Saturday, October 29, 2016

Hallowthon 2016 Anthology: What even is fear

It's the most wonderful time of the year again, friends and readers.  Like I said last October: "There are a hell of a lot of horror movies out there and a lot of the same things to be said about most of them: exploitation cliches with sexualised violence against women, weak women predated upon or protected by strong men, and people of colour treated as expendable for shock value.  Racist stereotypes as a source of villainy.  Sex corrupts the young and then they get murdered while the pure girls maybe survive.  We could do a hundred posts and they would all look basically the same."

So once again it's time for the Something Short And Snappy Hallowthon 2016 Anthology, in which the blogqueen and I provide you with quick notes on a dozen horror movies to swiftly judge them and help you find something worth watching on these cold dark nights.  This year's selection leans a bit towards the surreal and unusual, because that's just the tone 2016 has set for us all.

(CN: gore, murder, body horror)
Will: Blurbs for this movie describe it like a typical slasher, and the first few minutes make it look like it's going to be an unwatchable slasher--the blogqueen and I both considered whether we just wanted to switch it off.  We did not, and we were rewarded.  This movie is not a slasher.  This movie is a sci-fi Freaky-Friday-swap human-animal-hybrid alien-abduction time-travelling-space-bear reading-ahead-in-the-script-for-your-own-movie carnival of WTF.  I've never been high, but I'm 80% sure Detention makes equal amounts of sense regardless of your level of intoxication.  'Good' and 'bad' cease to be useful descriptors for this movie.  It is an experience that I do not regret including in my life.  That's not a recommendation, exactly.  (It does definitely have a share of jump scares and gore, but they're not the main feature by far.)

Erika: This movie is absurd, and I think I mean that in a good way? I struggle to find words for it, mostly just emphatic hand gestures while I make a series of vaguely confused squeaky noises, but that doesn't translate well to text. If you plan to actually sit down and watch a movie, this one could be a good call.

(CN: blood, murder)
Will: (Merciful spoiler: the cat is not harmed.  I actually liked most of this movie, so the fear that something would happen to the cat was a major damper.)  A deaf author moves out to a remote country home to work on her second novel, and a masked killer decides to hunt her.  While he's got various advantages, she's smarter and incredibly brave, so the battle of wits that makes up the bulk of the film is actually interesting, rather than just having a lot of a woman screaming as she runs uselessly from an implacable monster.  Most of the fear comes by ambiance and anxiety rather than jump scares.  The third act unfortunately trends back towards typical bloody slasher, and it felt like the writers couldn't decide between three different climactic fights so they just decided to use all of them in sequence.  On the other hand, having a deaf hero means that 90% of the dialogue is signed (if that's something you're looking for in a movie) and while Maddie explicitly views her deafness as a flaw for much of the story, she also--minor spoiler--ends up using the killer's hearing against him in the end, so I would tend to give the movie overall a good score on ability/ableism?

(CN: Sexual violence, misogyny, gore, torture, murder, dragon)
Erika: I've seen Hellraiser twice now. I tried to talk Will through it, touching on villainous female sexuality, weird fetishes, and at one point a dragon if I remember correctly? I struggle to form a cohesive image of it in my mind. Largely because despite having seen it twice, it doesn't stick that vividly for me. Despite having a female protagonist, the movie is steeped in toxic masculinity. The one male character I actually liked was supposed to be laughed at for not being masculine enough and letting his wife be so awful to him. Because his wife mistreating him is a character flaw for him? It's got the usual sexist nonsense that many horror movies do, and I'm struggling to find anything interesting to say about it. It does have some really cool practical effects, and really gross gore stuff. If you're just in it for the grossness, sure, watch Hellraiser, but like a lot of Classics, you're not really missing anything.

The People Under The Stairs
(CN: Racist language, mutilation, torture, sexual violence, animal abuse. Just--everything. CN for All Of It)
Erika: Okay, so we were watching this movie while playing Sushi-Go, and I sort of only half saw the first half? This is important because I think there were a lot of black ghetto stereotypes in there but I'm not positive. It starts with a little black boy (unfortunately only ever called Fool, because that's what came up when his sister did a tarot reading for him) wrangled into helping case a joint to get money for his mother's surgery. The house they're casing has people who basically own the town and have been gentrifying the poorer neighborhoods.  They've chosen it because apparently they have gold in the basement, and not because they're just going to Robin Hood that shit. What is supposed to be a simple robbery goes very, very wrong when the two adults get killed by the owners of the house, and Fool finds out there is a hoard of pasty teenage boys in the basement. Not a subreddit--they're mutilated by the owners of the house, stolen by the couple (who are actually siblings because this wasn't gross enough already) but deemed "impure".

It's tense, it's gross, and a lot of the actually scary parts come from how deeply fucked up the people in it are. Actual distressed noises were made as I watched it. It does have some troubling issues with racism, but it also seems to be trying and do some interesting things with it? As I said, I missed chunks of the movie so I can't speak with confidence on the topic, but Fool is clever and tenacious and likable. SPOILER: the evil dog does die.

The 2016 American Presidential debate trilogy
(CN: Misogyny, racism, Trump)
Erika: Ok, so I didn't catch the first installment in this terrifying series, but I did see the second two. The whole premise seems laughable at first. A highly qualified woman is running to be president of the US against a bigoted angry cheeto. And they really amp up how absurd the Cheeto is. The viewer is often left wondering: how could anyone take this character seriously? But viral marketing aspect really helps with that, showing support outside of the actual debates on twitter and the like. I think the writers realized that and toned him down in the third installment, but the character still seems entirely unreasonable to me. That said, the meta stuff they've put out with it is what makes it truly horrifying. Have you seen some of those news articles on The Cheeto's actions? And the reactions to it? Pure horror because it starts to just feel so real. I feel and hope their conclusion will be obvious, but those of you able to vote in the US on which of these wins should go out and do so! If only because I'm not convinced the writers realized that The Cheeto isn't a legitimate option and need to understand that he isn't.  Make them understand. Vote him out of existence.

(CN: Comedic gore and violence,  ableism)
Erika: If you want a movie to put on in the background at your Halloween party that people might occasionally catch half a scene of and go "Wait what?" I highly recommend this one. It is campy and cheesy and absurd and the acting is about on par with porn. At one point they throw shoes at the leprechaun while running away so it has to stop to clean them to buy them time. It doesn't take itself too seriously, which personally I enjoy. I was too sober when I watched it, so I noticed there is one character who the writers wrote as "slow". There are a lot of unfortunate 'fat stupid comedic relief' tropes around him, and I don't think the writers knew they were coding him as autistic. With that in mind, there is some interesting dynamics around how other characters treat and react to him (mostly with kindness and affection). If someone else wants to sit down and actually pay attention to it (I do not recommend that; I was rooting for everyone to die so hard) I'd urge you to consider the accidental layers there as you do.

(CN: Gore, violence, misogyny, gross monsters)
Erika: If you follow me on twitter, you probably saw me tweeting through this. I'm bitter at the husbeast and the Alexs for making me sit through this when I can't drink and they all can. It opens with MANLY MEN BEING MANLY AND BY THE WAY DID YOU KNOW THEY WERE MEN WITH GUNS AND PENISES WHO ONLY THINK ABOUT PUTTING SAID PENISES AND GUNS IN WOMEN? No, really, that's 90% of the character development. This movie was unsure how seriously it was taking itself, but it was still too seriously. If they had just given up and gone full camp it could have been fun, but they didn't, so it's just kind of a sexist mess. The only named female character who is a doctor is called a "dumb woman" because she believed the people she was working for weren't evil. The Rock is Lawful Evil in deeply unbelievable ways. Karl Urban wins a fight against The Rock which, even having been weakened by CGI, is just not believable. Also Good and Evil are genetic? There is one scene where it goes into first person shooter mode that's absurd and kind of fun, but I'd give this one a pass.

Rites of Spring
(CN: gore, torture, murder)
Will: This is not a story.  This is one third each of two separate stories mashed together, which by my math still leaves us one third short.  One plot starts strong with a Bechdel-passing scene of two women in a bar discussing corporate politics, one trying to decide whether or not to admit that she was responsible for a recent failure after someone else has taken the blame.  They immediately get kidnapped by a gruff old man whose motivations are never fully explained.  I mean, it's not hard to piece together from incidental information: every spring, this small town sacrifices several people to some kind of monstrous entity to magically ensure good farming.  But I suggest a general rule: if your story is such a cliche that you just pull an Avril ("Can I make it any more obvious?") maybe it's such a cliche that you should do better.  The other plot, tangentially related, concerns a small conspiracy of people planning to ransom a rich guy's daughter.  Dunno about y'all, but I don't watch horror movies for disturbingly mundane and realistic murder scenes.  These two plots collide by chance and provide our unexplained monstrous entity with a crew of criminals to kill in the final act.  There's supposed to be something clever going on, because the well-meaning desperate dude in the ransom gang is the guy who took the fall for the captured heroine's mistake at work, so maybe they were going for some kind of weird reap-what-you-sow thing (that coincidentally suggests that our Final Girl brought all this horror on herself)?  There is a distinct lack of ending as well, although not as grievously as our next entry:

The Midnight After
(CN: blood, death, rape)
Will: A Hong Kong horror movie that I didn't realise was supposed to be satirical until I read its wiki page.  To again spare you my pain, let me say first that this movie literally has no ending and none of the weirdness is explained, which makes it all weird for weirdness' sake, and I don't know if I don't get it because I'm not from Hong Kong or what.  Which is too bad, because it's mostly pretty good weirdness: seventeen people riding a bus together at 2:30am find themselves abruptly alone in the world and desperately try to figure out what's going on.  Time travel?  Ghosts?  Some kind of magic disease?  A nuclear disaster?  David Bowie?  The answer appears to be 'yes to all' (especially Bowie), except that the movie ends as the survivors finally get on the road to finding possible answers, so we don't actually know.

