Monthly Archives: April 2017

“Pretty with the Lights Out”

Christina Wang wasn’t good for Raven and she knew it. Some part of her knew it, at least. Christina was intense. “You should wear more eye-makeup,” was the first thing she said to her.

Raven frowned, self-conscious.

“No, no,” said the already-Goth chick. “I don’t mean to be pretty—you’re totally pretty, but that’s kinda the point, you know?”

Raven didn’t know.

“Look, you’re obviously a shy girl, not into the whole attention thing. Right? But you’re also pretty. That’s not a good combo. Guys are gonna look at you. Like, a lot. So you should wear, like, way too much make-up so that they’ll think you’re not pretty.”

She started to say something in response, then stopped.

“What?” Christina urged.

Raven shifted in her seat. “Isn’t make-up supposed to make you pretty?”

Christina sighed. “So much to learn you have.”

It was a couple days before Christina started to make really clear moves. She figured touching Raven’s face probably shouldn’t count as flirting if she was applying make-up, although she’d be lying if she said it didn’t give her a thrill. Something about this girl with her eyes closed—the trust. The loyalty. Loyalty? Was that the right—anyway, it was hot, but it didn’t count.

“You need better bras,” she informed her new protégée and once they were in the fitting room, she took it upon herself to inspect the goods personally. “What?” she said to the shocked look on Raven’s painted face. “We’re all girls here…”

Was she smiling too wide? She was smiling too wild. She was giving away the game. But then Raven was smiling, too.

It was a month before she kissed her. It was Christina’s first kiss (though she pretended it wasn’t) but Raven was so good at it! Lips, tongue, breathing. “Have you ever kissed anyone before?”

Raven shook her head emphatically.

“Are you sure?” Christina smiled and chuckled.

There was that frown again. “Yeah?”

“I want you to be my girlfriend,” Christina told her afterwards. They were both far less naked than they’d seen each other, but she’d still never felt so exposed.

“Oh…” said Raven.

Christina whispered “We wouldn’t have to tell anyone.”

She could tell something inside Raven struck a chord at that.

“I just really like you,” she added. “And you really like me, too, right? Raven nodded most emphatically, but look down and out.

“Hey.” Christina pushed her hands towards her and her eyes flickered over. “It’s okay. You don’t have to say yes.”

“Yes,” Raven whispered. And for a moment, she was looking in her brand-new girlfriend’s eyes, until she smiled again and looked away.

Leaving You

SIMON: What’s this?

LYDIA: Exactly what it looks like.

SIMON: I’m sorry, no, I’m still confused.

LYDIA: Shame, that.

SIMON: Are you going to visit your mom’s?

LYDIA: Not exactly.

SIMON: Then where are you going? You gotta be going somewhere, right, or are you just using the suitcases to reorganize ‘cause of how OCD you are about that stuff?

LYDIA: Are you finished?

SIMON: With what?

LYDIA: Being snarky!

SIMON: I wasn’t… Look, Lydia—

LYDIA: Don’t.

SIMON: Don’t what? Don’t touch you? I think you owe me an explanation here.

LYDIA: I disagree.

SIMON: You are not being fair.

LYDIA: Well, that’s a change, then, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Simon?

SIMON: What the hell is that supposed to mean? Lydia? Lydia!

LYDIA: I don’t want to talk about this—

SIMON: Well, I do! You said we were good.

LYDIA: I didn’t—

SIMON: Yes. You did.

LYDIA: Only because you…

SIMON: What?

LYDIA: Get out of my way. Please.

SIMON: You think you’re the only one in pain? What the fuck, Lydia!

LYDIA: This isn’t even about that!

SIMON: Like shit it isn’t!

LYDIA: And how the fuck are you making this about you?

SIMON: Because I’m the one you’re leaving!

LYDIA: Oh! That’s right! You’re the victim, aren’t you? Poor, downtrodden Simon! How will you live without me for your punching-bag—

SIMON: Excuse me!

LYDIA: Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?

SIMON: I never laid a hand on you!

LYDIA: You didn’t have to. All you had to do was… “Lydia, why are there still dishes in the sink?” “Lydia, why are you late home after a doctor’s appointment?”—

SIMON: Oh, for chrissakes—

LYDIA: “Lydia, where were you?” “Lydia, are you really wearing that? You’re asking to get raped!”—

SIMON: I never said—

LYDIA: “Lydia, who’s that guy? Is he hotter than me? Are you cheating on him with me?”

SIMON: Oh, come on, that was—

LYDIA: “Lydia, why can’t I find my socks that are right the fuck where they are supposed to be—“

SIMON: Jesus Christ!

LYDIA: And then… And then one day you said something that was unforgivable. And you know what that was.

SIMON: I’m sorry—

LYDIA: Don’t. Don’t, Simon. I don’t care how sorry you are. It wasn’t the only blow, it was just the worst, and really… really, I should thank you for it. We were never really meant to be together in the first place—

SIMON: Lydia—

LYDIA: What did I say about touching me? Look, we were only ever even a thing because… but now that’s over. That’s over.

