Critical Hit!!

pop culture (and everything else) explored

Workplace Awkwardness in The Office

I’ve been rewatching The Office (US) with my partner recently. I have a certain attachment to it and other certain NBC shows that I grew up with. When I got to high school, I felt the need to watch shows regularly like the other students, and NBC’s Thursday comedy line-up was my main slate of shows. I always felt affection for the network, and never really held any interest for other networks (except USA).

I remember certain Office episodes shockingly well, and while the drama and romance is often more annoying than endearing (the growing impatience with Jim and Pam is more frustrating than anything else), the comedy is still pretty good, though it also dates the show. As the series went on, The Office had a stronger penchant for pop culture references (songs like “Umbrella”, dance fads, etc.) It also exhibits a workplace culture that largely feels alien in today’s context: the awkwardness around inappropriate behaviour.  While awkwardness has never gone away, the call out culture that exists today leads me to believe the kind of  sexist/racist/etc things that arise out of Michael Scott’s ignorance would be confronted on rather than making reaction faces at a camera. In short, it’s a kind of humour that isn’t really active today.

There are also jokes that have just aged well, sexist/racist actions that aren’t Michael being ignorant so much as the joke being straight up racist or sexist. For instance, in season five, when Kelly is confronted in forging poor customer surveys for Dwight and Jim, she shouts that she’s been raped, only for Michael to dismiss her saying she can’t call rape all the time. In this case, the joke doesn’t work because a) it’s terrible, and b) borderline jokes like that only work coming from the perennial fool of the office, Michael.

Speaking of Kelly, season five is also where her toxic relationship restarts with Ryan, an incredibly disappointing turn, as Kelly previously told the camera multiple times how she’s over the jerk, only for his toxicity to sweep her away again. Meanwhile, Pam goes to art school, only to fail miserable and settle. In short, The Office‘s character growth is achingly slow, and often painful and regressive, though the workplace comedy is still quite funny. But as it goes on, The Office becomes less and less relatable as a realistic workplace, becoming a parody of workplaces once were. While there is still plenty of awkwardness in the workplace today, I suspect more young people would be alarmed at the kind of tolerance for inappropriate behaviour throughout the show (and yes, that’s the joke, but it’s noticeable nonetheless.) I know I certainly was.

The Evolution of The Police

The Police’s Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings has been a go-to music collection to turn to when I’m out and about this year. Listening to the entire Police discography leads me to finds particular trends and changes to their music over time. Some of the insights I’ve found include:

  • A shift from personal to universal narratives: The first two Police albums are most representative for the former. Songs address personal issues and conflicts, such as relationships and their fallout, from a first person perspective (See “So Lonely” or “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”.) By Synchronicity, however, we have many songs dealing with universal breakdown, though these too can also be seen though a first person perspective. “Synchronicity II” is great example of this, as we hear of the different tensions in a mans life, and in the world (his work, his home), and the mysterious being in a dark Scottish lake. Other songs such as “One World (Not Three)” tackle a universal theme with a stronger sermonizing edge, though thankfully The Police never fully lost their brash nature to devolve into Kumbayahs. While The Police’s perspective widened a bit, Sting still wrote killer first person POV songs throughout the band’s career (“Wrapper Around Your Finger” is lit.)
  • As you progress through the discography, you find hints here and there of Sting’s eventual depoliticization and rise in spirituality. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” is not just a lovey-dovey pop song, but also refers to the healing power of chants. Sting’s lyric that “De do do do, de da da da/ They’re meaningless and all that’s true” refer to not just being speechless in love, overcome with emotion, but also the power of meaningless words to focus one’s mind. “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86” is the clearest example of what Sting’s career would become: adult alternative sometimes eerily close to easy listening. The ’86 version is mesmerizing in its own way, with wonderful harmonizing throughout, but takes a slower tempo reminiscent of Sting’s ease into a calmer mode of songwriting.
  • If there is at least one theme present throughout The Police’s discography, it would be alienation. Such alienation takes form both through personal narratives (“So Lonely”, “Driven To Tears”), and the general malaise of an unjust world (“Rehumanize Yourself”, “Spirits in the Material World”). This is part of what makes The Police so interesting. There were a massive success, but they didn’t actually make a lot of happy music. And there wasn’t that much to begin with: The Police only had five albums, all solid, plus some odds and ends. For an all-time great rock band, that’s unusually low. But it makes for some great listening.

Bismuth, and the struggle for liberation

The introduction, and subsequent benching, of the new character Bismuth in Steven Universe has been one of the most frustrating moments in the show’s run. Not only is Bismuth a wonderful character in her own right (who can’t be charmed by Uzo Aduba?), but her political stance is correct as well, only to have it bungled in the tension between pacifism and action.

