Isle of Dogs: Orientalism in Film

Isle of Dogs' might be Wes Anderson's most dramatic film yet ...

In 2018, Wes Anderson, stop motion savant, directed the film Isle of Dogs. The film takes place in a future dystopian Japan. Due to an outbreak of “snout fever,” all of the dogs of Japan have been sent to a desolate island that is home to Wall-e like trash cubes, and toxic waste. The movie received rave reviews about its aesthetic look and witty humor. Though at the same time, the film has been criticized as being both racially insensitive and a westerner’s take on Japanese culture. 

Orientalism takes on multiple forms in this movie. The first example can be seen through the voice acting. Though the film includes some phenomenal voice actors (Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, and Scarlett Johansson) sadly none of these actors speak a lick of Japanese. In the opening sequence, captions reveal that there will be no subtitles present in the film. This works for the majority of the movie, but there are lines of Japanese dialogue that are included and left untranslated. Though maybe unintentional, this leaves certain characters disenfranchised and often misunderstood. 

The film continues to display problematic elements with its main heroine. Tracy Walker is an American exchange student who has vowed to bring justice for the abandon pups. Tracy’s character is essentially the typical “white American savior”. The rest of the Japanese characters are overshadowed by her involvement. These characters are then seen as compliant in the regime, and once again, Western views of how society should function are pushed towards the forefront. 

The racial insensitivity of this film takes on a different look through the leading dog, Chief. When the audience first meets Chief, the dog has a jet black coat and a “gruff” persona. As the movie continues, he becomes softer and more compliant with his human overseers. One of the ways Anderson shows this transformation is by Chief undergoing an extensive bathing process. The audience is surprised to find that in actuality, the color of Chief’s hair is white. The symbolism from this scene is extremely problematic. Essentially Anderson associates aggression and “feral” behavior with darker tones. The white fur (which could be compared to the skin) is then perceived to be friendly and tame.  

Director Wes Anderson's latest work "Inugashima" trailer release ...
Isle of Dogs' is pronounced 'I love dogs' and people are freaking ...

Anderson is keen to utilize Japanese and Asian aesthetics, but he fails to capture the richness of the actual culture itself. Naming a scientist Yoko-Ono and including sumo wrestling is one thing, but actually providing greater substance and detail to aspects of the culture is another. Anderson seems to provide an image of the Western perspective of Asian culture, but fails to provide a holistic view of how the culture actually functions. 

Roman Holiday: A Roman-tic Comedy

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INCLUDES SPOILERS
Roman Holiday, directed by William Wyler, is possibly one of the best romantic comedies of the twentieth century. The film stars Audrey Hepburn as the touring European royal, Princess Ann. Her co-star, Gregory Peck, plays the American reporter, Joe Bradley. While on her tour of Rome, Princess Ann essentially has a mental break down about the “wholesome” values that she is forced to adhere to, as well as the tiresome schedule that she must follow day in and day out. Running away from the palace, Princess Ann runs into an American journalist that is desperate for a fresh story. In order to capture the princesses scandalous story without her knowledge, Joe pretends to be chemical salesmen. Princess Ann spends her Roman Holiday, smoking her first cigarette, eating gelato, cutting off her luscious hair, and crashing a Vespa. All the while, Joe begins to fall in love with the princess’s energetic spirit and begins to feel hesitant about leaking her story.

One of the key elements of Aristotle’s view of a comedy, is that it must be a story of the rise of fortune for a sympathetic central character. In the case of Roman Holiday, both of the central characters experience this. Though Princess Ann lives a seemingly lavish life, on the inside, she struggles with the pressures of conformity. By spending time with Joe, Princess Ann is exposed to the simple pleasures of life. By the end of the film, Hepburn’s character has gained a more worldly view and has a newly hopeful outlook on life. Joe Bradley undergoes a similar transformation. At the start of the film, Joe is in dire need of a scandalous newspaper story that will elevate his reputation and get him out of debt. Just before Joe is about to leak this exposing piece of journalism, he realizes that his emerging love for Princess Ann is worth much more. Though he does not rise in fame or status in the eyes of his fellow reporters, the audience can perceive that Joe is ultimately appeased and proud of his decision.

Unlike the traditional Shakespearean comedy, this particular film does not end with marriage or a relationship of any sort. This peculiar and heart-wrenching ending adds to the nuance and the brilliance of the comedy. The ending does not fit the typical cliche format of many popular romantic comedies. The realism of the ending provides unique a substantive quality to the story line. In essence, the director does not prioritize the romantic story line over Princess Ann’s sense of duty and responsibility to her position. Joe’s character even has respect for Ann’s choice to return to the crown, and resume her duties. This mutual recognition and acknowledgment for one another, makes the film even more valuable. And though the audience is left disappointed that their relationship does not succeed, the film leaves the audience with an image of a healthy relationship in mind. In many ways, Princess Ann’s return to the throne provides a feminist undertone. Instead of completely falling for her “prince charming”, Ann dutifully sacrifices her relationship, and returns home.

