Saturday, November 30, 2013

On "No Blues," Los Campesinos! find light in the darkest corners

Despite getting relatively positive reviews upon initial release, Hello Sadness, the previous album from Los Campesinos!, has taken a beating from some fans in the two years since it was released.  Some cite the record's overwhelming gloominess as a turn off, stating that it was the point where soul-bearing frontman Gareth went from cheeky self-deprecation to morose self-seriousness.  Personally, it's my favorite Los Campesinos! album (landing at #2 on my Best of 2011 list), and part of it is because of the way it matched grim lyrics with indelible songwriting.  Nevertheless, perhaps Gareth himself found that record a little too dark as well, because he made it clear in pre-release interviews that No Blues, the band's fifth album, would be much happier.

Listening to the album itself, I'm amused by his idea of happiness.  Perhaps the name No Blues is meant to be ironic, since the album seems to serve as a 69 Love Songs type of record, except 59 songs shorter and all about death.  Despite the energetic and frenzied nature of their early songs, the band has always been obsessed with the macabre, and it's no different here.  What's particularly fascinating is how Gareth's lyrics almost reach a Cronenberg level of body horror, treating bodies as nothing more than vessels housing emotions.  Over and over, internal anguish translates to external wounds and extreme passion blends with extreme pain (ex: "Darling, if I had the choice, I'd excavate his throat of voice / and corrugate his vocal chords to play a tune").  But here, he seems to have found a new shade to his writing.  Sure the album is soaked in death, but it's rarely in a depressing way, almost as if there's a resignation to the inevitability of it all.  On the chorus of "As Lucerne/The Low," he even sings "(But the low) is what I came for / (and to bask) in a darkness I do adore."  Clearly, Gareth and the rest of the band have made peace with whatever was plaguing them the last time around.

Even romance, which has long been the deepest well for Gareth to mine misery and self-deprecation, takes on life and death stakes.  On the amusingly melodramatic "The Time Before the Last," he reminisces about the death of a relationship, describing "one last meal as one last gesture."  Elsewhere, he cheekily states "There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine."  It's lines like these that are his greatest gift as a lyricist.  You can tell there's a part of him that feels so deeply that he does see himself as the only person who's gone through this level of heartache, but his ability to poke fun at himself about it keeps the eye-rolling in check.  It's not a 100% necessary part of the formula (see: my enjoyment of Hello Sadness), but it's a welcome addition.  Just when he comes close to the edge of self-seriousness, he throws out a line like "Two words upon my headstone, please / don't need date or name, just 'Sad Story'" to reel himself back in again.  And for all of the large-scale, death-obsessed rhapsodizing that dominates the first 9 songs, the album closes with the comparatively subdued "Selling Rope."  It's a sharp right turn from the rest of No Blues' ethos -- a small, unnoticed demise -- but it's beautiful, moving stuff.

Not so much a 90-degree turn as a natural pivot is their sound, which continues its maturation from the glockenspiel-heavy days of yore.  Things are a bit scaled back on No Blues, but that doesn't stop it from also being the band's most sonically varied record.  Look back at their first four albums and you won't find anything like "The Time Before the Last," which starts off with a haunting chant before transforming into a driving, ornate song.  Even songs that closer fit the Los Campesinos! formula, like "Cemetery Gaits," are sprinkled with new elements (in this case, a lovely new wave keyboard riff).  Some of their most stripped-down songs make an appearance here, like "A Portrait of a Trequartista As a Young Man" or the measured pace of "Glue Me."  They haven't completely left behind guitars -- on the aforementioned "Glue Me," they're starry and languid; on "As Lucerne" they're piercing and direct -- but they've added some new tricks to the established rotation.  More refined compositions still can't dull their ear for melody though -- No Blues is, if nothing else, an incredibly catchy album.  "What Death Leaves Behind" and "Avocado Baby," the two songs released before the album dropped, are earworms up there with the band's best singles.

