The Danish Girl

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Apology

Please accept my apologies for the lack of a post last week, but the following took a little longer to write because it is longer than usual. It is also a very sensitive subject and I did not want to treat it lightly. With that out of the way, enjoy.

The Stories We Choose To Tell

*Spoilers are to be expected*

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.”

– Mark Twain

I was hesitant to transcribe my thoughts on The Danish Girl for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, my reference for depictions of trans men and women in the media is largely a single book: Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Would I just be regurgitating her opinions and applying them to the film? If that was the case, why should I not just recommend the book and suggest people see the film to find out for themselves whether it fails or succeeds to render an acceptable portrait of Lili Elbe? A quotation from Julian Barnes seems particularly appropriate to this dilemma:

“If all your responses to a book have already been duplicated and expanded upon by a professional critic, then what point is there to your reading? Only that it’s yours.”

That is a good point: The reading IS mine. Serano does not cover a few of the things that I have concerns about, and I strongly disagree with her solution to the present problem of trans representation: That artists and academics should stop appropriating transsexual identities and experiences until such time as most people are familiar with their work. I dislike the implications of this. Many people have a paucity of experience watching films by women directors. Should that mean male directors should stop casting women at all? The “slippery slope” argument is often misused, but take this to its logical extreme and the only films anyone would make would be those written, acted and directed by only themselves. It would be a considerable hindrance to the advancement of art.

Secondly, have I any right to offer an opinion on how trans people are represented in the media when they can clearly speak for themselves? Well, no, no I don’t. The current onslaught of transphobic sentiment following proposals to remove gender from UK ID, however, make it important for as many people who support the trans community to voice their opinions, to try and stop the malignant spread of misinformation peddled by, and I use this word advisedly, hatemongers. Hopefully it will come across in the ‘respectful, non-exploitative’ way Serano thinks possible when trans people have such a presence in the media that they are unable to be drowned out by cissexual voices.

The Portrayal Of Trans Femaleness As Artificial

“It is their [the media’s] intent to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses and high heels, thereby giving the audience the impression that the trans woman’s femaleness is an artificial mask or costume.”

This is a quotation from Whipping Girl, from The Fascination With “Feminization” section of Serano’s chapter “Skirt Chasers: Why The Media Depicts The Trans Revolution In Lipstick And Heels”. The Danish Girl has several scenes of this nature, including one where Gerda is shown in the act of putting lipstick and eyeliner on Lili, but the one that stands out is when Lili takes the place of Gerda’s model and is shown putting on a pair of stockings, followed by Gerda telling her that she is putting them on the wrong way round. Choosing to show Lili in the act of putting on female clothing and choosing to show Lili’s ignorance at how to put on the stockings gives the impression that her femaleness is fake.

The Danish Girl is full of these clichéd trappings but at one point tries to get around this problem by having Lili stand in front of a full-length mirror, look down at her penis, push it back between her thighs and cross her legs. It is likely this is supposed to suggest an element of disgust at her male organ and therefore be a portrayal of her gender dysphoria. Such a claim is backed up by a scene in which Gerda reaches toward Lili’s genitals and Lili stops her, as if she is upset its existence has been acknowledged. A similar thing happens when Henrik does the same thing. It is apparently quite common for trans women, rather than putting things on to emphasise their femaleness, to take things off in order to conceal their maleness. However, the same problem persists because she is shown in the act of hiding her maleness and therefore showing that her femaleness is artificial. To avoid this problem, it would have been preferable to have shown her with her legs crossed already, not looking down at her penis at all, then she would not be seen in the act.

In an interview with Radio 4, Eddie Redmayne talks about seeing paintings of Lili as a man, wearing “incredibly high starched collars” and “tight tailored suits”, describing them as “a sort of exoskeleton of masculinity”. He continues that “it was about her peeling off these layers as she found herself.” This would have been a great thing to have seen, but it does not come across in the film at all. In fact, the clothing choices had exactly the opposite effect. Casting a trans woman in the role would have made more sense, as it would emphasise the unnaturalness of the gender she was assigned at birth.

After Lili has died, Gerda and Hans go to the bog near where she grew up. Gerda watches Lili’s scarf fly away in the wind and Hans tries to retrieve it. Gerda stops him, telling him to “let it fly.” Why would you choose an article of clothing as a metaphor for Lili’s transcendence if not to suggest that her femaleness was mostly about appearance?

In the afterword to the novel, David Ebershoff writes: “Lili was an artist – her greatest creation was herself.” I find the phrasing of this sentence disagreeable because it suggests Lili “created” herself, when it would be more accurate to describe the process like the attributed quotation of Michelangelo’s: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Lili had herself inside her, and she discovered her.

Part of the problem is the story that has been chosen. It is the story of someone in the act of discovering her inherent femaleness and therefore makes it seem artificial.

The Description Of Trans Femaleness As Natural

One of the oddest parts of this particular portrayal of Lili Elbe is that she is shown to have nosebleeds on a monthly basis accompanied by cramps. This is obviously put in to suggest that Lili’s femaleness is natural. However, although I appreciate its symbolic intent, I think it marginalises members of the actual trans community, who do not suffer these symptoms, and therefore may feel that this manifestation of her femaleness makes her an exceptional case. Most trans women do not get such blatant physical clues and the fact that they do not menstruate has been used to argue that they are not “real” women.

