Category: Film


Angels in America is a period piece. Kushner bridges fact and fiction in a story set in 1980s America. One of the key pillars of that bridge is big gun prosecutor Roy Cohn. He is the only major character in the play explicitly based on a real life person.

“Have you no sense of decency?”

Louis berates Joe for lying to him, and repeatedly asks if he knew who said that. Joe’s oblivion is convincingly shocking for Louis. This was one of the turning points of American politics in the 1950’s.

It’s worth exploring some of the background behind Roy Cohn, who he was, and how he is relevant even today, decades after his death

It all began with the rise of Communism across the world. There was a growing body of communists in the US, who also supported the USSR. Anti-Soviet rhetoric was heralding the Cold War. In order to protect the American ideals of liberty and democracy against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, many Americans created an oppressive regime that attacked the American ideals of liberty and democracy.

The man who would come to lend his name to this period in America’s history was Joseph McCarthy. He was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who made a name for himself by attacking anyone and everyone under the guise of purging the US of communists. This “McCarthyism” manifested itself in the widespread fear of even an accusation of being a communist.

A brief overview of McCarthyism and its consequences

Roy Cohn would be chief counsel to McCarthy in the Army vs. McCarthy hearings. These came at the height of McCarthy’s influence, when he even got into a tussle with the US Army about it’s security. During this trial, this famous sentence was used by the army’s lawyer Joseph Welch. This would be the point which determined McCarthy’s downfall, losing him popularity nearly overnight.

Roy Cohn was also famous for his trial of the Rosenberg case, where he prosecuted suspected Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was publicly proud of his role in getting them the death penalty, as is also referenced in the play.

What isn’t referenced in the play though, is who Roy Cohn mentored. It was none other than Donald Trump, back when he was a real estate mogul in New York City. They met at a club in New York City in 1973, and hit it off. Cohn would become Trump’s lawyer through thick and thin. His aggressive approach was what Trump loved, and that is what Trump learnt.

Roy Cohn and Donald Trump
Roy Cohn and Trump giving a news conference declaring a lawsuit on the NFL

According to a Washington Post article,

“Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”

Anyone living today who reads this will agree that that has been Trump’s mantra all along. He comes on aggressive, attacks everyone, and never backs down from his claims. Cohn was also the one who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, who became one of Trump’s campaign advisors in his successful bid for presidency.

Cohn became so important to Trump, that birthed a catchphrase for sticky situations: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In real life, just like in the play, Roy Cohn maintained until the end that he had “liver cancer”. He was disbarred as a lawyer shortly before he died, and maintained his disgust for homosexuality in his political beliefs. As his friend Roger Stone said:

“Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”

Roy Cohn, in his short life of 59 years, left a lasting impact on the legacy of America through Donald Trump. Even in death, he had the power to turn the country upside down.

Invisible Contagion

“When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.”

(Ibsens, Ghosts, Act II)

This quote said by Mrs. Alving stuck out to all four of us. She highlights the idea of old societal beliefs and values that eerily live on within us in ways we aren’t aware of, and are passed down in ways that we aren’t aware of. The way these “old defunct beliefs” were presented as a “ghost” was intriguing, especially because the concept of contagion seems to be embedded in this idea.  This is evident when she says, “I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.” Yet, the way that she uses ghosts to describe a kind of contagion is not the primary way we have been thinking of contagion in this class. Contagion has been described in visible, physical and tangible terms. It felt powerful to have the invisible contagion of values of beliefs wrapped in the metaphor of a ghost. Ironically, through this line, she gave visibility to the invisible. She voiced, really clearly, intangible structures in a really poignant way.  

A 1987 televised version of the play directed by Elijah Moshinsky has very interesting visuals. The whole action takes place inside the Alving house, in its dark walls, dark furniture and sparse light. Its visuals, especially its colours, are somewhat suggestive of the paintings that have emerged out of earlier pandemics. 

