other parts, the problems might not be get-over-able. But I liked it.

I liked that it was new. I was never particularly surprised by anything in The Force Awakens because it was such a beat-for-beat sendup of A New Hope, but I was genuinely surprised by some things that happened here.

I love older Leia and Luke and the ways in which they have changed. Perhaps this is because I am older than I was when I saw Star Wars for the first time, I am tired and disillusioned, and I like seeing those changes mirrored in my heroes. But I also think that these changes are genuinely positive.

I like that Leia has learned that “jumping in a spaceship and blowing something up” is only the right move sometimes. Not that it’s never the right move, Leia is too wise to fall for that, but that there are times when another tactic is called for. Considering how much that technique was valorized in the original trilogy, this is a surprising backpedal.

Ditto Vice-Admiral Holdo not telling Poe her plan. In the original trilogy, Luke just kind of walked onto the base and was admitted to the inner circle of the rebellion immediately, given responsibility and access to all the rebel plans. Ditto Jyn Erso. Not so here. Poe has been working for the Resistance for a while, but that doesn’t mean that the people in charge need to get his approval for their plans. (Particularly shocking that a woman doesn’t need to get a man’s approval for her military plans, I know, or that an older woman might have any role to play other than the wise grandma type or a witch.)

In general, I saw far more older women on screen here than I am used to seeing. Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern are both well past the Hollywood sell-by date set for women, but they had large roles in a film aimed at a general audience. But the crowd scenes at Canto Bight also featured a surprising number of older women.  More older women on screen, please, kicking butt and also being generally present, but in the future, can more of them be women of color? (Is it any wonder some fragile masculine souls needed to cut all the women out of the movie? We are so goshdarn present in it.)

I like that Luke is disillusioned by his own mistakes, and that it is a young woman who shows him that he is wrong.

I love the lack of sexual tension in the films. I love that Rose is never subject to the Male Gaze TM, and that she is allowed to be a full human being, with expertise and ideals and an interest in someone. (If you’re going to ask with whom I ship Finn, I think Finn has too recently learned to be a person on his own and he is not ready for a relationship with anyone yet. I am in favor of Poe crushing on him, though.) I love that the movie shuts down the idea of romantic tension between Rey and Kylo Ren. Jill Bearup has pointed out that film language for romantic tension and antagonism can sometimes look the same; TLJ goes out of its way to point out that NOPE, romantic tension is not happening here. Rey has no interest in seeing Kylo Ren in any state of undress, thank you very much.

I love that Finn and Rose fail at their quest. All of the indicators for their success were there: the unbeatable odds, the one final hope, it’s a trope checklist, and it still fails. I love that because sometimes we do fail, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and that trying and failing doesn’t mean you aren’t a hero.

So what didn’t I like? Well, a lot.

For one thing, there was so much going on that the movie feels overstuffed and un-cohesive. Our three protagonists from TFA are split up, each having their own adventures, and it’s hard to find a common thematic thread between them.

I’m also rather sick of the “giant, oppressive organization is coming for a progressively smaller and smaller ragtag group of people fighting back” trope. Exiting the movie, my spouse quipped, “At this rate, the next movie’s Resistance will consist of Finn and BB8 armed with nothing but a toothbrush.” (To be fair, I would watch that movie in a heartbeat.) But we’ve done this before. I’d like to see some new stories, or at least tell the same story in a different way, like Rogue One did.

I was also rather disturbed at how Finn and Rose dealt with the kids who are enslaved/indentured on Canto Bight. I get that they couldn’t take the kids with them and still complete their original mission. And I get that, from a thematic standpoint, they needed to be left there to sow the seeds of the next generation of the Resistance. But neither of them seemed to have any sort of qualm about leaving those children to be abused further. I would have been far more comfortable had either one of them acknowledged that leaving them there means they also failed to rescue people being oppressed, the very mission of the Resistance. I want acknowledgement that leaving the kids was a terrible thing to do and a horrid choice to have to make, to balance those kids’ freedom against the survival of the Resistance.

I also feel somewhat confused by the only common theme I could find in the movie, which is the older generation giving way to the new. We have now seen three of the older generation of the Resistance – Holdo and Luke in this movie, Han in the previous one – sacrifice themselves willingly so that the new generation can go on. On the Dark Side, Kylo Ren killed Snoke so that he can come into his own power. On the surface, this sends a kind of awesome message: the older generation needs to give way to the younger, but the Light side does it by consent and the Dark Side does it by force. I’m all for highlighting consent! But the more I think about it, the less that idea holds up. You can’t undo an unjust power system by waiting for those in power to consensually relinquish their privilege. In this, Kylo Ren is right that you need to tear it all down. Unfortunately, he isn’t interested in doing what he says; he’s only interested in tearing down just enough that he winds up at the head of the existing power structure, then using his new power to expand his dominion. (Oh crap, in addition to being a metaphor for neo-Nazis, is Kylo Ren also an allegory for false allyship?) So yeah, I don’t know what to make of this.