Lili does say a few things to try and get the point that her femaleness is natural across: “When I dream, they’re Lili’s dreams”, “You helped bring Lili to life, but she was always there. She was always waiting”, and “God made me a woman. The doctor was curing me of the sickness that was my disguise”. It is a problem I often have that filmmakers rely too much on dialogue to get their point across, contradicting how something is actually portrayed, and it reared its ugly head again here. Gerda’s words try to convey the same point: “I know it was Einar [I married], but really, it was you [Lili] and me.” The line rings false because she had no idea about Lili being a woman until the latter modeled for her.

Prepubescent Perplexity

In The Danish Girl, the only formative experience of Lili Elbe’s childhood we hear about that could be construed as a hint she might be a woman inside is a kiss she shares with her friend Hans while she is wearing her grandmother’s apron. Confusion about sexuality is a common side-effect of gender dysphoria, so there is no harm in including this. Crossdressing is obviously part of the trans experience and is enticing because of what it represents. The harm comes from the exclusion of any hints in her early life about gender dysphoria itself, as if being a trans woman is only a matter of sexuality and clothing, which is plainly wrong.

Laura Jane Grace, the trans lead singer of the punk band Against Me!, said in an interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast that one of her earliest memories was when she was four or five years old, watching Madonna in front of the television and feeling a sense of identity. At around five or six, Serano had dreams where somebody would tell her she was a girl and remembers thinking she did not belong in the boys’ bathroom. You will notice that neither of these early signs of gender dysphoria relate to sexuality or clothing.

The book the screenplay has been adapted from, which also contains the kiss between Lili and Hans, contains the protagonist’s memory of being caught in her mother’s wardrobe. This is also problematic because by making it about the clothes it suggests the trans experience is about presentation rather than innateness, artificiality over sincerity.

At a time when many trans men and women are misrepresented, the lie by omission perpetrated by the film is complicit in pushing a false impression, intentionally or not.

The Myth Of Autogynephilia

I may have used some words that you have had to look up. I am sorry for that. In this instance, however, I will save you the trouble, because it is hardly in common usage. Essentially, autogynephilia is the supposed sexual fetish that somebody assigned male at birth has for being a woman. It was based on dubious evidence and has been debunked as an explanation for trans women, yet some people still believe it exists. However, echoes of the idea do slip into trans depictions, and such is the case with The Danish Girl.

When Gerda discovers that Lili is wearing one of her undershirts, the couple suddenly have their most passionate encounter in the whole film. In general, feeling more at ease with yourself and confident would lead you to be more sexually proactive, so again, I do not see any problem in including this. That there is a difference between this and the autogynephilic presentation of their souped-up carnal activity, however, is not made clear until Lili is asked by a doctor whether she and Gerda have regular intercourse and she answers that they have had less since she started dressing as a woman. The misleading scene is therefore corrected, but it would have been simpler for the audience to understand if it had not been included it at all.

Ciswashing History, Ciswashing Geography

One unfortunate side effect of choosing this particular story is that it inadvertently suggests that gender dysphoria, or at least the active pursuit of trying to deal with all that entails, was a phenomenon that began in the twentieth century and is therefore a societal invention. In the whole of Europe, there is only one doctor who is sympathetic to Lili, and he has only met one other person like her before. This minor reference does little to suggest the true extent of trans people in history.

Perhaps as a result of the current prevalence of comic book adaptations, and perhaps because I know the phenomenon of the comic book superhero started around this time, I could not help thinking that it played out like an origin story: “Einar Werdener was just an ordinary man until one day he was asked to model for his wife’s painting. It granted him untold powers of femininity. He found a doctor with the experimental technology to become Lili Elbe, the Tremendous Transsexual!” It is like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, or, more accurately, like Einar Werdener being bitten by the femininity bug. Although there are hints about her inclinations prior to the event, (She picks up an item of Gerda’s clothing, strokes a series of ladies clothes as she walks past a rack, stares longingly at Gerda untying the laces of her boots and corrects Gerda’s lipstick,) it comes across as something that she only discovers about herself when she puts on the clothes to model for her wife, which does not tally with the trans experiences quoted above.

So the problem for the filmmaker becomes, if you are going to tell this atypical trans story, how do you show the loneliness of feeling her situation is unique, the lack of any touchstones to guide her, and at the same time contextualise it?

Perhaps the answer lies in another film about gender politics that was released last year. Before the credits rolled at the end of Suffragette, it showed a list of countries and the year in which that country’s women won the right to vote, up to Saudi Arabia in 2015. It reinforced that feminism is an ongoing project. Obviously with trans men and women there is no such concrete statistic to measure their march toward equality, but there should have been something to show this story was not a new one.

