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Issue #26: It's A Dog-Eat-Dog World 🦴
Westworld + Selah and the Spades
Our long, national nightmare is (almost) over, and the end of this once-in-a-century pandemic is inching closer to its end. As cases rise ... pretty much everywhere, there's hope on the horizon for a vaccine soon. It's a bit of a mind-fuck to contemplate just how much our brains have been poisoned by the last four years but 2021 is right around the corner. We've just got to hold on a little bit longer!
Conflict is natural, but sometimes shit goes left. This week we're talking about two movies that force their audiences to reevaluate on the fly. First, there's Zosha on Westworld, then Cate on Selah and the Spades. Both deal with ideas of control, consent and autonomy. Just a little something to ponder as the unstoppable force of this country's political machinations come up against the immovable object that is the White House's current occupant.
Zosha on Westworld
Written and Directed by: Michael Crichton
Distributed by: MGM Studios
In J-school our teachers once brought in actors for us to interview for “experience” on how to talk to people post-traumatic events. The actors would start on cue, and our groups would rotate through the corners of the room, each of us getting a chance to attempt to interview actors as they played out people on one of the worst days of their lives (in this case, their fictional apartment building had caught fire). At the end, our professor made sure to warn us to take it easy that night: our brains don’t always understand the difference between fake trauma and real experiences, and they might be a little shaky for a spell.
This lesson—or, more accurately, the encouragement post-lesson—was on my mind as I watched 1973’s Westworld. Written and directed by Michael Crichton (as part of his Amusement Parks Gone Wrong Cinematic Universe), the premise is, on its face, identical to that of the modern HBO show: There’s a resort for people to play out their fantasies in intensely realistic worlds populated by robots to guarantee near-complete authenticity. At this park there are three themed “worlds” to explore each based on a different chapter of history. Westworld spends most of its time in Western World (oop! Yeah you really thought that title was gonna be a sure thing), but there’s also Medieval (Europe) World and Roman World (specifically Pompeii). A first-time visitor named Peter (Richard Benjamin) visits with his friend John (James Brolin)—and suddenly finds the stakes are much more real than he’s lead to believe.
Again, like the TV show, the conflict comes from the androids running amok, suddenly able to strike back at the humans who have taken liberties with them in various ways through various worlds. Here humans have sex with robots, kill them, fight them, and so forth.
But unlike the modern Westworld, 1973’s Westworld is decidedly more circumspect about its commentary. Perhaps the undoing of the show was its lofty goals—it is and has been much less smart than it thinks it is, resting its targets on some grand and generalized analysis like “the nature of man” and its brutality. The result is, increasingly, a mess, and never really ends up saying anything at all.
Which is an absolute waste because androids are one of the best genre tools science fiction has. The definition of robot vs. android has been conflated and debated through the years, but both exist in fairly similar commentaries (for our purposes here, anyway); whether you think one or the other presents more “humanoid,” they both serve as a stand-in for things that humans can’t or don’t want to do.
Robot as a term was first used in our modern sense by Czech playwright, novelist and journalist Karel Čapek as a means to comment on labor—the term comes from an Old Church Slavonic word, rabota, which means servitude of forced labor. But through the years, androids and robots have served as a stand-in for almost every -ism and othering there is. In 2001, HAL’s robotic evil comes from his inability to hold evil in his brain per his programmer’s instructions. Films like Ghost in the Shell or Ex Machina have pointedly divorced the idea of womanhood from a body. I love, love Ex Machina’s portrayal of robotics, because it is an elegant commentary on the gender roles we thrust upon the mere presentation of femininity: there are technically no women in the film, but because Ava can project and play into Caleb’s perception of her as a woman, the whole thing becomes a commentary on the two men’s separate but equally narrow vision of her. (See—even I cannot stop using the she/her pronouns here!)
From the vantage point of 1973, Westworld ekes out largely the same sort of angles on femininity. Crichton (in his first time out of the gate for directing) pointedly takes long stretches of the (mere 88 minute-) movie to pull back the curtain and show the expectations guiding the hands of these programmers. When a femme-presenting bot in the Medieval World turns down a guest, she is immediately brought in for a checkup because—without putting too fine a point on it—that’s her “whole existence.” It is not subtle, but it’s not beating the audience over the head with it either.
Which is saying something in a movie that ends with a nearly half-hour chase scene. By modern terms, this act (as well as every bit of world-building awkwardly woven together by what’s essentially a short story) could be seen as clunky—you’re not entirely sure, but Peter never seems like he’s going to actually die, and the android chasing him (Yul Brynner, a legend) is always just out of reach but also a perfect shot. The whole thing goes on a long time, making it feel almost too cheesy and unresolved.
But this is only insofar as we are able to purely resolve our conflicts through the lens of cinema. So much of moviemaking is finding a balance between conventions (of script, of filmmaking technique, and so on) and the “truth” of life in a way that feels strong. The lengthy, slow but realistic chase scene between the two echoes the slow-motion brutality that Peter unleashed on this same android earlier in his hotel room. The Black Hat Android falls out the window, Brynner clearly registering every slug that Peter lays into him. As Peter goes over to check on his opponent, he turns back to John and with a wry, sarcastic smile of a man finally leaning into the mood of the whole place says, “Was he bothering you? Because he won’t bother you again.” It is the whole first season of Westworld played out in just 40 minutes; Peter can’t deny the joy he takes in the whole affair, and while his first kill seemed to shake him in a way that felt too real, he’s gotten on just fine.
