Monday, November 30, 2015

“I guess I’m not so average anymore”: Alex Mack, Supergirl, and the evolving role of the superheroine

When I was a kid, I knew about Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, but the character I most associated with having superpowers wasn’t the last son of a dying planet, or a vigilante billionaire or a teenager bit by a radioactive spider. Rather, it was a teenage girl named Alex Mack, the main character on the Nickelodeon TV show The Secret World of Alex Mack. Debuting in 1994, the show followed Alex (Larisa Oleynik) as she deals with the normal pitfalls of adolescence, on top of having superpowers. The show lasted 4 seasons, and was a staple on Nickelodeon’s primetime programming block for most of its run.

It’s strange for me to look back now and wonder, nearly 20 years after the fact, and wonder why I was so enthralled with the show. After all, the main character was a girl and when I was watching it, I was still very much at the age where girls still had cooties. Why was it the type of show that crossed boundaries, that kids of both genders could be invested in what was happening? I think what strikes me, even watching the show now, is that Alex is always treated as a character first and foremost, and there’s a sense of almost-universal relatability. Much like Spider-Man before her, there is a sense that she’s an average kid thrust into unusual circumstances. The opening narration to the show even has Alex state “I guess I’m not so average anymore,” and the sense that Alex really could be anyone, boy or girl, was something that really endeared the series to me and to kids all over the world. But above that, she always remained an inherently interesting and ultimately a good, well written character. I have often told friends that I believe that my love of strong female characters, from Clarice Starling to Agent Scully, from Hermione Granger to Daenerys Targaryen, started with that initial exposure of what a strong female character could be from Alex Mack. 

Cut to almost 20 years later, and we’re still talking about young women with superpowers. This time, it concerns the launch of CBS’s new show Supergirl. The show deals with Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El (who goes by the secret identity Kara Danvers) who assumes the superhero mantle while dealing with typical 20-something frustrations like jobs, relationships, etc. Many critics have praised Supergirl, with particular attention given to the performance of actress Melissa Benoist in the lead role. As Caroline Siede of The A.V. Club says “Much as Supergirl carries a plane on her back, Benoist single-handedly elevates this show with a performance that's bubbly and bright with a core of inner strength.”

In this article, I will compare the similar plot points and formats in the pilot episodes of both The Secret World of Alex Mack and Supergirl, and how both their similarities and differences point to larger issues in depictions of female superheroes on television.

“Can you believe it? A female hero. Nice to have someone like that for my daughter to look up to.”- Waitress, Supergirl
Alex Mack debuted in a veritable “golden age” for kids’ television programming. Cable channels like Nickelodeon were creating bold, risky television shows for children that went above and beyond what their counterparts were doing on other networks. Nickelodeon, in particular, was developing a lot of live-action content for children and young adults, including The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Salute Your Shorts, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the latter being notable as one of the network’s first entries into genre television. Alex Mack was also likely made as a response to another popular show for children from the mid-90s, Power Rangers. Power Rangers was criticized for the levels of violence in what was seemingly a children’s television show. In contrast, Alex Mack is almost never violent, nor does Alex transform into a superhero the way the Rangers do.

Similarly, much attention was given to the fact that Supergirl is a TV show about a female superhero arriving in what is typically seen as a male-dominated genre. It too comes at a time when risky, genre television is succeeding on television, examples being other popular superhero shows like The Flash, Arrow, and the Batman-prequel Gotham. However, there seems to be movement in terms of a cultural shift, as both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. are planning female-starring superhero movies starring Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, respectively. Recently, another female-superhero show on Netflix, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, arrived to much attention and rave reviews from critics.

The plots and powers
The premises of these two respective pilots are pretty cut-and-dry: female superheroine either gains (in the case of Alex Mack) or learns to utilize (in the case of Supergirl) powers, confides in those close to her about said powers, and ultimately makes a decision about what to do with her powers. The only major differences are how they gain their powers and their differing decisions on how best to manage them.

Alex gains her powers through a chemical spill of a mysterious substance called GC-161. The effects of this spill give Alex the powers of telekinesis, the ability to shoot electricity out of her fingers, and the ability to turn into a sentient liquid puddle. Supergirl, who like her cousin Superman, was born on planet Krypton and escaped to Earth before its destruction. Once on Earth, she develops powers similar to those of her iconic cousin, including flight, super-strength, invulnerability, ice breath, heightened senses (like super-hearing and x-ray vision) and heat vision.

The main arc of the pilot episode of Supergirl is Kara embracing the role of hero after hiding her abilities for so long, and taking on the mantle of Supergirl. The climax of the pilot episode is Kara confronting and ultimately triumphing over an alien supervillain named Vartox. In contrast, the decision made in the pilot of Alex Mack is for Alex to hide her secrets from the nefarious chemical plant responsible for the accident which gave her powers.