Perhaps a list of people in history going as far back as Eliogabalus, who is said to have offered half the Roman Empire to anyone that could make his male genitals female, or some allusion to other cultures. There are examples of complicated gender identities that precede this particular story from across the globe: Native American two-spirits, third-gendered Polynesians, and the Bugis people of Indonesia, who have five separate genders. These are just suggestions and neither of them are perfect, but I think there needed to be some such acknowledgement that transgender individuals were not created in central Europe in the interwar years.

Doctor, Doctor, I Feel A Little Queer

Over the course of the movie, Lili sees several doctors who variously diagnose her with schizophrenia and homosexuality, or prescribe a lobotomy or radiation treatment, until she finally comes upon one who is willing to believe that she is a woman inside. The reception she gets and the treatments she receives are disheartening to say the least. However, showing these examples of poor treatment for gender dysphoria does have the probably unintended effect of making the audience think that as a society we have made considerable progress, that thankfully such things could never happen again.

Except it ignores the fact that there is still a lot of progress to be made. Surgeries are prohibitively expensive in the US and NHS waiting times are extremely long in the UK. Dr James Barrett, speaking on Victoria Derbyshire’s television program, confirmed it was extremely common for GPs to try and talk their patients out of any procedures and cited one case where a doctor simply told them that the NHS “didn’t do this sort of thing”, which was patently untrue. Choosing the story of Lili Elbe shows that some progress has been made, but parceling the narrative into a feelgood film will not spur people to action.

“Passing”

One mark of Lili’s success the film tries to convey is that she “passes” as a woman. The problem with this is that it puts the onus on the trans person to somehow “prove” their gender, rather than on the cissexual community to accept it. Would you ask someone who was gay to prove their sexuality by affecting exaggerated camp mannerisms? No. Would you say they were not gay if they did not comply? No, because you do not get to choose their sexuality, and you do not get to choose their innate gender. Just because somebody does not conform to your idea of something, it does not mean they are not that thing.

On a couple of occasions, Lili is referred to as “pretty”. When Hans explains kissing her, he says that Lili was wearing her grandmother’s apron and she “was just so pretty, I had to kiss him.” At another stage, after Lili has begun wearing women’s clothes, Gerda asks her “When did you get so pretty?” and she replies “I’ve always been pretty. You’ve just never noticed before.” I found both of these scenes uncomfortable because attractiveness of appearance should not never be a factor in her receiving validation as a woman.

To one person she meets at a soirée, Henrik, she does not “pass”, although it is not revealed until much later in the film that he is a homosexual and was attracted to her because he thought she was a man. He says something like “We’re the same, you and me.” Although that turns out to be completely wrong, so it does not work out.

Hyperfeminisation In The Public Stage

Also in his interview with Radio 4’s The Film Programme, Redmayne talks about the trans women he spoke with for research going through a process of hyperfeminisation early on in their transitions, “perhaps wearing too much make up or clothes that are too feminine.” He points out that in the paintings of her, “Lili’s femininity is very mannered, very stylised, and the makeup is quite extreme, which hopefully, as the film plays out, begins to disappear as she finds herself and becomes more comfortable with who she is.”

This reminded me of a quotation from Whipping Girl. In the Demystifying Femininity and Unlearning Masculinity section of Serano’s chapter, “Crossdressing: Demystifying Femininity and Rethinking Male Privilege”, she states “the public stage of my crossdressing was really the only time in my life when I did go out of my way to emulate how some women looked, walked, talked, moved, and so on. I found that this increased the likelihood that I would be gendered female, which was my overall goal, and also ensured my safety.”

Although Redmayne clearly knew what he was doing, the gradual change from overt femininity to just being herself does not come across in the film. The only time I can recall her acting less feminine is when she dons a sort of suit and short hair as she walks through a park. A couple of Parisian thugs shout the word lesbian at her and then proceed to attack. When she realises she is being called a lesbian, her first reaction is to smirk, because she has been gendered female, but she becomes frightened when she realises this endangers her. Serano notes in the above quotation that her stage of hyperfeminisation “ensured her safety”, and following this incident, Lili reverts back to such a stage.

In the same interview Redmayne speaks of a conversation he had with a trans woman who related this stage to adolescence, a period when people make mistakes and are finding themselves. I know plenty of cis people who are around the age of thirty and still stuck in a perpetual adolescence, still making mistakes and finding themselves. Whether Lili would continue in this vein or not is a matter of her own personality. What irritated me about her reversion to hyperfemininity is probably best summed up by a quotation from Jeff Winger in the pilot episode of Community, when he is talking to Troy about whether he should continue to wear his high school football jacket at college:

“Listen. It doesn’t matter. You lose the jacket to please them. You keep it to piss them off. Either way, it’s for them. That’s what’s weak.”

Obviously part of it is concern for her own safety, but would someone strong enough to go out into the world dressing for herself really be cowed into dressing for other people by this encounter? It actually comes down to the story they have chosen to tell. It consists of only one trans woman, and she ends up becoming sort of an emblem for an entire diverse community. Having more than one trans woman would have solved this. They could have had one who passed through the stage of hyperfeminisation and one who did not; one who was intimidated by abuse in public and one who fought back; or one who saw it as a reason to try and be accepted as female in public and one who saw it as a reason to continue to dress how she pleased.

