Titanic (1997)

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My only fond memory of Titanic is from a student exchange trip to Russia, when I saw a middle-aged Russian man rocking a Titanic-themed t-shirt plastered with Leonardo DiCaprio’s face.

Back when I was in high school, and this movie was all the rage, and Celine Dion was inescapable, and I was cynical of anything pop culture, I vowed to myself that I would never watch Titanic.  And until now, I’ve been able to keep that promise.

I knew the obvious plot points, of course – the boat sinking, the doomed love story, something about a naked drawing, old lady framing device.  I recognized some other random moments thanks to various parodies or references in other media, such as the Irish jig replicated in Battlestar Galactica or that episode of Futurama, or that other episode of Futurama.  But I finally had to see the whole film to truly appreciate how stupid it is.

You would think that a movie about a massive ship sinking would carry enough drama and gravitas on its own, but no:  this movie also has to add a ridiculous MacGuffin to explain why some guy would be sending submersibles to search the wreckage, and why a little old lady would travel by helicopter to the middle of the ocean to tell her granddaughter and a bunch of strangers about the time she lost her virginity.  What happened to the giant valuable diamond?  Who cares, because its existence and disposal is completely meaningless!

Right around the time a normal movie would be wrapping it up in time for the closing credits, the iceberg finally strikes.  Trivia point:  both in real life and on film, the impact took 37 seconds, which happens also to be the 37 seconds that I stopped paying attention.  I actually liked the way people mostly didn’t really get the severity of the situation for a while; that felt genuine based on every disaster I’ve been witness to.

But what didn’t feel genuine was the way Jack and Rose decide to go traipsing back and forth through flooded sections of the ship, completely impervious to the cold temperatures.  And the absurd gun fight when Billy Zane decides he’d much rather shoot Jack than hop in the lifeboat.  When the stern splits off from the bow and slams back into the ocean, the people on deck suffer little more than a faint shudder, because physics.  While I’m complaining about inanities, I’d also like to point out how stupid it is that a charcoal drawing survived 80 years in a waterlogged safe.

Did cold-hearted Bridget get emotional watching this film?  Okay, I’ll admit that I did – but it was when they showed all the second- and third-class passengers who clearly weren’t going to make it out alive, not when Jack was cheerfully turning himself into an icicle.

At least Rose finally gets to share her story of lost love.  “He exists only in my memory, which is why I like to imagine him looking like Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Thank God I took on this project, because otherwise I never would have experienced the pure face-palming that is Titanic.  And with that, gentle readers, I’m finished!  Next week, I’ll do a summary post or two, along with a ranking (of either the whole list, or maybe only part, depending on how lazy/busy I am.  Thanks for joining me on this journey!

 

Theme:  On a Boat

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  I have a sinking feeling…

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Braveheart (1995)

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Ah, here we have another one of those long-ass historical epics the Oscars folks seem to love so much.  And here’s Mel Gibson, before he went off on his anti-Semitic rants.  At least there were no Jews in medieval Scotland (or were there?!).

There seems to be a formula for this kind of film, the larger-than-life hero biopic.  Find a man (it’s always a man), give him an origin story that drives him (revenge).  Then pair him with a wacky sidekick for comic relief – most likely someone who’s bigger and dumber and less attractive than our hero.  Brush past the boring political drama and go straight to the fights, and don’t skimp on the limb-chopping.  In the end, the hero makes a sacrifice, but it’s all worth it, for the good of his people.  The only thing we were missing here was the training montage, set to bagpipe music.

After the movie, I looked up some background on the film’s reception (okay, I’ll admit it: it was during the movie – honestly, how many times do you need to watch horses get spears thrust through their torsos?).  Apparently, there were a few historical inaccuracies, starting with the fact that kilts were not worn in Scotland until two centuries after the events of the film.  Many of the characters were depicted inaccurately as well, either chronologically (like Princess Isabella, who hopefully would not have coupled with Wallace at two years of age) or geographically.

