Mulan and Masculinity

I’m at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, and I’ve got that song from Mulan running through my head. You know the one. On the surface, the lyrics of this song reinforce many of our most problematic ideas about masculinity, including;

  • A person’s ability to perform masculine ideals define their gender identity
  • Masculine ideals are so lofty as to be nigh superhuman (“you must be swift as a coursing river, with all the force of a great typhoon, with all the strength of a raging fire, mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”)
  • Being womanly and being weak are practically synonymous, which is why the most humiliating thing is to be defeated by a woman

Yet everyone who hears this song knows it is from a movie where the protagonist is a woman.* We know the joke is on the singer, even before we see the film, but one of my favorite things about this movie is that it goes a step further than the standard gender-bending woman power stories. All too often, those stories challenge the first idea, by having a woman successfully perform masculinity, but leave the second untouched and sort of whistle awkwardly past the third. Sometimes the men are the butt of the joke for being outdone by a woman, and very often the only person worthy of her affection is the one man who really can best her. In Mulan, on the other hand, everything is taken a step further.

Li Shang and Ping

First, Mulan is, initially, terrible at fulfilling Li-Shang’s expectations… and so is everyone else. The cisgender men are all overwhelmed and struggling. The film has introduced Mulan as someone who struggles with femininity, which makes her feel inadequate, but then it dares suggest that people of all genders can struggle to live up to the idealized expectations of masculinity and femininity. When Mulan succeeds, it is celebrated because it marks a turning point for all of them. They ultimately live up to Li-Shang’s standards, not because of the inherent gifts of testosterone, but because of teamwork, persistence and loads of practice. It’s like the “masculine” ideals of strength and bravado can be fulfilled by anyone sufficiently dedicated to master them, regardless of their hormones or chromosomes. What a novel concept.

Speaking of which, I love the three soldiers who become her friends. Initially, they bully her. This is… honest. Brutally honest. In my experience, the worst gender bullies are always the ones who are insecure about their own presentation. From the Republican senator who bemoans gay rights only to be caught with a rentboy, to the scrawny nerd who trolls anyone who dares identify as both geek and woman, hypocrisy is the classic defense of the man who can neither live up to standards of masculinity, nor work up the courage to rebel against it. Because toxic masculinity is so hierarchical, it’s easy for them to decide that, if they can’t climb the ranks, at least they can make sure everyone below them stays down.

This is what her friends initially do. They are failing Li-Shang’s tests, so they make sure those around them won’t succeed and make them look bad. But Mulan refuses to play this game. Instead, she persists and, through her success, inspires them to work on themselves rather than keep putting down anyone weaker. I love that this is addressed. I love that children get to see how shitty that bullying is, and cheer for the discovery of a better way. I love the reminder that masculinity doesn’t have to be about being better than everyone else. It can be about collaborating and being better together.

Yao Ling Chien-Po

Second, the love story isn’t about Mulan finally finding a man who can defeat her, or some such sexist bullshit. In fact, Mulan never fixates on or pursues him. It’s Li-Shang’s character arc that drives the romance. He learns that his rigid concepts of gender roles are stopping him from finding true love with someone whose best traits are best recognized outside of the gender binary. Mulan is not the “Girl Worth Fighting For” they sing about (another song where sexist lyrics are deftly skewered by the context). She doesn’t need to be. Everything she is is wonderful enough.

Finally, and here’s my favorite part, Mulan never comes to perfectly embody masculinity, or femininity. She does become a much, much better warrior, but so does everyone else, and throughout the story she is more likely to use creativity and intellect to solve her problems than brute force. In the end, she returns to feminine clothing, albeit in a more subdued, gender neutral way.** The story isn’t about how she’s awesome because she’s masculine, unlike all those awful feminine women. It’s about how she’s brave, smart, resourceful and loyal; heroic traits that can go with any gender presentation.

Mulan

I want to do many more reviews of stories that explore gender, and especially explore how we tell stories about masculinity; how we spread toxic messages, and how we can do better. But for now, I’m off to hang out with awesome trans-spectrum type folk. If you have any requests for gender-centric stories that you want me to review, please leave a comment. Films are preferred, because it’s easier for me to find the time to watch and rewatch them, but if there are books or TV shows or anything else I’ll do my best. As always, thanks for reading!

*Her portrayal is consistent with just about any gender identity, including trans male and nonbinary. That is to say, she never says anything about who she feels she is, but rather about her sense of duty to her family, so you can read into the story what you want. I’ll refer to her with female pronouns, because that’s what she uses in-story, but I support all headcanons.

**Okay, okay, my personal headcanon is that today she would label herself genderfluid or a gender non-conforming woman. This is largely because she seems clearly uncomfortable with her initial attempts at performing extreme femininity, but not at the end when she is presenting as a woman again. I don’t think she would have looked as happy if she didn’t feel that “woman” was at least partially true to who she was. But that’s just my interpretation.

Batman v. Superman; Yeah, It’s Not Good

This movie gave me an actual headache.

Spoilers ahead, but I recommend reading anyway. It’s not worth the trip to a theater, and if you’re determined to do so, knowing what you’re in for might save on brain cells. But you know, you do you.

batman-v-superman

We are brooding men. Look at us brood. Producers tell us brooding = interesting. Broooooooooood.

I find that I generally agree with the Rotten Tomatoes rating of a film, but disagree with the consensus on why. Many critics said this movie was too complicated. On the contrary, it was very simple. Batman and Superman don’t trust each other, and Lex Luthor manipulates that distrust until they fight, but then Batman changes his mind because both their mothers are named Martha. They team up with Wonder Woman to fight a big monster, and Superman dies but only for until the sequel. Obviously.