The Last Person I Expected To Be Talking About

At the beginning of The Danish Girl, there is a character trying to sell one of Lili’s paintings by saying: “I wouldn’t say he’s the best landscape artist in the Denmark, but he’s in the top one.” He is then swiftly mocked for using such a joke by Lili and Gerda.

You may recognise the quotation as a version of Brian Clough’s “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one” reworded to fit the context. It is so well-known that I wondered why anyone would dare include something so similar.

Was it a knowing wink? Tom Hooper also directed The Damned Utd, which was about Clough’s tenure at Leeds Utd Football Club, so he definitely knew the source. Was it an inside joke for those familiar with that part of his oeuvre? Was it that they thought nobody who knew about Clough would go and see this film, that the Venn diagram of Danish Girl audience members and football supporters had no overlapping circles? That surely could not be true, it would be so cynical. Was it the worst of both worlds: Was the presumption that wives would drag their husbands to see the film and it was thrown in to appease them? Because of the sheer absurdity of these two options, I  hope it was the first one.

Have You Seem My Penis?

“I am rather disturbed by the fact that so many people – who are neither medical professionals nor trans themselves – would want to hear all of the gory details regarding transsexual physical transformations, or would feel they have the right to ask us about the state of our genitals. It is offensive that so many people feel it is okay to publicly refer to transsexuals as being “pre-op” or “post-op” when it would so clearly be degrading and demeaning to regularly describe all boys and men as being either “circumcised” or “uncircumcised.”

Serano again, from the chapter “Coming To Terms With Transgenderism And Transsexuality”. At least The Danish Girl does not delve too deeply into, and I apologise in advance for the following phrasing, the ins and outs of her medical procedure, but her ignorance about whether she will be able to have children after the first surgery does seem out of place. You would think that would be one of the things she would have asked.

Choosing to have her surgery as the climax of the film feels inappropriate. The sensationalist biography of Lile Elbe has her beginning her surgeries half way through the book. You could argue that having it as the turning point is worse. I prefer it, however, because it does not treat her operation as if it were the pinnacle of her journey and because it allows us to see how she has not really changed, how she was always the same woman. Making the operations the climactic event is like staging a nativity play that culminates with the circumcision of Christ because he could not be the true messiah with a foreskin.

I am now going to seemingly contradict myself and focus on the surgeries, but only because the filmmakers saw fit to make a change to what actually happened. In the film, Lili gets a fever and dies after her second operation. In reality, she died because of complications from her third operation, which was the insertion of a uterus so that she could have children. I know that this was not the same operation because Lili asks the doctor whether she will be able to have children, and he replies that they need to take it one step at a time. It is an interesting change to make and I can see why they did it: Removing the third operation makes her story closer to that of trans people nowadays. Blurring the truth, however, trivialises how much she misunderstood her condition.

Passport To Womanhood

When Lili is on her way to Dresden, she looks down at her passport with a picture of her as Einar and his name written underneath it. I can only assume there is a missing scene because in reality, Denmark issued Lili Elbe a new passport with her new name and her true gender. This does not get mentioned in the film, not even in the text at the end. I think the omission of this fact was a mistake, especially given recent debates about ID. The Danish King also annulled their marriage so Gerda could marry again. This does not get mentioned either. The text of the epilogue only states that Gerda would continue to paint pictures of Lili for the rest of her life. The film completely ignores her second marriage and as a result, it comes across as a love story when it was really a friendship. This is the other problem with the line Gerda says that was quoted above: “I know it was Einar [I married], but really, it was you [Lili] and me.” In reality, it was not.

In the Capitalizing on Transsexuality and Intersexuality section of the chapter “Ungendering in Art and Academia of Whipping Girl, Serano criticises Jane Anderson, writer and director of the HBO film Normal for using a trans woman as a plot device and then relying on her imagination to portray the character. With The Danish Girl, at least we know Eddie Redmayne did his research, even if it did not come across, but there is also the uncomfortable problem of Lili’s transition being used as a sort of plot device to play out the drama of a married couple overcoming adversity and becoming friends.

Know Your Role

“After twenty years of exploration and experimentation, I eventually reached the conclusion that my female subconscious sex had nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression – it was about the personal relationship I had with my own body.”

From Serano’s chapter, “Blind Spots: On Subconscious Sex and Gender Entitlement”. I have used the above quotation specifically because of a scene in The Danish Girl in which Lili explicitly takes on the socially expected role of a woman for the period, when she starts working at the perfume counter of a department store. Questioned by Gerda as to why she would want to take such a job instead of painting as she did when she went under the name Einar, she replies: “I want to be a woman, not a painter.” It is an adaptation of a line from the Dusk section of Man Into Woman: “For I do not want to be an artist, but a woman.” The idea that she ‘wants’ to be a woman does not fit with other lines as much as if she had said, “I am a woman, not a painter”. In the film, Gerda is clearly annoyed by such a statement, and replies “People have been known to do both.” The problem is that Lili’s interpretation of what it means to be a woman is different from Gerda’s, and it includes conforming to the traditional gender role defined by the society she is living in. This is not to devalue her interpretation, as all cis women probably have differing views on what it means to be female, but is perhaps a mark of the period in which it is set, before the great surge of feminist writings later on in the twentieth century.