There is a plotline that definitely requires some further discussion, because amongst all the other mystery and death, one woman is found dead and apparently raped, and we then later see that scene play out in flashbacks as the rapist is revealed by his accomplice.  I'm not sure why the writer thought this was an important thing to have, but the treatment of it is at least decent?  The actual scenes are played for revulsion rather than titillation, the victim isn't stripped for the camera or anything.  To my particular surprise, while some of the other men briefly argue for "rape is bad but what are we going to do about it now, kill him?", the women respond with "yeah, I have a knife right here" and everyone agrees this is as close to a court of law as they can manage when they're the only people in the world.  The actual execution is variously played for pathos and grim humour as each person stabs him once, some more enthusiastically than others.  The whole thing still feels rather unnecessary (fewer pointless rape plotlines in anything, please) but ultimately I can only complain so much about characters agreeing that rapists get no mercy.

It Follows
(CN: blood, death, sexualised violence)
Erika: There was so much hype about this movie, and it really didn't live up to it. I feel there was a lot of symbolism and depth this movie thought it had that I just wasn't getting. Like, I know the pools/water imagery was supposed to mean SOMETHING, but I'm not 100% sure what. Is that supposed to represent the main character's relationship with her sexuality? Peace of mind? There were some aspects I loved: the main character, upon becoming an assault victim, is rallied around by everyone rather than dismissed and questioned.  Although people do at first question if she is literally being followed by a demon or something, they don't try to talk her out of her fear, they just try to make her feel safe, which is refreshing. It would be more refreshing if consensual sex didn't lead to murder demons, but you know, take wins where we can. I also liked how the women were often shown in typical horror movie girl poses/outfits (the opening scene has a woman in a sheet tank top, shorts, and heels running around) but rarely are they filmed as sexy. We see Jay in underpants or a swimsuit often, but she's shown in granny panties and a one piece. The girls aren't wearing loads of make up that were supposed to believe is just what they look like. Their clothes aren't skintight and played off as comfortable and casual. It's weird, and worth a watch, but I wouldn't put it at the top of my list.

Will: The premise of 'what if the Terminator was an STI' is certainly horrifying, and the movie is pretty visually effective, but like the blogqueen I also spent a lot of time trying to figure out why the writers made various choices.  Was there a ton of symbolism I was missing?  If the monster takes the shape of 'whatever it thinks will get it close to you', why does it keep picking such bizarre and creepy forms instead of something compelling and comforting?  It does sort of do that eventually, appearing as the protagonist's father, but it has previously appeared as completely naked people (first female, then male), or as apparent murder victims, or various other disturbing forms.  Mostly I feel like this movie suffers because the problem becomes a sort of logic puzzle, like "Couldn't you make a deal with someone in Asia where you fly there every year or so to have sex, passing the curse back and forth, so that every time the monster finally climbs out of the Marianas Trench it suddenly realises it has to change direction again?"  And the characters never really try to get clever with the solution like that, so I'm just left with more thought experiments that I can't see in action.

The Devil's Hand
(CN: blood, nudity, brief sexual assault)
Will: Both better and worse than I expected.  The setting is an Amish commune in the modern day, where they have a prophecy about 'the Drommelkind' (devil child?) that seems to start coming true when six girls are all born on the same night.  There is much muttering and grumbling about whether they can be redeemed or should be killed for everyone else's protection.  So, there's the pretty swift Bechdel pass when most of our main characters are women, and it's at least sort of interesting to have Amish characters not presented as inherently backwards and wrong--but there are also the tiresome standbys like the Evil Stepmother, and the horror sequences mostly consist of the girls dying one by one at the hands of a hooded figure.  The primary antagonist is the leading elder of the town, who we also quickly and clearly see is a creeper and probably repeat molester, and there was some potential for interesting dynamics when one of the girls insists they rally people against him while others cling to excuses and veneers of religious purity.  Overall, I was hoping this was going to be a movie that argued 'the devil' is unnecessary when we're capable of justifying evil to ourselves in the name of righteousness, and maybe a self-fulfilling prophecy where it's the moral panic and vicious response that causes disaster after all... but that is not what we get.  The final scenes of the movie don't make a lot of sense (the killer's identity is easy to spot on a meta level, but comes out of nowhere plotwise) and, like Ender's Game, we're sort of left wondering whether the story is claiming the 'bad guys' were right after all or what.

Mr Jones
(I'm not sure any particular warnings apply, but I'm open to suggestions)
Will: This is that rarest of creatures: the bloodless horror movie.  Our protagonists are a young couple whose marriage is a bit rocky, who decide to move out to the middle of nowhere for a year to film the Greatest Nature Documentary Of All Time and discover that their closest neighbour is a famously reclusive anonymous artist dubbed "Mr Jones".  Of course, Mr Jones isn't actually an artist; he's some kind of supernatural sculptor with ulterior motives involving the world of dreams and nightmares.  I really don't know why the writers decided this needed to be done in 'found footage' style, especially since they abandon it repeatedly, but I still enjoyed several aspects of the movie.  Rather than being a stock Nagging Wife, Penny actually gets to have some depth and agency, and she's at least as important to the investigation as Scott.  The aesthetics are satisfyingly creepy without falling back on blood, and after spending the first act shouting "Your neighbour is clearly a killer warlock" at the protagonists, I was gratified by the slow realisation that the expected cliches didn't apply.  It's not as striking and artistic as it wants to be, but overall I approve.


That's all we were able to get our hands on this month, but as a supplement the blogqueen also suggested this list (by quality individual Joey Comeau) of horror movies without sexual violence.  And at some point we really will post something in regards to Scream Queens, the comedy/horror/satire slasher series that occasionally does interesting things with terrible people.  It'll be surprisingly deep for something that is intentionally super shallow.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

My Queer Queue, August 2016: Objectification for all

I don't watch as much stuff off Netflix's "Gay and Lesbian" section as you might expect.  Someone (I can't find the source, but I know I first saw it on tumblr) coined the phrase "If it's not sad, it's bad" to describe the conflict of LGBT cinema--we have a lot of tragedy and bittersweetness in our stories, and the cheerful ones are often terrible.  And, since the LGBT community is actually an agglomeration of several communities (what I heard one person name the Alphabet Soup Suffering Coalition), it's tragically common to see one identity celebrated at the cost of another.  Certain topics are also much more common, like sex work, which could be interesting if it weren't an excuse to sexualise and fetishise the characters.  There are seriously so many movies about the Troubled Chemistry between a Normal Person and Some Kind Of Sex Worker, Probably A Stripper Because That's Not Going TOO Far.  Ugh.

While we're on the subject, content warning for death and coercive sex work.

Anyway, despite my trepidation, I do venture in there once in a while, usually when I get tired of screaming to just let Captain America and the Falcon go on a goddamn date already.  And I probably don't have enough to say about most of the things I watch to make an actual full post about any of them, but if we go for a bunch at once we start looking at commonalities and exceptions and themes, so let's try that and maybe it'll become a regular thing.

This month's selection leans towards dude stuff (more ladies if/when the blogqueen gets in on this):
These were all movies that I picked out because they looked like they were about guys falling in love and not suffering horribly.  Which they... mostly... were.  "Mostly" in this case meaning, like, 55%?  We'll start from maximum tragedy and climb upwards from there.


How To Win At Checkers (Every Time) was kind of fascinating, even if it immediately dashed my hopes of "happy".  It's a Thai movie about a boy named Oat (oh-at), who lives with his aunt and idolises his older brother Ek.  Ek's deeply in love with his boyfriend Jai, and their best friend Missy is trans, and probably the thing that threw me the most about this movie was that it avoided any explicit homophobia or transphobia 98% of the time.  The rich bully in the neighbourhood never throws slurs at anyone, even while he's being a jerk.  The overbearing aunt tells Ek "You can date any boy you like, but dating across class lines is going to cause trouble".  Missy is characterised as a gorgeous badass, unabashedly trans, and the hot girl all the high school boys want to get with.  No one questions her gender at all.  (Oat does snap something transphobic at her in a heated moment, but he's 11, he's upset and lashing out, and he immediately gets told off for it.)

That said, literally the first scene of the movie is 20-year-old Oat flashing back to watching his brother die horribly.  It both is and is not a spoiler to say that we eventually see this dream didn't really happen, because Ek still died horribly, just in a different way, later on and out of sight.

With homophobia off the table for conflict, the plot instead focuses on class divides, because Oat's family is just getting by, while Jai is sarcastically described as "taller, richer, and whiter" as we watch him blow out candles on a birthday cake in a stereotypical suburban home.  Ek and Jai are old enough for the annual military draft lottery, but Jai's parents are rich enough to bribe the local black market boss into ensuring their son won't get chosen.  Oat tries to do the same for his brother, but he's 11 and not good at subterfuge, so his plan backfires and Ek ends up on the boss's bad side.

