Saturday, February 25, 2017


The protagonist as a thinking woman.

When I read the reviews of the recent remake of Ghostbusters, with a female cast, I paused, considering the number of women shaken and delighted by the rare experience of seeing a slapstick adventure world through female eyes. It's one of those things I argue with myself over: how much does it mean, to receive art that reflects your life, your gender, your ethnicity, your gaze. When my daughter and I watched Ghostbusters together, I had to admit: it matters. I have lived much of my life transposing fiction. Or, perhaps more accurately, I have lived my life transposing my mind to match the POV of the fiction I have enjoyed. I am old enough that most of my life, and almost all of my early life, offered me few, if any, female protagonists, and those I experienced were seldom presented as having the kind of significance that male protagonists had, even in comedy. Even in the lightest of light literature.

So, yes. It was way cool to watch a show with my daughter and see the world through our eyes: through eyes that can't really help but see our female selves as having importance and meaning.

I found this even more true watching Arrival, though other than being a movie in the imaginative genres, with a female protagonist, it's not much alike at all. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is sober--almost to the shattering point. The movie itself is haunted and haunting, wrapped in atmosphere and doom as much as any Gothic novel could be: no slapstick comedy here, though there are rare and shining moments of laughter.

The mystery at the heart of Arrival is not that difficult or obscure, if you've grown up on speculative fiction. I worked out the right possible resolution fairly early...and, as a result, experienced the movie in the odd mode of being as fore-sighted and complexly aware as the heroine, and as adrift in the time frame. The thing is, only the young and the unsophisticated will fail to work out the hook at some point--that's not a concern with most movies in any case. The hook works, the mystery is valid, the resolutions interesting--and the role of a woman in the lead is powerful, at least to me, as a woman and a mother.

If you could know how everything in your whole life would work out, from now to the end--would you do it anyway? Even the bits that will hurt? Even the losses that seem unendurable?

Does that change if your sense of time itself changes? If present and past stop meaning the same thing? If both the joy and the pain are palindromes? If the child of your womb is both born and unborn forever for you?

I have seen similar thematic material handled using male protagonists. Never in the same story, never with quite the same emotional licks and chops...and yet, I could easily go through Arrival and point out familiar tropes, well-used cliches, haunting children clinging to their fathers' souls. I find that, for me, it mattered to see this entire story--all the story--with a woman in the lead for a change. A mother in the lead.

That does not and should not mean that all stories should be given to women from now on. It means that it mattered to me, as a woman, to see Louise Banks as a linguist, as a professional, as a hero, struggle through the story in female form, being brilliant and remarkable and womanly--and because she was a woman, I found her own choices resonant and uniquely powerful.

The solitude of the thinking protagonist...human, and alone.
Maybe it's because for once I did not have to transpose--to throw my mind into the model of a "male identity" that I have used all my life to tag along with the Hardy Boys and Harry Potter. It is enough to make me wonder what all the male protagonist stories feel like to the men who watch them, never having to transpose--to set their sex aside to share the hero's path. It must be interesting. It must be haunting. It must be magic.

So--for me, Arrival was magic. I admired the leading character, and I reveled in the strange, brooding story, and I came away feeling that the story had proved its worth. I don't know if you will--regardless of your sex, or age, or prior experience. I know the story is well-built, the film standards reasonably high, and the themes work out over the expanse of the story, but I can't really say if you will find it "good." All I can say is I liked it, and I loved the heroine--perhaps the very first of the classic SF breed of pure thinkers solving the universe one insight at a time, without a single zap-gun ever drawn.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


First, another apology: plumbing adventures occupied much of yesterday and today, along with sleep and sore muscles. New knowledge: automatic power plumbing snakes are freepin' heavy, and VERY hard for two out-of-shape women to try to hoist into and out of the basement. The Child and I are now very achy. I am managing my once-per-week article, but seeming to have trouble being reliable about Fridays.

Meanwhile, the column...

You know a genre has reached near maximum load when the spoofs begin. In this case, NBC's new sit-com, Powerless, set in the DC 'verse, stands as proof--a mainstream company hopes to get a step up in the ever-uncertain realm of the sit-com by allying with the surging genre of comic-based video. It makes sense: the spoof, goof-ball, and dark-satire titles within both the comic world and the movies have at least held their own, providing audience support for visions as different as The Watchmen to Deadpool to The Lego Movie and Megamind movies. Popular culture "gets" the core assumptions of superhero universes--and also knows the ironic potential involved in those assumptions. A sit-com based on the superhero universe could fly faster than a speeding bullet.