All that seems complicated because the film is made of too many short scenes, all of which cut suddenly to the middle of the next one, so your brain is constantly playing catchup. The following is typical of my thoughts throughout the movie.

“Wait, how did Batman know to be here? Oh, he was decrypting those files last we saw him, so I guess they had the location. And he assembled a whole team in the meantime. Wait, how did he know which files to decrypt to begin with? Okay, he was stealing them from Lex Luthor, and I guess they established back when he got the invitation that he thinks Luthor has information on something for reasons. That scene wasn’t really clear on what Luthor had, so I think I was looking too hard for clues about that to remember how he knew Luthor had whatever it was. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, he’s opening the thing, and…. oh, looks like a trap. And the person behind the trap was, uh, Superman? Why is Superman being so aggressive? Is that out of character? They haven’t fully established where this interpretation falls on the Pacifistish Hero spectrum. Oh, okay, it was all a dream. Hey! Hey movie! You’re only allowed one of those dream sequence fake outs per film, and you already done that twice!”

Oh, yeah, about ten percent of the in media res scenes turn out to also be dream sequences or fantasies. That really helps with the coherency.

So that’s the first issue; in lieu of having a complex web of intrigue, they shoot all the scenes in the most confusing way possible and hope you can’t tell the difference. The second issue has to do with broken promises and the elements of stories.

There are many ways to model stories, but one of my favorites is to break them down into elements of plot, character, setting and theme. It’s a helpful abstraction because it works across genres and culture, and it helps explain why the same errors can be tolerable in one story and unforgivable in another. All four elements are present in all stories, but most stories choose to emphasize one or two over the others. Mad Max: Fury Road had some flaws in its worldbuilding, but from the start it emphasized events and characters. The action was exciting and well choreographed, while the characters were remarkably rich. As a result, we were satisfied with the two other elements lagging behind.

Way back in the earliest teasers for Batman v. Superman, the creaters began promising that this would be an idea story. They took two characters with a common goal but deep ideological differences and pitted them against each other. They showed us society disagreeing in conflict about which was good and which was evil. They even brought in religious references. So we came prepared for superheroic fisticuffs, but we also brought our egghead glasses. We were prepared to go home talking about the mirror this holds up to society, or something equally pretentious.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent don’t have any interesting philosophical debates. Bruce Wayne goes, “You have too much power and might turn bad, so even though you’re clearly good now I have to destroy you!” Clark Kent goes, “You hurts bad guys a lot so you must be stopped!” I go, “Anyone going to point out that you are both powerful guys who might eventually be corrupted by said power, and furthermore you’ve both chosen a career path that involves some collateral damage? Anyone?” No one does. The only reason anybody objects to either of them is that they’re super powerful and also sometimes people get hurt. Well, that applies to the police, the military, the government, and any other agency of power. People point out that some people approve of them and some people don’t. That applies to… everything. Period. The specific contrasts between Superman and Batman are there, but nothing is said or done about them. Lex Luthor doesn’t even have an interesting reason to oppose them. He’s just a generic nihilist.

And yet, the film never stops reminding you that you were here for a thinky movie. It’s got the non-linear complex structure of the intellectual action film. It’s got the somber music and dark lighting.

And the religious symbolism! Symbolism works best when used sparingly to subtly emphasize certain characters or events. This is just everywhere, crosses and halos and the camera zooming in on some bystander praying. It’s not there to say anything, but its everywhere. Some people draw parallels between Superman and God, because, uh, they’re both way powerful and people look up to them. That’s it. They weren’t saying anything interesting about God, so much as giving me the impression the props department had a 50% off your entire purchase coupon at Family Christian Bookstores.

It was so ubiquitous, I started looking for it when it wasn’t there. Honestly. At one point the camera lingered on a hole in the wall. The hole looked kind of like a fish, so I wondered if they were going for an  ichthys, but it looked more like the Moby Dick restaurant sign. Then the fighting resumed and I decided it was just the place where Superman threw Batman through drywall. In my defense, my head had been hurting for a while.

In short, they let people down on their main promise. If this is an idea film, it explores said ideas like an argument on Facebook. Nowhere does anybody articulate their full point of view. Nowhere does anybody change their mind for any interesting reason, and when characters do talk they talk past each other. The only aim of 70% of the dialog is to spout some quotable soundbite, each of which sounds good in isolation, none of which meaningfully advances the conversation. Put that all together and you get a lot of people with black and white mentalities babbling at each other and saying nothing.

Huh. Maybe, in a completely unintentional way, it said something about society after all.

Tune in next time for me being way less grumpy, hopefully. As always, thanks for reading.

Welcome to Night Vale

I have a theory about human nature. When it comes to the strange, confusing or taboo, we have only three possible responses. We can be disgusted, which prompts us to avoid whatever it is. If that avoidance isn’t allowed, our other options are fear and humor. This makes comedy and horror oddly companionable. Though externally they seem extremely different, they have the potential to explore similar topics, and many stories successfully combine them; the Scream franchise, The Cabin in the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Shaun of the Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on. Sometimes the comedy is dominant, sometimes the terror. Where the subject of my final October review falls may be up to the individual.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast (and as of a couple weeks ago, a novel) about a small desert community where Lovecraftian terrors are just part of the everyday backdrop. In Night Vale, time only flows in a linear progression when it feels like it, street cleaners and librarians are everyone’s worst nightmare, city council is some sort of eldritch flesh-eating hive mind, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home is really more of a petty trickster than an actual threat. Unless you’ve recently beaten her in a mayoral election, of course. Everyone is used to this and accepts it, running their everyday lives as best as possible around all the weirdness, experiencing the same hopes, fears and heartbreaks as humans everywhere.