The sister

“[The Danvers] had a daughter, Alex. Despite being born on different planets, we both shared one things: we knew our lives would never be the same again.”- Kara, Supergirl
“My sister Annie thinks I’m a science experiment.”- The Secret World of Alex Mack opening narration
In both shows, a sister plays an important part. Alex’s older sister Annie (Meredith Bishop) is a whiz-kid who helps her sister deal with the ramifications of her powers by using her knowledge of science, while Kara’s adoptive sister Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) is protective of her sister. Later, it’s revealed that Alex Danvers has been recruited by a government agency that tracks superhuman threats. Both shows feature the superheroine having a bit of antagonism with sister. Annie belittles and mocks Alex in a very sister-like way, and Kara is upset that Alex Danvers lied about her job. However, both shows end their respective pilot episodes with the respective pairs of sisters being on good terms, and promising to help one another come what may.

The male B.F.F.

“You’re… you’re her…”- Winn, Supergirl
“My best friend Ray thinks it’s cool.”- The Secret World of Alex Mack opening narration
In Alex Mack, Alex’s platonic best-male-friend is Ray (Darris Love). Ray is the only one besides Annie that Alex confides her secret to. At least in the pilot, no hint of attraction is shown by either one of them. Ray is a supportive friend who goes as far as to spy on chemical-plant employees who are going door-to-door looking for Alex.

On Supergirl, the role of the “male B.F.F.” is split between James Olson (Mehcad Brooks) and Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan). James, formerly “Jimmy” Olson, is known as Superman’s good friend and confident, and helps guide Kara with advice based on his experiences with her cousin. Winn is shown initially to have more of a crush on Kara, until she confides her secret with him. Winn is the one who helps to design Kara’s costume. At the end of the pilot episode, Kara says that she will disclose the details of her battle with Vartox to him soon, ensuring that she believes Winn is and will continue to be an important part of her life. To what extent Winn has been “friendzoned” by Kara is debatable.

The villainous older woman in a role of authority

“Have a good night’s sleep, kid. You won’t have many more. You slipped through my fingers for now, but tomorrow is another day.” –Danielle Atron, The Secret World of Alex Mack
“It’s not that I don’t see your frown, it’s just that I don’t care enough to ask why it’s there.”-Cat Grant, Supergirl
On Alex Mack, the antagonist is Danielle Atron (Louan Gideon), the head of the chemical company whose accident granted Alex her powers. She is shown to be a ruthless leader who would rather deny the chemical spill that granted Alex her powers than accept the responsibility and consequences that come with it.

While she is not the antagonist of the show per se, Kara frequently butts heads with her boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Grant is shown to be a bossy, self-absorbed leader, not unlike (and more than likely based on) Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly from the film The Devil Wears Prada. Grant cares little for those beneath her until they can provide her something they want, be it information, access to Supergirl, or prestige.

Having a female villain (or, in the case of Supergirl, an unlikeable female boss) in what are typically seen as male-dominated positions in male-dominated industries are very interesting and very deliberate choices. Perhaps it is indicative that we, as a society, would feel like if men were in these roles, it would not be an even match with our female protagonist. Perhaps this is just a bastardization of the trope of princesses having to fight their “wicked stepmothers” in popular fairy tales. Or it could be that we simply don’t want an older male competing or scuffling with a young protagonist, and all the cultural baggage that comes with that. Whatever the case may be, the deliberate nature of the decision to make older characters in authority both women and have them square off against the protagonist of the show is a bold choice.

Gender roles
“I’m not flying around saving people in this thing. I wouldn’t even wear it to the beach.”- Kara, Supergirl
Perhaps one of the ways both shows are relatively unique in the current media landscape is because of their focus on female protagonist. Both shows realize that superheroes are a typically male-dominated genre. Much attention is given in Alex Mack to the fact that Alex is a tomboy, from her name typically associated as a nickname for the male name Alexander, to her masculine-looking outfit, complete with a very-90s flannel jacket and backwards-turned baseball cap. Her tomboy attitude is referred to by Ray in one memorable scene from the pilot:
“Besides, maybe I’ll meet some girls.”
“Well, I’m a girl.”
“Girl-type girls, Alex!”
However, there is one strange scene where Alex turns into a puddle for the first time and reforms as herself, only completely naked. I go as far as to wonder if this scene would have been included had the character been a male. (To the best of my knowledge, none of the best-known male superheroes have an origin story which involves nudity.)

In Supergirl, there is much more of a focus on the character’s sexuality. Kara is independent and single, frustrated seemingly a parade of ungentlemanly suitors. But Kara’s feminist ideals don’t extend to just the realm of dating. She also refuses to wear what she perceives as a skimpy costume that Winn designs for her. Moreover, Kara is much more direct about the gender issues she perceives. There’s even an argument between Cat Grant and Kara as to why Cat has christened the new superheroine Supergirl and not Superwoman.

