Category Archives: Reviews

Stand Your Ground Laws in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

warning: some mild Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers follow.

Even before its release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the subject of both critical praise (and racist hate) for its multicultural cast. But while the seventh chapter of Star Wars has been lauded for appearing more inclusive, the film ultimately suffers from some of the deeply conservative, even subtly racist tropes inherent to most big budget action movies—the same kinds of flimsy hero logic that provide the moral justification for racist “Stand your Ground” laws across many US states.

Stormtrooper image

Do stormtroopers have humanity behind the mask, or can they be murdered without mercy?

To understand this connection, let’s start with a recent article about Star Wars written by Aaron Bady in The New Inquiry. Bady writes:

[Finn the Stormtrooper’s] psychology makes no sense at all if you think even a little bit […] there’s something extremely unsettling about how easily he shrugs off a lifetime of indoctrination into a fascist death-cult, how quickly and painlessly he becomes one of the guys, just basically a good dude. […] Where is the ideological indoctrination (and psychological scar tissue) that would have accompanied being crassly made into biopower and canon-fodder?

Bady doesn’t quite go so far as to touch on the allegory of Finn-as-slave, though it seems like the filmmakers are rubbing it in our face. Finn (John Boyega) is a “rebel” stormtrooper who describes having been stolen from his family as a child to serve in the despotic First Order—a series of events that, in our own galaxy, we’d be apt to call “slavery.” The Star Wars movies have touched on slavery before—recall Darth Vader (formerly Anakin Skywalker) was a child slave, although as a white character serving an alien master, his character lacked the symbolic thrust held by a black character like Finn. (“Do race and racism exist in the Star Wars universe as they do in ours?” is a wholly different question, and one that is never really examined with any satisfaction). Continue reading

Fictional Politics and Politicized Fictions: “House of Cards” and “Scandal”

Politicians debating

Photo courtesy Beto O’Rourke.

Since 2013, critics have been comparing and contrasting the hit shows House of Cards and Scandal. Both deal with the seedy, often immoral world of Washington politics, and the ambitions and passions of those playing the game. But aside from these surface similarities, critics have often dismissed them as radically different shows. House of Cards is a sleek, efficient portrayal of Democrat Frank Underwood’s rise to the presidency. Scandal tells the passionate, if trashy, tale of how Olivia Pope and a cabal of players made Republican Fitzgerald Grant president, and the fallout (both personal and political) of their machinations. With their differing tones, visual styles, and intended audiences, critics can often overlook what connects these two shows at their hearts: their fictional depictions of American liberalism in action.

Liberalism in the United States is difficult to define, but can be broadly summarized as service to the individual, encapsulated in America’s self-appointed nickname “Land of Opportunity.” Individuals in America have the opportunity to vote for their elected officials, to speak freely without fear of government censorship, to advance within the class system through education or hard work. The liberal narrative is Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches archetype retold: Frank Underwood can go from Gaffney, South Carolina to the White House, simply by being more clever and ruthless than those around him; Olivia Pope can become the most powerful woman in Washington by working twice as hard and being twice as good as her white contemporaries. The writers imply that America is a meritocracy, because if anyone else was as devious as Underwood, or worked as hard as Olivia, they would be in the same positions of power.

In both cases, the characters gain their social and political power through their actions, rather than the legacies left to them by their parents or the class boundaries inherent in capitalism. Frank Underwood’s father was an abusive alcoholic, but he overcame; Olivia’s mother died when she was young, and her father was manipulative and controlling, but she overcame. In overcoming, both characters choose success over morality. House of Card’s Frank Underwood knows that he can lead the United States better than Garrett Walker, the man he helped get elected, so he resorts to extreme measures and careful gambles throughout season two to ensure his place as Walker’s replacement. Scandal’s Olivia knows that Fitz is the man that America needs as president, so she rigs voting machines to ensure his place in the election. Continue reading

In the Tenderloin, Freedom is a Dance to Victory

Anne Bluthenthal and Dancers (ABD) concludes their fall season of Skywatchers on Wednesday, November 12 with live music, dancing, and a photography exhibit by Deirdre Visser at the Tenderloin National Forest.

Tenderloin National Forest

Illustration courtesy Naomi Cogan Rosenberg/Google Street View.

If there is one thing the Tenderloin has more than any other neighborhood in San Francisco, it is heart. Walking through the streets, you would never expect to find a redwood, but tall trees and lush growth in planters line what used to be another dark and dreary alleyway. As an urban renewal project started by The Luggage Store, a local arts non-profit, this formerly dark corner is now the Tenderloin National Forest. Continue reading

The Stars, Our Destination?

Is interstellar space travel a Western, colonialist fantasy?

considered:
Interstellar (2014)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, and Ellen Burstyn

space colony

Illustration by Naomi Cogan Rosenberg

The collective consciousness of Wikipedia, in their plot summary of Interstellar, wrote1 that the film’s version of the USA depicts an “agrarian, stateless society.” In Nolan’s not-so-distant-future, America is ravaged by Dust Bowl-size superstorms, crop failures are abundant, and Big Government is a thing of the past—indeed, there’s hardly any government at all, save an allusion to a “federal” textbook. In this world, where the conspiratorial, anti-government pundits seem to have won, the moon landings are widely regarded to have been faked. (Professional conspiracy-mongerers like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck have reason to smile at this.) Continue reading

Who Wants to be the Bad Guy?

