Saturday, December 26, 2015

Downton Abbey: Well That Fucking Sucked

A little bird told me how Series Six went down, and how it most recently ended this past Christmas.  I won't blog about my impressions until after all episodes air in the United States, but with one or two exceptions, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Telltale's Game of Thrones: Game of Yawns?

Okay, that was a bad play on words, I admit.  Telltale's Game of Thrones is definitely not boring, even if at times it feels one note.

For those who haven't played the game yet, there be spoilers below!

What is Telltale's Game of Thrones?  For the uninitiated, Telltale Games is a gaming company that produces graphic adventure series, many in multiple chapters.  Its Game of Thrones Season One follows House Forrester, bannermen to House Glover and Stark family loyalists.  In the books, House Forrester is mentioned in passing, little more than a hill clan.  In the episodic series, which follows the show, House Forrester is a minor noble house with the motto: "Iron from Ice."

The story begins on the night of the Red Wedding, where the Forrester patriarch, Gregor the Good, is slain by deceitful Freys.  Before he succumbs, he gives his squire, Gared Tuttle, a mysterious message: "The North Grove must never be lost."  Gared returns to the Forrester fortress Ironrath, only to be sent to the Wall by his own uncle, castellan Duncan Tuttle, for taking revenge on Bolton bannermen who murdered his father and sister.  Gared then goes on a quest to find the North Grove in order to use its power to help House Forrester, which is under siege by the triumphant Boltons and their bannermen.  

The Boltons' rise to power has tipped the balance in a nasty generational war between House Forrester and Bolton bannermen House Whitehill.  Both families harvest ironwood from vast groves of trees, but only the Forresters have managed to create wooden products that are as tough as real iron.  The Whitehills blame the Forresters for "stealing" their forests and covet their lands.  Now, with Ramsay Bolton roaming around to ensure that every family bends the knee, the Whitehills see the opportunity to ruin House Forrester for good.

Players control the story through five points of view.  Depending upon the plot, you are 
  • Gared Tuttle
  • Ethan Forrester, a young teen-turned-lord far too soon
  • Asher Forrester, the son exiled to Essos, called upon to return home with an army
  • Mira Forrester, a handmaid to Margaery Tyrell in King's Landing
  • Rodrik Forrester, the dead heir who has a surprising resurrection

Each POV character faces certain decisions, and it is not always obvious which is the right one, if any.  The choice you make can subtly impact the outcome of the story as each chapter unfolds.  One notable aspect of the game is that POV characters will meet up with characters from the show, especially Mira.  So you could be plotting with Tyrion, answering to Cersei, defying Jon Snow, or running a mission for Daenerys.  As Season One is set between Seasons Three and Five in the show, the POV characters will inevitably be involved with some of the biggest moments.  

So those are the basics.  Is the game any good?  

My verdict is that the game is good enough, but not great.  It is good enough to make me care about the Forresters as individuals and not merely as Stark stand-ins.  It is not good enough that I can overlook aspects of sheer laziness and sloppiness in the storytelling.  It's $30 for the entire game, well worth the price.  Despite my title, it is usually not a boring game, even if some of its story beats do get monotonous.

The Good

The Visuals.  Some hate the oil painting look, but I find it rather fitting.  It gives the game a lovely storybook quality fitting for its quasi-medieval fantasy setting.  Also, seeing familiar characters from the show as oil paintings makes them appear far less creepy than they inevitably would if a more realistic visual style had been chosen.   

Characterization.  This should be divided into Game Characters and Show Characters.  The Game Characters, consisting of the Forresters, the Whitehills, and characters they meet, are generally top notch.  It would have been so easy to make Mira little more than "the Sansa" or Rodrik little more than "the Robb."  Instead, the Forresters each have distinctive personalities and a past that is separate from the Starks.  On the other side, there are the Whitehills, with instant-villains Ludd and his fourth-born son, Gryff.  Then there's Gwyn Whitehill, the wildcard in the game, who wants peace between the houses and is sometimes willing to aid House Forrester to get it.  If I have lots of criticisms of this game, it's because the game makers have done such a good job making me care about the characters, I can't stand to see them get the short end of the stick.  

Secondary characters are generally well drawn, even when they are meant to be obvious stand-ins for other characters, like Frostfinger for Alliser Thorne, or Lord Rickard Morgryn for Littlefinger.  My favorites are Tom, the coal boy with mysterious ties who aids Mira, and Beshka, Asher's best friend and all-around badass sellsword.

Then there are the Show Characters.  For the most part, they are portrayed faithfully.  The one that comes across worst is Daenerys, who sounds cold and stilted throughout.  Dany is capable of acting like a real human being, writers!  Cersei and Jon seem mostly like their show selves, as does Tyrion, though he sounds a little too light hearted given where he would have been at that point in the series (ex-Hand, constant punching bag for his family).  Margaery actually comes across better here -- still selfish, but much more cautious and vulnerable.      

Fidelity to the Source Material.  By "source material," I mean the books as well as the show.  If you watched the show alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that the North is just a barren wasteland filled with the Boltons and their loyalists.  Thankfully, Telltale remembers that the Starks had other bannermen, such as the Glovers, and that they in turn had bannermen of their own.  House Forrester is briefly referenced in A Dance With Dragons, though as a hill clan, not as a distinct noble house.  No matter.  Such details show that the creators were paying attention, along with "book only" phrases like the oft-repeated "Words are wind."  Of course, I also have many criticisms of their fealty to the source material below, but I should give credit where it's due.   

Some Voice Overs.  Among the Game Characters, the voice acting is generally high quality, with Asher and Rodrik's voice actors standing out in particular.  Some complain about Gwyn Whitehill's inconsistent accent, but I never really noticed.  She sounds appropriately no-nonsense and badass.  The only clunkers may be the most recent additions in Chapter 6, Elsera and Josera Snow.  Elsera's voice, in particular, grated on me instantly and made me dislike her.

As noted above, the Show Characters sounded mostly like themselves, with the exception of Emilia Clarke's slightly stilted delivery.  The best voice acting job, by far, is that of Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton, who manages to replicate his Joker-like psychotic delivery perfectly.

The "Divisive" Choice in Chapter Five.  As those who have played the game know, you must make a gut-wrenching choice at the end of Chapter Five whether to continue on as Asher or as Rodrik.  Most choices in this game don't substantially change the story direction, but this one does.  Depending upon whether you're Asher or Rodrik, you get some interesting story choices.  In my "canon" playthrough, I chose Asher to continue on, and had the option of forging an alliance with Gwyn.  Now I'm curious to see what that relationship will entail next season.  Those who chose Rodrik will want to know whether his fiance, Elaena Glenmore, will get out of trouble.  Should provide an interesting challenge to the game makers.    


The Less Good

Plausibility.  For a very minor noble house, the Forresters sure are popular in Westeros!  When it's not Cersei taking time out of her day of ill-plotting to grill Mira in the throne room, it's Tyrion marveling at the Forresters' awesome ability to produce ironwood products, or Gregor Forrester being charged by Robb Stark to lead forces against Casterly Rock.  Never mind that Robb Stark in the source material put only his highest bannermen in charge.  Never mind that a handmaiden like Mira -- if her parents didn't have the sense to get her the hell out of Dodge long ago -- would either be beneath Cersei's notice, or would be swiftly executed for being from a traitor family and possibly a Northern spy.  Never mind that many greater houses like Hightower and Manderly haven't even been mentioned.  The Forresters are apparently just that awesome.

