Archive | September, 2017

A Brief Word to Hollywood Famous Person Gavin Polone on Whitewashing

25 Sep

Producer extraordinaire Gavin Polone penned a column for The Hollywood Reporter this week that espoused some views on the practice of whitewashing. He attempted to take the side of those who deplore the practice, praising Hollywood for gradually phasing out its decades-long policy of casting white actors to play non-white roles. He also warned, however, against the growing trend by whitewashing opponents of protesting any role re-written to be white, for ostensibly creative or business reasons, exemplified by Ed Skrein’s decision to take his name out of consideration for a role in the new Hellboy movie in which his character was a Japanese-American in the comic on which the movie is based. Unfortunately, the primary point Polone’s take underscores is that he doesn’t really understand entirely what the problem is with this type of whitewashing to begin with.

To break out the exact problem with Polone’s argument in a logical fashion,  let’s start at the beginning.

There are, very broadly,  three major possible applications for the term whitewashing, from narrowest to broadest.

  1. White people portraying another people of another race or ethnicity (example: Yul Brenner playing the King of Siam in The King and I, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
  2. Parts originally intended as parts for one ethnicity in source material being adopted or rewritten to be played by white people (example Tilda Swinton as the originally Tibetan Ancient One in Dr. Strange, Ed Skrein in Hellboy, before he pulled out).
  3. White people cast in a role which is not rewritten or adopted but feels like it should more naturally be played by an actor of another race or ethnicity and/or shows the white person as superior to the non-white people around him or her at their own games (Matt Damon in The Great Wall, Finn Jones in Iron Fist)

The first definition is generally agreed upon by consensus in modern Hollywood, including Polone, even though there are still examples of it occurring in modern TV and movies, like Emma Stone in Aloha and Joe Fiennes as Michael Jackson in an episode of Urban Myths.  There are certainly lots of very thorny specifics on the edges of this broad definition, that Polone brings up, even though he tries to use that otherwise well-made point to distract from the errors in his logic regarding the second definition. What are the range of races and ethnicities that can play other specific races and ethnicities and when exactly it is okay? We can all agree that Joe Fiennes shouldn’t be playing Michael Jackson; but is it okay for, as Polone mentions, Randall Park to be playing a Taiwanese-American on Fresh Off the Boat? There are very complicated non-obvious questions on which thousands of words can be written, and which likely depend on the specifics of roles, but it’s mostly the second definition which troubles Polone in his post and which I want to spend time talking about. His point about the complications of that first definition is accurate but a smokescreen to the weaknesses in his larger point.

This second definition is where I think the battle in Hollywood currently really lies and where Polone shows he doesn’t really understand the reasons why whitewashing is so problematic, of which there are, very broadly, three.

  1. White actors portraying characters of other races or ethnicities perpetrates racist stereotypes and offensively represents the races and ethnicities being depicted.
  2. Actors of certain races and ethnic groups are underrepresented relative to their general population, and whitewashing makes it more difficult for people of those races and ethnicities to get work
  3. Casting contributes to a white-as-default mentality, reinforcing a notion that whites are more important, and makes it more difficult for people of underrepresented races and ethnicities to see more varied and better portrayals of their own race and ethnicity on screen.

Polone understands the first rationale well, and makes his argument against the first definition to whitewashing above using his understanding of that point. He doesn’t obviously understand how important the second point is.

Polone uses a set of arguments gradualists have used for years in every similar civil rights struggle. They all essentially agree with the cruasers’ righteous goals, they say, but they have to practical about it. No one can expect the people who make these decisions to change overnight, and the radicals are in fact hurting the cause by advocating too strongly and not letting Hollywood advance at its own pace, which might cause an accidental backlash.

He uses a couple of examples of when perceived second definition white washing should be acceptable and why, primarily because of understandable, in his mind, box office concerns. The reasons, however contradict one another.

