Saturday, July 9, 2022

Who Will Protect Our Children? An Interesting element of Thor: Love and Thunder

 SPOILER ALERT - this analysis of Thor: Love and Thunder reveals some important plot points.  

Much has been written about the cheekiness of the new Thor movie, Thor: Love and Thunder.  As in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi brings a great sense of humor to the Marvel universe.  There's a lot of crude humor, but mostly it's just silly, poking fun of Thor's continuing difficulty coping as a god in a mortal's world.  Chris Hemsworth has become a reliable, loveable, hunky goofball.  Some of the jokes are a little flat but overall the tone of the film holds up, and it's a fairly light hearted good vs. evil tale with a romantic sub-plot.  Nothing too demanding.

The big issue in this film is Thor's inability to find love, setting up a possible reconciliation with his one true love, Dr. Jane Foster, with Natalie Portman reprising her role from 2013's Thor: Dark World.  In this film, she is dying from cancer, and is only kept alive - and given the powers of Thor - through Thor's broken hammer, Mjolnir.  (Which, like Doctor Strange's cape, seems to have a personality - an artificial intelligence -   that also allows for some odd humor, as Thor longs for his old hammer and fears his new axe might be jealous.)  The problem is, whenever Jane uses Mjolnir, her body weakens in its fight against the cancer.  But she's already at Stage 4 when the film begins, so when given the opportunity to maybe save the world (or at least New Asgard's children - I'll get to that in a moment) she can't help but selflessly join the battle at the risk of her own life.  She and Thor also rekindle their romance when she is in her buffed up Mighty Thor state, but Thor and she clearly see their days together are likely numbered.

But what I want to talk about here isn't the comedy, or the doomed romance.  The main hero plot involves a character played by Gorr, (Christian Bale) who is wandering a desert wasteland with a young girl (we find out its his daughter).  Why they are in a desert alone is unclear, but the little girl dies of exposure and thirst.  Gorr wanders into a small oasis - in it resides Gorr's god!  At first Gorr is overjoyed - it turns out he's an acolyte.  But he doesn't understand why his god has seemingly forsaken him and his people.  But Gorr is comforted knowing that now he might go to the afterlife and see his daughter again.

But his god betrays him.  There is no afterlife for mortals.  They only exist to worship their gods. And this god is celebrating the death of a "god killer" who wielded a magic sword.  Well, the sword speaks to Gorr, who, in a rage, kills his own god.  Gorr then vows to kill ALL the gods.  And that includes Thor.  

I'm going to skip ahead a bit.  Gorr eventually finds his way to New Asgard on Earth.  Unable to defeat Thor, Jane Foster, Korg (Taika Waititi's comedic sidekick) and King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), he kidnaps all the town's children, taking them to some shadow kingdom.  Our heroes eventually track them down, but King Valkyrie and Jane Foster are left behind dealing with their wounds, and Thor must go alone.  He frees the children, but he is alone to fight Gorr, who is able to call up a shadow army.  The only way to fight Gorr is to arm the children.  He anoints one of them a General (he's the son of an old Asgardian ally); has them all find weapons - whatever they can pick up - and then sends his Thunder power to each of them. 

Their battle against the shadow army is mostly played for laughs, while Thor fights Gorr.  I actually found this scene very disturbing.  The children, left to defend themselves against an unspeakable evil.  We have already seen that for many of them, their gods have deserted them.  (There's also a scene where Zeus refuses to help Thor.)  They are alone in this world, without their parents.  The only people helping are Thor - who seems to be an outlier among the gods, in that he cares about people; Jane Foster, a childless, unmarried scientist; Korg, who we later see "birthing" a baby with a male partner, and King Valkyrie, a lesbian warrior!  

I couldn't help but find parallels, I'm sure not completely unintended, with how we treat our children in our violent, modern America.  Their institutions cannot protect them.  Their PARENTS can't even protect them.  They are literally on their own against the forces of evil.  Only the unconditionally, unselfishly kind (Thor and Jane and Valkyrie) can possibly help them - but even then, they must teach the children how to fight.  