Upon realising that this movie wasn't going to feature Evil Bigots, I began to wonder why they had so many queer characters--not because I disapproved, but because you and I both know that the rarest of all LGBT cinema is "totally normal storytelling except not heteronormative".  I didn't have to wait long for the answer, because in the aftermath of the draft (Jai was not chosen, Ek was, and Ek is disgusted that Jai would use his class privilege to dodge his duty as a citizen) we also see that the black market boss owns the queer club where Ek works, and has reassigned him from bartending to sex work.  I kid you not.  So we get an uncomfortable scene of no one stopping Oat from walking upstairs to find his brother in bed with an unpleasant man twice his age, and then the local bully drags Jai up there to see as well, everything falls apart, Ek and Jai break up, Ek goes off on military service and gets randomly murdered by someone targeting soldiers on patrol.

When discussing Life Is Strange and the rarity of a non-customised bisexual protagonist, I mentioned to Erika that I didn't think the game would have been made with the genders swapped, because (even when otherwise pretty good!) there was still objectification going on, and our culture is a lot more comfortable with objectifying women than men.  The programmers wouldn't have been so on board writing and modelling a flirtatious scene of a male Max and Warren going skinny-dipping in the school pool.  No voyeuristic fun to be had there.  By a similar token, someone writing about a desperate guy getting forced into sex work isn't going to write about a straight dude.

And there are some good reasons for that--for sure, the relationship between sexuality and isolation and taboo and survival sex work is a complicated and important one.  But this isn't a nuanced exploration; this is a single scene about a hot guy getting fucked to illustrate his powerlessness, desperation, and humiliation.  That's about as artistically deep as an exploitation film.

So, even in this film with zero evil homophobes, the primary arc is still about a gay man being stripped of his agency, powerless to protect himself, and finally die a cruel and pointless death.  This is the inescapability of queer tragedy in film that we have to deal with.


Weekend is a film that desperately wants to be artistic, and is a good study in how "indie" is itself a film genre even though it conceptually shouldn't be.  Archetypal techniques include group scenes with no sound filtering (to really get that "unintelligible home video of Christmas with the family" feel), montages of main characters trudging soulfully through urban landscapes, and smash cuts to totally silent tableaus.  It takes place over the course of a weekend, when a couple of guys randomly hook up at a bar, spend a couple of days realising that they would actually really like to try a relationship together rather than a casual fling, and then part ways because one of them is going to an art school thousands of miles across the sea.  The bulk of the movie comprises odd conversations they have along the way, like Glen's explanation of his current art project (audio interviews/monologues with all of his casual sex partners), with breaks for mundanity (a montage of Russell's day job as a lifeguard), very specific sex scenes (like, you do not ever have to wonder what precise acts they enjoy), and a frankly hilarious quantity of drugs.  So many drugs.  I don't know what's up with the drugs in this movie.   Forget pot.  They will literally pause a conversation to snort three lines of cocaine and then go back to talking, with minimal indication that this might somehow affect a human brain.  It is so weird.

They do part ways in the end, in a very sweet and anguished and MAXIMUM INDIE scene, with a goodbye kiss at the train station and parting words that we can't hear because, again, no sound filtering, that's how you know it's artistic.  I can't say the movie doesn't have a plot, because it's very much about how much these guys affect each other over the course of a weekend, with Glen losing some of his affected casualness and hipstery detachment, and Russell (the less-out one) overcoming some of his internalised homophobia.  And at least it's not outright tragedy.  If you want a movie that is about The Generic (white cis male) Gay Experience and common issues around affection and masculinity, I guess I might recommend it?


North Sea Texas is of the same ilk, but it's about teenage boys in Belgium and features more homophobia.  (The name has nothing to do with the US Texas and everything to do with the local bar.)  It covers the teenage years of a boy named Pim who lives with his mom and befriends neighbour boy Gino.  Pim and Gino grow closer in increasingly sexual and romantic ways before Gino breaks things off, gets a girlfriend, and starts saying that the "playing around" they did was something people grow out of.

Now, obvs, this is not my favourite way for potentially-bisexual characters to be presented, and it's irritatingly common.  Like, yes, experimentation is pretty normal and doesn't always mean someone's not straight, but the fewer Treacherous Flipfloppers in media the better.  But we'll come back to Gino.

Marcela, Gino's sister, clearly has a crush on Pim, and when she realises he's into her brother (by prying through Pim's room and finding his Shirtless Gino Sketchbook) starts trying to cause trouble.  Their mother refuses to believe it anyway.  (Aside: one of my relatives once asked about my dating life in a way that vaguely allowed for the possibility I wasn't straight.  My mother immediately leapt in to talk about the last girl I dated, four years earlier, though I haven't dated anyone since.  I'm sure she meant well.)  Pim's own mother (who regularly talks about what a free spirit she is), happily rents a room to Zoltan, twentysomething vagabond and hottest man in Belgium.  He's around and shirtless just long enough for Pim to start getting his hopes up before Pim walks in on Zoltan and his mother in bed, and they run away together the next day, literally abandoning Pim.  Gino and Marcela's mother dies as well, but on her deathbed brings together Pim and Gino's hands, and in the aftermath they are passionately reconciled.  (Whether Gino's really bi or was just temporarily trying to convince himself he was into girls is not addressed.)

Apart from being a slow indie movie with lots of silent scenes and withdrawn characters, North Sea Texas stands out as a movie in which the central couple of queer teens end up together (I think?) and yet still manages to be impressively cruel to its heroes, with parents dying and abandoning them left and right.  So it's not exactly feel-good, but it's still the first one on this list that isn't apparently aiming for a sad ending.


Finally, we have Seashore, which is arguably the most upbeat on this list, but also the least that's actually like a movie.  By which I mean a lot of these indie movies seem like they started filming with an idea rather than a story, and forgot to fill in all of the blanks.  Seashore is set in Brazil (I wouldn't have guessed; everyone is white) and focuses on Martin, sent by his parents on family business that is never explained at all.  He's got to deliver a message to someone on the coast and get a response?  Or something?  The script knows that this is 100% an excuse plot and doesn't pretend to flesh it out.  The point is that, for moral support, he is accompanied on this trip by his BFF Tomaz, who spends much of the movie trying to decide whether or not to come out to Martin.  It gets increasingly awkward, not least since Martin ends up having the great idea that they should pick up hot chicks and take them back to the cottage for (non-group) sexytimes.  Tomaz dodges it by being all "Whoops, I got way too drunk, can't have sex with you but you seem like a super nice lady, thanks" and eventually finally takes the Plunge of Truth the next day.  Martin, professional good role model, is just "Oh, really?  Hah, I can't believe I tried to set you up with a girl yesterday" and all is well.  When his family mission ultimately fails and his family back home is loudly disappointed with him over the phone, Tomaz remains his best moral support, and their banter quickly progresses from "No one gets to be your boyfriend unless I approve of him, lol" to "So what is it like to kiss a dude anyway" to "Gosh, where did all of our pants go".

(The sex scene was a little uncomfortable, maybe because I'm used to actors of this age playing 15-year-olds rather than their actual ages, and while it's not porn, it's--like Weekend--very clear and specific about what's going on.  I understand the script was vaguely-autobiographical, but I also definitely wondered how much of this was just about titillating the creators.)

I thought for a moment that it was going to go for Maximum Artistic Angst and Martin would end up drowning himself in the sea the next morning, but then I remembered that the ocean is literally textbook 'rebirth' imagery and this film is all about people finding themselves.  So while the pacing of this film is ssssssssoooo sssslllllowwwwww that multiple reviewers wondered if it had a script or just really awkward improvisors, it actually gets the highest score here on Queer Boys Being Sweet And Affectionate And Not Suffering.  Which is apparently the niche-iest of all niche genres.


Since this is a new post idea, I'm more interested than usual in feedback: is this a thing people would like to see as a monthly series?  Are there specific movies that y'all think I should check out?  Do you want more investigation of specific themes and cliches in the field?  Sound off, my friends.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Name of the Wind, chapters 2 and 3, in which people pretend not to be main characters

This post is late for a variety of very good reasons, including helping friends move and going to the local Pride parade and being too tired to move.  Regardless, I will consider whether Sundays are actually the best day to aim for posting.  Sorry for the erratic schedule.

The Name of the Wind: p. 19--34
Chapter Two: A Beautiful Day
It was one of those perfect autumn days so common in stories and so rare in the real world.
I think the first time I read a line in a book about how "this is real life, not some book" I thought it was really clever.  That was, I'm going to estimate, minimum eighteen years ago.  At this point, every reference to the same (this isn't a movie/TV show/cartoon/daguerreotype) at best gets an arched eyebrow from me, but in the case of this book, it's more the slightly-cracked chortle and shrug of a surrendered man.  Of course this is that kind of book.  How did I ever imagine otherwise?

This chapter introduces our second (third?) protagonist, Chronicler (I wonder if he's important to the Kingkiller Chronicle), who is busy observing all of the lovely scenery when "a half dozen ex-soldiers with hunting bows" very politely rob him.  He doesn't particularly put up a fight: "he had been robbed before and knew when there was nothing to be gained by discussion".  There's very little actual tension, which is presumably intentional, and the commander is a very fair-minded thief, ordering his lackeys not to take too much, or to at least leave their old cloak if they're taking his, that kind of thing.

