Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reclaiming Shakespeare: Bomb-itty of Errors at the Nevada Conservatory Theater

After a long (and busy) summer, I am excited to be back to writing my weekly blog posts. Friday night, I attended the opening of Bomb-itty of Errors at the Nevada Conservatory Theater at UNLV. The play billed itself as the precursor to Hamilton, so I was expecting to hear intricate wordplay and have a great time. Bomb-itty of Errors definitely delivered. I disagree with a recent review of the play by the Review Journal that Shakespeare would not have recognized the source material. On the contrary, I think this adaptation is perhaps more faithful to Shakespeare's plays than faithful reenactments.

Promotional poster. Retrieved from
While Shakespeare is now considered to be high culture and difficult to understand, but it was once low-class entertainment for the common man. Shakespeare invented words and focused on lyricism and rhythm in his plays. Men played female roles and oftentimes multiple characters. While some people could enjoy the dramatic soliloquy of Lady Macbeth, others could be entertained by a man calling attention to his "woman's breasts." Shakespeare appealed to a variety of audiences in the original performances, not only high society that we sometimes associate with Shakespearean theater.

Bomb-itty of Errors capitalized on these associations and adjusted Shakespeare's play Comedy of Errors to contemporary hip-hop themes. Hip-hop and rap are common vernacular of today, making it a fitting substitute. The flow and rhythm of the rapped dialogues brought back the cadence of the original writing. I was amazed by the amount of information that the 4 actors memorized. They played all of the parts, so memorized at least 1/4 of the 2-hour play's discourse. They also had to remember what position to be in and what outfit they had to be wearing (and sometimes what accent to use) throughout the play. Even with this heavy burden, the actors succeed flawlessly in delivering funny, engaging, and understandable lyrics. Many of the jokes were subtly hidden within the dialogue (such as adding in lines about taming shrews), or in an actor mimicking the style of a famous rapper (I noticed DMX in particular). There were also overt comedic moves, like the overbearing, racist cop and the ditzy sister, Luciana. The variety, however, made this adaptation true to the performances of Shakespeare's days.

Play promotional image. Retrieved from UNLV's Events Calendar.

Three of the male actors played sizable female roles (and the fourth played one momentarily), adjusting their voices, outfits, and demeanor to be good actors but also sources of comedy simultaneously. One of the highlights of the play was the scene where the two Dromios argued about which of the two female characters (played by each of them) was more attractive. The self-awareness was refreshing and elicited a laugh from me even after I thought the play had come to an end. The play highlighted the humor of men playing female roles by creating close contact between the actors and outrageous costumes.

I previously commented on a play adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. That play modeled itself after a rock opera, seeking to emphasize Gray's fall to sin with rock and roll. I found that adaptation fell flat, primarily because of the adjustments made to the story itself. Bomb-itty of Errors, however, seamlessly updated the story to contemporary hip-hop culture, using stereotypes to its comedic advantage. Theater allows for immense creativity and the ephemeral quality of performance. The Bomb-itty of Errors show I watched had many references to Las Vegas and the current election season. The lyrics and jokes could be updated, adapted, even ad-libbed (as many rap battles are) to fit the situation. The play and the actors' words are now lost in the wind, remnants of a contemporary oral culture where lyricism and word play still capture public attention.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Forest and Sacrificing Agency for Explanation

I recently saw "The Forest," a horror movie that discusses the Aokigahara Forest in Mount Fuji, Japan. The forest is known for its association with people committing suicide in the forest. The forest is said to be haunted by yurei, or the ghosts of those who have taken their lives in the forest. As with other horror films that I have analyzed (The Purge: Anarchy, Teeth, Crimson Peak, It Follows, The Visit, and Pride + Prejudice + Zombies), I will first summarize the film and then discuss some elements of the film that bear further critique. For "The Forest," I'd like to address issues of exoticism and Orientalism, responses to trauma, as well as issues of agency and explanation. This review will contain spoilers of the movie's key moments and plot developments.
Image retrieved from this site.
The movie focuses on Sara and her twin sister, Jess. Sara travels to Japan to look for Jess once notified by police that her sister is missing in the Aokigahara Forest. Convinced that her twin bond tells her that Jess is alive, Sara disregards the warnings of pretty much everyone in the film and goes into the forest. With this incredibly long build-up and character development, Sara finally enters the forest and camps out with Aiden, a man she met hours earlier in a local bar. This is where the visions start happening and Sara is confronted with haunting images of dead bodies, ghosts, and people she isn't quite sure are alive or not. The climax of the film comes when she becomes suspicious enough of Aiden to stab him and leave herself alone in the forest. A final vision consumes her and she re-enacts finding her parents dead in her house with Jess. In this vision, Sara and Jess's father comes back to life and attacks Sara with a death-grip on her arm. Sara slices at her father's hand to free herself from his grasp. At this point, the continuity is not clear to me, so I will piece together what I think happened. Sara, in her mind, escapes her father's grasp and runs through the forest, trying to get back to the path. But, she's actually sliced her own wrists instead of her father's non-existent hands and has bled out. Her soul, or perhaps spirit, running through the forest alerts her sister, who had been camping the entire movie and seemingly unaffected by the yurei, and starts her running towards the path. Jess is eventually led back to the forest's entrance (in part by her sister's yurei?) and is reunited with Sara's fiance, who at first thinks it is Sara that has emerged from the forest. As the two look into the forest, they see Sara's yurei with glowing eyes.