For that matter, despite Ironrath being such a modest fortress, held by a small force, the Whitehills seem to move heaven and earth to conquer it.  In addition to the 500 soldiers in their army, they're also sneaking around King's Landing gathering sellswords and talking strategy with the traitor on the Forrester council.  Did Gregor Forrester sleep with Ludd Whitehill's wife once?  The level of animosity Ludd feels toward the Forresters feels out of proportion with any power they actually hold.         

That brings me to something about Mira's plotline that bothers me.  Remember, Sansa Stark was in King's Landing because she had no choice.  Mira Forrester was there voluntarily, and somehow that was okay with everyone?  Cersei grills her and is then like: "'Kay, but I'm keeping my eye on you!"?  What in seven hells prevents the ever-paranoid Cersei from seizing Mira right there and having her beheaded?  And how the hell could the Forresters leave Mira in enemy territory and think she would be safe?  You took part in a war against the so-called rightful King of Westeros, Forresters!  Cersei Lannister is well within her rights to want your daughter dead!  Seriously, any Northerner in King's Landing would either be a hostage or a prisoner.  Yet Mira's threatened beheading comes not from Cersei, but from some lame-ass third-tier Littlefinger wannabe who wants revenge because she made him feel inadequate.      

Plot Holes.  Less forgivable are the numerous plot holes that litter the game, as the creators strained to make the characters' actions fit the needs of the plot.  One outrageous one involved the traitor on the Forresters' council.  Not only did the reveal lack any ingenuity, but the traitor's actions made no sense.  At that point in the game, the Forresters had great leverage with Gryff Whitehill as their hostage.  The traitor wanted only to keep House Forrester strong, so what did he do?  Let Gryff go.  Moreover, players have complained that even if you did what the traitor suggested throughout the game, the traitor would still complain that you went against his counsel.

An even worse plot hole involves Mira's storyline.  Throughout the game, Mira's story seems to be building toward a confrontation involving Cersei and Tyrion.  Tyrion is accused of killing Joffrey, and I thought Mira would be called upon to testify or at least be condemned for being a "conspirator."  Nope.  Cersei and Tyrion are nowhere to be found in Chapter Six.  I don't know if the actors just weren't available and Telltale was forced to change plans, or if this was always the intention.  Instead of Cersei condemning Mira, it's Poor Man's Littlefinger, who does not exist in the source material, but seems to have unparalleled power here.  He can get a girl from a noble house locked up and sentenced to death for the killing of a guard.  No trial, not even by combat.  Can you tell I'm slightly upset about this?

Those are probably the biggest ones, but there are numerous others that sapped my enjoyment of the game.  For instance, Elaena's brother and the Glenmore elite guard followed me to the meeting at Highpoint, but somehow when I returned, in the split second my back was turned, Ramsay Bolton -- who would not have known which soldiers were with me -- found, captured, and tortured Elaena's brother.  That's some amazing time traveling!    

Lack of Options.  Both the books and the show are bleak, with more defeats than victories at this point.  However, the game may have them beat.  Options that could make your situation slightly more bearable are denied you.  Want to tell Ramsay that the Whitehills disobeyed him and claimed all of the ironwood forests?  No can do.  Want to communicate with Margaery Tyrell or another one of your friends before you face the block?  Sorry.  Want to avoid Tyrion?  You're shit out of luck.  Ultimately, your choices are what the game gives you, and too often they are relentlessly, sometimes unrealistically, bad ones.

Characters Poorly Used.  This game has a lot of well-drawn characters, but too few seem to live up to their potential.  What was the point of being nice to social-climbing Sera?  It never uncovered any advantage, except that Sera was only slightly less resistant to Mira joining the garden party than otherwise.  What was the point of Tom?  Who did he work for?  Why was his employer so concerned about helping Mira?  (I've heard some deleted vocals that answer this question, but since they are not official, I don't know if the game makers changed their mind.)  

What was the point of Asher hiring the pit fighters?  We were told that they were such unique, badass fighters, but in the end, only Amaya stood out.  The rest could have been generic sellswords (and the idea that Asher, with his gold, could not have purchased the services of any sellsword company besides the Second Sons is ridiculous).  And then there are Finn and Cotter, Gared's friends from the Night's Watch.  That Cotter is a wildling has no bearing on the overall plot; he doesn't provide any necessary skills or knowledge, then later dies from a shoulder wound.  Same with Finn, who exists only to die and later emerge as a wight.  Their quest to find the North Grove could have been a fun buddy adventure, but that aspect petered out far too quickly.


Conclusion

I complain, but as I stated above, this game is well worth the time of both a book/show fan and the casual player.  It has a nice visual style, an easy playing style, a basically good story, and well drawn characters.  Its drawbacks, consisting of plot holes and implausibilities, prevent it from being truly special.  But perhaps some of the inadequacies will be dealt with in Season Two. 

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween! Update

Happy Halloween, everyone!



Maybe some day I'll work up the courage to watch an actual scary movie.  Until then, watching Republican presidential debates is enough.

So what's new?  I'm steadily moving along with writing my second novel, the sequel to my Victorian novel Rage and Regret.  About 300 pages written, not as many as I'd hoped, but still steady progress.  One difficulty is that unlike the first novel, there are about 3-4 distinct plot lines I'm trying to steer to fruition, and not all of them are behaving properly.

At some point soon, I will also need to refocus attention on peddling the first novel.  I had taken a break to focus on writing the second, because peddling a novel is such a job in and of itself, with all of the ups and downs that entails.

I can't pretend that I will have time to update every week as I have in the past.  There's just too much on my plate.  However, I do hope to provide updates 2-3 times a month, on topics that I've written on before: introversion, movie musicals, novels, Victorian everything...

... oh, and Downton Abbey.  Yeah, can't quit the Downton Abbey.  I'll at least have a post summing up the series when it's at an end.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Wet Hot American Summer and the Smart "Stupid" Movie

My sister loves Seinfeld.  I don't.  I don't get the brand of humor where people overreact to small incidents, usually incidents that aren't really that bothersome.  And yet, what does it say that I absolutely love movies that consist of people doing nothing but going crazy at small things?

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that humor is highly subjective.  Reasons one person finds certain situations funny can be a complete mystery to someone else.  I can't fully explain why I'm such easy prey for the smart "stupid" movie, but I'm going to try.

The smart "stupid" movie is usually part of the parody genre, which mocks movie trends and offers insights into the mindset of a specific era.  When done right, the smart "stupid" movie can leave you rolling on the floor with laughter, while also recognizing that the movie just gets it somehow.  When done wrong, the smart "stupid" movie is just... stupid.

It is a very thin line between smart "stupid" and genuinely stupid, and staying on the smart side of the line is very difficult.  Often, smart "stupid" movies will have at least some lapses into pure stupidity.  Whether those lapses taint the movie overall depends upon the individual viewer's tolerance.  If you understand what the movie is trying to do, and appreciate that it hits its mark more often than it misses, you will still enjoy it.  If you don't see the method behind the madness, if all you see is stupid, then you will likely hate it.  These genres tend to not have much in between.