It's a weird scene, and I would argue vastly more memorable than anything that happened last chapter (competing with the monster science), but I'm not sure what to take away exactly.  It doesn't do a lot of worldbuilding--the thieves mention that they're going to sell his horse to the army, but we don't know why these people are ex soldiers (and recently enough that they still call their leader 'sir'), or why they're so polite about it.  We do get Chronicler characterised as a wise dude who is always prepared--as soon as they're gone with his stuff, he gets more cash out of his secret boot stash and partly refills his purse in case he gets held up again, since he knows a thief hates to not find anything at first glance.  The narrative informs us of an additional bank deposit baked into his ultra-stale bread and in his ink bottle.

Finally there is a weird sort of fake-out-fakeout when he's thinking about what a nice peaceful day it is and gets startled by a "dark shape" coming at him out of the trees, but it's just a crow after all and he goes merrily on his way.  This chapter is so meta that it's making a joke out of pretending it's going to do something violent after pretending that it was pretending not to all along.  Which is, to me, the kind of cleverness that isn't actually interesting?  And I make puns without shame.

Chapter Three: Wood and Word

Back to Kote at his tavern, surprised by the arrival of Graham the wood-carver with the mounting board Kote apparently commissioned from him four months ago, delayed by the precise rare wood he'd had to acquire.  Graham notes that Kote "has begun to wilt", presumably again a reference to 'cut flowers' as so purposefully described last time:
The innkeeper's gestures weren't as extravagant. His voice wasn't as deep. Even his eyes weren't as bright as they had been a month ago. [....] And his hair had been bright before, the color of flame. Now it seemed--red. Just red-hair color, really.
Is... is Kote losing his protagonism?   I'm imagining the secondary characters gossiping at a nearby corner: 'And the last time he came into my shop, I could barely hear his leitmotif for more than a couple of seconds!'  (Also, side-pedantry, but why do authors insist fire is red?  Most fires I've ever seen have been very intensely yellow with edges of blue and orange.  Embers might be red, but it's always 'flame-red'.  This is like the non-racist counterpart to 'almond-shaped eyes'.)

Graham talks about how difficult it was to work with the wood, and even harder to burn the name "Folly" in as requested.  Kote overpays him for the work and doesn't offer any further explanation for his weird purchase.  Graham leaves and Bast arrives to ask vague and portentous questions:
"What were you thinking?" Bast said with an odd mixture of confusion and concern.
Kote was a long while in answering. "I tend to think too much, Bast. My greatest successes came from decisions I made when I stopped thinking and simply did what felt right. Even if there was no good explanation for what I did." He smiled wistfully. "Even if there were very good reasons for me not to do what I did."
How long am I going to have to wait for them to stop talking about talking about 'what he did' and actually tell us what it is?  I know it's only chapter three, but if I have limited tolerance for 'as you know' exposition, I have even less for 'I think we need to discuss That Thing We're Keeping From The Reader in vague terms'.

Kote says he plans to hang the sword (of course it's a sword) out in the open, to Bast's horror, but Bast fetches it from under his own bed (aww) and Kote finds a spot over the bar.  When he sees Bast's careless grip on the scabbard, he gives us this gem:
"Careful, Bast! You're carrying a lady there, not swinging some wench at a barn dance."
Dude.  Of all the ways to tell your apprentice to be careful with your favourite weapon, you chose 'feminise an inanimate object and draw parallels to the types of women you should or should not be respectful of'?  (Running tally of female or feminine characters: a dead horse and a sword named Folly.)

Before he hands it, Kote, draws the blade, which, like its owner, is both old and young at once:
It was not notched or rusted. There were no bright scratches skittering along its dull grey side. But though it was unmarred, it was old. And while it was obviously a sword, it was not a familiar shape. At least no one in this town would have found it familiar. It looked as if an alchemist had distilled a dozen swords, and when the crucible had cooled this was lying in the bottom: a sword in its pure form. It was slender and graceful. It was deadly as a sharp stone beneath swift water.
I have no gorram clue what this sword is supposed to look like.

I mean, to be honest, I will be happy if it's anything other than a katana, but I don't know how to reconcile something being the purest distillation of all swordiness with being something bizarre to the entire village's basic expectations of what swords look like.  What I'm saying is that until I am absolutely forced to reconsider, I'm going to assume it's one of these:

Pictured: a sanégué sword from Burkina Faso, incontrovertible proof that the human spirit defies all deterministic projections.

Kote's all cheerful about finally having Folly on display, while Bast is super awkward, but they have to get ready for the lunch rush and there's a rather romcom remark about how they discuss minor things as they work: "it was obvious they were reluctant to finish whatever task they were close to completing, as if they both dreaded the moment when the work would end and the silence would fill the room again."  Isn't that basically one of the subplots in Love, Actually?

They are spared the onslaught of awkward silence by the arrival of a small caravan of customers: wagoneers, guards, a tinker, and a couple of young rich travellers obviously seeking safety in numbers.  Two of the wagoneers are specifically noted to be women, making them the first female humans we've seen on page.  They are not named.

When everyone's fed and supplied and they've agreed on rooming arrangements, the tinker takes a quick roll through town to judge business, and attracts the attention of a group of children who respond to his indifference by playing a game that includes a cheerful rhyme about running and hiding if the fire turns blue, referencing the Chandrian again.  This isn't bad worldbuilding, but it does feel kind of shoehorned?  The tinker responds with his own song rhyming all the goods he has for sale, specifically beckoning the women of the village to come buy "small cloth and rose water".  Nothing is specifically recommended to the men, and certainly not for the sake of making themselves more attractive.  Basically this portion is straight out of Eye of the World.

Keeping in that theme, Kote spends the next scene basking in being around actual travellers again, but the sounds they make specifically include "men laughing" while "the women flirted".  Option one is that flirting is a romantic activity and therefore inherently womanly, not something a man would do; option two is that the women are strictly flirting with each other.  I know which option I'm going to pretend Rothfuss meant.  But then, later in the evening when folks are getting inebriated, someone somehow--le gasp--strikes upon Kote's super secret backstory.

One of the richer dudes identifies Kote as "Kvothe the Bloodless", based partly on his appearance but mostly on his voice:
I heard you in Imre once. Cried my eyes out afterward. I never heard anything like that before or since. Broke my heart. [....] I saw the place in Imre where you killed him. By the fountain. The cobblestones are all [...] shattered. They say no one can mend them.
So, I know that 'this was broken so hard that no magic can undo the harm' is a fantasy staple, but when it comes to cobblestones, not to be That Guy, but couldn't you just... replace them?  Dig up the broken ones and put down new ones?  Maybe I'm missing key information here.

Kote laughs the idea off, pretends it's a compliment, and then pretends to be a huge klutz for a second just to dispel any notions that he could be some kind of legendary poet-warrior.  Bast helps him limp away and Kote gives him instructions to give the man some sleeping meds and then casually drop Kote's backstory into conversation, involving an arrow to the knee and a generous merchant.  He only says it once, but he and Bast use a sort of ritualistic 'listen three times'/'I hear you three times' phrasing to make it clear that this is Serious Business.  Kote spends the rest of the night brooding heroically in his room, and we're told as he undresses for bed that the fire highlights all of his many, many scars, all smooth and silver "except one".  Plot significance meters are overloading, captain!

(Given how much nothing has happened at this point in the book, I'm reflecting back on the first chapter and wondering how Kote knew so much about scraelings but had never apparently dissected one before.  That's an odd level of familiarity, no?)

The next morning the caravan leaves without incident and Kote appears to busy himself with deeply mundane concerns again, but he does go to the blacksmith to buy an iron rod (like everyone else in town already did) and also a leather apron and gloves, which he claims are for gardening.  There's more semi-poetic stuff about how things are ready to die in autumn, basically the same pensive morbidity as the last two times Kote has closed a chapter for us.  The only difference here is that the narrative eye settles on Bast, obviously troubled and looking for an opportunity to do something about it.  Regardless, this basically feels like Rothfuss had two distinct ideas for his first chapter and decided to use both of them in sequence.

Next time: Kote and Chronicler meet.  Will sparks fly?  Will Bast be jealous?  Will there be a named female character any time soon?  Only time will tell.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Good movies for people who like bad movies

(Sorry this isn't the second Name of the Wind post, but my brain has been frazzled and this post has been waiting in drafts for far too long.  I also suspect it's going to be topical as we continue to dig into Kvothe's adventures in the coming weeks.)

Most people who aren't Ayn Rand are willing to acknowledge a difference between things they like and things that are "good", a distinction that is at once counterintuitive and perfectly natural.  It is with that distinction in mind that I watched two movies recently: Conan the Barbarian (the 1982 original) and Vampire Academy (based on books of the same name).  These movies aren't good, but they are bad in specific ways that call into question what exactly we mean by "good" to begin with.

I'll start with Conan, because I have less to say about it: it's the incredibly straightforward story of a Proud Warrior Tribe kid whose village is destroyed by an evil man, who gets taken as a gladiator slave, runs away to freedom, slays monsters, has gratuitous sex with dubious consent, and finally kills the evil black wizard who slaughtered his people.  He has a love interest and a couple of comic relief sidekicks of indistinct ethnicity and fundamentally racist conventions, he gets some unexpected and inexplicable Christ imagery, and assures us all that a true hero is an independent burly man who single-handedly decapitates bad guys.  Throughout the adventure, he is narrated in epic saga style.