The podcast is narrated by Cecil, host of Night Vale Community Radio. He brings us community news, the weather, updates on the struggle against the latest unearthly horror to terrorize the town, and of course traffic. There’s a strong element of unreliable narrator to the show. Is Cecil saying what he thinks, or what the Secret Police insist that he says? Is his information accurate, or biased by his status as a devout mountain unbeliever? Are we, the non-Night Valian audience, simply misunderstanding him because we didn’t realize antiques have tails? Despite Cecil’s fallibility, it’s hard not to trust him; not in the simple sense of believing everything he says, but in the deeper sense. When Cecil talks, you can hear his love for his town. I always get the sense that, in all the chaos, it’s Cecil who really binds Night Vale together. He might not always be factually accurate, but he can hear and diagnose the heartbeat of Night Vale.
The novel is more straightforward. As it’s so recent, this will be a brief and spoiler-free review. It follows two citizens of Night Vale, who are seeking to unravel a puzzle that is less apocalyptic, more personal. I loved it, and I don’t think you need to have listened to the podcast to enjoy it. It’s highly recommended, especially if you like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld books. As those were to space opera/fantasy, this is to horror.
Night Vale, to me, isn’t scariest when the space-time fabric rips open and tentacled monsters invade. That is so everyday it is hardly worth mentioning. It’s scariest when there is a small, personal threat; anything to do with Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, makes me hold my breath a little. This is a common element of life in Night Vale. The town can weather any number of injustices and catastrophes, then go back to school and work the next morning. This is also a common aspect of human nature. We acclimate, even to things that sound horrific.

There are upsides to this, and downsides. One of the negatives is that we can accept things that we really shouldn’t, just because that’s the way they are; slavery comes to mind. Another is that, even as we acclimate, wounds can build up under the surface and reveal themselves later, like a soldier gallows-humoring through combat only to develop a bad drinking problem back home. The positive is that, well, without that ability we could never survive in an imperfect world. Sitting around and waiting for life to become safe, or refusing to participate in a world that fails to be perfectly just, both end in sitting alone until you die. Life in Night Vale is about finding a balance between complacency and paralyzing terror. So is life everywhere else.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Stay safe, and have fun.

Babadook and Dark Water

Supernatural horror is a massive subgenre, and many excellent works have been made simply using ghosts and demons as scary monsters. They let us all indulge the little parts of our mind that, in the middle of the night, goes back to our ancestors in caves and wonders “what if there really is something out there?” Then there are those that try using the supernatural as symbols of a real world terror. Not all of those work as well as simple chillers, but when the writers have a good understanding of the issue they are talking about, and a good grasp of the art of subtlety, the results can be wonderful. In fact, they can be used to talk about issues that are hard to portray directly.

Because nobody is more vulnerable than a child, and a few billion years of evolution compel us to protect them, horror loves to involve children. This is the case with two of my favorite films, The Babadook and Dark Water (the Japanese version, not the American remake, yes I’m a snob). Both have single mothers as protagonists, struggling to maintain a normal life for their child while supernatural forces stalk them. Spoilers ahead.

The Babadook

The two children are very different. In The Babadook, Amelia’s six year old Sam has behavioral troubles. He’s obsessed with monsters and weaponry, cycling between begging to play with weapons and read scary stories, and screaming fits of terror. Also, he has tantrums and at least one seizure. His behaviors get him in trouble at school and alienate him from all his peers. For the record, he’s a very accurate portrayal. I’ve worked with more than a couple Sams. Many similar stories would have him as the unsettling demonic child; this movie actually gives him a lot of sympathetic motivations. His father died in a crash the day he was born, and Sam’s fear seems to come from concern for his mother. He fantasizes that he is the protector of the house and concocts elaborate scenarios where he protects Amelia. Combine that with a kid who is often oblivious to how he comes across, and you get a kid who is actually quite likable, yet you don’t envy anyone who has to deal with him. Amelia, unfortunately, has a shortage of help. In addition to the loss of her husband, Sam’s school is not very good, and her sister’s half-hearted attempts to help only make Amelia feel more isolated.

In Dark Water, Yoshimi’s daughter Ikuko is sweet and responsible, especially for a five year old. Yoshimi was extremely neglected as a child, and in fact she is divorcing her husband because she sees him neglecting both her and her child in the same way. He is now doing everything in his power to gain custody of Ikuko, seemingly just to spite Yoshimi. Yoshimi has had a history of anxiety attacks and nervous breakdowns. Her in-story excuse is that she was disturbed by a job proofreading horror novels, but flashbacks make us suspect the underlying cause is lingering wounds from the subtle, toxic abuse of neglect. This makes her connection to Ikuko all the more important. It is both a chance to redeem herself, and the one relationship where she feels the unconditional love that she has always needed.

Dark Water

In both these stories, as in most great horror, the threats start slow and subtle. A creepy book appears in Sam’s bedroom and Amelia can’t remember where it came from. A little red bag keeps returning to Yoshimi and Ikuko’s new apartment, no matter how Yoshimi throws it away. These things serve the usual purpose of slowly raising the tension, but they also serve the particular purpose of illustrating the vulnerability of both women’s situations. In many horror stories, the victims are reluctant to face the eerie events in front of them, but in these, there is a reason for that. The women’s natural reactions of fear are interpreted by those around them as feminine hysteria, possibly indicating that they aren’t suitable caretakers. Rather than losing sympathy by not taking the obvious option, they gain it by showing us how all their options are bad; embrace what’s happening and be seen as crazy, or try to ignore it as the threat encroaches closer and closer.

