The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Looking back at 2016, a splendid family entertainer that did not quite hit the mainstream radar was a little gem from New Zealand, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This little gem from Taika Waititi is a sensitive, colorful and personal story about relationships and it presents the magnificent vistas of New Zealand that we first encountered awe-struck in The Lord of the Rings. It is just as magical, even without all the magic. The lively bush is threatening and enticing at the same time. Sam Neill is in top child-hating form as he gruffly lumbers on screen with a kid he would rather not be with (not like real child-hating but his Jurassic Park style ‘I would rather do this adventure without children’ style child-hating). And talking about children, very few movies manage to draw out a good performance from a kid – and this movie does a fantastic job with (then 12-13 year old) Julian Dennison – an unapologetic city-slicking rogue that you cannot help but adore by the end of the film. Dennison’s impeccable acting chops aside, it is refreshing to see a movie with a protagonist who does not look like a ‘movie-star’ – a trap that Hollywood often falls into. The main bush-survival plot is simple and effective. It lives up to its promise of offering grand vistas as well as thrilling moments of adventure. But the thing that the film does best, arguably better than many of other films is to [SPOILER] kill off a beloved main character within the first ten minutes of the film. [/SPOILER]

To state the obvious, killing off a fan-favorite or major character is something that many TV shows and films have done over the years. It is used as a necessary plot point to further the story. However, the sudden demise of such characters at the beginning of the film or TV show are rarer, simply because to build a convincingly significant pay-off at such a short time is one of the rarest things in cinema. While some films have taken on this challenge to deliver a tragic blow tragic (such as in the Pixar animated classic Up) or to bait and switch for comedic effect (as seen in the obscure film version of Reno 911, where The Rock makes a fantastic 2-minute cameo). At times, such early departures are used to simply jolt the audience out of their complacency – as famously handled by Game of Thrones. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of best uses of this difficult to master trope – as it uses to the exit of a favorite character to highlight the character’s lingering presence throughout the film. The kind foster-mother’s unexpected demise sets the remaining main characters on a course of recognizing the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their two lives. While the film uses some familiar tropes of the Odd Couple, the main narrative of the film is not one of against the odds reconciliation; instead, it is a recuperative narrative where two characters come to terms with their shared loss by recognizing that their loss is the only thing that connects them. With unconditional generousity and non-judgmental love, Rima Te Wiata’s performance as Aunt Bella is true to the name, it is simply beautiful.

The supporting characters who try to “rescue” the boy they assume to have been kidnapped are consistently hilarious without being reduced to caricatures. At the end of the film, unlike others where authority figures look for children, you get a feeling that these characters genuinely are looking out for the best interests of the kid. The child services officer Paula (Rachel House) is a formidable presence who steals every scene she is in. The film portrays authority with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the influences from popular culture. Paula in her domineering best, reads out the Miranda rights at a certain point in the film, only to be reminded that they don’t do that in New Zealand.

The film’s director Taika Waititi made his feature length debut with another amazing small film Eagle vs. Shark and is currently making a not-so-small film for Marvel, Thor: Ragnarok. While many see this as a great opportunity for the filmmaker to move to a bigger budget and a wider canvas, I also see it as an important step in the evolution of Marvel movies, as this could be their chance to bring his small film charm and intimate character aesthetic to their inter-planetary monster. Of course, that might be a lot to ask in a movie where the Hulk is set to have gladiator battles, but one can always wish for a better product.

To sum up, if you are Instead of a trailer (which you can see here), I am convinced that this clip conveys the spirit of the movie:

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Upstart Crow – Literary Fan Dream TV

If you are a literature student who wonders if there are any TV programs about literary figures and history, then Upstart Crow is the answer to that question. Upstart Crow was created by Ben Elton as a part of the 400th anniversary Shakespeare celebrations, featuring David Mitchell as the titular upstart crow. It is perhaps the most inventive and irreverent approach to a historical figure whose daily circumstances are still largely undocumented and obscure, if not shrouded in mystery. By evoking comedic tropes that feature in Shakespeare’s own narratives and building real-life parallels that echo the future significance of his works, Upstart Crow brilliantly constructs a world that is as clever as it is funny.

The writing makes you tear up with pride, because it is just that good. Every line feels clever without being annoying or grating – unless it is on purpose. You get a range of characters and motivations, from the chaotic good to stoic and solid. Where the show shines is in its treatment of 16th century social issues with a tongue firmly in the cheek, and somehow making it relevant to our own time and concerns. With a compelling cast of characters whose concerns mirror our own contemporary lives, Upstart Crow pulls off a comedy about daily life featuring a playwright whose works have become iconic if not archetypal in our view.

While each actor is worthy of mention, Gemma Whelan (who plays Asha Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) plays a magnificent supporting role as Shakespeare’s landlord’s daughter Kate, who aspires to be an actress on the Elizabethan stage. Her is repeatedly thwarted by scoffing men who tell her that to be an actor, you need to be a boy, with coconuts. However, she responds to these rejections with a determined optimism, working on her next attempt at breaking the barriers. These figures may be imaginary, however they open the possibility of thinking about Shakespeare as an artist situated in the community and taking inspiration from his immediate circumstances.

Other characters like Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, help highlight the problem of class that still persists in many performance arts circles. By playing up Shakespeare’s need to ingratiate himself to his vapid and popular friend Marlowe, the show takes shots at the clout some artists enjoy simply by association and legacy. Yet, Marlowe’s turn is is played without malice and Shakespeare’s attempts to impress him come across as endearing. Most importantly, this show reverses some of the popular authorship theories and presents Shakespeare as having authored Marlowe’s plays for him. Fighting back against persistent shadows of doubt from conspiracy theorists disguised as literary historians, this show openly laughs at the snobbishness that questions the ability of someone from the common class to have written such delightful works.

The title of the show is an allusion to the comment made by Shakespeare’s critic and his contemporary playwright, Robert Greene, who warned his fellow university wits about the upstart crow who “beautified with our feathers… supposes he he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.” While using the quote for the title would have been funny enough, Robert Green (played by Mark Heap) is featured as a riotous foil to Shakespeare, who makes fantastic plans and announces them to the audience in hilarious soliloquys. Playing him out as a literal mustache twirling villain creates a wonderful dynamic that adds a Shakespearean depth to the lives of the other characters that simply carry on with their lives.