The other role it is apparent that Lili wants is that of a mother. In a conversation with Hans she encourages him to marry and have children because it is so important to her. That she is unable to fulfil this role is a tragic aspect of her character.

True Story, Biased Biography, Fictional Novel, Adapted Screenplay

One of the most interesting problems The Danish Girl has is that it feels behind the times. There are obvious reasons for this: The story is old, it has been reinterpreted through a biased biography and the novel came out in 2000. Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon started working on an adaptation in 2004 and had a completed script in a couple of years. Whipping Girl, the book I have quoted from extensively, came out in 2007.

The most interesting problem, and one that I think will become more and more common with the speed of communication possible in the modern era, is that the length of its time in development made its representation of the trans experience passé by the time it was released. 2015 was a banner year for trans visibility, if not necessarily for comprehension, prompted most prominently by Caitlyn Jenner coming out in the April. Filming of The Danish Girl began in February 2015. By the end of 2015, Jenner was named as a TIME Person of the Year runner-up, Collins English Dictionary had named transgender as one of its words of the year and Rush Limbaugh has been fooled into thinking tampons for trans women that simulated menstruation were a real thing. I thought The Danish Girl would have a synchronicity with the zeitgeist, a modern outlook on the trans experience, even though it was set in the past, but it did not. It just felt staid.

The Stories We Choose To Tell

There are so many variations on trans perceptions and experiences that choosing to tell only one story will almost necessarily alienate some part of the community. Choose to tell the story of a trans woman, you sideline the experiences of trans men. Choose to tell the story of a heterosexual trans woman, you may fail to evoke empathy from trans lesbians. Choose to tell the story of someone who has sex reassignment surgery, you risk failing to connect with someone who does not intend to undergo such a procedure. Choose to tell the story of a transgender pioneer from history, there will be some part of it that people going through the contemporary trans experience will be unable to relate to.

There are many stories that need to be told about trans people, but I do not believe this was one of them.

The Fear Of 13

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What To Expect When You’re Expecting To Die

*Spoilers are to be expected*

“Telling stories is telling lies.”

-B. S. Johnson

The Fear Of 13 is a documentary about a man called Nick Yarris who lied to the police in order to bargain for his innocence and ended up spending 23 years of his life on Death Row for a crime he did not commit. I did not know this upon entering, but the entire film is a monologue delivered by a seated Yarris occasionally intercut with atmospheric shots. This threw up some interesting considerations: Would Yarris be agreeable enough company to spend 96 minutes with? Would this true story be compelling enough to sustain such a simple format? Would the story be intriguing enough to make viewing worthwhile? Some of these questions are answered below.

Dramatic Monologue

There are a couple of things about the way Yarris speaks that I found strange at first. Text at the beginning states his story has been independently verified, but although he is incredibly articulate, his mannerisms seem affected rather than honest, full of exaggerated gesticulations and onomatopoeic words combined with realistic sound effects to really assert their impact. It makes you distrustful of his story, as if he is an actor rather than a chronicler of the truth. To be clear, I am not doubting the veracity of his story: I am just saying that its presentation made it seem more like the performance of a dramatic monologue than a documentary. I do not know whether this is the result of Yarris’s personality or any direction he may have received, although as I will explain later, I suspect the former.

This is partly due to its non-chronological structure. It begins with him talking about being on Death Row but does not reveal why he is there until much later in the film than I expected. The explanation for why he became the kind of person he did is not given until so late in the film that one of my cinema-going companions fell asleep before the revelation. I found this to be the most telling problem of the film, as it transpired to be so pivotal to the story and Yarris’s psychology that its introduction earlier on would have done much to eliminate the veneer of pretense.

The other jarring component of his soliloquy is the sentimentality he displays when he talks about falling in love, a section which is full of  the expected clichés. So if all this is true, why does he seem like this?

A Modern Don Quixote

One of the things that Yarris did while in prison was read 1,000 books in 3 years. This is an astonishing feat but he had the time. He read novels and law books, but was especially fond of what he calls ‘tales’. At first I thought this would be a story about how his reading led to his freedom, the same way Frederick Douglass’s learning to read enabled his emancipation from slavery, and there is an aspect of that when he notices a newspaper article about the new technology of DNA testing, which eventually leads to his release. I even think this is probably the story the filmmakers thought they were making. I think the documentary, however, reveals a less obvious truth, though perhaps unintentionally.

The perils of literary overindulgence as subject matter for artistic scrutiny is at least as old as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and though Yarris did not suffer that eponymous character’s severe delusions, what came across for me was actually a little more insidious. Yarris learned from reading all those ‘tales’ not how to lie, but how to present his story. This is why he seems like an actor: He has learnt how to be his own narrator.