“Titian’s last painting, Pieta, from 1575. In 1576 he succumbed to the plague that was raging in Venice.

Pastor Manders’s character in the film is particularly similar to Edvard Munch’s Self Portrait during the Spanish Flu.

It’s very useful to the action of the play taking place in dim, spacious, yet claustrophobic rooms, never leaving the indoors, a quality that has come to be associated with the current pandemic. Moreover, in this version of the play, a model of the house is securely stored inside a glass box, placed in the living room. Manders is seen constantly resting his hands on this box as though protecting and relying on this structure. This can be seen as a metaphor for Mander’s insistence on closely following the established rules/structures of the world. 

Ibsen uses the symbolism of “ghosts” to illustrate the idea that remnants of practices from a bygone era continue to haunt us, sometimes preventing our society from progressing. The struggle between the craving for a new social order and the rigid shackles of the past are perfectly exemplified in Mrs. Alving. She embodies a progressive, feminist way of approaching marriage and motherhood — ideas that the Pastor refuses to accept, having been possessed by the “ghosts” of archaic traditions. As Mrs. Alving explains, ghosts are “all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs…”, which in her life have been the gender norms imposed on her of being a “good”, supportive wife despite being stuck in a toxic marriage. Reading this in 2020 was alarming as many of the issues she raises surrounding expectations from women continue to be salient, which begs the question: when do these “ghosts” finally terminate, and when do these ideas stop propagating across generations? What does that mean for us, as people participating in the world today? Is the core of what we have constructed as life infected by patriarchal structures of the past?

In “Severance”, Candace held herself to the immigrant work ethics not because she found meaning in her job, but only because she wanted to uphold the legacy of her deceased father. Duties and responsibilities are passed down from generations, and they are just as contagious and sins and diseases. “The sins of the father are visited upon the children.” is what the doctor told Oswald Alving about his illness. 

So, where does the contagion originate? What is the source of it? Did it come from Oswald’s father when he passed on the illness of his mind and body to his son, who now has to face the ghosts of his late father’s life? Or did it come from even before this family, did it come from structures of “law and order” that Helene talks about? Do these rigid structures birth and sustain this contagion? What makes these structures so contagious, what makes them so compelling to pass on, why do they continue to haunt us? 

In this particular course, we learn about the current pandemic that we are facing by reading about all the great plagues that have happened in the past. Within these materials we are bound to see similarities. Patterns are concluded, feelings shared, and history seems to repeat itself. Humans have been studying history since forever. Why is that? What is the point of us living in the present and looking back into our past, into our collective memories? Do we ever learn from it? 

Facing Death

A common theme that interconnects multiple readings, and perhaps becomes more apparent in Defoe’s work and matures in Pushkin’s “A Feast During the Plague” is the personification of death. We are introduced to different descriptions of mortality and the plague and more importantly, further understand characters, figures and viewpoints through how ‘it’ is described.

To bring you back to the feast table, as Louisa revives (line 112), she states:

I dreamed I saw

A hideous demon, black all over, with white eyes…

He called me to his wagon. Lying in it

Were the dead-and they were muttering

In some hideous, unknown language.

The details that Louisa highlights raise an interesting question about how we choose to visualize death and how that may vary between different cultures, religions and time periods. Particularly in art history, death plays a key thematic role and the Art History Project’s Curated portfolio takes you through different cultures and pieces of artwork guiding you through how the depictions and the perceptions have or haven’t changed.

Gustav Klimt’s “Death and Life” is perhaps one of my personal favorites, along with Hugo Simberg’s “Death Listens”. The contrast between life and death is more recognized in Klimt’s, but what surprises me about Simberg’s depiction is how patient and almost respectful death looks as he is listening to the boy playing the violin. Additionally, straying slightly away from art history and towards modern cinematography, one of my favorite scenes from the Harry Potter films captures death’s persona through an eerily interesting tale (spoiler alert).