Unfortunately at three episodes in, I would argue that Powerless lives up to its name. You can shout "Up, up, and away" all day, but if there's no lift, there's no laughs. For me that was the key problem with Powerless. That's a shame. Comedy is the red-haired step-child of the arts--far too often honored with back-handed compliments and high-brow scorn. Limp, lifeless comedy only confirms existing bias against the form--and limp and lifeless covers the problems with the new show.

My first concern is the material itself. Spoof material demands precision and awareness. You not only have to build your jokes around the core assumptions of the genre you're spoofing, you have to prove you understand that genre--what makes it work in the parent genre, and what makes it fail anywhere else. What makes it funny when you move even a little from home ground. The popular comic-based movies have, in fact, made great use of comedy to lampshade the more ridiculous elements of traditional comic reality, using smart-talking, quipping superheroes to invite the audience to laugh with them at silly costumes, arcane technobabble, and alliterative mumbo-jumbo, rather than laughing at them. When the characters say for you what the audience is already half-way to thinking, you've got laughs--and affection. It works.

But you have to know that material cold to pull it off. Generic humor tricked out in a silly cape won't do the trick. Powerless primarily a spoof of bad office drama, rather than a spoof of superhero drama. The key relationships, the key conflicts, the key humor, all hang on to the office setting more than the superhero elements. Those elements, when they do appear, come in the form of fairly lame gags--as, for example, the rubble-proof umbrella the team develops in the second episode. It's funny-once, at best, worthy of one quick passing joke. Instead the writers tried to squeeze more like five jokes out of one umbrella, and failed.

Further, they are building jokes based on "knowledge" of the superhero world that's bogus. There's no good reason for natives of Atlantis to favor Brendan Fraser movies the way the French love Jerry Lewis. There's no reason they would not--but--what part of traditional DC mythos suggests that natives of Atlantis even watch movies in the first place? Far too many of the jokes have that sort of tenuous feel of gluing the ridiculous to the traditional and hoping it will be funny. It isn't particularly.

The timing only exaggerates the problem. By my own guess, they need three to five more minutes of material in each show, so the actors and the film editor can't build in those horrifying laugh-line pauses that slow the beat and leave room for you to realize you're not laughing. The stories plod along, with those horrible lags and lulls, seldom getting much value out of either the superhero venue or out of the office venue.

The actors are trying--hard. You can see the effort in their eyes...poor bubehs.

What's sad is that this could be a much better show with clever writers who love the genre. An engineering firm devising safety devices for living in a superhero world could be such a superb venue for over-the-top technology, accidental hero and villain generation, employees who waver between minion and mad scientist status, and more. Instead it feels like a faded, wrung-out version of a million bad-boss comedies over the decades.

I wish I could comment on the ability of the actors, but there's a point at which I absolve all performers of leaden work. The team they've cast, including Vanessa Hudgens in the lead as engineering manager Emily Locke, and Alan Tudyk as Van Wayne, cousin of Bruce Wayne, gives it a good, professional shot, but they are carrying the burden of terribly weak writing and terribly slow editing.

This show could improve. It's a shame it's as weak an offering as it is--better thought out, with stronger writers who honestly love both the superhero genre and the sit-com, it could be a treasure. Right now, I have to say it's not.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Trimming the Tropiary

First, let me apologize--the storm has somehow thrown me off kilter in terms of schedule. I got stuck in Wednesday and failed to notice Friday had come--and gone. So here, belatedly, is an essay on genre tropes.

Twelve years ago, in 2004, TV Tropes was first launched into the world of the internet, and since then it's been altering and educating audiences around the world, encouraging analytical thinking and ironic commentary in all areas of public media. TV Tropes was to fiction what Aarne-Thompson fairy tale classification was for the folk and fairy-tale genres: a way of classifying and discussing the taxonomy of fiction, calling out recurring patterns and recognizable motifs. For a time it seemed to honestly set the online fan discussion world on fire, and it continues to have a steady effect on how fans understand and evaluate fiction.

A Dragon Topiary

Fans have become familiar with entire ranges of patterns, drawn from all sources and with roots as old as written records of story-telling or as recent as reality shows. Fans have become more and more familiar with the building blocks of fiction, calling out patterns such as the deus ex machina to the modern Mary Sue and Marty Stu. 

The upside is a refreshing new common recognition that literature is made of recurring patterns, and that these patterns are shared across the broad range of story telling. Fans seem far more aware these days that stories depend on structure and on structural elements: that an orphaned child almost cries out for a wicked step-family, a supernatural challenge, and a happy ending, and an old soldier on the road cries out for a wealthy heiress in need of a clever trickster of a husband. On the other hand, TV Tropes seems to have also brought about a certain level of both misunderstood tropes, and just as bad, a generation of people who have mistakenly understood the message to be that writers who use tropes are not creative or original. Both problems have bearing on how fans parse fiction and what they expect--and sometimes the news is bad.

