Other Layers of “Glass Onion”

I was so delighted with Rian Johnson’s film “Knives Out” that I bought myself a physical copy, lest I be enslaved to a streaming service to have ready access to it. Ah the sad irony… Anyhow. It is now one of my cinematic comfort foods. The film is just so tight, with impeccable setups and payoffs, emotional swings, and humor that I enjoy every re-watch with equal thrill.

Part of what makes “Knives Out” so rewatchable is the social dimensions Rian Johnson built into his characters. The plot is not allegorical, but the way he wrote the characters certainly contains allegory. That the protagonist is a “dreamer,” a child of an undocumented immigrant, has practical implications to how we view the family and the family’s treatment of her. It emphasizes their unconditional entitlement to not just the wealth of the murder victim, but to having power over her (even though the only person with legitimate authority is her employer, the murder victim). They want her around only if she’s useful to them, but assume her rights are conditional to their own self interest. It just makes every interaction more interesting as you map it onto real life attitudes about immigrants.

When I watched “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” in theaters, I tried to temper my expectations in order to just enjoy it. I went in for a ride and came out of it very happy. Yet still, I also felt a little sad at what felt like a more shallow level of meaning in the script. And you know, for a movie titled “Glass Onion”…fair enough. But thankfully I also watched the movie with friends, and as we talked about things that stood out to us and parsed some choices the movie made, a few ingredients lingered in my mind that settled together. And when I rewatched “Glass Onion” on its Netflix release I was gratified to find a new layer of depth to the script that made it yet again a little richer than your average cozy murder.

(Spoilers. In fact, if you haven’t seen the movie this post will make no sense.)

When I search online for reactions to “Glass Onion,” the results that come up all tend to fixate on gazillionaire Miles Bron. I think this is a sign of our very current times. What with the recent failures of Musk and Sam Bankman-Freed, watching an “eccentric,” arrogant, flashy money-lord humiliate himself scratches the same schadenfreude of our recent news cycles. With that context, it’s no wonder that the immediate response is numerous think pieces on how Miles is the movie’s glass onion. He’s an idiot whose layers of confidence and context would trick you into thinking he’s brilliant. He gets to flash wealth and let people postulate what he did to deserve it. He gets to say inane things like, “I want to be remembered in the same breath as the Mona Lisa,” and watch others fill the meaning in for him.

But speaking of the Mona Lisa.

If there is an opposing symbol in this movie to the glass onion, it is the Mona Lisa. I’ll admit I’m not all that romantic about the Mona Lisa, but in the terms of the movie it is a symbol of fame, complexity, and innovation. Miles covets it for all these attributes with a reverence so distorted that he sees the painting not as an “it” but a “she.” This builds real irony into the film because while the glass onion of the movie is Miles Bron, the Mona Lisa of the movie is very explicitly Ms. Brand.

And this is what’s interesting to me about responses to the film. I’ve been seeing lots of ideas and ahas about who Miles and the other “Disruptors” represent in our surrounding culture, but as yet nothing about the Ms. Brands. And that’s odd, because the story is Ms. Brand’s, not Miles’s. What we should be asking is who are the Ms. Brands, Andi and Helen?

Cassandra “Andi” Brand is perhaps one of the weaker points of “Glass Onion.” She’s dead before the film even starts, so that isn’t a particular indictment of the writing. Andi is said to be brilliant, but that trait is a little undermined by the fact that she surrounded herself with a community of, erhem, shitheads. Also, she let herself get scammed out of ownership in her own company. Not clear how she let that happen. Perhaps from that we can read some weaknesses of her other defining trait, ambition. She knew how to aim up, but did not know how to read the character of her peers or the system she was entering. Indeed, that was the actual power that Miles brought to the team. Miles knew how to read character and systems –and thus how to manipulate them for his own glorification. Andi brought them together and came up with the ideas, Miles marketed them with his bluster and connections into success. Still, Andi was innovative and her ambition was tempered by honesty and responsibility. And she’s always posed like the Mona Lisa.