Take Wet Hot American Summer.  When it premiered in 2001, it was widely derided as a failed attempt at parody and juvenile.  Roger Ebert went so far as to write a sarcastic review about it in the form of the classic song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah."  It did poorly at the box office and vanished quickly from theatres.

And yet... this movie quickly became a cult classic among intelligent people who would normally be quick to deride the mindlessness of mainstream movies and television.  Was it because so many smart comedians, like Amy Poehler and Jeanane Garofolo, were in it?  Was it because so many of the actors, like Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks, would go on to greater fame?  Was it because it captured a time of their lives in a way that no other movie truly did?  It could have been all of those reasons, and none of them.

Truth be told, even as a lover of the smart "stupid" movie, I find Wet Hot American Summer to be a bit of a puzzle.  Whereas I can easily laugh at Not Another Teen Movie because it parodies John Hughes and other high school romance movies, I don't have much of an impression of summer camp.  I went for a week when I was 11 and that was pretty much it.  So Wet Hot American Summer doesn't tap into any reservoir of feelings.

(From this point forward, spoilers follow.)  For anyone not familiar with the movie, the basic plot is that the year is 1981, it's the last day of an eight-week summer camp, and anything can and does happen.  That includes "Coop," one of the counselors, finally admitting his love of fellow counselor, Katie; two megalomaniac counselors holding a talent show; and camp director Beth finding unexpected romance with Henry, an astrophysicist, while at the same time a piece of Skylab is plummeting to earth and threatening to hit the camp.  You know, the usual.

As you likely guessed, Wet Hot American Summer isn't a clean plate where only one or two plot lines predominate; it is a stew.  An often weird stew, especially with any scene involving Gene, the camp cook and Vietnam vet with an affinity for refrigerators.

Gene.  Didn't really get him until the prequel series.
AV Club did an article on the cultural influences on the movie, some of which I recognize.  However, at times, rather than parody something specific, Wet Hot American Summer seems wacky and tasteless for the sake of being wacky and tasteless.  Like with Gene, or with Andy accidentally letting kids drown due to carelessness, then tossing the witnesses out into the wilderness.

Other times, even when I recognize the movie is parodying something, I'm not sure what it is.  Take, for instance, Victor's mad dash to get back to Abby Bernstein, leaving campers in danger on the white water rapids.  Or Beth and Neil's hysterical overreaction in the nurse's office as they try to locate Victor.

And sometimes, even when I know what Wet Hot American Summer is parodying, I'm not sure it always lands.  One example would be Gail's growing attraction to a young camper who gives her supportive advice over how to stand up to her ex husband.  It's a parody of any movie where the man or woman's best friend/colleague slowly rises from supporting role to the new love interest.  Here, the role is filled by a kid who's maybe 12 at most.  As it unfolds, the plot line is a cross between funny and skin crawling because it is so, so very wrong.

Yep that's... pretty wrong.
If Wet Hot American Summer has these issues, why do I still laugh?  For that matter, why would I find any movie with similar issues to be funny?  First, it's important to point out that many times, I don't find the jokes funny.  I don't care for Gene's refrigerator speech (although the talking can seems funnier in retrospect thanks to Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).  Victor's antics get tiring, and there are even stretches of the movie that feel dull.         

What makes it click overall is that, when it works, it really works.  Part of it is due to the general absurdist tone the movie takes.  When that tone is put into the service of a truly crazy plot line, it works wonders.  For instance, in a different movie, the Skylab danger -- partially based on real life, partially based on sci-fi action movies -- might have been flaccid and overwrought.  However, here, every plot point and sudden plot twist is kicked up a notch in absurdity.  It's not just that the Skylab could land on the camp, but that it could land on the theatre right as the talent show is happening.  It's not just that Henry and his band of Goonies-like nerd kids can stop it with a homemade tracking device, it's that they can only stop it with a device made from doughnuts and a can of spam.

And then there is the pivotal moment of camper Steve's performance at the talent show.  Only in a movie as absurd as Wet Hot American Summer could a camper unveil superpowers and it would practically be considered an afterthought.  Of course Steve has the ability to create gusts of wind with his hands.  Gusts of wind that can only be observed inside the theatre, but somehow are enough to send the Skylab off course so that it crashes harmlessly into the ground.  In true parody style of films like Lucas, Steve, the friendless nerd kid, earns the appreciation of the talent show audience, leading to the slow clap.



The absurdist tone also lightens the effect of plots like the aforementioned Gail/camper romance that could otherwise be considered downright offensive.  Seeing Gail and the 12-year-old camper go off to get married in the end, few would view the situation realistically.  Instead, it could be read as the supportive friend role taken to extremes combined with Gail's desperation for true love.  Likewise, Andy essentially killing campers due to negligence invokes laughs because, again, it is an extreme situation meant to showcase Andy's narcissism, nothing more.  No one thinks that would actually happen.  Right?  Right??

The tone of Wet Hot American Summer is greatly assisted by the actors' performances.  No one does a diva theatre director/producer/choreographer better than Amy Poehler as Susie.  No one can make an asshole boyfriend quite as likable as Paul Rudd makes Andy.  Jeanane Garofolo brings a steady grounded quality to her performance as Beth, yet never in a way that detracts from the absurdity of the situation.  And few could be as straight-faced when delivering lines like "I've grown up a lot since before dinner when we last talked" as Michael Showalter's Coop.

Yet even so, why do I laugh?  Why do I find this funny and not the griping on Seinfeld?  Maybe because that's what most of Seinfeld is -- griping.  The characters spend a lot of time reacting like the world is going to end over very minor things, things that I often either do not notice or do not care about.  They gripe, complain, avoid.  While the tone of Seinfeld episodes can be absurd and silly, there is still this overlay of negativity that makes watching an episode tiring.  By contrast, movies like Wet Hot American Summer, or other parody movies that hit more than miss, like Not Another Teen Movie, have a very light, often whimsical tone.  Unlike the Seinfeld characters, the characters in these movies never take themselves too seriously, or if they do, the movie sends a clear message that they shouldn't.  That makes the plot, no matter how twisted or absurd, easier to digest.

George and Jerry griping about... something.
Furthermore, while Seinfeld is cleverly done, the gripes feel like the end result.  The show doesn't seem to aim for anything bigger.  Not that it should, but I like when movies or television shows, no matter what genre, aim to be more than just the next joke or the next plot point.  Wet Hot American Summer wants to make fun of 70's and 80's camp movies, comeback movies, romantic comedies, disaster movies, and movies where teenagers are played by 30-year olds.  It doesn't always succeed, but at least it succeeds more often than it fails.

And then there's the "get it" factor.  Except for Elaine, I don't really get the Seinfeld characters.  I don't relate to them.  While I don't necessarily relate to characters like Susie either, I get what they're about, what the movie seeks to parody with them.  I get Beth.  I get Coop.  Hell, I even get Gail to an extent.  I also get what Wet Hot American Summer is trying to do with its parody of the early 80's, and it often works.  There is just this unmistakable 80sness about everything, this sense that "yeah, that's probably what it would have been like, even without the falling Skylab."

And that is what matters most, what separates comedy that makes you laugh from comedy that leaves you cold.  You must get it on some level, even if you don't know why.

