Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sunshine and Rainbows and Puppies: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things!

My blog posts can often be on the cynical side, so I've decided to dedicate this one to some of the things that I appreciate.  In no particular order or category:

1.  Puppies!  All doggies really.  Actually, I'm an animal lover through and through, but I can't have cats due to allergies.  But there's just something so nice about doggies... they love you when you're sad, they just want to be near you, and the only things you need to give in return are food and some hugging/playing time.

2.  Professional Sports.  It can be painful when your professional sports teams are going through bad times, but when they're doing well, nothing is sweeter...

3.  Les Miserables.  No elaboration needed.

4.  Most Musicals, Really.  There's something energizing about them, so that even Just Okay musicals can perk me up.  Well, maybe not you, Rock of Ages.  There's something about the idea of just bursting into song and dance in public.  Maybe I should start my own flash mob.

5.  The Internet.  The Internet has changed and complicated life in ways unimagined, but I remember what life was like before.  Back when I was 16, I was researching a novel that would become the "mother" of the one I'm writing now.  I had to rely on the understocked public library to do research about the most basic subjects, and wait weeks for interlibrary loan to bring me the best books.  And archival material?  Forget it.  Purchase a ticket and fly there.  Now so much is available with a point and click (and an online subscription).

6.  Vanilla Cupcakes.  Cupcakes have become cliche, but there is a reason they've become a big hit.  They're for when you want cake, but can't justify buying a full cake.  So you just buy a cupcake, and there's no cake sitting in the fridge, waiting to be consumed, and oh I'll just have one more slice, what can it hurt...  Though I love chocolate, there is something light and pleasing about a vanilla cupcake with buttercream frosting.

7.  Hugs.  Because they're the best, especially when you think you need them least...

8.  Retro Video Games.  I started playing video games back when they were still 2-D, in the golden age of Super Mario and Zelda.  Though I tried the 3-D games, it just wasn't the same; I had less control of my surroundings.  That might have had to do with the construction of those games, though.  But the 8-bit or 16-bit limitations enabled me to fill in the gaps with my imagination.  And now those games have made a seamless transition to computers, with a twist.  Try playing Super Mario One with Link as the protagonist, or Princess Toadstool!

9.  Cartoons.  By which I mean all animation.  I think it's a shame that CGI is so dominant right now.  While a perfectly good art form, it doesn't beat the complex lines, shapes, and movement of traditional drawn animation, which can be very diverse, from Disney style to Persepolis.  

10.  Coffee.  Good coffee, mixed with chocolate especially.  How would I get through my morning without you?

Oh yeah, and sunshine and rainbows: pretty cool as well.  Though I also like rainy days.  That will go on my next list of Favorite Things.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: It's Okay to Whine. No, Really!

In American culture, whining is probably second only to murdering in terms of being a scorned activity.  Those who whine are labeled childish, selfish, soft, weak, lazy, lacking character, and "everything that's wrong with today."  Americans don't want whiners -- we want winners!

Yet the definition of "whine" can be difficult to pin down.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary merely describes the sound -- "to utter a high-pitched plaintive or distressed cry" or "to complain with or as if with a whine."  As does the Free Dictionary: "To utter a plaintive, high-pitched, protracted sound, as in pain, fear, supplication, or complaint."

So the sound isn't pleasant, but does that mean the reason for it should be ignored?  What is the fine line between a valid complaint and a "whine"?

Maybe the answer lies in our view of the American ideal: the stoic, rugged individual who takes a single tree on a barren landscape and turns it into a house.  The individual who takes 30 cents in pocket change and uses it to form a business.  He or she (usually a he) doesn't complain about what he doesn't have because he is too busy doing and achieving.  In fact, it's usually because he's too busy taking control of his situation that he doesn't whine.  And because of his effort, he achieves his goals and doesn't need to whine.

In this view, the people who whine aren't just people who didn't achieve their goals, but people who didn't even try to achieve their goals.  They were too busy complaining that life isn't fair to put in the necessary effort to achieve.  After all, some other guy funded his business with 30 cents, so it must be possible for everyone!

This perspective ignores the obvious alternative: that the "whiner" has worked hard, stayed patient, and persevered, yet still has not achieved his or her goal... and now realizes that it may not even be possible, for reasons that have nothing to do with talent, hard work, or "wanting it enough."

That isn't the only reason people "whine."  Sometimes it's because the person received cruel treatment from his or her partner.  Sometimes it's because the person is only now coming to terms with the fact that he or she grew up in an abusive household.  It could be due to any valid reason.  Dealing with painful episodes isn't always pretty.