Helen Brand, however, is Miles’ match, though she is not ambitious or brilliant in the capitalist sense of the word. Helen could tell up front that Andi had gone in with “shitheads,” and warned her twin against them. She cuts through the fatuous lie that the Disruptors are kindred souls hanging out together and reads that they’re just mooches held hostage to a rich man’s ego. She can tell right away that Miles is her sister’s murderer until dissuaded by Blanc. She can look at the Mona Lisa and appreciate the art while still calling it an “it.” Helen also can also read the system, and she can see when it is rigged and unfair. When she sees the puzzle box, she has no group chat, no meddling mother, no guest appearances from Yo-Yo Ma to carry her through it. She knows she can’t solve it… and so she smashes it. She sees in Miles a man with too much money and reputation to be brought to justice… and so she smashes him.

So that is who the Ms. Brands are, but what are they?

As my friend noticed, Cassandra Brand sounds a lot like… Sandra Bland.

I think it’s pretty clear that just as Marta in “Knives Out” served to act out the power dynamics of immigrants in white American society, the Ms. Brands are in this movie acting out the dynamic of Black Lives Matter. I mean, the film is set in 2020, even though Johnson does away the facemasks and COVID plays no indispensable part in the story. What else happened in 2020? The renaissance of Black Lives Matter. It’s not that Andi is a direct stand in for Sandra Bland, or that the plot is an allegory for white supremacy, but it is that they are women who are done grave injury and denied justice. Perhaps the most face-palming reaction to the climax of Glass Onion I’ve read is one that says it is only after The Disruptors realize that Miles didn’t care about them that they turn on him. That’s stupid. At no point in the movie do we believe that The Disruptors care about Miles or believe that he cares about them. In fact, they all know that he’s going to ruin them eventually, but cannot bring themselves to cut off his immediate benefits that they depend upon. Indeed, they cannot destroy him without destroying themselves. Helen knows this, she correctly reads that they would like to give her justice but cannot because of what it would cost them, so she makes it even more costly to stick with him. This is the conundrum that Black Lives Matter is a response to. A history of injustice both inside and outside of the law has benefited American society to the harm of its black constituents, but the cost of restitution prevents anyone from changing the status quo. BLM sets to make the cost of keeping the status quo as expensive as the cost of fixing it. That involves a lot of smashing and disruption.

One of the most satisfying elements of the rewatch was Miles’s monologue on disruption. Knowing how the movie is going to end, you realize that his speech is a blow-by-blow script for Helen’s final actions. It is in this way that the movie lives up to its “fugue” motif. Sure, once you know the plot twist of Helen’s real identity and purpose you can rewatch the scenes with a little more “aha!” But I think the rewatch value there is limited. Instead the transformation is in how you see The Disruptors in contrast to Helen. They all perceive themselves as bucking norms and being dangerous in some kind of sexy way, but they all stop at the glory phase and don’t dare challenge anything that hurts themselves. But Helen goes beyond and crashes the system of Miles’ power and influence even though that act is just as detrimental to herself. Helen’s last Mona Lisa moment is her staring down the incoming police lights –lights that are coming for her just as much as they are for Miles Bron.

But back to this Mona Lisa thing. Andi and Helen Brand are both visually paired with the Mona Lisa. But what is the Mona Lisa? I love that as Helen rushes forward to push the switch that Miles installed to disable the safety case, Rian Johnson pipes in the Nat King Cole song “Mona Lisa.” As the flames sear through the canvas, the song croons the questions, “Are you warm? Are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?” In those questions we can contrast THE Mona Lisa with Andi and Helen, who are each A Mona Lisa. Miles Bron wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as the Mona Lisa. Everyone thought this was symbolic, but being Miles it turns out that he was being painfully literal. His wish had been symbolically answered when he partnered up with Cassandra Bland. She was innovation, success, and fame. She was also real, warm, and true. Yet he vandalized and destroyed her so that he could step closer to association with a cold piece of art for its symbolic value of all the things Andi embodied. And we the audience, watching a murder mystery, are likely just as guilty as Miles at finding the BBQing of the Mona Lisa more shocking than his murders. So it is that Helen’s final act of destruction asks us to re-examine our priorities. What matters more: the thing or the person?