I want to watch it again, which I won’t get to do until it comes out on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but this is the first time I have wanted to re-watch a Star Wars movie in a while.

Judaism in Dialog with SFF Fandom

by Ariela

On Saturday, January 14, I sat on a panel at Arisia entitled "Judaism's Influence on SFF." The irony of the timing aside, the room was packed beyond capacity and it went very well. The last question the moderator, Michael Burstein, posed was not about SFF stories, but about fandom, namely "How has Judaism influenced your fandom?" This is the substance of my answer, expanded slightly and with added context.

Judaism has influenced almost every aspect of my life, and fandom is no exception to that rule. In fact, I sometime refer to Judaism as my first and primary fandom.

The Jewish culture in which I grew up bears some striking resemblances to fannish culture, and perhaps it prepared me to move into fandom by dint of familiarity. For context, I grew up in an observant but gender egalitarian household in Boston. My parents are Ashkenazi, meaning we are of Eastern European descent, as were the communities in which we lived and participated, though not all of our communities were gender egalitarian.

Here is a short, non-exclusive list of things from my Jewish upbringing that is also true for fandom:

Part of the Oz VeHadar edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Image from zolsefer.co.il.

Part of the Oz VeHadar edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Image from zolsefer.co.il.

  • Books. Books books books. Did I mention books?
  • Learning the contents of those books well is not only encouraged, it is a means of accruing social status. People who can cite wide swaths of text to back up their opinions are given social points. Points, too, for being able to recite large portions of text from memory.
  • Books are also used for social display. More books is better, and buying expensive multivolume sets of Talmud and Codes is considered a laudable expenditure.
  • Debate is an enormous part of the Jewish body of texts, and is still enthusiastically practiced today. Debate over minutiae is encouraged and debate over ridiculous hypotheticals is practically an art form. Again, social status awarded to those with the best arguments, eloquence a plus.
  • It's expensive. Kosher food is expensive. Jewish education is expensive. All those books are expensive. More money makes participation easier.

So Judaism made fandom more accessible to me through familiarity. But what about the other way around? Has fandom enhanced my Judaism?

I have not found that my personal observance or my spiritual life has been advanced by my fandom. However, I have discovered that fandom is a wonderful vehicle to explain my Judaism to my fannish friends.

Being an observant Jew means that Judaism affects almost everything about my life. From taking the holidays off work to saying a blessing each time after I use the bathroom, Judaism is not just something I think about but something I am actively doing all day, every day. For friends who mostly grew up with some flavor of Christianity, whether they adhere to it or not, this isn't something that's easy to process. To them I explain, Rabbinic Judaism is a 2000 year long LARP.

This sounds like a flippant thing to say, but bear with me; I say it in all respect with the intent to convey some of the important aspects of how living an observant Jewish life is a lens through which we view the world. Also, here is the disclaimer about this being an analogy and not being or trying to be a perfect representation of Judaism.

Rabbinic Judaism is not the Judaism described in the Torah. In this analogy, the Torah is more like the list of books that you see when you open a DnD manual, the ones that you loved so much you want to participate in them, the ones that inspired you to start playing but don't actually give you any mechanics by which to play.

Our first attempt at a set of rules was the Mishnah. Like the first edition of DnD, it was incomplete and buggy. (In fact, it wasn't actually a rulebook at all, but a selection of legal discussions, in the course of which some laws are decided. Details, details.) No one uses it now, but it was the place where the project started. The rulebooks expanded out from there, the Gemara, the Commentaries, and then out to the Codes. Along the way we get significant geographic variations in our rules, as well as extensive discussion about said rules ranging from polite to vitriolic. The flame wars, ooooh, the flame wars we have.

Where the comparison really becomes useful is to explain how we use these laws to govern our daily lives. Halacha, Jewish law, is our world mechanics.

Take, for example, the prohibition on mixing milk with meat. On the surface that sounds simple enough. But what counts as mixing? Answer: we have rules for that! Let's say you accidentally get something meaty into your dairy dish, doesn't matter how. By Jewish law, it's okay to eat as long as you cannot taste the meat in the dish. But what if you taste it and discover that you can taste the meat? Then you will have violated the law? The obvious solution might be to find a trusty Gentile friend, who has no such prohibition, and ask them. But what if you have no trusty Gentile friend available? For much of Jewish history, we couldn't count on having non-Jewish neighbors who would be friendly or accessible, so a heuristic was developed: if you have a liquid dairy dish, as long as the meaty thing that was accidentally dripped in comprises less than 1/60th of the total volume, you can assume that it doesn't affect the taste. There are different rules for solids. Being hot or spicy is also taken into account. There's a whole decision tree. Are you starting to see the parallels between this and rolling a Diplomacy check when trying to convince the guard to let you into the city?

Extrapolate from here. Whenever I run into a situation where Jewish law applies, which is extremely often, this is the sort of check I run in my head. We have Jewish law on business, ethics, food, charity, clothes (there is a preferred order of operations for putting on shoes with laces). These are the mechanics by which I engage world.