For the reasons stated above, I enjoy smart "stupid" movies like Wet Hot American Summer, as well as its prequel, First Day of Camp.

That being said, it is one thing to like a movie or television show that pretends to be stupid, and another to like one that is plain stupid.  Many smart people avoid movies and shows that are flat-out dumb, but there is that small circle of shows that are dumb in such a specific way that they are actually kind of awesome.  I'll be taking a look at that in a future article.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.             

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Through An Introvert's Lens: Inside Out

Beware of spoilers!

Inside Out, Pixar's latest release, tells a surprisingly complex story of what goes on inside one girl's mind as she confronts major changes in her life.  Yet it could also serve as a study of how extroverts routinely undervalue introverts, to everyone's peril.

The movie revolves around an 11-year old girl named Riley who has just moved from Minnesota with her parents to a run-down house in San Francisco (that probably cost $2 million *cough*).  Riley goes from perpetually happy-go-lucky to confused and withdrawn, in part due to the fact that her mental "control room" is in disarray.  That's because Joy, one of her five anthropomorphic emotions and the one who steers her reactions on a day-to-day basis, accidentally got sucked into Riley's long-term memory along with Sadness, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show.  Inside Out chronicles Joy and Sadness's attempts to return to the control room to save Riley from further struggle, and the ultimate acceptance that such struggles are a part of life.

When we first meet Joy, she is perpetually upbeat, almost manic.  She is always trying to make lemonade out of lemons, always wanting everything to stay in the same perfect, golden state, or to dwell on happy memories in the past.  Though well-meaning and fun, she is also domineering, rarely permitting other emotions to interfere, least of all Sadness.

Sadness is introduced as a sad-sack with impulse problems (she can't resist touching formerly happy memories and marking them permanently with sadness), a problem that Joy must solve.  Joy tries to do it by forbidding Sadness from providing input on Riley's first day at her new school (in an "upbeat" way, of course), only for Sadness to slip her bonds and interfere during a crucial moment.  This leads them both to getting sucked into Riley's longterm memory and... you'll have to see the movie to find out.

On one level, this is a movie about our (specifically Americans, though it could apply to varying degrees elsewhere) tendency to prize "happy, upbeat" behavior over inconvenient and messy "negative" feelings like sadness and confusion.  On another level, it could be argued that this is a movie that illustrates society's attitudes toward introverts, and demonstrates how much richer the world would be if introverted behavior were as welcome as extroverted.

That Joy is a stereotypical extrovert is without question.  Talkative, gaining energy through interaction with others, and little focused on her own interior state until she reaches a crucial nadir point in the story.  Sadness comes across as a stereotypical introvert -- or, more crucially, in the beginning, as an extrovert's view of an introvert.  As a refresher, introverts are typically:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • need to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • think before they speak
  • prefer to observe rather than be the center of attention

Sadness appears to have many of these traits.  She doesn't say much, thinks it's important to "slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems," and typically views things in a more circumspect manner (such as when Joy wants to take the shortcut to the Train of Thought).  

To the extroverted Joy, Sadness is such a downer.  Always turning up when you least want her to, whining about life's problems and so mopey that at times, she lies sprawled out on the floor, unwilling to move.  Sadness can't be removed altogether, but she can at least be minimized and ignored.

Yet as the movie progresses, Sadness's persona subtly softens, and we see more of her wisdom and empathy.  During one crucial scene, she comforts a character who has experienced a powerful loss.  By helping him come to terms, rather than ignore the loss and move onward, as Joy would have them do, Sadness helps him find peace.  

I have some quibbles with Inside Out.  Despite portraying Sadness as a necessary part of a healthy emotional life, the story belongs to the extroverted Joy, and largely portrays her journey toward acceptance.  Sadness, to the end, remains an "other" in Joy's story, rather than a complex character in her own right, passively submissive rather than active in her own story.  Moreover, the personification of Sadness being portrayed by an introverted character grates a little.  People are not always quiet and reflective when they are sad, or loud and proud when they are happy.  Introverted does not equal sad.  Then again, an extrovert might take issue with the portrayal of Joy as someone who denies all other emotions, but that's for another blog.

Overall, despite Inside Out falling prey to the same tendencies of much mainstream media -- giving the extroverted character the story, rather than making the introvert and extrovert co-equals -- it at least acknowledges that introverts have a powerful role to play, that their input is just as important as an extrovert's.      

Conclusion

Number of Introverts: One

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes

Is the Introvert Active?: Somewhat, though the action is largely dictated by the extrovert

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?: Like an embarrassment that must be hidden, until they (or rather, Joy) learned to appreciate her unique qualities.


The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Things That I Love: Video Game PlayThroughs

Have you ever wanted to play a video game, but didn't have the money or the time?  Thanks to the power of YouTube, you can see how that game is played, and then some.

I first stumbled upon video game playthroughs, or walkthroughs, when I was looking for video on the famous Super Mario Brothers "minus world."  If you've ever played the classic Super Mario Brothers, you may be aware that there are certain glitches in the game, and those savvy enough to exploit them can find themselves in, as they say, a whole new world:



In case that wasn't weird enough for you, here is minus world in the Japanese version:



But playthroughs aren't just for watching cool glitches in beloved classic video games.  They are also for watching entire video games and interactive stories.  For instance, when I was young, I beat Nintendo's classic game, Mike Tyson's Punch Out.  Years later, they came up with an updated version on Wii, which I don't own and don't know when I'll purchase.  But thanks to more dedicated players on YouTube, I can at least watch the game and imagine I'm still dexterous enough to beat it!


As for interactive stories, since the beginning of this year, I have been following the chapters of Telltale's Game of Thrones.  For a little background, Telltale Games is a gaming company that produces graphic adventure series, many in multiple chapters.  Game of Thrones Season One follows House Forrester, bannermen to House Glover and Stark family loyalists.  In the books, House Forrester is mentioned in passing, little more than a hill clan.  In the episodic series, which follows the show, House Forrester is a minor noble house with the motto: "Iron from Ice."  Through six chapters (four presently released), you follow the Stark-like Forresters as they try to bring their family back from near ruin.

So far, the series has been utterly absorbing.  Yet I would have been denied the experience if not for the generosity of YouTubers, thanks to the fact that my computer schematics were not advanced enough for the game (*never mind that when I purchased it, Telltale claimed it could run on Snow Leopard, grumble, grumble*).  Now that I've upgraded, I intend to play the game at long last, but it has been great fun watching various players' choices for each chapter.  Watching each episode is really like watching segments of a miniseries.  When all six episodes have aired, I will write a review of the whole.


So there you have it: a special mix of nostalgia and desire to explore new worlds (as well as, let's face it, a splash of laziness) is what makes video game playthroughs so enjoyable.  Off to look for yet another new one... after I do some grown up, responsible adult thingys first.  Grumble.

Special thanks to Chozoth, Legendary Super Mario, MrBLT, and IGN for their wonderful video contributions, without which I could not have wasted so much of my valuable time and enjoyed every minute.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Pitch Perfect 2

As I mentioned in my review, Pitch Perfect was not exactly trailblazing cinema.  Nearly everything it did have been done before, sometimes better, by other movies.  What Pitch Perfect had, however, was good chemistry between the characters, a relatively straight-forward plot, and energetic musical numbers.  None of which can be said for Pitch Perfect 2.


