freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)


Some Things About Doctor Strange:
  • I am resolved to be more organised in my movie-watching experience so I never have to go back to Canal Walk as the only place a film is still showing. Their sound is always cranked up too high, and their projection is always too dark. Even in a 2D version. This does detract from one's experience of the film, particularly the night scenes, in that really one can't see what's going on. Also, my ears hurt.
  • Conversely, on a Sunday morning, even the one just before Christmas, I was the only person in the cinema, allowing me to put my feet up on the chairs in front of me and to apostrophise the screen with some vigour at whim. I love doing this. It's the best possibly movie-watching experience.
  • Significant swathes of this film were tragically miscast. My love of the Cumberbatch is a pure and abiding thing, but he's just wrong with an American accent, it's seriously distracting. The perfect fit of the gaunt lines of his face with the magician archetype wasn't quite enough to carry it. And the character's weird mix of driven egotistical ambition and irreverent one-liners never really gelled. Also, while my love of Tilda Swinton's particular brand of individualistic androgyny is an even purer and more abiding thing, a white woman should not be representing Nepalese mysticism. However elaborate the backstory that claims the Sorcerer Supreme as a global figure, a whitewash in this context has profound implications for representation and it bugged the hell out of me all the way through. Mordo, on the other hand, was great. Chiwetel Ejiofor is always great.
  • My profound fondness for spaceships and exciting techie gadgets notwithstanding, it's clear that, however flawed a film is involved, by gum at heart I'm a fantasy creature. Magic does it for me. It really does. Memo to self, fantastic beasts, eftsoons and right speedily.
  • Notwithstanding which, the film was so busy going "whoo!" at the special effects team as they had at the fractal nature of visual reality with both hands and cool glowing spell diagrams, that it really wasn't paying much attention to the plot. It offered a weird degree of emotional disconnect. I never quite cared about anything. If done properly, an over-arching cosmic threat should explicate and resonate (shut up, stv) with the protagonist's own issues and arc, and... not so much. It felt patched together. I do not think that this was a good script.
  • The Cloak of Levitation stole the show. Flirty thing. Like the best cats - sleek, self-possessed, wayward and pleasingly homicidal when not being affectionate.
  • This film failed the Marvel Test, viz. whether or not I'd sit through the credits to see the final easter egg. In a word: no. Was not sufficiently interested. Tragically, more and more recent Marvel films are actually failing the Marvel test, because, regrettably, more and more they are rehashed, homogenised, money-making artefacts whose actual content is dictated by a marketing committee and thus lacks inspiration, spark or narrative coherence. Yet another in the Giant Commercial Superhero Line, ho-hum. Yawn. With a side order of tone-deafness to issues of race and gender and the like. It's enough to make me, an almost entirely Marvel-fondling comics fan, eye DC edgeways with an awakening interest. The whisper flies around the clubs, could they be worse? I fear they could, yet still I am tempted.
  • Marvel test, failed. Bechdel test, failed. Sexy lamp test actually not failed on the second go (the female doctor's first appearance arc could have been replaced by a sexy lamp with "Doctor Strange Is A Dick" stuck to it on a post-it note, but on the second try she actually did plot-relevant stuff. Her third appearance could have been replaced by a sexy lamp with "SPOILER is SPOILER" stuck to it on a post-it note.). Furiosa test failed in spades, good grief, this was a movie about a man's struggle with ambition and power, MRAs drool at it.
  • I was prepared to love this film, on account of its confluence of several happy buttons, but no. I am disappoint.

My subject line is what happens if your dodgy memory mashes up two Shakespeare quotes, namely "passing strange" (Othello) and "indifferent honest" (Hamlet). I stoutly maintain that the conflation was irresistibly conjured by the quality of the film. Also, while the quote is possibly orbiting my brain randomly as a result of having seen BC in Hamlet (he was great), now I want to see him do Iago.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
oh god I can't believe it, the evil magic of Tumblr has ended up addicting me to an online webcomic about cute American college boys playing hockey. The American version of hockey, i.e. on ice. Ngozi's Check, Please! is weirdly poignant, bizarrely socially aware and basically adorable, mostly because Bitty (small cute gay Southern boy who bakes), and because of the locus of well-intentioned awkward anxiety that is Jack. The comic and fan responses to same have inexorably infected my Tumblr feed over the last couple of months. The fanfic is lovely. Of all the things I ever thought I'd find myself doing, enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey significantly doesn't make the list in any way at all.

As revenge, because it's my only defence against this sort of thing, I shall proceed to dissect it ruthlessly, and with maximum use of polysyllables. I think the thing appeals not just because it's well written and beautifully drawn, but because it self-consciously appropriates and subverts the classically heteronormative and traditionally ideologically ugly setting of the frat house. The male sports team/frat house is a homosocial space whose construction generally implies sexism, toxic masculinity, profanity and all-out grossness, but Ngozi's version of it is resolutely and redeemingly utopian. There's enough grossness and profanity to be vaguely realistic, but the stereotypes are lovingly deconstructed: homosociability is mutually supportive, socially aware, irreverent without being destructive. This reaches its apotheosis in Shitty, the team's Gender Studies wonk and part-time nudist, because apparently "Every hockey team should have a hipster who wears floral snapbacks and shouts about the ironies of male sexuality in the American collegiate Greek system while waiting in line for the pong table to free up." Characters rip into each other cheerfully, both on and off the ice, but the teasing is free of malice. Bitty's gay identity is open, and unquestioningly supported by the team; his endearing personality, which is approximately what you'd get if Tintin embraced the twink stereotype slightly more flamboyantly while more or less continuously baking pie, exists in beautiful relief against the far more macho vibe of the rest of the team.

Part of what Ngozi is doing here, I think, is to present as primary text something which has the sensibility of fan fiction straight off the bat; like slash fic, it posits male relationships in an idealised mode, one in which homoerotic elements, whether literal or subtextual, are celebrated rather than being denied, by the characters and setting as well as the writer. (The college setting is the fictional Samwell, presented as being the most queer-friendly campus in America.) The comic is thus inherently self-aware, existing in dialogue not only with its own raft of external texts (character Twitter feeds, the writer's blog with additional comics, headcanons and occasional character Q&As) but with the whole fanfic paradigm itself. Quite my favourite bit of the series is Johnson the existential goalie, who's a minor character whose hobbies include "breaking the fourth wall": anything he says is metacommentary on his own and the other characters' existences as comic book characters, and he cheerfully acknowledges his own purpose as a device for furthering various narrative arcs. The really good fanfic has him popping in to comment on the difference between his own characterisation in and out of canon. It makes my narrative-fondling toes curl in girly glee.

So, weird but true: I have to admit to enjoying web comics about cute American college boys playing hockey. Because life's odd like that. In a good way.

a saviour machine

Sunday, 17 April 2016 08:15 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
This is a piece of fan-fiction that posits the Avengers taking over the American presidential election, and I love it very, very much. It's acute and funny, but it's also a beautifully-encapsulated demonstration of exactly what fanfic does. Superheroes are already about wish fulfilment, and most importantly about agency - they are a response to the increasing complexity and scale of our lives, in which our own agency is nil in the greater scheme of things. Superheroes are a projection of our desire to make a difference. So this fic externalises that desire and makes it literal by injecting that utopian notion of agency into one of the most obvious and hopeless examples of large-scale dysfunction in our current environment, namely the American political system. Fanfic does for narrative what superheroes do for social evil - it gives us control. It must be a horrible feeling of helplessness, to be American and to feel that there's no way to stop the obvious asinine stupidities of Trump rampaging bullheadedly over the American political landscape. I'd take a Tony Stark puppet government in a heartbeat. Clean energy in three years, socialised medicine in five. Fanfic and superheroes both have power because their ultimate engagement is not with reality, but with utopia.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I can't say that it was official Movie Club, because Rule 1 of Movie Club is that we compare two movies, however tenuously connected. However, Sunday night's spontaneous movie-watching with jo&stv did fulfil one of the secondary functions of Movie Club, which is to make us watch movies we otherwise wouldn't. I have randomly and without justification re-watched both Star Trek reboots in the last couple of weeks, in an outbreak possibly not unrelated to randomly and without justification reading rather nicely-characterised slow-burn Kirk/Bones slash I happened randomly upon, but there is nonetheless no real way I would have seen Space Station 76 unprompted. However, now I have. And I have Thoughts.