It shouldn't be that way, in fantasy or the real world.  I'm an atheist - we have no gods to protect us.  But we should have institutions that do that.  Police, our elected representatives, our communities.  And as parents we should never feel as helpless as the parents in New Asgard feel when their children are first stolen.  (They are so torn they fight each other for a bit before Thor promises their safe return - a bold promise.)   

When Gorr is given an opportunity to destroy all the gods, Jane, dying, asks him if that will help his own pain.  Gorr is also dying, as the sword took his own life.  In a last moment of redemption, he decides to bring back his dead daughter.  But who will protect her, if he is dead?  Jane implies she and Thor.  So, Gorr is able to fulfill the wish of every parent who has lost a loved one at the whim of an uncaring god - he brings back his dead child.  Jane dies. Thor adopts the little girl, giving HIS life some meaning.  

That scene would be heart wrenching to anyone who has lost a child to violence.   But it helps summarize what I think the film is saying - someone must step up to protect the children.  Otherwise they are on their own.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

"Jane, you never point a gun at anybody, ever!"

Part Two of my observations of guns and gun culture in odd places in American cinema.

     "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" is a 1963 film about a widower and his young son in New York City.  The widower, played by Glenn Ford, falls for a socialite who ends up being a bit selfish.  Perhaps the woman who he should marry is his deceased wife's best friend, who lives across the hall, is played by Shirley Jones, is a nurse, divorced, childless, loves his son (played by Ronnie Howard), and is clearly the better choice?  Maybe he will figure it out by the end of the film?  

     It's clear she's a better choice for a mom for little Ronnie at his birthday party, where Shirley is there to help wrangle the kids, but the socialite isn't.  Glenn Ford has his hands full, with kids running around like maniacs.  It's actually a pretty accurate picture of a kids birthday party.

     There's a quick scene where a little girl starts running up to people with a toy automatic rifle, shooting at people. A little girl seems unfazed, even though it's LOUD.  But Glenn Ford yells at her, appropriately.  "Jane, you never point a gun at anybody, ever!"   He seemed really started for a moment.  I would have been, too.  But this is New York, in 1963.  Guns were probably highly regulated.

     I love this movie.  I feel for Glenn Ford - he clearly likes Shirley, but the socialite maybe is more fun and sophisticated?  And very different than his deceased wife.  So his dilemma is real.  But then again, this might be a more interesting film if the WOMEN got to decide, and not the man.  

     The appearance of the toy rifle is a little jarring.  It's interesting how loud it is.  And that it has the little red tip at the front to show that it's harmless.  Just a toy.  How many kids in the 1960s had toy guns like that?  How many still do today?

EDIT: Here's an interesting NY Times Article from 2007 noting how murders had risen to the highest level since . . . 1963, when there were fewer than 500.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Judy Garland, Gunslinger


     I have a passion for classic cinema.  Not just as entertainment, but also for what the films say about our history.  And of course when we look at cinema as history, we have to look at not just the stories they tell, but the way that they tell them.  Whose stories are being told?  From what perspective?  What is the theme that the filmmakers intentionally addressed?  Looking back on the films, what themes are now more readily apparent?  

     We can talk about how race is portrayed, or the role of women.  We can even talk about how our relationship to our environment has been shown on film.  But what I want to start talking about is how Hollywood has helped shape American gun culture.   And not just in the obvious ways, in gangster films or Westerns.  But in small, subtle ways.  Guns have always been in our films.  And I think their ubiquitousness has contributed to the idea that firearms are, by themselves, harmless - they are just a tool.  And in many films they are used as a joke.  I'm going to start writing about guns in classic films when they are used in odd ways.  As a joke, or as a positive, harmless influence.