When Los Campesinos! first came onto the scene in 2007, many critics tossed around the word "twee" to describe their music.  While they've always had more bite than the other bands who were attached to that signifier, it still wasn't a stretch to lump the high-fructose Hold On Now, Youngster... in that category.  The term has become as dead as every other music blog buzzword (floating in genre heaven alongside chillwave, dance punk, and freak folk), with all of its bands either fizzling out (The Boy Least Likely To) or attempting to change their style and failing miserably (Architecture in Helsinki).  Los Campesinos! were one of the few to break free of that tag and find a sound that worked for them, but even though their albums still get good reviews, the larger music community doesn't seem to care about them in the same way that they used to.  Maybe album closer "Selling Rope," is reflective of the band itself, and they're more comfortable being unnoticed.  Whatever the case may be, No Blues is another incredible album from what is turning out to be one of the world's most consistent and consistently underrated bands.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Midseason Report: Parenthood closes out 2013 with a killer run

*Note*: This post was written after "Election Day," under the assumption that it was the midseason finale.  There was another episode two weeks after this and it was also pretty good!

I recently wrote a post about Parenthood right before the 5th season started, where I explained what makes it one of the best dramas on TV, even though it's not as "flashy" as some of the other great dramas that are currently on.  Personally, I was pretty proud of it -- I consider it one of my best pieces of writing -- and it was enough to convince two people who hadn't previously watched the show to check it out.  So naturally, I was very worried, both as a fan of the show and a recommender, that season 5 didn't get off to the strongest start.

With the exception of "Nipple Confusion," which is probably one of my top 5 favorite episodes of television this year, the first four episodes were pretty scattered, and the main stories that were being established for the season didn't leave me enthusiastic.  The one that I was the biggest skeptic of was the decision for Kristina to run for mayor of Berkeley (god, even typing that sentence made me cringe).  It makes sense that after her intense battle with cancer last season, Kristina would be reinvigorated and want to do something with her new lease on life.  The problem is that Jason Katims and crew bit off more than they could chew thinking that Kristina, a woman whom the city has no knowledge of or investment in, would have any chance of winning against a well-established politician like Bob Little.  A part of me thinks that Katims is just really obsessed with politics, much like how J.J. Abrams came up with the idea for Alias while working on Felicity and wishing he could just turn the protagonist into a spy, because Parenthood has had some sort of election storyline for 3 seasons in a row now.

Usually, I'm great at suspending my disbelief when it comes to fiction, but the Kristina election arc was a step too far for me.  In my post about the first 4 seasons of the show, I mentioned how Kristina's storyline was so significant that every other storyline was made better by being caught in its orbit.  If that's the case, then her plotline this year was like a photo negative of her cancer scare.  At some point, every Braverman got caught in the vortex of the election arc, and it threatened to bring the entire season down.

One storyline that was great from the start was Zeek and Camille's, which is surprising, given that the two haven't really had a meaty plot together since the adultery storyline in season 1.  Season 5 found them disagreeing on whether they should sell their house, which is slowly decaying from all the years of housing various Bravermans.  It's the kind of conflict that Katims does better than any other creator, the kind that's driven by the gap that occurs when two people who care deeply about each other have differing perspectives, and neither is wholly right or wrong.  It's easy to see why Zeek would want to keep the house.  After all, he and Camille watched their kids grow up there -- it's basically all he knows.  But Camille knows that they're entering the third act of their lives, and understandably wants to see more of the world while she still has the chance to.  We don't often get to see stories on television that really get into the internal lives of the elderly, but the Zeek and Camille arc was handled with a Sarah Polley-esque level of grace and beauty.  At a time where we were mired in Kristina's ludicrous mayoral campaign, repetitive Crosby stories, and whatever it is that Sarah does, this one was what kept the early episodes from completely falling apart.