To be honest, though, the inaccuracies don’t bother me that much, so long as we can all recognize that a movie is designed for a specific purpose – entertainment.  We apparently don’t know much about the life of William Wallace today, but I’m guessing that we would find it pretty boring, or worse, more brutal than heroic.  That’s the thing about heroes:  they’re really more inspiring the less you know about them as humans.

Braveheart is less about the actual political events of Scotland in 1300, and more about the symbolic power of a figure of independence to an audience in the late 20th century.  We like the idea of a group of people fighting for their freedom – as long as it’s a nice, recognizably white and Christian people, people with real principles we can understand.

If I sound at all bitter about this movie, it’s only because I’m irritated that I spent a perfectly good Friday night watching it, when I could have been re-watching Sherlock for the fifth time or darning my socks or something.  I found Braveheart incredibly boring, which is partly due to my own movie preferences.  I don’t like movies that involve a lot of different characters to keep track of, and this movie had more bearded warriors than The Hobbit.

As I gather more Best Picture films under my belt, I’m starting to get a sense of the preferences of each decade.  The nineties definitely seem to be the era of the Serious Epic of a Man Finding Himself.  No, wait, that’s every decade.

Interestingly enough, I watched this movie way back in January (and wrote the rest of this blog), but never had the chance to post it until now.  I remember being burned out early on the massive epics at that point, so it’s nice to see that not every movie was like that.  Just about half of them.

 

Theme:  General

First Time Watching?  Yes (in January)

Final Verdict:  Don’t look under the kilt

Unforgiven (1992)

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Okay, so I’ll admit that I have a pretty small sample size, but if these two movies are any indication, I’ve come up with a definition for a Western film:  it’s a movie in which women are treated like crap and men live out some crazy revenge fantasy.  Hmm…  That probably doesn’t narrow it down enough.  Also, it takes place in the late nineteenth century in what becomes the western U.S.

Maybe it’s just because I, too, am a woman, but I can’t help but watch Unforgiven wondering more than anything what the deal is with all the women in the story, whose stories are mostly untold.  First, we hear tell of two women, never seen on screen – the beautiful young woman who married a terrible man (who hasn’t been there?), and the mother who let her go.  The younger woman’s death is what triggers the action of the movie in some way, though she’s been dead for some time already.

Then there are the brothel women, one of whom is disfigured in an attack by another terrible man.  Instead of harsh punishment, the local sheriff lets him off because he’s a good cowboy – as long as he pays the male owner of the establishment some compensation.  Good thing we don’t have to worry about women getting sexually assaulted without the promise of swift justice these days.  Meanwhile, the disfigured woman (who, let’s be real, has a few scratches on her face but is hardly disfigured) becomes a social pariah, because there’s certainly no man who would want to have sex with her, not in a place where there are hardly any women and even fewer hot showers.  Her fate is to gaze moony-eyed at Clint Eastwood, who’s far too hung up on his dead wife to ever consider sex again.

Inexplicably, Clint Eastwood’s terrible-man-turned-upstanding-farmer-mourning-his-wife’s-death decides to join a bounty hunt for the cowboy who committed this act, despite all his assurances that he’s not a killer anymore.  It’s clear that he’s trying to atone for his previous sins, but less obvious why this is the response that’s going to save his soul, especially when it involves abandoning his kids (and his sick pigs).  Along the way, he brings his buddy, who also abandons his disapproving Indian wife, not that she actually expresses her disapproval in, like, words or anything.  Just another of the womanfolk, and they don’t have much of a place in the wild west.

We’re supposed to see Eastwood as the hero of the story, because he now eschews violence – though if that’s true, why is he on this pleasure cruise?  Spoiler alert:  the body count is pretty high in the movie, and Clint doesn’t hold on to his virtue for long.  Is this what justice is, after all?  You are only as good as you appear in comparison to the guy next to you?

The missing wife doesn’t get a voice – we only see her as the angelic force who mystically transformed Eastwood’s alcoholic criminal into an upstanding citizen.  How or why doesn’t matter (to say nothing of who she was as an individual separate from her husband).  Nor does it matter, really, that the film finds it necessary to explain to us that the departed wife’s mother returns to visit her daughter’s grave, sometime after her grandkids and their murderous father are long gone.  We’re expected to feel sympathy for the woman who’s lost a child, not because she was important herself, but because she married a particular man.

