Emotional Chess: GAME OF THRONES

Five hours before the series finale, I’ve just learned the significance of Hodor’s name and I’m crying. Two hours later, Ian McShane makes a random cameo while revealing the Hound is still alive! I nearly dislocated a rib in wild exclamation. Dammit, GAME OF THRONES, DAMMIT you’re not doing any wonders for my fragile immune system, I’m too emotionally involved now as you’re mostly likely about to dropkick your audience to hell. I am tortured beyond measure. Argle Bargle!

Okay, so I didn’t immediately hop on the Throne bandwagon when the series burst onto the scene of premium entertainment back in 2011. In fact I was heavily involved watching Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men and of course the WALKING DEAD. It was a ton of entertainment to ingest at that period in my life and even though I was slightly able to devout myself to the first two seasons a year or so later, it was still a deep overload of characters and narratives to retain and keep straight. I made a choice and secretly refrained myself from the show, vowing to watch the series when it’s final year became known. Well, I waited two weeks into the final season, great timing Marissa, great timing.

Now as I savagely binge watch GAME OF THRONES hours away from the series finale, I’ve become highly emerged in a world of fantasy even as I Google various plot lines of seasons 6 and 7. I need all the damn help I can get at this point because I’ll barely be scratching the surface of season 7 by the time the finale airs tonight and at this point let’s be honest, I really don’t give a shit about spoilers.

I guess if I had to surmise the show thus far, paying particular close attention to Daenerys Targaryen’s story line, obviously power percolates ever so strongly in this slit throat series while learning about what went down in King’s Landing in the latest episode, where nearly a million people rallied to petition for a rewrite of season 8. I apologize for sounding snarky here but, dudes and dudettes, can we partially agree it’s all part of the grieving process of a beloved show’s ending? It’s only natural you cast aside your rationale for complete irrational madness. No pun intended. Perhaps it was lazy writing, perhaps not. It’ll be the biggest debate in showrunner history. Yada, yada.

What’s done is done. Or shall I say, “ What is dead may never die.”

GAME OF THRONES is obviously built upon a world of blood thirst and power set in a medieval like fantasy world where the end of every season almost always ends in some massive battle. It’s a series that has zero shame in killing off prominent characters and given the context of war, violence and rape are at the forefront of your TV screens. This is what sells entertainment and passes for the highest ratings in the history of premium TV because why? Humanity is brutal not just in fantasy but also in real life. We read it in history books, we see it on our social media feeds. Fiction or nonfiction, humanity has as a deep affection for itself mirrored in various forms of entertainment that connects us in strange masochist-like ways even when it’s callously savage. But really I think everyone just wants to know who takes the throne.

Grant it, I know I’m not a hardcore devoted fan like the lot of you and being a last minute newbie, I see it all as an elaborate chess match prolonged with game pieces of set purposes and hand sewn narratives that take years to reveal their hardships and triumphs. My biggest question is why is everyone fighting everyone and the side line characters aiding them in it? Glory? Or perhaps audiences treasure these lovely characters because they push the story forward. Like Hodor and the Hound. Again back to my analogy of chess, these characters are the pawns, the rooks, the knights, and the bishops all circulating around the edge of complete and utter domination all transfused by nothing other than total annihilation of each other.

Which brings me back to Daenerys Targaryen. In jotting down particular episodes to which she elicits and exerts her mighty prowess to make others submit to her will, let’s begin, season 3, episode 4, in Astapor, Daenerys trades one of her dragons to Kraznys for an 8,000 strong Unsullied army. Once the trade was final, what does Daenerys do? She commands her new army to rid Astapor of all its slavers while simultaneously her dragon burns Kraznys alive. Once the battle settles, Daenerys allows the Unsullied to reclaim their lives as free men to which they’re allowed to leave or remain as part of her army. This was considered a prominent episode with a major turning point. Now fast forward to season 6, episode 4, Daenerys Targaryen after being captured by a Dothraki horde, Daenerys kills the leaders of the khalasar, by burning them alive and emerging naked from the ashes, very much how season 1, episode 10 ended but also included the reveal of her dragons. And in episode 9, her dragons scorch that hell out of Slaver’s Bay keeping her power restored in Meereen. Yay, dragons.

