The Surprising Appeal of Silent Films

I’ll admit, I don’t have a lot of patience for movies. I can somehow sit and watch episode upon episode of a good TV show for hours on end, but when it comes to anything that lasts over an hour? Suddenly it’s too much. So it was surprising when, a few nights ago, I not only decided to watch a film – I decided to watch a silent film.

What’s even more surprising is how much I enjoyed it.

It (not the Stephen King version) is a 1927 film starring Clara Bow as a shop girl who falls in love with her boss. The idea behind it is that some people just have “it” – that natural charisma, that charm, that little something that draws people to them. Clara Bow’s character, Betty, has “it” – and so does Clara.

Even without words, Bow’s natural charm and charisma leaps off the screen. You barely realize there’s anyone else in the film – she steals every scene she’s in. There’s a quality about her that draws the eye. It takes a skillful actor to convey emotion convincingly on screen; it takes an even more skillful actor to convey emotion without words.

Even though there’s dialogue that shows up on screen, quite often it’s secondary to the action. Sometimes a character will “talk” on screen with no title cards appearing to show what they’re saying, so you just have to guess from the context. It’s an interesting exercise, and I personally found it quite engaging; almost as if the film were interactive. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to follow. I quite enjoyed feeling like I was a participant in the film rather than a passive spectator.

On the note of dialogue, I found some of the twenties slang to be quite amusing: “Shall we gnaw a chop at the club tonight?” (What does that even mean?) It helps that I’m fascinated by that entire era – so liberated, yet still so Victorian. Still seems preferable to the fifties, though. But I digress.

I never thought I would enjoy a silent film; I barely enjoy films at it is, but at least I can experience the dialogue with modern movies. But now, having watched this, I might branch out a watch a few more (and hope this one wasn’t just a fluke). In a way, I’m a little sad that silent films are a lost art, but at least now I can hold my own when talking with hipsters.

Review: 100 Nasty Women of History by Hannah Jewell

Sometimes, you’ll read about an historical figure so amazing, so completely badass, that you know that your life will never be the same for having learned about them.

100 Nasty Women of History has 100 of these.*

I’ve always had an interest in history, particularly women’s history, and while this book doesn’t go into a lot of detail (it has a lot of ground to cover, after all), it’s a great introduction to some of the most incredible, groundbreaking, and trailblazing women throughout history. After reading it, I was inspired to do some of my own research into the figures that I knew less about.

Unlike most “history books”, however, this is an easy read. It’s entertaining, side-splittingly funny, and not at all dry like you’d expect an history book to be. Jewell does an amazing job of keeping things factual while bringing out the lighter side in some horrid situations. At the same time, she acknowledges that some of these women’s stories are too devastating to be laughed at, and in these cases the stories take on a more sombre tone.

The book is split into sections, all of which have hilarious names – “Women who wore trousers and enjoyed terrifying hobbies” and “Women who punched Nazis (metaphorically but also not)” being two of my favourites – and the stories themselves are written in a casual, conversational tone. There’s a lot of millennial humour and slang in here, but luckily there’s also a glossary of terms for older readers, or millennials who spend all of their time in their rooms playing video games and reading books instead of interacting with others and therefore don’t “get” their generation. (Who, me?)

Another wonderful aspect of this book was how diverse the historical figures in it were. Jewell made sure to include women from all over the globe – including my beloved New Zealand, tucked away in our little corner, which will now gain more exposure thanks to the inclusion of figures such as Nancy Wake, Jean Batten, and Whina Cooper. Pity we’re still not on all the maps.

If there’s one complaint that I have about the book (and it’s less a complaint than a minor annoyance, really), it’s that the stories aren’t in any particular order – they’re separated into sections, but inside those sections they just seem to be thrown in randomly. My chronology-loving brain had a hard time with that one.

Apart from that, though, I would recommend this book to anyone, even those not very well-versed in history. The writing style and short chapters make it a great read to dip in and out of when you want to feel inspired. And the humour, while it probably won’t gel with everyone, makes this already great book even better.