The above quotation from B. S. Johnson is perhaps an oversimplification of the problem, which is a predicament many documentary-makers find themselves in: Picking and choosing what to tell and what not to is necessary to make a coherent story, but also runs the risk of misleading the viewer. I do not think that Yarris or the film intentionally mislead. I think they are trying to tell a true story of injustice and victory over insurmountable odds and they largely succeed. If this had been all that comprised the film, I would not have thought about it as much.

Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave

The final hand the film plays is a traumatic experience Yarris had when he was young. It happened when he was 13. At least, I am pretty sure it happened when he was 13 because that would explain the title, but I may be wrong. It was this that taught him how easy it was to lie and how hard it was to go back once the lie had been told. It is as if the filmmakers want you to see the disclosure of this revelation as his final salvation, his overcoming of the fatal flaw of deceit by telling his most painful truth.

Conclusion

What the revelation left me with was the uneasy feeling that our experiences unavoidably shape who we become as people. He may have escaped the death penalty, but what he cannot escape is the aura of dishonesty that seems to permeate his presentation of a true story. I will say again, and it is worth repeating so my argument is not misconstrued as an accusation of falsehood: I am not saying he is lying. I am saying that he portrays himself in a manner that is consistent with someone who has spent the majority of his life lying, even when he is telling the truth. This is perhaps the kind of unexpected lesson only achievable in the documentary format. Fictional stories would most likely have taken great pains to have actors imitating someone who portrayed themselves in a more realistic fashion, as in the British version of the sitcom The Office for example, in order to make their story more believable. Because the filmmakers allow Yarris to tell his own story, however, a more interesting character portrait is revealed, one of someone who has matured from outright lying to moulding the truth into a story.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

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The Force Awakens A Fatigue In Me

*Spoilers are to be expected*

“Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”

– Lewis Mumford

I have a love/hate relationship with Star Wars. While I appreciate the great story, the melding of a wide array of influences, (such as westerns, old sci-fi serials like Buck Rogers, and Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”,) and the ground-breaking special effects, I dislike the repercussions of its probably unrivaled popularity: Making movies to sell toys and tie-in products and the birth of the blockbuster franchise, which began in what transpired to be its embryonic form with the release of Jaws, and is now best encapsulated by the current spate of movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Obviously these flaws are not the fault of the original films, any more than an overplayed song is at fault for becoming irritating or an original voice is responsible for the myriad imitations it inspires, but the result is a conflicted review.

An Alphabetical Survey of the Major Characters

BB-8

BB-8 was a no-brainer of a character to create. The droids everyone can name from Star Wars are R2-D2 and C-3PO. Their appearance in the original trilogy as a humorous double act is a great counterpoint to the seriousness of the main story arc. A few people are irked by the campiness of Anthony Daniels’ gold protocol droid but most people are fond of R2-D2. There were no significant new droids in the prequels because these two featured. There is a minor character at the beginning of The Phantom Menace who is a protocol droid like C-3PO but silver. TC-14, as she was called, was so minor that I had completely forgotten her existence until watching the beginning of Episode I again. She does not feature enough to display any noteworthy differences to C-3PO aside from implied gender. Since the prequels had already shown a new series of protocol droid, it made sense to create another class of astromech droid. It also made sense to make the droid a major character since TC-14 was so minor.  When this new, small, cute droid rolled on screen in the trailer, I was positive.

The problem is that BB-8 is just R2-D2 2. There is nothing about the character that varies from R2-D2 except superficially: The two major differences are the lighter attachment, which the new droid uses to give a thumbs up, and the new round look. BB-8 sounds like R2-D2, projects images like R2-D2, and is even shown in the co-pilot seat of a starfighter like R2-D2. There is no role in the film that BB-8 fulfils that could not equally have been accomplished with R2-D2. Although it could be argued that the story required both of them, I would counter that it could quite easily have been rejigged to eliminate BB-8 completely and just have R2-D2 as the sole keeper of the map with few repercussions. More droids are a good idea but droids with different functions and personalities would have been preferable.

Obviously this is the first part of a trilogy and there is scope for them to rectify this. The original droids do not get much screen time with BB-8 (except R2-D2 when powered down). It is probable they will expand upon the relationships between them as the story progresses. The idea of having BB-8 as a kind of adopted child figure for C-3PO and R2-D2 appeals to me. It would change them in a way that most partners are changed when they become parents: It would give them a newfound responsibility and make them think twice about entering into the dangerous situations they often find themselves in. BB-8 as a baby R2-D2 would also fit the familial themes of the franchise. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a family of robots, think of what could be done with R2-D2 as a mentor to BB-8. That would also fit the theme of the series. For now though, colour me unimpressed.

Finn

Finn is another example of the film actively rebelling against the prequels. The Stormtroopers are no longer all clones of Jango Fett, as revealed in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He is also the best idea in the new film: A Stormtrooper who does not want to be party to the horrors they perpetrate.

The problem is that that is all he is. Even though he has spent his whole life being trained to be a Stormtrooper, he immediately realises no good can come of it. There is no struggle. He is just automatically a good guy. They could have made him interesting, but instead they chose the simplest version of his character’s journey possible.

