Why “American Gods” Is Socially Relevant

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When British science fantasy writer Neil Gaiman published “American Gods” back in 2001, he delighted fans with his unique mix of dramatic storytelling, Americana, and ancient mythology. It was a fin de siècle novel that captured unique insights into the end of the 20th century. Now that the TV version of “American Gods” has been released for streaming on Starz and Amazon Prime Now, it’s stirring new debate. There are several reasons why “American Gods” is socially relevant.

#1: A parable about immigration

One major plotline of the show is that the ancient gods of mythological lore are now hanging out in America, just scraping by while trying to fit in. Some cultural commentators have latched on to this idea, using it as a parable for immigration and the high cost of cultural appropriation.

In short, generations of foreigners have come to America, but have been forced to fit in and acclimate, while sometimes giving up their careers and lives in their home countries. They have often been forced to “Americanize” their identities. And Bryan Fuller, the producer of “American Gods,” has supported that line of thinking by saying, “We are a country of cultural appropriation.”

In fact, the tech blog Gizmodo ran an extensive piece about “American Gods” and “the high cost of immigration to the U.S.,” commenting on the role of the nation’s immigrants. America has always relied on new waves of immigrants to keep the American dream going. In the process, these immigrants have sometimes suffered greatly, and may have even been forced into ghettos or other communities, while being forced to change their names to those that sound more “American.”

Case in point: one of the “abandoned” gods in America is Mad Sweeney (played by Pablo Schreider), who is representative of the wave of Irish immigrants to America. At one time, waves of Irishmen came to America, and packed into East Coast cities. Other than a few parades and a major holiday, the Irish contribution to America has been largely forgotten. And there is Bilquis (played by Yetide Badako), the Queen of Sheba, who is now reduced to using online dating as a way of finding romance. At one time, she was one of the greatest gods, but now she is just getting by.

All of this is particularly relevant, given the enormous public debate that America is now having about immigration. While this theme of immigration may have been present in the original 2001 novel by Gaiman, it’s something that resonates particularly in today’s political climate, where there are weekly rallies in support of immigrants and where even members of the political establishment are deeply divided about the prospects for building a border wall with Mexico. We are all re-assessing what it means to be American, and whether certain immigrants should be here at all.

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#2: A cultural critique of America’s “new gods”

Embedded in “American Gods” is the plotline of the coming battle between the “old gods” (as personified by people like Odin, the Norse god) and the “new gods,” which Gaiman has characterized in the form of characters such as Media (played by Gillian Anderson) and Technology (played by Bruce Langley). This, too, is a trenchant social criticism of the current American tableau.
When Gaiman wrote his novel back in 2001, he had in mind the great dot-com wave that made companies like eBay, Amazon and Google household names. Now, 15 years later, they have been superseded by the likes of Facebook, which is arguably the most powerful technology company on the planet today. We are now starting to question the role of social networking companies in limiting our privacy, and the role of Silicon Valley in helping the government control its citizens by offering them state-of-the-art surveillance tools. These tech companies are the “new gods.”

And, making “American Gods” all the more relevant is the fact that we are having a national debate about the role of the mainstream media and the prevalence of “fake news” everywhere. The “new gods’” have failed us, it seems. We put so much faith in them to keep us safe and give us a better life, and they may have done precisely the opposite.

#3: The notion of two different Americas

Finally, it’s hard to ignore the fact that America is deeply divided right now. There are, as many political and social commentators have pointed out, two different Americas. You can think of these as the typical supporters of both President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. On one side, you have the poorly educated white male in a declining industry like coal. On the other side, you have the liberal media elite and the urban working poor. Although those are very simplified representations, they give you a sense of the stark divide in this nation.

Thus, when Gaiman posits that there will be a clash between “old” and “new,” it’s possible to see this as a clash between two rival political parties, or two rival socio-political blocs. As “American Gods” suggests, there is no way to settle this divide except by war. And both sides are struggling to round up as many supporters as they can to ensure that they can emerge victorious. That, too, is what we are starting to see. There is no common ground, it appears, between Trump and Clinton supporters.

Of course, there’s more to “American Gods” than just a social critique. And, certainly, when Gaiman wrote his novel 15 years ago, he couldn’t have predicted the current state of affairs in America. But he correctly nailed the rise of media and technology as two prevalent forces at work in shaping the new America, as well as the untold stories of American immigrants.

It’s here that Gaiman has been most outspoken. He has been very critical of the way that the American myth largely obscures the fact that the first white settlers to America dominated the local Native American population, and then set into motion a system in which institutions like slavery could flourish. The original signers of the Declaration of Independence, in fact, owned slaves. So you can understand why Gaiman is particularly sympathetic to the plight of American immigrants.