Yet too often, we must act as if nothing bothers us.  Which brings me back to the question: what is the fine line between a valid complaint and a whine?  Answer: a valid complaint doesn't sound like a complaint at all.  The complainer is confident, speaking in precise sentences honed in a television writer's room.  He or she doesn't complain, but asserts.  There is no whining or weakness; the complainer make speak of negative things, but he or she is dominant, a winner.  Most importantly, the complainer does not dwell for long on the negative, but instead looks ahead.

There is nothing wrong with the above approach, except for when it is assumed to be the BEST or the ONLY way to cope with a bad situation.  In popular entertainment, there are even enforcers of this norm.  I call them the You Know What? characters.*

Say there is an episode where the main character struggles and claims that life is unfair.  Cue the You Know What? character.  She (it's usually a she) stands up, hands planted on her hips, head cocked slightly, and says in a slightly snotty tone: "You know what?" before launching into a blistering attack on the main character's priorities, personality, or any other weakness.  Sometimes she might utter a curt laugh beforehand.  The You Know What? character is meant to force some perspective on the main character.  Yet usually she is the least credible person to give advice.  She is the bad girl at school, ignoring all the rules she doesn't like.  Kindness, respect -- you have to earn those, bitch.  But show discontentment with your own lot and she's all over you.  She may often begin her speech: "You know what?  When even I'm offended, you've gone too far."  Or: "You know what?  I'm terrible, but at least I don't pretend to be anything else."  Yes, she's horrible 100 percent of the time instead of just 20 or 30 percent, so that makes her better!  Certainly it entitles her to be the moral authority of the episode.

There is a place for You Know What?, such as when people complain without thinking of their audience.  The ones who complain about being downgraded to business class might not want to do so in front of those stuck in economy.  But the problem with You Know What? is that it is often used as a mechanism to gloss over relevant problems.

"You know what?  You're really spoiled earning $15 an hour.  There are people in China who earn 30 cents for a whole day."

"You know what?  You're really narrow-minded complaining about unequal pay for equal work.  Don't you know there are girls who are beaten just for going to school?"

You know what?  It's ALWAYS worse somewhere else.  That doesn't mean things aren't bad here.

In fact, "whining" can be a very positive thing.  Once you realize that something is unfair, you can potentially deal with it -- by walking away, making your peace with it, or trying to change it.  Many people "whining" can lead to important reforms.

Of course whining can also be inconvenient -- especially to the You Know What? crowd.  Not coincidentally, the real-life You Know Whutters tend to be pretty well situated, the ones who would have to give up something to appease the "whiners."  But of course they never whined... right?  "I started my business with 30 cents!  And had to walk 10 miles in the snow every day to get to my office!"  Yet they only discovered whining when those weak, ungrateful "whiners" dared to suggest that they had it too good.  Before that, they never whined -- never!

To these people, the only ones worthy of positive change are those who never complain.  Then good things just descend upon them as if by magic.  The model "non-whiners" are allowed to want things, but it must be in a way that inconveniences no one else.  The non-whiner will inevitably be rewarded, though the "how" is never spelled out.

But can whining go too far?  Certainly, if the "whiner" gets stuck dwelling on life being unfair and does not attempt to change either the unfair practice, or his or her response to it.  The trick is figuring out when that moment arrives, because for each person it's different.  Some people are so impatient that they expect others to get over their problems immediately.  Others may take weeks, or months.  We each have a different timetable for working through our problems, one that no one else will share.  Only we will know when it's time to "get over it."  While advice from others can be helpful, they should by no means assume that they have moral authority over the "whiner," the one who has dared to show a little vulnerability.

Finally, whining can be good for you not just because of the above reasons, but also because not whining can be unhealthy.  There is some evidence that suppressing your emotions can lead to more inflammation in the body.  Constantly suppressing your anger, fake smiling, trying to pretend the pain and anger you feel aren't really there... does that sound like a preferable way of living?  

So go ahead and whine, and ignore the moral tut-tutting of the You Know Whutters who tell you that whining is a sign of weakness and unworthiness.  It's your life, not theirs.  If they don't like it, they can always walk away.  

* There is probably a TV Trope name for this character, but I don't know what it is.  One good example of a "You Know What?" character is Santana from Glee.  But then, it's been a couple of years since I've watched that show, so she may have completely changed.