Last month, news of a possible real-world purge in multiple American cities spread across the internet like wildfire. Inspired by Facebook posts from Louisville announcing that all laws and emergency services would be suspended for a twelve hour period, copycat hoaxes soon popped up Jacksonville, Detroit, the Bay Area, and other major US cities. The news went viral, Louisville police took the threat seriously, and, in the end, nothing happened. While the hoax sparked fear of looting and homicide through social media and news sites, it was fortunately anticlimactic. But it raises the opportunity to discuss current events and the ideology that drives them. In particular, why anybody would be attracted to enacting a purge-like scenario in the real world?

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She’s All That: The Original Eliza Doolittle

Pygmalion
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda
July 30–August 24

(L to R) Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins in California Shakespeare Theater's production of Pygmalion, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.

(L to R) Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.

The word Pygmalion does not resonate with most young people, myself included, but about halfway through enjoying the show at Cal Shakes’ eucalyptus-nestled outdoor amphitheater, I realized I was no stranger to the story—indeed, I’d seen its spinoffs many times as a child: in My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, and She’s All That. Little did I know that while I was starry-eyed for Freddy Prinze, Jr. and Paul Walker (R.I.P.), I was watching a watered-down version of a story rooted in class and feminist criticism. As a socialist, activist and playwright, Shaw was very concerned with class privilege and gender roles. And the show features a powerful female lead, uncommon for the Victorian era in which the play is set. Continue reading

Marxist Mixtape: V.I.P. – “Buut Wallz”

A quick survey of the most memorable lines from nineties hip-hop is enough to confirm that the dominant hip-hop culture at the time was saturated with a normalized sexism. “B*tches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” growled Dr. Dre on 1992’s The Chronic; growing up in the nineties, I recall hearing children repeat this during middle school P.E. long before I ever actually heard the song. Likewise, Snoop Dogg’s motto/anthem “G’z Up, Hoes Down” was so embedded that these words were frequently etched onto bathroom stalls at the same school.

One notable response to the industry culture was Lil’ Kim’s 2000 song “Suck My Dick,” an aggressive ur-feminist reaction to the breed of mainstream hip-hop culture that glorifies sexism and objectifies women. On “Suck My Dick,” Lil’ Kim delivers a harsh response in the same vein as the sexist lyrical mode she emulates. She pulls out all the same tropes—glorification of her genitals (“Imagine if I was dude and hittin’ cats from the back/ With no strings attached / Yeah n***a, picture that! / I treat y’all n***as like y’all treat us”) and demands of oral sex and money (“All I wanna do is get my pussy sucked / Count a million bucks in the back of an armored truck”). Continue reading

Love the Player, Hate the Game

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. 
By Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Taccone
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, May 16–June 29

(l to r) At Berkeley Rep, Mark Margolis (Gus), Tina Chilip (Sooze), and Joseph J. Parks (Vito) in Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” Photo courtesy kevinberne.com.

(l to r) At Berkeley Rep, Mark Margolis (Gus), Tina Chilip (Sooze), and Joseph J. Parks (Vito) in Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” Photo courtesy kevinberne.com.

There is a phantom haunting the theater—the phantom of socialism. Look to the Bay Area theater scene, and you’ll notice an array of socialist playwrights and subject matters: Berkeley Rep just opened The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, its second definitively radical show, after Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. All of California Shakespeare Theater’s non-Shakespeare shows this season were written by socialists (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun [read our review] and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion). The (Tony-winning) San Francisco Mime Troupe is avowedly far-left, but then they’ve always been. Remarkably, Shotgun Players just wrapped up a trilogy of Tom Stoppard plays about obscure Russian radical Alexander Herzen, “the father of Russian socialism” (I am unsure which is more shocking—that they decided to put up the entire trilogy, or that Stoppard’s yawn-worthy dialogue resulted in the trilogy’s run being extended).

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Review: “A Raisin in the Sun” at California Shakespeare Theater

A Raisin in the Sun
Directed by Patricia McGregor
California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda
May 25–June 15

Cast photo of Raisin in the Sun

(L to R) Ryan Nicole Peters as Ruth Younger, Zion Richardson as Travis Younger, Marcus Henderson as Walter Lee Younger, and Margo Hall as Lena (Mama) Younger in Cal Shakes’ A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Patricia McGregor; photo by Kevin Berne.

My husband quickly tucked his blunt under his baseball hat to save for another time as we hiked up the hillside, towards the Cal Shakes theater, to see Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. We quickly realized we were the only young latinos among an aged sea of silver and white hair in Orinda, California. He had misread this outdoor venue by a mile; obviously this was not the place for him to blow a hazy low cloud from his swisher, which he had brought from our East Bay home in hopes to pacify him, while I dragged him out to see a play on a Friday night.

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Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair

“Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair”
Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theatre
3316 24th Street, San Francisco CA 94110

 

photos by Mily Trabing

photos by Mily Trabing

In April 1937, Mussolini and Hitler’s air forces, in compact with Franco’s nationalists, began a bombing campaign against the Basque city of Guernica. The city had no military defenses and few soldiers; hundreds of civilians were killed or maimed in the assault. While the Basque civilians were horrified at the senseless aggression of the fascists, the rest of the world barely noticed. Rather, it took a generation of artists to take to their typewriters and paintbrushes to communicate the fascists’ war crimes to a callous world.

One of these artist happened to be the Spaniard Pablo Picasso, who was living and painting five hundred miles northeast, in Paris. His response was to paint “Guernica,” perhaps his most famous canvas, an abstract depiction of the agonizing death of Guernican civilians under the wrath of the bombers. So powerful and illustrative was the painting that it is rumored to have prompted a Nazi officer to arrive at Picasso’s doorstep in Paris and ask, “Did you paint this?” To which he responded, “No. You did.”

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