SIMON: Please don’t leave me.

LYDIA: You haven’t given me a reason.

SIMON: I don’t think I can do this without you.

LYDIA: Oh, and you’ve been so supportive of me throughout this whole process.

SIMON: Lydia. Please.

LYDIA: This is called emotional manipulation. And it’s sweet that you think I’ll care and all, after all this… But you have to understand that I know that it’s bullshit.

SIMON: Fine. You know what? Fine. Leave. Leave! Huh?


SIMON: That’s right! Get the fuck out of—This is my house, bitch! Get the fuck out of here! You bitch! You ungrateful cunt! Where the fuck would you be now, if it wasn’t for me? Huh?

LYDIA: Well, I suppose I should be grateful that you’re not getting violent.

SIMON: Where are you gonna go?

LYDIA: I’m not going to tell you.

SIMON: I’ll figure it out—

LYDIA: No, you won’t.

SIMON: I’ll find you!

LYDIA: I’m sorry—were you trying to make that sound romantic?

SIMON: Who is he? This guy you’re leaving me for? You think you’ll like him any better?

LYDIA: Goodbye, Simon.

Business Chicken Wants Your Candy Ass to Dance

Fear stands in the corner. Waiting.

The Other guy’s on the couch, talking to himself,
Walking with himself through the park in his head,
Smoking a fountain pen,
Smoking the fountain of youth and indignation.

By the time I get home, Entropy’s set in.
Moss on the walls, practically.
Barnacles on my housemate’s face.
“Dude,” I just have to ask, “what the fuck have you been smoking?”
But all he has sticking out between his bleeding-gum teeth
Is that goddamn fountain pen.

“You want some” asks the roomy roomie.
“Put that thing away!” I holler.
Fountain pens are for junkies.
“What the fuck have you been doing all day?
This place is a disaster zone.
Were you born in a barn or in a pig-sty?
What about getting a job?
What about getting your life together?”

But the roomie blows fountain pen smoke
Out his fountain pen stained pie-hole
And mutters distinctly
“Business Chicken doesn’t like it when I clean.”

Fear starts to stir in the corner,

A collection or a string of familiar detritus
Pouring itself into a human shape.

He’s talked about Business Chicken before.
(I’m confused–is it a chicken or a business?
All up in your business or too chicken to make things real?
A chicken in a suit?
A chicken head on a business body?
Bad decisions come home to roost.)

“I refuse to play your childish mind-games,”
I protest too much.
“Put that thing down and help–”
But his eyes have widened, too wide. He looks past me
And I can see that he likes what he sees
Just a little too much for my comfort.

“What?” I ask him
Even though I don’t really want to know.
“Turn around,” says the fountain-pen Junkie.
I turn to the right because I know what’s on my left in the darkness
And I know I’m not ready to see it
But there’s nothing else there. “What?”
“It’s Business Chicken,” says the voice behind me
Of the disturbed mind that lives in my house.

“He’s asking you to dance.”

I am not going to dance, I affirm. Not today.
Not any more than I’m going to smoke his pen with him.
No more, I say, I am a man of action.
Words do not become me.

And yet imaginary though the Business Chicken might be to him,
I smell poultry in the room
I feel the tiny feathers tickling my face up my nose and into
My Brain where they cluck cluck cluck cluck cluck all my
Troubles away, all my responsibilities
Until nothing is left but the shadowy shape in the corner
With a grill where its mind should be
And now it’s moving around the room.

“Business Chicken likes it when I sit around all day,”
says the white rabbit.
“He knows where it’s at. He thinks people work too much.
He thinks jobs are overrated. They’re what’s killing the
Economy. We should all eat more fish.

The computer on the desk high-fives the fork
On the dining room table at this suggestion
And fear takes hold of me.


And fear is in front of me
Short stubby fingers doing things that
Short stubby fingers shouldn’t be able to do
To my face
To my hair
To my spleen
To mitochondria
To memories of days when I’ve sat on the couch
And days when I’ve tried to find work that suits me
And now Business Chicken wants the Robot and the Dinosaur
To fight
But Fear keeps making me dance. And those
Short stubby fingers pull out of my eye-sockets
So that Fear can wrap something around me that I can’t see
Until I look at my reflection in the dusk-darkened window.
It looks kind of familiar–I’m not sure where it’s from.
But when I have it on my face
It feels really out of place.

“Banana Bandana Man,” says the white rabbit. “Business Chicken
Really knows what’s going on.”

Turn It Up to Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees

This weekend, I attended the fourth VR challenge here in Seattle. It was at a private residence known as the Birdhouse and it was not what I want to be talking about here, specifically. I want to talk about what it’s like to film for VR and to experience content in 360º.

My first experience with this emerging medium was about a year ago when a guy I knew through a friend on Facebook sent out an invitation for people to participate in an experiment shooting a video with a 360 camera. I ended up on the team writing the script and I also acted in it.