*Technically over 100, since one chapter encompasses four sisters. But I digress.

Review: Down the Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison

Or: “Big surprise, Hugh Hefner is super fucking creepy”.

Although I love biographies, I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up if it hadn’t been recommended to me. A book about a former Playboy Bunny? That doesn’t exactly spell “intellectual stimulation”. Truthfully, though, I couldn’t put it down.

Holly Madison was Hugh Hefner’s “main girlfriend” for seven years. That’s right, seven years.¬†She was 22 when she moved into the Playboy Mansion, and Hef was 75. There’s a May-December romance, and then there’s… whatever this was. Although, from what the book says, it wasn’t much of a romance at all.

Madison loved the idea of being part of Playboy from a very young age, having grown up worshiping the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jenny McCarthy. Like a lot of people, she moved to LA with the dream of becoming an actress; she thought that getting a centrefold in Playboy was a good stepping stone to doing so.

Through people she knew, she started getting invited to pool parties at the Playboy Mansion- and soon enough, she became a regular attendee. About a year after this, her roommate moved out and Madison was left without a place to live. So she did what any logical, rational person would do: she walked up to Hugh Hefner and asked to live in the mansion.

He said yes. She moved in, and so started her life as part of the Playboy harem.

On her first night out with Hef and his girlfriends, he took her to a nightclub and proceeded to offer her a Quaalude- or, as he referred to it, a “thigh opener”. This apparently didn’t raise too many red flags with Madison, and although she refused, she did get extremely drunk and ended up back in Hef’s room. Here, she goes into quite a bit of detail about what transpired, but I won’t: they had an orgy.

From then on, she was one of Hef’s “girlfriends” (I keep putting that in quotation marks because I still can’t take it seriously). She didn’t get along with the other girls, which wasn’t helped by Hef’s pitting them against each other, and eventually her self-confidence eroded to the point where she developed a stutter. However, all this did was endear her to Hef even more, and eventually she became his No. 1 girlfriend, the “Queen Bee” of the girlfriends. All this really entailed was moving into Hef’s room and standing directly next to him during photo ops; although she did manage to get rid of the other girlfriends and replace them with ones who eventually became her friends.

Hef, to nobody’s surprise, was controlling and possessive. He dictated what the girlfriends wore, wouldn’t let them keep jobs, and required them all home by 9pm- even if he himself were staying out late. He gave them a clothing allowance and would track how the money was spent so he’d know whether or not his girlfriends were putting money away (above all, Hef was insecure about his girlfriends leaving him). They didn’t have any kind of independence.

Madison recalls an incident where she had decided to do something nice for Hef by dressing up as one of his favourite blondes- Marilyn Monroe. She cut her long hair short and put on red lipstick, then asked Hef what he thought. Little did she know, Hef hated red lipstick with an unreasonable amount of passion. He screamed at her, telling her she looked “old, hard, and cheap”. After that, Madison stuck to the script as much as possible.

After seven years of being Hef’s plaything (and with no centrefold to show for it), everything came to a head when Holly spent her first (!!) night away from the mansion on her own. On a trip to Vegas, she met a man who walked her back to her hotel room. Although nothing happened, she woke up to a frantic call from Hef, who had had her followed and was convinced she had cheated on him (oh yeah, did I mention that Hef was allowed to sleep with whomever, but the girlfriends were required to stay completely faithful? Yeah). This, finally, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Madison decided to leave mansion life behind forever.

The book ends with Madison finally finding her “happily ever after”: marriage, children, and her own TV show. Even if you don’t necessarily approve of her choices, you can’t help but applaud her from how she picked up the pieces of her shattered life after she leaves the mansion. Ultimately, it’s a story of hope, as well as being an eye-opening account of what life in the Playboy Mansion was really like. Read this with an open mind: I swear you’ll find it as interesting as I did.

Review: The Problem with Apu

The Problem with Apu is a recently released documentary made by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu (who is excellent, by the way. Check out some of his stuff, he’s a delight). As the title suggests, it deals with the portrayal of classic Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and the affect that it has had on many prominent South Asian Americans growing up.