Post Script

Perhaps my only real disappointment with Glass Onion was that it didn’t have a post-credit joke. I know, I know, that’s really blase these days, but I just wanted a little clip showing us that Bron’s anti-COVID sterilizer gun was just as much crock as his other ideas. A shot of Blanc or the other disruptors testing positive would’ve been a funny last reveal.

Just Waiting

Within the past year, one of my husband’s co-workers came up to him jocularly and held up five fingers. Ticking off each finger, he took inventory of my husband’s status. “Well my boy, you’ve got a job, you’ve got a wife, you’ve got a house, you’ve got a dog…” With a loaded silence and stare he then tapped the remaining finger. Well, he can now tap that finger off too, for I am pregnant. At this point, I am very pregnant, with a due date around Easter. The situation is a simultaneous surprise and long-anticipated event. Indeed, it is a surprise precisely because it has been long-anticipated.

I have always been one to shy away from rigid, long-term commitments in expectation of this change. I grew up in the gravitational well of American evangelical fundamentalism and have been told what to expect. But I don’t agree with all I was told, and I don’t know what to expect. As I try to get some vision on what my future might look like, I have to also wrestle with my patterns of hesitancy and acquiescence, and my disagreements with some contexts of my upbringing that will soon have to be proven through application.

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Surah 45: The Kneeling

Surah 45, Al-Jaathiyah, “The Kneeling,” doesn’t have much by way of distict attributes. The word for “kneeling” is unique here, thus its use for a title, but a related word appears twice in Surah 19 for the same visual scene of mankind on their knees before judgement. The surah opens with the mysterious letters Haa Miim, and thus gets traditionally dated to be in chronological sequence with the previous four suwar that start with the same letter set…

…And that’s as much comment as my commentaries provided on this surah as a whole. And I, being consumed in this season with home renovations and also a little fatigued with the Quran’s general habit of repetition, couldn’t decide on anything to talk about. So I invited my readers to pick topics for me, and lo! A comment came with a series of three questions, and I’ll so my post today will be answering them. My thanks to my reader “Copperwalls” for the engagement!

It’s a short 37 ayat, take a read…

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Not Dead

I’m sorry to not have posted in a few weeks. As the pandemic has been coming under control in my region, life outside my house is opening up again and my time is diminished by other demands. Plus, I’m still knee-deep in remodeling work inside my home. It’s a case of spending 90% of time time on the last 10% of the work, and not enjoying the work. The paint I’m using on our trim and doors is sticky and dries just a little too fast, which makes it hard to get a smooth texture on the doors I’m painting. For the sake of getting things done, I’m trying not to care too much, but in a way that has shut off other parts of my drive and a lot of my other errands are falling slack too.

And on top of that, I’m just struggling to form any opinion on the next surah in my Quran series. I can’t even really form a bullet-list of items to comment upon. This is due probably to some fatigue on my side but also a facet of the Quran’s repetition. Even my two commentary sets don’t have much to say about Surah 45. Can you help me? Anyone want to read surah 45 and come up with some items you’d like me to research or talk about?

Surah 44: The Smoke

Surah 44, al-Dukhan, “The Smoke,” is a simple and straightforward surah. Usually when I draft my posts I try and find themes that flow together or that are worth examining at great length, but for this week that wasn’t coming together. Instead, I came away with a few items of trivia, though nothing particularly exciting, and some concepts worth noting but with little to explore. This is a problem of coming up to a surah that is…typical. There is nothing distinctive in here, no ideas that stand alone. Everything here adds volume to things already stated elsewhere in the Quran, but no novelty or exploration. I’ll return to that at the end of this post. So instead of rambling upon these points, I decided to present them in a concise list.

And the list won’t make sense unless you start off with a read of the short and straightforward 59 ayat.