This is billed as comedy, but it's only really comedy in the blackest, most parodic sense; it's satire, verging at times on allegory, and what it most resembles is a dastardly fusion of Star Trek and The Ice Storm, supposing you'd allowed the resulting horrific miscegenation to be scripted by Chekhov, or possibly Kurt Vonnegut. (It also shares some distant, cousinly DNA with both Galaxy Quest and Pigs In Space). It's a 2014 film set on a space station in a future imagined from the vantage point of the 70s. This of course means tacky special effects, plastic asteroids, Tupperware spaceships, sexual liberation, cigarettes, and mad outbreaks of 70s boots and mini-dresses. However, it also allows for the actually quite powerful essentialising of issues - primarily sexuality and gender - through the exaggeration which inevitably happens when you view 70s caricatures through a contemporary lens. The space setting strips away extraneous detail, leaving the deeply dysfunctional relationships to enact themselves starkly against the pastel plastic of the background and the isolation of space. The film was developed from a stage play, and you can see it in its scale, its minimalism, its horrible intimacy.

Space Station 76 is quite often funny, but one seldom laughs without wincing - the humour is close to the bone, frequently productive more of discomfort than amusement. (Some of the few places where both Jo and I unabashedly laughed were the therapist-bot sequences, which are both horrendously cynical and irresistibly funny to anyone who's ever been in therapy). The cast is generally very good, despite representing archetypes rather than actual personalities (the Sad Captain, the Unfulfilled Career Woman, the Monstrous Mother); the whole thing is played with a sort of deliberate, tongue-in-cheek self-awareness which never quite allows you to immerse yourself in the characters. I say "allegory" because the whole thing is so self-consciously artificial that it positions the viewer very interestingly in a space which denies the possibility of willing suspension of disbelief: you are poised in a critical space outside the events, ejected equally by discomfort and unreality.

I wouldn't say this is a great movie, and its black humour at times is deeply unsettling, but it's an interesting one, and one I'm glad I've seen. It's really doing things that are far more sophisticated than they appear at first glance. Also, clearly, sexual liberation does not equal happiness, and in fact exaggerates unhappiness with resentment that pressing sex button A does not produce happiness at the vending machine slot as it clearly ought to. Which is clearly true today, and clearly the point.

(My subject line is David Bowie, because that's where I am in the Great Car Sound System Alphabetical Trek. Arcade Fire, Bed On Bricks, Belle and Sebastian, Crowded House, David Bowie. (Apparently all my Clash is under The rather than Clash). We're going to be here for a while. The quote is from "Slip Away", quite my favourite track on Heathen, which is sort of early late-period-Bowie. The alphabetical order of album is disconcerting me slightly as I do prefer listening chronologically, particularly with Bowie; as it is, we've gone Aladdin Sane (later early-period rock(ish) with jazz bits) to Diamond Dogs (early middle-period apocalyptic glam rock, Black Tie White Noise isn't on this mp3 player because it annoys me) to Heathen (early late-period, lord I don't know, regressive alt-rock with an electronica element?) to Heroes (late middle-period Brian-Eno-shaped Berlin Years) to Hunky Dory (early early-period folk/rock/pop/who the hell knows, at any rate I've wandered around the department all day singing "Quicksand", as one does because it's a bloody earworm of note). As whiplash goes it's rather enjoyable, in fact. Weirdly enough, I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Bowie.)
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I am Randomly Amused this morning.

  1. My lovely new car is a lovesome thing, god wot, but it has a rather cheap and nasty sound system. As a result, I can't persuade it to play music off my MP3 player in any format other than through individual tracks in one ginormous string. This means that when it randomly resets, as it does occasionally if I don't switch the car off in exactly the right order, it starts at the top and works down, playing my musical collection in strict alphabetical order by (a) artist and (b) album title. The last time it did this I thought, right, clearly the Cosmic Wossnames are trying to tell me something, let's just let it. In the last week it has thus played through Arcade Fire and Bed on Bricks in short order and is currently in the middle of the more than elegant sufficiency of Belle & Sebastian which characterises my music collection. I am thoroughly enjoying the resulting slight whiplash, as well as the chance to rediscover odd corners of my musical taste I'd forgotten about.

    The Rules dictate that I don't skip tracks or otherwise disturb the order, other than the obligatory repeat of "Crown of Love" and "Wake Up", because I'm physically incapable of listening to either track just once. (Other than that I have decided, on mature reflection, that "The Suburbs" is probably my favourite Arcade Fire album, possibly because "Wasted Hours".) I'd forgotten how much fun Bed on Bricks are - they're a local outfit of some maturity and skill, not to mention considerable iconoclastic whimsy ("large Nigerian..."), whose overall style is eclectic but sounds at times like Chilli Peppers circa "Californication". And, for no adequately defined reason I haven't actually listened to any Belle & Sebastian for months. They tend to land me on campus in the morning obscurely soothed regardless of how many actual BMWs have cut me off in traffic. Possibly it's the Scottish accents.

  2. I think I posted the gifset of the cute wol bathing in a previous post, probably accompanied by the horrible moist owlet pun with which it was doing the rounds. Someone in my Tumblr feed unearthed the YouTube video which spawned it, which features not only the full bath experience (bathing birds are ridiculously cute, I love the air of ferocious concentration), but the bit where someone dries the bedraggled wol with a hair dryer. This makes me obscurely happy because I have rather lovely memories of my dad doing the same to his peregrines, when they'd been sitting on their block in the garden during a highveld thunderstorm. They do the same thing the wol does, spreading their wings to dry under them. I do like birds.



  3. Obligatory BC content: the Sherlock fandom is currently all up in arms because Benedict Cumberbatch, in an interview, was somewhat patronisingly dismissive of fanfic. (Not that this is anything new, he's characteristically a bit tone-deaf to fanfic issues and tends to make pronouncements which are clearly based on extremely sketchy knowledge; I suppose the fandom will eventually stop having small volcanic eruptions about it on the grounds that exhausting). What's tickling me no end, though, is the beautifully in-character fan responses: the current meme is to pick up on the rather outrageous interviewer phrasing of fanfiction as something which turns Sherlock into "a lustful cock monster". Current games: strategically place "lustful cock monster" into Sherlock dialogue on the "in bed" principle. (On John's forehead in the drunken Rizla game scene. Replacing SHERLOCK in the opening credits. "William Sherlock Lustful Cock Monster Holmes. If you’re looking for baby names.") Design new and ever more pink and sparkly t-shirts, icons and banners declaring "LUSTFUL COCK MONSTER" in defiant capitals and sprinkle them across the internet. Summarise the fic elements he mentions in the article and write actual fanfic to match, claiming that you're allowed because Benedict did. Etc, etc, etc.

    I love this. Apart from the fact that it's given me the giggles all morning (particularly since I teach a Sherlock seminar on Wednesday afternoons and have spent most of the morning making screencaps and constructing a Powerpoint on "His Last Vow" in between internet noodling), this is the essence of fan production. Take an element in the canon text which is clearly not addressed to you (and this is almost always a female "you") and which is ignorant of your actual desires and interests. Appropriate the hell out of it. Comprehensively reject the version of you it enshrines. Recontextualise, reshape and reimagine it in ways which do authentically reflect you, and which incidentally comment somewhat trenchantly on the limitations of the original text. Share and enjoy.

    I keep saying it: fanfic is a political act. The fact that it's enjoyable is almost incidental.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
parades end landscape

So, Parade's End! In utter defiance of my usual desperate fidelity to nothing but the fluffiest of genre tv, I am suddenly and inexplicably hooked on quality BBC renditions of period Modernist novels, with extra side helpings of war, tragedy and emotional distress. I dunno. Apparently I actually have the mental energy, which is probably not unrelated to my recent post on being (weird, go figure) un-depressed and even happy. Which, I am happy to say, is still the case.