This is a bad movie, let there be no question.  Even the heroic POC tend to be cowardly and animalistic, and for all that James Earl Jones does some spectacular work as the villain, the climax of the movie is a white man setting a bunch of impressionable kids free by murdering a black man.  The love interest dies literally fifteen minutes after our heroes performed a magic ritual to bring Conan back from the dead, and yet no one asks whether maybe they should just do that again.  There's a thoroughly unexpected scene when Conan steals an evil priest's robes by using the man's predatory gay tendencies against him.  All bigoted writing--literally every word of it--is also lazy writing.

But lord how I wish we could have good movies that take their absurd epic fantasy setting this seriously.  It's the problem of the 1950s: love the aesthetic, hate the politics.  Where are my stories about people who aren't cis-white-hetero-men-with-arms-like-bags-of-footballs, adventuring across untamed lands to fight animated statues and free vulnerable people from charismatic dictators while a wizened wizard narrates their quest with the kind of absolute severity that would make Adam West proud?  Where victory isn't always murder, where strength is community and not a weird frappuccino of the philosophy of Nietzsche and incredibly unlikely Genghis Khan attributions?

Conan the Barbarian is not a good movie, but how I wish it were.

With that, we come to Vampire Academy, the bizarre Twilight/Harry Potter hybrid that I didn't know I was waiting for.  This movie is absurd and cliched, with its convenient telepathic bonds and its magic princess on the run and a vampire queen who lives in the school and calls assemblies specifically to chastise her probable successor in public (for no personal benefit).  Few of the actors seem comfortable being filmed, and the mandatory hetero love interests are a blatant discount bin Edward Cullen and some kind of Star-Trek-transporter-accident fusion of Jack Black and David Bowie.

And yet this is a movie that does an astonishing number of things right.  Our heroic bonded duo of vampire princess Lissa and mostly-human bodyguard Rose are complex characters with multiple conflicting motivations and flaws, going overboard in their petty revenge or overprotectiveness and then regretting it, trying to make things right.  The movie starts in medias res to a degree that reminded me of the original Star Wars, with our heroes on the run, immediately provoking questions about how they got there, why they left the eponymous academy, and why they're being dragged back.  (And, if you're me, whether the romantic/sexual subtext between the girls is going to remain subtextual.  It is.  Obvs.  Sigh.)  They remain, throughout the movie, likeable but imperfect, with Rose in particular (as the action hero) getting to maintain a swagger and punchiness that is usually restricted to male roles.  When her platonic bro starts to make some kind of I'm A Nice Guy rant at her, Rose dismisses him instantly to focus on more important issues.  When Discount Edward hangs around Lissa in awkward and potentially creepy ways, Rose bluffs to get rid of him, but later accepts that she doesn't get to pick her friend's friends and apologises for lying--while still making it clear that she thinks his behaviour was creepy.

(In one reversal that the blogqueen particularly liked, Discount Edward spends most of the movie being markedly useless and then gets exactly one dramatic effective moment during the climax, a fate that usually befalls the token female action hero.)

To my utter lack of surprise, internet investigation told me that this movie was a colossal failure commercially, and its Rotten Tomatoes page (aggregate score of 11%) is full of blurbs from grey-haired white men declaiming the film for being impossible to follow and trying to lure in silly teenager girls by mashing up all the modern trends of magic school and hot vampire boys.

We are left with the question: would this movie have done better with male leads?  Rose would certainly have been a more typical male character, though being younger than his hypothetical female love interest would have been a switch.  More likely that Lissa would become the love interest in need of protection (unless she was a dude too, in which case I suspect there would have been way more No Homo being thrown around and all of the leads' emotions would have to be replaced with sex or punching).  This is a movie with a strong focus on social status--characters care about how they're perceived and might prefer a battle to the death over public embarrassment--which is obviously such a girl thing, innit?  And yet my mind drifts back to a little English underdog hero called Eggsy who who just wanted to prove his worth compared to his condescending upper-class peers...

Over on the page for Kingsman (aggregate score of 74% and my unfathomable scorn) a veritable flood of enraptured white men cheer for its "stylish" "subversiveness", wit, charm, and "devil-may-care exuberance".  May I remind you that this is a film in which a lisping media tycoon decides to save the environment by inventing a machine that makes everyone turn into murderous berserkers for only as long as he holds down the button.  But "vampires want to kidnap a princess to use her healing magic for themselves" is too convoluted and weird.

And I mean: I'm not trying to argue that Vampire Academy is a Good Movie, in the sense of technical expertise or top-quality performances (apart from Rose, who was honestly delightful in every moment that she wasn't being forced into a weird romantic subplot).  But I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than plenty of other movies that are supposedly its superior, and so I start to wonder how we're defining Good Movies.  Because when you get into institutions like that--film theory and literary criticism and the like--one of the first things that becomes apparent is that a lot of our metrics and expectations have been designed by aging white dudes who scorn everything that doesn't pander directly to them.    How exactly do we decide which is more important: that a tertiary villain's actress has a natural style of delivery, or that the script acknowledges that women can have more than one personality trait?  How do we weight fluid cinematography against the 'artistic choice' to only give speaking roles to white people?

There's some kind of idea out there, never quite stated (but clearly believed by people who consider themselves 'the default'), that you can tell an apolitical story.  Like if a person just writes, lets the words flow freely without intending to make a statement about the world, they will necessarily not make a statement about the world.  If they just want to tell a story about being a hero, and they coincidentally make the climax of that story a white guy brutally murdering a black guy, there is no way the story might be racist, because they weren't thinking about racism while they wrote it.  It's only once other people come in and start overthinking things that we run into trouble, somehow introducing problems to the story just by observing what's in there.

If this blog had, like, a heraldic motto, it'd probably be something like what I wrote above there: all bigoted writing is lazy writing.  It replaces truth and originality with lies that uphold privilege and comfort oppressors.  I hope that we can, as a civilisation, move away from "X is okay if you don't mind all the bigotry" and towards "X could have been good if not for all the bigotry".  A story that hates Muslims isn't 'controversial' or 'daringly un-PC', it's a bad story pushing a bad agenda.

And if we're going to recognise that bigotry is an artistic flaw, I think it's important to give artistic value to fighting bigotry.  There's a new Ghostbusters out (it was great), and the choice to cast four lead women is considered a gimmick while the original's four leading men are apolitical.  Nah, bruh.  The original Ghostbusters has two significant women (the secretary and the damsel) and everyone else who matters is a man, and it's like that because it was written by men for themselves.*  The new Ghostbusters has a quartet of proven comic ladies because the people involved in making it agreed that it's important that there are stories about women like this.

Which isn't to say that, say, casting women is always politically progressive and creative and meritorious.  Joss "Female Characters Who Are Strong And Vulnerable In Exactly The Ways I Find Sexually Exciting" Whedon has taught us all that lessons several times over.  Heralded for years as the great geek feminist, Whedon once imagined a conversation in which a hypothetical journalist asked him why he wrote so many female characters, setting himself up for the dazzling rejoinder "Because you're still asking that question".  And yet he keeps producing exactly the same kind of character over and over again (all bigoted writing is lazy writing) because the story isn't about the representation of women, it's about that one particular kind of woman that Whedon likes best.  The entire concept that launched Buffy was 'wouldn't it be weird to see a girl do this?'  He was counting on women-as-gimmick to draw attention, but then circled back around to approximately-mainstream acceptance by slathering them in male gaze, and he has never stopped repeating this pattern. (And always tearing them down, showing them broken and abused and in need of saving anyway.)

I tragically can't close this by outlining the true rules for objectively determining what a good movie is.  That is beyond even my power as an amateur blogger.  But I think there's a lot more to be investigated in how we perceive movies aimed at or led by women.  These movies can be flawed (oh, is Vampire Academy flawed) and it's easy to brush off a cheesy movie, but is it actually the cheese and the production values that people hate, or are those just the things we let a person target when they want to destroy something because it's For Girls?


*There will likely be at least one Ghostbusters post coming soon, possibly one about the original and one about the reboot, in case you are hungry for more of the blogqueen's vitriol for Peter Venkman.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Name of the Wind, chapter one, in which Will is charmed by a Science Hero

Howdy folks.  Sunday updates are back!  The long drought is once again over and we have a new project, decided by my need to resolve an apparent contradiction.  On the one hand, I have heard that The Name of the Wind is the most archetypal of male wish-fulfillment fantasy; on the other hand, I've seen women recently talking about how much they love Rothfuss, in the comments of a video of him talking at a con about proper diversity of representation in fiction.

He also posted this, presumably on July 5th:

Pictured: a status update about letting his young son wear eyeshadow and lipstick on a night out, because, quote, "Fuck it" and "Freedom".

So already I feel like I'm dealing with a much higher calibre of human being than the aw-shucks misogynist Butcher or the frothing hatemonger Card.  Male wish fulfillment and a philosophy of inclusion and free expression--these things don't have to conflict, but they are definitely an unusual combination.  Let's see if we can figure out what's going on.

No further delays.  Are you excited?  I'm excited.

(Content: referenced animal death. Fun content: chimney history, Viola Davis' poker face.)

The Name of the Wind: p. 1--
Prologue: A Silence of Three Parts

The title page informs me that this book is "The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One", which is even more amazing than your typical 'Book One of the Interminability Cycle'.  A single day.  I assume this due to flashbacks, but suddenly I wonder why no one's tried to do the dragons-and-wizards version of 24 yet.