That is the Western story.

 

Theme:  Western

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Not willing to forgive

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Can’t talk right now; there’s a moth perched on my lips. NBD.

I’m not sure what it says about me that among the nearly ninety Best Picture films, this is one of the few that I’ve watched before starting this project.  It probably wouldn’t be a proper explanation to say that I probably did so because I was, at the time, a big fan of Monk, and (stay with me for this) consequently had a habit of tracking down other roles played by the primary actors of shows I enjoyed.  Let me tell you, Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill is extremely different from Captain Stottlemeyer.

As long as you can excuse the glaringly obvious flaw in this movie’s plot that a Nancy Drew-esque academy student would be assigned to work closely with an exceptionally dangerous serial killer to capture another serial killer (what is it with serial killers being the only ones who can capture other serial killers, anyway?  Is there like some special club where they all know each other because they all subscribe to the serial killer newsletter?), it’s an enjoyable film.  Anthony Hopkins is legitimately frightening as a mastermind murderer, and I am happy to report that he reminds me not at all of any psychiatrists I know.

One of the things that puzzles/troubles me is the portrayal of Buffalo Bill as this repressed transsexual desperately seeking transformation.  Like, okay, I imagine that would be a difficult thing to go through, but not necessarily one that drives you to murder women and turn their skin into a majestic cloak and drape your bed in swastika duvets (where, indeed, does one purchase a swastika duvet?  Not that I’m shopping for one, mind you, I just wonder what the market for such a thing is.)

Before I’d seen this movie, I discovered the song “Goodbye Horses” (and since this seems to be the post for awkward personal admissions, I will confess that it was someone’s featured song on MySpace, if you can remember that being a thing).  I listened to it a lot on my first behemoth of an MP3 player, jam-packed with a vast and curious array of music and Harry Potter audiobooks that I played on shuffle.  It’s still a fantastic song.

I’ve gone this whole post and barely even mentioned the true star of the show.  It’s weird how a character so creepily, unfathomably villainous as Hannibal Lector has developed a weird sort of following.  He’s even got a TV show now, and I don’t really know the plot of it, except that I guess it’s similar to Dexter (of which I also know very little).  The final scene, where Hannibal openly plots to murder the head of his prison facility (who, okay, was kind of a douche, but if we murdered all the people who were kind-of douches in our lives, there wouldn’t be much of anyone left), is almost triumphant.

When did we grow so warped that we admire characters in fiction that in reality would horrify us?  Is it some sort of defense mechanism that helps us process the disturbing things about the world without ending up in a quivering mess of hopeless fear?

The true hero here is Clarice, a woman who succeeds in a career dominated by men, and who was initially granted access to this terrible case solely because she was to Lector’s taste – as bait.  Instead of a show called Hannibal, I would much prefer to watch Clarice.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Psychopathy

First Time Watching?  No, actually

Final Verdict:  Nice, with a glass of Chianti

Schindler’s List (1993)

I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the Holocaust in all my years of school, and afterward.  I recall listening to speakers talk about their experiences in concentration camps, old men and women with tiny rows of numbers tattooed into their forearms.  We read Anne Frank.  Years later, I read Maus.  And yet, there’s still so much that I don’t understand, both in how this terrible event came about and why there are still people who subscribe to the Nazi philosophy running around out there today.

In a narrative sense, stories about the Holocaust are difficult to make dramatically interesting.  It’s pretty clear (to most of us, anyway) who the bad guys are, and overall it’s hard to create a complex character out of an SS officer.  On the side of the Jewish victims, there are two real stories – the tale of survival and the tale of not making it through.  Notwithstanding the very significant difference of actual people living or dying, in terms of story, there’s a pretty clear path forward.  Basically, it’s difficult to think critically about how a tragic story like this is told without appearing to criticize the end result.