It seems most curious then, that such a rich and vibrant track record of work has led us to the modern COVID era, where the killer is now the image of a spiked virus that has become ubiquitous all around the world.

Our zombies, ourselves

I’m reminded, whenever I think about zombies, of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different (but related?) kind of zombie economy to the one we encounter in Train to Busan, with its blood-sucking hedge-funders. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years, and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Train to Busan that global corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine. Lots more to talk about in relation to Busan: communication, quarantine, government, empathy, but this origin story is one place to start.

Love for Life

From Yan Li, who took this course in the spring of 2015:

As promised, here is the link to the full movie based on Dream of Ding Village. This movie is directed by Gu Changwei, one of the most famous “fifth generation directors” in China, and performed by many famous Chinese actors, such as Zhang Ziyi. You may be familiar with her early film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.Love for Life was released on 10 May 2011 in China. Though this movie is a little different from the novel and focuses more on Lingling and Ding Liang’s love story, it faithfully illustrates the rural background and the tragic flavor of the storyline. Hope that you will further understand the setting of the novel by watching this film.

Here’s an interview with director Gu Changwei from TimeOut Shanghai.

A companion documentary, Together, offers a “a behind-the-scenes look at the Chinese cast and crew’s reaction to AIDS patients who participated in the filming of Gu Changwei’s feature film.” (See this interview with director Zhao Liang. And this one.) The documentary is in several parts on YouTube. Here’s the first:

“The world only spins forward”

The second part of Angels in America, titled Perestroika, deals with the aftereffects of the occurrences in Millennium Approaches and the conclusion of the play as a whole. In this part we gain insight into the Angels, Heaven, and God. Kushner describes them in a human way, very unlike the way they are normally discussed both in normal life and inside the play, where Mormon ideals run strong through some of the characters. God decides to leave, the Angels create through sex, and Heaven is a rundown town. These are all characterizations that would be expected to be found in Greek deities, not the Christian faith.

Perestroika shows new sides of each character. Roy, now in his deathbed, has moments in which he changes his normally brutish behavior for something completely different. There are flashes of compassion in his treatment of Belize during his feverish hallucinations, his normally kind treatment of Joe changes suddenly once Joe declares his homosexuality. Joe himself shows new things, under Louis’ harsh questioning he keeps trying to find excuses and attempts to escape culpability to the point of beating Louis when the wouldn’t stop his questioning. This is a huge break from the normally passive Joe. Finally, Perestroika also deals with the conclusion of the obstacles the characters had during Millennium Approaches: Louis and Prior get back together, Prior renounces his prophetic assignment, Harper moves out, Roy dies, and Hannah finds a new home in New York.

There was one more theme present in Perestroika that had big implications for the meaning of the play. The relation between dream and reality is very strong, many of the character’s hallucinations have very real effects on the world, from Ethel prompting Louis to sing to Prior and Harper almost recognizing each other from their shared experience in Millennium Approaches. Kushner plays fast and loose with what is real and what is not. There are moments in which the Angel arrives to Earth and all hell breaks loose, Prior fights the Angel, Hannah is flabbergasted over the entire situation, but in the end the event is remembered as dream rather than an actual event.

How should God be represented, and by extensions, what it means to be holy? Is following the Angels will faith or servitude? Is not following it heresy or independence?
Seeing the Angels’ behavior compared to people like Belize, who are the real Angels in the play?
Forgiveness is a heavy theme in the play, used by the characters to move forward; is being forgiven, and forgiving, a right or a privilege?
Is Joe deserving of hate? Is his behavior is fault or is that he can’t extricate himself from his conflicting convictions?
In the end Hannah is found to be in the group, what does that mean for her? Is she accepting, or has she become a member of the LGBT community?
Here is the video of the Epilogue, Bethesda, as portrayed in the movie Angels in America:

Rashomon? What is the truth?