As the threat grows, the audience starts to realize that the child isn’t the target. It’s the parent. In Yoshimi’s case, she and her daughter are being stalked by a the ghost of another little girl whose parents neglected her. In this case, the neglect was fatal, and now she’s desperate to find the mother she always needed. The ghost is determined to supplant Ikuko. Amelia is even closer to the monster. After she gets rid of the book, a new version appears, just for her. The Babadook says, “the more you ignore me, the stronger I’ll get.” Amelia is disturbed, but we begin putting pieces together as we watch her behavior. She is a loving mother, but the cracks are beginning to show. We are all familiar with the way we can snap and say something we don’t want to say in a stressful situation, and how unpleasant we can be when that stress becomes chronic.

The Babadook and the ghost are both manifestations of a truth we all know unconsciously. When we feel abandoned by those we love, by those who are supposed to look after us, that pain has the potential to turn us into something horrible.

One of the great things we love to tell ourselves is how wonderful families are, how much a source of unconditional love and blood is thicker than water and we will always be connected and so on and so forth. But in truth, there is always a choice. Some families are horrible, not in the quirky dysfunctional sitcom sense, but in the real, pathological, destructive sense. It’s easy to think of those families as people who are half real, who exist in news stories and not in our own neighborhoods. Dark Water and The Babadook, through supernatural symbolism, show us the other side; the destructive power of abandonment, isolation and neglect in families that might look very ordinary. They both do this in a way that is sensitive to their characters, honest about the pain and, at the last minute, oddly hopeful.

Absentia

Absentia is one of my absolute favorite horror films. I don’t measure my enjoyment of horror films quite the way I do others. Normally I look at both my enjoyment the first time around and how it holds up after a few rewatches. With horror, I don’t want to watch it too often. I want to forget the jumps and the twists, so that I’ll still get tense when the lights go out and nothing has gone wrong in almost three minutes. So, instead, I pick favorites based on how much they haunt me. Despite not seeing Absentia for two years before I watched it for this review, I’ve thought of it more than any other horror film I’ve seen. It’s damn good.

Absentia Callie

The title comes from the legal term “in absentia,” meaning that legal proceedings are going on despite the absence of something. In this case, Daniel Riley disappeared seven in years ago, and his wife Tricia is having him declared dead in absentia. She misses him. She loves him. She wants him to stay in the potentially reversible category of missing, not the rather permanent one of dead.

Also, her bills have piled up, her life has been on hold for seven years, and she’s pregnant. It’s time.

Her sister Callie, a recovering drug addict, visits to support her through the process. While she’s there, they both begin seeing things they can’t quite explain, but that seem to center around the concrete tunnel where so many in the neighborhood have disappeared.

I won’t give away the nature of this story’s monster or what it does, because the way this film builds the suspense is too good to spoil. Furthermore, it’s not really necessary to the great idea of Absentia. Unlike some stories, which use the monsters as clear metaphors for something, Absentia uses the confusion of the characters, whose lives are being torn apart by events they can’t begin to explain, to talk about how we deal with that. What do we do when life isn’t even willing to give us the closure of answers?

Absentia Tricia

Callie and Tricia try everything; substance abuse, blame, religion, science, outrage, meditation, and when everything else fails, stories. Pure, fabricated guesses of what might have happened, what might be going on. Absentia shows us all of them, shows us the ultimate futility of them, and does not for a moment blame its characters for resorting to them. It simply invites us to witness, understand, and empathize. Unlike so many horror movies, which flatten and stereotype its protagonists, Absentia makes them so human you will cry.

There is so much love in this movie, and not sappy, idealized love. It has messy, frustrating love directed towards messy, frustrated people. It also isn’t love that is magically strong enough to undo all the evil spells or stop bad things from coming. It’s just there, warm and real. There is a moment with a hug, and then after the hug there are bad things that the hug couldn’t stop. That’s okay. At least it was there when it could be, doing what good it could.

Absentia sisters

When I talk about ideas, I don’t always mean answers. Absentia doesn’t have any answers to what you do when there are no answers. That would defeat the point. It’s about reminding us that sometimes there aren’t any, and appreciating the heartbroken guesses of the people left behind.

Side Effects; A Missed Opportunity

Horror and action are genres that both frequently deal with dangerous situations, and yet it’s fairly rare that they get mixed up. Action is about the point where danger is active, and can be battled out in the open. There are clear boundaries between danger and safety, good and evil. It typically stars someone highly capable of handling the threat. Indiana Jones, Batman and Imperator Furiosa may have the odds stacked against them, but they are still trained and resourceful in exactly the ways the crisis demands. Horror, on the other hand, tends to focus on dangers that are lurking, liminal, or hidden just out of sight, and they involve protagonists who are completely unprepared to deal with the threat when it will finally come out of the dark. Action lets us escape to a world where we can take on our greatest foes; horror tells us what to do when we can’t.

Straddling the line between the two is the thriller, where events are a little too mundane and the emotional palette too varied for true horror, but there is an intensity and level of suspense above that of conventional action. This can be a really fun genre, both to write and watch. The danger lies in the temptation for the author to pull their punches, to pretend they are saying something profound but deliver escapism at the last moment. And just to be clear; I think both brutal honesty and exciting escapism are great. They each have their place and they can also be mixed in interesting ways. But sometimes they are combined create a garish chimera.

Let’s move on to the review, shall we?

Side Effects

Side Effects has an interesting premise that involves topics that are very important right now; medications, the danger of overprescription, the danger of paranoia around overprescription, the way medicines are marketed to the doctors who prescribe them, the frivolous lawsuit problem, so on and so forth. The main characters are Jonathan Banks, a young psychiatrist played by Jude Law, and Emily, his patient played by Rooney Mara. Emily is struggling with depression and suicidal urges. Banks prescribes her an experimental medicine that he is being paid to push, and as a result, she kills her husband in a sleepwalking incident.