Conclusions: Subversion, progression and embracing womanhood
“I’m just so excited, I can’t believe I did it… Now, it’s like, I’m not sure what comes next, or maybe I am sure and I’m just afraid of what it means, and if it means what I think it means.”- Kara, Supergirl
“Everything has changed, Alex. You were just this average kid headed for this life of inconsequence and boredom. And now look at you.”- Annie, The Secret World of Alex Mack
The thing that interests me the most about these two shows is how they subvert the typical formula utilized by many male superheroes. We are used to the origins of male superheroes, be they extraterrestrial, billionaire vigilante, or the product of radioactive experiments. We know that these heroes need a love interest, allies to help in their mission, and a tragic event (usually the death of a parent or a loved one) that motivates them to use their abilities for good. In contrast, with both shows, there isn’t a call to action event. No one dies. (Well, beyond the citizens of Planet Krypton, that is.) There is no love interest. Kara’s powers come naturally, Alex’s by mere happenstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not only that, but both superheroines have to balance and account for the role these superpowers will have on their “real lives,” with the implication being their “real lives” might be considered more important. While more than 10 years separates the 13-year-old Alex and the 24-year-old Kara in age, you can see them both struggling with how to balance these new abilities with their social lives trying to navigate the awkward middle-to-high-school years relatively unscathed or as a young woman in a big city, respectively.

Do these similarities point to a common cultural template on how we talk about superheroines in popular culture? After all, one must remember that despite these numerous similarities, these shows are still different, trying to appeal to widely different audiences. Supergirl at its core is still an action-heavy, family-friendly sci-fi show, while Alex Mack is a somewhat-comedic children’s show with sci-fi elements. However, there are simply too many similarities between the two shows for it to be dismissed as coincidence. Both shows use a common language to convey things to the audience. For example, the use of the presence of the male friends shows that this isn’t simply a show for a female audience. But additionally, the presence of the sisters and villainous, authoritative older women characters on both shows conveys that feminism and femininity will be important aspects to the shows’ respective premises.

When I think about these two shows and especially their two lead characters, I am struck by how they use the universal language of the superheroine to each achieve different needs. I believe that Alex Mack was meant to be a much more subversive show. Things like the use of making Alex a tomboy or her hiding of her abilities are trying very deliberately to subvert the widely pervasive gender norms and ideas about what a young person with superpowers should be. In an era where Power Rangers dominated kids’ television ratings and imaginations, Alex Mack was trying to a much smaller, more character-driven story. With Alex hiding her powers, overwhelmed and slightly embarrassed by them, as well as her relatively young age during the series, the show could also be seen a metaphor for the struggles of puberty. It was a radical move for the showrunners and Nickelodeon to do this. (I cannot think of another mainstream children's show that so directly dealt with puberty, metaphor or not.) There is more of a prominent and deliberate sense of wanting to be unique in Alex Mack than in Supergirl, despite Supergirl coming 20 years afterwards and their obviously different genres.

I would argue that Supergirl, on the other hand, is a more progressive show. It fizzles with “lean-in” (a phrase popularized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg from her book of the same name) feminist energy as Kara tries to “have it all” while still fitting in time for her new role as Supergirl. From fighting the alien Vartox, who says things like “on my planet, females bow before males” and “fighting you is just exercise,” to the people in the government agency constantly saying that Kara “isn’t strong enough,” she proves them wrong time and time again. As Kara saves people and stops crime to a montage set to Carl Carlton’s song “She’s a Bad Mama Jama,” the message is clear: Supergirl, both the character and the show, is here to be an alternative to the other male-driven superhero TV shows and movies. She’s going to take a firm stance for feminism and prominent female characters on television, and nothing from sex appeal to misogynistic aliens are going to stand in her way.

The feminist themes of each of these shows can’t be ignored. Given the pop-culture landscapes they arrived in and their similarities, both shows seem to be about something bigger. Both shows are ultimately about gifts, how best to utilize these gifts, and how these gifts and abilities make the lead characters unique. I believe many popular superheroines use the idea of “power” and “abilities” to make statements. I believe one of the reasons Wonder Woman has been so popular for 70 years is because she asks to what extent femininity is power in a male-dominated world. Similarly, I posit that Alex Mack and Supergirl are asking about to what extent womanhood is a gift. From Alex’s powers arriving around the time she’s pubescent, to Kara embracing a role she’s previously shied away from, both shows are ultimately about young women embracing powers. But more importantly, I think in their own unique ways, the “powers” become metaphors for womanhood itself: complicated, stressful, full of transformation that is both emotional and physical, but ultimately gifts that should be cherished. Despite their obvious differences, both The Secret World of Alex Mack and Supergirl play with these conventions in their own way but arrive at this same conclusion: womanhood is a gift, and it’s up to you to decide how best to utilize it. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Welcome to a world where America no longer fears dead presidents

Much was made of the fact that in September, Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her ancestor Queen Victoria as the longest serving monarch of the United Kingdom. Plenty of articles, essays, blogs and other reflections were given as to the impact Queen Elizabeth has had on her country and on the world as a whole during her over-sixty years on the throne. The British people, for the most part, seem to appreciate how the long-serving monarch is a steadfast constant in this ever-changing world. The recent celebration of Queen Elizabeth surpassing Victoria’s reign is a reminder of how people like when they don’t have to worry about an illness or assassination taking away their heads of state.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the country that had a violent revolution against a tyrannical British monarch also passed another important milestone. As the online site Quartz put it, on October 28th, 2015, it has been “18,967 days since a US president died in office, [which] means the nation has now entered its longest period without losing a president to an assassin or illness.” The current period surpasses the record for presidents not dying in office that lasted from the inauguration of the 1st President, George Washington, in 1789 to the death of the 9th President, William Henry Harrison, in 1841.