Pitch Perfect 2 is not horrible, mind you.  It's no Jersey Boys or Rock of Ages.  It's not even Annie 2014.  However, it turned what was sort of fresh and fun into strained and tedious, which is why it is on the Wrong List.


Plot Synopsis


The Barden Bellas are the reigning champions of a cappella singing in the United States.  After Fat Amy has a "wardrobe malfunction" during a televised performance for President Obama, the Bellas are ordered to disband.  However, leaders Beca and Chloe convince the national a capella organization to reinstate the group if they become the world champions of a cappella, something an American group has never done.  The Bellas quickly find their work cut out for them when they encounter the precise and ruthless German squad, Das Sound Machine.  Meanwhile, Beca finds her loyalty tested and her priorities stretched after she lands an internship at a recording studio.    



The Good


Still Some Chemistry.  
While the chemistry between the characters is usually not as effortless as in the first movie, it is still evident during key parts, such as the Bellas' bonding camping trip.  The campfire bonding scene was the first time I started to really enjoy the movie.


Lots of Singing!  The musical numbers may be overproduced, but it's hard not to get caught up in their energy, or to appreciate the harmonizing.  Good singing makes everything better.


Nothing Lasts Forever.  The movie deserves credit for actually acknowledging that high school (or, in this case, college) doesn't last forever, and people eventually move on to other things.  Or, if they don't, they really should (looking at you, Chloe).*  The cameo with Aubrey was welcome, though Aubrey's characterization seemed off.


Shared Sense of History.  The final song number with Bellas was was as touching and effective as hoped, though it would have been nice if the Bellas' long, proud history had been emphasized more in the movie.


Less Jesse.  The Treblemakers are in the movie, but much more marginalized, which means Jesse and his annoying cheesiness are kept to a blessed minimum.


Green Bay Packers Can Sing.  Their appearance in the film would have been a fun surprise had I not been spoiled.  Who knew that Clay Matthews could not only sing, but was a passable actor?  Which is more than I can say for Brett Favre back in the day.



The Bad


One Dimensional Baddies.  
Das Sound Machine had appealing characters like Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who won rave reviews for a recent appearance on Game of Thrones), but the movie could never figure out what to do with them except have them twirl their invisible moustaches and laugh, "Hahahaha, stupid Americans!"  How much better would it have been if the German group had congratulated the Bellas at the end, or at least expressed sympathy that the Bellas faced extinction?  What if Das Sound Machine had its own personal stakes in the competition?  Instead, the group was a rampaging German stereotype (Emotions except for smug condescension bad!  Technology and dominance good!) which served no one in the end.


Questionable Stakes.  Why on earth were the two silly commentators from the first movie allowed to serve as representatives for the national a cappella organization?  Was it ever explained?  Because it makes no sense.  Nor does the set-up that the Bellas can only redeem themselves by winning the world championship.  If there is truly a stain on their reputation that won't wipe away, not even winning the world championship would change that.  Though it seems silly such an acclaimed a cappella group would face such punishment anyway for something that was clearly a mistake.  At worst, they might have to drop Fat Amy from the group, go on an apology tour, and face a penalty that would likely be temporary.   


Let's Do It Again.  Only Worse.  Remember in my review of Pitch Perfect, how I praised Fat Amy for not being "the endless teller and recipient of fat jokes"?  Yeah, well, that's gone.  In Pitch Perfect 2, Fat Amy's weight is constantly played for laughs, from the initial incident that gets the Bellas suspended to her sliding down the stairs at the end.  Her relationship with Bumper might have broken that mold, if it didn't seem so random and forced.  


The quirky, marginal characters are also still around, like Lilly, and have been joined by new quirky characters like Flo Fuentes, who constantly "jokes" about being deported to her home country.  The show numbers are still around, only less inspired.  And would they really be that allergic to original material in the a cappella world, or was that solely to make What's Her Name seem that much bolder for having an original song, whereas in real life, everyone would think she was a hack?


Good Girl, Bad Music.  Note that I hadn't mentioned the new girl until now.  Freshman Emily Junk managed to get into the Bellas through a loophole, even though they weren't allowed to admit new members.  She's cool because she writes her Own Material.  Material that happens to sound incredibly derivative, but still.  Emily failed to leave much of an impression on me during the movie, and I can't imagine her song would spur such an enthusiastic reception in real life.    



Conclusion


I only did this review because I reviewed the first Pitch Perfect, but this isn't nearly as good.  Nonetheless, it's not bad.  Don't waste your money seeing it in the theatre.  Wait until it comes out on TV.







* Other reviews claim that Chloe flunked two years in a row to remain in the Bellas, but I don't recall seeing that in the movie.  Isn't it possible she just decided to go to graduate school at Barden?




Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma Mia!Sweeney ToddMoulin RougeThe Sound of MusicPitch PerfectCabaret

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Update: Hello From Updateland!

I really don't intend to be so sparse with my blogging every month.  Really.  I've been mainly trying to catch up on writing my second novel (now over 200 pages!) and caught up in work.  Oh, and going gaga over the latest Game of Thrones episode, but I digress.

I wanted to give a taste of future posts.  As always, they will be a mixture of pop culture and personal likes and dislikes.  One big change: I am officially extending the Movie Musicals That Got It Right/Wrong to the classic movies.  Originally I was planning to wait until I had reviewed movies in the more recent past before moving on to the classics, but why would I sit through The Producers, Nine, and God knows how many iterations of High School Musical before I could review My Fair Lady, West Side Story, or The King and I (I said classics, not that they were all good classics).  So I'm going to switch back and forth, and I'm sure no one else cared one way or the other, but I'm just saying.

I also plan to do a write-up on Mad Men because, duh.

And then there are unpopular opinions and introverted opinions galore... as there ever were.  And at some point I intend to jump back on that Dickens train, yessir.

So here is to a more fruitful June, and hope you've read and enjoyed past blog posts!  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Game of Thrones: Why Daenerys As Queen Is the End Game

Spoilers for anyone who has not read A Feast for Crows or A Dance With Dragons, or the released chapters of The Winds of Winter.

By now, viewers of Game of Thrones can see that the show's creators are beginning to shift the story toward its end game, toward the final Ice Zombie Apocalypse and One Who Wins the Iron Throne.  The outcome of most characters is highly uncertain.  Will Daenerys Targaryen fly her way back to the Throne on dragon wings?  Or will Jon Snow forge his way to the Iron Throne through a phalanx of ice zombies?  Or will it be stoic, meticulous Stannis Baratheon?  Or (f)Aegon?  Or Sansa Stark?  Maybe some combination of the above, like Jon and Daenerys, or even Jon and Sansa.*

Who do I think it will be?  Daenerys.

She seems like the obvious choice, which in the A Song of Ice and Fire universe usually means she is marked for death.  And I would not at all put it past Martin or the show's producers to kill her off before she sits on the Iron Throne.  Or, for that matter, after she sits on the Iron Throne, when we're lulled into thinking she's safe.  That said, there are a few reasons I think that she will make it all the way to the end.

