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Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination | thenerdsofcolor
"There should be word for the exhilaration of a half-success coupled with the glowing disappointment of the half-failure, that two-sided coin. People who don’t speak German would say that there must be a long-ass German word for it. There isn’t, but German has the virtue of allowing someone to make a half-assed attempt at coining it. Ehrgeitzversagensschoene? I mention this, because this is one of the primary failures of the show: it attaches itself to Americans’ perceptions of how things are in other idioms, as much as, or more than, it attaches to how things actually are.

To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes, and of life in non-American western countries is suffused with tourist-board clichés. The protagonist in Nairobi is a poor man whose mother has AIDS and whose life is ruled by gangs; in Mumbai we have a woman in a STEM career marrying a man she doesn’t love and engaging in Bollywood dance numbers; in Korea we have a patriarchally oppressed wealthy corporate woman who also happens to be a kickass martial artist; in Mexico City we follow a telenovela actor. London and Reykjavik are filmed using tourist locations and anonymous interiors.

Worse, the filmic clichés of each country are brought to bear on the production in each location — each organized by a different director: Nairobi is sweaty, garish, earth-toned, radiantly shabby; Mumbai is multicolored, and Hindu iconned, full of the jewelry, silks, flowers, and jubilant crowds that burst out of classic Bollywood; Seoul is clean to the point of sterility, with little patches of grass and mirrors and windows everywhere, a grey, hi-tech aesthetic; Mexico City is jewel-toned, rife with skulls, full of melodrama deliberately reminiscent of the telenovela; etc. I believe, quite literally, that the filmmakers primarily learned about these other cultures through their films, and considered that enough.

And finally, the pop-cultural elements of the show are all American. There’s no evidence of local or national culture influencing how the non-American characters view themselves or live their lives. The Kenyan sensate idolizes Jean-Claude Van Damme (who is, granted, not American, but known for his role in American action films). The German sensate claims Conan the Barbarian quotes as his personal philosophy. The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem “What’s Goin’ On?” and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag. Where there’s no American cultural lead — in Korea and Mexico, and even in the Ganesh-worshipping Indian sensate’s life — the characters’ life philosophies are a blank.

The Wachowskis take advantage of the apparent international ascendancy of American pop culture to unify disparate cultures, when the way American pop works on non-western cultures is often counterintuitive to Western minds. Sense8 also displays a profound lack of recognition of local pop cultures even when they would definitely have influenced such characters. In the show, American pop is specific, non American pop is generalized and clichéd, as in the Bollywood dance, or entirely absent.

The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views. It’s like Stephen Colbert’s idea of freedom of religion:

“I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be you Hindu, Jew, or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”

If the entire show were an even spread of such thin notions, I could dismiss the show, or even enjoy it as as a guilty or problematic pleasure. But Sense8 has two great counter virtues.

The first is in the depiction of the San Francisco sensate, which is the best representation both of the city and of that particular community that I’ve ever seen on TV. Nomi, a trans woman, is first seen wandering through a very locally-informed San Francisco cityscape during Pride weekend. At every level, the limning of Nomi’s character and the study of San Francisco are intimate, layered, nuanced, and above all, specific. Nomi doesn’t fall off a bike somewhere in San Francisco, she falls off a motorcycle in the Castro during the Dykes on Bikes parade, which she rides in every year with her girlfriend, a gesture of extreme importance to her identity. She doesn’t meet-cute her girlfriend in a random park; she remembers a key moment early in their relationship where her girlfriend stands up for her against a hostile TERF during a picnic in Dolores Park.

It’s the specificity that rings true to this San Franciscan, and that signals to all viewers that this world is real, and the character is alive within it.

It’s a vision of how the entire show could have been, if the Wachowskis could have figured out in time how to bring this level of intimacy and specificity to their depiction of all the characters, and all the cities. Because Tom Tykwer, himself a Berliner, directs the Berlin sequences, you see a little bit of this familiarity in the locations chosen for that city and in the character of Wolfgang — his East German origins, his family’s Slavic name and orthodox religion, etc.

But none of the other sensates, including the idealistic Chicago cop, bear anything close to the level of intimate knowledge or specific detail that Nomi or Wolfgang have. In fact, pay attention and you’ll see how generalizing the locations and incidents are. For example: in Nairobi, the sensate’s bus is robbed in what the characters themselves call “a bad area,” i.e. they don’t refer to the district by its name.



But even this failure in the rest of Sense8’s world is countered somewhat by its second great virtue, which is that it commits totally to its clichés and rides them out to their conclusions. Thank the slow pacing for this. The entire 12-episode first season covers a story arc that would generally be covered in the first two episodes of any other show (the sensates are introduced, discover each other, start to learn the rules of their condition, meet their antagonist, and finally successfully pull off their first combined action). The very deliberation with which the story unfolds forces the writers to unpack details of each character’s life and situations that bring a kind of life and reality to the clichés they’re embedded in. Details are forced into the narrative — one by one in each character’s arc — and each character eventually becomes rooted in these details, even though they often come late in the season.



In a discussion before I wrote this piece, I disagreed with a friend about the handling of language in the show. I really appreciated the choice of having all characters speak English without forcing them all to speak English in cheap versions of their “native” accents. And, given that this was an American TV show, I didn’t expect the makers to force American audiences to read subtitles. My friend, however, pointed out that it would have been… well, less hegemonic for everyone to be actually speaking their own languages.

Upon reflection, I have to agree that having the dialogue in non-English speaking countries translated would have offered the translators an opportunity for input about the content of the dialogue. And if the Wachowskis had hired writers from each culture to translate not merely the text but also the entire culture and idiom — up to and including changing plot points and points of view to better fit with the local culture of that character — this could have solved their whole problem.

Whether or not you believe in the universality of human experience — whether or not you believe in a single global imagination — the only way to attempt to depict a true global imagination would be to create — in the writers room and on the directors’ chairs — a facsimile of a sensate cluster. Just imagine it: eight equal auteurs, each in their own physical location and cultural context, striving together — and frequently pulling apart — to achieve a single, complex story on film. Even the failure of such an enterprise would have been far more ambitious, far more glorious, far more Ehrgeizversagensschoen, than the Sense8 we actually got.

And if it had succeeded?

There are four more seasons to go on this show — if the Wachowskis get their way. Let’s hope that in the future their globalism is more than just an aesthetic decision.

Bottom line: yes, watch it. Binge it. Its failure is far more interesting than the success of almost anything else happening at this moment. And it’s truly one of the most diverse shows on TV right now."
sense8  tv  television  wachowskis  universality  language  culture  global  2015  clairelight  stereotypes  universing  translation  humans  human  humanexperience 
june 2015 by robertogreco

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