The above photo was taken by sskies and is not intended to suggest that sskies endorses the content of this post.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Rock of Ages

At this point, it's becoming more difficult to find notable movie musicals made in the past 15 years.  Live-action musicals, that is -- of course there are countless animated ones.  There are a few obvious live-action musicals still left, but otherwise, I'm struggling to think of any.  That brings me to Rock of Ages.

Like Across the Universe and Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages is a jukebox musical.  Unlike Across the UniverseRock of Ages isn't "wrong" because its ambitions and creativity fell just short of the mark.  No, Rock of Ages has very simple aims: be feel good and nostalgic.  Yet unlike Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages does not fulfill these aims.  I am hard-pressed to think of a more blah musical.

Rock of Ages began as a stage musical.  Whereas the other two jukebox musicals dug into the song catalogue of one band, Rock of Ages features songs from a variety of 1980s hard rock and "hair metal" bands: Journey, Guns N Roses, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and so on.  The story is this: fresh-faced girl comes to Los Angeles dreaming of becoming a professional singer.  FFG meets fresh-faced boy, who works for the Bourbon Room, a famous rock club that has fallen on hard times.  It turns out that FFB wants to be a singer, too!  Anyway, the Bourbon Room's owner (Alec Baldwin) decides to book bigwig rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), of the band Arsenal, to draw a big crowd and pay his tax debt.  However, Jaxx is a self-indulgent asshole who rubs everyone the wrong way.  Meanwhile, FFG and FFB have fallen in love, and FFB gets the opportunity to be a star when the opening act cancels (so FFG's singing dream is forgotten?).  When FFB thinks that FFG had sex with Jaxx, he gets angry... and channels that anger into his music!  And becomes a hit!  But now he hates FFG!  FFB signs with Jaxx's corrupt manager, and...

... other stuff happens.  I think the wonderful Bryan Cranston has a small cameo.  But otherwise, I can't really bring myself to care.

The Good

Alec Baldwin Was Funny.  Alec Baldwin is usually funny in whatever he appears in.  Especially when he plays a long-haired hippie.

Some of the Songs... I liked them.  I'm not a huge fan of hair metal, but there was a good enough mixture that anyone could find one or two to like.

New Kids On the Block Reborn!  The one genuine laugh in this movie came from FFB's new band, which was a clean-cut boy band in the New Kids vein (this is set in 1987).  The look... the songs... the dance moves... were so spot on.  It instantly sent me back to my youth, when I was making glitter T-shirts for my friends with Jordan Knight or Donnie Wahlberg's face on them.    

Otherwise.... there wasn't much.

The Bad

Tom Cruise... Overrated.  Before I watched, I heard that at least Tom Cruise's performance was worth watching.  But not only was he not in the movie much, but when he was in it, he was irritating.  He also doesn't have a very strong singing voice, so I can't really buy him as an arena rock singer.  While it's always nice to see Cruise play against type, it didn't feel like he was stretching himself in this role the way it did when, say, he played Lestat in Interview With the Vampire.

Fakery.  The lip syncing and autotuning were very obvious throughout, which is irritating in a movie where most of the singing is at a microphone.  Movie singing doesn't always have to be live to feel "authentic," but at least the lip syncing should be convincing.  I know it can be done -- I've seen it -- so the fact that it looks so obvious here is either lazy production values or ignorance, or both.

Characters You Can't Care About.  FFB and FFG are as bland as they come, which accounts for why I can't even bother to name them.  Jaxx is more interesting, but a jerk.  I guess if the movie deserves credit for one thing, it's that at least the plot line is more complex than Mamma Mia's, not that that would be difficult.

Does Not Make Me Nostalgic.  Granted, I never had much fondness for this era of music (I prefer early 80s or early 90s), but a good movie can make me feel nostalgia I never knew I had.  It wouldn't be that hard.  I remember that time period.  I was there.  Make me remember how awesome it was, movie!  Show some infectious spirit; make me feel the thrill.  Don't be so manufactured and meh.


When Rock of Ages tanked at the box office, many prognosticators claimed that it was because it was a musical, and therefore spelled doom for Les Miserables, which would come out later in 2012.  Fortunately that wasn't the case.  Rock of Ages didn't fail because it was a musical -- it failed because it was a bad musical.  And not even a "so bad, it's good" musical, but dull, flat, and paint-by-numbers.  It thought that it could be lazy and still make money because it had some good songs and Tom Cruise.  Fortunately, the public showed that it had more taste.

Sorry if my review seems rather flat and uninspired... call it a reaction to the source material.  I'll pick something better next time.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with the one moment I genuinely liked.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the Universe

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicago, Mamma Mia!