You can watch “American Gods” as just a science fantasy tale of Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (played by Ian McShane), or you can watch it as an illuminating social critique of America. Certainly, “American Gods” is socially relevant and has a lot to say not just about the present of America, but also its future.

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Emma Watson Shines in “The Circle”

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The star that makes “The Circle” go round is the very young and captivating Emma Watson. While much of this dystopian tech thriller may be flat and repetitive, it’s hard to argue that Emma Watson turns in a worthy star performance. In short, Emma Watson shines in “The Circle,” the new film from director James Ponsoldt.

Emma Watson is the best in a star-studded cast

There are a bevy of big names in “The Circle” – including Tom Hanks (as Eamon Bailey), Patton Oswalt (as Tom Stenton) and Bill Paxton (as Vinnie Holland), but Emma Watson (who plays Mae Holland, a young tech worker) outshines them all.

The problem here is that Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt are unconvincing as villainous Silicon Valley types. There’s a reason why one reviewer called Tom Hanks a “charming, folksy Dad type” in this film – he’s hardly believable as the type of person who’s running one of the most important tech companies in the world. Are we really supposed to believe that he’s the tech genius who is behind a sinister plan to shape the future of privacy, ethics and personal freedom?

That leaves it up to Emma Watson to make this movie work. She is the engine that keeps the movie moving, even when dialogue that seems a bit too scripted bogs it down at times. She is eager and wholesome at just the right time, and perfectly embodies the kind of energy and naïveté that you might expect from a recent college graduate embarking on a career at a company like Facebook, Twitter or Google. And so this film is really about her character “waking up” to the reality of the evil tech company, known as The Circle.

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Emma Watson makes us challenge the role of future technologies

The basic plot is one that’s immediately recognizable to anyone who’s seen an episode of “Black Mirror” on Netflix. That is to say, technology that might once have seemed capable of changing the world is now changing humanity in ways that can be dark and sinister. Think of hidden surveillance cameras all over the world, which are taking stock of your every action, and people in your social network judging you on a real-time basis. You, too, would want to present a perfect façade to the world, to hide your deficiencies and avoid a negative judgment.

The person who becomes our point of entry into this world is, of course, Emma Watson. She engages in an experiment at her company – The Circle – that could impact the future of her friends and family. Emma Watson senses that something strange might be happening at the company, and she’s the key to unlocking the message at the heart of the movie: Be very wary of what Silicon Valley is promising you. (And, whatever you do, always check your Facebook privacy settings!)

To make the Silicon Valley morality tale complete, all the action takes place in a glass, doughnut-shaped building that bears an uncanny resemblance to the new Apple headquarters being built in California. This is the future – but it is definitely the near future.

Growing up with Emma Watson

Let’s face it – many of us grew up with Emma Watson in “Harry Potter.” Now she’s growing up, and we’re growing up with her. So it’s only natural that one of her first new films after “Beauty and the Beast” (where Emma was amazing, by the way!) would be one featuring a key moment in the transition from adolescence to adulthood – the “first real job.” In the case of her character Mae Holland, it’s the dream job of working at the world’s foremost social media company. For her, working at The Circle is what one of us would feel if we landed a job at Facebook or Google.

And we see how Emma Watson makes sense of this workplace around her. The drama unfolds around The Circle events, The Circle housing and The Circle healthcare. Everything is The Circle. We’re eager to see if Emma Watson can pull it off, much as we wondered if Tom Cruise could pull it off when he worked at The Firm.

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The perfect embodiment of a young 20-something at work and play

The director of the film, James Ponsoldt, is also the creative force behind the teen coming-of-age story “The Spectacular Now,” so it’s no surprise that he’s so effortlessly able to convey the sense of what it’s like to maintain a precarious balance between the worlds of adulthood and adolescence.

In this case, the two worlds also include are the physical and digital worlds. Mae Holland is most at home in the physical realm – where her ex-boyfriend leads a non-digital life and her parents are good, down-to-earth people who don’t “get” the whole concept of the Internet and social networking.

That’s why Emma Watson is so able to help us live vicariously in the world of young adolescence. What adult reviewers of the film may not get is the strange nature of purely digital relationships, where it’s possible to date someone and break up with someone, entirely by text message.

Emma Watson brings this story to life

Part of the difficulty of telling any tale of technology is the fact that so much of the story is hard to show on a big screen. How do you show what’s on a computer screen, or the contents of an email, or the contents of a text message? That’s why it’s so important that Emma Watson be able to convey such a rich and dynamic range of expression in her role as Mae Holland. We see her in the workplace, and it’s her reaction to what’s happening on the computer screen that’s critical for grasping what’s happening in the film. Her facial expressions are priceless.

