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.

Art is…

All art is political. All art is philosophical. All art has a message Scott Derrickson

Just because art — whether it comes in the form of a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a piece of music, a film or a novel — is meant to be enjoyed by the viewer/reader, it doesn’t mean it can’t be political, philosophical or carry a message at the same time.

The photographs that I’ve created may be pretty and even interesting. But my choice in photographic subject matter is deliberate. How I shoot it is deliberate. What is omitted from an image is deliberate.

The same can be said about my fiction writing. My choice of writing in the first or third person, my choice in story setting, my choice in topics to tackle are deliberate. Who my characters are, are deliberate. Everything in my storytelling is consciously and subconsciously deliberate.

The decision to be deliberate comes from an accumulation of life experiences, my morality, and a reaction to and manifestation of what I consider to be fundamentally important to me.

Art is a reaction to the world that surrounds the artist. Creativity stems from the relationship a person has with the world he or she functions in. Art is not separate from the rest of the world. Art is not created in a vacuum. It is a reflection, a reaction to the world.

So when entertainers, actors, filmmakers, writers and artists are told to go back to what they do best and keep their noses out of politics by those who have very compartmentalized ideas of what artists and entertainers should be, the hair on the back of my neck stands up.

It is complete bullshit to tell a particular group of people that their opinion is unwanted, that they’re not capable of wading into politics and current affairs. An invisible hierarchy is at work here. Those who go into the arts are not as smart or intelligent as a business person, an academic or a politician. Or maybe the artist is seen as being more vacuous, vapid or flighty. Head in the clouds instead of feet on the ground. Classism. Right brain folks vs. left brain folks.

Anyway, there goes the idea of having a healthy discussion. Down the fucking toilet.

As an artist, everything I’ve created visually or in the written word is a reaction to the time in which it was being created. My work is a reflection of my mindset during that period of time. It is a reflection of the music, the people and the visuals in other mediums that have inspired the stories I have told so far.

My personal politics and philosophies are in my work. Sometimes it’s blatant, most times it’s subtle. But it’s there. You can ignore it but you can’t hide from it. You can’t hide from me.

So, yes, all art is political. All art is philosophical. All art has a message.

Emotive space

I think it’s almost a law of nature that there are only certain things that hit an emotive space, and that’s what was always special for me about music: it made me feel something — Kate Bush

If you were to ask me who is my favourite female singer, I would automatically respond with Debbie Harry of Blondie.

But if you were to ask me which female singer has been a strong creative influence on me, I would have to say Kate Bush.

For those who like to keep track of shit like this, most of my creative influences are men. Ramin Djawadi. Ludovico Einaudi. Luca Guadagnino. Guillermo del Toro. Francis Lee.

They have influenced and still influence how I want to tell stories. For those who are not familiar with Djawadi and Einaudi, they are music composers. Yes, they influence how I see and tell stories. On a number of occasions, their music has evoked imagery and feelings that have informed the way past and present fictional characters behave and why they behave a in a particular manner.

There are a few ways for me to access the emotive space Bush talks about. But none have been as profound as music.

Music conjures imagery and feelings that pop into my head and give me something that is an equivalent to an epiphany. Canadian jazz musician Michael Kaeshammer’s version of St. James Infirmary was a catalyst in the creation of the my first novel.

My current playlist is always in a state of fluidity but Djawadi’s and Einaudi’s works are mainstays as I work to finish the first draft of the second novel. Other artists have a presence in my writing process, like UK singer/songwriter Jono McCleery.

I suppose I should mention the names of the pieces of music that make up part of my playlist. But I won’t do that simply because the music might give away the relationships between my characters. They are not so much spoilers as they could reveal the tone of the story I’m telling. I may share the playlist when the book is ready for public consumption.

But there is one piece that has landed on my current playlist I am willing to talk about beyond two sentences. That piece is Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Arguably that song may be the most used piece of music in television shows. C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation and Warehouse 13 are two shows that I know of, who have used the song. However, it’s not the original version by Bush that was used. Placebo’s cover was used by C.S.I. and a band called Track and Field did their own version of it for Warehouse 13.

As a side note, there is a band called Track and Field, based out of the UK. But they don’t seem to be the ones who covered the song. There is speculation the band was created just to record the song for Warehouse 13. I think the word used to describe this band was that they were a “project.”

I only discovered the Track and Field cover last week while I was wandering through YouTube trying to satiate my latest obsession. I’m not going to say what or who that would be. But I will say there is a theme linking my latest obsession to the characters in my second novel. I’m just going to leave it at that. I may talk about the theme but I will not name my obsession here.

Anyway, I heard the cover, figured out who performed it and wanted to buy the song. But, of course, the damn song is only available on the U.S. iTunes. What the fuck, folks? But I did find it on Soundcloud and I have no idea how many times I’ve listened to it.

Listening to Track and Field’s cover of Running Up That Hill took me to another part of the emotive space I regularly inhabit. I only access that area when the song/piece, characters and where I’m at with the writing, collide to give me a eureka moment. I don’t access it all the time and I have no way of knowing when it will happen. It just does. It has produced a collage of imagery and moments for the novel that I will be adding as I get closer to finishing the first draft.

I have always loved Kate Bush and her music. And I appreciate any well-executed cover of Running Up That Hill. Placebo’s cover of the tune was the first to blow me away. It just spoke volumes to me. But it’s funny that that cover wasn’t the one to give me my epiphanous moment last week. Hearing the simple combination of vocals, piano and drums in the Track and Field cover did it for me. It quietly opened another door in that emotive space and I was stunned.

Listening to it had me falling in love with the song all over again. Its lyrics and lietmotif evoke a myriad of intense emotions. It speaks to, or better yet, encapsulates the dynamic that exists between my three main characters. It asked me a question and I answered it. That answer is the key to finishing the novel.

It thrills me to no end that my writing process works no matter how far along I am in the story. No need for warming up. No faltering. Just rolling along with the scattered moments of genius. My genius is low level genius, but it’ll do. Happy to have any kind of genius. Period.

Now, back to that emotive space, my happy place. Back to feeling something.