Not all aspects of this comedy surround romance though. What makes this film even more unique, is that it integrates comedy into dramatic, emotional, and action-packed scenes. Earlier in the film, Joe was forced to go to comedic measures to get the, accidentally-over medicated, Princess back home. When one of the members of the royal guard attempted to take Princess Ann back to the palace, Hepburn’s character retaliates by smashing a guitar over his head. These small and quirky scenes may not add to a larger theme about society, but they do provide an unparalleled level of entertainment.

Satire In The ‘Burbs

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The song Rockin’ The Suburbs was released by Ben Folds in 2001. The song is a reaction to a set of aggressive comments made during an interview by one of the members of the metal band Korn. In the interview, musician Jonathan Davis spoke about Ben Fold’s music style and stated, “All we want to do is bring heavy back into rock n’ roll. Because goddamned Ben Folds Five sucks.”

Being the incredibly creative musician that Ben Folds is, he produced the satrical tune, Rockin’ The Suburbs, to mock the band’s whiny and angry attitude. The song is extremely multidimensional though. Not only does the song provide a comedic retaliation to the snarky comments that were made, but the song also addresses the incessant drone of the privileged middle class. Ben Folds specifically targets the social sphere of middle-aged white men. Being that he himself is a middle-aged white man, the tone of the song is exceedingly sarcastic.

Ben Folds begins with the earnest stanza,

"Let me tell y'all what it's like
Being male, middle-class and white.
It's a bitch, if you don't believe, listen up to my new CD."

The first stanza pokes fun at a bitter man who is trapped in a self-obsessed bubble of privilege. He goes on to say,

"I got sh*t running thought my brain,
It's so intense that I can't explain.
All alone in my white-boy pain,
Shake your booty while the band complains."

Folds’s hyperbolizes a sense of self-obsessed isolation. With no “real” problems, Folds has turned inwardly. The result of this mindset, is an edgy, pissed off man who can’t fully communicate his distress. In the next stanza, Fold’s makes a statement about the music industry itself. He goes on to say,

"I'm rockin' the suburbs, just like Michael Jackson did,
I'm rockin' the suburbs, except that he was talented.
I'm rockin' the suburbs, I take the checks and face the facts,
That some producer with computers fixes all my sh*tty tracks."

In this stanza, Folds calls out the musicians who have become “sell-outs” to the music business and giant recording comapanies. Folds makes a sarcastic jab at the musicians who pump out mediocre music for the sake of the payout.

In the following stanza, Folds compares the disgruntled middle-class to that of an overreacting, upset child. In the absence of urgent issues, this group moans about the deficiency of their parents.

"I'm pissed off, but I'm too polite,
When people break in the McDonald's line.
Mom and Dad you made me so uptight,
I'm gonna cuss on the mic tonight.
I don't know how much I can take,
Girl, give me something I can break."

The following stanza addresses how the privileged “never asked” for their status, yet gleefully reap the benefits of the system. Instead of actually trying to manifest change, this group stays complicit with the status quo.

"I'm rockin' the suburbs, just like Quiet Riot did,
I'm rockin' the suburbs, except that they were talented.
I'm rockin' the suburbs, I take the cheques and face the facts,
That some producer with computers fixes all my shitty tracks."

As the song comes to a close, Folds builds up to furiously say,

"It gets me real pissed off, it makes me want to say,
It gets me real pissed off and it makes me want to say,
It gets me real pissed off and it makes me want to say,
F*ck!"

Folds comedically demonstrates the “constraint” of the privileged middle-class, and the “burden” of remaining silent.

Folds does not dance around his subject matter, he gets into the nitty-gritty with little restraint. Nothing about his music idealizes the social and political issues he addresses. Rockin’ The Suburbs is only one example of his satirical abilities. On the same album, Ben Folds produced the song, All U Can Eat. This song captures the plague of materialism and the consuming qualities of capitalism. What makes Folds’ argument so captivating, is his ability to intertwine hysterical satirical content, while also not shying away from major social issues.

A Love Song For Sethe

If you had to describe the relationship between Sethe and Paul D in one word, I think it would be safe to call it complicated. No relationship is perfect, but not every day do find out that your significant other has murdered their child. It’s hard to argue that either party in the relationship was mentally healthy enough to engage in a committed relationship. Both Sethe and Paul D carry extreme emotional baggage that often seeps into their present lives. This is not to say that they both don’t deserve a loving and committed relationship, but maybe they owe it to themselves to find another individual with a healthier outlook on life. I think that Solomon Burke sums it up perfectly in his classic You’re Good for Me. In this 1963 release, Burke sings about a complicated relationship with a woman he loves, but is constantly let down by. Burke begins with the melancholy lyrics, 

"You're a bad little girl, it's true/ But I'm not gonna walk out on you/They say you're a good for nothing, girl/But I'll stand up and tell the world."