Steven Universe presents contradictory information within the final few episodes of Season 3 regarding the appropriate use of violence. In “Bismuth”, we see the pacifist nature of Steven play out against Bismuth’s eager militarization. Bismuth was sealed away during a war, and emerges from her solitude with a mindset eager to fight. Unfortunately, the rest of the Crystal Gems have pacified. Stuck on Earth, the Crystal Gems merely protect the Earth from threats of Homeworld and others, instead of taking a more active military stance in combating the imperialist empire, aka Bismuth’s stance. At the end of the episode, Bismuth presents a weapon called “the breaking point”, a weapon that can shatter gems, destroying them (or rather, killing them) for good. It’s a tool that would redefine the fight against the imperialist empire of Homeworld, initially presented to Rose Quartz during the war thousands of years ago, only for Bismuth to be betrayed by her leader, and the revolution to fail as Homeworld razed the Earth with a massive super weapon. Steven cannot accept the breaking point, however, sticking to his pacifism. They end up fighting, and in the end, Steven bubbles Bismuth.

Not only does the shelve a wonderful character for a while (we’ll likely see her again), it’s incredibly frustrating on a political level, as Bismuth is right. With a militant stance against the imperialist empire (and class consciousness to boot), Bismuth presents what the tools and discipline necessary to win against homeworld. Though she would likely have to alter her plans a bit (there isn’t exactly an active war between Earth and Homeworld now, nor are there easy means of getting to Homeworld), she is, in spirit, correct in her militant stance.

Bismuth the hero

Bismuth is the hero we need, and deserve.

The episode ends, however, with Steven rejecting Bismuth and her weapon, throwing it into the magma of her lair, and later, the other Crystal Gems tearfully adding Bismuth to the cloud of bubbled gems, hibernating towards infinity.

The contradictions grow in “Back to the Moon” and “Bubbled”, episodes that deal with the oft speculated relationship between Pink Diamond and Rose Quartz. As a Ruby explains in “Back to the Moon”, Rose Quartz shattered Pink Diamond, information Steven at first cannot accept. How could his pacifist mother shatter another gem? Steven gets his answer at the end of “Bubbled”:

Steven: … How come nobody told me about Pink Diamond?

Garnet: We all did what we had to during the war. Everything’s different now.

Steven: But did mom really do it? Did she really shatter her?

Garnet: She had to. The Earth belonged to Pink Diamond. Destroying her was the only way to save the planet. For Amethyst to be herself, for Pearl to be free, for me to be together. For you to exist.

Steven: But I thought… A-at least she’d never…

Garnet: She didn’t always do what was best for her. But she always did what was best for Earth.

Steven: Even if it meant shattering someone..

Garnet: Yes.

This information posits that yes, violence can be the answer, particularly in a struggle for liberation. And yet it is utterly frustrating, as its clearly contradictory to the kind of moral pacifism pushed in “Bismuth”. Perhaps if Steven knew about Rose Quartz’s decision, the outcome of meeting Bismuth would have been different. While “Bismuth” does hold these two views (pacifism and militant action) in tension, the show has always sided with Steven’s approach to “talking it out” with out gems, and winning them over to the Crystal Gems. It’s a tactic that works for the situation on Earth now, with gems isolated and time to talk to them, but with a conflict with Homeworld brewing, Steven can’t hope that talking it out with an army is going to work.

Garnet’s line that “We all did what we had to during the war. Everything’s different now” is the crux of the issue. Steven Universe posits that Bismuth is stuck in the past, in the war with violence was the only answer, and that her militancy isn’t applicable to the current situation, and is therefore harmful. First of all, this wouldn’t be the case if Rose Quartz hadn’t betray her, and hid her away without telling the other Crystal Gems. But while Bismuth’s military adventurism requires more discipline in terms of long term planning (her enthusiasm blinds her to the low capacity of the Crystal Gems), this isn’t to say her militancy is completely a relic of the past. Homeworld will be coming, and when they do, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bismuth comes back just for that fight. But Bismuth’s militancy isn’t just applicable to that fight, but to all struggles of liberation. She should be fighting right alongside the Crystal Gems, with a fighting spirit that doesn’t necessarily exclude the ability to talk and convince stray gems like Jasper to come to their side. In sum, Steven Universe needs to get down to Bismuth and treat her right.

Steven Universe and Race

I came across this post recently which seems to be making the rounds on social media.* I appreciate the attempt to write a polemical piece calling out the inconsistencies of black female representation on Steven Universe. I do, however, take issue with some of the supporting arguments made within the piece itself, as it makes certain assumptions and mistakes that lessen its argument, and fails to acknowledge and address multiple aspects of the show in its narrow description of racial representation.