     For example, I was watching the 1946 MGM musical "The Harvey Girls."  It's about a western railroad town that is a little wild and uncivilized.  It's main attraction is a saloon.  But civilization is coming in the form of a Harvey House Restaurant.  Restauranteer Fred Harvey opened a chain of cafes along the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad to cater to travelers.  His restaurants all featured the same menu and were staffed by waitresses - called Harvey Girls - that were trained in manners.  So these restaurants were very much seen as bringing civility to the frontier, an interesting historical avenue one could pursue.
The romantic plot of this film puts Judy Garland - pressed into service as a Harvey Girl when her pen-pal fiance turns out to be a fake (someone else wrote the letters) and a dud (itself another interesting historical plot - the reality of what the frontier offered, versus the reality).  Judy is at first repulsed by the real writers of the letters that drew her there - the owner of the saloon, played swarthily by John Hodiak.   Hodiak sees the Harvey Restaurant as a threat to his saloon, but he's eventually drawn to Judy.  And the "good girl" Judy has a romantic opponent in Angela Lansbury as a street-smart saloon singer.   

     So there is much to talk about in this film regarding the settlement of the west, the role of women as servers - but also the opportunities that the Harvey restaurants gave many young women looking to work in a respectable business.  But what struck me was the scene where Hodiak goes to the Harvey restaurant to ostensibly check out the competition.  He orders the famous Harvey Steak, sending Judy to the kitchen to order, but the kitchen is missing all the meat.  Judy guesses correctly that Hodiak probably stole the meat to embarrass her and the restaurant.  

     She borrows two pistols that are just hanging in a holster by the front door.  Perhaps the restaurant asked people to check their pistols, or perhaps it was just customary.  (We know that western towns actually had very strict gun laws - who could carry, where and when.  The "wild west" was greatly exaggerated.)  What follows is played for laughs.

At first bold with her two pistols, Judy eventually loses her grip and drops both guns; when she picks them up she cant seem to get a proper grip.   It's "funny."

When she enters the saloon to look for the stolen meat, she's at first ignored.  Why would anyone be startled by someone open carrying??  Especially a woman?  Only when another customer - the actor I can't seem to place - plays along with her is she noticed.  And then he needs to encourage the rest of the customers to fear her guns.  (He even says he fears a woman with a gun more than a Dead-Eye Dick - because women were less reliable with a gun and might hit anywhere!).  

She even closes her eyes and shoots at the bartender, hitting a bottle and not him.  This doesn't frighten the crowd, she's still not a threat.  The helpful customer now seems charmed by her and helps her get to the kitchen to recover the meat, much more out of whimsy than fear.  

And when she leaves the saloon, she waves her guns around to say she wasn't really a threat - but she accidentally shoots down a chandelier.  Again, played for laughs.  

      It's the cavalier way Judy waltzes around with the pistols.  No one is perturbed, even after she shoots at the bartender (hitting a bottle he's holding).  They could disarm her, but the one friendly customer humors her, plays along, encourages her.  She accidentally shoots into the ceiling, bringing down a chandelier that falls on no one.  She gets the meat back for her restaurant, embarrassing the saloon owner who tried to embarrass her.  

     So no harm, no foul!  Guns are fun.  Empowering.  Even for women.  Accidents don't happen in this world.  Guns are just another tool.  This is the kind of subtext these scenes create, and the kind of scenes I hope to continue to explore.    Even in a musical film, known for songs like "The Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe," a romantic film, a comedy - guns are treated like toys instead of truly deadly weapons.  Perhaps this is part of the reason we have a gun culture that refuses to see that what connects all gun violence is - the guns.

EDIT: I'm already having some discussions with friends about whether or not guns in popular culture are a "cause" of gun violence.  I don't think so.  I do think our popular culture makes excuses for guns, and makes guns acceptable.  And in that way popular culture that treats gun violence in a lighthearted manner is partly complicit for actual gun violence.