Now, the obvious comparison that this show evokes is to the now legendary Black Adder, which managed to present outstanding episodes in its historic run. Only time will tell if this Upstart Crow will ever reach the same acclaim as the that show, but it is definitely headed in the right direction. Among the many TV encounters that have been shared on this site, if there is one show that exemplifies the phrase ‘must see TV’, then it is this show. Smart writing, brilliant acting and a rich world to draw interesting elements from – this show has them all. BBC has produced some of the best comedies in English through the years, and this show is a fine addition to that list. If you have the slightest doubt about the show, watch this preview of the first episode. And Wankington!

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

TN Politics and a Better Quality of Dissent

Despite the lingering tension about the Speaker’s conduct during the government’s floor test, it seems like we have reached the end of the struggle between former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, O. Paneerselvam, and the AIADMK party establishment that has rallied around V. N. Sasikala. Perhaps many are disappointed that a remarkable political drama ended without much of a sizzle, as the party establishment secured its majority and the control of the state assembly. As entertaining as this drama was, it also brought to surface some usual ugliness in TN politics that has become so tiring and dated, that we need to rethink its acceptability. There are many real problems and instances of misconduct that could have been used to attack the opposition, but the argument quickly reached name-calling and personal attacks. While I am no fan of either faction, it was disheartening to see that quality of rage against the machine was without decency. Of course, this was not an isolated event in TN’s political history.

Former CM O. Panneerselvam and AIADMK General Secretary V. N. Sasikala

To set the stage, let me briefly introduce to the players in this modern day Game of Thrones – the AIADMK is one of the two Dravidian parties that have alternately ruled TN since 1990s, resisting nationalist political parties and supporting their charismatic leaders. In 2016, after winning a historical second consecutive term, J. Jayalalitha was hospitalized before she passed away. At the wake of her passing, Sasikala, the CM’s close aide, with her extended family, took over as the party’s general secretary and seemed to bide her time before making a claim for the Chief Ministership. A surprising voice of dissent arose from the party when incumbent and 3-time CM, O. Paneerselvam spoke against Sasikala’s aspirations, alleging that he was insulted repeatedly to secure power for Sasikala and her family members. He staked his own claim to retaining his position by explaining that he was coerced into resigning from the post.

That moment became a flashpoint in TN politics, as he received wide-spread popular support, most noticeably on social-media. The overwhelming support that OPS received is not so much a testament to his ability as a leader, but a reflection of the public’s aversion towards Sasikala and her family’s control over the party. Sasikala’s influence was seen as an unsavory influence on the charismatic Jayalalitha, whom the masses adored. Some would go as far as to say that the disproportionate assets case that would later tarnish Jayalalitha’s legacy took shape due to the excesses of Sasikala and her family members. OPS was seen as an alternative to the nepotistic rise of Sasikala, who had not previously held any official positions in the party. There were also many reasons to favor OPS against Sasikala, chief among them being his hitherto untarnished image as a CM, compared to the Mafiosi image cultivated by Sasikala’s family.

Given how clearly the lines of resistance could be drawn, the web-culture did not hesitate to destroy any decorum. The tone in which she has been criticized has been apolitical – and very personal. Most attack ads challenge her legitimacy by simply accusing Sasikala of being a ‘maid’ to the former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha. Her self-appointed moniker of “Chinnamma” (meaning the second-mother, or the mother’s sister) to claim Jayalalitha’s legacy as the “Amma” (mother) was mocked to no end. The language does not engage with the legitimacy of her aspirations or the many accusations of corruption that she has faced. Instead, there is critique of her appearance and her name.

We need a better quality of resistance that discusses the issues and the problem of nepotism and cult of personality – we should be challenging her politically naïve and openly coercive actions against her own party members – instead, the troves of social media news generators are content sharing misogynistic rubbish in the name of protest and popular opinion. If that is the quality of popular dissent we are capable of, then we should be ashamed of our own gross immaturity.

It also felt like OPS was getting a much gentler sentence for his sudden rebellion, which was preceded by a very long period of subservience to the AIADMK party leadership, including Sasikala. Instead of holding OPS to close scrutiny and examining his candidacy on his merit and works, we are happy to give him a pass for simply being an alternative. Those who mocked him for being deferential to Jayalalitha at every turn, now praised his ability to usher in her style of governance. The same people who attacked the present caretaker CM for being ineffective during the Jallikattu protests project him as a heroic figure who stood for the cause of the people.

While it is easy to imagine that OPS’s political aspirations came to an end today, we must also note that ever since the verdict of the disproportionate assets case was declared by the Supreme court, the OPS movement cooled down quite a bit. When it became clear that Sasikala was going to jail for four years and could not contest in elections for another six, effectively ending her CM aspirations, it ironically slowed down the enthusiasm for OPS as well. No longer were the people fighting the image of a wicked woman. The one who has replaced her, Edappadi Palanisamy – another Jayalalitha loyalist, is interchangeable with OPS, unremarkable in the same way.

Which brings us to a question – was the anger towards Sasikala mainly because she was a woman(like she claims)? Or is it more insidious, that misogyny is so deeply entrenched in Tamil language and culture, that when we want to critique a woman, the attack veers in that direction?

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

Grey Is The New White – The World Of OITNB

In an age of narrative complexity in television (Jason Mittell), audiences are no strangers to moral complexity as the two often go hand in hand.  We have become familiar with characters who go from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, ones that seem capable of being both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and even those others who are inscrutably positioned between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. My need to use scare quotes here is just one indication that we are aware of how complicated a relationship with such characters can be. Yet we seek out these relationships nonetheless. Currently, I am engaged in just one such relationship with Orange is the New Black (OITNB).

Both as a fan and as an academic, one of the reasons I enjoy this series is its ability to skilfully span a great deal of time. Television’s temporality allows for a variety of potential narrative patterns to emerge; narratives that are not simply teleological, but those which move both forward and backward, and through cycles of repetition and revision. OITNB puts television’s “ebb and flow” (Amy Holdsworth 2011:3) to ideological use as its narrative cycles force questions about the morality of its characters, the prison system, and human nature in general. But instead of leading us toward one final answer, the series takes delight in forcing us to re-evaluate our conclusions. A good illustration of this is a comparison between the season three and four finales, in the analysis of which I am indebted to Seymour Chatman’s approach to character as a paradigm of traits, in his Story and Discourse (1978).