Luckily, things got much more stable around the middle of the season, starting with "Let's Be Mad Together."  The other big storyline of season 5 that I was deeply concerned about was Joel and Julia's.  Ever since it was announced at the TCAs over the summer that the two of them were going to go through a "rough year," I was worried that they'd do some cheating story that would break the two of them up.  Infidelity isn't inherently an idea that Parenthood shouldn't touch, but the contrived way in which they introduced the possibility didn't do much to mollify my anxiety.  Ed and particularly Peet (or Penny from Lost or British Julia or Sonya Walger -- take your pick) felt more like devices than characters, and watching them interact with Joel and Julia was like watching a game of "Who Will Cheat on Whom First?"  

But once again, it was "Let's Be Mad Together" where I had a real turnaround on the story.  It made me realize that I was so busy fretting over where things would end up that I was misjudging what was going on in the present tense.  This is something fans and critics do often, judging the journey based on our expectations of the destination.  Sure, the idea of either Joel or Julia cheating on one another seemed like a misstep, but on a moment-to-moment basis, their storyline was gripping.  In isolation, the idea of Julia, a woman who has always been career-driven and ambitious, finding herself lost when she no longer has that career to pour her energy into and bonding with a friend facing similar frustrations, is a strong foundation for story.  Parenthood has always been fascinated with the idea of emotional transference, the way that drama from one corner of the Braverman clan can bleed into another corner, but this season has really shone a light on that theme, and the Joel and Julia conflict came into even stronger focus when the writers made the parallels between the two of them and Zeek and Camille clearer.  Both pairs of couples are facing a tough decision -- for Zeek and Camille it's whether to sell their house, for Joel and Julia it's whether Victor should be held back in the 4th grade -- and on top of that, the women in the relationship are feeling unfulfilled.  And like Zeek and Camille's storyline, what made the Joel and Julia conflict so compelling is that it couldn't be divided into simple black and white terms.

Things just got stronger and stronger as everything began to snap into place, to the point where even the god awful election storyline concluded in terrific fashion.  Part of the reason why it was so frustrating to sit through this election was because it seemed pretty obvious that Kristina was going to win.  Over and over, the show kept bumping up against opportunities where they could bail out on it, in the way that some shows do when the writers realized they've made a huge mistake with a certain plotline.  Yet it never took those openings, choosing to trudge forward with starry-eyed optimism instead.  Friday Night Lights, Jason Katims' previous drama, wasn't afraid to have the Panthers and the Lions lose, and tragically at that.  But Parenthood has always been a softer, brighter version of its spiritual predecessor, so the idea of Kristina losing seemed out of the question.  Consequently, her loss in "Election Day," the midseason finale, was truly a surprise and delight (as much as saying the latter part may make me seem like an awful person).  Granted, the way her loss played out -- the election is lost, but is still seen as a personal victory -- was predictable in its own right, but it worked because it was in tune with the core of the show.  Kristina becoming mayor of Berkeley would've been a bad idea because it's a big (and ridiculous) victory on a show that's all about small ones.  At the end of the day, Kristina learned a lesson that the show has been putting forth all along: you can never truly lose if you're surrounded by the ones you love.

Parenthood ended the year with its two biggest stories going out on a high note, but things are still up in the air for the rest of the plots.  For every storyline that's going well, like the aforementioned Zeek and Camille material or the delightful Max and Hank stuff, there are an equal amount of sketchy ones.  The show has rarely ever told strong Jasmine and Crosby stories, but the new baby plotline still feels like a weird afterthought, even though it seems like a deeper well from which to extract good drama than this bizarre "Adam and Crosby start their own record label" thing.  The biggest problem, however, lies within the Amber and Ryan storyline.  After being a fan of their arc in season 4, I've found it to be a relative non-starter so far in season 5.  It all feels so preordained, particularly since we know that Matt Lauria isn't a series regular.  Maybe that's a cynical way to look at things, but I'd have an easier time swallowing this story if it didn't just hit the same beats again and again.  Yet these quibbles aren't enough to have me down on the first half of the season as a whole, and I'm very optimistic about the second half of season 5.  In a way, this season reminds me alot of season 3, which also started out shakily but just kept building and building until the incredible catharsis of "Remember Me, I'm the One Who Loves You" (still the show's best episode).  I wouldn't be surprised if this season has also been constructing an intricate set of dominoes that we won't become aware of until it all topples over in 2014.