When reading the accounts of various characters in the book Ghosts, we stand in their perspectives, immersing ourselves in their situations and displaying sympathies toward what they encountered. Nevertheless, our perception toward the character change dramatically when we receive other people’s accounts. There is only one truth. Who should we believe in? We can assume that one of the people is lying, or perhaps, none of them are not telling the truth.

The plot mentioned above reminded me of a short story “Rashōmon” written by a Japanese litterateur Ryūnosuke Akutagawa which is now adapted into a film Rashomon.

“The film is known for a plot device that involves various characters providing alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident.” (excerpted from Wikipedia)

The film depicts the psychological strategy that helps hold one’s self-esteem in place by only talking about the certain things that are beneficial to themselves, and avoiding mentioning the misconducts which might be detrimental to their reputations. Therefore, instead of presenting the whole picture, people opt to merely show fragments of truth, or even create stories to disguise the real situation.

In Ghosts, at the beginning of the play, Pastor Manders tried to help Engstrand because the Pastor was convinced by Engstrand that he was a good and righteous man. His conception toward Engstrand shifted completely when Mrs. Alving told him the stories that she had buried for years. However, his feeling of Engstrand turned back to sympathy after hearing Engstrand’s monologue. Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? It seems that it is something that might never be able to be revealed under the self-protecting strategy everyone is taking advantage of.

It is not about casting doubts on others, but think twice before forming our own judgements. After all, none of us would like to be the second Pastor Manders, a gullible, easily tricked person that believes in whatever people say.

A Trailer of Rashomon for your reference!

Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.

Hi, guys. It’s been a real pleasure to make our way through this semester together. While we were watching Contagion I was reminded of these two posts from last semester that commented on the film and the science behind it. In a comment on the first of those posts, I made a few observations and asked a couple questions the movie raises for me:

I’ve seen the film now four or five times and I’m still trying to sort through the logic of the final scenes. On the one hand, it would seem that global capitalism has rendered us more vulnerable than ever: both in terms of how food is produced and shipped and in terms of global air traffic potentially spreading a virus between major global cities. That seems to be the point of tracing the spread from the bats (dislodged by developers) to the pigs to the hotel chef to Gwyneth, the swanky casino/hotel patron. (Also, is there some suggestion that she may have deserved the infection due to her infidelity? Or perhaps her gambling?) This chain of transmission — from food prep to credit cards — seems to send the notion that every touch, every transaction is potentially deadly. But Laurence Fishburne’s little speech at the end to the janitor’s son about the history of the handshake ritual (Nemesis, anyone?) seems to suggest that the film doesn’t want us to abandon such demonstrations of our non-threatening human exchanges. Is it just that we need to keep washing our hands between handshakes?

A friend of mine, Caleb Crain, wrote about Contagion for The Paris Review back when the film was first released. Note the cameo appearances in his review by Defoe, Camus, and none other than Arthur Mervyn! Caleb’s more extended reading of Arthur Mervyn can be found in his book American Sympathy. But I thought you’d appreciate some of his connections:

Contagion has been praised by science journalist Carl Zimmer for its realism—for showing such details as the sequencing of the fictional MEV-1 virus’s genetic material in order to trace its phylogeny. But how did Soderbergh keep his plague from becoming too real? I’d say it’s by limiting moral ugliness to the villains—to nameless looters in masks and to Jude Law, who plays a scurrilous blogger, branded with a crooked front tooth by the make-up department, for ease of identification as a pariah. When I was a teenager, I read La Peste, Albert Camus’s fictional account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian town, because I was entranced by the moral certainty of the hero, a doctor who never seemed to factor the risk to himself into his decisions. How noble!, I thought. Years later, as a young adult, my sexual awakening took place in the shadow of a plague that, in those days before triple-combination drug treatments, killed within ten years almost everyone who contracted it. (Soderbergh’s MEV-1 only kills one out of four of its victims.) In the shadow of AIDS, Camus-like moral certainties turned out to be hard to find; all the gay men I knew worried about risks to themselves. Not worrying about such risks seemed to constitute a moral failing; on the other hand, surviving, too, seemed a somewhat guilty endeavor. In graduate school at the time, I found myself reading and rereading one of America’s first Gothic novels, Arthur Mervyn by Charles Brockden Brown, set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1797. The book’s paranoid mood and untrustworthy hero seemed timely. Moralizing was ubiquitous but unhelpful; virtue and villainy seemed mixed up in oneself.