Sara and Aiden in the forest. Image retrieved from this site.
Overall, I was not wowed by the film and would rate it as below average compared to other horror films, although not quite as awful as The Visit. In watching it, however, I was struck by a few details that stood out to me as unique in films I've recently watched and unique to my usual blog analysis. First, I'll address issues of Orientalism and exoticism. Edward Said argued that Western culture patronizes and infantilizes Eastern culture. Western media portrayals of Asia exoticizes Eastern culture and provides them no personal value or consideration beyond gross stereotypes. These inaccurate representations undermine the ability of the West and Western people to understand or value Eastern culture. When The Forest came out, there was backlash in the press that the film painted Japanese culture in a negative light. Many reviewers noted the distinct lack of any Japanese main characters, despite the film happening in Japan (why couldn't Aiden have been Japanese?), and the odd behaviors of many of those that were highlighted. When Sara enters her sister's classroom in Japan, one of the schoolgirls literally freaks out and cannot be consoled at the sight of seeing her teacher again. Although Jess is presumably there to teach children English, the girl is unable to communicate at all in English and instead stammers with cliche wide-eyes and a schoolgirl uniform about the supernatural and ghost stories. Every Japanese person appears to be an expert on local folklore and preoccupied with death. From the woman who keeps dead bodies in her basement and the tour guide who seems numb to cutting down hanged bodies, the movie portrays Japanese people as uncaring and obsessed with death. Many reviewers pointed out the potential for racism and mischaracterization. I must agree that the film engaged in white-washing of a Japanese health epidemic and used the Aokigahara Forest as nothing more than a foreign, exotic backdrop for foregrounding the important, tragic lives of white Americans.

Sara being dragged away by the yurei. Image retrieved from this site.
Reviews also condemned the film for ignoring an important mental health crisis and making light of a serious epidemic in Japan. One review asked, what if a similar film was made about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, another location that experiences many suicides. Borrowing from my previous points, this conceptualization of Japanese sites as specifically "haunted," exoticizes Japanese culture as being odd, occult, or unnatural. The suicide forest is not addressed as meaningful or an issue for the protagonist to tackle. The forest is merely a "creepy" location for the protagonist to search for her sister. In ignoring the mental health issues inherent in the forest, the movie does touch upon the trauma that Sara and Jess went through in their parents death. The distinction drawn between them is that Jess actually saw her parents' dead bodies while Sara did not. Sara frequently mentions that in not looking, she was not fully there for her sister and could not help her bear that burden. It is then Sara and not Jess who is repeatedly told that she is "filled with sadness," and should not enter the forest. Having seen her parents' bodies, Jess is somehow more fully able to cope with her parents' death. I do not wish to make grand conclusions about what is appropriate and not, but it does strike me as an incredibly interesting statement on trauma and coping mechanisms. There are many different ways to respond with losing loved ones, this case in a murder-suicide. The film seems to argue, or at least, imply that in not fully seeing and acknowledging her trauma, Sara has set herself up for her own suicide. Jess is much stronger against the yurei and the influences of the forest, because she has "faced" her trauma and has overcome it. The messages, however coded and unapparent, may send harmful messages to people coping with their own trauma, who may or may not be seeking actual medical and professional advice to counter or correct media images. While many reviewers advocated boycotting the film for its damaging portrayal of the forest and mental illness, others noted that "art should not be censored."

