Tropes and absolute truths

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth— Simone de Beauvoir

It might be a little early to be talking about Sicario: Day of the Soldado since it just opened this past weekend but that’s what I’m going to do. There might be spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet. For those who don’t care about spoilers, keep on reading if you like.

I spent Friday night watching Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I enjoyed the first film, Sicario, so why wouldn’t I like the sequel. I did like the sequel. But it’s not without some issues.

I had heard about about the criticisms surrounding the film brought about by film critics of colour. We know that Hollywood/entertainment industry has a problem with representation on the silver screen and how people of colour (POC), women and the LGBTQ are portrayed on film. There is also a problem where the majority of film critics are white men.

Having found some Latino critics who saw the film, they all took issue with the portrayal of anybody who wasn’t white. Stereotypes and tropes were used to move the story forward. All stuff that I had heard before.

I’m not saying the film’s screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan can’t write because he can. An Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Hell or High Water proves that. Yes? No? He has worked hard to get where he is right now.

One film critic has said Sicario: Day fo the Soldado suffered from lazy writing. And I would have to agree. For example, the opening scene showed a terrorist illegally crossing the Mexico-U.S. border with other migrants. The initial premise was presented that the cartels are assisting terrorists get into the U.S. and that was the impetus for the film. It turns out this premise is a red herring. A couple of seemingly throw away remarks by Cynthia that two of the ‘terrorists’ were actually from New Jersey, makes the film’s opening scene kinda wasted. What we basically have is a film about the American government illegally operating in Mexico stirring up shit between the cartels for no legitimate reason. This action is not without consequences in the long term because this will increase the bloodshed in that country. America will never own up to instigating more blood being spilled in another country.

Way to go, U.S. government. Way. To. Go. Where the fuck are my pompoms?

The fact that the terrorists were home-grown and that it was dismissively swept under the rug in the film, mirrors the reluctance by a percentage of Americans who refuse to consider the idea of domestic terrorism.

It’s hard to say if this red herring was intentionally written by Sheridan. But the way the throwaway remarks were made by Cynthia makes one think they were inserted into the script to save a storyline that might have gotten out of hand in the writing process or during film production.

After I watched the film, I came across an analysis piece written by Isaac Butler for slate.com about Sheridan, who also wrote the first film, Sicario. To be honest, I agreed with everything in Butler’s analysis.

Some of the highlights from his analysis:

1) Sheridan’s lack of agency for his female characters (Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, Catherine Keener’s Cynthia Foards and Isabela Moner’s Isabela Reyes) which plays into the idea that the male characters holding all the power and the knowledge of what was going on the two films.

Yes, Blunt’s character, Kate, was the lead in the first film but Kate always seemed to be a step behind and kept in the dark by Josh Brolin’s character Matt Graver. The character had a specific role, was a particular archetype within Sheridan’s narrative. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as noticeable Blunt’s character was portrayed by a male actor. But it is noticeable when the character is female. The politics of gender colours everything.

Keener’s character, Cynthia, is a representative from the CIA and supposedly carries some weight. Well, I think she’s from the CIA. I wasn’t quite clear on her position. A second viewing of the film would solve that problem. Anyway, her character seems to be nothing more a mouth piece for the President and when the shit seems close to hitting the fan, she is lumped with the task of administratively cleaning up the mess. Pretty much the men around her end up doing whatever they want.

Then we have Moner’s character, Isabela, the daughter of a cartel leader. Isabela showed a lot of spunk getting into a fight with another student at an all-girl private school. But after that, she’s a victim and a pawn in the game the CIA plays with the warring Mexican cartels. She’s an interesting character with not a of room to maneuver within the narrative.

2) Aside from the lack of agency for the female characters, POC don’t seem go beyond the tropes of criminals. Heck, even the white characters don’t seem to go beyond their assigned tropes either. Everyone is a little more than two dimensional but never really reaches three dimensional territory.