The Second Dance With Dragons.  Even though Daenerys has been built up as the "savior" ruler, her path has not been easy.  And nothing underscores this more than the fact that (f)Aegon is being positioned to "save" Westeros in her place.  (f)Aegon, brought up to rule and to be a mighty warrior since birth, who takes Storm's End seemingly with ease, will be viewed as the "champion" and the true holder of the Throne.  By contrast, Daenerys will be chided as the one who is too late, too preoccupied with saving slaves in Essos.  Yet if the prophecies are true, Aegon is really fAegon, and Dany will need to wage a battle simply to get through him to the Throne.  Why go to such narrative trouble, making her really work and struggle to sit in that chair, and not have her be Queen in the end?

Targaryen House symbol next to the Blackfyre symbol.
Targaryen Lore Is Everywhere.  I didn't realize this until I reread the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but the references to Targaryen history are constant.  Aegon the Conqueror and the Targaryens' construction of the Red Keep.  The Targaryens' dragons, including the crypt of dragon heads.  The Blackfyre Rebellion.  The War of the Ninepenny Kings.  Tales about the fire at Summerhall.  While the series is filled with other histories, Targaryen lore is quite predominant for a dynasty that was supposedly disgraced beyond redemption.  And that's not even considering ancillary texts, such as the Tales of Dunk and Egg, or The Princess and the Queen, or The Rogue Prince, or The World of Ice and Fire.  It really gives the impression that Targaryens are the true rulers, and that Robert, Joffrey, and Tommen are just temporary seat warmers until their dynasty returns.  

Do Any of the Others Really Work?  We all have our sentimental favorites and our "surprise" victors, but let's think seriously on this.

Let's start with Jon.  Jon is the one probably most-frequently touted as the Dany alternative, due to his parallel coming of age storyline and possible Targaryen roots, but sit on the Iron Throne in King's Landing?  It would be highly ironic, given that as a man of the Watch, he is bound to the Wall.  His pledge to have no wife or family would work against starting a new dynasty.  Martin seems to like that sort of irony, but beyond that, could you really see Jon in King's Landing? Even a "winter is here," barren wasteland zombie-apocalypsed King's Landing?  After a while, the politics and intrigue would start up again, and Jon doesn't seem like the sort who can deal with it.  At least Daenerys has some experience with shadowy political intrigue in Meereen.  Jon seems like someone who would make an effective interim ruler before eventually retreating to his remote holdfast.

Then there's Stannis.  We may like him in spite of ourselves, but would he make a good, long-lasting ruler?  No doubt he would be grimly just, and effective in his own way, but there would be little love or trust for him, especially once he breaks out the fires to cleanse the "unworthy."  Moreover, based on Dany's visions in the House of the Undying and Gendry being prominently set up as Robert's oldest male bastard, Stannis's story appears destined to end short of the Throne, as well as (sniff) his daughter Shireen's.

(f)Aegon?  Book readers would cause riots, unless he impresses much more than he did in A Dance With Dragons.  Given that he has yet to appear on the television series, it's likely that he is little more than an obstacle in Dany's path, maybe even a descendent of Daemon Blackfyre.

Sansa's brutal education at King's Landing and with Littlefinger could make her a Queen skilled at intrigue, yet also capable of commanding love and respect.  At the same time, she does so much of her work behind the scenes, I have trouble seeing her as a ruler in her own right.  More likely, she would be paired with someone else.  Serving as Jon's consort would be rather ironic, given how much Sansa disdained him in the first novel.  Yet I think she has another destiny, one that causes her to embrace her Northern roots, but at the same time be far wiser than her father.  The television show referring to her as "Lady Stark" seems to hint at that.

So that leaves Dany.  Sure, there are dozens of other characters who could take the Throne, from Arianne to Littlefinger to Rickon Stark.  However, that doesn't mean they are legitimate contenders, or that there wouldn't be serious problems with their claims.  Daenerys is the one who has the whole package: a large army, charisma, intelligence, and compassion.  Moreover, she really seems like she's working at being a ruler, a good ruler.  She has already made difficult decisions in Meereen that go against her personal happiness for the sake of the realm.  Dany seems like she would be up to the grueling task of ruling Westeros for years and years.  The people would embrace her (at least initially) because she would herald the return of a celebrated dynasty, yet be untouched by the nastiness that had plagued Westeros over the past decade.  By contrast, even if Jon is Rhaegar Targaryen's secret son, it would take a lot for many great families to accept "the bastard's" legitimacy.

Maybe Martin is just trolling us by spending so much time setting up Dany as the final ruler, only to smash her before the end.  Yet if so, he is asking a lot of his readers by making us plod through so many chapters about Meereen.  Martin has focused so much on Dany because she will be the eventual Queen of Westeros.  She has all of the necessary attributes.    

Oh, and she has dragons.  Duh.



* At least if the rumors are true and she is really his cousin.  It's no more icky than him marrying his "Aunt Dany."

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Novel Update: The Unlikeable Female Protagonist


I gave my novel draft over to be critiqued by a professional editor, as I said I would do in my last update.  While she had a lot of positive things to say about the story and characters, she had one major criticism: she did not like my female protagonist.

I've gone into my novel and its characters in previous posts.  Suffice it to say, my character, Isabella, has a lot of issues.  She is young, angry, scared, and overwhelmed.  She responds by lashing out at those who don't deserve it, with some pretty terrible consequences.  As a result, she bears a life-long scar.  Though she reforms, by the end of the novel, her reformation is not complete.  And, to be perfectly honest, it will probably never be.

Isabella is not my first "challenging" female protagonist.  For a pilot script I wrote some years ago, my female protagonist was also angry.  She had just lost her job and ended a relationship.  She finally bonded with her teenage niece, only to learn that that niece had been lying to her about a very important part of her life.  Feeling betrayed, my protagonist ordered her niece out of her apartment.  In San Francisco.  At night.  Even though she was the only one in the city whom her niece knew.

While my script went on to win in competition, it divided those who critiqued it beforehand.  One critic felt that my female protagonist was too angry and hard, and impossible to empathize with.  This was despite the fact that my female protagonist felt remorse for her actions soon afterward, looked for her niece for the rest of the night, and made up with her niece later, with no lasting harm done.

I don't know why I'm drawn to unlikeable female characters.  Maybe I'm just projecting anger that I'm feeling inside.  Or maybe I'm acknowledging them as human beings, that people who have been through their experiences would be that angry, and that it's more dramatically interesting to let that anger show.

Regardless, as with the protagonist in my pilot, Isabella is a divisive character.  Some readers, while acknowledging that she is not the nicest person, like her and find her situation poignant.  Others want someone they can root for, and believe that her unlikeable behavior brings the story down.

These negative perceptions raise several questions.  Are they due to my failure to write characters, or to my being too successful?  Are my characters uniquely problematic, or is it due to a larger societal prejudice against unlikeable female protagonists?

If the concern is that books starring unlikeable female protagonists won't sell, it should be put to rest.  Books with unlikeable female protagonists have sold a lot of copies.  A lot of copies.  For every Elizabeth Bennett, there is an Emma Woodhouse.  For every Jane Eyre, there is a Catherine Earnshaw.*  And then there is the grande dame of unlikeable female protagonists: Scarlett O'Hara.