*takes ironic bow, realizes how awkward that was, apologizes*

When the idea of 360 was first described to me, my very first thought was “Wow, that sounds exactly like doing theatre in the round, only backwards.” So before I launch into my diatribe on 360, I want to talk a bit about my experience with theatre in the round.

I’ve done a fair amount of acting and neither of the two stages that I have done most of my acting on can be described as “conventional”. One of them, the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater in Asheville, NC, where the Montford Park Players stage their Shakespeare performances every year, is an outdoor venue that has two available levels, so that Shakespeare’s stage directions “enters above” and “enters below” actually make sense on that stage (though I’ve never noticed anybody actually following them). The other theatre in question is Carol Belk on the campus of UNCA, which, as indicated earlier, is in the round.

To be clear for those not familiar with theatre parlance, a theatre in the round is a stage that is completely surrounded by audience. On all sides, the actor is visible to someone, but no one is going to be visible to everyone in the audience from the same side. There is a saying in theatre that you never do the same show twice, between the rotating audience and the minutiae of the performances night to night, but in the case of theatre in the round, no two members of the audience on any given night see the same show, certainly not if they’re on opposite sides of the room.

My favorite example of this from my own experience was when I assistant directed Jose Rivera’s Marisol in 2005. There is a scene in the play where the title character comes upon a man with bandages all over his face and once she’s won his trust, he lets her take the bandages off. If you were seeing this scene from Section 4 at Carol Belk, you would see the bandages coming off and the wonderful (i.e. horrifying) makeup of the burn wounds covering his face. But when I saw it from Section 6 (approximately 150º around) I saw a very different story: first, I saw Marisol’s reaction to the horror, far more satisfying when I could see her face, and then I saw the very edges of the make-up as the unbandaged man told the story of how he’d gotten these scars. I liked it better, but it was pointed out to me later by a friend that from that angle, you could barely see the make-up at all. One side got poetry, the other horror–two very different performances.

Some consider this a challenge when working in the round–they ask themselves how they can avoid it. But if the show is going to be different every night anyway (as is the nature of theatre) then why not embrace the fact that it is the nature of theatre in the round that the audience will get a very different picture of every moment, depending on where they sit?

Now I find myself having the same argument when talking about 360. At the pow-wow Friday night, one of the mentors of the group advised us that “even though you’re shooting in 360, you’re going to want to frame all of your action in 180 degrees, just like a regular movie.”

I call bullshit. I keep seeing footage online nowadays of “360” video and images that I click and drag on for more, only to find that I can’t scroll past 180º and it makes me livid. I find it wasteful. But then they try to say “Well, if you’re at home and you’re sitting on the couch wearing your VR goggles, you’re not going to want to turn all the way around.”

First of all, most of the time, when I look at 360, I’m looking at it on a screen where I can drag the field of view, so I wouldn’t have that problem, but more importantly (and I cannot stress this enough) if you are experienced VR while sitting on the couch, you’re doing it wrong and I will not be made to cater to your comfort or laziness.

If you are shooting a 360 film using only 180 of the available degrees, then WHY BOTHER? This is expensive equipment, this is specific equipment and for the sake of the R&D that’s gone into it, it deserves to have its full potential exploited.

The question is, how do you control where your audience is going to be looking?

Don’t. This is my answer. Your audience is going to look where your audience wants to look. Especially at this stage in the development of the medium and the training of the audience, it’s still new to people, so they’re going to be looking around the moment they put on the goggles, just to take in their surroundings and it is your responsibility as the artist in this exceptional medium to make every direction they look in both exceptional and specific. Just as every person in the audience at a play in the round deserves to see a good show, every one of your three hundred and sixty degrees deserves the attention that will be lavished upon it by appreciative fans. To ignore any of it would be like staging the entire action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on only one level of Montford’s Amphitheater. Why did you even bother?

The Bohemian and the Byzantine

“You can do whatever you want,” said the Bohemian, “as long as you know what you’re doing.”

It was his first night in town and he’d introduced himself at the local bars, this unkempt, slovenly old-school hippie type with his long hair loose and his beard in braids. No one knew where he came from or how he came about the money for his drinks.

“What if it’s illegal?” one man asked him.

“And who decides what’s legal?”

“Why, the government!”

“And who is this government?”

A short silence, and then “The people?”

“And are you not the people?”

This had them scratching their heads.

This was the beginning of the Bohemian’s campaign. He didn’t run for office, but he spearheaded five separate community-driven initiatives: a community garden to grow community food, a clothing donation recycling organization, a shelter for the homeless, a free clinic and finally a small public school that served as a community college.

“But who will pay for all this?” people asked every step of the way.

Every initiative paid for itself through volunteer labor and donations.

People started to become happy. They started to remember what was essential in their lives.

“But what about theft?” I asked the Bohemian one day. “What if someone has what I want and they don’t want to give it to me?”

“Is it a tool?” he asked.


“If they are using it, why should they give it to you? If they’re not, why should they keep it?”

“But suppose they don’t want to give it up when they’re done.”