This piece will process the article chronologically, dipping in and out with commentary. Let’s start this analysis by dissecting what the author terms the “business end” of the piece: racially coding many of the characters in Steven Universe. This is a particularly difficult thing to do, as many of the characters and their fusions are Gems, inorganic beings that form their bodies through hard light projections. I mention in my presentation that because Gems literally construct their bodies, they also by extension construct their gender identities as well. Race, however, is not as easy to identify. On a technical level, the Gems of Steven Universe defy racial categories as they are literally gemstone aliens from space. (Notably, the show is slowly delving more and more into the class systems of Homeworld as a key means of oppression in Gem society.) Now, in terms of representation in how viewers perceive the show, there are certain Gems (namely Garnet) that present distinctive certain forms of black culture, such as fashion and dance. Trying to sort every Gem into a racial category, however, is pretty much impossible, as all the show’s gems simply do not align easily according to categories of race. Such “coding” is done by the fandom community with factoring qualities such as representation and relatability. This is illustrated when the author notes he will “ discuss Pearl as primarily white, but occasionally Asian”, illustrating the kind of slippage at play. To further compound matters, there are other black female characters, one of whom, Kiki, just got a dedicated about them, that the author fails to mention.

Next, the author engages in positionality, saying that “I do not care about white people’s responses to this post. At all.” In response, I must also engage in a kind of positionality, an acknowledge I am a white, female academic-in-training who researches animation, including  Steven Universe. While the author may not care for my opinion, I hope others engage with my piece as well. The author also links to a twitter thread that lays out some ground rules, however, as of this writing, the thread is impossible to access due to the author’s twitter being private. It’s right and important that the author reserve that personal space, especially considering how bad twitter can be. Perhaps Storify could help preserve that linked twitter thread and make it accessible?

The author’s main argument is that Steven Universe “Blackness, Black women, and Black femmes, both in their own rights, and in relation to the non-Black and non-Black coding characters around them.” Again I would tend to agree, though the purpose of this piece is to clarify some of the mistakes made both in reasoning and information that weaken the author’s argument. The author notes that there are no black women writers for the show is correct, though I would like to note the diverse creative staff in both writing (writers such as Hellen Jo) and animation (layout artists like Lamar Abrams).

The author’s analysis begins with the first batch of Steven Universe episodes, particularly noting Amethyst’s slob personality. While I agree that Amethyst is a “lazy, slobbish, loud, childish Gem who literally eats garbage for fun,” I want to emphasize that these traits do not negatively define here, but rather make her endearing, and are deeply tethered to her childhood as a ‘homegrown’ Gem from Earth. As Gems don’t need to eat (and some Gems like Pearl have trouble with the concept to begin with), Amethyst’s love for devouring anything emerges from her love of Earth, including its food and culture, which leads to a lot of bonding with Steven, and particularly ties into her rich character development as she struggles with her identity as a ‘faulty’ Kindergartner as the show progresses. Amethyst is a lot different from the nearly one note character she began with at the start of the show.

The author moves on to analyzing Garnet and her character design. Garnet’s style is clearly based in African-American fashion (Afro hair style) and yes, has large hips. While Garnet has prominent hips, she is never objectified, and owns her body and its power, much like many SU characters. Her design is more a nod to Afro-Futurism than anything else.

I want to address the author’s description of Garnet’s femininity, and how black coded characters (before reading this, I did not realize Amethyst was coded black) in general dip Pearl when dancing for fusion. I think this is a really good observation (who dips, and who is dipped), though I wonder about the limitations and potential of dips and throws in fusion dances in regards to gender. As Steven Universe pushes the boundaries of gender, at what point to gendered dance moves cease to have such connotations?

While a similar observation is made between Garnet’s fight with Jasper, I would argue in this case that Garnet’s expressions of sexuality and femininity come from Ruby and Sapphire (the Gems in love that fuse into Garnet) have finally been reunited after a painful separation. (Garnet is singing during this scene, triumphantly proclaiming how she is stronger than Jasper because of the love that literally brings her together.)

This brings us to the authors notes on Sardonyx, which are much more problematic. There are issues of interpretation that are more murky that I disagree with (coding Jasper as “blacker” than garnet, when I don’t think she’s coded as black as all.) Then there are sheer mistakes in his writing. While I have never heard the phrase “hime laugh”, the trope in anime has been identified as the “Noblewomans Laugh, but more specifically, it is a direct reference to a show that is incredibly influential to the show: Revolutionary Girl Utena. (See this article for more information on just how influential Utena is on Steven Universe.)