My sudden interest in Parade's End is not just fangirling, although the link is Benedict Cumberbatch and I ended up watching it via the fan process - my Tumblr feed is still all about Sherlock, and if fan activity does anything, it introduces you not just to the investment of articulate fans in the central text, but in all the other texts they love, too. There's apparently only so much exposure to beautiful English countryside and Edwardian costume in lovingly-captured Tumblr gifs I can take before I have to damned well see the series.

And wow, is it beautiful. The production has a sort of glow about it, it's exquisitely conceived and shot, with an almost heightened reality to the period detail. That gives, I think, a slight sense of detachment from all of the mental cruelty and horrors of war with which the story is concerned - they are tragic and horrifying without actually being visceral, which is possibly also why I'm managing to enjoy it. But the visual spectacle is really only a context for the characters, from whom one doesn't detach at all. Wow, I invest in these people. All so interestingly flawed, groping unavailingly towards abstract ideals, so utterly shaped and entrapped by their social contexts, structures, expectations, morals. Their own desires so suppressed. Vivid, real, sad people, caught in a terrible sort of inevitability - not just war, although that flings it all into relief, but the shape of their everyday lives. The series is amazing, but now I really want to read the book.

And, let me tell you, it's deeply weird to find myself suddenly impelled to read the book, because my loathing for the Modernists is a pure and burning thing, and Ford Madox Ford is a maddened Modernist with all the bells and whistles. They've always struck me as arrogant sods with this whole thing of My Consciousness, Let Me Show You It. Generally, as a self-respecting genre theorist I have no damned interest at all in someone's naked consciousness, unfiltered by respectable genre functions or narrative conventions. A lot of this distaste is irrational and probably exists because I was badly savaged, in my impressionable undergrad, by a rampaging James Joyce - I never even tried Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist did for me all on its own in first-year English. At the time my high levels of nascent feminism and innate girly swot caused me independently to make valiant but unavailing attempts to read Virginia Woolf on the grounds that the Girl version of Modernism may be more palatable than the Boy, but oh lord. (Except Orlando. I love Orlando, it's a romp, albeit an angry romp, and it appeals to those bits of me that are into androgyny and shifted gender boundaries, which I am coming to the conclusion are rather a lot more of me than I'd realised).

But a sneaking sympathy has clearly crept up on me, because the Modernist framing of Ford's writing obviously influences the way the series is made, and I utterly adore the way the series is made. Apart from its deeply internal positioning and fascination with psychology, it's all allusion and implication, fragmented narrative, half-told stories, time-jumps, unexplained free associations - it makes you work, it doesn't explain, you have to construct it as you watch. I'm currently re-watching because I feel that I missed so much the first time round, and it's an immeasurably rich pleasure on a second viewing, when you can feel the operation of each instant in the arc of the whole. This is intelligent television based on an intelligent book, and thus, by gum, I'll prove myself intelligent by surviving Ford Madox Ford, or perish in the attempt.

I should also possibly record for posterity that, apart from an uncharacteristic inclination to give Modernism a second chance, watching Parade's End’s upper class Edwardianism, in which people perfectly unironically say things like “Ripping!” and “old boy”, has had the weird and possibly inevitable side-effect of mutating my already slightly indefinably pseudo-British accent inexorably towards ever more cut-glass Full English enunciation. (Like a Full English breakfast, only less hardening to the arteries). Especially, for some reason, when giving curriculum advice. I can't work out if the bell-like clarity is desirable or pretentious as hell, but given that my next Cunning Plan is to break out the BBC Bleak House I haven't got around to watching yet, the linguistic shenanigans are almost certainly going to amplify rather than receding. But it's my favourite Dickens, and Gillian Anderson doing Lady Deadlock is an act of inspired and genius casting such as the world has never seen, and apparently I now have the mental fortitude, so my immediate environment can just deal with the Britishness. So there.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Random thought for the day: this article is amusing, but it should have been written by a poet rather than a linguist, because you can sum up most of it by saying that random facsimiles of Benedict Cumberbatch's name can be reproduced by the simple process of juxtaposing two dactyls. Preferably two dactylic nouns with approximately the right distribution of consonants and vowel sounds, but the dactyl is the important part. Metre, people. It's all in the metre. What do they teach them in schools these days?

this means war

Wednesday, 30 July 2014 09:23 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
One of the more entertaining side effects of my liminal academic existence and strange research interests is that I'm becoming the go-to person for The Media when they approach my Cherished Institution for commentary on the more outré corners of culture: Lewis Carroll, or fairy tale, or Terry Pratchett, or vampires, or, apparently, fan fiction. Yesterday I found myself giving, at extremely short notice, a ten-minute interview with Cape Talk Radio, because two of the show's staff suggested to the host that he talk about fanfic, and he said "What's fanfic?" and proceeded to find out. I rather enjoy being given an opportunity to babble enthusiastically about my interests, and he asked good questions, and this morning there are three emails in my inbox from previous students going "gosh, fanfic, loved your lectures, nice to hear you babbling". (Not in so many words. Students are generally more polite, possibly because they're afraid I'll bite if they're not.) Also, apparently there's a podcast.. (I'm a bit sorry I didn't get into the gender stuff. Fanfic as a female response to the male domination of media narratives is my current personal hobby-horse).

But it's also amusing to note the attempts by said media forces to box and label my weird place in this faculty, leading to me being variously and erroneously identified over the last few years, despite my best efforts, as "the Head of the English Department", "the Dean of Literature", and, yesterday, "Lecturer of Fan Fiction", which sounds like far more of an official position than it actually is. While I lecture volubly and enthusiastically on fan fiction, this faculty would scream, shudder and faint in coils at the mere thought of a precious official position devoted to fanfic. But it's a nice illusion, for ten minutes.

Of course, this also means I was nicely primed for today's XKCD, which is enough on the nail that my colleague in the office next door has just wandered in, slightly worried, to find out the source of the mad cackles of laughter proceeding from my location.



This is such a beautifully layered joke, not just because it relies partially on our knowledge of the personal proclivities of black-hat guy in the strip. "Headcanon", for the uninitiated, is a fanfic term used to describe the personal, internal micro-narratives you have which round out a media character in some way not actually defined by the text, or not necessarily defined in a particular fanfic you might write - it's almost an unspoken assumption, and as a result of being unexamined, is often deeply personally felt. (In my Avengers headcanon they're totally all living in Stark Tower, and having sitcom interactions around movie nights and who's cooking and why Hawkeye is perched on things again. I tend to have a momentary snarl at each new Marvel movie because it doesn't actually embody that. Maybe Age of Ultron will, the preliminary stills are promising.)

The thing about fanfic communities, of course, is that they're intense and passionate, because they're built around intense and passionate feelings about texts. This means that they are prone to outbreaks of conflict which too often degenerate into mud-slinging and hissy-fit and demagoguery, known colloquially and collectively as "fandom wank". I am currently a little stunned by the divisions in Sherlock fandom around what is known as The Johnlock Conspiracy, which is the fervent belief that Moffat and Gattis always intended Sherlock as gay, John as bi, and a romantic relationship between them as the endgame of the series. The personal headcanon of "it's romantic/sexual" versus the personal headcanon of "it's not and the bastard showrunners are all about the queer-baiting" is, indeed, about heavy artillery and the need to obliterate the opposition, because the opposition's mere difference is intensely threatening to the inside of your own head. I shall be extremely surprised if this strip is not all over my Tumblr feed this morning, because, yup. That's exactly it.

winter is coming

Tuesday, 1 April 2014 11:11 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
SHOCK CAPE BID FOR WINTER OLYMPICS

I love April Fool billboards, they seem to inspire the fiendish iconoclast wordsmiths who produce them to new heights. Today's was the perfect exemplar of what I can only think of as the April Fool Hesitation, the momentary buy-in which mines the Pavlovian response via which we instantly and instinctively accept as real any major event which a newspaper describes. The true enjoyment of the joke is in the clash between that second of belief and the immediate realisation of its falsity - your mind falling over itself for long enough to create the classic delayed drop.