Apu, Kondabolu says, “sounds like a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” And this is understandable, especially considering the character is voiced by white actor Hank Azaria, who also provides the voice of many other iconic Simpsons characters. I wasn’t aware that Azaria was Apu’s voice actor until a few years ago. For the longest time, I assumed he was voiced by an Indian.

When I found out, I was not only shocked but also a little uncomfortable, not only at the fact that a white guy was doing the voice of a non-white character, but also at my own ignorance on the subject. Even knowing from a very early age that Apu (along with many other characters in the show, as they address in the documentary) was a stereotype that wasn’t representative of an entire group of people, I somehow never had a problem with it until I realized that his actor was white. I’m sure, however, had the voice actor been Indian, it wouldn’t have been that much more acceptable.

One of the problems with Apu, according to the documentary, is that for a very long time he was people’s only reference for what a South Asian person was. Whereas now we have shows like Master of None and The Mindy Project, which were created by and feature South Asian Americans, back when The Simpsons was in its infancy, Apu was all anybody had. The stereotypical convenience store owner with the cliche accent was what people automatically thought of when they heard the word “Indian”. Unless they were Level 500 Racist and also thought of Native Americans. But I digress.

The documentary was well-crafted, with the interviews being conducted in a respectful, empathetic manner, even with that one asshole from The Simpsons (no, not Azaria. He declined the opportunity for some self-reflection and personal growth). I can’t remember his name, but he was arrogant and wanky, so we’ll just call him Arrogant Wanker. Essentially, his interview with Kondabolu boiled down to: “I don’t see what the problem is, therefore your experiences aren’t valid.”

I’ve been seeing this kind of response to the documentary all over the place, even by people who haven’t seen it. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these responses have come from white guys. There has definitely been a lot of knee-jerk reactions of, “But it’s satire! It’s supposed to be offensive!” and, “Why do you have to take everything so seriously?” White people are so defensive. I know because I am one.

I can kind of understand these kinds of reactions, at least on an intellectual level. As white people, we don’t want to be associated with the racists of old (unless of course, you’re actually an out-and-proud racist. In which case, go fuck yourself). We don’t want to be ignorant, and often can’t admit that we are. Admitting ignorance is one of the hardest things for people to do, and for people in a place of privilege who haven’t experienced prejudice (and therefore often don’t even see it), it’s even more difficult. So when we’re accused of things like prejudice and racial ignorance, we often bite back instead of reflecting on our own behaviour.* I just wish people wouldn’t be so dismissive of other people’s experiences just because they can’t personally relate.

I really enjoyed this documentary. It’s well made and well worth a watch. Even if you don’t initially agree with the premise, I guarantee it will make you think. It certainly opened my eyes to a lot of issues. I’m not sure what impact it will have on The Simpsons or the character of Apu, but I’m interested to find out. The Simpsons has never been a perfect show, but I think this would be a great time to reflect on society’s changing attitudes. Things are different to how they were back when the show first started, and it’s time to move into the modern age (please keep in mind I haven’t watched The Simpsons past season eleven. With good reason).

TL;DR: I spent an hour being angry at white dudes. What else is new?



*There, I’ve done my white-person duty of somehow making this about white struggles. Do I get a badge now?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the greatest shows of all time

Avatar: The Last Airbender may be a kids’ cartoon, but that doesn’t stop it from being awesome.

I’m a big fan of cartoons. I’ve recently gone back and watched a few from my childhood, and while some have stood the test of time (Recess, Batman: The Animated Series) some, sadly, have not (here’s looking at you, Pinky and the Brain). And while I was in my early teens when Avatar came out, I knew even then that it was going to be a timeless classic.