Ultimately, it’s possible to love Emma Watson in this role and not love the film. The film only has a score of 5.4/10.0 on IMDb, and a score of 43% on Metacritic, so this is not going to be a huge critical hit. Without Emma Watson, though, this film would have bombed.

And remember – the film was made with a budget of “only” $18 million. The focus was not on making a huge blockbuster hit (even if Tom Hanks does have a huge role in the film) – it was presenting a cautionary tale of technology and of technological hubris. As part of that story, Emma Watson is simply outstanding. She’s the key to unlocking the message of the film, and she shines in every scene in which she appears.

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VR Deserves All the Attention It Can Get From Entrepreneurs and Startups

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Virtual Reality is no more the hobbyists’ garage adventure it used to be; major technology and entertainment players like Facebook, Samsung, Google, Sony, and many others are betting big on the new technology. They have already poured massive amounts of money into it, and each of them envisions different future applications for VR. They all agree that VR is where the future battles for consumers will be fought, so what does this mean for other players in the market?

An Explosion Waiting to Happen

A typical lifecycle for every new technology is comprised of 4 phases – ideation, early adoption, maturity, and obsolescence. Ideation is the riskiest phase for businesses. The idea is untested and it is not even clear whether the theory will translate into an implementable form. If the idea works out, the rewards are immense! Then comes the early adoption phase: during this phase, there is enough proof that the technology is fully implementable. Perhaps, there are multiple prototypes of the technology too, but its commercial success is still unknown. This is the phase where entrepreneurs and startups with high risk appetite enter: they are instrumental in making new technology mainstream and will reap all the rewards of an early mover. Right now, Virtual Reality is in this phase.

VR is currently a tested product, yet there are still a lot of unknowns. We still don’t know how to make the VR experience as intuitive as, say, a touchscreen. Naturally, there isn’t much content created for VR; however, this is also the perfect time for businesses to develop a VR strategy so that they can ride on the huge VR wave on the horizon. Pokémon Go has already showed us what Augmented Reality can do for us, if implemented correctly. VR does not have any dearth of applications either — from gaming to education to adult entertainment and more, there is a whole world of opportunities for VR technologies. As touchscreens revolutionized the smartphone industry, an intuitive VR experience can give it the necessary push for wider consumer adoption. Considering the massive support this technology has in the industry, it is bound to happen sooner than later. This has serious implications for small time players.

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Education

Humans are imaginative organisms; everything we think, we do it in images. However, our instruments of education – black boards, projector screens, computer screens, etc. – impart knowledge through 2D models. Not all students have the same mental faculties required to interpret 2D images and form 3D mental images. This makes for a disastrous limitation in learning for students of all ages. VR seeks to change all of this. VR technology will revolutionize the learning experience for the next generation of students; it will be richer and more effective in delivering knowledge to students in a way that is more readily absorbed by the young minds.

The good thing about this industry is that there is an immediate demand for this technology. Universities, colleges, and schools are competing to differentiate their programs from their competitors, and VR enabled classroom technology will help them make the next big leap. Interested businesses can easily gauge the demand for such products by talking to institutions in their markets, and then embark on developing education oriented VR technologies for them. That’s a highly profitable and relatively low risk option.

Social Applications

Let’s face it: video games have been eating up family time. Players are spending less and less time socializing with their family and friends, and spending more of their time playing games. But VR takes it even further. Frankly, VR is probably the single most isolating experience humans have come up with so far; however, it also has the potential to be a powerful socializing experience. Thanks to VR, we will soon be able to play video games, watch movies, and have face to face conversations with each other without being physically present at a place. Imagine this. You don’t have to suffer through the traffic to gather at your friend’s house to enjoy a game together. Similarly, you can play multiplayer videogames with your friends who are located in a different part of the world. You can enjoy live concerts, boxing matches, and other events with your friends using VR technology, without even sharing the room with them.

The social aspect of VR will be one of the next big applications of VR. In a world dominated by a very few social giants like Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp, any business that offers VR enabled social media platform can easily become a giant in itself.

These two VR applications come with enormous potential for rewards and a lower risk factor. For businesses looking to diversify or for startups looking for a promising revenue source, now is the time to invest in VR solutions.

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What to Expect From Netflix’s “Casting JonBenét”

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It’s been more than 20 years since the tragic, unsolved murder case of six-year-old beauty pageant competitor JonBenét Ramsey, but it’s clear that the case still resonates in the minds of many Americans as one of the most scandalous and sensationalistic murder cases in recent memory. As a result, filmmaker Kitty Green’s new documentary – Netflix’s “Casting JonBenét” – could provide new insights about this crime and a public venue to reflect back on the murder’s tragic legacy.