There is of course a map, labelled "The Four Corners of Civilization" which conveniently ends all along the right edge of the page with the practically-vertical Stormwall Mountains.  Nothing civilised anywhere else, I guess?  These people are terrible explorers or huge narcissists, but--to be clear--I am fully expecting this book to be unabashedly pretentious stereotypical fantasy, and I will not hold that against it any more than I condemned Wheel of Time for being a by-the-numbers Tolkien ripoff.  (Bad example?)  Until and unless Rothfuss earns my ire with offensive handling of actual characters, my exclamations will probably all translate to 'that is terrible I love it'.
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.

The first part of the silence is absence: no wind, no drinking crowd, no music.  There are a couple of guys drinking intently, whose lack of conversation "added a small, sullen silence to the larger, hollow one".  The third silence is an excuse to describe the scenery:
If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the wooden floor underfoot and in the rough, splintering barrels behind the bar [....] in the weight of the black stone hearth that held the heat of a long dead fire [....] in the hands of the man who stood there, polishing a stretch of mahogany that already gleamed in the lamplight.
He has "true-red" hair, so I assume he's a main character.  He owns the bar, and the poetic third silence: "It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."  That's the entire prologue.  I have no idea what it means but, again, it is shamelessly over-the-top and I love it.

Chapter One: A Place for Demons

Same inn, different night?  A stock character named Old Cob is telling a quartet of young men a story of wandering hero Taborlin the Great, disarmed and imprisoned in a tower where the flames had turned blue, which the smith's apprentice correctly identifies as a sign of the Chandrian (bad guys of some type, clearly).  They pause for Medieval Fantasy Dinner, "five bowls of stew and two warm, round loaves of bread", which is some nice baking service--and then back to the story, where Taborlin turns out to be Superman levels of overpowered, because he "knew the names of all things, and so all things were to his command".  He commands the stone wall of his cell to fall apart, jumps out the hole, and "he knew the name of the wind" [DRINK!] so it caught him on his way down.  He doesn't even have the stab wound from his captors, thanks to his new magic amulet that they somehow failed to take from him.

The men start arguing over the precise rhyming scheme about being kind to tinkers (such as the one who gifted Taborlin this Amulet of Gamebreaking), and the innkeeper, Kote, interrupts for basically the first time since he moved to town a year ago:
A tinker's debt is always paid:/Once for any simple trade./Twice for freely given aid./Thrice for any insult made.
I had been thinking that the innkeeper was the protagonist, but he's got a name now, whereas the narrative has paused twice now to tell us that the smith's teenage apprentice is still always called "boy", which I find Suspicious.  Old Cob specifies that the amulet would protect Taborlin from evil, "demons and such", causing Shep to grumble about needing it himself.  Implications follow that Shep's farm may have been hit by demons last week and everyone is too polite to ask about it while sober.  I hope it was demons.  I would give a lot to see a fantasy novel written from the perspective of ordinary villagers just trying to get on with life in a world where apocalyptic devil-gods and prophesied heroes and monster hordes are as common as rainy days.

Another disagreement arises about whether the Chandrian are demons or, as Jake insists, "They were the first six people to refuse Tehlu's choice of the path", et cetera.  On the plus side, rather than everyone having a weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of their mytho-history, they seem to have various competing stories and can't agree what's what.  Already we're doing better than Wheel of Time.

No dark night in a tavern is complete without someone stumbling in on death's door, so here comes Carter, smeared with blood.  (Aside: the surname 'Walker' and the locative name 'Rannish' suggest to me that we're in an era in which surnames are relatively new, but apparently the occupational name 'Carter' has already made the jump to forename.  Reminds me of a couple of weeks ago when I asked my GM about an NPC named Christopher in a fantasy setting without Christianity.  He politely ignored my musings, which is probably for the best.  This is why I have trouble connecting with people.)  Carter is clutching a blanket that looks "as if it were wrapped around a tangle of kindling sticks" and, a paragraph later, clunks onto a table "as if it were full of stones".  I'm sure it's nothing creepy like a bunch of bones.  Carter is "crisscrossed with long, straight cuts" but insists that he's fine, although his horse didn't make it.  He is reprimanded for travelling alone when there are brigands around, until he dramatically tugs open the blanket roll to reveal a giant dead spider.

Kote casually identifies it as a scrael, then quickly insists he's never seen one before but only heard about them from travelling merchants.  He quickly sets to sciencing it as best he can--its body is stone, feet razor-sharp, no eyes, no mouth, and when he finally manages to snap it open, it's full of homogenous grey sponge "like a mushroom".  Kote is terrible at being an undercover hero, but after Dresden's tremendous disinterest in learning anything more about anything than he has to, I am all over a character whose response to monsters is to start making notes and running tests.

Everyone is deeply upset and confused by the prospect of an actual demon corpse in the bar--they don't doubt demons exist, but they're supposed to be far-off mythical things, like kings and gods.  Kote just shrugs and says they can test with iron or fire.  Graham, in the audience, helpfully specifies that demons "fear three things: cold iron, clean fire, and the holy name of God."

Kote gives him this face...

Pictured: Viola Davis, unimpressed.

...and moves on to finding iron--pure iron, not alloyed steel.  He eventually locates an appropriately pure penny (a shim--we get names for all the coin types, which is pretty good flavour without breaking our stride too much) and presses it to the scrael's stone body.  A moment later, it burns through to the table underneath.  Kote wipes his hands on his apron and asks what they should do now.  SCIENCE HERO!

Another silent scene, this time of Kote alone in his bar, cleaning everything.  It's super clean.  So clean to begin with that even after cleaning for an hour, his cleaning bucket water is still clean enough "for a lady to wash her hands".  I'm not sure if this is characterisation or what.  Is Kote obsessive or does he not sleep ever?  The narrative notes that 'Kote' is a chosen name for him, one of many (his student calls him Reshi), and implies that he's actually much older than the twentysomething he looks.  When he finally does return to his room, he's greeted by a new character, Bast, who makes me vaguely uncomfortable given that he's the first dark-skinned person we've met and is seemingly a servant, bringing food.  At least, he's described as "dark and charming, with a quick smile and cunning eyes".  'Dark' in these cases sometimes just means hair, but overall it sounds to me like a stock description of a Mildly Foreign Person whom we're meant to like but also not be sure whether to trust.  We're also in Jacob-and-Carter country, so Bast is probably meant to sound exotic (though it's a decent abbreviation of Sebastian, and apparently also a German surname).  I'm going to go ahead and picture him as mixed north African/west Asian.

But he's not just a servant, at least.  He's Kote's apprentice, by the sound of it studying magic or alchemy.  Buuuut he's also super promiscuous, as they banter and Bast admits that he didn't get any reading done today because he took his book outside and immediately got entangled with a pretty girl.  Again.  He's a big fan of all the women under thirty in this place, apparently.  So, our first POC is vaguely subservient, scholastically under-motivated, and extra sexual.  This is all discussed jovially and without any chastising from Kote, so we're probably not supposed to think less of him for this, but I become immediately suspicious when these sorts of traits line up.  (Also, we've had half a dozen named men and one Significantly Unnamed boy and the only named female character thus far is the dead horse.  Don't think I'm not noticing these things just because I am pleased with Kote's I-wonder-what-happens-if-I-do-this curiosity.)

Kote explains about the scrael, to Bast's immediate concern, but Kote reassures him that it was properly dead and he subtly made sure they disposed of it properly, with a rowan wood fire and a sufficiently deep hole and such arcane precautions.  He also mentions giving Carter about fifty stitches, and instructs Bast to tell anyone gossipy a specific backstory about learning from his father the a caravan guard.  They have further Significant Conversation that we don't fully understand, about how "they thought it was a demon" that that was probably for the best (but nothing about what it really is, ominous chord), and everyone's going to be stocking up on pure iron to fight demons and Kote wouldn't blame Bast if he wanted to leave now.  Is this implying that Bast is also not human?  I have a suspicious eye on you, Rothfuss.  (Bast says he would never leave, since Kote's his only possible teacher.)  The Bast-is-a-demon-or-something theory intensifies when the banter proceeds to Kote jokingly trying to banish him with various incantations in ancient language, to which Bast laughs through fake scowls.

Kote is left to eat in silence, and I contemplate why I enjoy the return to pretentious pseudo-poetry in the narrative here, even as it tries to quietly inform me of how special Kote is.  He reflects on his slight pride in engineering a fireplace into the middle of the room--

(I did some quick research here to try to figure out if/when this was a new creation, and discovered a book that argues that the invention of the chimney was the single greatest factor in the development of class segregation in Europe.  The world is a font of endless wonders and this sustains me through times of trouble.)

--and then spends a lot of time looking everywhere in the room except towards a particular wooden chest, "the same way you avoid meeting the eye of an old lover at a formal dinner, or that of an old enemy sitting across the room in a crowded alehouse late at night".  (I note that Rothfuss is pretty good about not gendering his hypotheticals; I feel confident Dresden would have made it very clear that the 'old lover' was a white woman as beautiful as she was cold, et cetera.)

The chest is made of roah, fantasy wood worth its weight in gold: "a chest made of it went far beyond extravagance".  I had enough of this with Trillionaire Ender Wiggin to last me a lifetime, thanks.  The chest has three locks: one iron, one copper, "and a lock that could not be seen".  DO YOU REALISE YET HOW IMPORTANT THIS BOX IS?  I'm mostly expecting it to have a weapon inside, e.g., the sword that he Swore He Would Never Wield Again, but I'm hopeful that I'll be wrong there.  He eventually locks eyes with the box, looks all weary again, and goes to bed.