All that is to say though, that Schindler’s List both falls into the “obvious story” trap and manages to transcend it.  We have our clear villain in Ralph Fiennes character, the gleeful Nazi who has no qualms about shooting Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp.  And of course, our hero Schindler, who privately rescues a group of his factory workers.  Yet, each is complicated by a mitigating factor.  Fiennes’ Amon is in love with a Jewish girl (though not so deeply that he bends over backward to save her from certain death).  Schindler comes off as a little self-serving, though I suppose it’s his maneuvering to employ Jews in his manufacturing plant at a discount rate that affords him the opportunity and money to protect them later.  It’s a complicated problem, doing something so subversive under watchful eyes.

Here we are, in America and Europe today, witnessing evidence of prejudice and discrimination against Jews, and Muslims, and so many other minority groups around the world.  You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now.  Maybe that’s why stories about World War II still fascinate us, because we see it as a big victory – the ultimate victory – for freedom and democracy everywhere.  The Holocaust gets that capital letter not just because it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen in history, but because we like to think that it’s the last time such a thing will ever happen.  Genocide:  that key vocabulary word in World War II units in school.  The only problem is, it’s not the first or last time a large population has been wiped out by a stronger power.  We haven’t figured anything out yet.

I visited Lithuania a few years ago, a place where Jews once thrived.  Now there are few left, though many Americans I’ve met can trace family roots back to Lithuania before the war, before they escaped.  There was a recent article describing the archaeological studies of burial pits outside Vilnius.  I’ve seen that pit, stood along its rim.  It’s covered in grass now, these seventy-plus years later, a quiet place in the woods.  You’d almost never know something so terrible happened there.

 

Theme:  Anti-Semitism

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  The list is life

The English Patient (1996)

It’s really weird how the sand dunes formed the shape of a couple kissing behind my head.

Despite his prestigious career, I know Ralph Fiennes mostly as Lord Voldemort.  And let’s be real:  He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named isn’t the sexiest romantic lead.  This movie is strangely prescient, given that Ralph spends half the film in prosthetics that are not totally dissimilar from the Voldemort snake-face.  That says something about him as an actor, or maybe about me as a viewer.

But where are the ladies? you might be asking.  Yes, my month of ladies is winding up.  But why am I having more difficulty finding solid women leads as I get closer to the present?

In fairness, I do like both of the women characters in this film:  Hana, the war nurse who isn’t very busy tending to a single mysterious patient (that’s Ralphy, post-burnt-to-a-crisp-conveniently-amnesiac); and Katharine, wife of an archaeologist on expedition around Cairo just before World War II breaks out.  The fact that the film fails the test because the two main ladies exist in two separate time frames and so never have a chance to talk to each other shouldn’t discount that they’re interesting people.  Also the fact that their primary existence is as a love interest for a male character.  And the fact that we see naked breasts all over, but somehow the idea of bare man-parts is apparently scandalous.

Instead of the main love story, I actually found more intriguing the burgeoning romance between Hana and Kip, the Sikh minesweeper who camps outside the monastery Hana’s tucked away in.  It wasn’t a romance fraught with drama and jealousy and adultery, which is probably why it didn’t get as much screen time.  There’s a touching moment, after they part, Kip off to defuse a bomb while Hana realizes the horror of caring about another person she’s doomed to lose.

As I’ve probably said here before, I’m a bit of a sucker for a good framing device, and this one worked pretty well – working through the puzzle through snippets of the mysterious unnamed (until he is) man.  Overall, I enjoyed the mystery of this film, in figuring out how it all came to a papery-faced man who had given up all hope in life.  Maybe not so different from ol’ Voldy, after all.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  Nope, unless you count that nurse in the beginning who borrows money from Hana right before her jeep blows up.

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Too many men, just like this house.

 

 

 

Forrest Gump (1994)

 

When I was a kid, I had the Forrest Gump soundtrack, despite never having watched the movie.  I’m not sure how that came about, except maybe that I’d developed an interest in music through the decades and that soundtrack seemed like a suitable way to get a completely random assortment of songs.  It was only on my full viewing of the film – now, for this blog – that I’ve seen how they were used in the film.  Occasionally, songs play an actual noteworthy role in setting mood or atmosphere, but far too often, we just get a few seconds’ splat against the eardrum as if they just crammed a jukebox in the audio track to see if anything sticks.  There’s a lot of random music in this movie.