The documentary that’s not really a documentary

To call the new Netflix film a “documentary” is perhaps misstating what the film really is. It’s more of a “faux biopic” told through the eyes of nearly two dozen actors and actresses auditioning for roles in a fictional film that’s not really being made. What’s interesting – and also a bit disconcerting – is that the voice of the documentary filmmaker (Kitty Green) is never actually heard in the film. We don’t hear the questions that she is asking off-camera, and there’s no narrative voiceover telling is what’s happening, or summing up all the facts of the case in a way that makes the story easier to follow. The story unfolds in front of our eyes, and we’re not sure whom to trust.

But that was done intentionally. Several other documentary films have employed this approach, with varying results. The feeling one gets from watching this documentary on Netflix is that the true facts of the case may never be known. One actress after another discourses on the meaning of the case for them, and what they think of the Ramsey family. Some are clearly sympathetic to the father and mother (John and Patsy), while others clearly suspect them of having murdered their child. At times, the two views are presented one after another, leaving you guessing as to how the documentary filmmaker actually feels about the subject.

Sensationalism and exploitation

It’s hard not to expect Netflix’s “Casting JonBenét” to delve into the lurid details of the death of the young beauty pageant contestant or to add another sensationalistic layer to a case that captivated nearly everyone in America at one time in the late 1990s. The stated goal of the film is to explore the tragedy and its aftershocks in Boulder, Colorado, but it’s clear that a hidden goal of the film is to re-open the Pandora’s Box of media sensationalism. After nearly 20 years, we’re pulled back into the world of gossip, media sensationalism, and exploitation.

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Unreliable narrators and bizarre conspiracies

Part of what made the JonBenét Ramsey murder case so compelling to follow at the time was the proliferation of so many theories about what actually happened. Some are convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was the father. Some are certain that it was the mother. Some are certain that it was the father and mother, acting together. And others believe it was one or more children – including, perhaps, JonBenét Ramsey’s own 9-year-old brother – who might have dealt the final, lethal blow.

And, as if to illustrate that fact, the documentary has child actors perform a bizarre task – trying to smash a melon with a flashlight while dressed in a raincoat. A few children are actually able to summon the strength to shatter the melon, thus leading to potential speculation that one of the kids might have killed JonBenét in a similar way.

The film becomes engrossing and impossible to turn away from when the actors and actresses auditioning for the roles start espousing some conspiracy theories of what happened. Some appear to be deeply obsessive, having studied every fact of the case in preparation for these roles. Others are more detached, but just as quirky. For example, there’s the actress who talks at length as to why she’s wearing a strand of pearls (for her, this was part of the iconic image of Patsy Ramsey, not her red dress).

The search for a bigger idea

Implied, but never stated outright, is that this film is about something bigger. It could be a broader rumination on the role of the media, the increasingly early sexualization of young girls, or the culture of violence in the United States. In the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, all three of these ideas collided with maximum impact.

But, yet, there’s something about the documentary that doesn’t quite ring true. At some point, we suspect that the big idea is that there is no big idea: This was a case of senseless violence, in which there were only victims. As if to reinforce that idea, many of the actors and actresses also ruminate on topics like depression, abuse and family life. It’s at that point that the “fake biopic” begins to feel almost like a confessional. Here we have adult actresses looking back at their own personal lives, for any clue whatsoever to this murder case.

Certainly, the idea of using real actors as fictional actors to tell the story helps to reinforce the fact that this was a non-linear narrative from the very beginning. It’s impossible to trace the story of the murder and expect that a trail would lead from A to B to C. Instead, the media inserted itself into the narrative, turning the face of a six-year-old child into a symbol of mid-1990s America.

Plenty of question, but no answers

If you watch the entire 80-minute documentary, you probably are wondering what the filmmaker herself thinks of this murder mystery. One clue is her use of moody lighting that at times almost seems sinister. It’s almost as if she is using the lighting and soundstage to give subtle clues about how she feels about the case.

But – as noted above – there’s no final recap, and no final explanation. Instead, there’s a scene where the actors and actresses auditioning for roles begin to act out the events leading up to the murder.

Even if you never followed this 1996 murder case on TV, this is compelling filmmaking. Kitty Green’s film is a reminder that the neat, storybook endings found on TV bear no resemblance at all to real life, which is messy, clumsy and full of different interpretations. These events, when re-examined 20 years later, bring no additional clarity. All we’re left with is the haunting beauty of a child and the macabre legacy of a brutal murder.

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