Because this laugh is a direct reference, taking inspiration from Utena, I find it difficult to claim that this laugh characterizes Sardonyx as a “‘high-class’ black” accurate. In addition, the idea that this reference is a kind of laugh usually reserved for “dark in some fashion” I have not been able to confirm.

There are smaller issues of interpretation I find murkier than what the author claims. The author notes a “southern accent”, and while, yes, there are “y’all”s in the script, but the execution is straight up broadway/vaudeville, as Sardonyx’s character amplifies the “show-off” aspects Pearl and Garnet both have (Pearl because she has insecurities about her self-worth, Garnet because she is proud.) The author also connects Sardonyx’s fashion to early black performers, who relied on the colorism in society for their acceptance. While there is the connection to vaudeville in terms of the voice acting (the aforementioned broadway-style vocal performance given by actual theatre star Alexia Khadime), Sardonyx wearing a suit does not mean that she is de facto a representation of early black performs in vaudeville. Again, Garnet’s Afro-futurism shines through Sardonyx, as the character design is clearly inspired by Janelle Monáe, a pioneer right now of Afro-Futurism both in song and in style. While the author’s overall assertion that the show’s preference for Sardonyx over Sugilite is unfair, the overall supporting argument for this claim is murky, and ignores the specific and direct influences that guide Sardonxy’s personality and design.

This leads to the perhaps the article’s least helpful section: directly comparing fusion to sex. Fusion is not a direct metaphor for sex. It certainly could represent sex as one of the many things it can allude to (emotional connection, love, healthy/toxic relationships) but it is not a direct metaphor, and indeed, the whole show would not work that way if it did. (Think of all the times the underage children Connie and Steven have fused.) In general, fusion is a physical representation of the relationship individuals have with one another – a physical existence rather than an act or event itself.

Technically speaking, whenever Gems fuse, it’s a relationship that is mutually agreed upon. Even one of the most contentious fusions, Lapis fusing with Jasper, was a mutually agreed upon relationship. Now, Lapis was deceptive in what she intended where such a relationship would go (hint: the bottom of the ocean), and the toxicity of it still lingers, but the reality is no one can fuse with someone who doesn’t want to fuse. Consent is a necessity.

The article posits that Pearl rapes Garnet. On a logical level on how fusion works, that isn’t possible (you need consent for the fusion to occur). But this isn’t to say Steven Universe ignores the consequences when Pearl lies to Garnet in order to fuse with her, which is a huge, emotional betrayal. On an emotional level, there is an entire mini-arc dedicated to the fallout of Pearl’s deception, dealing with their separation and avoidance, Pearl’s inferiority complex (arising certainly from here assigned status, a lower-class minion of the Homeworld empire, built for servitude), the importance of fusion for Garnet, and more. While there is definitely an argument to be made in how the 11 minute format is further and further constricting Steven Universe, forcing quick (and subsequently cheap) happy endings in time for credits to roll, trying to articulate the concept of rape within the framework of Steven Universe is not a clear cut issue, and relies on narrow assumptions of what the show’s concepts of fluid gender identity, body composition, fusion, and more.

Problems of analysis aside, Steven Universe‘s issues with representation need to be addressed, and I appreciate the article’s attempt to address them.  This piece is also not meant to ‘clamp down’ on the discourse. In all honesty, I started writing this piece with the ill-informed aim at rebuking everything that was said. Honestly, as someone who presented at an academic conference on how Revolutionary Girl Utena deeply influences Steven Universe, I immediately began writing when I saw the incorrect assessment of the Nanami laugh reference. But the reality is the show does have its problems – but so does this article.

After the piece was originally published, Smokey Garnet was introduced, Steven and Amethyst’s fusion. The character’s introduction has brought a lot more problems of representations into the mix, but that can be left for another day. In fact, there is still so much more that can be said about black female representation in the show that the author fails to even mention. Kiki and Jenny Pizza are character’s that could be discussed more, as well as the incredible diverse voice cast for the show. I look forward to the next part of the article that tackles Bismuth, as I too am incredibly disappointed with the treatment of her character. With Steven Universe, the conversation has only begun.

*After I began writing this piece, this post about the author was brought to my attention, and contains some quite alarming information about this person. Take that for what you will.

Hello, Dolly! Beautiful Artifice, Terrible Politics

I had first heard of Hello, Dolly! (1969) as the straw that broke the camel’s back. As studios struggled in the 60s to understand what audiences wanted, they latched onto the huge success of The Sound of Music (1965) and produced more and more big budget musicals, trying to repeat Sound of Music‘s success.