This constant death of American presidents is something that lingered for a long time in our popular culture. There is even the popular myth about the Curse of Tippecanoe, about a devastated Indian chief who cursed the leader of the United States to die in office every 20 years. Starting with William Henry Harrison, every president elected in year that ended with “0” died in office until 1980: Lincoln, Garfield, Mckinley, Harding, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. The curse endeared in the popular consciousness for the accuracy of the prediction that lasted for over a century.

The stability of our presidents is something I think my generation takes for granted. There have only been 4 presidents in my lifetime: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And despite the contentious and sometimes-chaotic nature of their respective administrations, the idea of losing one of them was ever only an afterthought to me. Despite the Monica Lewinsky controversy and the impeachment proceedings of Bill Clinton, I didn’t believe we would ever lose him as president. (Or perhaps I was merely too young to full understand the gravity of the situation.) Despite the terror attacks of 9/11 and increased security nationwide, I never feared that I would wake up and George W. Bush wouldn’t be there, with his cowboy swagger and his “bring it on” attitude. And despite the deep racial unrest that still exists in this country, I almost never feared that Barack Obama would be targeted, and if he was, the Secret Service would be able to handle it and to protect him. (Perhaps that is naïve of me given the recent scandals the Secret Service has been mired in.)

I think the way I and many others of my generation relate to our presidents is far different than the way our parents did. Both my parents have talked to me about their experiences living through the assassination of John F. Kennedy as young children. My dad, upon hearing the news, asked my grandma if he could go up to his room and cry, as he had very much admired and looked up to the young president. Both my parents talk about how between the time they entered and then finished college, they had been through 3 different presidential administrations: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Both of my parents became young voters in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, their faith in presidents and politics shaken by that infamous scandal.

So, if our presidents have a certain level of stability because of advances in security and healthcare that didn’t exist is past decades, what does that mean for our country and its future? Well, all it would take is one misguided person with a gun to ruin this streak. Ronald Reagan even came close to being a victim of a crazed gunman after he was shot by John Hinckley in 1981. But, excluding the unthinkable, I think the recent milestone means that we have potentially entered a “golden age” where presidents can leave an impact on history that their predecessors didn’t have the opportunity to. Other presidents in the past may have had administrations that were too short to get much done, be it because of their own personal demises or because they were merely serving the remainder of another president’s term after their death. Now, it feels like practically every post-war president has left behind some major impact on American life, be political, economic, social, etc. There are still things that presidents have to worry about (getting reelected is usually a big crux) but presidents can be more ambitious than their predecessors in the 19th and early 20th centuries were simply because they don’t face the threats, be it illness or violence, that their predecessors have to face.

Much like Queen Elizabeth’s recent longevity milestone did for people in Britain, I think the recent milestone of the longest time without any presidents dying in office should give Americans pause, and fill them with gratitude that it has been the democratic process, not the forces of chaos, that have marked most of the transitions between chief executives in the past 50 years.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Wanted: A Librarian of Congress who actually gives a s—t about the Library of Congress

This summer, after several stories in The Washington Post about widespread negligence and a lack of support for various information-technology initiatives, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, announced he would resign his position. Billington had been appointed into the position by President Reagan, and his resignation allowed the chance for President Obama to make the newest choice for Librarian of Congress in almost 30 years.

This opening provides President Obama with an opportunity that will help define his legacy, because as Billington just proved, a choice for Librarian of Congress can be one a president’s lasting legacies in terms of personnel in Washington. As one of our most intellectual post-WWII presidents, Obama has been more thoughtful and open on who to consider for the job running the world’s biggest (and perhaps most important?) library. The list of people he’s apparently considering for the job include writer Walter Isaacson (who has removed himself from consideration); Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive; David Ferriero, the current Archivist of the United States; and various university presidents and librarians of other prominent libraries.

But more so than famous names and flash credentials, something Obama needs to consider is leadership, leadership with a vision that can and will take the Library out of a long funk and towards a bright and beautiful future.

Billington, for all the good that he did in the first half of his tenure (including the creation of the National Film Registry, the creation of the program called THOMAS which includes the complete online historical records of the US Congress, as well as doubling the size of the Library), earned a reputation for negligence in the latter half of his career. Earlier this year, Billington was called out by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for what The Washington Post called a “lack of leadership.” According to Politico, "The Library has, under Billington,struggled to meet its technology needs, such as digitizing the nation's cultural archives and supporting the U.S. Copyright Office, which is housed at the Library and is at the center of debates between the tech and entertainment industries about digital content.” 

In fact, Billington’s reluctance to hire a head of IT development for the Library can be traced back to the year 2000, when the National Academy of Science suggested he do so only for the suggestion to fall on deaf ears. The New York Times reported that in addition to concerns about copyright and digital initiatives, “in a 2013 audit, the library’s inspector general warned that millions of items, some from as far back as the 1980s, remained piled in overflowing buildings and warehouses, virtually lost to the world. The Times also reported that "in interviews [with] current and former library employees and others who have worked with Dr. Billington over the decades say they no longer recognize the charismatic, energetic librarian they once knew. They say he has slowed down so much that he rarely comes in before noon or works a full week in his majestic office overlooking Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court. Co-workers say that he does not use email and that they often communicate with him through a fax machine at his house.”