Though I never knew the exact plot of Forrest Gump, I knew the basic gist of it:  a developmentally disabled man stumbles his way through key historical moments in recent history.  And since the most affecting event of Forrest’s generation was the Vietnam War, the conflict and its aftermath take up a significant proportion of the film.  Since the tone of the movie is light, we’re not really left much time to think about the deaths that occur, or the long-lasting effects of alcoholism and homelessness among veterans, or the trauma of abuse and depression.  So many shitty things happen in this movie, but we just have to shrug it off for the next zany thing Forrest comes up with!

I’m probably just a wet blanket.  But I don’t know, I’m sure most people have seen this film, but I don’t know of anyone who raves about it.  Nobody claims it as their favorite movie of all time, at least nobody I know.  (Maybe I’m wrong – and if so, feel free to share your love and reasons for it.)  But I’m not sure that it’s a story of deep emotional resonance.  I guess what bothered me was that Forrest is not a character who makes things happen – he simply reacts to things in his simple way and is rewarded with incredibly good luck.  All the while, he seems relatively unaffected by anything that comes his way – even, ultimately, his losses.

It is one of those movies that’s had a lasting impact on popular culture, for better or for worse – there’s a Bubba Gump restaurant in Times Square now, isn’t there? And who hasn’t quoted one of those famous lines of pseudo-wisdom?  That’s what this blog project is about, I keep reminding myself – watching the movies that have some kind of social significance, even if it’s in the form of one-liners.

That said, the movie does use a few unusual techniques to make it something more than the average life story: the telling-a-story-on-a-bench framing device (though I wish it had a bit more of a significant payoff, and I thought it would end with a crowd gathering around to hear his story); the naïve narrator, through whose eyes we see things that are familiar with a fresher perspective.  I’m just not sure what it all adds up to.  We’re swept along like a feather on the wind, and drop somewhere for a while until the wind picks up again.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  Vietnam War

First Time Watching?  I’ve seen parts, but never in its entirety

Final Verdict:  That’s all I have to say about that.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

In a way, it’s surprising how rarely Shakespeare turns up in the Oscars lists. Perhaps in his day, though, he would have been considered too lowbrow for such an august awards ceremony, too entranced with swordfights and dick jokes. Whatever the case, I’m glad this film was on my list, since it captures the spirit of Shakespeare really well, what with its women-disguised-as-men and wordplay and noble rivalries.

I hadn’t realized that Tom Stoddard was credited as a writer on the screenplay, which probably explains why it’s so awesome. I really liked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Thank God for Shakespeare fanfiction. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in watching movies throughout Oscar history is how films portray other sorts of entertainment – like how in this age, we look at the early era of Hollywood, and the early era of Hollywood often focused on other forms of theater, pre-movies. So in this film, we see theater from several hundred years ago, and yet it’s remarkably recognizable. Is that because it reflects the way actual theater looked back then, or simply because it mirrors what is most familiar to us today? To be fair, it’s probably a little of both, though I can’t help but notice that we can’t be so different from medieval folk if we all can enjoy watching other people acting out stories.

Just the other day, I watched some behind-the-scenes bit on a Doctor Who episode that focused on Shakespeare (battling a supernatural witch creature rather than falling in love). They were excited about filming in the restored Globe Theater in London because, according to David Tennant, even the Shakespeare in Love people weren’t given permission to film there. Regardless, they managed to replicate the same look of that era’s theater in the sets of the Rose.

On my brief trip to London last summer, I was thrilled that I made time to tour the Globe, a little thatched-roof theater on the South Bank of the Thames. I’d debated watching a performance – I think they were doing King John in honor of the Magna Carta, and if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t even know that was a Shakespeare play. In the end, though, I think getting the guided tour was far preferable to standing on a patch of ground for three hours, or worse, sitting on one of those cramped bleacher seats.

It seems like the kind of film that would only be enriched by knowing more about Shakespeare’s time and the contemporary environment of London. Of course, there’s little we actually do know about his life, only the generalities of theater and politics in that era, from we can extrapolate personality traits or suppositions. I like the idea of a sexy young Shakespeare, filled both with passion and loss.