Given Scarlett O'Hara's nature, why would anyone want to read about her for 1,000 pages?  It's not because she has a tragic backstory: although slightly distant from her mother, she is spoiled by both of her parents and wants for nothing at the beginning of Gone With the Wind.  She has strength and resiliency, but it's for her own survival, which by default helps other members of her family.  She loves just one person throughout, while hating or resenting everyone else, including her sisters and her children.  She causes the death or ruin of more than one good-hearted character.**  And finally, she yearns for a world that few people today would revere: one where slavery was reinstated and those "darkies" knew their place.

Yet people do read about her quite willingly, myself included.  For me, there's something about Scarlett that, even long after her antics have grown tiresome, feels satisfying and alive.  And maybe to some people, many people, that's enough.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be a larger societal prejudice against "unlikeable" women, not just in fiction, but in general.  With this prejudice comes, it seems, a basic dislike of complexity.  Many people would say that they like "strong" women.  Yet when "strong" is defined, the woman ends up sounding more like an archetype than a flesh-and-blood human being.  She should be confident.  She should be aware.  She should know what she wants.  She should take actions that express what she wants.  What she wants should be admirable and, most importantly, not the slightest bit inconvenient to others, unless those others come from a group that is obviously in the wrong and must be defeated.

Both real and fictional women who fail to meet all of the "strong" requirements get criticized for what they supposedly lack.  Hillary Clinton, Yoko Ono, Empress Alexandra of Russia... the list goes on and on.  Women who don't meet any of the requirements are not even worth considering.  If, by chance, a fictional female character does take unpopular actions while also being "strong," she saves herself only if she is fully aware of her wickedness, embraces it, and is willing to face the consequences.  "I don't care if she's a bitch, as long as she owns it," is a lament that I've read more than once about nasty female characters.  Yet how many real people, let alone fictional women, act in such a black-and-white manner?

While men and male characters face these expectations, it is not to the same extent as women and female characters.  Readers and viewers have also been exposed to a wider range of male characters over the centuries.  By contrast, in much of the mainstream media, complex female protagonists who display qualities other than "strong" and virtuous are still a rarity, but are gradually becoming more acceptable.

As for why many people shy away from characters who are not easy reads, who zig when you expect them to zag, who knows.  Essays have and will be written about readers' character preferences.  Maybe readers who dislike complicated characters believe that if they are making such an investment of time, they should know what they are getting.  I expressed in my Fingersmith review that I disliked Maud's change in Part Two.  Though that wasn't so much about her becoming more complicated as it was her becoming flatter and less interesting, at least in my view.  But I digress.

Where does that leave Isabella, my female protagonist?  In many ways, she displays "strong" qualities, such as having to make decisions on behalf of a large household, or making decisions that frighten her as she tries to learn who betrayed her mother.  At the same time, her most fateful decision is made without her knowing why she's made it until afterward.  We then learn that it was based in fear and insecurity.  While to some readers, it might be nothing more than a wrinkle in her character, to others, it could wreak of a serious betrayal.

As for whether I'll soften her at all, I haven't decided.  If there is one thing I've learned, everyone has opinions, and some are greatly divergent.  Even if I soften her character, someone will be dissatisfied, whether it's because she's still too "hard" or because she's too soft.  Right now, I like her the way she is -- unlikeable and all.        


* Granted, Cathy isn't exactly a protagonist so much as one main character in Wuthering Heights, but still, her complete awfulness hasn't discouraged new readers.   
** Her second husband, Frank Kennedy, died after attacking freedmen as part of a Ku Klux Klan raid, but the novel portrays it as a noble effort to avenge Scarlett, who had been threatened earlier.    

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dickens Watch 2015

This is just a brief update.  Work has been grueling of late, I've been trying to write my one page per night, and damn those seasonal allergies.  Anyway, I thought it worth mentioning that I've put aside Bleak House for now.  I was into it for a short while, but somewhere around the time the heroine met Mr. Jarndyce, or whatever his name, I stopped caring.  I'm not sure how many pages I am into the book... my Kindle tells me 8%.  I'll try again, really.

Some observations: Dickens uses a mixture of styles that I had considered to be "modern" and hadn't really seen in other Victorian novels (though my catalogue is far from complete).  The first chapter begins almost like free-verse poetry, written by someone on crack: "As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill."

Both the first and second chapter are written in third-person present tense, while the third chapter abruptly changes to first-person past tense.  It's interesting to observe, and I'm assuming I'll learn why, in time.  When I pick Bleak House back up again.

Which I will do.  Eventually.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Unpopular Opinion: Maybe Those Twilight Zone Wives Had a Point

Growing up, I loved watching the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964).  It was the perfect blend of creepy and thought-provoking, often portraying what happens when we take certain longings to their natural (or supernatural) conclusion.

For Twilight Zone junkies, the classic episodes are almost too numerous to count.  However, the best of them tended to tap into our deep-seated fears and yearnings.  These include "Walking Distance," "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," "The Hitch-Hiker," and "A Stop at Willoughby."

Yet while Twilight Zone had that sort of universal appeal, it was hard to dismiss that its perspective was largely white, middle or upper-middle class, urban, and male.  The theme of an inordinate number of episodes was men longing to escape the constraints of their hectic modern lives, whether that involved escaping shrewish wives or modern urban life altogether.  The "ideal" world was one that likely never existed, where its inhabitants had all day to stroll leisurely through town squares, where there were always band concerts and cotton candy.  Even though the series sometimes poked fun at these longings, it returned to these locations often enough that it must have held real appeal to Rod Serling and the other writers.

As for the men who longed to go back, the audience was meant to sympathize with them.  Poor overworked, incredibly successful people, with your big houses and mixed drinks.  Though their yearnings are somewhat relatable, there is something incredibly passive and myopic about the way they view their circumstances.

Take Garth Williams in "A Stop at Willoughby."  He appears to be an ad executive along the lines of Ted Chaough or Ken Cosgrove: successful, but too sensitive for this world.  He works for a sadistic boss and could, we learn, leave at any time and take a significant amount of business with him.  Yet he stays on, drowning slowly from demands and expectations.  At home, when he complains about feeling trapped and about his fantasy of Willoughby, his wife, Jane, has little sympathy for him.  "It's my mistake, pal, my error, my miserable, tragic error to be married to a man whose big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn!"

Eventually Garth decides to get off his daily commuter train at the Willoughby stop, only for the viewer to learn that there was no stop, that Garth essentially committed suicide, and Willoughby was a funeral home.  The height of irony would be if the Willoughby fantasy world turned out to be a very creative ad campaign.

"Poor Garth," we think.  At least he's happier now, right?  The poor, sensitive man beaten into submission by a shrewish wife motif can be found in other episodes, including "Time Enough at Last" and "A World of His Own."  In the latter case, the shrewish wife was actually created by the man out of his imagination.

Back in the 1960s, it might have been expected for audiences to side with men like Garth, but it's a little unsettling that many people today take his victimhood at face value.  Yet when I go to places like IMDB and read the Twilight Zone forum during marathons, I see a variety of comments labeling his wife a miserable, cold bitch who didn't understand him and kept him down.