The perfect construction of this headline to me hinges on "SHOCK", because it frames the "fact" - Cape Town bidding for the Winter Olympics - as outlandish in itself: that is, it mimics perfectly the stock media response to something extreme and unlikely, rather than attempting to naturalise the bid as reasonable. (It also plays subliminally on our awareness that SA's World Cup hosting and various Olympic bids in fact make no damned sense anyway). That incredulous distancing is nicely judged to elicit complicity, to pull us into the illusion of belief for that vital second before the realisation, and the comic conflict, hits. The effect was to cause me to drive for three blocks in a fit of the giggles.

I could go off on a tangent about the subtextual environmental commentary in the idea of snow in Cape Town, but it's the kind of reading which would require me to expend green ink writing "this is a bit stretched" in the margin of a student essay, so I won't.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
So, there's this thing about voices. I'm not consciously aware of how important voices actually are to me until (a) I sit through an hour's meeting run by someone with a horrible voice and stagger out feeling as though I've been compulsively running my fingernails across a chalkboard, and (b) I do a quick check of a judicious sample of my various film and TV obsessions over the last few years and realise how many of them are inhabited by actors with beautiful voices. (Also beautiful hands, but that's another post entirely). I'm not sure if this is about musical training and a somewhat musical ear, or if it's about being hyper-linguistic and all about the words - probably a combination of the two.

The admin person with the horrible voice is actually a very sweet and efficient person, but ye gods, her voice. It's nasal, high, weirdly inflected, and cursed with an unpleasantly Souff Effrican accent which flattens and slides the vowels. It makes me think she's probably tone deaf, which is a diagnosis I tend to make about people with that strange flatness of tone, following the excellent example of Lord Peter Wimsey, another of my teen literary detective crushes. (Also ran: Sherlock Holmes, Albert Campion, Archie Goodwin). It doesn't help that she's also given to the exact opposite of incisiveness, and is capable of wandering on for several minutes enthusiastically agreeing, in excruciating detail, with my suggestion that the point under discussion should be taken outside the meeting as being boring and irrelevant to all others present. And it really doesn't help that I was in three different meetings with her today. My teeth are on edge.

Fortunately there are counter-irritants, actual and remembered. Snape. Alan Rickman reading Shakespeare sonnets. Alan Rickman reading my largest and least favourite board schedule, for that matter. Jackson's Tolkien is full of them - Galadriel and Arwen's contraltos, Gandalf, Boromir. Sean Bean has a lovely voice, it's always one of the trip-you-up unremembered pleasures of an Oblivion replay. (Voices are hugely implicated in any gaming choices I make: to be honest, I only ever romance Fenris in Dragon Age because of his voice). Smaug. Ye gods, Smaug. Sherlock, for that matter. What the fanfic does to Sherlock's baritone is quite something to behold. Thor's slightly gravelly dignity. Patrick Stewart doing pretty much any character. Annie Lennox.

There's a theme here, of course. A baritone is a lovesome thing, god wot. Or, if female, a contralto. I will have me some timbre on my ear. It's soothing. As is, apparently, a beautifully-enunciated British accent.

In other, tangentially related news, my Tumblr feed has just presented me with a string of ten different images of Benedict Cumberbatch crinkling his nose. My day has improved materially.

The subject line is Lewis Carroll, just for Scroob. I am in the brief, abated pause between the frenzy of orientation prep and the first programme hitting on Monday. You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.

for daws to peck at

Wednesday, 15 January 2014 01:47 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Occasionally my life is surreal. This morning I madly registered 23 rugby players for their year's courses, an early taste of reg hell occasioned by some giant manly rugby tournament they're all dashing off to and for which they are not eligible unless they officially exist on our systems. I would not have survived the morning had I not incautiously consumed a giant slice of mocha cheesecake for breakfast, which cushioned things nicely. (The boingboing recipe. I totally recommend this recipe, it's the only baked cheesecake I've ever made that I felt actually worked, and it's a totally delectable dose of sugar and caffeine, both of which are essential to my registration-surviving strategies.)The rugby players are sweet lads, but two-thirds of the first-years evinced a desire to study Law. What is it with rugby players and Law? It does not compute.

On the subject of people who do lots of exercise, I'm still madly into my brisk evening (or, occasionally, morning) walk around the Common, and feeling much the better thereby. It's a lovely walk, and I'm weirdly even enjoying the happy community feel of all the walkers/ runners/ cyclists/ kids on scooters/ floppy dogs/ nice ladies' walking clubs having chats. But I'm also a bit of an outsider to that crowd, on account of how none of the above tend to represent my essential tribe, viz. geeks. I see this mainly in the t-shirts. Exercisers tend to wear t-shirts indicative of Serious Sports, in the form of rugby shirts, American football shirts (I have no idea), shirts commemorating particular runs or white water rafting trips or hikes other manly/sportly activities, sports commodity brand shirts, or Serious Exercise Shirts With Exciting Support Bits And Radical Cuts. I wear whatever t-shirt happens to be at the top of my two-foot-high pile of random t-shirts I bought on Teh Internets because I like the design and/or sentiment, which means that over the last few walks I have treated the Common to "AND THEN BUFFY STAKED EDWARD, THE END", "KLAATU BERADA NICTO", "Ask Me About My Ray Gun", "OH R'LYEH?", a facsimile of the original edition cover for Orwell's 1984, that Scary-Go-Round cute robot one inscribed "IT IS OK TO BE YOU", the Knights of Good, and Captain Marvel. They are, shall we say, somewhat exotically out of place. The Common's exercise community can be under no illusions that a geek is in their midst. They don't seem to mind - a lot of them smile at me, in fact - but I feel as though I'm rather visibly advertising Difference.

And I was thinking, during one of these excursions, that in fact t-shirts are the modern way that we wear our hearts on our sleeves, very much in the sense of the medieval knight tying his lady's sleeve around his arm before hieing him forth into battle. I wear t-shirts which attest to the things that I particularly love, and for which I wish to be recognised - on some level, because there's a subliminal hope that fellow humans will admit to a love of the same thing, thus short-cutting social interaction. Which is not, in the final analysis, very different to the mad exercisers wearing trophies of races or excursions. But sf geekery is clearly cooler than brand names, even outside its natural habitat. And, on the evidence, considerably more entertaining.

The subject line is the second half of the Shakespeare quote about wearing your heart on your sleeve, which I had totally forgotten was Iago speaking. I loathe Othello with every fibre of my being, it's one of those slow-motion train-smash plays where you simply have to sit and helplessly watch people being obliviously self-destructive idiots, but I have a sneaking fondness for Iago. Efficient villains are worthy of respect.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I went back to work yesterday, after three weeks of holiday1, and more or less as a last desperate splurge before going back to work I gave myself a slightly mad Tuesday during which I saw two movies in actual cinemas and everything. The first was by cunning plan, viz. braving the holiday crowds for a morning show at the mall to see The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, which I have unaccountably missed seeing earlier. The second was a random last-minute invitation from Pam & Lloyd to see Gravity with them, which was a splendid idea.

The-Hobbit-The-Desolation-of-Smaug-Movie-2013

I have a sort of sneaking feeling that I shouldn't really have enjoyed Desolation of Smaug as much as I did. I didn't adore the film utterly, but it was fun, and full of hot dwarves and beautiful landscapes and Martin Freeman being endearing. Even so I'm faintly surprised that its adaptation choices didn't nark me off more than they did. There's some odd stuff going on there, a weird Jacksonesque abandonment of perfectly cinematic bits of the book (the staggered introduction to Beorn, for example. I was looking forward to that. They didn't do it. Phooey. And Beorn himself was simply lame.) in favour of brand new sequences which don't seem to serve any particular purpose (like Thorin and the lads scurrying frantically around dwarven forges for no other reason than because the director wanted an action bit right there.) And the spider battle was frankly pedestrian. I loved Smaug, visually and particularly his voice, although it's effects-ridden enough that it doesn't really sound like the actor (a pity because Benedict Cumberbatch's voice). The dwarven halls of the Lonely Mountain are spectacular. I really didn't have a problem with the introduction of Legolas, it gives a face to all the anonymous wood elves. Nor did I balk at the, hooray!, actual female character such as Tolkien didn't include at all in the novel. Tauriel was pleasingly kick-butt and it's just a pity that her potentially gender-corrective presence was utterly undercut by her immediately being slapped into a love triangle. Because clearly female characters can efficiently kill orcs all they like, they are nonetheless incomplete without a sexual function. Jackson and Stephen bloody Moffat are of the same casually sexist ilk. (Also, is it just me, or are Elven/dwarven relationships simply weird?)