It didn’t work. While Sound of Music was bolstered tremendously by evangelicals keen to its Christian elements (nuns tricking Nazis! who can’t get behind that?), other production languished, failing to make back their bulging budgets as audiences of baby boomers wanted the grit and experimentation of New Hollywood and exploitation flicks. Hello, Dolly! is often blamed as the movie that killed the classical Hollywood musical, but in fairness, its death was a long time coming. Hello, Dolly! merely marked its extravagant end.

I finally decided to watch the film after seeing clips of it in Lindsay Ellis’ excellent analysis of Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera (2004). I found myself immensely entertained, but not without qualms. The film is classical Hollywood filmmaking at its finest, and also at its politically poisonous.

The plot is propelling by our main character Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand), match-maker extraordinaire, arranging and manipulating meet-cutes, trying to unite the proper couple in Yonkers/ New York, NY circa 1890. Her main target is semi-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau), a misery curmudgeon who Dolly just might like more than he realizes. As Horace leaves Yonkers for the weekend under Dolly’s insistence, Horace’s store staff, Cornelius Hackl (Michael Crawford) and Barnaby Tucker (Danny Lockin) are by Dolly to see the world beyond Yonkers, and travel to New York as well. There they meet hat shop owner Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew) and her assistant Minnie Fay (E. J. Peaker). As the young men stumble throughout their meet-cute, in storms Horace, the beau to be for Irene. Confusion arises, and Dolly tries to smooth things over. Through some carefully coordination, she arranges everyone to meet again at the expensive restaurant Harmonia Gardens, where feelings are hashed out, songs are sung, and afterwards, everyone gets together.

The plot is madcap musical, with mcguffins and misunderstandings to stretch out the plot. The film could be summed up as “people run around, proclaiming their love, hiding from others, all to coalesce into one happy ending.” The story itself isn’t what justifies the 148 minute runtime, but rather, its extravagant execution does. With a budget of $25 million, the film is full of period decor, thousands of extras, extravagant costumes, and more. It’s a classical musical at its biggest, with one concern: more. The film offers more songs, more characters, more extravagance that Hollywood can buy.

A Gif of Barbara Streisand in Hello, Dolly!

But it’s not just the clothes or the decor, but the execution as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find Barbra Streisand commanding every scene. She owns the roll of Dolly, talking a mile a minute in one scene to singing like a boss in the next. Michael Crawford has a wonderful elasticity to his performance, with humorous dancing. really the entire cast is fantastic, and really own their roles. The only semi-exception is Walter Matthau, who kind of just plays himself. Apparently, he hated working with Streisand (seriously, the trivia about this movie is hilarious), but if anything, that kind of bitterness just works well with his character being a grumpy old fart.

While the acting is solid, so too is the cinematography and direction. The dancing makes a wonderful use of space, not just of the x- and y-axis, but the z-axis as well. Dancers often lunge towards the camera, illustrating the depth of the picture, and immersing you into the film as a result. We have the immensely talented Gene Kelly to thank as director. The show is a spectacle, one that Hollywood doesn’t make any more, and shows movie stars in their prime. Hello, Dolly! stands as a significant film, then, and not just because it was a box office bomb, nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and was the death knell of classical Hollywood musicals.

While I’ve been praising the spectacle of it all, such a spectacle has a devilish shadow that must be acknowledged: the fetishization of the rich and wealthy. Being wealthy is illustrated to be the best thing in life, as we watch shop owners and entrepreneurs flit about New York, engaging in a fluffy plot of menial trials. The spectacle acts as an allure for the audience, with two songs dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and class. “Elegance” has a tongue in cheek approach to the subject, as characters list of preposterously upper class tropes that they are clearly faking. But the fact remains they fetishize upward mobility and the “elegance”it entails. Some lyrics include:

Middle class, don’t speak of it
Savior Faire, we reek of it
Some were born with rags and patches but
We use dollar bills for matches

The song on its own might hold some transgressiveness it how it portrays aristocratic snobbery, but within the context of the film, this is negligible, especially considering “Hello, Dolly!”, the show-stopping number and title song of the show. One of the key remains for the song is “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong”, as Dolly arrives at the Harmonia Gardens. The sequence is incredibly long, as waiters, Louis Armstrong, and Dolly herself affirms her rightful place among the bourgeoisie. This is also where the film finally begins to buckle under its sweeping spectacle, ash the song builds and builds, with singing and dancing waiters, Armstrong and Streisand sharing a small moment, and more. As someone who can take a heaping helpful of spectacle, even my limits are tested as Satchmo exclaims “One more time!” near the end of the song.