We shouldn’t get riled because Marvel changed the Ancient One, because it’s merely a supporting character. Well, on the other hand, we should understand why Marvel had to change the main character in Ghost in the Shell, they needed a star.  Polone tries to have it both ways, that we both shouldn’t get upset about losing a supporting character, but can’t realistically hope for an Asian star. Polone tries to excuse the Ancient One decision due to a very specific set of concerns regarding the politics between China and Tibet, but looking at the second rationale above why white washing is bad, could have led to casting of a different Asian nationality aside from Tibetan if that was an unsolvable issue. Not to mention, the self-perpetuating logic that if we need a star, we have to choose from the existing pool of largely white stars – if Asian-Americans don’t have a chance to star in movies, they’ll never thus be considered stars worthy of that star billing.

We should understand why Hollywood makes certain decisions for financial reasons, Polone says, but by replacing Ed Skrein with Daniel Dae Kim, he think in that particular case helps Hellboy from a marketing perspective. The only reason for him to make that caveat that I can think of is to attempt to turn the argument of anti-whitewashers on its head; the writers and directors behind Hellboy are just trying to make the best movie creatively, and Ed Skrein was their choice to do that, and they should be granted that creative freedom.

That argument doesn’t wash though because it gets at exactly what Polone doesn’t get about the problem with whitewashing.  Even if not for ostensible box office reasons, even if subconsciously, predominantly white producers, directors, writers, and lots of otherwise well-meaning people behind the scenes, tend to be more likely to cast white people, for psychological reasons that are above my pay grade. By forcing their hand, at the very least to stick with characters that aren’t white in their original incarnation, we’re forcing them to look outside of their narrow view and give actors chances to play parts they aren’t gifted with nearly as often. I like Ed Skrein as an actor but I hardly think Polone could or would make an argument that Skrein was simply the only actor who could do justice to that part. There are many many actors the movie could choose from, whether we wanted to limit it to Japanese-Americans, or other Asian-Americans or not, which again is a far different and more complicated question, and those are actors that are not getting chances in a predominantly white industry.

The argument that the protests aren’t practical doesn’t hold water either. I’m all for practical, and often the problems I have with politics on my liberal side of the aisle that I disagree with are due to their relative practicality, but opponents of that second type of whitewashing on being very practical. They’re attempting to change the calculus for both actors taking whitewashed parts by both punishing actors who take them with public shaming, and rewarding them, as seen with Ed Skrein for declining them. Supporters believe that movies that are less whitewashed will, if released, do perfectly well at the box office, and Polone didn’t provide any evidence otherwise – not to claim this is any type of meaningful sample, but Ghost in the Shell, Polone’s choice of a movie that needed an established star, was a flop regardless, and does he really think Dr. Strange would not have succeeded without Swinton? He contends Hollywood simply won’t make these movies, and there’s realistic concern that will happen, but will it happen with every single movie – will Hollywood never make another movie with a non-white character again? I doubt it; this is a long run gambit, and I would argue the price of losing a few likely mediocre adaptions due to public pressure in the meantime is worth the progress towards an end goal of more representative casting.

End of Series Report: Twin Peaks: The Return

20 Sep

I don’t have anything particularly illuminating to say about the particulars of the final Twin Peaks episodes, or the season as a whole, but I merely want to say a few works more generally about the critical and cult phenomenon that surrounds the show, and David Lynch in general, and how I feel as a visitor, rather than a resident, in Lynch-world, eager to absorb and learn but occasionally skeptical and unwilling to always drink the kool-aid.

I can’t compete with the level of nuance and observation from the many Lynch disciples on the internet who have trained their eyes to look for the most minute reference or symbolism that relates to earlier in the season, to previous Twin Peaks incarnations, or to other projects in the Lynch oeuvre. There’s plenty to speculate on, but in this case I’m not the person to do it. I’ve greatly appreciated their work throughout the internet which has helped me enjoy the season on a much wider level than I would have on my own.