Despite all the whinging above, it's weird that I probably enjoy the film because of its departures from the original, not in spite of them. As with the first film, I love the expansion of the story, the filling in of the blanks - the sense that Bilbo's journey fits into a broader tapestry of history and meaning and plot, with Galadriel and the Necromancer and all - not just the whole world, but Jackson's particular vision of it. Middle-Earth is so huge and rich, the kiddied-down version of it we see in The Hobbit is a glimpse in a tiny mirror, and it's lovely to feel the vistas opening up. I applaud Jackson's vision, even as I wish the result had been slightly less ham-fisted and self-indulgent and, even, thoughtless at times. The project deserves a better execution.

2013_gravity_movie-wide

I am kicking myself that I left it too late to see Gravity in 3D, which I believe was spectacular. Even on the Labia's smaller screen and with their scratchy sound it's a phenomenal film, a virtuoso manipulation of tension, narrow focus and narrative control - such a simple, stripped-down plot to be so utterly engaging. It manages to be beautiful at the same time as it's gritty and real, with that minimalism of image and character despite the vastness of its backdrop. I loved the absolute absence of the kind of cuts to flashbacks on Earth which a more popular sort of film would infallibly have interspersed with the references made by characters to events in their past. Those actors had a hell of a task, to establish and maintain their characters with so little to play off. But they are amazing actors doing an amazing job of a highly skilled script, with jaw-dropping special effects that enhance rather than replacing the significance of the characters. The conveniently adjacent space stations all in the same orbit were a bit of a stretch, but the film-makers seem to have done their damnedest to actually replicate the physics of movement in space and the contemporary technology of the station and capsules. Science fiction at its best, if you accept the broadest definition of sf as fiction which is intrinsically about humanity's engagement with technological advancement, although of course [livejournal.com profile] strawberryfrog's point is valid, that from another angle Gravity isn't sf at all, but the purest contemporary realism. Bugger that. This is the sort of story sf should be telling, and I claim it with pride.

Subject line is from the dwarves' song in The Hobbit, of course - book version, not film. Film is the craft of light. I'm not sure Jackson is good at dwarves, actually: they're too bloody rude and slap-stick, even if the theme of greed and corruption is being nicely developed in Thorin. Dwarven dignity should not turn on and off like a tap.



1   In the exact opposite of celebration of my return to work, a random selection of my muscles have seized solid and my sleep patterns have been shot to hell for two nights. Last night I dreamed Moriarty turned me into a deer because of my refusal to assist in his nefarious criminal activities, resulting in my rude awakening at 5am this morning as I fled through the forests with his pack of werewolves at my heels. Hooves. Whatever. I need a new job.

freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Much-Ado-About-Nothing Branagh Much-Ado-About-Nothing Whedon

We have this rather erratically-implemented movie club thing, where we select two movies with a related theme and watch them back-to-back, with a break for food, traditionally something on rolls. (In this case, chicken prego, and a dashed good thing too). Finding thematic links between films is actually ridiculously easy, on account of (a) humans are pattern-recognising animals, but mostly (b) there is nothing new under the sun, particularly in Hollywood. This time my choice cannot be said to have stretched our comparative ingenuity to the utmost: we watched the Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing, mostly for nostalgia, kicks and to establish a baseline, followed by the recent Joss Whedon version of same. It was a deeply Shakespearian afternoon, and a fascinating juxtaposition which achieved in spades the kind of enriched viewing through comparison and emphasis which is the whole point of the exercise. (Although, note to self: I possibly need to invest in a hearty supply of toffees for our next movie club, I can't seem to stop myself from commenting out loud while we watch and it has to be maddening to my co-watchers. Gluing my jaws together probably beats an actual gag.)

I adore Shakespeare because of his language, which practically defines the category of "the good shit" for my dodgy getting-high-on-words proclivities. Much Ado is simultaneously one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, because of the hyper-linguistic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, and one of my least favourite, because that flow of (slightly undergraduate, insult-based) wit isn't ever quite enough to mask the brutality and basic misogyny of the Hero plot. To a greater or lesser extent both the Branagh and the Whedon versions modernise the play, but there's no updating that beastly subtext of women as objects of exchange whose value is in the male perception of their virginity. For a comedy the play is surprisingly cynical about romantic love: Beatrice and Benedick's re-negotiation and rediscovery of each other is drastically undercut by the absolutely superficial nature of the Hero/Claudio relationship, which slides continually in the language of its representation into purely venal images of value and wealth. And that aborted wedding scene is simply brutal.

It feels more brutal in the Branagh version, I think perhaps because it's such an exuberant film and the contrast in tones is thus particularly cruel; Whedon's film is moodier, not just because of the black-and-white, but because of slightly darker undercurrents of unease and unhealth in the relationships, and less emphasis on the spark and snap of the language. If nothing else watching the two films together made me realise how utterly, beautifully trained British actors are - they inhabit and embody the words in a way that even brilliant American actors don't. American mumbling is probably more naturalistic, but I'll take enunciation any day. The tonal contrast is very strong in the different settings as well - the Branagh has that idyllic pastoral thing going and a strong sense of relaxed, exuberant peasantry as backdrop, whereas the Whedon is a tighter, smaller, rather restrained setting, more mannered and less earthy. Whedon's black-and-white format is effective, as is the weirdly unspecific periodicity - it often feels 50s in costume and manners, but there are cellphones and very modern cars. We decided in the end that the hints were towards a sort of Mafia setting, which is a nifty interpretation of the names (Don Pedro etc), but also one of the few modern Western milieus in which that nasty feudal-structure / violence / women-as-objects vibe is realistically present. Also, it has to be said - I covet Joss Whedon's house, which is where the whole thing was filmed. Beautiful spaces. Jealous.

It's very telling, to watch not just two different directors' interpretations back-to-back, but two different sets of actors in the roles. High points: both Beatrices are amazing, with enormous emotional strength which made both Benedicks feel weaker by comparison. On mature reflection I don't think that's entirely to do with the actors, though, Shakespeare's play simply constructs Benedick as a bit of a twit, a resonance which both versions pick up on with rather entertaining slapstick elements. (Although I have to say Amy Acker is also very good at these). I loved Clark Gregg's Leonato, but Whedon's film gives him comparatively less to do (although he was particularly great in the Hero denunciation scene). Nathan Fillion's very funny Dogberry was a far more restrained and nuanced interpretation than that egregiously horrible Michael Keaton one; the security guard schtick was fun, as was the presence of those two lads from Britanick (they do Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses and Trailer For Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever), who appear to have a mutual fanboy thing going with Joss. Hero doesn't have much of a presence in the play, but Kate Beckinsale's version (wtf? Kate Beckinsale? Good grief, I'd completely forgotten this was her first big role) is far better acted than Jillian Morgese's, which was a complete non-event. Sean Maher's Don John is beautifully, slitheringly evil and makes you realise how utterly dismal poor Keanu was in that role, my peculiar fondness for the match between the character and the actor's tongue-tied physicality notwithstanding. (I also really enjoyed the gender-swapped Conrade).

I love both these movies, enough that my feminist spluttering at its nastier bits doesn't overcome my simple joy both at Shakespeare's language and wit, and at the directors' and actors' enjoyment of same. It was lovely to see all the old Whedonverse favourites trotting out their Shakespeare stuff, it gave the play an intimacy and immediacy which was very effective. But I came away from the watching experience mostly with a sort of nebulous wish for a time machine and a cohort of RADA trainers, to spirit Whedon's cast away for some forcible re-education in diction and emphasis for about a year before they actually filmed. Shakespeare's language is brilliant, but archaic and at times convoluted; you have to spit it, not swallow it, if you want to convey its nuance to a modern audience. Half the time I had to seriously concentrate on making sense of it, to an extent where I wondered sometimes if the actors themselves were making sense of it, and that's not a feeling the Branagh version ever gives you. I fear I'm still a pervy Brit-fondler at heart.