3) What does Sheridan’s America look like? As Butler puts it, Sheridan’s America is where “men do manly-man things.” A guy’s guy is another way of describing it. Any female protagonist in Sheridan’s screenplays is somehow sidelined by the men around her or is in need of their help because of some self-perceived weakness that they acknowledge to having. And we’re back to the issue of Sheridan’s female characters lacking agency.

After reading through Butler’s analysis, there are some things I’d like to say.

It’s pretty clear Sheridan is critical of the American government. And he tries to work in the grey area that exists between good and bad. But when you work with tropes, that grey area sometimes doesn’t get explored very well. Sheridan tries in Sicario. Any grey area he hints at or tries to touch on is mitigated by Kate’s lack of agency. The male characters lack grey area. del Toro’s Alejandro comes closest to being a complex character. His motivations for being a sicario are explained and his interactions with Kate are coloured by his motivations.

In my opinion, adherence to genre, stereotypes and tropes are part of the reason for the problems that exist in Sicario and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. But the second film suffers from a screenplay that quite doesn’t match up to the first film. I think it suffers too from the fact Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt and the late cinematographer Roger Deakins were not part of the production of the second film. There were moments that I thought were really interesting and thought-provoking. But the reliance on stereotypes and tropes in order to tell the story is problematic. I can’t stress that enough.

It’s stuff like this that motivates me to try to avoid in my own writing. I don’t know how successful I will be in avoiding it but I can certainly do my best to not fall into that rabbit hole.

Apparently, Sheridan had said that the screenplay for Sicario: Day of the Soldado wasn’t intended to be a sequel to the first film. It was supposed to be a standalone. But before the film hit theatres nationwide, there were stories reporting that the idea of a third film is being discussed, with Blunt returning to reprise her character, Kate Macer, to finish the trilogy.

Well, I have a few thoughts on the idea of a Sicario trilogy and if the third film is actually made.

1) If there is a trilogy, the final film must include the characters Isabela Reyes and Miguel Hernandez, the boy/man who is recruited by Alejandro to become a sicario at the end of the film. Given what the second film hints at as their fates, their individual story arcs need to be played out in the third film.

2) If Miguel returns (and the film certainly hints that we probably haven’t see the last of him), I would like to see how the relationship between Miguel and Alejandro has evolved from the second film to the third film. Are they still student and mentor? Are they working together? What are Alejandro’s motivations for taking Miguel under his wing to shape him into a sicario?

Considering how Miguel and Alejandro first lay eyes on each other and how it escalated to Miguel being forced to shoot Alejandro, it is interesting Alejandro is giving Miguel to the opportunity become a hitman. Does Alejandro know that Miguel was the one who shot him before he made the offer to show Miguel the ropes a year later? Hard to say how Alejandro would know this since those who knew Miguel was his ‘executioner’ are all dead. Does this become a surrogate father/son relationship? Depending on what both characters know about each other, this is a relationship that can end up being very good for the men or turn into a complete disaster. The interesting thing is both characters were inherently good men before cartels and gangs entered their lives and changed them. The potential of this relationship and how it will play intrigues me a lot.

3) What happens when Matt Graver discovers Alejandro survived his execution? Or does he know Alejandro is alive before the start of the third film? How will their relationship play out?

4) If Blunt returns, what is her narrative now? Will her character, Kate, finally have agency instead of questioning everything and being seemingly a step behind everybody she works with? Can she finally play the game everyone else is playing while inhabiting the ‘good guy’ archetype? Or maybe she’s not the ‘good guy’ anymore. Maybe Kate inhabits the grey areas between good and bad. The fluidity of changing sides is one of the most interesting ideas to explore and play with. This is why Kate’s character development from first film to third film could be so rich if written to take this direction. The potential for her character to become one of the most interesting and dynamic characters in the third film is limitless.