Also, if it is so clear to him that what he is being ordered to do is evil, why are all the other Stormtroopers such willing subordinates? There is no explanation. This is lazy storytelling. I acknowledge that this may be elaborated on in the next two films, but its omission from Episode VII made it a poorer experience.

There is also the question of how someone who works in sanitation can help destroy the Starkiller Base. It is true that he had blueprints but that seems a strange piece of apparatus for such an occupation. Think about this: Would the cleaning staff at your company have access to information allowing them to foil its business strategy? He clearly had more duties than his job title suggests though, otherwise he would never have been chosen to participate in the destruction of the village on Jakku. This is a case of what appears to be a throwaway line seriously confusing the plot.

Han Solo

Han Solo was one of the better features of the new film. They captured the essence of his character. Some people have been saying it is Harrison Ford’s best performance in years. Others say that is not much of an achievement as he has been phoning it in for a while. Personally, I was very happy to see him slip into the guise of a familiar character.

His death, however, could have been more surprising. Putting aside my pre-viewing suspicions that Harrison Ford would be unwilling to participate in all of the new trilogy’s installments and that the reported paycheck of £23 million would be an unsustainable outgoing, there are also diegetic clues.

Firstly, he appears so early in the film that you know he is getting screen time for a reason. This alone is not enough to indicate what is going to happen. Unfortunately, his parting conversation with Leia is what seals it. It is a conversation in which both participants will leave with no regrets and having said everything they wanted to say. As far as I can recall, it has none of the usual mutual agitation and animosity that has marked their relationship. They have become at peace with each other. That was the point when I knew he was a goner. When he confronted Kylo Ren on the catwalk across a circular pit you knew he was going to die because that kind of location is where such plot twists always seems to happen.

Kylo Ren

Kylo Ren is the new villain, the son of Han and Leia. He has a mask reminiscent of that which belonged to Darth Vader. In my opinion it is too similar. Darth Vader’s image in popular culture is so pervasive and iconic that it is easy to forget that he would have been seen as new when the original Star Wars was released. The Phantom Menace had Darth Maul, who looked completely different to anything the films had seen before. Obviously the mask is a homage to his grandfather and works in context, but the new movie relied too much on his predecessor’s image for its inspiration. However, these are minor concerns as they only pertain to his appearance. There is a bigger problem.

There are hints that he is supposed to be a conflicted character but he does not show it enough. There is one scene where says he can feel himself being called to the light side. He just says it, ignoring the classic rule of filmmaking: Show, don’t tell. There is one scene where Snoke asks him whether he will be able to commit to the dark side and he assures him he will. Using a separate character to question his loyalty suggests there is bound to be some internal conflict, but Kylo Ren does not show it. The third and final instance when he demonstrates that he might be redeemable is when he confronts his father, but this could easily have just been a ploy to get closer to him. He does not murder him immediately though, so there may be some struggle. Of course, he could just be allowing him the courtesy of some last words. These are the three points when his internal conflict is referenced and none of them includes an actual portrayal of it.

Kylo Ren is also the wielder of one of the only concessions to the innovations of the prequels: a new type of lightsaber that is not just a different colour. Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber was unseen before the prequels and Kylo Ren’s crossguard lightsaber was unseen before the new film. This was a nice touch, but a rare occurrence of originality in the film, even if it was a sort of counterfeit originality. Of course, the two previous trilogies both showcased new colours of lightsaber as well: Green in Episode VI and Mace Windu’s purple one in the prequels, but that kind of cosmetic change is hardly a major issue.

Poe Dameron

Poe, being an excellent pilot without the aid of the Force, has been compared to both Han Solo and Wedge Antilles, both of whom are from the original trilogy. In my opinion he is more akin to Wedge because of his military background. There is no equivalent character that I can recall in the prequels. This is a case of imitating a character archetype from the originals instead of varying them enough. There is not enough information on him in the film, barring his close relationship with BB-8 and newfound friendship with Finn, to really know whether he will prove to be unique. The problem may have arisen because the movie is only a third of the story, as with BB-8, but I think the parts should be able to stand on their own without the necessity of watching all of them.

Rey

Rey is an orphan living on a sandy planet who turns out to be Force-sensitive, a natural pilot and good with machinery. If you are a fan of the franchise, you will appreciate the callback. If you are not, you will wonder if this was a story that really needed to be told again. Personally, I have no problem with such echoing provided the parallels are meaningful, which is something we are left wondering following The Force Awakens.

Obviously there is one major difference: The new protagonist is female. She is also a strong character. She throws down with Unkar Plutt’s goons when they try to steal BB-8 from her and comes out on top. She does not need saving. She is also able to use the Force without any training. This is reminiscent of the ‘Jedi reflexes’ exhibited by the young Anakin.

She collects scrap metal. I initially thought this was a bit of a letdown considering that Anakin possessed the ability to make and mend pods and Luke can fix droids. However, she is later shown being able to fix the Millennium Falcon, which made up for it, and it made sense that someone who has spent their entire life retrieving ship parts and such should have some knowledge of how they work, although her knowing more about that ‘piece of junk’ than Han Solo did raise an eyebrow.