Subject line is obviously Much Ado, Leonato describing the Beatrice/Benedick relationship. Shame on you if you didn't recognise it.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
sherlock irene

The new season of Sherlock starts on 1st January, and the BBC has just released a new, longer, interactive trailer that's pretty spanky and all. Tumblr is having hysterics, predictably enough. I must confess to a certain excitement. (Although, warning, that trailer made me exclaim "Sherlock, you bastard!" at least twice. They're interpreting the two years dead in the way the bulk of the fanfic does, which is to focus on how brutally the deception affects Watson and how emotionally detached Sherlock is from it; he's not going to be likeable this season). But I watched the trailer, and in particular the bit with the Stephen Moffat interview, and something crystallised for me, possibly because Moffat in interviews comes off as slightly smug.

See, my love for the narrative elegance of his early Doctor Who episodes notwithstanding, I still can't forgive Stephen Moffat for what he does to women across Doctor Who and Sherlock alike. He's not an enlightened thinker, certainly not a feminist one; his female characters tend to slide back into reactionary gender roles to a somewhat worrying extent. They wait. And have babies. Or unrequited crushes. Or are royally screwed around by circumstances. They're quite often passive in one or another way. They're almost always reacting to men, rather than having their own goals and agency, which means that ultimately any power that they have tends to reside in their sexuality.

And what he did to Irene Adler is the single thing that most annoys me about Sherlock. I've always vaguely assumed that it was because he insists on bloody well sexualising Sherlock, which I think is flat against both the letter and the spirit of Doyle's character. But today I realised it's not that, or at least not just that. It's also about the way he sexualises Irene herself. In the Doyle story she's "The Woman" because she's an intellectual equal to Sherlock: she doesn't seduce him, she out-thinks him. She's a sexualised figure in that she's beautiful and adored by men, but in fact she's characterised as a spurned woman more than an adventuress, and she doesn't randomly focus her sexuality against Sherlock himself: she triumphs over him in the story because of her intelligence, not her looks. The story takes for granted that Holmes himself wouldn't be susceptible to seduction anyway, it has to be a intellectual tussle. (In the original story Sherlock is actually fooled into not recognising Irene while she's disguised as a man, which I think is an important index both to how little her power is about her sexuality, and to how much Doyle equates her with Holmes himself - disguise is his own skill, after all). Moffat's Irene Adler is a complete reversal of this: the assumption in the episode is that she only prevails over Sherlock because her sexuality attracts, confuses and distracts him, which rewrites both of them.

That would be annoying even if Moffat hadn't gone the whole hog and made her into a dominatrix, which I find to be quite one of the most unpleasant symbolic sexual roles for women. A dominatrix, in the sense of a woman for hire as Irene is (I don't mean women in consensual BDSM relationships), is not about female power. The encounter is not about her desire to dominate: it's about the customer's desire (and that's usually male desire) to be dominated. She's a commodity, very much a sexual object whose apparent power is entirely illusionary. Irene Adler in Sherlock is thus neatly undercut in the same way that Molly's technical skill is by her infatuation with Sherlock, or that Donovan's strength of personality is by her affair with Anderson. Moffat can't think of women separately from men, and very often he can't think of them separately from their sexual identity. Even Mrs Hudson, apart from revolving around Sherlock, is tied to him through his past interference in the case against her husband. Irene Adler is the most extreme example of a worrying trend. (She's characterised as a lesbian who's helplessly attracted to Sherlock, for fuck's sake. Good grief. Sexist clichés much, Moffat?)

I love what Sherlock does to the canon, its creative re-interpretation of the characters, its updating of the narrative arcs. It's an amazing piece of adaptation. But it's also flawed, and a lot of what flaws it is Moffat's ideological ineptitude. It's doubly saddening, because I adore the elegance of structure of "Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace", but now I re-watch them with a critical eye for their women, and ultimately their women are sad.

(And it's only tangentially related, but while we're on the subject of women trapped in and punished by their sexual identities, you have to read this on the Susan/Narnia problem. It made me cry, and not so much forgive CS Lewis, as realise he's actually irrelevant.)

Subject line from "A Scandal in Bohemia", naturally: Watson talking about how alien the concept of romantic love is to Sherlock. I want to rub Moffat's nose in that paragraph.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
How do I hate this time of year? Let me count the ways. Apart from the manifest iniquity of board schedules, the exam committee season is distinguished by our exclusion review committee, which I instituted a few years back in a fit of loving nurture of student interests/control freakishness/complete insanity/all of the above, and which is a thoroughly important and worthy exercise in depression and exhausting focus. This year's assessment of every student excluded from any undergrad degree in the faculty via an individual and detailed contextual evaluation of their degree trajectory rescued 11 incorrect exclusions and overturned 24 others in a haze of generosity, but it also took 6 hours of Monday (literally. 11am to 5pm) and spat me out the other end in a state of spindle, fold and mutilation. Here, constitutionally empathetic person, have 6 hours of immersion in all the most lost, endangered and miserable records in the faculty. I am a Very Tired Creature just at present.

In addition, this year's exam season has knotted the muscles in my back and neck to the point where I've been submitting to a physio at regular intervals for the last three weeks, which has helped materially with minor issues like being able to sleep, unhook my shoulders from my ears and not scream when turning my head, while also being excruciating. (Apparently there's an inflamed vertebra in my neck). While the physio has generally been a good experience, the desperate self-control needed not to automatically tense up when a stranger touches me has been rendered more difficult by the fact that she damned well dry needled me. Twice, before I worked up the courage to ask her not to. I don't like being touched by strangers. It's a lot easier when they're medical professionals because my Lawful Good is inclined to trust them, but this mitigating circumstance falls away when they turn out to be addicted to what, as a sturdy rationalist and innate sceptic to whom Ben Goldacre is a patron saint, I mentally classify as "woo".

So, dry needling sounds all medical, but it entails sticking acupuncture needles into knots of muscle tension and, apparently, waiting for the resulting pain and endorphin release to relax the muscle knot. It's effectively acupuncture, although divorced from acupuncture's holistic philosophy thing; while my rather sweet physio vehemently denied that it's in any way acupuncture, a spot of internet research suggests that there's actually a high degree of correspondence between common dry needling and acupuncture points, and dry needling uses acupuncture needles. I don't buy acupuncture. Seriously, I mentally classify it under "wishful thinking" and "mystical self-deception". I really don't think the body works like that. Dry needling is obviously more embedded in an actual scientific discipline, but most of the sources I've read - even the cheerleadery yay-dry-needling ones - admit that studies of its actual efficacy are generally too small to be significant and are often badly designed. Actual clinical effects seem to be marginal, and I darkly suspect the fell hand of placebo in them.

And there's your problem, right there. I don't want someone dry needling me because (a) it's weird and partakes of "alternative" (i.e. bad) science such as I do not buy, and (b) if there's a placebo effect I won't bloody experience it because every nerve in my body is screaming "charlatanism!" at the top of its voice. Which is hardly helpful when the problem is muscle tension in the first place. So I hope I didn't hurt my lovely physio's feelings, she did a damned good job of unknotting my neck, but I could honestly discern no difference between my sessions with and without the needles and she can keep the wretched things the hell away from me.