When Paul D was informed that Sethe had murdered her youngest child, he fled the 124 household. Sethe’s moral image had become tainted. The lyrics depict Burke standing up for his mistress despite the fact that he’d already been informed about her toxic attributes. Though Paul D initially flees the house and falls into a drunken haze, he returns later, months after Beloved disappears. In addition, Paul D was originally hesitant to even admit that Sethe could have possibly committed the heinous act of murdering her own child.

Burke later laments,

"You're no good for yourself/You're no good for nobody else"

Not only did the decline of Sethe’s mental health take a toll on both Paul D and Denver, but her obsession over pleasing Beloved additionally caused her own physical appearance to decline. As Beloved became larger and uglier, Sethe seemed to wither away. Her physical strength and natural beauty began to fade.

 In the following lines, Burke changes his tone again.

"But you're good for me/Oh, you're good for me/Oh, sugar dumpling, can't you see/You're good for me"

Similar to how Burke seems to be trapped in a cycle of manipulative behavior, Paul D was once trapped between Beloved’s vendetta for her mother. As Paul D carries a heavy load of emotional baggage, he becomes an easy target in the crossfire.  

Burke finishes his tribute with the lines,

"That's all I'm living for/'Cause you're good"

After Paul D settled down in the Ohio home, his life began to reform around creating a stable home life. Though this would seem like an inherently positive change in his primarily independent life, it created an unprecedented interdependence between himself and Sethe. This subtextual dependence ultimately causes Paul D to return to the estate. For Paul D, there can never be too much water under the bridge.   

Dead Dogs

The song Dead Dogs was written and performed by the Memphis based artist, Annie DiRusso. About four months ago, Annie DiRusso appeared on my recommended music playlist. I found that she was a relatively up and coming artist that had a small, but dedicated fan-base. I soon fell for her two singles that showcased her lyrical expertise, and her ability to describe the pain of unrequited love. A month ago, DiRusso released the first single of her new album, Dead Dogs. Coincidentally, this single bore the same name as her yet, unreleased new album. What struck me first about this new single, was the captivating album cover. Personally, I judge artists heavily based on their album covers. Now I understand that this may be arrogant and dismissive of the actual quality of their music, but an album cover should set the tone for the proceeding work of art. Therefore, it should be thought out and expressive. The art itself should add to the poetic style. DiRusso’s cover is a vibrant watercolor, that depicts dogs of different breeds stretched out and configured so that they spell the words Dead Dogs.

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In terms of the music itself, the lyrics and accompanied heavy chords hit right off the bat.

I feel insane/talking at the sky/ trying to send love/ to my dog that died/ Don't know what I think, or a reason why/ Bella would be up there, just chilling with the big guy. 

The first time I heard these lyrics, I was genuinely confused. Is she actually going to be singing about her dog? I realized then, that both her album and song title should be viewed literally. Even though DiRusso presents this song as a pretty typical Indie Rock song, the lyrics invoke a more melancholy feeling that creates a sense of nostalgia in the hearts of listeners. DiRusso began her career by belting our chords about the loss of a lover. Now, DiRusso earnestly shares her despair over the death of her beloved dog. When she describes singing to the sky, she creates a more child-like persona. She innocently misses the company that her dog once provided. Through this, a central theme of the song itself is introduced. DiRusso doesn’t postulate over complicated love affairs, but instead, defends an idea of pure love that has been formed through loving companionship. Poetry is supposed to help individuals expand their experiences or perceptions of the world. By providing her honest remorse, DiRusso allows listeners to build on their own feelings of loss. In essence, she provides a safe space for listeners to process their grief-related emotions, and earnestly assess how they feel. In addition, DiRusso challenges her listeners to not necessarily place value on aspects of life that society tells us to, but instead, to value relationships and bonds that bring us the most personal joy. If that joy is centered around your pet, then so be it. As the song progresses, DiRusso sings

Well, dead dogs don't talk to me, and neither does god/I guess it's free therapy I'm in need of.

This set of lines highlights DiRusso coping with the confusion and loneliness of grief. DiRusso herself seems to be undergoing a sort of existential crisis. It appears that not only has she been stuck by the loss of her dog, but now she feels she’s been abandoned by God himself. These references to God add a comedic layer to the song that alleviates some of the dark tones. Her request for some variation of therapy is essentially a request a platform to share her emotions. 