Of course the purpose of a LARP is for everyone to have fun and the purpose of Jewish law is for people to lead a moral life in accordance with the commandments of G-d and improve the world. The analogy only goes so far and the ethical monotheism component of Judaism is neither trivial nor optional. But when trying to explain to my fannish friends how Judaism influences my life when I am not having theological discussions, it's a useful analogy to make.

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from every person. -Ethics of the Fathers 4:1

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from every person.
-Ethics of the Fathers 4:1

New Doodle: Michi vs. That

by Ariela

Today's doodle is once again brought to you by antics on Teh Interwebs.

Among her many hats, Michi Trota is Managing Editor at Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Last Monday, Aidan Moher commented on Twitter:

Michi responded:

I found the mental image too charming to leave alone, so I quickly scribbled this:

Michi-vs-that.png

P.S. You should definitely check out Uncanny Magazine, which is the only non-Puppy nominee for the Hugo Award category of Semiprozine in 2016. Michi is the first Filipina to be nominated for a Hugo Award. We're rooting for her and the whole Uncanny team this weekend! 

New Product: Salute Ketubah

By Ariela

Are you and your spouse-to-be looking for a highly logical choice for your ketubah? Do you fancy yourselves commanding presences in yellow? Are you science types in blue? Perhaps engineers in red? (We rather assume you're not redshirts.) Look no further!

Available in four texts and three colors.

Available in four texts and three colors.

How it came to be

The first seeds of an idea for this design were planted way back in the summer of 2010. A coworker told me that she had a friend who was looking for someone to make "a zombie or Star Trek ketubah." I thought a zombie ketubah was a bit beyond my ability to get my head around (though it became a series of greeting cards!), but a Star Trek ketubah was totally something I could do. Unfortunately, the project never happened. The parents of the couple decided they wanted to make the ketubah their gift, and they were not at all down with a Star Trek ketubah. "That's ridiculous," I thought to myself, "they just don't realize that Star Trek could be classy."

But with no client and a number of other active commissions taking up my time, the idea got shelved until 2013, when some fannish friends announced they were getting married and wanted a similarly themed ketubah. I was starting to think about doing prints by that point, not just one-off commissions, and decided that with two requests under my belt, this might be a good place to start. But I didn't want to deal with licensing. What to do?

Fortunately for me, Leonard Nimoy was Jewish. He didn't so much invent the Vulcan Salute as lift it straight from Jewish tradition in the form of the way the priests hold their hands while blessing the congregation. It was the perfect copyright-free stealth-geek statement - those who are fannish would recognize it immediately, and everyone else would assume it had to do with the Priestly Blessing.

The execution of this design, however, turned out to be more complicated than average. The way most ketubah prints come about is like this: I make the art and then I write all four texts out, each on separate pieces of paper, to fit the space left in the art. I get them all scanned, and then I composite them in post-production, switching between texts as needed for printing. But there is no art aside from the text here. Moreover, I wanted to make it available in all the iconic colors of the Starfleet uniforms. So instead of writing four different texts, it's actually more like twelve. Suffice to say that it took a looong time to get them all finished in between other art. But here they are!

The other challenge of this design is the personalization. When you write a generic text, you leave space for the clients' names, wedding date, etc. But with a calligram (which is what you call a picture made out of text), if you leave giant gaps in it the effect is dulled. A lot. So thus began my search in Star Trek canon for appropriate couples.

First and easiest was Worf and Dax. Their wedding date is in the canon, Worf's parentage is totally known, and Jadzia's father is named in Memory Beta. I had a lot of fun figuring out the Hebrew date of their wedding. A lot of people think they got married on April 1, 2374, because that's the Stardate listed in the captain's log in the opening voiceover, but the content of the episode makes it clear the actual wedding is a week later. That actually puts it in the week after Passover in 6134. Their information is the demo text in the Traditional Aramaic ketubah.

Troi and Riker's wedding took place in a movie, so the Stardate of their wedding is totally borked, but other than that, we have a lot of information on their wedding, including location, and the parentage of both parties. They are the demo text for the Lieberman Clause.

For the Gender Neutral Lover's Covenant I had to look into the licensed novels. Star Trek isn't great about QuILTBAG representation, so I looked through Memory Beta and pulled Etana Kol and Krissten Richter. They're married sometime between 2377 (Fearful Symmetry) and 2383 (Plagues of Night), and I extrapolated from that that they got married aboard Deep Space 9. The date was a pretty much arbitrary pick on my part.

The real trick was the demo text for the Secular English text. I wanted to choose a pairing that would emphasize the fact that this text is completely gender-free and doesn't promise exclusivity. So I settled on a totally fabricated wedding between Jean-Luc Picard and Jack Crusher during Jack and Beverly's marriage. This was largely inspired by a joke my own spouse made. We attended a wedding where all the tables were named, instead of numbered, after famous couples. We were sitting at "Picard and Crusher," whereupon he quipped "Jack or Beverly?" It also nicely parallels Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, but I won't say any more about that here because spoilers.

The Salute ketubah of your very own, with your wedding information on it, for $210