While Dolly’s mantra (and it turns out, Horace’s as well) is that “money is like manure… its best if its spread around”, such pseudo egalitarianism is merely a false veil to justify such extravagant indulgences. This mantra is problematic on another level as well, that of Dolly’s agency. Throughout the film, Dolly is a keen negotiator and a force to be reckoned with. Such independence is laudable, but is undercut by how Dolly seeks permission from her dead husband to pursue Horace as a love interest. Twice in the film, Dolly asks permission from a man in the grave to affirm the choices in her love life, contradicting her usually magnanimous agency throughout the film. While these moments are largely contained within their own scenes in the film, they add to what was already a politically dismal film.

It’s also worth noting that there are few roles of color within the film, merely in secondary roles such as a bag clerk (with a speaking part) and an all black band in the Harmonia Gardens. And then their’s Satchmo himself leading the band as well, effortlessly charming as always. The film has the excuse of being a period piece in 1890, but really that should make one thing about what kind of politics are being represented on the screen. This film is about the rich and their company foolhardily chasing love in late 19th century opulence. Its grandeur is quite enjoyable, but is not without its problems.

What’s surprising is how the film continues to be a site of investigation and debate. Resurrected into the public consciousness by Wall-e (2008), the film continues to hold a tricky position in film history as the film the ended musicals. It should be remembered for so much more:  Gene Kelly’s direction, laudable performances, and more. It is Hollywood spectacle and its insidious shadow in one conjuncture, and will likely continue to be debated in the future.


Jonathan Clements: Anime: A History

This is an excellent book review that articulates a lot of the problems I have with Anime: A History.

The Tiger Manifesto


This dense republication of the author’s doctoral thesis is significant largely because it is the only broad history of the anime industry available in English. Most of the academic studies of anime have heretofore been focused on the thematic analysis of individual works. From reading some of the few available books on anime and a smattering of journal articles, I can safely conclude that the field of anime studies suffers from some endemic ills. Though it’s not difficult to understand why so many people who study anime are also fans, having a fannish attitude toward the object you’re studying can be a source of critical errors and omissions. Luckily, Anime: A History avoids this error, though one consequence is that its prose is enervating, reference-dense, and ponderous.

Clements draws largely on industry professionals’ memoirs, official studio and media archives, and economic records for his sources. Significantly, most of these sources…

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The Killing Joke

Warner Brother Animation’s recent adaptation of Alan Moore classic Batman talk The Killing Joke has received a lot of negative press recently, and for good reason. Aside from the dreadful PR emerging from Comic-Con, the film itself is not too good, an adaptation that fails to adapt the story for the better.

The main flaw of the original The Killing Joke is the Joker’s violent attack on Barbara Gordon (shot in the lower wait, paralyzing her, with subsequent implied rape ) and the Joker later showing Commissioner Gordon photos of Barbara to try and break him psychologically. This was before the term “women in refrigerators” was coined, a criticism of the stock trope of killing/maiming women for the sake of progressing a man’s character growth. Alan Moore has disowned the comic himself because of how Barbara is essentially used to progress the story of the men in her life (Batman, her father), rather than Joker’s attack becoming a plot pointing her own narrative. In the comic, Barbara’s existence is more colourful ornamentation to the story, an attack whose consequences were ignored until rectified by other artists and writers.

The film adaptation tries to rectify this, but ultimately fails. To add more content for Barbara and make it more of her story, the film adds:

  1. Around 30 minutes of prelude, telling the story of Batgirl and her fight against a misogynist villain.
  2. A short post-credits scene showing Barbara becoming Oracle, the expert knowledge broker in the DCU.

The film adds this content as padding, both literally padding the runtime to justify a theatre run, and also padding to soften the blow of sexism inherent in the story itself. The adaptation does not change Joke’s horrific violence to Barbara, in fact, it actually strengthens the implications that Joker also raped Barbara. Batman, in tracking down the Joker after the attack on Barbara, visits sex workers who mention that he hasn’t been around in a while and must have “found a new girl”. The inclusion of such a line makes what was already implied distinctively clear, despite Bruce Timm’s denial that this was never the intention.

These additions also make the story actively worse. The prelude is literally paced like a regular DCU animation episode, and is tenuously connected to the Killing Joke proper. The story is clearly written to try and be feminist, or at least appear to be, but utterly fails. Batgirl’s investigation . Batman is presented as always right, the wise mentor who also loves her. This is a story meant to give Barbara agency to make up for her brutal attack and rape later (a kind of quid pro quo that does not fundamentally work even if the prelude did fit), but instead makes Barbara look incompetent and out of control, with the prelude ending with here retirement from the cape. “SJW” lounge is sprinkled throughout, such as when Batman sternly says “he’s objectified you” to Barbara, something Barbara herself should have identified and noted. Instead, it’s brushed aside in Barbara’s rage against the misogynist villain. Multiple scenes of Batman and Barbara consist of Batman forbidding Barbara from pursuing the case, to her refusing. The scenes are then followed with Batman proving to be right, or Batman and Barbara fucking.