Breaking Bad-der

Season three ended with a telling (teasing?) reference. Piper Chapman, the closest thing that the show has to a traditional protagonist, brags to her brother about her growing illicit business and her white-ink prison tattoo which proclaims “Trust no bitch”. In response, her brother delivers these comical words of advice: “Okay Pipes, while I’m really proud of how evil prison has made you, I think you’re overestimating your villain index. You’re still transitioning. You’re not Walter White yet, you’re Walter White-ink.” The reference to Breaking Bad’s famous antihero immediately elicits the question – will Piper follow in his footsteps? The trajectory certainly seems to suggest so. The traits that defined Piper as a character slowly shift from season one to season three. Piper began her prison sentence scared, weak, innocent and polite. By the end of season three she has become more powerful, while also becoming more selfish, ruthless and arrogant. She still tries to be polite though, adding to humour to scenes in which Piper attempts to balance this trait with her newly acquired toughness. The transition to villain seems to be well on its way. But is it?

Piper Shows her tattoo to her brother

From the beginning, OITNB has been self-reflexive when it comes to the television medium, making a variety of references to other shows, and the way that it deals with Piper’s character arc further illustrates that the comparison with Breaking Bad should be taken with a knowing pinch of salt. Hardly five minutes into season four’s first episode and Piper’s dominance is comically undermined. “No one knows you’re gangsta with an ‘a’”, the typically silent prisoner Chang tells her. And sure enough, as the season progresses Piper’s newly acquired power gets stripped away from her as she becomes, once again, not the perpetrator but the victim of prison conspiracies. And as this happens, the ‘negative’ traits that define Piper’s personality begin to mellow out as well. Her selfish streak is softened as she begins to again display a concern for the fates of others. By the end of the season she and her on-again, off-again girlfriend Alex have decided to try live an “easy”, quiet life, staying away from the prison’s incendiary activities. Such a turn-around may be disappointing for those who hoped that Piper would become TV’s next super-villain, but OITNB seems to have more on its mind than such a metamorphosis.

Chang throwing shade

From the beginning, the series has been preoccupied with questions about how prison life affects the individual. Are these people who they are because they are in prison, or are they in prison because of who they are? One of the first pieces of advice that Piper receives is to think of her time in prison as a mandala made out of sand: something you work hard to make meaningful but, when it’s over, it gets wiped away. But by episode ten of the first season, Piper comes to a different conclusion: speaking to a teen from the Scared Straight programme, Piper tells her that the scariest part of prison is coming face to face with who you truly are. So is this time temporary, or is it a reflection of one’s true self?  The show’s flashback structure leads us further away from arriving at any definite conclusions. Some flashbacks show us characters committing crimes that seem to warrant their prison sentence, while others reveal aspects of their personality that remain deeply buried in their prison lives. But buried does not mean forgotten. This is why a character like Piper can go through cycles where some traits become dominant while others shift to the background.

The Prison Families

In OITNB individual characters come together to form a community that is unique to this particular show. These communities are defined not only by the characters that people them, but also by the spaces they occupy and the rules and ideals they share. And just as we try to make out the traits that define characters, the community is also defined by particular traits. When Piper first enters Lichfield prison in the pilot, we see its community from her eyes: it is terrifying, imposing and unpredictable. But if we turn our attention back to season three’s finale, we can see that yet another shift has occurred. Where Piper is at her most cruel, setting up her lover Stella as punishment for stealing her money, the prison community as a whole is at its most selfless. The season ends with several miraculous coincidences – the repair of the prison’s fence, the guards going on strike – which allow the prisoners to escape through a gap in the fence onto the shores of a lake.

Breaking Boundaries

What follows is an extended sequence of pure joy in which friendships are forged, romances begun, alliances mended. But just as Piper’s tyranny doesn’t last long, neither does this emotional oasis. As the community is redefined in season four by the influx of new prisoners, new guards and new rules, the narrative moves toward a very different climax. Season four’s finale also ends with the prison community banding together, but this time not in joy but in violence, as suppressed anger and grief erupt. In a reversal of season three’s finale, miracles in this episode happen not in the present within the confines of the prison, but in the past as we witness, through flashback, a magical night prisoner Poussey had in New York shortly before her arrest. In the flashback people again display their capacity for kindness and selflessness, and these scenes are made all the more poignant due to Poussey’s death as a result of police brutality in the previous episode. The flashback also contrasts with many others in the series which show the outside world as harsh and selfish, frequently, if only partially, the cause of characters’ transgressions.

A Magical Retrospective in New York

Orange is the New Black sets up many binaries including good versus bad, inside versus outside, and criminals versus law enforcers. But these binaries are constantly blurred. Some characters become better people in prison, others worse.  However, the change need not be permanent. While the prison is a ruthless place, sometimes the outside world is even more so; and sometimes miracles happen, both inside and out of prison. This continual movement between binary extremes uses the serial format to its advantage, setting up expectations in one episode that are subverted in another. But the past is never forgotten as character and community traits, buried in memory, are recalled by new plotlines, making definitive classifications and moral judgements difficult to make. These paradigms of traits are always shifting, and as they do, a wonderful rhythm is created – both narratological and ideological – and as it moves through time the familiar extremes of black and white are whirled into ever-changing shades of grey.

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The contributing writer KRISTINA GRAOUR is a third-year PhD student at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, where she also runs a seminar on television narrative. Her research interests include narratives in a variety of media, and her current PhD work examines narrative development in long-running television series.

Thoughts on Tamil Cinema – The Hindu’s Top Picks for 2016

Tamil cinema is something I wish I paid more attention to – considering that quite a lot of interesting films are being made amidst the mainstream ‘Kollywood’ style movies. However, I lack the expertise and the familiarity to keep pace with the sheer volume of films produced – considering that the bulk of the movies are still aimed at the lowest common denominator. To help me steer clear of such a mess, I often follow recommendations from The Hindu’s film critic – Bharadwaj Rangan. Recently, he posted his picks for the best movies of the year – and I thought I would share my thoughts on some of the movies that I have seen from the list.

Irudhi Suttru – The songs of Santhosh Narayan shine in this well-made sports movie. Madhavan’s effort to shed his image as a romantic lead seems successful. However it is the boxer turned actor, Ritvika Singh who punches her way through the film, entertaining at every turn and presenting a lead who convinces you that she can speak the language.