Take, for example, the previously mentioned deus ex machina. The term comes from Greek theater, and refers to the portion of a play in which the Gods descend from above, hoisted on giant pulleys and levers, to resolve the story, make the moral pronouncements, and basically serve as the "fat woman" without whom the opera can't end. Over time the term came to mean a way of resolving a story that's not specifically accounted for in the set-up and construction of a narrative. It means an out-of-the-blue resolution, unachored and ungrounded, imposed without preparation in terms of logic or emotional arc. It's the opposite of the oft-cited Chekhov's Gun, used to describe something used at a critical point in a story which is established far earlier in the narrative. The playwright Chekhov argued that prominent features of a story should also be necessary--if they were not necessary they should not be featured. If you featured a gun in act one, it should be shot at some point--and that shooting should matter. Otherwise there should be no gun.

In ancient times a deus ex machina was not seen as unsupported--a gun appearing out of nowhere to be fired without preparation. Greek theater was originally religious ritual, the Gods seen as not only present everywhere, but the presumed context of the play. Their appearance did not need preparation within the internal structure of the script because they were already established in the external structure of the culture. In time, however, the Gods were no longer presumed--and the establishment of major resolving elements with a script did come to be presumed and expected. Gods of the Machine came to look a bit silly--and Chekhov's Guns became the gold standard of efficiently set-up narrative. It's a wonderful thing to have modern fans aware of the paired ideas. 

Nice, clear Figment topiary, Epcot Center

It's less wonderful, though, when fans, reading quickly, lightly, and often with very little actual literary training prior to finding TV Tropes, are mistaken in the nature and meaning and context of what they have learned. TV Tropes, wonderful as it is, is like all of the internet--read and cherished by everyone at large, including the usual selection of idjits, boobs, and inexperienced Trope mavens who exhibit more enthusiasm than comprehension. So it comes to pass that one finds quite a lot of fans talking about deus ex machina as though anything they failed to spot--any resolution that surprised them--qualified for the term. Or go looking for Chekhov's guns as though there were never an excuse for a true structural case of something utterly unexpected and untelegraphed. 

Both mistakes are wrong. A deus ex machina is always a resolution created by what is essentially imposed force. Like a studio borrowing the US cavalry horses and riders from one film to wrap up the conclusion of a cheap rom-com. So long as the resolution is drawn from existing elements presumed in the story, and legitimately deployed, you are not dealing with deus ex machina. Gandalf showing up at the Battle of Hornburg backed up by the remaining Rohirrim is not deus ex machina because, while you may have missed the various cues that allow the last-hour rescue to surprise and delight you, they are there--you can track back and determine enough to accept that the forces were there, Gandalf had gone to fetch them. One of the real frustrations of my fan-reading life over the past decade or so has become the false claim of deus ex machina by someone who simply failed to catch the clues, and who is disgruntled at having been surprised--and who chose to blaspheme the author by trying to suggest that surprising the viewer meant the author didn't play fair or do it right. Here's the thing--often the best author is the one who shows only enough to justify an outcome, while still permitting it to be a surprise. If you come away having been fooled, that's often to the writer's credit, not to his shame.

Similarly readers go on Chekhov's gun searches so intense you'd think every trivial element of a narrative had to lead to some great and meaningful reprise. It's an easy inference to draw from Chekhov's own comment:

"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep." Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.

Taken too literally, the mention of shoes should inherently lead to an important shoe-denouement, and the discussion of a blonde woman's hair should lead to some vital conclusion in a hair salon. The truth is more difficult: even repeatedly recurring elements need not be used in a vital manner. Blonde women may be more important for their role in setting tone and style than they are for bringing about clearly derived blonde events. Some recurring patterns are like good wall paper--merely there to fill blank walls and add texture and visual appeal to an otherwise drab stage set. A single freestanding movie or novel can seldom carry more than two or three Chekhov's guns...nor would the author wish it to, unless the author were playing a sort of literary joke, offering a punch line to an audience prepared to giggle at the absurdity of waiting for Godot over and over again. 

That's the contradictory nature of having the wonderful TV Tropes site out there--it's done more to educate fans in ways of analyzing narrative than any other popular source I can think of in my lifetime...but it's also brought in a lot of people who are losing track of the precision of the terms and tropes they use. In a garden of tropes with crisp, sharp meanings, they've gotten a bit lax in their pruning style, and the tropiary is a big shaggy and hard to understand as the precision is lost. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Fabulous Beasts

This is a light-weight, somewhat spoiler-y review of "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them"
I watched this earlier this January, with my daughter, and had hoped to see it a second time before attempting to review it, but came up short on time--so this is the light, bubble-gum review, with something fussier and more analytical lurking in the wings for a possible later appearance.