Perhaps more controversially, Billington became more known for swanky parties and jet-setting vacations due to his relationship and association with the James Madison Council, an organization he helped to found to help finance and support the Library. According to another Washington Post article, Maureen Moore, a former employee of Billington’s at the Library, said “[Billington] likes to associate with rich and famous people,” and that to her knowledge, the James Madison Council “never put money toward anything useful.” When it was announced that Billington would retire this summer, Moore said “It’s a great day for the library. The man has had 27 years to do good things, and he hasn’t.But the ecstasy is tempered by worry that Obama will appoint someone else who isn’t a librarian, someone who doesn’t have management experience or another megalomaniac.”

So, now we stand at the crossroads, anticipating Obama’s decision for who will lead the Library. But I think there are larger issues at play. Politico recently published an article with the provocative headline "Can Anyone Save the Library of Congress?" I think, because of everything I pointed out, credentials and experience doesn’t matter as the one thing Billington seemingly didn’t have towards the end of his run as Librarian: passion. Billington’s widespread mismanagement and negligence not only is cause for concern, it can well be said that it hindered the progress of bringing the Library into the 21st century and the digital age. It shows a flippancy to which the actual texts the Library owns are disregarded and unavailable to the public who supports the Library through taxpayer dollars. It is an outrage that a federal institution was allowed to fall for so low simply to satisfy one Librarian’s longevity in the position.  Having a Librarian who seems qualified is only step one. We need a Librarian who actually takes his position seriously, and uses this opportunity given to him or her not just merely as the top step of the corporate ladder of academia and federal cultural institutions, but to leave the Library better than when they found it, which, given the information out there right now, one might be reluctant to say of Billington. Having a leader who is actually passionate about the Library can help restore the former grandeur of the institution, as well as bringing it to where it needs to be so that it, and the United States as a whole, can stay competitive in a rapidly-changing intellectual and technological environment.

So, President Obama is interested in university presidents and more tech-oriented people. I don’t doubt his and his administration’s ability to choose someone well-qualified for the job. But more important than that is the question of whether they can care for the Library to the extent that it needs to be cared for after the negligence of its previous leader. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why I Miss Roger Ebert -OR- (Youtube) Video Killed the (Film Criticism) Star

Why I Miss Roger Ebert
(Youtube) Video Killed the (Film Criticism) Star
by Will Mann

I remember exactly where I was when I heard Roger Ebert had passed away.

I was in my college dorm room, checking the Internet when the news popped up. I let out an audible gasp, and probably an “oh, no!” I remember I had a big lump in my throat for the rest of the day. Ebert was the gatekeeper when it came to my interest in cinema. His reviews were easily accessible on the Internet, and I had done my fair share of Google searches to find out exactly what he said about all of my favorite movies and late-night Youtube binging of old episodes of Siskel and Ebert.

I think if I could explain why I felt such grief at Ebert’s death, it would because I felt like there was an emptiness, a hole that didn’t used to be there before. What would fill that hole in his absence? Who would, or even could, replace Ebert? Was film criticism destined to decline in the absence of such an influential figure?

Now, some two and a half years after his death, it looks increasingly like film criticism as we know it, and as Ebert knew it, will change forever. Suddenly, with the rise of social media, the old expression “everyone’s a critic” is more truth than fiction at this point. Youtube critics, or non-professional film reviewers, have risen to prominance, and with that comes some problems that are worth discussing. With the pace of changes in our cultural climate so rapidly exceeding, we need time to reflect on just how much popular film criticism has changed since Ebert's death, and what it means for film criticism as a whole.

Part 1: In Which Two Youtube Critics Start a Campaign of Hate Against an Oscar-Winning Movie

Among the more popular Youtube Critics are RedLetterMedia. RedLetterMedia emerged in 2009 with a 70-minute review of Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace that became exceedingly popular. This was because the review was done by a character named Mr. Plinkett, a bizarre sociopathic, perhaps homicidal old man who said as many funny lines as he did give insight into why the movie failed. The review spread, earning accolades and attention from film aficionados and Star Wars fans, leading to follow-up reviews of the second and third Star Wars prequels.
The man behind these reviews, Mike Stoklasa, launched a series where he and his close friend Jay Bauman would review contemporary film releases not as the Mr. Plinkett character, but as themselves. Their news series, Half in the Bag, debuted in early 2011 and have been releasing episodes in regular intervals ever since then.

In summer of 2014, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood came out. With a 98% Rotten Tomatoes score and many critics from all across the country proclaiming it to be a landmark, groundbreaking film, it earned a respectable $44 million worldwide, and received Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Picture, as well as six Academy Award nominations, including one win for Patricia Arquette in the Best Supporting Actress category. 