Next day, the bar crowd is nervous, although not too nervous to throw us some more worldbuilding tidbits: the Penitent King is trying to suppress a rebellion in far-off Resavek, and everyone's expecting a third round of taxes this year, which will be bearable for most of the farmers except those already struggling, and "Crazy Martin", who planted barley instead of the beans that armies live on.  Travelling merchants have fewer and fewer luxuries as well.  I actually kinda like this sequence, far more than a Wheel-of-Time-y scenario where everyone's chipper but there are Grim Rumours in The East that they Foolishly Dismiss.  Not least because it only takes a couple of paragraphs for Rothfuss to sketch us a sense of village life and how they adapt to the times and economics of their world, and we aren't subject to a deluge of vaguely-rustic down-home slang.  The village is also full of gossip, since Carter is half made of stitches now, although no one really takes the claims of demonic invasion seriously.
Trying to convince folk would only make them a laughingstock, like Crazy Martin, who had been trying to dig a well inside his own house for years now.
A brief investigation has not provided me with any insight as to why people wouldn't want an indoor well.  I mean, I know wells run dry, but if you're building a house and you have a private well, is there any particular reason not to build the house around the well?  (These are the questions I ask that, four years later, cause someone to look at me bug-eyed and say 'Why do you know that?'  Funsies, my friends.  Funsies.)  Still, as Kote predicted, everyone in town finds time to drop by the blacksmith and buy a length of iron, just in case some hellspawn needs smiting.

By the end of the chapter, it has begun to drag a bit, particularly once it gets around to how "they reminisced that three years ago no one would have even thought of locking their doors at night, let alone barring them".  Pepperridge Farm remembers.  The evening's drinking stumbles to end at a slow and low point, ending the chapter, which if nothing else tells us how confident Rothfuss is that we are firmly in the grip of his narrative tension.

Still not one named human woman, but also a lack of outright misogyny or even 'benign' sexism, so this is one of those times where a score of zero is actually an improvement over most of the books you've had the joy to experience with me.  I confess I hold actual hope for this story yet.  (I can't tell if Kote and Bast are close enough in age for me to ship them yet, but I assume you're all prepared for that to start happening soon.)

Next week: a secondary protagonist named Chronicler (amazing) gets politely robbed and Kote starts to reveal his Seeeeecret Paaaast!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Life Is Strange: The choices we are not allowed to make

It's kind of hard to know how to talk about Life Is Strange, the 2015 episodic/serial choice-based time-travel RPG.  It's one story in five parts, and each episode tackles drastically different concepts and subject matter, sometimes in radically different ways.  The blogqueen and I played through the first four episodes saying "Okay, on the next run (which we must obviously play) we'll do this the other way" and then found that when the final credits rolled neither of us had any real desire to pick it up again.

How exactly do I talk about a story where the phrase 'that was always going to never have happened eventually' is grammatically reasonable?  I'm going to try going roughly by episode and see how that goes.  Spoilers will be progressively spoilerier as we go.  Also, this game gets into some serious and potentially very triggering material, so if that's not something you want to deal with today, I have also posted a full index of the Ender's Game posts for your re-enjoyment.

(Content: murder, suicide, terminal illness, sexual assault, loss of agency.)

Our heroine, Max(ine) Caulfield, is a waifish photography nerd at a tiny well-respected private high school somewhere in Oregon.  It's her hometown, but she's been away for five years, so it's both familiar and confusing, and she still hasn't tried to reconnect with her childhood BFFFFF, Chloe Price.  One school day she witnesses an accidental murder in the school bathroom and spontaneously develops the ability to rewind time (if only by a few minutes).  She prevents the murder and thus saves someone who turns out to be Chloe, and together they begin searching for Chloe's missing friend, Rachel Amber.  The core mechanic of the game is Max's ability to essentially save scum her own life, thus letting her decide which version of a conversation she wants to be the 'real' one, or to see how a situation goes badly, reload the past, and take steps to prevent it again.  Very meta.  I approve.

Despite this supernatural power, the game is mostly about mundane choices--who do you want to befriend, whose secrets will you keep, whose side will you take?  The one exception to this is Max's recurring dream/vision of a hurricane coming in to obliterate the town in five days' time.  Who's behind that?  Could there be--could there BE-- something sinister about the rich kids' Vortex Club and their End of the World party in only four days' time?  Other weird phenomena also start popping up: unreasonable snow and unscheduled eclipses and beaching whales.

While the game reminds you regularly that it's all about consequences, it doesn't severely drop the hammer until episode two, when Max shorts out her time powers just when she needs to talk down her suicidal friend Kate.  The situation is as wrenchingly plausible as they can make it--Kate was drunk at a party, there's a viral video going around shaming her, no one in authority cares that she says she was drugged and assaulted afterwards, and even those who believe her are going heavy on the victim-blaming.  Refreshingly, the writers behind the game make it pretty clear that we're supposed to sympathise fully with Kate and the victim-blamers are a bunch of jackasses.  It's also not as exploitative as one might expect; there is never an opportunity to watch the video, for example.  Depending on the choices you have made up to that point and while you're on the roof, Kate can be rescued.  It's a harrowing story, but very compelling.  (On our playthrough we failed to stop her at the very end, but this is a game about time travel and anything can be undone.)

Episode three gives us a new twist when Max discovers that she can use photographs to alter moments of her more distant past, and retroactively prevents the car crash that killed Chloe's father, thus drastically rewriting the entire world.  The most drastic obvious change is that Chloe has instead been in an accident herself in the last year and is now completely paralysed with progressive organ failure.  The blogqueen and I were massively apprehensive about this, since media about disabled people tends to be awkward at best and eugenicist at worst.  To our pleasant surprise, this game avoids a lot of that.  This alternate Chloe is arguably happier than her able-bodied self, and her parents have managed to equip their home with a bunch of adaptive technology that still lets her live her life.  No one ever declares that they'd rather be dead than disabled, or implies that a disabled child is an unwanted burden on their family or friends.  The game does make it clear that being disabled is horrendously expensive, but the Price parents are resolute that they'll do anything they can to improve her life.

That said, Max can also find a letter from Chloe's doctor (which Chloe apparently hasn't been told about) saying that she probably has only a few months to live no matter what they do, and ultimately Chloe asks Max to give her a morphine overdose because she'd rather not suffer through that decline (and bankrupt her family).  The player can choose to assist or refuse, and then, either way, immediately use the photograph to restore the original timeline.  So, while it's carefully set up to make it clear that this is Chloe's choice and she specifically wants to skip her own terminal case, we nevertheless get the selfless disabled person trying to spare their loved ones the burden.  Compared to the usual depiction of disability in media, I feel this lands solidly in 'better, yet not good' territory.

Episode four brings us nearly to the end of the investigation, as our reunited heroes find a well-equipped storm bunker, "the Dark Room", that someone is apparently using as their hideout to kidnap, drug, and photograph teenage girls.  (The game implies that most of the victims were not physically raped, but some probably were, and the violation is inexcusable in either case.)  Max and Chloe finally locate the body of Rachel Amber, but it's a trap and the villain ambushes them, killing Chloe (again) and kidnapping Max.

★Interlude by Erika★
I want to take a moment to talk about Rachel Amber. She is everywhere. From one of the first scenes we see graffiti about her, we see missing posters about her, people talk about her. The early episodes hit you over the head with "wonder who is Rachel, and what happened to her!" She's the reason Chloe was at the school to start with when we run into her (she was putting up missing person posters). A large majority of the plot is driven by investigating what happened to her. She is a mystery, and she is supposed to be.  From how other characters talk about her, you're never sure how you're supposed to see her. There are implications that she is, in her own way, even guiding Max, which is what made it so... anti-climactic to get the one-two punch of "she was drugged, maybe sexually abused, and definitely photographed in horrific ways" with "yep, there's her body". I never really expected to find her alive, but I had expected more from this game than what thematically amounts to "raped and murdered". While there is little room for the game to continue exploring Rachel after this point, she only comes up once more and is largely forgotten now that the mystery is solved and she is found.

★Back to Will★
Even up to this point, I was pretty well on-board with this game.  Its treatment of harsh subject matter was at least considered if not perfect, its characters are generally complicated and interesting, it has serious and impactful choices, and it's so queer.

It is so queer, y'all.

Pictured: Max kissing Chloe.  Chloe's hair is dyed in the approximate colours of the bi pride flag.

Max is bi, unquestionably.  Her close past friendship with Chloe takes on romantic overtones almost immediately after they meet again, they flirt constantly, and your first opportunity to kiss is in the middle of the game.  You can choose not to, of course, but 80% of players went for it, as is right and good.  If you do, the flirting only ramps up afterwards.  Chloe really only expresses interest in other girls, primarily Rachel, and it's hard to tell if she's just teasing you when she talks about how hot Mr Jefferson the photography goatee teacher is.  And while they have some obviously sexualised scenes (playing in the pool at night, nearly naked) it's mostly not objectifying camerawork.  (Being male, I'm probably not a good source on whether the male gaze applies.)