I can’t vouch what occurs in season 7 because I’m not there yet but if I were to venture an obvious guess, it’s no surprise Daenerys’ only goal throughout her storyline is to rule the seven kingdoms. Also when you throw in the Lord of Light mythology that’s speculated by not one but two priestesses, “honest servants of the lord” who infiltrate their blood magic and adamant sacrifices insinuate who the true heir of the iron throne shall be makes one ponder deeply about the dragons. They’re the ones kicking ass and are a fierce force of nature to be reckoned with. I’m sure everyone else has pointed that out by now, again I’m just late to the game but also want to partake in the ceremonious ritual of connecting the dots at Monday mornings shop talk in the break room. I enjoy the social commentary and the antsy-ness of the mega fans scouring the internet. Until then, the queen always protects the king and when there is no king, well she is the most powerful piece in the game of chess. Happy Game of Throning everyone?

Bukowski-like: SOFTNESS OF BODIES

Imagine a wide shot hovering over a woman as she walks with slight gumption through a city square, who has a very noticeable tear in her shirt. She has just casually stolen a blouse, from a nearby clothing store and while fleeing she pauses to smoke a cigarette. Within the first two minutes, you may feel this character has no redeeming quality and she hasn’t even uttered a word, that is until she’s on a metro train transcribing her poetic thoughts on a busted iPhone. This is the opening sequence to Jordan Blady’s SOFTNESS OF BODIES.

After viewing the film twice, I wasn’t keen on the first watch, but since I’m one of the curious kind, I gave it a second go sensing there was some surging, gentle subtext lurking beneath the surface. What does that mean? There’s a thin layer of complexity beneath the humorous facade of this story and watching it the second time made me connect some interesting dots. In which case, I highly recommend watching this film twice because you’ll see it in a different light and if you’re into poetry even better with all that being said, this review will also be a character study.

“I’m so sexy and fun and fucking doomed.”

This line is reiterated in voice over as our harrowing protagonist, Charlotte Parks played by Dasha Nekrasova writes habitually throughout the duration of the film, always on her busted iPhone while living life as a barista, who’s a kleptomaniac in Berlin. As an American living in Berlin, she’s destined to become a poet, and with that struggle she’s up for a prestigious grant award and has inadvertently put the highest pressure on herself to write the best poem of her life while getting her personal love life in order. Let’s just say things get a bit erratic, but makes it all so interesting especially for a creative person because there’s so much material to poach from.

And as we transverse into another scene, Charlotte is sitting on a couch with a guy, she’s “dating” watching his beer commercial and when she’s asked if she thinks he’s a good actor, you can feel the dreadful sigh in her voice, “You’re great. You’re the best actor I’ve ever seen,” she says almost mockingly uttering it with an over exaggerated tone clearly not one wanting to compromise who she is but also succumbing to the need of feeding the gentle, male ego. Gross. But, also lies in the notion that Charlotte has no self respect for herself, instead she pursues what pleasures her inadvertently marching to the beat of her own drum and I’m fascinated by the level of disregard and insecurity she feeds off of others, yet holds the ability to charm a poetic prowess among her peers. Nekrasova’s performance has varying shades of contempt and it’s delivered in very alienating ways which genuinely makes her character believable. The way she lies, and over dramatizes the level of scenarios she gets herself into. It’s like you’re supposed to love to hate this protagonist and it’s antagonizing yet gratifying? What the hell is that about? On one hand, I’m conflicted morally, yet fascinated because there’s truth in humanity’s faulty behaviors. It’s the flaws that makes us shine in the most dreary moments of our lives and sometimes poetic thoughts stem from them blossoming into artistic expression.

Charlotte, in all obviousness is a devious maestro with a quick wit, “living like a cockroach”, she’s able to get herself out of the most dark, somewhat destabilizing situations nearly alluding to the very idea that cockroaches never die. There’s a scene where she stands before a judge essentially blaming the system and takes zero accountability for her actions in stealing a pair of shoes and a sexy blouse. The judge sees right through her sorry ass explanation, and the next jump cut cuts to Charlotte sobbing uncontrollably. You’ll notice this throughout the film, how the director utilizes some great jump cuts to convey the dark humor and that’s the key in making a film of this subject matter work. Long live the jump cut! I’ve always been a fan. It’s dark, hilarious, even cunning at times, and one can’t help oneself for laughing at another’s pain at least this is what stuck out to me while watching this train wreck unfold. Which begs me to question the director’s intention. Is he subtlety indicating we get some vindication or gratification in being entertained by another’s pain, masking it in humor?