As should be obvious at this point, I’m not a Twin Peaks diehard. I didn’t watch the original series until a couple of years ago, somehow managing not to spoil the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer for myself (I still don’t know how I managed that), largely enjoying the show until that point and having a little harder of a time pushing through the second half of the second season slog (I still keep forgetting Heather Graham was in the show). Overall, I enjoyed the show but I didn’t think it was a breakthrough TV or one of the best shows of all time. What I did think was that it was incredibly bizarre, particularly for the time, and still today, and that it had the most insane ending of any show I’ve seen, and both those qualities are what built up what excitement I had for the new season.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this new season, and that was exciting. There’s always a temptation make a reboot feel warm and cozy, to reintroduce viewers to all the characters they missed in the interim, but David Lynch has little taste for the sentimental. The more accurate question in this case was to what limited extent the show would bring back its familiar elements and characters, and to what extent it could be just as weird now, relatively, as it must have been then. Without the burden of expectation of a bigger fan, I was less likely to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to expectations, or maybe lived up too closely to expectations for my liking.

I watched episodes often without having any idea what was going on at certain parts. I guess that’s part of the whole idea, and there’s both a thrill and a frustration that comes along with it. I appreciate the instinct not to pander to the audience, but at the other end of the spectrum, sometimes there’s just nothing really to understand. For about half the segments I was confused by, other more dedicated and astute viewers seemed to understand and shed some helpful light on, whether literally or symbolically, and for the other half it seemed like nobody had any idea, occasionally grasping at straws for deeper meaning, but still liked or disliked based on how much they enjoyed the general Lynch-ness of it.

Reading recaps for Twin Peaks: The Return, which were for me a requirement, compared to a supplement for just about any other show I’ve ever seen, felt like a combination of enthusiasm, illumination, and rationalization. Twin Peaks had less of a traditional narrative than just about any television show that has ever aired. There’s something to be said for a show being a tone poem; for there not being a whole lot of narrative meaning, and for the picture and shape and feel to mean as much as a typical story. There’s also a likelihood that the fact that qualities sometimes came at the expense of an often muddled and unfocused structure would not be excused so easily were it not both Twin Peaks and David Lynch; fans, I think, are  little bit pre-baked to accept whatever Lynch wants to throw out there (in some respect, it’s the nature of fandom; I’ve excused my favorites for lazy or inferior content on occasion). Some characters seem to exist for no reason. Most notably, never returning to Audrey after we see waking up in a hospital-like room feels particularly mystifying; I’ve seen many rationalizations for it, but they all feel like rationalizations; there are a lot of shows could look a lot better in the right light if they had bloggers in their corner finding the absolute best defense for any potential wrong step. Some writing about Twin Peaks  reads a lot like Lost defenders talking about how the constant cop outs, unanswered questions, and deus ex machinas on that show were all part of larger story that is actually brilliant and that you, reader, just don’t get and appreciate it.

By no means are these structures and odd peripheral characters and plotlines without merit. Lynch has generally thought these things through; Twin Peaks: The Return, as insane as it gets (and it gets way out there) never feels as silly or confused as Lost. When Lynch makes a bad choice, for what it’s worth, it feels like there’s more of an intentionality to those bad choices, rather than scrambling and appearing made up as it went along. Everything is in there for a reason, at least in Lynch’s mind; as a one-shot miniseries (albeit a very long one) he knows there’s no next season to follow (though never say never) and doesn’t have to worry about where his characters end up.

I would love to somehow apply a double blind test to some of Lynch’s biggest fans and see whether something similarly brilliant but messy and uncfocused without the Lynch brand associated with it would garner as much universal acclaim. Maybe it would; it’s entirely possible. But it’s hard to not feel like occasionally, because Lynch did it, its’ brilliant, rather than the other way round.

I’m glad I watched it. I’m glad I got to be part of a moment in time, where people were so feverishly into it, and their enthusiasm caused me to be way more into it that I might have been otherwise, which is a good thing. I’m glad I got a piece of the general excitement surrounding the property. The show was a fascinating journey where there was absolutely no way to predict what was coming next, and most importantly, it was like absolutely nothing else on TV and that’s worth a hell of a lot.  I suspect it won’t be like anything else on TV for a very long time; it didn’t feel the need to reckon with its viewership at all and was content to leave viewers with infinite questions wanting more, for better and worse. It was an achievement. I’m just convinced when I rank my favorite shows at year’s end, for me, all of the difference doesn’t make it a better show than The Americans or BoJack Horseman.