“If there’s a tool that they have but aren’t using and someone else wants to use it and they won’t let them, that’s just stupid. They pull that on enough people, I say let the government come in and make it a crime not to share it.”

“But why would the government do that?”

“Well, the government is the people, aren’t they? If the people want something, why shouldn’t they pass laws?”

“But what about the man who has it? Shouldn’t he be allowed to keep it, if he wants?”

“This is what I meant,” said the Bohemian, “by needing to know what you’re doing.”

Then one day, the men in suits came.

“Do you have permits for this?” asked the men in suits.

The Bohemian looked around at his neighbors. “I don’t hear anyone objecting,” he said, “Everyone benefits.”

They started with the community garden. “It’s on city land.”

“It’s land we all live on. Would you like to benefit, too? We might eed you to make the occasional  contribution.”

“It’s a threat to our economy,” said a man with round glasses.

“It feeds people,” said the Bohemian. “Peop who otherwise wouldn’t eat. How bad can that be?”

“You need to pay your taxes.” This one had a long, white tie.

“Like I said,” said the Bohemian, “You’re welcome to help out.”

The Bohemian and his organization were slapped with citations and fined. He didn’t pay and he didn’t let anyone else pay for him, either.

“Why should we?” This is a local issue. A local solution to a local problem. What do men in suits have to say?”

But in a windowless room inside a large black building, the Byzantine heard these reports.

“What about murder?” I asked the Byzantine. “Are you saying that if enough people want a man dea, they make it illegal for him to be alive?”

“If that many people want a man dead,” said the Bohemian, “I would want to know why. If enough people wanted him alive, they could stop it. And if they couldn’t, well… it might get messy.”

This was why I was nervous when the Bohemian was asked to the capital.

“We can’t have you breaking the rules,” said an entirely nondescript man in an entirely nondescript suit surrounded by endless piles of papers stacked impossibly straight. “There are reasons we do things the way that we are.”

“Those reasons must not be good enough,” said the Bohemian.

“What you fail to understand,” said the Byzantine, “is that this is a system that works. It works because every cog rotates in a specific direction. And you are clogging those cogs.”

“And what you fail to understand,” countered the Bohemian, “is that your system doesn’t work for those cogs. Probably because instead of cogs, it’s people you’re using.”

Sure enough, the Bohemian had an accident on the way back. I knew what had happened. Enough people wanted him dead that they had made it happen.

But I also saw what came next. I saw that the Bohemian had been broken in half like a cell dividing, over and over again, and now, like a disease, he was spreading. No, not like a disease. Like evolution. He was sprouting up everywhere, bringing change, showing people what they could do if they tried.

“Your way is too complicated,” they said to the Byzantine. “There are too many moving parts and we’re tired of moving for you.”

They wanted his land, so they seized it. They wanted his buildings, so they took them, too. They didn’t like his system, so they tore it down, did their studying and their research and built another one they liked better.

What’s Best for the Child

RYAN: It’s you.

CERIDWEN: Good morning, Mr. Manning. Please. Sit down.

RYAN: Are you for real?

CERIDWEN: I am Agent Entwhistle, I’m with the FBI—

RYAN: Are you fucking with me?

CERIDWEN: I’m just here to do my job. Sir.

RYAN: Sir? It’s been ten years. Is this what you’ve been doing with yourself?

CERIDWEN: I’m here to talk about the incident—

RYAN: Yeah, I bet you are. Do they know?

CERIDWEN: They know. The ones who need to. They’re the FBI, it’s kind of their job.

RYAN: Did you really just call me “Sir”?

CERIDWEN: I thought you liked it when I treated you like an authority figure. I’m sorry, that was…

RYAN: You. That was you. And here I thought you were trying to be professional. It’s been ten years, Kerry.

CERIDWEN: I know exactly how long it’s been.

RYAN: Why even come back at all?

CERIDWEN: Maybe you haven’t been listening—

RYAN: This is the FBI. Surely, there are other people who could have come to do this.

CERIDWEN: I go where they send me.

RYAN: So I guess you just don’t even care, then? What do you expect me to tell her?

CERIDWEN: How about something like “The FBI had to talk to me about an incident at work.” Won’t she be excited?

RYAN: You don’t even want her to know that you’re here?

CERIDWEN: Do you? How’s Judith?

RYAN: Emphezema. Arthritis. Not too bad.

CERIDWEN: And that girl? The one who was there?

RYAN: What about her?

CERIDWEN: Is that enough small talk?

RYAN: We have a daughter together, Kerry. Nothing is small talk. Come on, you asked about my mom, you asked about my girlfriend—

CERIDWEN: I have a job to do.

RYAN: She asks about you. You wanna know what I tell her?

CERIDWEN: Is it anything like what you said to me? Before I left?

RYAN: Why did you come back? Is this really what you want to do? Is that why you left?

CERIDWEN: I was sixteen. You were an authority figure, like it or not—is that something you expected me to just live with? God dammit, Ryan, what did you want? I was sixteen! Did you really want me raising her with you? I did exactly what they tell sixteen-year-olds to do when they get pregnant: I gave her up. And I moved on. You were the one who wanted to keep her.