Some of the moments in the film I liked best were those ones in which we see parts of a play in parallel with scenes from life, with the lines serving both parts in different ways. There’s an acted-out sword fight interrupted by an actual angry nobleman and his guards, brandishing real weapons. Shakespeare visits Viola in her rooms, using his own lines as foreplay. “I’ll come again,” he says, rehearsing lines during sex. It’s complicated and convoluted and difficult to explain as a plot point, just like your average Shakespeare play, which may be why we still find them so compelling today.

 

Theme: Shakespeare

First Time Watching? No, though I apparently slept through most of it the first time.

Final Verdict: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Dances with Wolves (1990)

 

Speaking on behalf of white people, I can say that if there’s anything we white people love, it’s pretending to be just like a non-white person but without any of the inconvenience of actually living their lives. The Oscars seem to be particularly big on the white-person-being-non-white narrative. I’d say that choosing this as my theme this week was random and unrelated to the controversy around this year’s nominations – but to be honest, any two Best Pictures could as easily illustrate the lack of diversity in Oscar history.

As in Lawrence of Arabia, non-white characters – even those with some degree of development – exist primarily as tools for the white man to find some sort of deliverance. Lawrence’s tribal leaders essentially ceased to exist for us once he left the desert. And do we know anything about Wind in His Hair now except that he will always be Dunbar’s friend? No, because he is not Kevin Costner.

I first saw Dances with Wolves in an anthropology class in college called “Native America Today.” One component of the course was to watch a series of movies spanning several decades and discuss how Native Americans were portrayed, and how that differed over time. I don’t recall most of the films besides this one – except that most were Westerns because that is the only acceptable genre in which a Native American can appear.

At the beginning of the semester, we were assigned an essay in which we had to describe our impressions of Native Americans based on our encounters with them in the media – movies, TV, whatever. I really struggled with the assignment, and to this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps in part because I recognized that we were being asking to be reflective about stereotypes and acknowledge that real Indians weren’t like Chief Wahoo, which seemed too obvious a thing to say. I knew that I should admit to having perceptions in defiance of reality, but I couldn’t find the “right” way to reflect on that idea.

I grew up in upstate New York, where there are small reservations made up of Iroquois tribes. I’d learned about the Five Nations of the Iroquois in school, and was actually interested in learning about their history (hence, why I was taking that class), but I didn’t know any Native Americans personally. Was my interest nothing more than a fetishized fascination with whatever I’d constructed as a modern Native American, that mystical figure who held a special bond with nature?

My professor had suggested we talk about the popular movies of the era – modernized Westerns were kind of big in the nineties – but, as you’ll recall if you’ve read my introductory blog, I didn’t grow up watching many movies. Instead, my impressions of Native Americans came from disparate sources: old comics from my dad’s childhood featuring the bright red people in feathers saying “How”; the children’s book series The Indian in the Cupboard that literally objectified Indians as little figurines that came to life; the Indian Village at the New York State Fair, where tribe members across the state gathered in some mix between authentic and tourist-trap that I still don’t fully understand. I didn’t know how to put all that into one 3-page essay.

I don’t recall exactly what we discussed when we watched Dances with Wolves. Now it’s blatantly obvious to me that Dances With Wolves (the man) is this white hero figure, who even beats the Lakota at their own game. He rescues wounded women, he kills buffalo, he battles U.S. soldiers and Pawnee warriors alike (let’s not even get into the good/evil dichotomy of Lakota and Pawnee). At least there are a few Native American characters with some depth, but this is ultimately not about them: it’s about the white man who only “found himself” by adopting (appropriating?) another culture.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more disappointed by the film than I actually was. In terms of the three-hour films I’ve watched so far on this journey, it definitely dragged less than most. And it’s neat to Graham Greene in this role compared to what he’s been in recently. I’ve been watching Longmire, which has gradually been exploring interesting, nuanced characters on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Granted, the show’s still named after a white guy, but there’s some hope that we’ll continue to see more Native actors in solid roles.