When I watch their (only) scene together, I see something different.  Garth's wife comes across as cold, yes, and unsympathetic.  But then, her husband has just told her that he wants to quit his job and go off an live in a fantasy world.  If you view circumstances from her perspective, her reactions make much more sense.  Imagine you have been married to this man for several years, even decades.  You have energy and ambition, but you live in a society that punishes you if you try to express it in any way other than through marriage.  So you do the socially acceptable thing: you marry a man whom you can guide to a greater position.  Maybe he appreciated your help at first.  After all, if he didn't want your help, he could have told you so at any time.

Over the years, he has started complaining more about his role and his job.  Yet rather than do something to change his situation, like leave his hated firm and go to one he might like better, he just stays and complains, and you have to listen.  At first you're sympathetic.  But the more he complains, but never actually changes, the more your sympathy wanes.  You might even be more understanding at this point if he quit and took a job as a teacher, or something, just as long as he was doing and not complaining.

In that one scene, Garth's wife asks him: "Did you wreck a career this afternoon?  Did you throw away a job?"  She then criticizes him for living in "a permanent self pity."  Yet when Garth says "I know where I'd like to be," for one moment, her voice changes.  "Where's that?" she asks.  She sounds genuinely interested, as if hoping he'll show some true motivation.  Only after he's described Willoughby do her voice and manner revert back to the previous cynicism.  Because while places like Wlloughby might be nice, they aren't real life, and dwelling on places like Willoughby suggests a resistance to dealing with real-world problems in any meaningful way.  Jane has probably heard this a lot, and she's sick and tired of it.  Wouldn't you be?

Similar to Jane, Gregory West's wife, Victoria, is critical of him and generally meant to come across as a harpy.  Her crimes: she takes obvious offense at her nebbish husband having a mistress, and at the possibility that she is a figment of his imagination.  The mistress, meanwhile, is all sweetness and support.  The audience is meant to snicker at Victoria's growing horror that she doesn't have any real self determination.  Her most independent act, throwing her character description into the fire, is the one that leads to her destruction.  That Gregory West would replace her with the worshipful, compliant mistress is supposed to be seen as a no brainer.  Essentially, we're supposed to view the person in complete control of the situation, Gregory West, as the victim who is finally "free" of his shrewish wife.

Did the Twilight Zone writers understand the irony that these poor put-upon men could actually change their situations any time they chose?  They had full legal rights.  There were no social or legal barriers to their entry into an occupation.  Even woeful Henry Bemis from "Time Enough at Last" had more to fear from his terrible eyesight than from his wife, who was more of a caricature than a true human being.  Meanwhile wives like Jane and Victoria are meant to be seen as controlling shrews for expressing any discontentment at all.  Never mind when they actually had a point.

To some extent, you could make these criticisms of a wide swath of Twilight Zone episodes.  Did Nan Adams really have to drive across three-fourths of the U.S. before it finally occurred to her to call home?  Couldn't someone have clocked that little brat, Anthony, over the head a lot sooner?  Still, the discontented urban upper-class male is such a prevailing theme throughout the series that I singled it out.  Again, it would probably bother me less if some of its more insulting aspects -- wives that aren't completely worshipful are shrews -- weren't still embraced by many people today.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Through An Introvert's Lens: Frozen

Yes, another article about Disney's Frozen.  At least it's relevant, given the recent premiere of the Frozen Fever short and the announcement that there will be a Frozen 2.

While Queen Elsa's character in Frozen has often been compared to a lesbian coming out of the closet, her embrace of her icy powers could be metaphorical in other ways.  One such way could be an introvert learning to embrace her true nature... or conversely, learning to become an extrovert.

Can Elsa's character arc be read either way?  To begin with, is Elsa an introvert?  Introverts are typically:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention

Some of this would definitely apply to Elsa both pre-Trauma (nearly killing her sister) and post-Trauma.  Even early innocent Elsa was more reserved than Anna, and she seemed more inclined to think about consequences than her sister.  Apart from that, we didn't see enough of pre-Trauma Elsa to extrapolate much else.

Post-Trauma Elsa is where it gets interesting.  She's so reserved, she rarely expresses her feelings.  She chooses her words very carefully.  Before she "lets it go," she needs to be alone to keep her powers under control, and afterward, she chooses to be alone in order to truly be herself.  I think it's safe to say that Elsa was and is an introvert.  The question is what message the movie is trying to convey about introversion.

Message No. 1: Be Yourself and Don't Hide Away

That seems to be the most straight-forward message from the movie.  Elsa should be allowed to show off her ice powers and have a relationship with her beloved sister Anna.  It seems to be the message the movie wants to convey.

And yet, what does it say that Elsa alone creates a spectacular ice castle, while Elsa in society seems content to merely create a public ice rink?  In fact, Elsa's happiest discovery in the movie seems to be that she can make the effects of her ice powers go away.

Message No. 2: Limit Your Unique Abilities to Be Socially Acceptable

Newly Fulfilled Elsa discovers that love can thaw ice, so through loving her sister, she frees her realm from perpetual winter.  It's certainly not a bad message, and Elsa learns that her ice powers don't control her.  Yet it never quite seems like she learns to control them.  Moreover, if Frozen Fever is anything to go by, Elsa's ice powers are still treated as a barrier to Elsa having a normal life.  Elsa plans a great birthday party for her sister and catches a cold, as people do, but her sneezes turn into party-wrecking gremlins.  Oops!

Message No. 3: You Gotta Join the Normals, Elsa!

It's significant that Elsa is not the main character of Frozen, but rather the extroverted Anna.  Like the rest of the realm, she just doesn't "get" what's up with Elsa, though in her case, there is an emotional component.  Yet the movie's journey is not about her learning to appreciate Elsa's uniqueness (to the movie's credit, she has no fear of Elsa's abilities), but rather Elsa coming down from the mountain and learning to socialize.  Elsa learns to loosen up and be with other people, and finds that her subjects still love her, at least as long as her ice powers are limited to snow flurries and ice rinks.


So is Frozen saying that the introverted Elsa should learn to be extroverted in order to be happy?  Is it saying she should keep the unique talents she cultivated bottled up in order to fit in?

Honestly, I'm not sure.

One way to sort out Frozen's attitude toward introverts is to look at how it treats another introvert, Kristoff.  Early on, Kristoff seems perfectly content to live out in the wilderness with his reindeer pal, with occasional visits to his friends the "love experts."  By the end of the movie, even though he enters a relationship with Anna, there's no sense that Kristoff has really changed.  I could see him still living on his own in the wilderness, swooping in on Arendelle now and then to date Anna.  I also don't get the sense that Anna expects him to be someone else.  Meanwhile, a more seemingly extroverted character, Hans, is the villain.

Overall, it's probably tough to draw specific conclusions about Frozen's attitude toward introversion.  Maybe the wisest conclusion is one that cuts down the middle: Frozen thinks it's okay to go off by yourself and "let it go," but too much alone time never suited anyone, and even the most introverted person needs connections to other people.  It's hard to argue with such sentiments, but it still raises the question of whether characters like Elsa give up too much in the process of forming connections.  I guess that's for Frozen 2 to answer.

Conclusion

Number of Introverts: At least two.

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes.

Is the Introvert Active?: Yes.

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?:  Pretty well, surprisingly.  Arendelle still accepts Elsa as their queen despite her unexplained absence for three years.  Once she returns from the mountain, they embrace her.  Anna treats Kristoff's introversion like a facet of his personality as opposed to something he should change. 




The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.