RYAN: And you never looked back.

CERIDWEN: Are you upset that I left her or that I left you?

RYAN: Do you ever even think about her?


RYAN: Then why didn’t you come back? I mean, look at you, you’re… don’t they give you any vacation time?

CERIDWEN: Kids need stability.

RYAN: I’m not asking you to be her mom. You’re not. But you are her mother.

CERIDWEN: What have you told her?

RYAN: Well, you know me. I named her “Elspeth”, for crying out loud. What did you expect me to say? That you gave her up? That you cared more about yourself?

CERIDWEN: That I’d let an older man knock me up?

RYAN: You think that’s the part that would matter? To her? Coming from the one who stayed?

CERIDWEN: So what did you tell her?

RYAN: I’ve told her lots of different things. Told her you were abducted by aliens.


RYAN: I told her you were actually a fairy and you couldn’t exist in this realm for more than a year.

CERIDWEN: How old is she again?

RYAN: Just starting to grow out of that. She is my daughter, after all. And I can’t vouch for what my mom’s told her, but… I think she’s gotten it in her head I don’t really like talking about you.

CERIDWEN: Yet here we are.

RYAN: You need to meet her.

CERIDWEN: I don’t think that would be a good idea.

RYAN: Well, tough. She needs to meet you. I have bought the ring. For Melanie. But she needs to meet you, too. No matter what else happens.

CERIDWEN: We do need to talk about the incident.

RYAN: Will you meet your daughter?

CERIDWEN: You can’t exactly give me an ultimatum.

RYAN: Watch me.

“Nights in White Satin”

Declan fell in love with Raven the minute he laid eyes on her.

Actually, scratch that. They were fourteen and he would’ve called it love, but that doesn’t mean I have to.

Raven was everything that Declan thought he wanted in a lover. And lover is the term he used, but only to himself because the world would judge him. Raven was dark—of course—and she was a shy, quiet type, but with an attitude, you know, like an edge. But at the same time, whenever a teacher called on her, she had the most bizarre take on things.

“Who won the battle of Gettysburg?” asked the History teacher.

Raven answered, “The crows.”

There were giggles and snickers about the crazy emo goth chick, but Declan thought she was fabulous. The way she never made eye contact, like she was just above it all, the fact that she was always reading.

It was the mystery of her. How no one could ever possibly get in her head. A “challenge” some might call her, but for Declan she was something more. She had something, he thought. Something that he needed.

“Are you alone for a reason?” he asked when he reached her table with his tray.

“Safe bet,” she snarked.

“Do you want to be alone?”

She shrugged. He sat.

“Mind if I talk at you for a second?”

“Just one?”

“Could go sixy. Could go longer.”

She frowned at him.

“Do you mind, though? I just want to talk at you. You don’t have to listen.”

Some folks talk, some folks listen. Some folks don’t even try to do that. Raven did them one better, tried not to. Just shrugged and went back to her book.

“See, I got this theory,” said Declan, “that you’re good at something, but you don’t want people to know. Or you don’t need them to. I think you can sing.”

This caught her attention.

“And I think if you tried, you could sing pretty well. Well enough to make people notice.”

There was a flicker in her eyes. He could tell he was getting through to her, but he didn’t know yet what that meant. Worst case, he thought, I’m pushing too hard, I’m an asshole. But he found he could live with that, given the stakes.

“But I don’t think you want people to notice,” he said. “You want people to leave you alone, right?”

She looked away and said “I have a girlfriend.”

Quietly, with dignity, Declan’s world shattered. “Oh,” he said. “OK.”

“Just in case you were hitting on me.”

He had been, of course, but in a rather roundabout way. He’d been looking for an excuse to approach her and Angst had provided him that. If it turned out she couldn’t sing and didn’t want to, he could still use that as a jumping-off point. But now that that was off the table, though…

“Would your girlfriend mind if you were in a band?”

There was that frown again. “What kind of band?”

Whitewashing the Ghost

SPOILER ALERT: The following is not a spoiler-free review of the new live-action Ghost in the Shell, but rather a kind of essay on the controversies sparked by it. For this reason, I will be discussing some of the facets of the film which might be considered spoilers for those who haven’t seen it but wish to.

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the live-action remake of the classic animé “Ghost in the Shell”. It premiered last weekend to abysmal reviews and receipts and now aparently, the studio is blaming the film’s failure on the “whitewashing controversy”.

Notice that it’s “because of whitewashing controversy”, though, rather than “because of whitewashing”. Like the movie would’ve been just fine if those meddling millennials hadn’t bitched about it.

Is it possible that we made a big deal out of this thing that shouldn’t have been a big deal? In the run-up to the film’s release, one site went to Japan and asked a bunch of Japanese people their opinion on the casting of this live-action adaptation of their classic. They didn’t seem to mind. “She’s a good actress,” was the consensus, “and animé characters look a lot more like white people anyway.”