Friday, November 22, 2013

All is Lost and Gravity: Two tales of survival under dire circumstances

In a recent Dissolve article about Oscar prognostication, Jen Chaney made an interesting point that many of the films that are in the discussion for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards focus on the theme of survival.  12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, All is Lost -- they all feature characters fighting tooth and nail to overcome great peril.  The appeal of films like the former two is easy to see, as they're about their protagonists overcoming a group of people or a system.  When given something tangible, it's easy to think about real world implications, drawing parallels to the isolation we feel in this competitive economic climate.  But what makes the latter two films so interesting is that the characters find themselves battling against something more abstract.

In a way, Gravity and All is Lost are both just takes on the age-old "man vs. nature" theme, but they also tackle a very acute sense of loneliness.  Both Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity and the unnamed man in All is Lost (Robert Redford) are fighting for their lives while floating around in a void.  In the former, that void is literally endless, and the film generates much of its terror from the unending blackness of space.  Although Dr. Stone has two other astronauts accompanying her, she's quickly left on her own when a massive onslaught of space debris complicates the mission they're on.  The sea isn't endless, but it might as well be for Redford's character in All is Lost.  We're introduced to him as he's waking up from a nap, only to find that his boat has crashed into an errant shipping container and is now taking in water.  With nothing but ocean spanning in all directions, Redford is left to his own devices.  There is no crew, there are no other boats, it's just him and the sea.  Both films strip their protagonists of any kind of comfort or company, and the point being made is clear: if you're going to survive in this world, you're going to have to do it on your own.

On surface alone, these films are tense, gripping survival tales, but their stories of perseverance also carry metaphorical implications as well.  In the case of Gravity, the story is pretty clearly a metaphor for depression and the grieving process.  Early into the film, we learn that Dr. Stone had a daughter who died at a very young age, and that she carries a great deal of guilt over it.  It's never made clear just how long ago this happened, but it's something that weighs pretty heavily on her mind, especially when her life is in danger.  Gravity's not just about one woman's tale of survival, it's about her finding the will to live, finally overcoming all of the pain and anguish she'd been filled with.  Although the metaphor is less obvious than in Gravity, All is Lost can be taken as a film that's directly about old age.  Some reviews seem to refute that notion, but to me, all of the pieces are there.  Part of the reason why Redford's situation is so grim is that he's all by himself, much like how many elderly people have nobody around them to take care of them.  While he's out at sea, an ominous storm awaits him in the distance, looming and steadily approaching like his own mortality.  He's slowly stripped of everything he has, eventually abandoning his sinking ship on a life raft.  He escapes, but not before taking a longing and somber look at his boat as it slowly submerges.  The ship is named Virginia Jean, which sounds like an elderly woman's name, and the loss of this boat is treated like the loss of a loved one.

Although both are metaphor-laden stories of survival, these two films deviate when it comes to their execution.  Gravity heavily relies on dialogue (especially from George Clooney's chatty Matt Kowalski), and we're given a substantial amount of backstory on Dr. Stone.  In fact, one of my biggest problems with the film is that much of the conclusion is dependent on how much you're invested in her backstory, which I found to be poorly established through the script's clunky dialogue.  All is Lost, on the other hand, has very little dialogue.  Aside from a distress call and a few frustrated expletives, Redford's character doesn't speak at all.  Writer-director J.C. Chandor keeps things very minimal, and we never learn anything about the protagonist, including his initial reason for being out at sea.  That's not to say that one approach is inherently better than the other, as each film employs what is necessary to their story.  After all, Dr. Stone is panicked and grieving during her ordeal, while Redford mostly uses his knowledge and expertise to keep his wits about him, so it's natural that one would be more garrulous than the other.  Personally, I just found All is Lost's lack of details more effective than Gravity's info-dump.