Avatar¬†is set in a land where many people possess an ability known as “bending”, or the capacity to manipulate the elements to their will. Of the four elements- air, water, fire, and earth- most of these people can only bend one. However, there is one- the Avatar- who can bend all four. Avatar follows the adventures of Aang, the latest incarnation of the Avatar, and his friends: Katara, a Waterbender who acts as the “mother” of the group; Sokka, Katara’s brother, comic relief, and non-bender; and Toph, a blind Earthbender who is one of the best characters in all of cartoon history.

Each element is separated by nation. Naturally, because fire is super evil, the Fire Nation is the villain of the piece, invading and conquering all the other lands because its leader, the Fire Lord, is just plain evil, I guess. They’ve even wiped out the Air Nomads, the tribe where Aang was born, making him the last Airbender. See? The title of the thing is in the thing!

This show doesn’t shy away from big issues. Tribalism, for example, is the biggest running theme, and with all the crazy shit going down in the US of A at the moment, it seems particularly poignant. Unlike a lot of shows, however, it doesn’t glorify violence or killing, and tries to convey the horrors of war in a way that kids can understand. It does a great job of it, too.

Sexism is also dealt with in a great way. Sokka is notoriously sexist, which is eventually beaten out of him- quite literally, in some cases- by his encounters with various women throughout the first season. Katara chafes at her brother’s ideas of masculinity and traditional gender roles, but it’s not until he meets the Kyoshi Warriors, a group of female-only fighters, does he truly learn how wrong his views have been.

I mentioned the main villain before. Given that the show is full of so many well-developed, amazing characters, the Fire Lord is strangely two-dimensional. He wants to conquer the world just because. He has no real discernible motive other than being born power-hungry. On the other hand, his daughter, Azula, is a fantastic villain. She’s briefly seen in season one but doesn’t really join the action until season two, where she hunts both the Avatar and her brother, Zuko (who is portrayed as a villain in season one, but eventually defects to Team Avatar).

Azula is a Firebending prodigy and a textbook psychopath. She uses fear and intimidation to control everyone around her, including her “friends”. Over the course of the series, we discover more about how she became who she is and we see her mental state begin to break down. In the end, her lust for power becomes her downfall.

In some ways, Azula and Toph, whom I mentioned earlier, are quite similar. Both have issues with their parents, both are supremely self-confident and have a superiority complex, and both have prodigious abilities beyond those of other characters (hell, Toph even creates a whole new type of bending because she’s so awesome). The biggest difference between the two, however, is that Toph has a conscience. She does love fighting, but she doesn’t enjoy killing. That, and she has a wonderfully sarcastic sense of humour, often making jokes at other people’s expense or even, at times, at her own blindness. Azula takes herself far too seriously.

I haven’t even got around to mentioning my other favourite character, Iroh, but I won’t because his greatness can’t be contained in one post. I guess you’ll just have to watch it to find out. In all seriousness, though, if you’ve never seen the show, watch it. Because of its depth and sophistication, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a kids’ show. In fact, I think adults would have a greater appreciation for it, due to its messages and some of the humour. It’s definitely worth a watch (or three).

Bioshock: Infinite

There are some games that you play through, think “oh that was fun” and then promptly forget about- and then there are some games you play through and become so immersed in the story and gameplay that, even after you finish, you can’t stop thinking about it. Bioshock: Infinite, I am happy to say, is one of the latter.

For those who are unfamiliar, Bioshock is a series of first-person shooter games set in creepy, dystopian worlds. The first two games, for example, is set in an underwater city called Rapture in the 1960s. The latest game in the series, Bioshock: Infinite, takes a slightly different turn, being set in 1912 in the floating city of Columbia, which had seceded from the United States about a decade before. The setting is a little more steampunk-y and less scary than the first two, but don’t let that fool you- the game still has its freaky moments.

You play as Booker DeWitt- which is the most 1912 name ever, by the way- a former detective who is sent to rescue a girl named Elizabeth in order to pay off his debts. He manages to find his way to Columbia purely by accident (although, conveniently, that’s where he’s meant to go), and straight away things are a little off. The city is run by a cult leader named Father Comstock, who believes he is a prophet. His brainwashed populace see no other way than to follow his lead.