The sexual relationship between Batgirl and Batman blows up what is already a tenuous relationship between both the characters and the prelude to the main story. The prelude is littered with motifs and semi-themes that are meant to connect the prelude to the main story: sexual relationships, the “abyss” that comes with fighting evil, feminism, but fails to make a clear follow through with any of them. The prelude is meant to give agency and presence to a character quickly shafted in The Killing Joke. Instead, the prelude functions primarily to affirm how awesome Batman is, how Barbara is a greenhorn and out of control. Her final fight with the villain is successful, finally proving herself that she can competently fight against enemies, but instead ends with her quiet shame as batman looks negatively at her “excessive” brutalization of the misogynist villain. The whole affair is completely tonally inconsistent.

In adapting the piece, key creatives such as writer Brian Azzarello, co-producer Alan Burnett, and exec producer Bruce Timm opted to bookend a inherently sexist work with material trying to be feminist, but instead buttressing the sexist material already present within The Killing Joke. Moreover, Joker’s attack in the main story not only remains, but is egregiously heightened as the Joker taunts multiple times that Barbara is now disabled due to the shot. It’s material that is baffling and completely unnecessary, as there is a quiet moment in the hospital afterwards where a doctor quietly notes that Barbara “will never walk again”. Joker’s multiple taunts, proud that he just crippled Barbara, are superfluous, and just cruel. It doesn’t even make sense, since in the comic the Joker wasn’t intended to paralyze here, just hurt her bad enough to break her father’s psyche. The wanton cruelty really tips the hand of the creators in what their intentions are.

So too does the inclusion of sideshow henchpeople. These individuals (such as a fat lady, a two-headed person, someone with hirsutism, etc.) are recruited by the Joker to fight Batman and help add some action to the film, none of them, notably, are physically disabled, save for the persons of short stature dressed as pseudo-angels. Historically, people with disabilities do work in sideshow performances, making a spectacle of their bodies to make a living. But as the film adaptation relies on these sideshow people to fight Batman, that history of disability in sideshow is erased, focusing on the able-bodied ( though certainly social outcasts) instead. This association gets even murkier as the elements of freakery are mixed with mental illness, as represented by the Joker. While the hench-people have a relatively minor impact to the story itself, their inclusion have some unfortunate implications as a result.

Excising the sexist material itself is an option to adapt this material, though a very difficult one. The Killing Joke is a very short book, and Joker’s attack is perhaps the most significant action that takes place within it. The attack itself is meant to psychologically break Jim Gordon. Substituting the psychological damage with something other than fridging Barbara would mean losing the parallelism between Joker’s tragic backstory™ and his actions onto the Gordon family. (Joker really knows how to pay it forward.) The story resists any easy substitutions, though that doesn’t mean adapting the story for the better is impossible.

One possibility to ‘fix’ the story is for Gordon’s extended family – his police department – have reliable cops that turn out to be corrupted cops working for the Joker. The Joker’s attack on Gordon’s psyche is not just a personal attack to prove anyone can become him with “one bad day”, but also that conventional ideas of “law and order” is false as well. Gordon faith in law and order would be tested (already present in the story), and this would also tie to Batman’s struggle to do the right thing – kill or not kill? Do it “by the book”, or by something else? Changes like this just requires a deft hand and a willingness to alter what some consider the holy grail of Batman comics.

It’s the failure to adapt – that is, to alter, change, to make better – the key story to a different medium that makes this film failure as a whole.

While the film fails to rectify the story, the film also fails on an animation level as well. Subtle hue changes in the comic that occur in Joker’s past and indicate is psychological state (such as lobsters and other objects slowly becoming a deeper shade of red over time) are absent in the film, a small but meaningful detail purposelessly ignored. In Joker’s final metal break from reality, I noticed a jump cut from a shot of Joker on all fours, to a shot of him on one knee. It’s not necessarily a continuity error, but it helps illustrate the stiffness of the adaptation: slavish to recreating the piece, flaws and all, while also neglecting to fully use the fluidity of animation to its fullest. The film also neglects to make strong match cuts between Joker’s backstory and present, another example of the laziness in direction.

Panels from The Killing Joke

The comic had multiple “match cuts” directly and poetically connecting Joker’s backstory to the present. The film fails to render these.