Subject line from Eurythmics, "Aqua", which I wanted because it has a line about sticking a needle in, but which turns out to have even more appropriate lines which neatly encapsulate my current slightly bristly state.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It being Stv's birthday and all, we went out to Overture for supper last night. I feel that it is important and indicative that, if the Salty Cracker crowd could be said to have a favourite default restaurant at which to hang out and celebrate anything at all, it's bloody upmarket and one of the top ten in the country. The waitstaff know us. Stv got free champagne. At in excess of R600 a head for a four-course meal with a wine pairing, that's an expensive neighbourhood joint. (And a bit distant, too, being half an hour's drive away in Stellenbosch). It was a lovely evening, although slightly negative notes were introduced by the following:
  1. It's faculty exam committee season, which means I'd spent the entire day checking and annotating the 635 student records on a 364-page board schedule which is a fraction under 2.5cm thick. This puts me in a strangely zen state composed of equal parts of numerical trance, Machiavellian structural insight, advisor empathy and seething resentment, and incidentally renders me completely exhausted and glandular to the max. I was only really capable of conversation by the end of the first course and my second glass of wine. Overture was a kindly panacea to the day's ills, but conversely I wasn't really in the best state to enjoy it properly.
  2. We may be overdoing the neighbourhood joint five-star expensive restaurant thing to the point of over-exposure. The food was, as always, excellent, but I didn't think it hit its usual plane of dizzy high. Lovely tomato risotto (they always do great risotto), but slightly arb green bean salad with unidentifiable duck, and bland square chunks of mostly tender pork. Fellow diners' mileage may vary, you are perfectly free to blame my exhausted state rather than any diminution in quality, but I wasn't blown away. Beautiful evening on the terrace, though, exquisite dusk clouds, and as always the best sort of company.
  3. It is possibly fortunate that my tiredness was sufficient for me not to rise to the provocation offered by a fellow guest, who during the course of conversation incautiously offered a statement to the effect that she thinks Stephenie Meyer writes well. Them's fighting words, where I come from. It is my professional opinion that Twilight's stylistic and narrative infelicities are only marginally better than its gender politics in general loathsomeness. In default of the spirited debate and righteous suppression I would normally offer to such provocation, I present, as threatened, the blog which picks Meyer's grammar apart, with maximum snark. Fortuitously, today also gave rise randomly to this Slate article, which does statistical/linguistic analysis comparing three hugely popular texts - Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. It's a fascinating comparison, and in particular the tables which look at adjectives are extremely telling. Viz:





    The thing which immediately strikes me: Collins's characteristic adjectives and adverbs are generally more sophisticated, but they also relate to complex states and actions and very frequently to abstractions. Rowling's are very action-oriented, but you can see her younger audience intentions in their comparative simplicity, with a focus on straightforward emotional states which tend to reflect action. Meyer's are definitely less sophisticated than those used by Collins, but they're also almost entirely emotional, and when they're physical it's physicality which largely reflects or responds to emotion. This echoes the frustration I feel when reading Twilight (and, for the record, I've read the entire series twice and supervised a couple of graduate theses on the books, if I diss them it's from full knowledge and exposure), because really, when you get down to it, nothing much happens in them. You drift passively around in Bella's head while she angsts and reacts and feeeeeeeeeeels. The language is not accomplished at the structural level, frequently obvious and clumsy and weirdly unfocused (my undergrads can do better), but it's the pacing, characterisation and plot which are really problematical, and which are heartily outdone by almost any piece of fan fiction I have read recently. I stick by my assertion. Even without getting me started on the gender politics, Meyer does not write well.

Rantage and random analysis brought to you courtesy of my really rather strong feelings about this, did you notice? And by the sure and horrible knowledge that in about twenty minutes I go to meet my four-hour meeting doom. Doooooom! At least the energy from all that ranting has my blood buzzing enough to mostly compensate for my state of over-fed, mildly hung-over sleep deprivation. Now with extra glands. Sigh.

Subject line is still Arcade Fire, "Wasted Hours", from The Suburbs. It's a ridiculously catchy, lilting, gentle tune which was playing in the car this morning and which has thoroughly colonised my head. It's curiously soothing, particularly after losing a day to board schedule checking. One feels they understand.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
reflektor

Arcade Fire, Reflektor. Arrived today. Here are dispatches from the front.

  1. Wait, do I have the right disk? Is this Arcade Fire? This isn't the usual textured indie pop/rock sound, it's danceable. Lots of beat, synth, electronics. When did Arcade Fire start doing disco? Or is it more 80s dance? Must have wrong disk in sleeve.
  2. Oh, wait, yes, that's Win Butler's voice. And the classic Arcade Fire layering and texturing and instrumental density and general tendency to head off in new, complex directions without warning. Characteristic melody lines swing in occasionally.
  3. Am bopping quietly in seat.
  4. Sounds a bit like the Bowie reinvention circa Scary Monsters or so, with a touch of Outside.
  5. Wait, wtf, was that a David Bowie vocal for a line or so?
  6. Quick google reveals that it was indeed a David Bowie vocal for a line or so. *awards self fangirl Cold Recognition merit badge*.
  7. This is an extended and rather dirty flirtation with rock and pop history.
  8. I miss their violin.
  9. Nice drums. Not quite African, perhaps Caribbean? Keep cropping up.
  10. Why do I love this? Not my usual thing at all.
  11. That was thrash punk, but only very briefly.
  12. Wait, end of the disk already? They've split one massively-long album into two short disks. Seems a bit unnecessary.
  13. Oh, hello Arcade Fire, there you are. Disk 2 is apparently gentler/lighter, less danceable, more like the Arcade Fire we know and love and are generally intimidated by.
  14. Still very electronic, but at least the violin swims by occasionally.
  15. I love this track, it has the classic Arcade Fire build and soar, what is it? "Awful Sound". Are you fucking with us, Arcade Fire?
  16. 80s synthpop flashbacks. That that didn't go so well for Bowie in critical terms, but I'm really enjoying their take on the sound, possibly at least partially because nostalgia. They seem to be stuffing around with Orpheus/Eurydice motifs.
  17. These tracks should feel overlong, but really don't.
  18. The fuck? The end of this track is apparently six minutes of vague, ethereal electronic improvisations over what seems to be the sound of a tape rewinding. Strangely soothing.
  19. OK, hooked. I love this. It's not an album so much as a sort of explosion; it jolts you out of your expectations on a more or less ongoing basis. This album does not deal in comfort zones other than momentarily, and only because they lull you into a false sense of security. They're doing fascinating things with lyrics and theme which I'm not even properly aware of because I'm so submerged in the sound, and which I may start to unwrap after a few (dozen) more listens. This is an album to swim in.
  20. I mostly love Arcade Fire for their texture. This definitely delivers. It's also, of course, a direct pandering to my deep-in-my-bones and only semi-intellectual love of anything which consciously stuffs with genre and structural expectation. The Orpheus/Eurydice motifs are semi-ironic, because this sure as hell doesn't lose anything when it looks back.

Subject line is that warning they put on rear view mirrors. Arcade Fire seems to be generally fascinated by reflection and light. Black mirrors, neon, flashbulbs. And with things not being what you expect.
Chunks of this post ganked off my Twitter, incidentally, assembled here for your convenience, or possibly mine.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Pacific-Rim

Pacific Rim fascinated me for months before I'd even seen it - not because it's giant monsters trashing Tokyo (which I love) or Guillermo del Toro (who I also love) or at least a partial departure from Americanised Hollywood gender and race tropes (which I crave), but because of the fan response. My Tumblr feed is full of fandoms, skewing heavily comic book, Tolkien and TV show, and a substantial chunk of them seem to have embraced jaegers and kaiju and pilots in the drift with an instantaneous, full-on investment which is strangely heart-warming. Watching the film last night was an exercise in happy recognition, as though I'd become a fan of the film before I'd even seen it via a sort of dizzy second-hand joy.

This is particularly fascinating because it's not a conventionally great film. I have to admit that my enjoyment of it was severely compromised by Nu-Metro's traditionally ham-fisted and overstated attitude to sound production: films at Canal Walk are habitually both over-loud and shockingly badly balanced, so that you can't hear the dialogue properly because of the way the sound effects and music have stunned your ear canals. This blunted the film's effect, I think, so that it felt more like a big/loud/stupid monster blockbuster than it actually is - I'm strangely looking forward to seeing it again on DVD, preferably Blu-Ray and a nice big HD TV, so that I can escape both the noise assault and the manifest irritations of 3D glasses while still enjoying the spectacle. (I can't wear contact lenses. My long-distance sight is appalling. Glasses over glasses for 3D purposes are distractingly annoying, and I kick myself that I left seeing the film too late for it to be available on circuit in 2D). The noise thing is particularly problematical because the film's subtleties and appeals, of which it has surprisingly many, are entirely in the fact that it's a character-driven narrative. This is the anti-Transformers: while it has giant robots and monsters and lots of bashing, it's not about the special effects, but about a heart and soul which are quintessentially humanist.