But this response from Japan should not have been taken as a green light for the studio to greenlight this picture. This is not because white people “obviously” know more about marginalization than anyone else—it’s because Japanese people living in Japan are not the ones being marginalized.

One of the arguments that’s come up quite a bit here is that “Hollywood shouldn’t have to go to Asia to fill this role,” and you’re right, they shouldn’t, because guess what: there are plenty of Asian American actors right here who could have fit the bill. Plenty. Japanese people living in Japan have their own movies they can be in, where they can play their parts to national and even international acclaim. But for the 1.3 million people of Japanese descent living here in the U.S., Hollywood is the venue for movie roles, and Hollywood is not allowing them to shine.

Now, I want to be fair here. There has been some question over whether or not Ghost in the Shell should be held up as the poster child for this controversy. There are other movies that have done a more egregious job—in fact I would say that there was one in the last few months, The Great Wall, that could be put to this use better, albeit in a different way. Similarly, there have been controversies in the Marvel Universe over both Tilda Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange and Finn Jones in the title role of Iron Fist. Going back further, we had Emma Stone in the movie Aloha pretending to be part Asian and Hawaiian even though she has no such ancestry. We’ve had several cases of white people playing characters who should have been Asian: Mackenzie Davis in The Martian, Clea Duvall in Argo and Jim Sturgess in 21, the latter two being parts based on real people who were Asian. Jim Sturgess gets another black mark here for one of the roles he played in Cloud Atlas, but this is where I must give caveats.

Cloud Atlas is, in my opinion, a magnificent film. It spans six stories set over several hundred years that intercut with each other fluidly, and most of the actors in the film play parts in each of the stories. This gives the audience the impression that these characters are being reincarnated into different, yet similar roles throughout the span of the film’s history. It’s not for everyone because it’s terribly complicated, but for those of us who have the constitution, it is breathtaking, and it simply would not have the impact that it does if some characters weren’t cast against race. I suppose it could have been cast differently. They could have had all of Jim Sturgess’s characters played by an actor of Asian descent, but that would have caused a lot of subtle problems. When Jim Sturgess appeared as Hae-Joo Chang in the Seoul plotline, Doona Bae’s Sonmi-451 was the protagonist, and he merely the love interest in her story. To cast an Asian actor as Hae-Joo Chang, they would have to have put him in whiteface as Adam Ewing, which would have felt more unnatural, as Adam Ewing was the protagonist of his own plotline in the movie. This is not to say that the decision they made was perfect, but to attack Jim Sturgess on the basis of Cloud Atlas would be counterproductive, especially considering the atrocity that was his role in 21.

Now, in general, among the examples named above (excluding the semantic maze that is Cloud Atlas) there are two separate but essentially equal controversies that play into this problem. The first is the straight-up whitewashing itself, of taking a character who should be Asian and casting a white person instead. But one of the things that plays into that is the appropriation inherent in creating a white character in an environment or with attributes that suggest Asian influence to the point of appropriation. This is the problem with The Great Wall and perhaps also with Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. We have to ask ourselves “Why is this character even here?” The implication with those kinds of movies is that audiences need a white character to make the Asian setting digestible. And this may be true for a “mainstream” American audience, but audiences can be trained. How many movies have been headed by Jet Li, Jackie Chan and even Bruce Lee, back in his considerably more (openly) racist day? How many parts have gone to Lucy Liu that could have easily gone to white women? Did she hurt the box office?

But the interplay between these two issues gives studios the excuse to consider the choice between whitewashing and appropriation as a “lesser of two evils” debate, giving them license to take the easy way out and cast a “sure thing” rather than help build an Asian American actor’s career. This seems to be more or less what happened mainly with Doctor Strange, but also to a certain extent Iron Fist. In both cases, Marvel justified their casting decisions by saying “it was either that or fall into offensive stereotyping”.

With Iron Fist, this would have given them an Asian character as the first martial-arts-based superhero in the MCU (not counting DareDevil or Black Widow, who have other primary gimmicks). And yes, that might have been somewhat offensive. But at least we would have had a legitimate Asian superhero character. What we got instead, though, was yet another “We need whitey to save us” narrative, and if we’re talking about dangerous stereotypes, I think that one takes the cake.

But there was something more specific going on in Doctor Strange. The character of the Ancient One was originally a Tibetan monk/mage of immense power, but instead they gave Tilda Swinton’s version nondescript “Celtic” origins. While this did end up playing nicely into some of the intricate symmetrical designs of the production, that should not be considered an excuse. Their excuse was the fact that they couldn’t cast a Chinese actor as a Tibetan character because it would have been offensive, but they also couldn’t keep the character as having a Tibetan background because—are you ready for this?—it would have antagonized China. Now, it’s unrealistic to think that Hollywood is simply going to ignore the biggest and still fastest-growing marketplace in the world, especially when it comes to this kind of high-dollar tent-pole, but once again, this is an example of shifting the blame for the white-washing, for the marginalization of Asian American actors, to their Asian country of origin. To think that this is Hollywood making excuses is actually the best-case scenario here—the worst is that China actually does think that way, and we are giving in to their racism and political games for the promise of more money.