The buildup to the events is excellent, because we aren’t allowed any easy answers. It’s easy, from the description above, to blame the doctor, but his characterization meticulously builds up sympathy for him. His first scene has him de-escalating a situation by culturally mediating between an anxious Haitian patient and a cop, potentially saving a life. He doesn’t see his patients as a pure opportunity for profit. He sees complex humans who need someone to understand them. Also, while he’s willing to take a little money from drug companies it isn’t in a blatantly unethical way. He isn’t pushing it on patients who would likely do better on another drug, he isn’t aware of any dangerous side effects and he is even upfront about both it’s experimental status and his relationship with the company. Emily takes the medication because she can’t handle the side effects from other, more common prescriptions and insists she prefers the experimental drug, right up until the death of her husband. The thing about dramatic side effects like this is that there’s always a first person to exhibit them. It’s so easy to think about the person who greedily recommended it in full knowledge of this danger, or without having done basic research. It’s hard to think of the essentially good guy, the innocent woman and the dead man, all connected by nothing more than really terrible luck.

This story threw me into a situation where I wanted a bad guy, and there was none to be seen, which in an odd way was scarier than any evil monster. I didn’t realize this until the movie, but when things have gone suddenly and irreversibly bad, sometimes the only thing left is the idea of justice, of a cosmic balancing of the scales. Even an unbeatable enemy is oddly comforting; there can be the comfort of wallowing in fantasies of some day when some hero will come along and give the bastards what they deserve. But if there’s no villain, nobody to blame or resent, then there is truly no hope for justice. I can’t think of any way to make things worse than that.

Everyone in the story is affected by this absence of a villain, and in sweep the lawyers and the PIs to help everyone find their bad guy. The temptation to find one slowly topples each character. The most effected is the protagonist, who, realizing he is everyone’s favorite choice to take the blame, begins acting hostile towards his former patient, essentially becoming the villain everyone wants him to be.

At this point in the story I was hooked. Unfortunately, this is also where it decided to massively disappoint me. See, it wasn’t about the horror of realizing that your desire to not be the bad guy turned you into the very villain they were looking for. It was about an evil lesbian conspiracy.

I really wish I didn’t  have to write that. But seriously that’s the only way to put it. Honestly, I think the original piece was the brilliant movie that I thought it was two-thirds of the way through, and then in some writer’s meeting a studio executive said, “you know, I just worry that this story is such a downer. And it’s going to be over everyone’s heads. Can’t we give it a sexier ending?”

And somebody said, “what, like evil lesbians?” before they realized that once those two words were spoken, the brainless studio executive would never, ever let the idea go.

I think that’s really awful, because of anti-vaxxers. And lots of other people, but anti-vaxxers are big in the news right now so I’ll go with that. It’s a movement that is so totally displaced from medical science that it’s kind of hard to argue with. If someone quotes that old nonsense about only using ten percent of your brain, you can explain that misconception came from the fact that we typically don’t use more than ten percent of our brain at once, but it’s a different ten percent from moment to moment so yeah, we use our entire brains. There’s enough common ground to get the conversation going. But when the other person really isn’t interested in any studies except the one, thoroughly discredited one that confirms their preconceptions, it’s hard to talk about the issue at all. Which sucks, because we had almost gotten rid of the measles and now it’s back.

What many people miss is that anti-vaxxers hang onto their theory because it gives them a bad guy. A largish minority of children with autism will, at some point in their childhood, experience a bad regression. Some will even spontaneously develop autism. In a country where most children are regularly vaccinated, the law of large numbers dictates that sometimes the vaccine and the regression will happen around the same time, giving grieving and understandably frightened parents a potential scapegoat. Add one misleading study and an internet to hook everybody together, and you’ve got a community united, comforted by a common enemy. Even if that enemy is a boogeyman. Before you go blaming the parents exclusively, remember that for years therapists did the same thing; they claimed that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms” despite no real evidence or even a clear definition of what that meant. They didn’t know what to do, so they blamed the scared parent and/or feminism and went home able to sleep better for it.

My point is, this issue is a part of human nature that we need to talk about. It is relevant to the times, relevant to our safety, and relevant to our ability to handle a crisis compassionately, and to really cooperate rationally on a solution. This movie had a chance to facilitate that conversation on a cultural level, and it blew it.

It’s probably all Donald Trump’s fault.

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Typically I write my reviews on movies, not novels, for two reasons. One is that it is less of a commitment of time and effort to rewatch a movie with notepad in hand to make my overthinking extra overthinky. The other is that I’ve heard from several authors that it’s a good idea to leave the bad reviews to the professional reviewers. I often get a lot out of analyzing stories that I think did something poorly, and when I do that I always go for Hollywood. However, for my first idea-rich horror review, I am breaking that trend. There’s no need to reread I Am Not a Serial Killer, because all the relevant details are stuck quite firmly in my mind, and there will certainly be no need to say anything negative.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is the first book in a series by Dan Wells, about a teenager, John Cleaver, who doesn’t want to be a serial killer. Normally that isn’t something teenagers have to deal with, but in his case there are a number of warning signs, from a diagnosis of pre-sociopathy to frequent bloody fantasies to the fact that his name is John Wayne Cleaver. His life is lived by a rigid code designed to protect him from his temptation to kill. When his small town is stalked by monsters, he seems to have been presented by a win-win situation; the opportunity to stalk and kill without being in the wrong. Naturally, this situation gets sticky very, very quickly.

While there is plenty of gore, the book is primarily psychological horror. We like John and we don’t want to see him give in to his dark side. I’m not sure John is a perfectly accurate depiction of a sociopath, though that is less Dan Wells’ fault and more a consequence of the mystery of what sociopathy truly is. John has all the classic marks, except that he has a desire to be better. It’s that tension that makes him both strangely fascinating and extremely relatable. That conflict is fundamental to every moral question. What do we do when what we think is right and what we want to do are at odds?