It’s clear that in Sheridan’s world, everybody is flawed. There are no outright good guys. But he still follows certain tropes. For the third film to succeed, not being a slave to archetypes and tropes, showing more complexity of the characters through subtext will be paramount.

There is a bit to unpack in the Sicario films. There is no denying the fact the screenplays were written by a white man. I don’t think that is a problem if the story and the characters are handled fairly. But, the definition of ‘handled fairly’ can be subjective. Maybe we need to understand Sheridan’s perception of the world. Or maybe not. But it is a specific kind of world Sheridan puts down on paper. It is a world where men’s experiences and views of the world are taken as absolute truths. From those absolute truths is a particular viewpoint with regards to women and POC. That viewpoint will rub some people the wrong way. As a storyteller, it really is impossible to make everybody happy. You just tell your story no matter what.

It’s also a given that that particular viewpoint can (and usually does) go against having an honest representation of those whose skin colour is not white. We all have our own viewpoints and truths. But one specific viewpoint should not always repeatedly be presented as the absolute truth.

Undeniable need

The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world – to feel that one’s desire is too difficult to tell from despair — Wallace Stevens

One of these Mondays, I’m going to miss my self-inflicted deadline of posting a blog. It’s just a matter of time. Not that I have a ton of people waiting every week with baited breath for whatever kernel of silliness that comes spilling out of my mind.

But I like to be diligent and keep my commitments. Things are starting to ramp up over here and I need to implement my game strategy for the next three or four months. Short-tempered, short-fused or sleep-deprived might be adjectives you could use to describe me in the coming weeks.

Hmmm, I should balance that out with short intense moments of decompression, i.e. laughter with folks who know how to make me smile and anything else will make me let go and be in the moment. But doing a little field research will net the same results, as well. Oh, how I love field research.

This past week, I watched three films (in the theatre and on DVD) — Call Me By Your Name directed by Luca Guadagnino, God’s Own Country directed by Francis Lee and Leon: The Professional, a 1994 film directed by Luc Besson. All three films had me thinking a lot about story, setting, character, action/reaction. It also had me thinking about how each director’s values, sensibilities and aesthetics guided the way they told their stories.

I’m still unpacking what I saw. Actually, I’m unpacking a lot of things where the art of storytelling is concerned. In that regard, 2018 has been interesting and in different ways, intense.

I think in a future blog post, I’ll discuss Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country and perhaps, Moonlight, and why these films and its directors and actors have so deeply affected me, forged and reinforced the way I think about the art of storytelling and make me want to be a better storyteller.

It will probably be a long read. But if you’re willing to put in the time, you are welcome to read it once I lucidly form my thoughts and opinions about those films and what they mean to me in the bigger picture, creatively and artistically.

I used to gripe about being under-stimulated. Now, I’m just stimulated. But there’s always the threat of over-stimulation that can put anyone into a tailspin and result in a loss of focus.

The next couple of months threaten with unwanted opportunities that could easily lead to scattered thinking. I can’t let allow it to happen. The prize I’m eyeing is too tempting to lose sight of just because the swirling winds of semi-organized chaos created by others are trying to distract me.

God, I hate getting sucked in by the chaos of others.

The need and desire to learn, absorb and dream is strong and undeniable. Nothing must prevent that from happening. Ever.

So taken with the melancholy

Music is a great catalyst for emotion because it gets to your core — Chris Milk

Last week, I discovered a piece of music I would dare to describe as the definitive theme, the musical blueprint that speaks to the relationship between my two main characters, my boys. The lyrics don’t speak entirely to the true nature of the relationship between my boys. It is the emotions the music evokes that simmers between them.

It happened by accident, to be honest. I follow a website called Nowness on Facebook and Twitter. It’s a great little site. So, I spotted one of their postings and because of the blurb and the image, I had to click and watch. What I clicked onto and watched was a dance video (if you want to label it as such) called The Idea of Us, directed by Geej Ower.