They have also not explained her origin, though given all the similarities mentioned above and her visions on coming into contact with Luke’s lightsaber, it would be a brave move to suggest she is not in some way part of the Skywalker lineage. If she is Luke’s daughter, will she become tempted by the dark side like her grandfather Anakin and her cousin Ben? That would make for a more compelling narrative, but since that is the story of the prequels, it is unlikely to happen. Episodes VII, VIII and IX will have a protagonist who is good because the prequels had one that was bad.  If they had been released in chronological order, the possibility of an allegiance switch would have been much greater.

There is a chance that she is Kylo Ren’s sister and future episodes will be about the conflict between light and dark being played out between siblings rather than the familiar territory of across generations. This could work, and would echo the hidden relationship between Leia and Luke, even more so if the latter turns to the dark side, but it worries me that each of the two characters could easily become 2-dimensional allegories for the different sides of the Force, as opposed to the 3-dimensional Luke and Anakin with their internalised attempts at reconciling them.

There are also theories that she is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter. This would be a genuine surprise in a new trilogy that has so far rehashed much of the original.

A New New Hope

Even though the plot is different from A New Hope, there are too many similarities. Apparently I audibly sighed when they explained how to bring down the Starkiller Base, which was three times the size of the Death Star, if I recall correctly. If you want to know what all the similarities are, you can easily find a list on many other sites. Say what you like about the introduction of Jar Jar Binks, the pod racing sequence and Darth Maul wielding a double-bladed lightsaber, but at least they were trying something new. After watching The Force Awakens I felt as though I had been penned in to a small corner of the galaxy even though I knew the plot spanned a much greater area. Some people will obviously like this and feel as though they have returned to their home.

The politics of the film were confusing and raised lots of questions for the casual fan like myself. After the success and celebrations at the end of Jedi, how come the Republic seems so ineffective? How come they are the underdogs when the First Order is an upstart organisation? It made sense when the Empire made the Death Stars because they were an Empire, but how did the First Order, a group of rebels, create a weapon bigger than those? These are just a few of the many dangling questions that made it difficult to follow and become invested in.

As an aside, the rathtars were a nice addition to the bestiary of weird creatures that have tormented various protagonists. The mistake that leads to it was similar to that which leads to the exogorth encounter in Empire, as they are both the result of trying to find a safe haven only to discover they have gone ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ as the saying goes, but does not feel derivative. This is contrast to Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Jar Jar purposely going through the ocean abyss of Naboo and nearly getting eaten by an opee sea killer, which is then consumed by a sando aqua monster. Here they go from being safe to being in peril and then safe again, a completely opposite sequence of states.

A Touch of Evil

I thought the distinction between good and evil was too clear cut. I have heard arguments that this is one of the flaws of the original films, but they had Han shooting first and Lando changing sides. The Phantom Menace had Qui-Gon Jinn playing fast and loose with the Jedi Code, much to the chagrin of his apprentice Obi-Wan. In the new film there are none of these shades of grey excepting the previously mentioned and poorly executed Kylo Ren.

Recycled Settings

This one is just a minor bugbear. It annoyed me that Jakku appeared to be a desert planet just like Tatooine. The original trilogy had a great variety of locations aside from Luke’s home: Hoth, the forest moon of Endor and Cloud City to name a few of my favourites. The prequels continued this tradition: The Phantom Menace had the underwater city of Otoh Gunga, Attack of the Clones had the ocean planet of Kamino and Revenge of the Sith had the volcanic world of Mustafar. The Force Awakens is so in thrall to the original trilogy it even has a new cantina scene. There is a whole galaxy to explore, so why do so many of the new locations end up looking the same?

Conclusion

Now we come to the quotation at the beginning of this article. Obviously it applies to Kylo Ren’s acceptance of the dark side replicating that of his grandfather Anakin, but it also applies to how the film has chosen to oppose features of the prequels and, in my opinion, become too similar to the original trilogy.

In my opinion the prequels are closer to the tradition of Star Wars. Ironically, they achieved this by creating  very different settings, characters and action sequences, along with twists and changes that surprise us, in the same way the original trilogy did. This should be expected since Lucas was still at the helm.

Unfortunately fan reaction to them was so vitriolic that I suspect any attempt to create something as startlingly original was going to be deemed too risky by producers. It feels like the new film has been made to satisfy the fans and capitalise on their nostalgia rather than tell a new and interesting story. There is even an argument to say that, since Lucas no longer has control, The Force Awakens is canonised fan fiction, a new New Hope for a new generation, one willing to represent women and people of colour as active protagonists. I am a proponent of diversity in film. It should apply not just to representation, but plot as well.

The prequels expanded the universe without losing sight of the major players. The Force Awakens, along with the accompanying de-canonising of hundreds of spin-offs, feels like it has restricted it, even if you look at the new characters, locations and stories and know that they are different. It makes the case that there is only a certain type of story with familiar and repetitive features that fans will accept. That is why I found The Force Awakens sort of tiresome and difficult to enjoy. Hopefully it will improve with future episodes.