The struggle of a creative person is always interesting to me. It’s a parallel that resembles the minutia of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality type. As much as an artist spends the duration of their life creating they spend about half a millisecond destroying either their work or themselves. Jordan Blady’s debut film, SOFTNESS OF BODIES is poetic in varying veins yet callous, self absorbed, fueled with insecure characters either sex starved, ego hungry, infested with an idealism that tries to ignite some dainty semblance to the 1960s beat generation. A very moody concoction that centers itself between something like FRANCES HA meets THE BLING RING intertwined with a hint of Charles Bukowski. And the only reason I mention Bukowski is the context of his poem titled “Darkness” feels like it resonates a certain idea paralleling what Softness of Bodies is about. For instance, in the first two stanzas of Bukowski’s Darkness:

Darkness falls upon humanity

And faces become terrible things

That want more than there was.

All our days are marked with

Unexpected affronts

Some disastrous, others less so

But the process is wearing and continuous.

I feel like in some ways Charlotte is her own kind of diluted version of Bukowski, except instead of trying to be a poet in Los Angeles she travels abroad to Berlin hoping to make a name for herself. Even as I write this sentence, Charlotte also known as “Charlie” which is interestingly ironic, deals with very similar problems to what Charles Bukowski dealt with. She’s hit some dark times, he’s hit some dark times and there’s this constant battle with herself, struggling to put creative thoughts into words, navigating a confusing love life, being a kleptomaniac, maybe has a substance abuse problem all while trying to face these dark situations, she stumbles into. Think about it, she gets beat up, arrested, nearly gets mugged, and witnesses an accidental death. This is all incredible source material for her poetry. To top it off, her incessant need to steal is a form of addiction and what she doesn’t have fills a continuous void that begins to wear her down yet she can’t control it. Perhaps this is where the root of her poem takes place. Specifically in the final two stanzas:

Even a life has a price

But the thing about bodies

Is that there soft

And inside are bones that break and organs

That rot

And rot

And rot

And rot

Slowly and inevitably

And money doesn’t stop it.

I suppose if I had to sum up the moral of the story and Charlie’s character is that we should live vicariously, through our troubles, our creativity, and our perseverance and perhaps, just perhaps, one day money will fix it all or we can simply spend our lives believing in that notion, like clinging to a life preserve in a vast ocean of violent waves. Maybe that’s too deep of an existential, over the top, omg-thought because we’re all destined to some demise and until then let’s just go about life, working, creating, destroying, stealing, and just being our flawed selves.

Riddled Anxiety: A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE

“It just seems to me women are alone and they are prisoner by their own love. They are made prisoner if they commit to something, once they have committed it’s a torture. And a man feels that also and nobody knows how to handle it.”

– John Cassavetes from a mid 70s interview

Everyone grapples with anxiety in one form or another and the way it’s displayed in John Cassavetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is simply remarkable given the emotional intensity Gena Rowlands brings to the screen. It’s a film that will exhaust and challenge you, no doubt, but the beauty and flaw of Mabel and these characters is beyond what any Hollywood film tries to convey in their storytelling. Cassavetes loved relationships, loved people, and loved the imperfection of capturing it all. It’s magic it’s vulnerability and it’s honest.

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a 1974 drama about Mabel (played by Gena Rowlands), a housewife’s emotional behavior and the drama that ensues between her husband, family, and friends. Her odd behavior could be understood today quite possibly as something linked to Borderline Personality Disorder and as the story unfolds, there comes a moment where her husband Nick (played by Peter Falk) believes she could become a threat to herself and the kids, so he decides to have her committed to an institution for six months. During that six months the film shows Nick can barely take care of the kids all by himself which is indicated in a very sporadic sequence of him and a coworker taking his kids abruptly out of school for a fun day at the beach. It’s abrasive with hilarity all embracing a man’s inability to cope with the absence of his wife but also lacking the emotional warmth she brings to the family. His domineering stature all stems back to an era where the man is the protector, hunter, and gatherer yet when it comes to raising three small kids he’s going to do it in his own brusque way. So when his two sons, and daughter ask if they can drink beer because they see daddy doing it, he obliges, mind you they’re all sitting in the back of a truck heading home from the beach. Once they get home his kids are pretty much drunk and head straight to bed. On one hand it’s hilarious watching the kids stumble on the lawn yet on the other hand its kind of shocking.

I believe from this instance, Nick comes to the realization he needs and cannot continue on without Mabel’s presence. She’s a fixture to the family, even though she’s a nervous wreck, the love she struggles to express is always underpinned by Nick’s obsessive nature to fit in the confines of normalcy. Even as that’s demonstrated you realize, he’s a certain kind of crazy himself. Personally, I didn’t see Mabel as crazy and I’m sure many other women may or may not share that thought. I think its mostly about finding an outlet to express all the emotions she’s feeling and majority of the time it leads to impetus behavior.