Despite that, I thought that both films were very effective at conveying the danger and stakes of their protagonists' ordeal.  By offering up two different methods of execution, they give us perspective on why these kinds of stories are gripping to us, particularly in these times.  In tandem, Gravity and All is Lost prove that it may not be the specific details that matter, but the will to survive that makes them so compelling.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Frances Ha and Blue Jasmine are photo-negatives of each other

Even if Noah Baumbach hadn't stated his admiration for Woody Allen, critics probably still would've drawn comparisons to Allen's Manhattan when Frances Ha was released earlier this year.  After all, they're both black & white films about upper-crust, literate New Yorkers who find themselves as restless as the city they inhabit.  And while those comparisons are the most prominent, the Woody Allen film that I couldn't get out of my head when I watched Frances Ha last weekend was his latest, Blue Jasmine.  It may not be immediately apparent how the story of a listless 27-year-old dancer is similar to the story of a woman in her mid 40s moving back in with her sister, but the ways in which they handle the same broad ideas differently is worth digging into.  They're two of my favorite films of 2013, currently sitting side-by-side at #3 and #4 on my list, and they end up revealing themselves to be photo negatives of one another.

The most obvious, literal way to draw this delineation is through their respective uses of color.  They say that many people have a tough time dealing with the early stages of adulthood and the dulling of emotions that result from no longer being a slave to the hormonal ups-and-downs of adolescence.  If that's the case, then the black & white cinematography in Frances Ha is a fitting choice, given its lead character's (Greta Gerwig) floundering throughout the film.  In a way, she's stuck trying to live her life in a younger state -- still rooming with her best friend from college, trapped in her own solipsism, and approaching life with a general insouciance -- as if true adulthood isn't on the menu.  Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the lead character in Blue Jasmine, is well into adulthood, but is only forced to truly experience it where we're introduced to her in the film.  Cushioned by the life of luxury provided by her husband's (Alec Baldwin) wealth for most of her life, she basically has no real responsibilities to deal with, until his imprisonment and eventual death leaves her penniless and crawling back to live with her semi-estranged adopted sister.  Jasmine wishes to return to the fantasy life that wealth granted her, but she's trapped in the bitter truth of her situation.  Woody Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe shoot San Francisco with lush, vibrant colors, which only emphasizes the harshness of the reality that Jasmine finds herself in.  As much as her delusions and reminisces of the past try to layer over it, her situation comes bleeding in at every crack.  In a film that's all about keeping up veneers, the vivid colors are the glossy surface covering up a much darker soul.

There are a number of small similarities that link the two films, including the way they both explore a world of upper class and privilege.  Although we see Frances living from paycheck to paycheck, it's clear from the swank apartments that she crashes at, she still lives in an environment where there's some level of comfort.  There's even a scene where a character tells her, "Calling yourself poor is an insult to actual poor people."  Class and privilege come to the forefront even more in Blue Jasmine.  Jasmine inherits a life of luxury by marrying a rich man, and becomes so accustomed to it that she's left without any skills to help her pull herself together once that opulence escapes her.  Woody Allen may paint her less sophisticated sister (Sally Hawkins) and her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) in broad, salt-of-the-earth strokes, but their relative contentment with their lives stands in direct contrast with Jasmine's desperate attempts to reclaim her status.  While both films deal with complex female relationships (friendship in Frances Ha, sisterhood in Blue Jasmine), they remain locked in on their unmoored protagonists.  There's a gap between the way Frances and Jasmine perceive their lives and the reality of it, but the latter's delusions are filtered through a much darker lens.   In a different light, you could easily see Frances growing up to be Jasmine down the road.

But this is where the two films really deviate and end up representing opposite poles of the character study narrative.  Blue Jasmine's trajectory is straight downward; it's clear from very early into the film that things won't end well for its titular character.  We see her slowly unravel, becoming less able to mask her mental illness, until her lies and transgressions catch up with her, leaving her with no job and no place to stay.  Mirroring the opening scene of the film, the final moments show Jasmine nattering on to another complete stranger, lost in her own hazy-eyed recollections.  She's wearing the same outfit -- this time it's a little less tidy, her face a little more weathered -- but now the stranger won't even pretend to listen to this stark raving madwoman.  It's a brutally grim ending, leaving us with Jasmine on the bench alone, jazz music playing only in her head, but it's one of my favorites of the year.