There are two approaches that John is caught between. One is of setting a clear, firm boundary between himself and who he fears becoming. It’s not enough for him to not kill. He has to not follow people around. He has to say something nice to someone if he has a fantasy about brutally dismembering them. He can’t eat meat. The other is of choosing a release that is supposed to be safe; it’s okay to kill someone if you think they might be dangerous to others, right?

I’m interested in moral questions, and I’ve been all over the political and religious maps. John’s list of rules reminds me of the preferred methods of Christian fundamentalism, and many other conservative worlds, while seeking an acceptable outlet tends to be preferred by liberal and secular worlds. While I’ve settled with a strong preference for the approach of outlets, to be honest there are downsides to both.

Take sex for example. Now, I tend to think sex is needlessly stigmatized, but in the Western world I think it is the area where the average person is most likely to experience a conflict between what they want to do and what they think they should do. The trouble with rigid boundaries is that they can heighten the tension, and thus the intensity of the temptation. They can easily result in a sliding scale. Consider standards of modesty; in a world where chests and thighs must be covered, shoulders and knees become erotic. When the legs and arms are covered, the wrists and ankles become scandalous. Meanwhile, the behavior of the people who have placed these boundaries does not necessarily improve. In the United States, we are used to hearing about the affairs, call girls and rent boys of politicians, typically the most religiously conservative ones. I personally am in favor of peeling back all the restrictions to the bare minimum; physical safety and consent are important, but otherwise why worry. Still, for people who feel the urge to cheat, or who hate condoms, or who are attracted to someone who doesn’t consent, simply saying “here’s a minimally restrictive alternative”doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the right thing. I’ve known people in highly relaxed, poly and kink friendly circles who only seek to play lawyer and see how much they can get away with. Loopholes are sought, definitions pushed and rules bent and sometimes outright broken, and people still get hurt.

The problem, of course, is that no amount of rules can make you do the right thing if you fundamentally don’t love your partners enough to take care of them. Which brings the matter back to John. He experiences both types of problems. He bounces back and forth between rules that only make breaking more appealing, and releases that make him seek even more loopholes. Whichever tactic he takes is destined to fail, unless he can learn true empathy; to care about people for their own sake. That is the question at the heart of the series. Can he learn to connect with others?

This is by far not only one of my favorite horror series, but one of my favorite series of any genre. It is exciting, creepy and fun, but also has one of the most compelling character arcs of anything I have read. If you’re looking for some Halloween reading, and you haven’t read this series yet, go check out I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Inside Out’s Defense of Sadness

Last weekend I went to see Inside Out, finally. Pixar movies are generally good, but this one was more than just good as a story. A lot of stories claim to be out to teach kids important things, and often this is somewhat true, and even more often it’s the writers puffing themselves up or advertising themselves to concerned parents. This story actually teaches kids about their emotions, in a way that isn’t cloying or condescending and is genuinely fun.

Spoilers ahead.

The story is about Riley, eleven year old girl, goofball and hockey lover, who has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco and having difficulty adjusting. But Riley isn’t the protagonist. She’s the setting. She’s a genius loci, inhabited by her own mind, which includes imaginary friends, little mental construction workers and, running the show up at headquarters, her emotions; Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness.

The protagonist is Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, whose goal is to keep Riley happy, all the time. She bosses the other four around quite a lot, which mostly works out well. She does what good bosses do. She delegates, lets everybody do the job they are best at, and tells them all what a great job they are doing. And all the emotions do have jobs. Disgust manages Riley’s sense of style and hygiene. Riley stays healthy and socially acceptable because of her. Fear warns Riley about dangers. Anger helps Riley stand up for herself when things aren’t fair. They are dedicated to taking good care of her.

The only trouble is that Sadness seems a little out of place. Joy doesn’t know what purpose Sadness serves, so she mostly tries to avoid letting Sadness do anything, which of course makes sadness sad. Of course, everything makes Sadness sad. If Joy tries to remind Sadness of gleefully splashing in puddles, Sadness will think about boots slowly filling with cold water.

During the move, Joy’s inability to understand Sadness leads to a crisis. Things keep going wrong and Riley misses everything from back home, but Joy keeps stopping her from feeling sad. But not feeling sad isn’t making Riley happy. It just makes her frustrated and confused. Eventually, Joy’s interference causes both Sadness and Joy to get lost in the recesses of Riley’s mind. They have to cooperate to get back, while Anger, Disgust and Fear have to manage Riley all by themselves.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is that Joy seems to know how to manage Anger, Disgust and Fear because she can make them happy. I think this works because they are all  proactive emotions. They all seek to have some clear effect on Riley’s life. When Riley avoids doing something gross, Disgust feels good. When Riley takes precautions, Fear feels good. When Riley stands up for herself, Anger feels good. Joy likes making people feel happy, so she can work with all of that, but Sadness doesn’t have a concrete mission. Sadness’ function is mostly to experience, which actually makes her more like Joy than any of the others.

We feel angry, disgusted or afraid in service of some concrete survival oriented goal, but happy and sad exist mostly for their own sake. The movie does make a point about how both connect us to other people, how sharing in somebody else’s pain or pleasure is something we need to do in order to have genuine relationships. Joy is great at connecting with people when things are good, or she can make them good, but she’s terrible at empathizing with their pain. Sadness is much better at that. But the movie also does something interesting; as a result of losing Joy and Sadness, Riley becomes in danger of losing her ability to feel entirely.

Controlled only by Fear, Disgust and Anger, Riley is constantly reacting in a situation where no reaction is appropriate. Like all kids in the middle of a move, she doesn’t have control over the situation, and the most productive thing she can do is accept her situation. She can’t do that without processing it. Without Sadness, she isn’t able to mourn her loss, just as without Joy she is unable to find the bright side. She keeps reacting and reacting until she turns herself numb. I think it’s an incredibly, tragically realistic depiction.