Because when you’re bearing your soul emotionally, you can see the wear and tear of one’s own sanity. I can only imagine how Rowlands’ got through her’ performance in OPENING NIGHT, which I highly recommend watching. In fact, watch all of John Cassavetes’ films, because their electrically fueled with visceral emotions, imperfection, and gritty awareness of actors portraying the ingenuity of people battling their own human nature. Something major Hollywood studios are too apprehensive to even dive in to which is why their safe bet is making entertaining big blockbuster superhero movies because most of the time they get an average return on their investment. And yet I can’t help but feel, a bit of history repeating itself in some ways. Hollywood likes to stick with the same formula based on the success of prior films, so they utilize it until it’s no longer effective nor necessary. Then they gravitate onto something else, shift, migrate, and adapt their structure to make sure they’re successful. We’ve seen this in the old Hollywood studio system but of course thats going down a road, straying from this beautiful film. Money, money, money.

So, back to Cassavetes, my champion, a human of deep levels of expression utilizing his wife who shares his same obsession is just enchanting and such a rarity that it makes me crave that same level of deepness as it’s nearly symbiotic in some ways. Anyways, when I watch A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE I think to myself what was she under the influence of? The pressures of society? The intense love of her family? Alcohol? Creativity? Sex? Contemplation? Admiration? Anxiety? I mean this list could go on forever. And reiterating Cassavetes’ quote in the beginning, why do so many things make women feel so imprisoned by their own love? It’s such an eye-catching statement because I know there are women out there who feel this day in and day out. Some may not even acknowledge it, but continue on. If a woman is too flirty it catches men the wrong way. If a woman is too needy it also rubs them the wrong way or independent and vice versa. Is there no in between?When women are opening themselves up, and vulnerability creeps in, it’s not necessarily an invitation for a man to console her in a sexual manner or take advantage of it for his own benefit. It blurs the line between the sexes because we express an array of emotions very differently. And perhaps that’s where the breakdown happens, because men and women are desperate to meet in the middle yet, can’t for the life of them figure out how. It’s the ultimate dilemma between the sexes and probably always wills be.

I mean think about the scene where Mabel has just served spaghetti for Nick and all of his coworkers. It’s a full house of men and she’s expressing herself by talking to them, yet it gets to a point where Nick shuts it down, kicking everyone out of the house because he feels Mabel being a tiny bit flirty and he doesn’t want his guys getting any ideas. Alas, Mabel is a woman full of expression, who will march to the beat of her own drum, which is indicated when Nick says he has to work late, she’s left in an empty house drinking beer until she spontaneously leaves, heading to a bar already boozy and somewhat contemplative. So what’s does she do? Strikes up a conversation with a man, gets a little flirty, drinks a 7&7, getting more drunk and impaired and what does this guy at the bar do? Takes advantage, brings her home, and spends the night with a married woman which then creates a form of guilt within Mabel, who carries that burden straight into the morning dinner scene where Nick and his coworkers arrive. I think this creates a certain pressure for Mabel to push aside the guilt and now changes gears into that homemaker mode making sure everyone is comfortable and fed.

I wouldn’t say this film ends on a high note as it feels more like a timeout in the ringer from social norms. Mabel’s little outbursts could be perceived as acts of resistance, fighting what society wants her to be while Nick, the head of the patriarch carries a pertinent “civility” is really a farce because his outburst results in violence such as the instance when he slaps Mabel off the couch so she could suppress her emotions. It’s a heartbreaking moment because we see all three of her children huddled around their father attempting to protect her. It’s an exhausting third act but somehow lulls itself into the parents putting their kids to bed making it seem like everything is right with the world again. It’s this temporary pause that makes you question who’s the crazy one?

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is an intimate portrait of a woman not just wrestling her own emotions often conveyed in close up shots of Mabel’s face and the confusing nervousness she endures but also reveals how we’re slowly watching her suffocate under the restrictions of her gender role. Mind you this was also in the mid 70s, where social attitudes were in the midst of radical changes. Albeit, this was John Cassavetes’ masterpiece, given the emotional stamina of Rowlands’ character and the faith Peter Falk had in this film, who ended up putting half a million dollars into the project. Even after the film was finished, Cassavetes’ self distributed the film himself touring college campuses and art houses. It’s incredible the length an artist will go to make his work known and I admire that ever so greatly as he’ll always be hailed as a true harrowing spirit of an independent.