Aesthetically the animation is in line with DC animation’s house style (think B:TAS or Justice League), and this style is at odds with the original’s minutely detailed artwork. Joker’s face is both longer to match with the original comic, but also has a flatness to it in line with the flatter, bolder DCAU style. This leads to the Joker often seeming “off” at times, and the aesthetic of his face changes from youthful (almost anime-esque),

Joker's anime face in The Killing Joke (2016)

to longer and flatter face,

Joke on vacation in The Killing Joke

and so on.

Joker with a gun in Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

Obviously lighting and colour changes affects this, but it’s more a consequence of the tension between the DCAU aesthetic and Brian Bolland’s artwork of the original, and the awkward adaptation between them.

Overall, instead of striking at the root of the problem, the adaptation would rather shield the original story with pseudo-feminist language. The form of padding surrounds the theatrical release as well, which includes a message from a head at DC, to a short doc with Mark Hamill (who is wonderful in the film, like everyone else), and a short doc about the music in the film post credits. These bits and pieces both pad the run time, but moreover act to reassure the audience of how the comic (and by extension the film) is a masterpiece in the Batman canon. But really they reveal The Killing Joke as a failure of a film, and that no amount of sanctimonious action can change this. Until one strikes at the root of the sexism inherent in the story, the story’s problems remain the same.

Rediscovering Tears for Fears

Tears for Fears’s Songs from the Big Chair was one of the soundtracks of my childhood, but I never had a CD of it for my own, and once I left for college, the band mostly fell off my radar for a while. I’m glad to report I’ve started listening to them again after a long unnecessary absence.

I’ve recently realized how the band has had an impact on me in terms of aesthetic appreciation. The band is named after primal therapy, a form of psychotherapy concerned with the repressed traumas of childhood and how they manifest into adulthood. Their first album, The Hurting, is basically a concept album about childhood trauma, with many references to primal scream therapy and emotional pain. Such inspirations, with primal therapy’s insistence on screams as a method of healing/expression, shape their music to be proudly bombastic, and this in turn encouraged me as a child to appreciate the theatrical and emotional in music, as well as hone my appreciation for synth pop in general. I was delighted to find I could sing pretty much all the lyrics to Songs from the Big Chair quite easily. Tears for Fears belts their music loudly and proudly, and I’m happy to do the same.

Lupin the Third: What to Watch

As my partner and I have been plowing through the most recently instalment of Lupin the Third, I was looking at the various lists of “where to start/what to watch” in regards to the franchise. Of course, these kinds of lists are scattered a bit throughout the internet, so I thought I’d try to collect them and link to them here.

Vrai Kaiser: a wonderful writer and Lupin the Third enthusiast, with particularly great writing on The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Lists include:

There’s a Lupin for Everyone (Just like Batman)

10 Unmissable Green Jacket Episodes

10 Lupin III Episodes for Beginners: Red Jacket

Reed Nelson, writing for ANN: An expert on Lupin, as he’s contributed to/produced various commercial releases of Lupin the Third. His preferences are completely different in terms of “unmissable episodes”, as his lack of enthusiasm for The Woman Called Fujiko Mine makes clear. Stick to Vrai for the wonderful analysis, and Reed for detailed knowledge of the series and its availability.

Lupin the Third: Where to Start and What’s Worth Watching

Lupin the Third: The Complete Guide to Films, TV Specials and OVAs



Film-Philosophy Conference: A Reflection

Before my thoughts are lost to me, I am going to write down a few thoughts about the recent conference I was able to attend: Coming to Terms with Film-Philosophy. I learned a lot, and was challenged a lot, as film-philosophy is not my specialty. While I was initially frustrated with my inability to keep track and fully comprehend dense presentations, I did realize that such density was beneficial, as film-philosophy experts could exchange ideas with other experts and mutual benefit the field and themselves.

In terms of programming, the switch up from Alain Badiou to Slavoj Žižek as the keynote speaker was an unfortunate downgrade. I had a class conflict during Žižek’s presentation, so I attended all the panels without feeling left out. I did feel left out in a different way, however, in the lack of gender balance within the conference. Philosophy itself is still dominated by men, and that was still represented here, with women making less than 30% of the presentations.

The more I was familiar with the subject material, the greater I appreciated the presentations. Likewise the more the presentation was written for a general film audience, the better it often was. Presenters who presented a presentation rather than merely reading their paper were deeply appreciated.  I was able to make a great new friend, and share enthusiasm around animation, my specialty. If anything, finding new friends was the best part of the conference, as well as getting to know my department’s PhD students better.

Funniest thing I noticed: The phrase “always already” is a favourite among philosophers.



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