By making Joy’s character arc revolve around accepting Sadness’ role in Riley’s life, Pixar shows kids that it’s okay to feel sad when things suck. It gives them a framework to understand something that is hard to accurately explain with words. It accomplishes all of this without a clunky speech or “state the moral” moment. That is exactly what good stories with a point should do.

Go see it, guys. Quick, before it leaves theaters; if it’s too late put it on your wishlist for when it comes out. Just go see it.

Jurassic World and Suspension of Disbelief

I finally got my chance to watch Jurassic World this week, and I came away thinking about Writing Excuses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a podcast that has, I think, some of the best writerly advice out there. They did a post a couple years ago, with Patrick Rothfuss, on suspension of disbelief. He made a lot of great points about how it’s not actually about having all your facts straight. Audiences will often forgive factual errors, and often not even notice them*. What they really need to believe a story is verisimilitude. The characters and the world need to feel believable. If the audience gets a sense that the story is true, they won’t care too much whether or not it is correct. Jurassic World illustrates this perfectly.

But before I get to that, here’s a brief spoiler free review of the movie. I liked it. I think people who like dinosaurs and Chris Pratt will also like it, because those things went well together. There, how that’s out of the way, on to the object lesson.

Patrick Rothfuss was the big star of that episode, in my opinion, but the other point that really stuck with me came from Mary Robinette Kowal. She pointed out how there’s this popular story that convinces us all, with no explanation, that there is a magical undersea kingdom and also talking fish. It’s called The Little Mermaid. Because “mermaid” is right there in the title, we all know right away that if we want the emotional payoff that the story promises, we need to accept mermaids, so we voluntarily do. In other words, don’t hide the most implausible part of the story. If your premise needs it to be there, put it front and center. The audience will do the work of believing for you.

Jurassic Park had an absurd premise. We figured out how to clone dinosaurs. The scientific explanation for how we got their DNA was flimsy, but we had all chosen to accept it, in exchange for a movie where dinosaurs run around and eat people. It was totally worth it. Jurassic World had an even harder sell. On top of that absurd and easily acceptable premise, it also had to convince us that the park’s owners would be so idiotic as to reopen the park again, and also genetically engineer a super-dinosaur. This is more difficult to believe. The original film merely violated laws of nature, which we humans have a rather adversarial relationship with anyway. The new one is violating common sense.

However, once again the tactic of putting their biggest stretch front and center worked to its advantage. I do know people, and I know that often they fail to use their common sense. There have been projects that cost human lives before, and often the machine of progress and financial profit just ground on ahead. As time passes, people sometimes forget past tragedies. The trailers gave me lots of time to think about how this might apply to Jurassic Park, sorry, Jurassic World. I went in theaters willing to believe that this was what had happened, that dangers aside the promise of profit was eventually too much to resist. Still, my suspension of disbelief was in a precarious balance.

Personally, I think they handled it spectacularly. They never gave me a scene explaining how the park had been reopened. That’s good. I didn’t need or want one. I was willing to believe it had happened, and by leaving the precise events to my imagination they ensured I would come up with something that I would find plausible. What I really needed to believe was characters who acted like the kind of people who would work at Jurassic World. I got it.

I particularly liked the personality of the CEO, Masrani. His personality was similar to Hammond’s, and some people didn’t like that, as it felt like a retread, but I honestly thought it served a purpose. We are told Hammond personally gave him the park on his deathbed, after securing a promise to take good care of it and use it to remind people of how big the world is. I did have trouble believing that Hammond would really let the park reopen after what he went through, but I can see him thinking, “look, when I die somebody will use the technology and reopen the park. The least I can do is put that power in the right hands.” Masrani seemed like the kind of person Hammond would trust.

There were other details that made the park itself work. I liked how the people pushing for the big engineered dinosaur weren’t cardboard figures slobbering over money. They also talked about progress and keeping costs covered and staying ahead. One of the protagonists, Claire, talked worriedly about “customer satisfaction holding steady in the low 90s.” I liked that. It reminded me of all the real bosses I’ve looked at who are always afraid that doing well isn’t good enough. The rides and education centers were exactly like what a dinosaur zoo amusement park would be. The way Owen Grady, Chris Pratt’s character, interacted with the dinosaurs felt true to how animal handlers really interact with wild and dangerous animals, at least based on everything I know.

So for about two thirds of the movie, my disbelief was well and truly suspended, especially when they gave me an explanation for all the super-dino’s abilities. Then, for me at least, they fumbled it. Ending spoilers from here on.

The final fight with the dinosaurs was cool, but a little too neat. While watching it, I liked it, but it seemed to break some things about the world that had been established. Primarily this was that the velociraptors, who had been established to have a complex, animalistic and ambiguous relationship with Owen, suddenly became canine-loyal, willing to fight a larger animal to the death for him when earlier it seemed they were perfectly willing to turn on him. Also, the film was too tidy in how it made all the big scary dinosaurs show up for the last scene. This was something else that came up in the podcast. There’s a fine art to wrapping things up, but not so tidily that you remind people there’s a writer behind this. When the dinosaur I had almost forgotten about showed up, I definitely remembered there was a writer.

But once again, none of this was really insurmountable for me. You know the part of the story that really broke my suspension of disbelief? The part where the leads got together.

The main complaint I’ve heard for this movie is that the characters were a little flat, even by action movie standards. Most of the way through it, I thought this was unfair. I liked all of them, and I thought they got as much development as the Mad Max characters. Then came the gratuitous kissing, and I realized the problem. It wasn’t the lack of development, it was that they developed the characters and then broke it.