The ending of Frances Ha is also quite remarkable, but for completely different reasons.  Unlike Blue Jasmine, its trajectory is one that's harder to pin down, filled with all kinds of curlicues that keep the narrative interesting.  For a long time, it seems as if things aren't going to end well for Frances.  We see her quit dancing, alienate her friends, and resort back to working as an RA at her old university (the film's most obvious, but wrenching symbolism).  Yet at the end, she pulls it together and puts on a dance show that she choreographed, with all of her friends in attendance.  It's a beautiful scene -- the dancers repeatedly converging to embrace before moving apart, interspersed with shots of Frances's friends, these twenty-somethings whose lives bump up against each other and overlap like tectonic plates.  After seeing Jasmine attempting to regain her lavish lifestyle and crumbling when she can't in Blue Jasmine, Frances finding peace in a life less "important" than she initially hoped for becomes doubly moving.

Blue Jasmine's ending is one of the most depressing of the year and Frances Ha's is one of the most uplifting, but they both work because they come from a place that's honest to the stories that they have to tell.  The two protagonists share many similarities (and are brought to the screen by two of the best performances of the year), and their respective films show how the results of those character traits can change depending on what life stage you're in.  Jasmine is stuck in a dire position, due to both unfortunate circumstances and choices of her own making, and the film concludes that she's at a point beyond repair.  Perhaps, on the other hand, Frances Ha is a wonderful statement about being in your 20s, and how it's not too late to decide who you want to be.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Almost Human

Fringe, the previous show from creator J.H. Wyman, was all about how the body was the ultimate subject of scientific experimentation, so it makes sense that his next show would take that idea a step further.  Fox's Almost Human, which had a special premiere last night and will air another episode tonight at 8, is set in the near future, where technology has advanced to the point where there are androids who are paired with human cops in the Los Angeles Police Department.  The show makes great effort to explain why this is beneficial, and it doesn't really make much sense, given that the system causes nothing but problems in the premiere.  It's a faulty premise that would be easy to look past were this pilot anything more than serviceable.

At its core, Almost Human is basically a police procedural (filled with expository cop dialogue and simple A-to-B plotting) with a futuristic veneer.  If its ever going to get better, the show is going to need to get much weirder, because despite the interesting sci-fi details that exist around the corners, the pilot is so concerned with the very standard subsection that exists in the middle of this world.  To be fair, Fringe got significantly better once it started being less of a warmed over version of The X-Files, but that show had some distinct characters right from the start.  Despite Karl Urban's nice leading man gruffness and Michael Ealy being as charming as always, the characters themselves are pretty stock types, and the mismatched buddy cop nature of their dynamic is terrain that's been mapped and explored endlessly.

That's not to say that there aren't any positives at all.  The pilot sports the Fox house style, so it's very slick and expensive-looking.  Most of the action scenes are well-shot and full of great special effects work.  Even though the emotional material is also pretty derivative and bland, it's nice that the writers are at least trying to flesh out Urban's character, as opposed to making him the get-things-done, blank slate protagonist.  Things are rough right now, but I've got enough goodwill towards the people involved to continue watching.

Grade: C+

Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and being black in 2013

Two summers ago, I was walking home from a jog that had become my Friday routine.  Right as I was nearing my house, I crossed the street at an intersection where a police car was at the stop sign.  All of a sudden, as I'm passing the car, a cop gets out it and starts questioning me about what I'm doing.  I told him that I was heading home from a jog and pointed to my house, which was literally around the corner.  At this point, I'm trying to be as friendly as possible because that's my natural tendency, but I can't help feeling nervous and wondering why I'm being stopped.  Just as I thought he was done with his line of questioning, the cop starts walking towards me and tells me to put my hands on my head.  Now I'm even more nervous, but I try to remember that there's no reason for him to arrest me.  He asks me if I have anything in my pockets, and I tell him about the house key in my right pocket and the headphones in my left pocket.  "Are you sure there's nothing else on you?," he asks before reaching in my pockets and seeing that I was telling the truth.