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: Enough With the Nudity

... on television, that is.

Warning for the squeamish: extensive, sometimes graphic, talk about nudity.  If that's not your thing, get out now.  

I like when characters are not afraid to get naked on television.  The scenes on network TV where the woman and man sit post-coital, with the woman's chest carefully concealed, always make me snicker.  So I was grateful when premium cable channels like HBO said: "Fuck it all.  Let's show people the way they really are."  And real people get naked.  Not just above the waist, but below.

However, there was a point where the nudity started to feel less "real" and more exploitative.  I feel this way often while watching Game of Thrones, but noticed it much sooner.  It was during an episode of Boardwalk Empire, a show that I've tried really hard to like, but which leaves me cold.  Investigators were in a coroner's office looking at the body of a murdered woman.  The corpse lay on the table completely exposed while the men talked over it.  I thought: "Is there a reason we need to see a full view of the corpse in this scene?  What narrative purpose does it serve?"  The fact that it was a woman being gawked at by men made me squirm.  It felt like she was being violated three times over: first by the man who murdered her, then by the men gazing at her corpse, and finally by the audience.

I felt this way again while watching the pilot episode of Ray Donovan on Showtime.  The protagonist visited a client who awoke to find his one-night stand dead from a drug overdose.  While the dead woman lay mute like a doll, her breasts were completely exposed.  Again, men stood around and talked over her.  "Why do her breasts need to be exposed?" I demanded.  "She bled out through her nose, not her nipples."

Maybe I wouldn't be so sensitive if the nudity were split evenly along gender lines.  But it seems as though 90 percent -- at least -- of the full frontal nudity is female.  Game of Thrones is a frequent offender, with its infamous "sexposition" scenes.  Though I will give it credit: it is the only series that I know of that has shown full male frontal nudity.  I can count exactly two times.  Still, that is two more times than any other show that I've watched.

The reason for the double standard is unclear.  While the Federal Communication Commission prohibits nudity on network television, cable channels have no constraints.  In theory, whole casts could be naked all the time.  But of course that's not how it works out -- examples of female frontal nudity are increasing, while male penises remain tastefully concealed.  Without network interference, the best explanation is that male producers are sensitive about their ding-dongs and don't want to give women (or other men) the chance to judge.

Maybe the examples of male backside nudity are increasing, but it's not the same thing.  First, the men are usually standing and active in some way, not lying mute while women ogle them.  Second, the ass is not the most private thing on a man's body, and does not carry the cultural stigma or significance of breasts and the vagina.  Third -- hell, women on TV show backside nudity all the time, too!  Often in the same scene where they show frontal nudity.              

The nudity is fine when it serves a story purpose.  For instance, there is a scene in the Game of Thrones pilot episode where Daenerys disrobes and walks into her bath.  This happens right after her brother Viserys treats her like body parts meant to please a man.  Daenerys enters the scalding water in order to cleanse herself of these associations.  There are also scenes where female nudity showcases the character's power.  I rolled my eyes when Melisandre joined the long list of nude women, in her seduction scene with Gendry, but the way she moved, she showed the character's confidence.  She was being viewed by the audience, but she was also using her nudity to her advantage.

Yet despite these examples, nudity is often just an "extra," in scenes, such as when Littlefinger explains one of his schemes while two of his whores simulate sex.  It isn't just there for realism, and it doesn't enhance the character or the story.  There is a reason why characters tend to be clothed during their most powerful moments.*  

So what is the solution?  Not "no nudity at all," because the prudishness of networks can be ridiculous.  But if a television show is going to have nudity, then it ought to consider how the nude scenes are used and what messages they send.  Does an explanation scene really need random nudity to make it interesting?  Do TV shows really need to have female full frontal nudity to show how cold and "gritty" they are?  Are they so confident that viewers (especially female) can shake them off, or will they come away with the message that female bodies are objects and sources of shame?

If television shows must have nudity, why not use it toward a story purpose?  Or even it out so that there is more male full frontal nudity?  Surely that would not harm the show's "artistry," would it?  

* The example in the photo being an obvious exception.

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Giving Criticism: Knowing When to Get Out of the Way

Years ago, I enrolled in a class through the UCLA Film and Television Department.  The purpose was to come up with a strong pitch for our film or television concept.  It was a small group of maybe five or six people, and the instructor was a former content advisor at one of the major networks.  Why "former" I never thought to question.