Shortly after the film debuted, Half in the Bag reviewed Boyhood, with both Bauman and Stoklasa coming out overwhelming against the film. They said things like, and I am quoting directly from their review, that Boyhood “sucked,” “sucked so bad,” “sucked,” “fucking sucked so hard,” that it was “manipulative,” and that “by the end of it, you just want to die.” They said it was “a betrayal” or “like watching paint dry,” that it suffered from “really bad, corny acting and flat scenes,” that Richard Linklater’s drama was “laughable” and that the script was “very, very, very bad” and “stale.” They critiqued it for not having enough melodrama, seemingly missing the entire point of the film. They remained woefully ignorant of Linklater’s other work, with Stoklasa admitting he had only seen Slacker out of all of the films in Linklater’s 20-year spanning filmography. They lambasted it for a scene where a young character says the phrase “true dat,” seemingly irrelevant to the overall quality of the film.

Rather than admitting they might have gone overboard in their dislike, they followed up with a video where they made fun of what they viewed as the overwhelmingly positive reception of the film.

Closer to Oscar season, they ridiculed the film again in a similar sarcastic manner, making fun this time of the film’s promotion for it having been filmed over the course of 12 years.

They similarly encouraged their fans to lambast the film on social media, which is apparent when you see the comments section of their Facebook page when an article relevant to Boyhood was posted.

Similarly, on Oscar night, their vitriol was not cooled when Boyhood was in a surprise upset loss to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman.

It used to be that the purpose of having two critics discuss movies is that they could disagree with one another, or call each other out when appropriate. Consider Siskel and Ebert, like when Gene Siskel called Ebert out for seemingly liking the children’s film Benji the Hunted more than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket:


Or when Siskel adamantly disliked another Oscar-winning classic, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, and Ebert defended it and asked Siskel to consider things he hadn’t before:

Debate between two movie critics can be informative, for them and for us, the viewer. In contrast, Stoklasa and Bauman only reinforce each other’s worldview. Moreover, all the attention they gave towards what I’m calling a “hate campaign” against a film that is so well respected by industry insiders, critics, and seemingly the general public (with the exception of RedLetterMedia’s fans, apparently) over actually-bad films that deserve scrutiny is truly baffling.

Part 2: In Which Youtube Critics Intentionally Dumb Down the Level of Discussion

Compare RedLetterMedia’s rhetoric (including use of simplistic vulgarities like “it sucked” in articulating why they disliked Boyhood to the rhetoric of Ebert when he talked about a movie he didn’t like, in this case 1994’s infamous children’s film North starring Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it. I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker; among his credits are This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally, and Misery. I list those titles as an incantation against this one. North is a bad film - one of the worst movies ever made. But it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover - possibly sooner than I will.”
Note the difference of Ebert saying how disappointed he was in Reiner for making North considering his impressive filmography, in contrast to RedLetterMedia’s relative ignorance about Richard Linklater’s filmography in their review of Boyhood.

Or consider how Ebert talked about a film he loved. This is a review of the 1997 film Contact, both one of my favorite movies and Ebert reviews (this comes from his revisiting of the film for his series The Great Movies):
"Contact is a film that takes place at the intersection of science, politics and faith. Those are three subjects that don't always fit easily together. In the film, an alien intelligence transmits an image of three pages of encrypted symbols. It is clear where the corners of each page are. It is also clear that the three corners are intended to come together in some way to make single image. Scientists are baffled in their attempts to bring the pages together. The solution, when we see it, provides an Eureka Moment. It is so simple, and yet so difficult to conceive of. It may be intended as a sort of intelligence test…. The strength of Contact is in the way it engages in issues that are relevant today, and still only rarely discussed in the movies."

Compare Ebert’s exquisite insight on Contact to popular Youtube film-reviewer Jeremy Jahn’s perspective on a film he was very fond of, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road:
“It’s a pretty simple premise for the movie: it’s an escort mission from a video game… Now, this movie’s crazy. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s out of its mind. It’s George Miller’s Mad Max doing George Miller [sic] Mad Max things on a bigger budget. At a point, you look at it and you’re like 'This is movie is like a cartoon version of its crazy post-apocalyptic self.'”
Jahns, on top of other prominent critics like RedLetterMedia, YourMovieSucks, Chris Stuckmann, etc. utilize simplistic language and quick edits to get their point across. They mostly exclusively review genre movies, and show little to no interest in the independent or dramatic film genres. Most of the time, their reviews boil down to the most basic levels of “this was good, this was bad, this could’ve been better” rather than tackling the film as a whole the way Ebert used to. Sure, Ebert was not above using repetition and emotion in his reviews (his “I hated hated hated hated this movie” is evidence that he most certainly did) but when he did, it almost always had a point. Moreover, it was fun to read and listen to. Youtube critics almost always use a mix of hyperbole and language intentionally dumbed down for your everyday layman in order to get their points across. Because of that, in this humble writer’s opinion, the entire genre of film criticism suffers.

Part 3: In Which Professionalism Dies a Slow, Painful Death...?

When I think about Roger Ebert, I think about how insightful he could be. I think about how many books of essays I have in my bookshelf, the reviews I can just pull out and read, the recommendations Roger wanted, no, insisted that you know he considered the best of all time.

I began this by referring to late-night binges on Youtube of Siskel and Ebert. The easiness of accessibility to those older reviews and episodes he did is probably a big reason why I consider myself to be such a big fan of Ebert’s.