They tried to set up Claire and Owen as opposites. They did a great job. Claire was tidy, controlled and not great with people because she’s more comfortable with data and schedules. Owen was also not great with people, but you got the sense that was because he likes animals better. He’s rough, outdoorsy, and honestly has standards of personal hygiene that gross Claire out.

Of course, when the crisis hits, they find a way to work together, but you know how in Mad Max, Max and Furiosa come to trust each other but don’t get together in any romantic way? Those writers got that the two aren’t the same.

The thing about “opposites attract” is that it happens when both people see something in the other that they appreciate, that balances their own traits. My boyfriend is a lot of extroverted, outgoing and dominant than me. I like the way he takes me out of my comfort zone. He likes the way I slow down and introspect. If one of us was always pressuring the other to be different, this wouldn’t work. Claire and Owen never really have a moment where they see the value in the other’s of view. Their relationship is not going to last once the adrenaline wears off. Of all the implausible things in the movie, that was the one I couldn’t get over.

*Accuracy itself is an interesting topic. I might have to use that for an upcoming post.

Mad Max and the Art of Pacing

Last night I saw Mad Max again, because my friend wanted to go see it and I easily enjoyed it enough for a second watch. Also, I thought a second watch would help with the second blog idea I got from the movie. Earlier I wrote about how it used the female characters, and specifically how it subverted the Damsels in Distress trope. The other thing that stood out to me was the action, not just the adrenaline of it, but the way they used it.

The typical action movie alternates prolonged scenes of battles, chases and stunts with quieter scenes. The quiet moments allow the audience to take a breath and let the action sequences stand out more. They are also the place where much character, plot and setting is developed. Mad Max omits these quiet moments almost completely. There are a handful, but they are so short, and so tightly hemmed in by mad paced action the movie feels like a massive chase scene. This is both the source of my biggest criticism and my biggest (story-centric) praise for the movie. On the one hand, a little more time taken to establish some more about the world and the characters would have been nice, as would a few more breathers. On the other hand, the way the action is used is better than what I see in the vast majority of films of its kind.

Ostensibly, the slow scenes in the typical action movie are supposed to flesh out the characters and fit in all that story stuff. In practice, because the writers are often far more invested in getting to the “cool scenes,” these scenes are rushed. They often include the dreaded infodumps, which are not only dull but also have the effect of pushing the audience out of the story. Writing teachers say “show don’t tell” because showing draws the audience in, makes them feel they have experienced the story. Telling the audience something blocks that experience. I know that in last year’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy, Gamera was stolen (research?) from her family. I don’t know anything about how the escaping wives in Mad Max ended up where they are, but I don’t care any more about Gamera than any of them. I do care more about (name) from Pacific Rim, because I didn’t get told about how the Kaiju destroyed her town. I saw it.

The action scenes run the risk of another problem. In many action films I’ve seen, there is plenty of punching, kicking, dodging, blocking, more kicking but different, and after a while all the moves and stunts run into each other. As Confused Matthew often says, they are video games that the audience can’t play. Nothing relevant to the story is actually changing.

One of my favorite books on writing, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, invents a word that I want every writer in the world to know; position. Position means where the character stands in relation to everything else in the story. Suppose the protagonists are running from a villain who wants their family heirloom that unlocks a portal to another world. If the villains catch up, the characters fight and the protagonists get away, things have happened, but nobody’s position in the story has changed. For that to happen, the villains would have to get the heirloom, or the heroes would have to lose it in a swamp, or they could come to trust a previously untrusted companion because of how they fought, or the heroes learn a weakness of the villain, or the heroes lose all their water, then in story terms something has actually happened. Still, even then, if there is five minutes worth of action for a single position change, this can actually slow the overall pace down.

Mad Max’s format forces it to avoid both problems. For one thing, because everything that had to be established also had to fit itself into an action scene, nothing was told. Everyone is characterized by what they do, every bit of worldbuilding is shown or implied or comes out naturally in dialog, and in short all the information you need to understand the movie comes to you in the middle of action.

The action, meanwhile, becomes full of changing positions. In one of my favorite scenes (early film spoiler ahead) Furiosa and Max are trying to outrun the villains in their big badass truck. At first they have the advantage, but then a henchman, who has sneaked on board, sabotages it to slow them down. Furiosa doesn’t quite trust Max yet, and neither do the rest of the escapees, but they are forced to cooperate to repair the truck without slowing down, and as the scene progresses there are numerous subtle signs that they are coming to trust each other. Despite their repairs, the bad guys catch up and it’s time for the chase scene to get a little more battle-y. The villains are getting close enough to get some good shots at Max and Furiosa. One of the escaped wives, Angharad, takes change and , hangs herself out of the cabin, blocking the shooters. Because she is the most prized wife of the villain, his snipers are no longer willing to take their shots. However this risk results in her falling to her death. This is incredibly tragic for the heroes, especially the other escapees, but it does save them all, as the villains stop to recover the body for the villain.

That’s 6 position changes, and I haven’t even covered what happens to the henchmen who got on board. Reading it written out takes some of the drama out (as you can see) but you can still imagine how this is much more engaging then fancy punch, fancy kick, duck, dodge, punch that looked like it hurt, different punch, on and on for even a quarter of the time. Stunts are awesome, but they can’t carry a story on their own.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve seen Mad Max twice, would definitely see it again, and highly recommend it to anyone in the mood for a two hour chase scene.

It’s also a good thing for me to watch as a writer. I work primarily in prose. I like action. I want to write stories with battle scenes, but thrust, parry, thrust comes across far better in a visual medium. I’ve heard people ask how to write good action scenes in these situations, and I think this is an answer. Let the disadvantage become an advantage. Change the positions of your characters within an action scene. Let things actually happen.