End of Season Report: Horace and Pete

13 Sep

It took me a year and a half, and even though I bought a couple of the episodes when they were first available, I didn’t watch any until the show moved over to Hulu, but I finally made it through Louis CK’s self-produced one-man vision Horace and Pete.

One could call Horace and Pete an experimental project, in that it’s unlike anything on TV, though what makes it “experimental” is what makes its look and feel much simpler and bare bones than modern TV, hearkening back in many ways to earlier eras. Distribution-wise however, it was unquestionably experimental – being completely funded by CK without the backing or approval of any network or website. Shot like a play, that’s what it feels like, more than a television show, with an extremely limited number of sets, primarily the titular bar and the upstairs apartment, and only one or two scenes outside the bar that I can remember (at a restaurant and a doctor’s office) and no exteriors. Like a play as well, the dialogue is enunciated very clearly, is a bit exaggerated and and has the distinct cadences and pauses of a stage production, breathing more than typical faster-paced Peak TV.  Episodes very greatly in length, and though this should be no surprise to Louie viewers, Horace and Pete is no comedy; there are comedic moments but it’s not a particularly funny show nor is it attempting to be.

There are a lot of successes and a number of flaws, but it’s worth watching, particularly for fans of Louie, because it’s so different and for the things that it does well. Most days of the week, I’d rather watch a flawed original show than a technically better-executed second-rate prestige drama, and Horace and Pete is very much the former.

Horace and Pete seems to think it’s profound all of the time – about half the time it is and half of the time it isn’t. The show is at its worst when it’s being political, which it largely does in the context of discussion amongst patrons at the bar of different political persuasions. Admittedly, there may be some bias from watching this a year and a half later, and a big year and a half later, after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, and my undoubted coastal liberal elite status makes it particularly my bias particularly acute. But the material, most of it involving regular barfly Kurt Meltzer, often working around the theme that both parties are kind of screwed up, and no one is listening to each other, may have had roots in truth but feels oddly stale in an America where a Republican president is calling white nationalists fine men.

The acting is wonderful, particularly Edie Falco as Horace and Pete’s sister Sylvia,who is fighting cancer, and Steve Buscemi as the tragic Pete, who learns that the medicine which is the only thing separating him from the debilitating mental illness he suffers from and which kept him in a mental hospital for years, is going off the market. Generally, I enjoyed the bits focusing on the family more than the random conversations of the barflies, which felt closer to attempts at humor which never quite worked. Horace is a frustrating bumbling every man who can never seem to put the right words together that the situation calls for, trying to do the right thing, but often failing. Sylvia and Pete are both more sympathetic and compelling, and as for Alan Alda’s Uncle Pete, I was surprised but happy to see him go. To no fault of Alda’s, I didn’t have a lot of interest in this bigoted horrible old man who everyone but Sylvia seems to put up with and even like for some reason.

The strongest segments are the non sequiturs; the stories, told, in a monologue from one character to another, or the snippets of idle conversation about life, when it doesn’t feel as if Louis CK is trying to make an explicit point. The shining example of this and the one episode of the series that everyone should watch, regardless if they ever plan on tuning in again is the third episode, “Episode Three” (creatively titled), featuring Laurie Metcalf as Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah. In nearly entirely a monologue format, Sarah tells the story of how she came to be cheating on her current husband with her husband’s father, and how that experience grants her some understanding of how Horace could have cheated on her with her sister years ago, leading to the dissolution of their marriage, even while knowing what a disaster it would be when they were inevitably caught. I just described the gist, but that’s peripheral to watching the story being told by an acclaimed theater actress like Melcalf, who is obviously a master of this format, using dramatic pauses and facial tics to emphasize individual moments of the story, with brilliant specifics details inserted by Louie throughout. Right there in those scenes is what makes Horace and Pete interesting and worthy and justifies the investment.