But, with Ebert gone, who would the young me choose to listen to if he was coming of age today? Remember, all these Youtube film critics are just as, if not more, accessible to young viewers as those Ebert reviews were to me. Young viewers, who are just coming into their own cinematic tastes. They, like I was towards Ebert, might be susceptible to older, more experiences voices, and align their tastes with these tastemakers. Does that mean that there are young film fans out there today who will never see a Richard Linklater film because RedLetterMedia told them to? Or that there is a young fan who will avoid anything out of the hyper-masculine genres of superhero films, action films, and horror films simply because Jeremy Jahns doesn’t look as excited when he reviews a drama than when he reviews the latest Marvel movie?

These are questions we need to ask ourselves. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Case for Adding Don Hertzfeldt's "Rejected" to the U.S. National Film Registry

In the coming weeks, a wide variety of film critics, professionals and policy-makers will converge upon the Library of Congress in Washington, DC to discuss the 25 films that will be added to the National Film Registry in December. The National Film Registry has become an important voice in terms of what films deserve recognition, and particularly what lesser known or smaller films have a “second life,” as it were, due to the recognition the Registry gives it.

With this in mind, I would like to humbly suggest that in their meetings in the next few weeks, the Library of Congress consider adding the animated short Rejected, written and directed by animator Don Hertzfeldt. The short, in its entirety, can be viewed below:

As I recently wrote for a piece on the Bright and Balanced blog, Hertzfeldt is a leading voice in animation. Despite some of the weird imagery you just saw in the short, Rejected deserves a place among the other great animation shorts featured on the National Film Registry. Some of the most influential animation, including from such giants as Chuck Jones and Walt Disney, is featured in the Registry. As such a unique voice in today’s world and a leading voice in non-corporate animation, I thoroughly believe Hertzfeldt should be added among their ranks.

Here are 3 points I think the Library should consider in their deliberation of whether or not Rejected deserves a place on their list.

1.       It has had a huge influence on animation
Salad Fingers and Aqua Teen Hunger Force are some of the things that have been influenced by Rejected.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia/Wikia.

If you’ve ever seen Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of programming, you owe a debt of gratitude to Rejected. If you’ve ever seen the online series “Salad Fingers,” you owe a debt of gratitude to Rejected. If you’ve ever seen a non-Pixar, non-Disney related short nominated for the Best Animated Short at the Oscars in the past 10-15 years, you owe a debt of gratitude to Rejected. Rejected was a major game-changer in the field of animation, and allowed similarly surreal premises and animations to go mainstream in a way that they simply hadn't before. Simply put, the film's influence is far-reaching and revolutionary, and we are still feeling it today.

2.       It is one of the first “viral videos”

In 2009, the Registry honored the legacy of the music video by adding what was one of the most popular and influential music videos, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, to the Registry. In so doing, they seemed to be honoring not just the achievement and impact of this particular music video, but honoring the medium of the music video, and how important they were in the music culture of the 1980s and 90s.

An image from "Michael Jackson's Thriller" Photo courtesy of

Now, in our current day and age, the viral video has replaced the music video. Rather than seeing it on MTV, PSY’s hit music video for the song “Gangnam Style” spread like wildfire through the Internet’s collective word of mouth. Much like that, Rejected can be seen as one of the original “viral videos” because, considering its age, it is an important part of Internet video history and Youtube because it was relatively recent when those things were just starting to emerge. Honoring Rejected with a spot on the National Film Registry would be a collective win for viral videos, and allow other films which have used the Internet to gain popularity to be selected in future years.

3.       It would stand as a testament to Hertzfeldt’s ability as a filmmaker

Don Hertzfeldt- image courtesy of

I could talk about the individual awards and honors given to Rejected, including a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2000, and appearances on respective “best of the decade” lists from both Salon and The Huffington Post, but at the end of the day, adding Rejected to the Film Registry would be honoring both the individual film and its creator, Don Hertzfeldt. Hertzfeldt deserves to be among the other animation greats featured on the Registry, because like Disney, Jones, Ralph Bakshi, and John Lassiter before him, Hertzfeldt broke down barriers and notions about what people thought about animation. He has continued putting out a tremendous body of work, including his 3-time Sundance Film Festival award winner/ magnum opus It’s Such a Beautiful Day, and honoring Rejected would be honoring all of his work by putting him among the all time animation greats.

While there are probably thousands of letters and thousands of people wanting the Registry to include more mainstream fare, I hope that they don’t forget Rejected and that they find a way to honor this incredible, influential short film. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

A visit to the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, VA

You might not believe it, but the world’s foremost film preservation experts work in a rural community somewhere in between Washington, DC and Richmond, VA. Here, in a former bunker from the Cold War-era, hidden in the mountains of central Virginia, the work of the Library of Congress is being carried out, so that future generations will have everything from all-time classic movies like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Casablanca to newer cult films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Back to the Future, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This is the work that is being done at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, VA a place I was lucky enough to see up close recently as a part of a special screening of the classic 1980s Dustin Hoffman comedy, Tootsie.

For those of you who don’t know, the United States Congress passed a law in the late 1980s in order to preserve classic films through a project called the National Film Registry. Every year, the Registry, under the direction of the Library of Congress, picks 25 films that are at least 10 years old and considered to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” This law was made partially in response to businessman and CNN founder Ted Turner wanting to colorize classic films like Casablanca after buying MGM’s film library.