Visaranai – arguably the best film of the year. Gripping and horrifying, Visaranai is an interrogation of the audience as it is of the characters. You can read my full response here.

Sethupathi – Vijay Sethupathi seems to be attempting to create an oevre, where he is experimenting with different genres. This film is also a meta-response to an earlier film Naanum Rowdythaan – where he played an aspiring gangster. As a cop, Sethupathi is loud and abrasive, but surprisingly restrained. This movie would have been more at home in the late 90s rather than mid 2010s. However, it is an enjoyable throwback with very little cringe value.

Vetrivel – Yet to Watch

24 – The sci-fi genre needs to explain the rules of the film very clearly to the audience. While this is necessary, Tamil cinema often repeats these rules multiple times as it takes upon itself to treat the audience as if they were idiots. 24 is guilty of such moments, but it is slick, stylish and regularly inventive. AR Rahman’s score is remarkable.

Uriyadi – Yet to Watch

Iraivi- A standout film that explores the fragility of masculinity, Iraivi (Goddess) is a character study that is more criticism than narrative. The caper plot is somewhat irrelevant except for lending the titular Goddesses – the movie should have trusted the audience to be mature enough to understand it at a metaphorical level. Karthik Subburaj makes another film that defies industry conventions in creating something timeless.

Oru Naal Koothu – Yet to Watch

Joker – other than the misnomer of a descriptor which calls this film a ‘political satire’, Joker is a subtle film despite its comical appearance. Dealing with perhaps the most important problem in India – sanitation in rural areas – Joker is an unflinching movie that is timely and important, even if at times, melodramatic.

Kutrame Thandanai – The director who made Kaaka Muttai (if you have not watched Tamil cinema, watch this to be disappointed by every other Tamil movie you may watch after it), follows up with a slow-burn film about crime, punishment and morality. Of course, when your title is a succinct philosophical dictum it seems like there is little space to negotiate a narrative. But the film will surprise you in its steady, minimalist storytelling.

Aandavan Kattalai – Yet to Watch

Ammani – Yet to Watch

Kodi – Yet to Watch

Other films from 2016 that I saw

Besides the films in Rangan’s list, there are a few films that came out this year that I managed to see, and here are some thoughts about them:

Kabali: The movie of the year, when it comes to marketing and branding. Where Kabali shined was in presenting an alternative image that could be successful for the superstar Rajinikanth. Hopefully we will see more of this character actor in the future, rather than the ill-fitting and outdated cliché from Lingaa. Here is a more detailed response.

Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum: One of the funniest films I have seen, KKP chips away at the glamorous presentation of thugs and goons in Tamil cinema. The songs are brilliant and Vijay Sethupathi shows that he still is the must watch actor we saw in Soodhu Kavvum. A responsible remake, it resists the temptation to present an overly dramatic or romantic alternative.

Kashmora: Despite its funny first half, the film is truly a pain to watch. It confuses an inconsistent tone with irreverent comedy. Karthi remains the only watchable thing on the screen, but that is not enough to save the movie.

Iru Mugan: I can’t believe that a film like this gets made in 2016. It is terrible and boring.

Devi: Surprisingly entertaining. Prabhu Deva returns to the screen after a stint behind the camera.

Theri: When I watched last year’s Kaththi, I was stunned by the movie’s quick pace and entertainment value. I expected Vijay to continue the streak with Theri. Unfortunately, this makes me wonder if my time would have been better spent watching Kaththi a second time.

I seem to have watched 13 Tamil movies this year – a high number than usual. Hopefully you find something that interests you in the list. Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

50 Days of Chaos – Demonitisation and How Not To Fight Corruption

The debate around the Indian government’s decision to demonitise high-value currency has all the subtlety of a Zack Snyder film – there are those who condemn it as an ill-conceived populist stunt and those who defend it as a passionate project albeit with flaws in the execution. The Prime Minister of India sought 50 days to smooth out the implementation process of one of the most ambitious projects without announcing the stages in which such a project would be executed. The logic is simple, if people want their cash to be valid, they need to turn it into the bank, and possibly answer questions about the source of the cash – rooting out the problem of unaccounted black money. But is the strategy as simple, or effective as it sounds?

Many voices on social media were supportive of this idea, as a matter of ‘bearing with the difficulties for a few days.’ While more and more have become irate at the systemic failure of allowing people to access their own money, there is outrage on both sides of the debate – shocked at either people’s unwillingness to ‘suffer a little to fight corruption’ or inability to think about people whose lives are entirely cash-dependent. However, those critical of the move are again conflating the action of demonitisation with that of a digitised, cashless environment. These lines of thinking are fundamentally flawed as they suppose either that suffering is inevitable/necessary to fight corruption, or believe that people’s dependency on a cash-based economy makes a cashless environment impossible. If the project is conceived with a clear idea of achieving digitisation of transactions before (or instead of) demonitisation, there needs to be no suffering. In a way, digitised, cashless environment is its own deterrent of illegal money circulation.

Demonitisation ≠ Cashless Environment

The root of this problem lies in in the rhetoric that uses demonitisation as a proxy to prod people along toward a digital, cashless economy. Such an interpretation of the move ignores the fact that the policy preempts infrastructure, technology and practices of a cashless economy. Also, the replacement of existing notes with new ones is not really a move towards a cashless environment – it is exactly what it sounds like – it is a move to a new currency. The majority of the population does not have access, or familiarity with cashless transactions – a condition exacerbated by the lack of cashless transaction facilities in many stores and service providers. Enforcing a demonitisation creates an unnecessary urgency for the people to learn something that they are not familiar with. Contrarily, a move towards digitising the economy would have served as its own demonitisation, as the dependency on a cashless mode of transaction would bring the money into the banking system – something which demonitisation claims as one of its aims. While the demonitisation effort is bound to be contingent upon a specific deadline, a drive towards a cashless-digital economy is not time-bound.

What does a cashless economy look like?

I live in a city where cashless payments are ubiquitous to the point that it is common for institutions that do not accept credit cards to display that information very clearly. It is not that people do not use cash here, but the familiarity with card-based or mobile/internet banking is so high that you do not even have to visit a bank unless it is for opening or closing your  account. Besides the use of third-party services like Visa and Mastercard, there also exists a Network for Electronic Transfer (NETS) at Point-Of-Sale, co-owned by the major banks in Singapore, which enables instant direct-debit usage from the internet. Also, with the rising popularity of mobile payment gateways like Android Pay and Apple Pay, people have more options of cashless payments.