One thing I love about this game is that it doesn’t shy away from tough issues. Ideas such as religious extremism and race relations are recurring themes, as well as the concept of moral ambiguity- one of my favourite things in every type of media. Not everything is cut and dry, and sometimes good people do shitty things. In this particular case, while the main character is the “good guy”, he is at heart kind of a terrible person. The game doesn’t try to convince you otherwise.

I’d love to talk about the ending, but I don’t want to give anything away. I just want to point out that it is a magnificent ending. It’s rough, raw, and at times a little confusing, but that fits in with the rest of the rough, raw, confusing game. So instead of spoiling it for you, I want to talk a little bit about Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is the heart and soul of Bioshock: Infinite. While at first she starts out as a naive Disney Princess-esque archetype, she actually has one of the best character arcs I’ve ever seen for a video game character. While some parts of her personality are massively unrealistic (she’s lived in a tower on her own all her life but she somehow has no problem navigating social situations? Really?), the way she grows and changes throughout the game is done very realistically. For example, when she first sees Booker kill someone, she understandably freaks out and runs away screaming. A surprisingly normal reaction from a video game character, where most other characters probably would have just shrugged and said, “Whatever, happens all the time.” It’s rare to have a character react to violence as if it’s not normal, because most video games are set in violent worlds.

Throughout the game, we see Elizabeth’s demeanour change. At first she’s cheerful, happy to be out of the tower she’s been trapped in, but slowly she starts to look haunted as the horrors that happen throughout the game start to catch up with her. Eventually she changes so much she’s barely recognizable from the character we first met, but it happens so naturally that you can’t question it. She’s more human that most video game characters I’ve ever seen.

Despite its short run time (it’s only about 10 hours long), Bioshock: Infinite is one of the most immersive, engaging games I’ve played in recent years. I would definitely recommend it even if you (like me) are not usually a fan of first-person shooters, as the combat mechanics make it so much more than your usual “aim and fire” shooter. The use of different Vigors in combat make things much more interesting, although I’ll admit I just used Possession on everything and turned my enemies against each other. Nonetheless, it’s definitely worth a play, especially to see that ending.

Comedy Review- Katherine Ryan: In Trouble

Katherine Ryan is one of my favourite comedians of all time. I tell you this from the outset so you’ll know what to expect in the following post. This may be a review, but in this case, it’s mostly going to be gushing. I have nothing to criticize.

I first became familiar with Ryan on a panel show (I forget which one) on which she was by far the funniest member. Her wit and dry delivery made her an instant hit with me. And while she’s still a regular on these types of shows, she was also the second British comedian to get a stand-up special on Netflix, after Jimmy Carr (although Canadian by birth, she counts herself as a British comic as that’s where she’s based and where her career really took off).

I’m probably biased because I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time, but honestly, In Trouble is just excellent. Not one joke fell flat. Ryan moves from topic to topic so seamlessly that you barely notice she’s doing it.

Ryan also doesn’t shy away from the tougher topics, from being labelled Public Enemy Number One in the Philippines thanks to an off-the-cuff joke she made on a panel show, to a joke about a Jewish man she dated which turned out to be a lot less offensive that it could have been. From being a single mother, to dating younger men, to giving a speech at her sister’s wedding, and of course taking pot shots at celebrities, nothing is off limits.

Some of you who have seen her clips on Youtube may be familiar with some of the material (spoiler alert: comedians don’t just say a joke once and discard it. Sorry to disappoint). However, her delivery in this special is a lot crisper and tighter, making her more well-known jokes feel fresh and new. Obviously, there is also a lot of new material to make it worth a watch even if you’re already a well-versed Katherine Ryan fan.

While I can understand that some of her jokes may make people slightly uncomfortable (there are some jokes that are not racial slurs in the slightest but could definitely be misconstrued), to me at least, Katherine Ryan didn’t stop being funny for a second. I’ve seen her special twice now and would definitely watch it a third time. Whether you’re familiar with her work or not, Katherine Ryan is definitely worth checking out. And In Trouble is a great place to start.