In her next section of lyrics, DiRusso sings,

No one sees clearly/ we all just play along/ Well, I need some answers please, the world is going wrong.  

This final section of the song describes DiRusso’s dissatisfaction with society’s changing values and morals. It seems that instead of valuing the important relationships of life, society has become obsessed with materialism. In this haze of grief, DiRusso has become privy to the effects of losing something of importance, and only being left with lifeless material objects. Instead of breaking free from these destructive habits, individuals continue to feed their indulgences, and buy into this consumeristic culture. Though this is not the only reason the world is going wrong. Going back to the religious component of this song, DiRusso is questioning how God could have cut short the life of her beautiful dog. Why is it that everything good and pure, is ripped away from the world too quickly? 

Not only does this song meet all of my personal music specifications, but it truly is a work of poetry. DiRusso takes a specific personal incident and uses it to address greater themes of grief. By doing this, she address how individuals prioritize different areas and relationships in their own lives. Her song is short and concise, which allows listeners to focus deeply in on the lines she provides. Though DiRusso currently resides in a relatively niche area of the indie music genre, it is ballads like these that I believe with soon attract a wide fan base.     

Exit West: The Antithesis Of The Stranger

It’s not hard to notice the stark differences between The Stranger and Exit West. At a fundamental level, we as readers are no longer following a possibly deranged sociopath. On a more literary level, we as readers have been charged to forgo our new found ideas of existentialism. In an unnamed war-torn region, Nadia and Saeed spend their days in the constant knowledge that these may be their last. Balmy sunny mornings are not an opportunity to go to the beach with one’s lover, instead, Nadia and Saeed spend their quiet moments to secure emergency supplies and the means of escape. See, Nadia and Saeed can’t afford to be existentialists. The “life has no meaning” attitude doesn’t really fly when people are depending on you. The idea that existentialism is a luxury isn’t quite noted in The Stranger. From Exit West, you realize the deeper purpose of some of our social constructs. You always can say that religion, family structures, and relationships have been used to oppress others in the past. But when we take a closer look, these are also the structures that push us to stay alive. When Saeed’s mother is senselessly killed, Saeed and his father turn to one another and their shared religion to grieve. These societal pillars allow the two to move forward and progress with their lives. You could make the argument that if Saeed’s father was an existentialist, then he would have been able to move on from the absence of his wife. If he didn’t feel such a loving connection to his lost wife, he could have made the more rational decision, and made the passage through the doorway. But by refusing to accept this existentialist rational, Saeed’s father may have saved Nadia and his son. Saeed no longer has to be entrusted with the safety of his father. A burden that may have slowed him down in the long run. Saeed as a character somehow manages to keep a positive outlook on life, even in the midst of all of the chaos he has experienced. You could make the argument that his strong faith has allowed him to perceive the world in this light. He clings to the loving relationship he shares with Nadia and his religious views to get him through each day. In contrast, Mersualt rejected religion and a traditional relationship. Two aspects that may have prevented him from making the choices he did. And in the end, where does he end up? The gallows. 

Why Do I Empathize With Meursault?

When I began this novella, I had an eerie feeling in my stomach. I could tell that something was disconnected about Meursault, but I was starting to wonder if there was something off with me. The problem was, I felt bad for Meursault. Even after his heinous murder, I felt a twinge of remorse for him. In his sun saturated state, I recognized the isolation of his character. After finishing part one, I was ready for a dynamic class conversation. I found it frightening that I kept coming to the aid of Meursault. I blatantly was defending him. How could I be so defensive of a character who had vouched for someone who had physically abused their partner? How could I defend someone who took the life of another without a second thought? How could I like a character who was more alarmed by the beads of sweat on his forehead rather than the passing of his own mother? I believe this sympathetic view didn’t stem from being an internalized sociopath, but instead emerged from something much different. At least I hope…

I honestly was jealous of Meursault’s carefree attitude. I began to empathize with him. Meursault was not confined by any social systems. He acted on his own pure will. High school students specifically are controlled by an array of power systems. Students have to conform to social standards that have been created by some unnamed force. At the same time, we are expected to pursue secondary education and find steady employment. We are expected to make all of these major life decisions as mere teenagers. Though only a few years ago, we weren’t allowed to operate a vehicle or even see a rated R movie on our own. The Stranger is such an impactful book to read in high school, because the absurdity of life that Camus recognized, seems to be bursting from the seems here. I will never concede that Meursault is a hero, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t learn from Camus’ message. My sympathy for Meursault is due to his understanding of life’s absurdity. Part of me believes his death represents the death of the greater population of individuals who died as outcasts of society. The other part of me recognizes the literal reasons for his death. Needless to say, I find my emotions toward Meursault frustrating and conflicting. Who knows, maybe I’m just a borderline sociopath.