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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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: “The Mute Immortals Speak,” by Suzanne Stetkevych

What do we know about the Arabs to whom Muhammad was speaking? In truth, not much. Though we have some archeological findings and external testimonies, the transmission of their oral culture was interrupted and overwritten by the transmission of the Quran, the way of Islam, and the Arab conquests. Only a few cultural favorites survived long enough to be preserved as the Arab culture morphed into a literate one, and of these it was primarily the poems that survived. So if I want to know anything about the outlook of Muhammad’s audience, I know I’m going to have to get into their poetry.

First it must be said: I have no talent for poetry. I love language, yet to me poetry looks like the art of writing potent, incomplete thoughts. I’m very basic, just wanting a fun meter and rhyming scheme, and thus have never graduated beyond Shel Silversteen. So what is the likelihood that I’m going to understand the high poetry of another culture, another land, another century? Pht! Arabic classical poetry is full of place and people names, culture references, and trope imagery that I’ve had no exposure to. I know what a hyena is, but do I know what the Arabs of the 600’s thought a hyena was? So I needed a book to guide me and teach me some keys for interpretation. I chose The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual by Suzanne Stetkevych.

My review in short: very compelling analysis and insight into the pre-Islamic culture and the post-Islamic memory of it. The book is highly academic and you’ll have to be familiar with lots of specialists and their jargon (or else have to keep Wikipedia open) in order to understand it. Also, you should understand at least the basic logic of the tri-consonantal roots system in order to engage with her analysis of the Arabic, though the more Arabic you know, the better you’ll be able to follow the book’s analysis.

Continue reading “Book Review: “The Mute Immortals Speak,” by Suzanne Stetkevych”

Born (Again?) Christian

I was born a Christian. “Impossible” say most Protestants, “no one can be born a Christian, but you have to be born again.” Christianity, after all, is a faith of Knowledge and Ideas. It’s a set of beliefs you must opt, that you must “confess,” which then manifests in a distinct way of life. Or at least, that’s the popular self-conception. Yet still, when I look at my life I really can only draw the conclusion that I was born a Christian. More specifically, I was born into the community of white evangelical protestant Christians, which is a very distinct culture. It is one riddled with paradoxical ideas, suppressed anxiety, good intentions, and mixed results.

I’ve thought about explaining my spiritual background to you, my readers, because it is integral to my view of the world and is very relevant to contextualize my interests and reactions to the Quran in my Quran project. But with each attempt to lay such out, I have always gotten hung up on needing to explain the context for my context. So here is my attempt to lay a foundation for a later personal self-exploration. Grant me a little grace and patience as I try to introduce you, briefly, to the paradox of being born into a confessional faith.

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Book Review: “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani

Every time I go to the second-hand book store, I always go to the history section and look to see what books on Arab history they have available. As I’ve said before, good histories of the Arab world and Islam tend to fall into an academic niche with academic price tags, so I always hope to find a discounted copy. That’s been very rare…actually basically null. What I usually find are modern East-vs-West think pieces, in which I’m not interested. The one book that is always available, however, is Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, and it was one of the first books that I bought when I started learning Arabic.

My review in short: A great book for newcomers to this culture and history, but only if they plan to continue on.

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Recommended: Ask a Mortician

With Halloween today, I decided to take the liberty and promote the content of someone else whose field of expertise is very relevant to the hallowed theme of this eve: death.

Death is something that our culture has sensationalized and stigmatized. In both these extremes, we have little sense of the pragmatic realities of our bodies after we die. Caitlyn Doughty’s campaign of corpse education asks people to grasp the truth that corpses are humans too, and to reflect on how our thoughts and feelings about corpses reflect that which we recognize and wish to forget about our humanity.

So that’s my recommend, but if you want more today, I have a little spooky story too…

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Modest Mystique

“What I looked for in a wife,” as told by a grown man to a group of young teenage girls. There is something rather wince worthy about having older men tell young girls what qualities they should adopt to be attractive in his eyes, but I’m afraid as a young Christian teenage girl, one is rather inundated with such speeches. And while some points about maintaining one’s female attractiveness are rather self-serving for men to preach, I will defend that four out of every five points are usually universal human values. Good work ethic, a habit of self-care, cleanliness, empathy for other people –qualities that are universally good whether applied to a man or woman. And in some sense it’s a practical strategy to try and harness a teenage girl’s excitement for romance to motivate them towards thoughtful self-improvement. Surely there are better ways of doing that than having a grown man teach it to them, but it’s what happens.

There was one man whose version of this lecture I heard many times. I didn’t mind it so much from him, because of his list of ten things, nine were of that general good character type. But then, at the very end, was his last point: that she must be mysterious.

Mysterious? Since when was mystery a virtue?

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Sacred Scripture is Not a Genre

“Well, the Bible has that too,” is a common response people have when you try and discuss the question of weird passages in the Quran. It is a pretty solid way to shut down the conversation. This is not because it is necessarily a good point of contention, but because it reveals a wide chasm of understanding that must be bridged before the conversation can be resumed. It reveals a lack of knowledge of the individual nature of religious documents and an assumption that “Sacred Scripture” is a genre in which you can find the same general similarity of content, form, style, and intent.

Genre a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.

“genre,” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 13 September 2019.

Sacred scripture is an incredibly diverse category. If I was to submit a definition for “scripture,” it would be “any writings set apart and given authority by a group of people to determine their culture.” The nature of the writings can have a lot of variety, and furthermore there is even more variety in how its adherents set about interpreting and implementing it. I wish I could tell you something about all the Sacred Scriptures out there, but my experience as of writing this is only with the Bible, two-thirds of the Quran, and a smidge of Book of Mormon. But material in the Christian Bible alone is diverse enough to examine the variety I’m describing. So let’s take a look at the Bible: what genres does it contain? What materials does it use? What attitudes do its adherents hold about those materials? And why does this matter when comparing religious documents?

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The Prophet’s Song

Just this past week my husband introduced me to “The Prophet’s Song” by Brian May of Queen.

…And now I’m a little obsessed with it.

It so happens that the next surah I’ll be reviewing in my Quran series is called “The Prophets.” As I’m digesting and organizing my thoughts on that surah, this song resonated deep with my experience reading the Quran. The music and lyric content are so on point with the tone and themes, it’s just blowing my mind right now.

Look at those lyrics! Phrases like “cold night will fall…summoned by your own hand,” “these kings of beasts,” “married his own, his precious gain…and death all around will be your dowry,” “hopes of the young in troubled graves,” “So grey is the face of every mortal,” scream loud to me. The prophet condemns the world for having lost its grasp of love and charity in its love for material things. There is a call to purge in order to reap a fortune of peace. The rejectors who rely on their treasure are guaranteed destruction and a destination in hell.

And yet, while this song fits the Quran to a T, it clearly is derived from Genesis imagery. Then again, its vision of prophethood doesn’t derive from Genesis at all. This song comes from an understanding of apocalyptic prophethood, and it is very interesting to pause for a moment and recognize how ingeniously Brian May writes his own apocalypse in much the same way as biblical prophets. Continue reading “The Prophet’s Song”