However, the implementation of these methods have not become popular overnight. On the contrary, this transition has been happening over thirty years, having reached a point where the absence of electronic payment options seem unusual across most services and goods that we may purchase. And Singapore still has high value currency to the tune of 100 and 1000 dollar notes. And while it is true that Singapore stopped issuing new $10,000 notes in 2014 to combat money-laundering; the notes in circulation continue to be legal tender indefinitely. And most importantly, an official from the Monetary Association of Singapore explained the move by addressing that it would not inconvenience the people due to the “development of advanced and secured electronic payment systems”. Again, people’s convenience is not presented as a privilege that could be suspended for a short while – it is seen as a part of the daily fabric. For India to successfully implement any policy regarding monetary instruments, not only do we need the technological infrastructure has to be present – not just in the cities and the major shopping districts – but across all points-of-sale transactions; but more importantly, the attitude towards the plight of everyday living has to change at every level. Before the Indian government insists on electronic money transfers, the shops and service providers should be updated to have a cashless payment system.

Instead, after the 50 days have come to pass, the Prime Minister of India has made an announcement for a new digital payment app. If this announcement had come a year earlier preparing the people for a transition to a digital economy, that would have demonstrated remarkable foresight. The finance minister Arun Jaitley blithely points to the numerous IT raids as proof that the demonitisation has worked. Such a comment reinforces the shortsightedness of the move, as the search and seizure by the IT department is not contingent on the shape, color or validity of the notes in possession; the raids could have been carried out at any time, regardless of whether or not the demonitisation is in effect. But his words also resonate with the tunnel-vision in implementing a very visible strategy that does little to actually transform the way people think about money.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

Star Wars An Epic Saga’s Personal Journey

The first time I watched a Star Wars movie was during the mid-90s when they were re-released in the theaters after a digital restoration. My older brother and I watched the film with his friends – in hindsight, clearly because my parents would not let him go if he did not take me along with him. We watched this relatively old movie and were still impressed by the stunning visuals and the exciting adventure. We were really looking forward to watching the next two films, whose trailers were played before the screening.

A New Hope: or as I knew it, the Star Wars movie.

However, since it was a re-release, the screening of the three movies were done in quick succession; that is, the next two films followed their way to the cinema in consecutive weeks. Now, those among the readers who know the difficulty of convincing overprotective parents to let a 14 year-old and a 10 year-old to watch a movie with friends, would realize that there is simply no way that such a miracle would occur three weeks in a row. So years passed – and I kid you not, the next time I ever saw a Star Wars movie was in the year 2000 when the Phantom Menace (which I could not watch in the theaters a year earlier) was about to make its TV debut. In the run up leading to the film, the TV channel telecast the original trilogy over three weeks and this time – I could watch all of them. Empire was enjoyable and Return of the Jedi was a fun conclusion, but New Hope remained my favorite for its ability to set-up a fantastic adventure. Having completed watching the original trilogy, I was very excited for Phantom Menace. And no, this post is not going to go the way you think it would.

Star Wars Prequels (1999 – 2005)

Growing up with the prequels

The Prequel trilogy was mind-blowing for someone who did not grow up with the original trilogy. Also, the idea of watching a film that called itself ‘Episode I’ felt very special. Despite being the most reviled of the lot, The Phantom Menace was spectacular for someone who was accustomed to the deliberate pacing of the Originals. Although it gets a lot of negative attention, I really enjoyed seeing the all-powerful Darth Vader as a plucky 10 year-old who could fight for his own freedom in an entertaining pod-race. Liam Neeson’s Qui Gon Jinn had a calming gravitas and Ewan McGregor’s Obi Wan Kenobi was a much more interesting protagonist than the very plain Luke Skywalker. Both Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley did a convincing job of being believable resistance fighters despite their young age. Jar Jar Binks was not so much a character, but a novelty of seeing a fully CGI character interact with live-action. The multi-scene climax where the underdogs try to fend themselves against multiple fronts was impressive too – as we waited trying to figure out how exactly the combination to victory would be reached.

Perhaps the most compelling moments in the entire series for me comes in the final lightsaber duel between Darth Maul and the two jedis – especially in that frame when the light doors separate them mid-fight, Maul prowls menacingly, Qui Gon simply kneels down to meditate. That moment shows the stark difference between the Jedis and the Sith. We have been told that the Sith are evil because they have given into the dark side. But this moment best captures the journey to the Dark Side – the impatience, the cruelty and desire for conflict. Of course, Maul may be a better fighter, but his will never be one with the force – he merely seeks to control it for his own purposes. And the music for that scene is one of the finest deployments of a cinematic orchestra.

The second and the third episodes were enjoyable but not as remarkable as the first film. The final moments of the third film hurtled towards its inevitably tragic conclusion. The film achieved something it does not get much credit for – delivering a compelling story where the evil empire has to fully come to power, without destroying the good. Obi Wan’s victory in Mustafar is a poignant moment where his victory is simply a facet of defeat – his failure as a teacher and friend is symptomatic of the Jedis’ inability to fully comprehend the way the Sith have usurped power. Also, the ethical questions of a clone army that follows blindly, is dealt with surprising subtlety. The prequels were not perfect but they introduced the galaxy far, far away to a new generation of audiences – without losing its magic.

The New Star Wars Era

In the hands of the juggernaut Disney studios, I was very skeptical about a new wave of Star Wars films which we were told we would not see the last one in our life-time. That kind of legacy talk usually is between the lines of madness and greed. Despite that, the first two films in the new era have been very impressive. The Force Awakens managed to walk the fine line between nostalgia and looking forward – but Rogue One was particularly stunning in telling a story outside of the Skywalker saga. While the jury is still out on whether Rey is a Skywalker or not, Jyn Erso is a protagonist who is born on the other side of the conflict. Her journey (as well as her father’s) from familiarity with the Empire lifestyle in their early years, apathy with the way things have become and decision to engage with the conflict, all make the Empire more interesting – as it shows that the members of the Empire are not just a monolithic army of clones. This complexity also makes her and her ragtag band of rebels all strikingly different from the protagonists in the Skywalker saga who usually enter the story with a manifest destiny to do something significant. These are not heroes seeking their big moment – but small characters who have done important things with great courage.