The Registry, as of 2015, contains 650 individual films, ranging the classics I previously mentioned to everything from acclaimed documentaries (like Grey Gardens and Hoop Dreams) to old Looney Tunes cartoons to home video footage to experimental films (including the first films to experiment with sound and CGI, respectively) and even footage of historical events (the infamous “Zapruder film,” which shows the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, is preserved in the Registry).

The site of the campus in Culpeper, Virginia was actually a former Federal Reserve bunker, used to prepare the country in the event of nuclear holocaust at the height of the Cold War. The bunker had enough cash stored in it to replenish cash supply in a post-nuclear attack economy, as well as facilities to continue the business of the American federal government in case of such in an attack. The bunker was declassified and closed between the late 1980s through the early 1990s, right as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Cold War came to an end. Realizing the continuing need for preserving America’s audio and visual heritage, the David & Lucille Packard Foundation (the late David Packard was the founder of computer company Hewlett-Packard) bought the bunker in 1997 on behalf of the Library of Congress and with the permission of the US Congress, to convert it into what it is today.

The main center of the Packard Campus, pictured just off the main highway leading up to it

Opened in 2007, the campus features state of the art equipment for film preservation, and is home to 7 million individual items, which include not just movies, but music, recordings, and other audio-visual media, with the campus starting to expand into preserving Internet videos and websites. Despite being a few hours away from the nation’s capital in Washington, the campus is still considered a federal property, with armed guards and a metal detector that all visitors are required to pass through. However, unlike other federal properties, the campus is not generally open to tours from the public, except on rare occasions.

At the heart of the campus lies a 200-seat theater, which is opened to the public for occasional screenings of classic films. This is how I got to see the campus and learn more about its history.

The entrance to the theater

Driving from my native Richmond, VA, I took a scenic route up the road to Culpeper and the campus. The campus may not be as inviting as the other Library of Congress buildings in Washington are, because a large gate stands at the entrance. Luckily, it was opened for the screening event.

The intimidating entrance to the campus...

Driving up, the first thing one’s eyes gravitate to is the massive main center. It is very visible from the main road, and architecturally it is a very beautiful building, with its exterior that blends into the Virginia countryside and an interior with plenty of space, where large windows allow visitors to look out onto the scenic view. It is this main building that the campus’ theater is in.

Entrance to the main center of the campus

The theater itself is an old-style, Art Deco theatre that can play a variety of different movie formats on the big screen. Later in the month, we were told, the theater would play host to film academics from all of the country and throughout the world as they watched old, “lost” silent movies in order to watch for clues as to the films’ identities.

Picture of the theater just before Larry Smith came to speak and the movie started. 
Note the Library of Congress logo on the podium

Shortly before the movie began, we were given a brief introduction by Library of Congress employee Larry Smith, who works at the campus as a Nitrate Film Specialist in the Moving Image section of the Library (you can read more about Larry and his work at Larry has been working for the Library since 1999, and worked with their film lab in Dayton, OH before being asked to move his work to Culpeper. He chose all the movies that would screen at the theater during the month of June, ranging from Psycho to Double Indemnity to, the reason I was there, Tootsie.

In a flyer handed out before the movie, Larry Smith describes his work and reasons for his choices for his month of screenings as such: “Working here I am fortunate to be a part of a dedicated team made up of lots of diverse tastes, backgrounds, and education… It is an honor for me to program the month of June – I feel like a kid in a candy store. With over a 1000 favorite movies, many of them already played at the theater, so I wanted to select some of the best that have not yet been screened. Happily, some prints are being loaned to us from UCLA, Universal, Sony… Sadly, not all the titles I had hoped to present have been preserved – yet! But for this package I hope everyone will join me in celebrating some of the best films, not yet show our BIG screen, the way they were meant to be shared – with a big audience of like-minded movie buffs!”

Before we began, Larry told us a little bit about the background of Tootsie, specifically how actor Dustin Hoffman pitched the project and worked with director Sydney Pollack to create a modern comedy masterpiece. Noting that one of Tootsie’s inspirations was the story of transgender tennis champion Renee Richards, Larry drew a parallel between that and the current media sensation over Caitlyn, formerly Bruce, Jenner. And then, the movie started.

Overseen in the theater lobby... Coming attractions, perhaps?

As someone who had seen Tootsie before, but only on home video, I was surprised just how much the big screen experienced enhanced the movie. I probably laughed more than I had previously when I had seen it thanks to 200 other movie fans laughing behind me and reminding me of what a damn funny movie it is. The film print itself, while still scratchy and containing “dust” at parts, hardly appropriate in our era of the “high-definition digital-remastered edition,” was still just like what seeing Tootsie on its first release in the early 80s would have been like, giving me a sense of nostalgia for a movie whose release I wasn’t even alive for.

After the screening had ended, I shook Larry’s hand and thanked him for picking such a great film. As I made my way back to my car, I pondered what a truly interesting and unique experience it had been to visit, even just for a film screening, such an important fixture for movie lovers, one that will ensure that the movies we love will live on forever.