This doesn’t seem to be exactly what happened in the case of Ghost in the Shell, but it isn’t far off. From what I gathered before the film’s release, their excuse for casting Scarlett Johansson was the classic “she was the best person for the role”, followed, after accusations of whitewashing, by “we couldn’t find anyone of Asian descent who would work for it.”

But then I did some calculations in my head and I realized that this character she plays is a robot, as is clear not only from the trailer but also from watching the original. I started to have an idea of how this might go down in a way that would be, at the very least, interesting—perhaps even to the point of redeeming the film itself. I was wrong, but the reason why I was wrong was the impetus for this essay.

The big twist in the movie comes when Scarlett Johansson’s character “Major” realizes that the reason she doesn’t remember anything about her life before the accident that led to her human brain being put in an android body, is because she was part of a local anti-establishment insurgency movement. After she was captured, her death was faked and her identity stolen. What makes the white-washing, then, particularly egregious in this case is the fact that we have here a Japanese woman literally being poured into a white woman’s body.

This seems to have fueled the PC ire against the movie, but it still got me thinking “That is the greatest possible metaphor for what’s been happening.” A Japanese woman cast into a white woman’s body. Not only that, but we can take it even further: an American weapons manufacturing company (ostensibly Japanese in the film, but run by a white guy—I’ll get to that) kidnaps a Japanese woman and turns her white. That is essentially the metanarrative of yellowface. It’s what the entire controversy is built on. If they had hung a big enough lantern on that issue, really driven home the wrongness of that, the movie could have been an instant classic and the studio might have funded a good half dozen sequels from the SJW dollars alone.

But they didn’t. That would’ve been a nice movie, but it’s not the movie they chose to make.

It gets worse, in my opinion. The film takes place in Japan. I do not believe the city is specified, but we will say for the sake of argument that it is Tokyo. Despite the location, of all the characters in the movie, only one actually speaks in Japanese. This might be because the actor’s English wasn’t good enough or it could be because that character is the head of some sort of law enforcement agency answerable to the Japanese government (even though most of its members are not Japanese) but despite this thin justification, it poses some semantic problems. If it weren’t for this one Japanese-speaking character, we the audience might be able to tell ourselves “Oh, it’s Japan, so they’re all speaking Japanese, but they translated it into English for the movie” which might be odd considering all the white people and that black guy in the meeting, but well within the realm of possibility. When we’re watching movies about Ancient Rome, after all, we take it for granted that they are not all speaking English, because they’re Romans, but to have them all speaking in Latin would be as hard on the audience as it would be on the actors. Something like that would make sense in this case, but having one character who is speaking Japanese not only ruins it but serves to highlight the fact that everyone else isn’t speaking Japanese. This means that in this future-Tokyo (or wherever) most of the power lies with white people. Now, again, this could be viewed as an indictment—if they had gone that route; but I guess that would have been too complicated.

Even that, though, I personally could have lived with, except for the fact that there was one other character who was specifically supposed to be Japanese, but who didn’t speak it. I am referring of course to Major’s mother, who, even after she realizes that this woman who appears to be a gaijin is, in fact, her daughter, not only fails to acknowledge the whitewashing, but herself seems to erase Major’s backstory by continuing to refuse to speak to her in what was once her native language.

Again, there are ways that this might have been explained away, but such explanations would have rung hollow and anyway, none were given.

The bottom line is, next time Hollywood decides to make a live-action version of this story, they ought to cast Jessica Henwick as Major. When they inevitably reboot Iron Fist, it should be written for Harry Shum Jr. And if you really can’t cast a Chinese or Tibetan person as The Ancient One, then for crying out loud, bring in Aishwarya Rai or somebody.

(Don’t) Light My Fire

I went up North as far as North would go. I drove North unti even I could afford to turn off the AC, and then I went further. I wanted to go all the way. I figured if I drove till the road ran out and then made more road till my car couldn’t manage and walked, maybe I could keep people safe. Leave me alone at the top of the map to melt the icecaps.

But I couldn’t drive forever. Cars don’t work like that, and neither do people.

Most girls wouldn’t have stopped at the place that I stopped at. Too far from the main roads, too much rough, too much tumble. But there was a gas station and a restaurant/bar type place and I’m not the one you should be worried about.

“Get you something warm to eat?” asked the waitress.

I ordered a salad.

“You sure, hon? Want some coffee?”

“Water. Extra ice.”

She seemed concerned, but was trained well enough, I guess, not to question.

I noticed people looking at me. They’d been looking since I first came in, but I’d busied myself at taking in my new surroundings. Now the Gaze was deafening. I tried not to meet it. I tried to look out the window or play with my thumbs, but there was a loud noise and I turned and I caught his eyes on me.

Please don’t flirt with me, I wanted to tell him, but I knew it wouldn’t do me any good. I could tell. I knew his type. So I watched him walk towards me like watching a train speed towards a broken bridge without even blowing the horn in acknowledgement of impending doom.