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Surah 43: The Golden Ornaments

Does God lead through action, or inaction? How does He direct people? That is a question at the heart of the conflict between the pagans and Muhammad in this surah. The pagans have a way of life that has been formed and tested through survival in the harsh peninsula. They’ve learned their way of life through the lessons and lives of survivors, and worship the gods that they believe have aided in that survival. And of the Arabs, the Quraysh not only survived, but thrived. Isn’t the fact of this success a sign that God approves of them? Wouldn’t a moral God operating a moral world have warned them off bad ideas with bad results, rather than the success they’ve come into? Meanwhile, Muhammad is telling them to abandon these proven traditions. Their success doesn’t mean anything, the Quran insists, and it is not a sign of God’s approval. The Quran’s view is of a God who is active in guiding His people, who sends prophets and scriptures, and does not just let men feel out truth through trial and error. And if you don’t feel God’s punishment Today then that is a mercy, for you’ll get your punishment Tomorrow.

This surah is a little bit longer than the last, but take a read.

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Surah 42: The Consultation

Traditionally, Muslims list suwar 40-46 consecutively in their chronological sequences. These suwar all start with the mystical letters haa-miim, although today’s surah includes three letters beyond that, ╩Ľain-siin-qaaf. However, I don’t feel a distinct continuity between these suwar. There is between suwar 41 and 42 a shift in emphasis and some novelty of perspective that relates better to the later needs of Muhammad’s ministry rather than his strictly Meccan phase. The title of surah 42, AshShuuraa, “The Consultation,” emphasizes a noun in this chapter pulled from a passage wherein the Muslims are being attributed their own ability to mediate justice. The have more self-determination and agency now, reflecting an independent society governing themselves, deferring their rulings to God, capable of achieving retribution, and justified in fighting tyranny. The conversation is no longer localized to its immediate listeners, but has expanded to “The Mother of Cities and those around it,” (Ayah 7). This is indeed a shift from the days in which the oppression they were fighting was merely other people trying to talk louder than Muhammad’s recitations. The Muslims are in transition from a faith community seeking to save itself from a local day of judgement to a centralized polity with a purpose to free the world from lies and oppression.

Take a read, it’s merely 58 ayat.

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Book Review: “Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam” by Robert Hoyland

I don’t know about you, but I often have a hard time looking at new books and getting excited to buy them. I walk through bookstores or libraries and find my enthusiasm smothered by the wealth of catchy titles and artsy covers. All that packaging doesn’t tell me what I want to know about the books. It has stopped meaning anything to me. And then I realized, the books that I find “sexy” now all tend to look like this:

Okay, publishing world, it’s not you, it’s me.

But what a great title! It immediately tells you its content: probably informative rather than narrational, with a scope of material so big that you can expect a lot of generalizations inside. This books sells not because its packaging piques your interest but because it’s immediately recognizable to someone so interested. And that is my case. I’m wanting to get a grip on who the Arabs were before the rise of Islam, and what kind of world and heritage they lived in. I’d already read two books by Robert Hoyland and was impressed with his work, so this book was an easy sell to me. Did it pay off its dry title?

Review in short: A great introductory resource for anyone who wants to understand this generally overlooked part of the ancient world.

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Book Review: “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings

Books on Islam are expensive. In learning any biographical material about Muhammad, one will invariably hear mention of the first-known biography of Muhammad, The Life of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq. Of course, that resource no longer exists in its original form, and what we have comes to us through Ibn Ishaq’s student, Ibn Hisham. If you want an English translation of Ibn Hisham’s The Life of the Prophet, you’ll have to open your wallets and pay… $76! Or pay the expense and time to become fluent in classical Arabic and get the Arabic edition for upwards of $25. And while I would like to do both of those things, I’m also starting from a beginner’s place and partly just need an orientation into the early sources. After all, there’s more than Ibn Ishaq out there.

Any search for information around Muhammad’s biography will bring up results including Muhammad: His Life Based on the Early Sources, by Martin Lings. And hey, it’s affordable! So I bought the ebook early on to orient myself in an Islamic view of Muhammad and…

My bad. Metaphorically, I walked into a restaurant for a culinary lesson. Instead, they served me a sausage and now I’m demanding to know “But how was this sausage made?!”

Review in short: This book is a reassuring resource for the pious, but has no other value.

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