The film's genesis is specifically in the traditional Japanese kaiju and mecha narratives, which are explicitly recreated with a nice balance of nostalgia with evangelism: del Toro hopes to introduce these stories he loves to a whole new generation. The plot itself is very simple, and is laid out via rather pedestrian exposition in the first ten minutes of the film: Earth is invaded by giant (as in Godzilla-sized) reptilian monsters who arrive, rather than from outer space, via an inter-dimensional rift on the floor of the Pacific. This means that they crawl out of the ocean to trash cities on the Pacific rim, in the approved kaiju style, to be beaten back by equally giant metal humanoids who are driven by two human pilots through a sort of rig thing which translates their movements to the mechanism's. Because the size and complexity of the mecha are too great for a single human brain, pilots are neurologically linked to manage it in tandem through a process called the drift. Shenanigans ensue.

And really, looking back at that simple summary, that's exactly why it works - exactly why it isn't the flash-bang Michael-Bay emptiness of Transformers. The kaiju threat attacks the Pacific Rim, which means it's international: cities have their own jaegers, so pilots in the film are Russian and Chinese and Australian as well as white and black and Asian and American, but the response is a co-ordinated one, not Amurrica Saves the World. The theme of co-operation continues in the drift, which is about compatibility and connection as well as co-operation, but it's interpreted in interestingly diverse ways - pilots include teams who are father/son or siblings as well as a married couple, so it's not just about Teh Romance. The central team has the expected white male American point-of-view character, but his partner Mako is female and Japanese, she kicks butt in a remarkably non-sexualised fashion (the stick-fighting scenes are simply cool), and their relationship is actually interpretable as sibling as much as romantic. The visual design of the film is spectacular and at times surprisingly subtle (see this very interesting fan analysis), but, unlike Transformers, it's not just about action spectacle. You feel connected to these characters: it's easy to distinguish jaeger from jaeger not only in their names and colours and differentiated abilities, but because their pilot teams are so distinctive, often solely because of visual and action cues rather than dialogue, and because the mecha in the end represents the individuals, it doesn't replace them.

These twin poles of diversity and connection are, I think, why this film speaks so powerfully to a fan audience, whose drive is always towards empathy and identification. The international nature of the team as much as the mechanism of the drift celebrate the idea of community, of diverse individuals joining together in the service of a shared experience and goal. That's what fandom is. And over and over again, the kind of fan who loves this film and saw it multiple times on circuit and is producing fan-art and fanfic and in-depth discussion about it, says upfront that it's because they can find themselves in it. Unlike the traditional Hollywood action blockbuster, it doesn't present for your identification only the heroic white American male and his adoring and skimpily-clad white women. Its motivating force is about internal drive rather than external stereotype; the film itself, and the attitude of its creators (as in the del Toro interview given by the director himself to a Tumblr fan community) recognise, reify and celebrate the importance of communal rather than individual action. This is why, despite its action focus and its sometimes clunky and minimalist dialogue and plot, Pacific Rim is anything but simplistic, and why it's ultimately absolutely worthy of the director who also created Pan's Labyrinth: it rises above its apparent limitations to speak an emotional language of exceptional power and grace. As a film about giant metal machines battling giant reptilian monsters it absolutely delivers, but actually it's about people, and what people can do together rather than apart. We need more of these. Hollywood has become very bad at them. It's nice to know it can be done.

bump and grind

Wednesday, 22 May 2013 02:52 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
So, Jo and I had one of those Girly Movie Evenings last week, wherein, in the absence of stv, we watched Magic Mike. I am compelled to admit that, on the evidence, we probably don't get this Girly thing in the terms in which we possibly should. Because there we were: us girls together, a movie about male strippers, a bottle of wine, appropriately phallic hot dogs for supper, a general predisposition to giggle, and a completely unblushing tendency to pause the movie frequently at precise psychological moments in order to ... seriously discuss the implications for gender politics in the scene. As in:

"Gosh, the body language is interesting..."
"Yes, watch the women: open mouths, hands over mouths. They're shocked at themselves, caught doing something they shouldn't. Totally different to men at a strip show."
"It's still about male sexual dominance. Look at how often they use the women in the audience as props."
"I don't find them attractive. Should I be finding them attractive?"
"They're still filmed like sex objects."
"It's not about the sex. This is a sad movie."
"Millennial generation, it's all about drifting without meaning."
"Stripping is actually just a metaphor for empty display."

I found it very odd to watch: the cultural coding of almost naked men on display for a female gaze is radically different to that of men watching women strip. (We conducted further research by digging up clips from a bunch more male stripper movies, and they're all pretty much the same). It's not actually subversive of a gender paradigm in any way, because there is a clear sense in which the male stripper is getting off on the attention: that is, he's a subjectivity more than he's an object. As Jo pointed out, he has none of the subtext of shame which attaches to a woman in the same position, and a very clear sense that attention paid to his sexual flaunting is somehow his right. (Which is probably why I am profoundly not turned on by the display). The ramifications of this in the overall plot, and the development of the character called the Kid, were bloody terrifying.

Charming Potato, however, is moderately endearing in the actual story part of the lead role, and he's clearly a dancer - he moves beautifully. Matthew McConaughey made my skin crawl, as did the character development of the Kid. But it's not a bad film.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Today I appear to have bullied my therapist, been excessively nice to a string of students, and taken a flamethrower to my Intray Of Doom, which was starting to achieve sentience via the compaction heating of its organic layers. This appears to be guilt in operation, not least because I am now badly overdue on one paper submission and slightly overdue on the other, but spent the last few days playing Morrowind nonetheless. In mitigation, Monday afternoon through to the Wednesday public holiday (yay workers!) was rendered more than usually null and void by a lovely gastric bug, which means I'm still pale and nauseous and inclined to dry crackers and staring moodily into my tea. However, the weasel-like cunning of my Cunning Plan is now revealed: having a monthly Acknowledgement of Intellectual Debts post is a free and ready-made theme about which I don't have to think very hard, so hooray!

Things Wot I Have Referenced In April:

  • 4th April: "how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death?". This is, of course, e e cummings, the poem without a formal title, but usually referenced as "Buffalo Bill's". I have an unremitting adoration for e e cummings, I love the jerky, fragmented life and colour and convoluted wit of his poems. This one talks about heroism with a wry, partially deflating tone which makes that last line, the one I quote, amazingly complex. The post was talking about the Iain Banks cancer news; like Buffalo Bill, Banks seems to me to be inherently associated with death, and with a dark and deconstructive sense of heroism.
  • 5th April: "worlds collide and days are dark". I'm quoting the lyrics to Adele's "Skyfall", in the post reviewing the movie. I remain unimpressed by the movie, but I still love that song, and the quote covers both the clash of genres and the descent into Gothic which I found in the film.
  • 11th April: "one day in spring I'll take him down to the road". Belle & Sebastian lyrics, to "Dog on Wheels". Beautifully appropriate to a post about those little ambulatory robots in the park.
  • 19th April: "a truth universally acknowledged". The post was being madly enthused about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; anyone who didn't recognise the quote from the opening sentence of Austen's Pride and Prejudice should jolly well be ashamed.
  • 22nd April: "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing". Star Wars, Obi-Wan. Of course. Slightly lateral given that the clip in the post was Harrison Ford, but he's really getting old.
  • 28th April: "Drive-in Saturday". Title of the David Bowie song, not entirely thematically appropriate. In retrospect, "Science Fiction Double Feature" would have conveyed more of the movie club multiple-film sense without the resonances of weird post-apocalyptic desexualisation, but on the other hand I was talking about Iron Sky...

Today's subject line, incidentally, a quote from Wil Wheaton, from this lovely meditation on geekery or nerdery and what it actually means. He's right: it's about the intensity of the connection: that the actual object of all that affection is purely secondary, which is why geeks can flock together even if they variously represent DC and Marvel, or Star Wars and Star Trek. Given that this subject-line roundup has referenced a good proportion of my nerdy loves (poetry, Gothic, Belle & Sebastian, Austen, online narrative, Star Wars, David Bowie), it felt appropriate.

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