“Hey,” he said.

Really, it was all he had to say. “Hey,” I said back.

He took it as an invitation, sat down, asked routine questions. Where you from? Where you headed? What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this all by your lonesome? I can take care of myself, I insist, but I keep telling myself that and then having the same conversations with this exact guy.

“You wanna get out of here?” That’s the question, isn’t it? What do I want? But that question is game over. Which makes it that much more embarrassing that this time, I was the one asking it. What was I thinking? Why was I giving in? What kind of girl was I?

Was I giving in, or was I giving up? Fine, some part of me thought on the way out to his truck after he’d paid for my food. Fine, if this is the person I’m going to be, maybe I should just be her.

Or maybe I thought that only feeling lukewarm in the cold here would make some kind of difference. Not having any real feelings for him, not being excited—what if there was a cure and this was it?

But I knew it was a fool’s hope, so I tried to justify it to myself.

“No,” I told him after he’d lifted me into the back seat. “Keep the door open.”

From the glint of his eye, he must’ve thought it was kinky, and I filed that glint away under lechery as an excuse for what awaited him. If he’d closed the door behind him once I’d said that, that would’ve been reason enough, I told myself. Disrespect. Right? But I was still cool when he kissed me.

I couldn’t stay cool for long. Think of every place he could have touched me in those first, like, thirty seconds, as touching a lit match to a piece of paper. Waves of heat rippling out under my skin. Forget the AC, I needed arctic waters for this. And then the moment of consummation—that would have to be like pulling the trigger on a flame thrower. I made sure I was on top for that, cold night air brushing over my bare back, keeping my temperature low.

He seemed to be enjoying it. Nothing wrong with that. Maybe that could be enough for me, to live vicariously through his enjoyment of my flesh—hadn’t that been the way for millions of Victorian women? But that’s not how things work for me.

“Stop,” I whispered in his ear when I felt the cold winds start to fail, then louder,” slow down. “I needed to ease up. Maybe if I just stayed at a simmer…

But he didn’t slow down and he didn’t stop. I tried to pull away. “Please,” I said—not for my sake, but for his, and it took every ounce of wilpower because it’s not what I wanted. “Please—“

He didn’t listen—instead he did my all-time favorite thing: he flipped me on my back, never disengaging. He pinned me down and breathed hot air into my cheek as he pounded away.

It was not what I wanted—no, it was exactly what I wanted—no…

My arm shot out above me, reached for the window over my head, for the cold glass, but if there was any cold left on the window, it could no longer reach me.

How could he stand it? How could he not notice what was happening to me? Pushing him away had netted me nothing, so I pulled him close and kissed him goodbye on the collarbone. He had brought this on himself, I justified it. He should’ve stopped when I told him. Did I really believe that? Do I believe it now? I try to take comfort in the fact that the next girl he tried that on would not have enjoyed it, rather than the fact that I did. Because the fact that I did had consequences.

By the time I’d cooled off, there was nothing left of him. Charred and twisted bits of metal and plastic turned the snow black for twenty feet in any direction from where I lay naked in the parking lot. I covered myself with my hands, not against the cold but under the delusion that by keeping myself from being seen, I could prevent this from happening again.

The Entity

I keep wanting to write something about the first moment that an entity becomes aware.

Where does “awareness” start? How does it even happen?

Imagine an Entity with no memories. Fully-formed, yet completely new to the world, a blank slate of impressions.

What’s the first sensation it perceives? Is it the sand beneath it? The sun, up above? Is it even capable of distinguishing between the coarse texture at its back and the heat, or will it take a breeze, a sudden shift in temperature, a gust ruffling the texture of its skin, to provide enough context to make it realize it can feel.

If the wind does blow over it, will that make it stir? At what point will the Entity even realize that it has a body? That it’s capable of movement?

Its eyes are closed—must we posit that it has eyes? It has eyes, and they are closed. They are turned, though, up towards the heavens. As the sun shines down on its eyelids, it turns its field of vision red. But does the Entity even notice?

What is “sight”? What keeps us in our heads? If there was no sight and no sound, would we still think of our belly and our chest and our genitals as being “down”? Or would we live there, in the center of ourselves, only to be summoned upwards once we needed sight? Or is it our brain, perhaps, holding us prisoner? If our brains were in all belly, would we still think through our heads, just because those have the most sensory organs?

Perhaps the Entity must have some basic instinct. It should know just enough to be able to move when it has to, to react instinctively. Maybe it will even know to open its eyes—

Then what will happen once the new eyes are opened? What a sensory flood that would be! In the silence of the desert, to be suddenly flooded with light! Would it know the difference? It must.

But what will happen when it looks down at its body? Will it even recognize its own contours? Again, contrast. If a part of it wiggles, perhaps in response to outside stimuli, will it feel that change? Yes, and then it will know, it will know that is a part of its body. But what if it then looks out, looks up, and sees a withered tree against the backdrop of the sky? Will it recognize that the tree is different? How disappointed will the Entity be when it realizes it cannot wiggle those branches?