As Peter relaxes into his thousand-yard stare after finally vanquishing the Black Hat robot, it’s hard to say he isn’t also thinking of all the ills of society that are merely being replicated and encouraged here. (Lest we forget, these people paid $1,000 a day to be here, meaning it’s not too hard to take a leap and a jump at the class aspects at play.) What 1973 Westworld seems to understand innately is that robots (and androids) are not representative of one thing. They merely extend and complicate all of society’s ills, whether it’s men taking advantage of women or the endless violence our kind seems to wage against itself.
Cate on Selah And The Spades
Written and Directed by: Tayarisha Poe
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
As a black girl who copes by planning, I am intimately familiar with the desperate need to control the world around me. If it’s one thing this pandemic has challenged, it’s my ability to let go and let God. It’s hard to do, especially when it means challenging every aspect how you move through your life. It’s why this week’s film —about protagonist Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), and her all-encompassing need for control—appealed to me. Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature Selah and The Spades is an interesting look at a black girl who can’t let go, and what happens when she starts to lose her grip.
Selah is a senior at a New England boarding school, and the leader of one of the institution's five illicit student-run factions. The Spades, run by Selah and her right-hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jermone) provide the school's students with any manner of drug they might have a need or an itch for. With the spring semester coming to a close, Selah is on the hunt for a successor, and that's where Paloma (Celeste O'Connor) comes in.
Selah hand-picks Paloma to be her heir, and the sophomore takes to the business like a fish to water. Falling in with The Spades has given Paloma identity and purpose. But Selah is dealing with her own identity struggles, and they're bumping up against her need for Paloma to succeed.
Throughout the film, the other faction leaders hint at Selah's prior misbehaviour—an incident with a girl named Tila. But they have a treaty to never discuss the details so it's Selah's nemesis Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) who tells Paloma what actually happened. Tila was Selah's previous second in command, but she was unceremoniously expelled after Selah drugged her and she caused a car accident on school property. Tila had been good as a Spade too. She'd been as good as Paloma.
Selah's mother is an overbearing woman with exacting expectations for perfection, and as Selah fails to live up to them, she seeks control in other areas of her life. When Maxxie gets distracted by his relationship with his new girlfriend, she sends him on his own to a dangerous part of town as punishment. Maxxie returns bloodied and beaten—a just sanction for daring to put someone else before her. But even after she fires him with dismissive indifference, she's left in her room alone to mourn the loss of her longest friendship.
What Selah seeks is power. She has none in her own life, but she has it in spades (pardon the pun) on campus. Her iron-fisted rule keeps her faction in line, but it also means that no one is ever exempt from the consequences she doles out for disappointing her. When Paloma objects to Selah's violent rule, she goads her into compliance, using their friendship as leverage.
The problem of course is that Selah can't let go. Even as she grooms Paloma to replace her, she refuses to relinquish her power even a nano-second earlier than is absolutely necessary. At 17, this is all the power she will have for quite some time. In the blink of an eye, Paloma goes from successor to usurper, and Selah reacts with predictable fury.
Paloma takes charge of organizing an alternative prom from the juniors and seniors when the school cancels the official celebration, and her competence and efficiency catch the eye of the other students. Selah will have none of it. Maliciously, she drugs Paloma with far too many pills—an attempt to "keep her humble." Paloma can be good, but never so good that she doesn't defer to Selah first. It's a vicious and dangerous act that shows just how lost Selah really is. Her need for control is so ingrained that she'd rather sabotage her own invention than see it thrive without her.
The film's ending gives no neat endings and no real conclusions, but I was drawn to the way it studies the exacting nature of black girlhood. There are so many heavy burdens waiting out in the world for black women that they are robbed of their childhoods in order to prepare for them. Selah wants to be a girl. She wants to make the mistakes that girls make. But she is being forced to grow up much earlier than she should have to, because how else will she be ready for the world? It makes sense that she would hold so tightly to the things that are within her power and be so loathe to give it up. But the violence she enacts on others by proxy indicates a deeper, more sinister problem, and there's no amount of growing up that can undo what deeds have been done.
Given the place that Selah finds herself at the end of the film, it’s tempting to decide that the story is a repudiation of the iron fist she seeks to wrap around the people in her life. But more than a scolding for Selah, this movie is about understanding that people are not things. They are not pawns to be manipulated at will. Your own need for control of your own life doesn’t supersede someone else’s need for self-determination. If Selah can accept that, there's still a chance that she might thrive.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: I. loved. Leta Powell Drake who was going viral last week for being the world's best interviewer, and I loved this interview that gave me some insight into her process; inspiration. After working on a bunch of Crown stuff and reviews I would just like to shout out You're Wrong About for being everything that's right about the world. Finally cleared another long-opened tab about the unbearable whiteness of true crime. And also read my smart-ass friend Victoria on gross women in film!
Cate: I'm eternally tired these days, but I have loved watching The Queen's Gambit in bits and pieces since its debut. But of course, everyone else has moved on to the newest, juiciest season of The Crown, so I'm revisiting this excellent essay about what Princess Diana meant to immigrant women. I've also been reading up on the white supremacist origins of modern marriage advice (yikes!) and this curious examination of shifting journalism dynamics. Finally, my mentor-sister Taylor Crumpton's first book Taylor Crumpton Considers Big Tuck is an examination of Dallas' contribution to hip-hop music and it's available for pre-order now!
Somehow, we've made it to the end of another week! We'll be off again next week as we figure out how to safely celebrate Thanksgiving in a pandemic (spoiler: don't) but we'll be back bright and early on the first Friday in December. See you then!
Basting a turkey and yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3