The Kiddo and I have a long mutual history of sharing our Harry Potter-related joys, though right now, in her twenties, she's a bit off on the entire thing. By the end of the first saga, she found the vast canon a bit burdensome, and I do not blame her. She enjoyed Fantastic Beasts, though. We both did. Where the original HP books were designed to track through the maturation of the readers, growing more adult at roughly the rate it's original child-readers did, Fantastic Beasts is a story that, from the very start, aims at adults, if comparatively young adults. The difference is a blessing, if only because the first series succeeded in carrying not only its characters but its world out of the realm of child fantasy, and into something more challenging and mature. What started with an eleven-year-old's idea of bliss, with magic and all the best foods you like and chocolate frogs and best chums, landed in the end exactly where J.K. Rowling intended it, with questions of race and war and loyalty and strength in the face of evil, carried out at a level that addressed adult fears...not perfectly, but sufficiently well to deserve its laurels. To go back to the chipper, sweet, and twee elements of early HP would have been a let-down.

Interior of Newt's Tardis-y Suitcase of Holding

Fantastic Beasts starts at roughly one stage beyond the maturity point that Deathly Hallows left off--with young adult characters of the right age to be facing their first truly, completely adult challenges. They've found their first jobs. They've become independent of school and family. They are getting by in the grownup world. They at the age to become warriors by choice. Harry Potter and his friends were drafted into the great saga of their era almost from birth. Newt Scamander, Porpentina and Queenie Goldstein, and their no-maj (muggle/non-magical) associate Jacob Kowalski, are all people who appear to have faced challenges already, and who look likely to face more.

That impression is only strengthened by the details of time and place. A story set in 1926 in New York City suggests major catastrophes to come, in both the non-wizarding world and the magical realms. Knowing what's to come, feeling the advancing elements that will lead to the Depression and WWII on the non-magical side of the story, and to the war with Grindelwald on the otherside, blends well with the cold, grey, murky feel of the New York City setting and the strong awareness of New York as a teaming center for immigration...and for social pressures.

The translation of that tension to the Wizarding World assumptions did not work perfectly, coming into its own only when Jacob's memories must be wiped at the end. Until then, in spite of repeated reminders of the barriers put up between the Magical Congress of the United States of America and the non-magical world, it's easy to get wrapped up in the joy of Newt's escaped beasts, the Christmas-y sparkle of the New York of a prior age, and the Dickensian hints of darker elements in the New Salem Philanthropic Society's leader and starveling children. And, yes--all of that ties to an embedded bigotry on both sides of the magical divide. But it remains true--somehow it's easy to take all that lightly until our mages steal Jacob's memories from him.

Jacob Kowalski, the Wizarding World's first muggle leading character.
That edge, though, is part of what made Fantastic Beasts a joy to watch. It had the familiar elements we know, and it's clearly part of a continuity we've had laid out previously. It's canon, for sure. But it's canon from a fresh, new, and decidedly more adult position from the very beginning.

That could have been a wretched bore: Harry Potter by Kafka. However, the world still sparkles, the beasts truly were fantastic and lovable, and the new characters were easy to love without so much as a backward glance at Harry, Ron, and Hermione, or Dumbledore and Hagrid. Daughter-mine and I liked Newt, and the Goldstein sisters, and most of all we loved non-maj Jacob, the first non-maj to have a real central-character role in any of the HP books. There are times when a nice, heavy dose of foreshadowing is a comfort, and the near-certainty of Jacob's eventual return from amnesia and exile is one of those times: Jacob is a pip, to use the words of my grandfather. A pip and a peach, and a real mensch.

The plot itself was a bit simple and frail--but so what? For a change it's a story about laying the foundation for other stories. It was just big enough and heavy enough to take care of that start-up business in one move. Given Rowling's inclination to expanding mass, it was good to see she had learned from seeing her own novels pared down to screenplays, and understood the burden a feature film can realistically carry. She kept it short, comparatively simple, and she didn't break her heart over the kind of fuss one can admire--but that the story does not need. She got the job done, with fun and grace, and presented a great stage to introduce a new saga and a new cast.

New Heroes

So. The kid and I were happy. We will watch the next one, praying for Jacob to show up soon to look at Queenie with lingering sighs, and that Newt will remain charming and dedicated to his beasts, and that Tina and Queenie will shine as brightly with intelligence and sororal love, sisters to the end, different though they are.

Will it be as popular and successful as the original Harry Potter stories and movies? Hard to say. Those were a unique phenomenon. But even if she hold it together on a slightly smaller level of fannish enthusiasm, she's got a nice new entry that will let her tell very new stories in her previously developed world. That's good business for everyone, and good fun for a lot of us who just like going back to her Wizarding World again.