Image retrieved from this site.
The very first analytical thought I had about the movie was about the lack of agency given to the people who enter the forest. I was struck by the fact that in showing Sara killing herself based on a "trick" of the yurei, that they were removing agency from everyone else who entered the forest. Perhaps they didn't really want to die, but were similarly tricked. Suicide is truly an awful act, and one that I have familiarity with, but minimizing the decision-making power of those who engage in it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. For the film to pawn off the responsibility from individuals to ghosts and supernatural trickery is to provide an explanation that denies the need for broad consideration of mental health and depression. To invoke Burke's pentadic ratio, the film removes agency from individuals and instead focuses on the scene, the Aokigahara Forest, as mitigating the individual's responsibility for their actions. I'm not saying that we should be blaming individuals for taking their lives, there are oftentimes many influencing factors at play. But, I am wary of a film that seems to reduce suicide to the hallucinations caused by the supernatural. I am reminded of Aaron Mahnke's podcast, Lore. In episode 11, Black Stockings, Mahnke discusses myths about fairies who would kidnap children and adults and replace them with "changelings." In his description of the podcast, Mahnke's describes the human need to create stories "to explain the unexplainable." Faced with mental illness and physical disability, it was easier for people to see others as less-than-human and others, instead of caring for fellow humans who were different. Instead of working to solve the issues that lead to suicide sites, like the Aokigahara Forest, people may excuse the actions using supernatural circumstances. This removes agency from individuals, particularly those with mental illness, and ignores larger societal problems.

As far as horror movies go, I thought this film was full of cliches and added nothing to the genre. It also brought up some interesting rhetorical implications for its depictions of Asian cultures, trauma, and mental illness. I hope that in the future that horror films might take more caution in subject matter selection and treatment of sensitive subjects. I agree with one blogger that art should not be censored, but I do think that in making films, people should be concerned with how their treatment might influence audiences and make statements about other cultures and mental illnesses.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, oh my! Literature Classics and Film Appropriation

This past Thursday, I attended a film screening of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the latest film to be adapted from a book....that was itself adapted from a different book. I remember when the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out, and I thought the book might lure unsuspecting youth into actually enjoying a literary matsterpiece and classic. I greatly enjoyed reading the original and admit that I snubbed the pop culture revival. Upon given the opportunity to go to a screening, however, I put my skepticism aside. As a film, I thought PPZ was excellent, extremely entertaining and just enough of the original to be a humorous homage. I have to say that Lily James and Matt Smith stole the show and created exciting and entertaining characters. This blog is not simply about movie reviews, however, so I feel compelled to discuss some elements of communication and rhetorical theory that, in this case, heightens my enjoyment of the film, and one cautionary note. I will first address what I felt were positive feminist inversions in the film through perspective by incongruity before discussing the future of orality and literacy. Suffice to say, this post will have comments about specific elements of the film. You have been warned.

Image retrieved from this site.
Although many of the fighting scenes became repetitive, I never tired of the many scenes of the Bennet sisters pulling knives out of garter belts or revealing hidden weapons from underneath their dresses. The Bennet sisters were trained as Chinese warriors and often came to the aid of their family and male counterparts. In discussing these scenes, I am reminded of Kenneth Burke's perspective by incongruity, by which two disparate things are united to highlight the differences between them. In PPZ, I found this concept in play along multiple dimensions. The weaponry along the exaggerated feminity of the time period. Large skirts and corsets are made to restrict the movements of ladies, and yet the Bennet sisters move seemingly without pause to eliminate dozens of potential zombie threats. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of 19th century language and style with a contemporary horror fascination reflected the movie's unique narrative. One of my favorite parts was the puppeter-style history book that explained the relationship between the plague and the zombie outbreak - fascinating legitimization of a decidedly impossible occurrence.

Image retrieved from this site.
Perspective by incongruity also laid a stark humor over the entire novel. The imminent zombie horde emphasizes how absurd the choice of husbands for Elizabeth is and the amount of time and attention given to such occasions. Even with zombies attacking and killing people at the balls, Mrs. Bennet and many of the people present are preoccupied with marriage and inheritances. The incongruence of these simultaneous acts highlights the odd traditions of the past and reignites the agency of Elizabeth in choosing her husband, despite the risks. I have recently paid much attention to the rise of feminist themes in horror movies (such as Teeth, It Follows, and Crimson Peak). I am happy to find these themes traversing genres and emerging in a more mainstream film. I hope these themes do not become overblown and trite, and keep their sincerity and calls for reconsidering the roles of women in narratives.
Image retrieved from this site.
I did enjoy PPZ and found many instances of progressive film-making. I do wonder, however, if the creation of such films do not damage readership. When I first encountered the novel, I thought at least people would still be reading - what is there now? I do not mean to undermine film as a medium of communication, but I wonder what the long term effects are of children brought up watching the Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Roald Dahl novels, the Great Gatsby, and Bride to Teribithia. Furthermoe, what happens when these film adaptations are perversions of the original text? Excellent movies, to be sure, but I wonder what components of visuality and literacy, minus orality, are lost on the current generation.