Rogue One
[BEGIN SPOILERS]

While trying to avoid sounding entirely like fan-fiction, I only wish that the epic concluding scene in the film did something more than just create a moment of viewer indulgence by showing Darth Vader in his peak as the Empire’s top enforcer. That moment felt as if the producers did not want the audience to become too uncomfortable with the fact that Vader was indeed a ‘bad guy’ – someone ruthless and evil, who killed remorselessly. The squeamishness could be due to a fear of affecting toy sales or simply deciding to keep Vader as a specter above the actual plot of Rogue One. While this is a great strategy that keeps the newly forged world separate from the larger fabric of the Star Wars galaxy, it is also a moment of missed opportunity that could have further complicated the audience’s ambiguous relationship with Vader. If I were to rewrite the closing scenes of the film, I would have a few of the main characters (Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and Bodhi) escape the fateful explosion and bring the files to the rebel ship themselves. And just as they are about to make a successful getaway, Vader lands on the ship. In a final stand, two of them decide to try and fight Vader to allow one of them (Bodhi or Jyn) escape with the plans. Their effort should be inventive but completely ineffective against Vader, and they die in battle. This would have elevated their sacrifice to a more compelling and heroic finish. However, in choosing to give a moment of victory despite the inevitability of death, the narrative grants them obscure deaths from distant explosions. In attempting to preserve their ‘success’, the film undercuts the heroic journey that they have taken to reach that moment. Also, having them replace the nameless victims that Vader plows down in the final scene would also make us care a lot more about his god-like power and the significance of his redemption from the dark side.

So here I am at the other side of 20 years and 8 movies – still looking forward to the next episode in the Star Wars franchise. And I am sure that there are many who are also waiting to return to the story that happened, A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away…

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – An Outstanding Comedy

Since it is the holiday season, I would like to share with you my thoughts on the most hopeful TV comedy that I watched this year – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, 2015-). This is anything but a timely piece – the two seasons have been around for a while now. However, the magic of end-of-year pieces is that you can pretty much get away with writing about anything from the year. Considering how heavy the year has been generally, Kimmy Schmidt might be the perfect throwback to a wonderful world of joy.

Unbreakably funny!

The precious few episodes of the second season lit up the screen this year, as Kimmy continues to come to terms with her past as well as negotiate living in a big city. If that sounds like every American sitcom premise ever, then you are not very wrong. There are plenty of nods, tributes and deconstructions of existing TV tropes in this well-written comedy. And yet, where some of the other attempts at self-reflexivity in comedy become cerebral and/or pretentious, Kimmy Schmidt remains intelligent without being overbearing. One of the ways in which this show stands out is the inventive method at which the titular character arrives at the sitcom premise – as cleverly explained in the opening credits before the show (yet another tongue in cheek reference to a TV sitcom tradition from the 70s and the 80s).

And while a little dated, the “songify” parody of the Bed Intruder song is a way of acknowledging the presence of the sitcom on the internet streaming portal – Netflix. But the songs only get better from here. Every well thought-out line and hidden joke adds to the rewatchability of this show, where every scene has references and intertextual links that challenge the viewer to be and become intelligent to enjoy the show even more. The rise of ridesharing app Uber, the neuroses nurtured by city living, the problem of fame, and the struggles of immigration are just some of the contemporary issues that the show engages with on a regular basis. Here are some of the posters from season 2 which again played with the conventions that have become commonplace online.

A few of the funny posters

Created by Tina Fey, the show often tempers a cynical world with hope for optimism. It is like watching that moment in a movie where the perpetually grumpy old man gives in and says, “you are okay this time, kid!” You can’t help but believe in the magic of TV a little bit. After the razor sharp wit of the consistently underrated 30 Rock, I could not believe that she seemed to aimlessly appear in Saturday Night Live skits and make movies with Amy Poehler, which despite the involvement of two of the most brilliant comedians of our times, were poorly written and barely watchable. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a refreshing follow-up to 30 Rock, which retains much of the self-reflexivity without being burdened with the pressure of playing characters which were versions of themselves (or other real people). Besides serving as a showrunner, Tina Fey has also appeared in brilliant cameos as two different characters in the two seasons, with each line funnier than the last. Talking about cameos, her long-time cameo-collaborator Jon Hamm does a fantastic turn as the despicable doomsday cult leader – he is funny and enraging at the same time.

Of course, Ellie Kemper’s ebullience plays a big part in shaping the naivety of the story-world; which she does an amazing job of – as she never allows her character to come across as stupid, regardless of how silly or simple she behaves. And that is the most telling point about Kimmy Schmidt, that this is not a comedy about a goofball who is out of place – it is literally the story of an innocent abroad. Snatched away from the world that she knows, the worst thing that could happen has already happened to her. When Kimmy willingly throws herself into a new city and a difficult learning experience, she is a conquering hero who nudges into possibility, things that have been cast beyond her reach. But she is not a self-obsessed ego-maniac. Unlike many other sitcom protagonists, whom we would not want to meet in our real lives, Kimmy is defined by her relationships with people that she cares for. She never looks at herself as a victim, as she exceeds her capacity to give. Balancing her enthusiasm is the hilarious Tituss Burgess as Titus Andromedon. His energy and comedic timing makes him the breakout star of this show. There is no end to his insanely funny lines – but here is a start.

It is not that the other characters and themes are not worth discussing here – but I would rather that you go watch an episode of the show instead.

A Strange Company

On a parting note, I would like to talk about a different movie that bears remarkable similarity with this fantastic show. Often, when two completely different programs/movies handle the exact same situation in completely different ways., it usually results in one of them succeeding, and the other vanishing without a trace. There are a few rare cases when both works are successful in their own right, and the similarities become less self-evident, as their originality trumps their genre markers. The same premise can be interpreted in two completely opposing ways, in completely different media, resulting in very impressive, but unrelated works. I enjoy viewing such works in view of the other, as it offers a richer enjoyment of the other. The uproariously funny and soulful comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt finds such company in the moving and hauntingly optimistic Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015). Both works are about abducted women who were stowed away in a dungeon for an extended period of time, but they cannot be further apart from each other in their tone. While the drama achieved greater recognition for evoking some of the bigger questions about the psychological impact of cruelty and isolation, the comedy allows itself to go to certain places that the drama cannot. The humor is used to sharpen the significance of the suffering as much as it is used to blunt the pain. Despite their differences, they both present an indomitable spirit in their protagonists, as both of them are remarkably Unbreakable.