How does Soderbergh play around with the major tropes we’ve discussed all semester? (Think of the play on communication — words — and communication — of disease, in the movie poster above, or the role played in the film by governments in containing information or establishing quarantine or seeking cures.) You can read the rest of Crain’s thoughts here. But I wonder if you’ve got some answers of your own after 14 weeks of thinking about these issues.

Interview with Charles Burns & Black Hole Movie!

Hi guys!

For this post, I prepared two things: an interview with Charles Burns and a Black Hole Movie! 🙂

Did you know that Charles Burns is very interested in mutations? There were reasons why he was inspired by mutations. Also, remember that this comic book is quite rich with symbols? In this interview, Burns briefly talks about symbolism:

So it’s as symbolic as it is anything else.

Yeah. In Black Hole, there’s not one symptom of the Teen Plague. It’s very unique for each character. So, you have Chris – who is one of the main characters – who is literally slipping out of her skin like a snake. You know, when you are at that age you are trying to reinvent yourself, and you are trying to slip out of your life, and transform into something else.

There are more interesting questions and answers in this interview. Check it out!

Moreover, I found a video on this comic book! It’s quite short (11minutes). Try watching it! Video


Jenny 😀

Politics of Contagion

Hey guys!

I’m rather ashamed I’m putting up a post after the conveners have already done their job for the next book, but I promise I have been filling my weekend with constructive, sort-of-course-related activities! By this I mean I went to see “Every Last Child” this morning, the documentary that Professor Waterman told us was being screened for free this weekend. The documentary is about polio in Pakistan, and the struggle to immunize children and protect them amidst so much political distrust and violence. As we were exiting the theater, Abhi (who was with me) made an interesting remark: while people perceive India and Pakistan to be quite similar, the obstacles standing in the way of healthcare were very different.

For example, in Animal’s People the Khaufpuris of India struggle against a foreign “Kampani” that had poisoned them with its chemical factory. The blame doesn’t lie solely with the Kampani, but also with the corrupt government of Khaufpur, which is perfectly willing to make deals with the Kampani at the expense of its people. With the government continuously letting them down, and the Kampani refusing to clean up its factory that still poisons the town, it is of little surprise that the Khaufpuris mistrust the West. For this reason they turn down desperately needed offers of healthcare and medicine from Elli because she is associated with “Amrika.”

The Khaufpuris have someone to blame for the chemical contamination of their water and people, but in “Every Last Child” polio is a disease native to the land (or, rather, the water). The struggle is with the issue of vaccination, since the Taliban had imposed a ban on vaccination. As a result, polio workers were frequently attacked while on the job. Politician Imran Khan makes an appearance, when his party PTI decides to back a health campaign euphemistically called “Justice for Health,” since the mention of polio alienates many.

The entanglement of politics and healthcare is central to both Animal’s People and “Every Last Child,” yet they occur in different ways. The authorities in “Every Last Child” are eager to find a solution and immunize the children of Pakistan, but they are hindered by the Taliban. In addition, there are certain members of the population who fear anything related to the West, and find it odd that the same country sponsoring the immunization program to save their children is also the one dropping the drones that kill them. While there is a similar distrust of the West in Animal’s People, the political framework is very different and worth considering. Maybe I’m saying that as a result of observing how the recent tensions in Student Government have elicited various heated opinions. Yet politics dictates many of the characters’ ideals and behaviours and an analysis of the larger political climate might lead to some interesting discoveries about our characters.

Happy Reading (of Nemesis, sorry again about the lateness)!