Within two weeks, it became clear that our instructor had very set ideas about "good" concepts.  We listened and followed his advice because he was the expert.  Then when we brought our changes to him the next week, instead of commenting on how well the changes worked, he found something new to criticize.  No problem.  We would just keep revising until we satisfied him.

Except that it turned out "satisfying" him meant conforming to his vision.  If you had a different idea, you were destined for failure.  One student absorbed his vision readily -- he was an admirer who had taken previous classes with the instructor.  The rest of us struggled.

One student had an idea that he was very excited about, but needed some work.  Each week, he listened to the instructor's criticisms and revised his concept.  Yet each week, the instructor wanted something completely new.  The student revised willingly at first, then with more resentment, as the idea became less his, yet he was no closer to pleasing this man.  Finally, in the middle of class, muttering a string of curses under his breath, he left for good.  Maybe he managed to pitch it with success, or maybe his dream lay in fragments forever.  Either way, it revealed with disturbing clarity the damage that "mentors" can do when they abuse their power.        

Most of us would claim that we give criticism for selfless reasons: to help the other person improve.  We give our time and ask for nothing in return.  For that reason, we should have the freedom to be as harsh as necessary, while the one who sought us out must be humble, absorbing our words like a sponge.

In fact, most of us have given criticism for the wrong reasons.  The most typical: we want to matter as human beings.  We want our advice to show that we're important, if not superior to the person seeking it.  If we did not have superior judgment, why would other people care about our opinion in the first place?

We also give criticism to ward off fear.  "I would never do that..."  "I would never have done that..."  "If I were in that woman's position..."  Whenever we see ill-advised behavior, we want to believe that we never would have made those mistakes, that our actions keep us safe.  Criticizing someone else helps us remember what not to do.    

Yet another reason: tribal bonding.  A group of insecure people can always bond over an outsider's faux pas.  "Oh my God, can you believe her shoes?"  "He wouldn't last one day doing our job!"  "They're not from around here, are they?"  Focusing our attention on the luckless outsider diverts attention from our flaws, at least for now.

While such criticism is understandable, it is in no way laudable.  The person on the receiving end should not feel "pleased" or "honored" by the abuse.  The world isn't Gordon Ramsay's kitchen, where spirits must be shattered before individuals can be molded into winners.  Snark, superiority, and abusive words are not required for people to change.

Too many "mentors" and "helpful types" don't get this because they confuse support with control.  That goes back to the most typical wrong reason for criticism -- I Want to Matter.  They want their criticism to make a difference in the receiver's life, whether or not that difference is a good one.  If they hurt the other person, that means They Matter.  If they force the other person to conform to their own vision, They Matter.

Because in truth, a critic has very little power.  He or she could give thoughtful advice, based on years of hard-won experience, and the receiver can turn a deaf ear.  The critic cannot force the receiver to take the advice; all he or she can do is wait.

People who give selfless advice understand and accept this.  They really do want to help, but are willing to step back and let the other person lead his or her own life.  Because it is the other person's life.

"But my time is valuable!  If I give advice, I expect it to be followed!" is a frequent attitude.  And a mistaken one.  First it's mistaken because again, the critic makes it about himself.  Second, it's just flat-out wrong.  Most of us give our criticisms and advice freely -- everywhere.  Whether it is on a sports message board criticizing an athlete's play, or in the comments section of a news article, we spend hours criticizing without ever being asked.  Our reward is superiority.

A critic who has thoroughly gone over another's work has the right to feel hurt if his suggestions are ignored, but that does not mean he is "owed" anything.  If that is how you feel, unless you critique for money, you should probably steer clear of giving criticism.

But if you do want to offer advice or criticism, here are some suggestions that you are not obligated to follow:

1.  Treat the other person like your equal.  Even if he or she is not your equal, treat that person with respect.  Act like that person's goals matter even if they differ from yours.

2.  Give constructive feedback.  If you criticize, don't just do drive-by snark that makes the receiver feel bad, without giving ideas of how situation can be improved.  Also, avoid broad, hysterical pronouncements that you have no authority to make, like: "This is the WORST THING EVER!"

3.  Know what you're talking about.  I generally seek advice from those who have experienced my dilemma, but in cases where feedback is more open, don't speak unless you understand the problem.  If you just like to shoot your mouth off, keep it closed.

4.  Get out of the way.  Once you have given your advice or criticism, let the person know that you are there if they need anything else, and go on your way.             

The photos above were taken by Nevit Dilmen and Lensim respectively, and should not be viewed as an endorsements of this post.