Keep in mind that this is occurring in the middle of the street in a suburb of South Florida, and his search and questioning has lasted long enough that there's another car waiting behind his car.  The officer now directs me to stand against his car so that the other car can pass, and I'd later dwell on the fact that the driver of that car probably thought I was actually guilty of something.  Wouldn't you think the same thing if you drove up to a stop sign and saw a sweaty black kid being frisked by a cop?  In that moment, I just wanted to tell the driver of the car and the cop himself that this was a mistake.  I'm on summer vacation from a university where I make straight A's!  I don't drink or smoke!  I've never committed a crime!  There was no reason for this!  Once the cop started to get the feeling that there was nothing he could bust me for, he took down my name and asked me a few more useless questions.  Then he just said "sorry, you matched the description of somebody," got in his car, and drove off.

I matched the description of somebody.  "Somebody."  "Somebody," who?  I just have a hard time believing that somebody called in a crime committed by a heavily sweating black male who's clearly wearing jogging clothes.  What's more likely is that this cop saw a young black guy and thought stopping him and searching him in the middle of the street was a safe enough bet.  Unlike alot of people my age, I generally don't have a problem with cops.  Before this event, I never dealt with them much, so I always thought of cops as people with the dangerous and stressful job of trying to make the world a safer place.  So for a little while, I got lost in a spiral of victim-blaming, wondering what I did to make that police officer want to stop me.  Maybe if I hadn't looked both ways before crossing the street, I wouldn't have looked so suspicious.  Maybe if I didn't have overactive sweat glands, he wouldn't have even noticed me without my drenched shirt.  It was such a small, but humiliating and demoralizing experience that it's almost like I didn't want to accept the idea of it not being my fault.  But the truth is that it wasn't my fault.  I didn't do anything wrong.  That moment left such an impression on me, to the point where people who've already heard the story probably wish that I would shut up about it already, but I just can't shake it.  My mind comes back to it again and again.

It came back to that moment just last week, when I was driving home from seeing Short Term 12.  I was stopped at a red light, when I heard some raised voices a few lanes over.  I figured it was just two people who knew each other, talking from the windows of their cars.  But when I looked over, I saw that there was a white man riding a bike on the sidewalk having an altercation with a black woman in a car.  They seemed to be arguing over something that happened at a previous intersection, and given his shouting about "right-of-way," I imagine he thought she cut him off.  I didn't see the event in question, so who knows who was right and who was wrong in that situation a mile or two back, but in the argument that followed, something undeniably wrong occurred.  I heard the man say to the woman, "...because I'm not a filthy fucking nigger like you!"  The woman, probably as shocked as I was, asked him to repeat what he said, and he -- even more defiantly -- said "A FILTHY FUCKING NIGGER" just as the light turned green and I had to drive away.

It seems like the natural thing to do would be to get angry about something like this, or the run-in that I had with that cop two years ago, but mostly it just makes me kind of sad.  We still live in a society where we can be categorically written off on race alone.  For me, my skin color and youth was enough to be considered suspicious or a threat.  For the woman in the car the other day, all that was needed was a disagreement about driving to confirm one man's vile assumptions.  And maybe you're tired of hearing black people -- or anybody who feels oppressed -- complain about injustice, but we complain because it sucks.  It sucks to know that no matter how smart I am, or how many words I know, or how nice and nonthreatening I try to be, my very existence is a problem for some people.  It's bad enough to feel like "the other," but it's even worse to feel like "the lesser."