Room (2015)

Which was your favorite comedy of the year? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Watching The Audience Watch – Disgraced

Theater has always had ritualistic associations. It is a sacred space  that elevates the text through its collective encounter. Yes, the meaning that the author intends is clearly visible in the text – and yet, the encounter changes its meaning taking it to different places. Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize Winner Disgraced is a powerful political and personal drama, which is well-received and widely discussed. This post is not about the play itself; it is about the audience trying to arrive at a consensus of meaning in the theater during a brief conversation with the cast and the director after the preview show of SRT’s production. This is about our desire to organize information in simple and clear logical relations instead of confronting the incomprehensible density of the event itself.

Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced. (SRT 2016)
Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. (SRT 2016)

The play presents four characters that are connected to each other in their personal lives, where lawyers Amir, a Pakistani-American, and Jory, an African-American, work together, and their spouses, the blonde Emily and the Jewish Isaac are from the world of visual arts. At the surface, this is the perfect representation of a cosmopolitan America – a parade of self-aware cliches that laugh at phrases like melting pot and salad bowl at one moment and are unironic representations of the same. The engagement with the text seems to be at this level of oblivious contradiction – characters that espouse a particular worldview often behave in ways diametrically opposite to it.

[SPOILERS] Amir’s historical view of his religion and apostasy are contrasted with astute sense of otherness. He drinks scotch and eats pork, he calls upon a pre-independence lineage which distances him from Pakistan – and yet, he strikes his wife when he finds out that she has cheated on him. To simply say that he cannot escape his past seems like a trite and didactic understanding of the play.  Alternately, one of the viewers said in the post-show discussion that Emily “got what she deserved” because she cheated. [SPOILERS] The line of thinking presumes that Amir’s actions deserve justification, or more commonly, needs understanding. I think this is problematic, as it reduces the questionable nature to a cause-effect relationship which also simultaneously desensitizes us towards domestic abuse. But why would the viewer say that in the first place? Our desire to resolve the conflict in the play steers us away from recognizing the truly unresolvable nature of the play. When we are tasked to confront the dual problem of trying to articulate questions about our interstitial existence and the inability to clearly express the same – we would rather come up with a simpler explanation of tribal roots and inherent urges. Or so I thought until I saw this video:

Unfortunately, the playwright himself seems to say the same thing – and I would like to give him the benefit of doubt considering that he has to deliver his thoughts in a cleanly packed soundbite (while the entire video is worth watching, the offending segment begins at the 3:40 mark). However, if he really does believe that the play is just about the contradictions, then there is a hidden layer in the text that the author himself does not either recognize or think is worthy of exploration. My interest lies in that space – the complications of belonging in one mask, while feeling alienated in another.

And there are so many masks that the play offers, connecting and separating these characters and waiting to devastate their lives like hidden fault-lines of religion, regionalism, political correctness, challenges of separating the state and the faith, the impossibility of stepping out of our tribal histories, the erasure of our tribal cultures, the historical development of religion and alcoholism, and self-loathing, and suffering, and terrorism, and racial profiling, and love and hate and despair. These things are universal and alienating at the same time. The play moves away from the emphasis on understanding as we come to realize that the characters cannot understand their own paradoxical relationships. Just as everything else in this play, the political lives of these characters lingers like a specter above the personal lives of these characters.

We see this most clearly when Isaac, the Jewish character, defends Islam to Amir, even though he looks upon Islamic culture through the lens of Western condescension. He challenges Amir’s generalizations about certain events in the world, while making several offhand comments that position Amir as a second-class citizen, as a brown person. These contradictions and the accompanying oblivion to them is troubling and provocative. My problem is when these contradictions are used only to devalue the character’s perspectives – because such contradictions are persistent in the viewers, despite our self-identification with whatever choice political phrase we decorate ourselves with. Similarly, Amir’s wife Emily defends values that she considers as Islamic including the most dated aspects by questioning the translation and transmission of the practices. Her idealized vision of religion, much like the idealized visions of many religions by their followers, calls to question the irony of separating the practice of something from its conceptual form. While she challenges the perceived Other-ness of her husband, she paints him in the image of a slave. These contradictions are not aimed at simply exposing the hypocrisy of perceived well-adjusted multiculturalism – it draws attention to  the persistent uncertainties of any character’s authenticity.

In particular, when the audience raised questions about the authenticity of the events, about the representations of religion and the actors’ response to it – I wanted to share that there is nothing authentic when every image is a performance – in that moment, Akhtar’s play is about the theatre itself. One such moment that shone the light at the stage as if they were the viewers was when the actress playing Emily candidly admitted that her character -as a white christian – does not have a tribal tradition like the others. There is a centrality that she assumes as the “normal” figure as opposed to the Jewish, Black, Pakistani-American figures around her. She see herself as something representative of a pan-American collective that responds to these outliers. That moment betrays her own privilege as an educated person with some affluence who belongs to the majority. Her social position allows her to overlook her own tribal roots as irrelevant, because she has no reason to find that community. This is not just a race thing, as it probably comes closer to a class-divide, as working class communities, regardless of their racial profile, would not completely disengage with their tribes. The actor sees herself not as Irish or German or Polish, but a non-specific ‘white’ which no longer needs to recognize its history. Perhaps Akhtar sees her character in the same way, as her problems are framed in the manner of her career progression rather than her social position. Again, that is a question we are left with which begs an answer.

I must confess that I have had a problem with writing this review – because even as I advocate a position of incomprehensible density, I seem to use the language of trying to explain the layers of each figure. I sought to explain the audience relationship with the text that seemed to offer easy explanations while revealing that the explanation is impossible – but have I instead offered another explanation instead? At another level, I have to come to terms that I cannot really write this post without carefully examining the language used to describe the events and the gaps in the play’s narrative world, because I am worried that I may phrase it in an awkward or offensive manner, or because my intentions be damned, race relationships is one of the places where our perceived attitudes have as much significance as our real attitudes, to the point where they are often conflated.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Captain Fantastic Wasted Potential

Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic promises us an intellectual cinema – by setting up two poles of parenting and living that tease the most interesting of conflicts – but pulls back and offers a Hollywood ending of sweet resolution that reduces a complex philosophical outlook to a simplistic ‘quirk’ of parenting. Thoroughly entertaining, Captain Fantastic ends up as a little more than a gritty Mrs. Doubtfire due to its inability to sustain the engagement with the contradictions of a “return to nature” style of living.