What adjectives can I use to describe this film (because it’s more than just a video)… heartbreaking, melancholic, breathtaking, tender, brilliantly simple in terms of its visual language and the body language belonging to the two characters, and just drop-dead beautiful. Yes, I’m a little obsessed with it, at the moment. I’ve never experienced before, a music/dance video, that basically put me under its spell the way this one has.

After seeing the vid, I was wondering what the fuck happened. The visual storytelling was clear. No ‘ifs, ands or buts’ about what it was about. That definitely didn’t confuse me. But I was left in the wake of the emotions, the intentions, the struggles of the lead character. They stayed with me. And that was pretty powerful.

You may watch the video and wonder what the fuck I’m talking about. I’m fine with you not understanding why this visual and musical manifestation of pain, loss and the struggle to move on is a masterpiece in my eyes and my heart. I’m also fine with you not reading this post anymore for whatever reason pops into your head. Later, dude. Make sure the door doesn’t hit you in the ass on the way out.

Movement, music and visual language are my holy trinity. Get the mix just right and it is beyond sublime. Ower’s video/film does that for me. I could spend days looking at that video, examining the details. Every. Fucking. Detail. I would go at it scene by scene, frame by frame. I’m such a geek.

You’d think I was looking for secrets. Secrets to what? I haven’t a clue and I don’t know what you’re talking about. But, if you insist, I’m looking for revelations and affirmations about my own artistic sensibilities — defining or redefining it by dissecting the sensibilities of others. Who are the kindred spirits? Who inspires me without even trying? If I met them at a bar, would we end up sharing a bottle of whisky or mezcal? I’m always up for new drinking buddies, especially when they make you think, in a good way.

I want to talk about the music as much as the visuals and the movement. Sometimes it’s so hard to separate them and talk about them in isolation from one another. It’s possible but it would be so wrong. So, I’ll start off with the music and weave everything else into it.

The song is This Idea of Us by UK singer-songwriter Jono McCleery. I don’t know what to say other than the combination of acoustic guitar teamed up with a string quartet and McCleery’s vocals has given me nothing but all kinds of intense feels. The kind that gently takes you by the hand and takes you on a slow burn journey that leaves you stunned and breathless at the end.

As an side, I have to say this: As much as I love the piano, I’ve become a sucker for string instruments. Their sound brings texture, complexity and nuance to a piece of music and to the sound of other instruments. I never thought to pair a string quartet with a guitar but it was done. McCleery’s friend, Matt Kelly, wrote the string quartet part for the song. He refers to Kelly as a wizard. I would have to agree. The layers of sounds he wrote for the strings, blend so seductively with McCleery’s voice. It really is sublime. Yeah, it’s definitely one way to seduce me. How do I know Kelly wrote the music for the strings? McCleery told me when we were chatting via Twitter. How did that happen? Well, I tweeted about being obsessed with This Idea of Us and we ended up having a small discourse.

So, back to that slow burn journey. That journey is manifested in the two characters in the film. Without a doubt, the two characters are portrayed by dancers because of the quality of their movement. While it’s not quite dance, the interaction and struggle is expressed in contemporary dance movements. The choice of particular movements enhance and magnify the music, the story and the characters’ motivations. And vice versa.

The visual choices the director makes, brings out the bittersweet melancholy of the song. Overcast skies with no hint of sun. Ambient light pouring into a home where its four walls, if it could talk, would tell you stories of a love that once lived there. The light is not harsh, cruel or dim. You’re just stuck in the grey. Nothing bright and colourful except for the rich blue sweater the lead character wears in most of his scenes. The memories of the past clashing with the need to move forward bleeds in the softness of shadow and light.

I don’t even know if what I feel when I listen to the song has been appropriately conveyed. Sometimes words are not enough or they can’t do justice to the intangibles. I think my words fall somewhere in between.

And I’m going back to play the crap out of that song again because it’s not done with me yet. It probably won’t ever be done with me. So enthralled. So taken. So under its spell.