12 Years a Slave, the latest film from visual-artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, takes things further, depicting a time where African Americans were seen as "the nothings."  It tells the true story of Solomon Northup (played by the perennially underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free man of the North who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s.  McQueen only gives you a brief glimpse of his life before the tragic event, enough to show you that he's an accomplished violinist, one who's loved by his family and many distinguished individuals of society.  After that he's yanked away pretty quickly, tricked and drugged by two men claiming to offer him an auspicious touring gig, and waking in chains.  There's some forceful filmmaking in these early parts, swiftly cutting from scene to scene, making the experience as disorienting for the audience as it is for Solomon.  In an economical sequence, we see the entire process of him being taken, beaten, and shipped off to the South like a product on the conveyor belt of some grand machine.  Like McQueen's other two films, 12 Years a Slave is free of any kind of hesitation, brutally depicting the grim reality of slavery.  Gone is the Hollywood filter through which these kinds of films are run -- much like what Solomon and the other slaves have to do, this film is grueling, harrowing work.

12 Years a Slave focuses on the reduction of human beings, the ways that slavery's machine-like efficiency rendered thousands of African Americans as nothing more than property.  There are many references to the value of blacks, as they are constantly referred to as "chattel" or "dogs."  These white men who are in charge of overseeing their work are so determined to never let the slaves ascend to any level approaching humanity in their minds, and Solomon quickly learns not to admit that he knows how to read and write, lest he be marked a dead man.  Any limitation we put on understanding something allows us to hold on to preconceived notions, and you can see that in the way the slave owners convince themselves that these slaves are animals, making it so much easier to force them to do back-breaking labor.

Where 12 Years a Slave depicts a period where many black people were dehumanized, Fruitvale Station aims to humanize a single black man.  This feature-length debut by director Ryan Coogler is also based on a true story; the film's subject is Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a black man who was shot in the back by a white cop at a BART station in Oakland on New Year's Day.  I saw this in theaters a few months ago and it's a film experience that's stuck with me, one that I found myself recalling while watching 12 Years a Slave.  Fruitvale may take place in 2009, centuries after the events of 12 Years, but it also fundamentally asks audiences to look closer at a horror that was somewhat overlooked by many people.  Nobody will ever be able to definitively say whether Oscar Grant was deliberately murdered by a white cop while posing no immediate threat or whether it was genuinely an accident, but the fact that there's even a shred of doubt indicates that we still haven't made complete progress.  The days of practices as overt as slavery are over, but there's still work to be done on the more insidious aspects of race relations in America.

There's a scene in the middle of Fruitvale Station where Oscar witnesses a dog being run over and left for dead in the street, and he runs over to cradle it.  It's a bit of symbolism that people who dislike the film often misinterpret as drawing direct parallels between the dog and Oscar, who died in a similarly deplorable way.  But the goal of the entire film itself is to show that Oscar is more than just a dog.  He was somebody with a full life, and his death is something that mattered.  Some complain about the accuracy of the way that he was portrayed, but I'd say that the larger point was not to show who the real Oscar Grant was as a person, but that he was a person.  Plus, the film doesn't shy away from shining a light on his flaws.  He wasn't shown as some kind of tragic hero; instead there's subtle pointing to the anger issues that cause him to get into the trouble that he does.

Before a few years ago, I didn't think about race issues very much, and it's something that's easy to overlook when you're in a situation like mine growing up.  I'm from a liberal area of a swing state, I went to the most racially diverse high school in my county, and the color of my skin was only ever brought up via gentle ribbing.  But the beauty of both 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station is that they don't they let you look away, forcing you to examine the ugliness that has existed throughout history.  The former accomplishes this through its use of long takes.  There's one of a slave beating that lasts about 3 minutes before cutting that's jaw-dropping --  both for its grisly, unflinching violence and bravura filmmaking.  The latter film, on the other hand, shows you a day in the life of Oscar Grant, warts and all, and demands that you value his existence regardless.  Both films have gotten exposure in the wider world -- Fruitvale Station premiered at Sundance to much acclaim, 12 Years a Slave is generating significant Academy Award buzz -- and I'm glad that it's giving people the opportunity to have a better understanding of what being black feels like.  Every time something as rich and powerful as these two films comes out, the gap between who we are and who we are perceived to be gets just a bit narrower.