The premise is simple; as reclusive father Ben Cash and his wife have taken their family into the wilderness away from society and technology. They intend to create ‘Philosopher Kings’ in the vein of Plato’s Republic, by training their children to be physically fit and be attuned to the natural world. However, the question of whether such a living is good for the children is raised when they have to come into contact with society. The film falters when trying to address this ambitious question, as it offers a weak, romantic conclusion to a lofty question. White masculinity is central to the film, to the point that we do not see any important characters of color, and the women are reduced to marginal supporting roles – or as Peter Bradshaw calls it “women are either irrelevant, saintly or dead.

Captain Fantastic, a fun watch and little else.
Captain Fantastic, a fun watch and little else.
Misguided Extremism

At the beginning the film, the narrative promises to expose the problems of being an extremist in whatever style of parenting one pursues. Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has lectured the children about things that other kids older than them may not know about, from Quantum Physics to hunting and boning an animal [SIDE NOTE: There is a smug elitism in the presumption that only people who can read Dostoevsky and understand Quantum physics are the only ones who can be good parents]. They have also adopted his rigorous values of skepticism and “sticking it to the man.” However, his values that challenge organized religion are also followed as if it were an organized religion – and he berates the children who question his position. And the critical tools that he has given the children do not let him escape, as one of the younger children question why their mother is in the hospital if they think that Americans are over-medicated. The inability to completely address the nuances of the argument reveals a gap between the parents’ intentions and the effects of their actions. Just when the viewer is primed to watch a complex portrayal of alternative parenting, the film reduces everything into a heroic rhetoric. Unfortunately, the film suffers because of its attempts to be “fantastic”.

Ideal Father or A Misguided Sentimentalist
Ideal Father or A Misguided Sentimentalist

One of the scenes which are meant to demonstrate the superiority of the protagonists’ natural living is when Ben questions his nephews about the Bill of Rights. His daughter, younger than her cousins both, is much more articulate about the question and that moment is offered to the viewers as a triumph to Ben’s methods. However, a true examination would have exposed his the flaws in his methods – such as when the son was unable to talk to three girls of his age because of his crippling social anxiety. The film lets Ben off the hook by becoming complicit with his neglectful approach. This also reveals a fundamentally flawed approach to education itself, as stage by stage introduction of material to students is no accident – if we can all skip ahead to the ‘good stuff’, then we will have a generation that has a clear understanding of ideas but no schema of how to situate their understanding within an empathetic framework of human interaction. While the child can speak about the bill of rights, would she be able to ask if the questions apply to her own life? Ben is proud that he encourages his children to read a lot of books ranging from scientific journals to classic novels. One wonders if they also read about the history of civilization and question him about why they are leaving in isolation when human beings throughout history have lived collectively in societies. That question is begging to be asked, but never gets fully articulated in the film.

Worst Offense Against Humanity

[SPOILER] The following clip is the most damning offender in the film, despite providing a sweet resolution to the arc of the mother’s funeral. It presents one of the most naive moments of the ‘return to nature’ motifs in the film. The daughter who had broken her leg due to a poorly conceived rescue-mission of a child who no longer wants to live in the wilderness, was originally using crutches. But for this scene, she has given up her crutches for a misshapen stick as a staff. This moment is both unscientific and hypocritical, as she had recovered through the emergency attention of a public healthcare system. It implies that a metallic crutch – designed expressly to evenly distribute one’s weight and offer some dependable durability – is to be mistrusted in favor of a brittle old stick that offers no proper handle or is constantly under the threat of skidding. It treats scientific progress as a sign of human failure at a symbolic level. [SPOILER]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPRlzmfqcmE

However, this is inconsistent with their behavior as they inadvertently use many things that science and technology has produced. The weapons that the father gives his children are clearly store-bought – participating in a capitalist world that he critiques at his own convenience. Nor is there a contradiction when he drinks from a wine-glass even while on the road. I am not saying that we have to be absolute in our rejection or belonging of the civilized world; however, if the discourse of the film is strictly against it, then it cannot be oblivious to its own cherry-picking.

Oblivious Parenting

Their comment about the grandparents’ house as an inefficient use of space ironically reeks of blind privilege, because their own forest-land is an inefficient venture compared to say, city living. In these moments, the film is completely oblivious to its characters’ ability and fails to censure their unwillingness to play by any rules that do not appease them. The grandfather, played effortlessly by Frank Langella, comments that he is keeping the children at a stage where they cannot be prepared to face the real world. The frustratingly stubborn Ben stoically replies that he thinks that the opposite is true. However, just a few scenes earlier, his son demolished his certainty saying that he “did not know anything that did not come out of a book.” Ironically, in an effort to challenge bookish learning, he has led his kids away from the society – to become experimental subjects who can never fully relate to a wider community in subtle and coded ways.

Interestingly, this is the problem with the idea of preparing Philosopher Kings even in Plato’s Republic, for he espouses an education that excludes things that he does not think are suitable. However, children growing up in that system will never really know what has been excluded and how it has been selected to be excluded. In turn, the logic of the educator preparing a superior intellect fails, because the educator will always know more than the student – creating generations of diminishing value. That is seen when Ben has a clever ‘mission’ to steal food or evade a police officer – skills he has clearly picked up living amidst people, and something that the children can never really come up with on their own due to their exclusive education. And at this point, the viewer is most hopeful that the film is going to turn its critical eye on the thing that it has presented, but it stops short – because it feels no responsibility towards exposing the hypocrisies of a life that excludes the world while still benefiting from it. The survivalist who celebrates Chomsky’s birthday comes across as pretentious when we consider that Chomsky’s philosophy revolves around trying to make the world a better place for everyone.

At the beginning, I compared this film to a gritty Mrs. Doubtfire, but at least that film comes to terms with the misguided nature of the parent and offers no resolution. In this film, we are presented with an idyllic fantasy which has no consequences for the children who have been separated from the society. They integrate seamlessly and they magically come to be in possession of official documents and skills that have prepared them for the wider world. The film has completely abandoned trying to present the tension between our desire to leave the city and our inability to fully move away from it. That gives us an entertaining but flawed film that could have been so much more.

The views expressed here are a result of a discussion between me, my wife and our flatmate.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.