Max's other potential love interest is Warren, a nerdy boy who defies the vast majority of expected nerd boy cliches.  He's super excited about what a geek Max is and wants to trade classic SFF movies with her, but he never becomes the entitled and resentful Nice Guy, even if you reject him, even after he puts himself in physical harm to protect you.  IN FACT, if you turn down his date and he then learns you're spending all your time with Chloe, his response is basically "Oh, wow, yeah, if I were you I would also date her, good call".  (Erika: I remain conflicted on if I would pick him or not if Chloe wasn't the other option. He's kind of endearing, but also so thirsty.) No biphobia!  Not even a second of "wait, are you gay or something?"  Normalised bisexuality.  Truly this is a world unlike our own.  (Villains don't mind throwing in some homophobia now and then, generally by calling Chloe a dyke, which is kind of unnecessary but in line with the rest of the writers' choices.)

Most of the other characters very clearly have their virtues and flaws as well.  Victoria, alpha girl of the school, is snobbish and judgmental, but can also be kind and loyal, and is clearly motivated more by insecurity than malice.  Chloe's stepfather David is an ex-soldier, pushy, prying, secretive, and short-tempered, but genuinely cares about his family and is just very bad at simultaneously protecting and respecting people.

Nathan Prescott is worth talking about as well--he's the rich kid who never faces consequences for anything and (almost) kills Chloe in the first episode.  There's a lot of ableist talk about how he's "insane" and on a ton of prescription medications (in addition to illegal narcotics), but ultimately we're corrected: his mental problems didn't make him evil, they made him vulnerable, and while he's done inexcusable things, he's in turn a victim and pawn of bad people who are entirely sane.  Like Chloe's alternate timeline (and this time speaking as someone who does depend on medication for his mental health), I felt again like this ended up in better territory than usual, if not necessarily great.

With all that said, let's talk about how much I hated episode five.

Okay, 'hated' is a strong word; I was less uncomfortable than Erika was while we played through it (Erika: I spent most of this sequence clutching a pillow yelling "NO" and making upset noises at the TV), but in the aftermath I became more and more dissatisfied with the writers' choices, the wasted opportunities, and the confluence of really tired cliches in a situation that desperately needed the originality and unpredictability of the rest of the game.

It starts out bad: Chloe is dead, Max is captured, and the real villain has been revealed as Mr Jefferson, the hipster teacher Max has idolised for years.  It turns out that his favourite subject for photography is the destruction of innocence, so he likes to kidnap girls and photograph them as they are slowly overwhelmed by fear and despair.  Bound to a chair in his secret bunker, the player is mostly just forced to watch scenes play out, which is the first problem.  Episode five is less a game than an interactive movie--rather than making choices, you're pushed through a pretty linear sequence of events, trying desperately to find anything you can do that will make a difference.  The writers were clearly trying to evoke a sense of helplessness in the player (after four episodes of causality being your plaything), and I don't disagree that they succeeded.  What I dislike about this is that after four episodes of focusing on the agency and power and courage of this teenage girl, they decided that what we really needed to bring things home was a painfully long sequence in which our heroine is helplessly victimised by a violent man and we can do nothing but watch.  The game up to now had--usually--avoided being very voyeuristic, and that goes right out the window.  Prolonged camera shots of an underage, drugged girl.

This is not something I was looking for in my game.

After what feels like about nineteen weeks of pointless struggling, Max manages to find one of her photographs that she can use to tweak the very first scene of the game, rewriting the entire week.  Kate is alive, Chloe is alive, Mr Jefferson has been arrested, and Max is declared the winner of the photo competition, which means she's out of town at a gala when she receives word that the mysterious hurricane is nevertheless destroying the town.  She goes back to rewrite time again to make sure she's home to protect people, and consequences spill out of control such that she ends up back in Jefferson's evil lair with no photos.  Ex-soldier David comes to the rescue this time, because what we really needed was for her to get rescued by a strong man again (Max does help, but still, seriously?), and off Max goes to find the one remaining photo that will let her travel back to warn Chloe and save the day.

It works, though apparently the developers felt they needed padding or just hadn't shown off enough graphical tricks yet, because first there's an extended nightmare dungeon sequence that is pretty much exactly what I'd like to see in a horror movie, except that since when is this game a horror movie.  It was cool, and it's certainly a powerful scene when Mirror Max berates Player Max for using her time-warp powers to make people like her.  I just wish they had given us more reason for any of those scenes to be in the game, apart from 'it was cool and we had a half hour of runtime to fill'. (Erika: However it would have made for a great horror game.)

The final choice of the game comes in the same place the story starts, on a cliff, watching the hurricane bear down on Arcadia Bay.  At this point, our heroes have 'realised' that all of these bizarre phenomena are somehow caused by Max's time-warping, including this very storm.  How they've realised this remains unclear to me; it seems like a pretty strong application of post hoc ergo propter hoc.  (It would have been just as reasonable to conclude that some other force had fractured reality, causing various disasters but also somehow allowing Max to hop between possible timelines, near as I can tell.)  Regardless, Chloe realises that Max only developed her powers to prevent Chloe's death, and so offers Max a photograph that will let her travel back to day one, allow Chloe to get shot, never gain her time powers, and thus prevent any of the catastrophes that follow.


A brief list of things I am provisionally okay with:
  • moral conundrums where you have to choose between one person you value most or a bunch of other people
  • diabolus ex machina in which some kind of force majeure threat out of nowhere requires you to choose between two flawed results
  • villains being characterised as creepy hipster misogynists who literally see women as objects, even and especially if it's not blatantly sexual
  • gameplay sequences specifically designed to evoke a feeling of helplessness
But when you combine all of these things to tell a story about a heroine getting tied up, drugged, threatened in various physical and psychological ways, punished for every choice she makes, and ultimately told that the will of the universe is that she either allows her girlfriend to be murdered or she will personally be responsible for a random town-destroying disaster...

Again, this is not what I was looking for in this game.

On the plus side, you can choose not to sacrifice Chloe, so it doesn't have to be a story about the Tragic Lesbian who dies selflessly to save the straights.  Yet the writers obviously felt that was the stronger story, and put substantially more time into that ending than they did into the one where you let the storm run its course and then drive off into the sunrise.  (You also only kiss Chloe again if it's right before you rewind to let her die; otherwise it's hugs only.)  In both cases, I'm not sure I've ever seen a game that so desperately needed a 'where are they now' ending for its various side characters, which would have fit in perfectly as, for example, a photo album that you could flip through during the end credits.  (From what I've read, the lack of detail was intentional, especially in the ending where the storm hits, as the writers wanted to leave players in suspense about who survived the disaster.)  Instead, Erika and I agreed, the supposed consequences of all of your many other decisions throughout the game are seriously undermined, since you don't get to see any impact in the end from anything but your final choice.

I would go as far as to say that none of your choices matter expect the final one. You either reset, and none of it happens, or you just leave them to die.  (If Max retains her memory during the days she must now relive, they could matter more, but it is unclear if she does or not, and given the previous mechanics, implied she doesn't.)  The survivors aren't going to care whether you were nice to them or not after getting a bucket of paint dumped on them, they're going to be a little preoccupied with how their lives have been destroyed by a hurricane. For a game that let you think that its choices were so important, real lunchbox letdown.

Will again★
I can see ways they could have spun the hurricane ending more effectively, and even the reset ending, but in both cases they'd have to have actually wanted to do so, and set up for it.  In the reset ending, a sequence (even a montage) of Max using whatever knowledge she still has in order to help people (supporting Kate, befriending the rest of the 'unsympathetic' students and stopping bullies, reconnecting with Chloe's mom and helping her through what follows) would have added a lot.  In the hurricane ending, obviously, how you've interacted with other characters could also influence the choices they're going to make, and 'former enemies come together to protect the community in a crisis' is a way better cliche than anything else we were getting in this episode.  Victoria and Frank the drug dealer come to mind as examples of people who are hostile by default but can have a conscience installed.  Give me Victoria mass-texting people to come to her family's storm bunker; give me Frank and David driving around town grabbing anybody stuck on foot on the street.

One last thing that I expected to mean more but never did was the nature of the big photo competition: "Everyday Heroes".  Max's winning picture is a shot of herself and her wall of photos, yet her heroism is not really evident to anyone else most of the time (the main exception coming to mind is her rescue of Kate).  Her heroism in the reset ending consists of choosing not to act.  Maybe the takeaway there is that 'everyday heroes' aren't often noticed or recognised, but it's kind of lacklustre, and there isn't much that can connect an act like that to the real world.  Conversely, there's a giant missed opportunity for plausible 'everyday heroism' if Max's little actions over the course of the week are allowed to add up to something significant in the end, like the townspeople being more ready and willing to protect each other.  Be good to people throughout the week, bring them closer together, make them more ready to weather the storm, and maybe they can save each other so you aren't pushed to let your girlfriend die.

And I figure that's exactly what the writers did not want to allow.  Either of these things--the reset ending where you see Max still finding ways to help people, or the hurricane ending where she's helped them become people who leap to protect each other--distracts from the focus of the ending right now, which is "are you going to kill your girlfriend and suffer like a hero or spare her like a selfish coward".  That is the extent of what the writers wanted you to be thinking about and left with, and all other possible consequences of your many, many choices are removed by fiat.  If anything, the message seems like it's supposed to be "life is strange (WINK) and therefore nothing is truly in your control and your choices and desires don't really matter".  Helplessness is in keeping with the themes of the final episode, but "you can't really have any agency" is again a thing I was not looking for in my bisexual SFF mystery game, especially as the 'twist' ending of a game that claims it's all about choices.