Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Kingsman: It's okay to be poor as long as you're rich

Every once in a while, the blogqueen or I will send the other a rant that begins with the phrase "So because I don't make good decisions, I'm watching..." and ends when we lose the ability to express ourselves in terms other than 'WTF' or 'nope-nope-nope-nope-nope-NOPETOPUS'.  In this case, the work was Kingsman: The Secret Service, a spy flick from earlier this year that could not possibly try harder to be a throwback to the days of James Bond films with moon lasers and razor hats.  For verisimilitude, it is also a throwback to the days when rich straight white men murdered their way to heroism while denigrating every other demographic.

(Content note: misogyny, racism, threat of animal harm, torture, ableism.  Fun content: Hari Potter.)

Now, I watch plenty of middling-to-bad movies and don't bother inflicting my thoughts about them on you all, partly because I like you and I want good things for you.  But what fascinated me about Kingsman wasn't that it was a bad movie.  It's that it was a bad movie in complex and subtle ways that were both ever-present and completely unnecessary.  One or two passes over the script could have salvaged it from its many, many racist, sexist, and intriguingly classist aspects and produced a campy spy flick for the modern day.  Instead, we basically got Microaggression: The Action Movie.

The first time I tried to watch Kingsman, I turned it off during the opening scene, just after a series of explosions in some ancient building in "The Middle East" (they could not be bothered to pick a specific country) cause exploding wreckage to bounce up and form the opening credits.  I don't know, maybe this building was just some old granary, but it looks like it's about five thousand years old, so I cannot help wondering if it might not have some historical or spiritual significance.  Dunno.  Credits gag!  Our first-generation heroes, who all have codenames from Arthurian myth, keep one generically brown terrorist to interrogate (with the whole "I'm going to count down from ten", plus shooting him in both knees on "three" because torture works, dammit) before said terrorist produces a hidden grenade and the newbie dies saving his bros.  Noble Galahad delivers the bad news to newbie's wife and tiny son, and promises to have the kid's back if ever he needs help.  Fast-forward to said kid's young-adulthood, when he goes by the nickname Eggsy and has discarded his excellent grades, athletic prowess, and several months of marine training in favour of being a drunken delinquent who picks fights in bars.  Nothing we haven't seen before in an origin story.  Basically the 2009 Captain Kirk with a working-class London accent.

I won't recap the whole movie that specifically, because I value our friendship (how are you), but in short there is some kind of terrible conspiracy going on and agent Lancelot has been killed tracking it down, so they need a new Lancelot, and Galahad nominates Eggsy for the job.

Here's where the movie caught my attention: it tries to be socially aware, at least in regards to classism.  Eggsy starts out dismissive of Galahad, specifically stating that anyone he knows would have done just as well in life if they'd started out with the privileges that an aristocrat does.  Galahad is of course a Good Dude and agrees, but the tension of rich/poor remains throughout the film--Eggsy's rivals in training are the posh kids who ask whether he went to Oxford or Cambridge, the villains are all the uber-rich who think the world would be better off if we just killed all the poor people, and the weaknesses of charity-driven societal change are a key plot point.  On the surface, the closest thing this movie has to a message is that being a classy gentleman has nothing to do with economic class and everything to do with attitude, and most rich people are scum who can't be trusted because they're so arrogant.

That's the surface message, I mean.  The problem here is that Kingsman also says a lot of stuff that we're not supposed to take as its message, and those things tend to be at extreme odds with the above.  It can be as subtle as their suits: not long after Galahad has told Eggsy that he doesn't need to change his accent or be rich to be a gentleman, he says the absolute first thing he must have is "a bespoke suit, never off the peg".  From a Savile Row shop.  I'm not sure about varying exchange rates and all that, but I'm pretty sure that's going to cost roughly all of the money you have ever touched in your life, so right off the bat we've pretty well scuttled the idea that gentlemanliness isn't tied right up tight with sleeping on top of a big pile of money.  Or we have the very origin of the Kingsman spy agency:
Since 1849, Kingsman Tailors have clothed the world's most powerful individuals. In 1919, a great number of them had lost their heirs to World War I. That meant a lot of money going uninherited. And a lot of powerful men with the desire to preserve peace and protect life. Our founders realized that they could channel that wealth and influence for the greater good. And so began our adventure. An independent international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion. Without the politics and bureaucracy that undermine the intelligence of government-run spy organisations.
So, while rich snobs are terrible, this heroic organisation was also founded by a bunch of old rich dudes who didn't like the idea of being accountable to anyone while they shot and poisoned their way to world peace.  And that's when we run into the much more pervasive theme of the movie, which is that unaccountable power is only bad when it's in the hands of the wrong sort of people.

Let's talk about some other demographics.  I can think of only three notably characters who aren't white: the terrorist in the first scene, the main villain (Richmond Valentine, played by Samuel L Jackson making a bad decision), and his personal assassin/assistant, who goes by the name Gazelle and has prosthetic feet that are also swords.  So, Arab terrorist, Black megalomaniac, and Algerian femme fatale who does lots of gymnastic fighting.  Let's talk about women: in addition to Gazelle, we have Eggsy's mother (routinely beaten by her new husband), Roxy (another Kingsman candidate about whom I have so much to say), and a two-scene Swedish princess who first refuses to cooperate with the villain and then literally rewards Eggsy with sex immediately after he saves the world.  Let's talk about LGBT+ characters haaaahahaha as if.  But before we really dig into the terrible treatment of the women, there is a fascinating contrast in heroic masculinity and villainous femininity that is once again at odds with the movie's stated position.

Our Heroes are, whether male or female, Manly.  They wear suits and drink hard liquor and routinely handle giant guns.  In one of his defining scenes, father-figure Galahad rescues Eggsy from some street punks by locking the doors to the pub and solo brawling them to unconsciousness, then brushing the whole brutal scene as needing to 'blow off steam'.  (He prefaces this with his favourite phrase, 'manners maketh man', to emphasise that he is classy and only doing this because they were rude.)  Conversely, the villain Valentine is a flawless example of feminisation and queer-coding: he faints at the sight of blood, speaks with a pronounced lisp, and shows no attraction to his overtly sexualised assistant.  (That one's a question for the ages: is the lack of attraction because he's queer-coded, or because she's an amputee and therefore not a legitimate sex object?  There are so many flavours of terrible to choose from!)  Our rafts of white men, even the unpleasant ones, do masculinity right, while the black villain is at any moment one wrist-flutter away from spontaneously generating a feather boa.  I'm pretty sure that is not a coincidence!  On a fractionally-less-obvious note, the motivation for his villainy is ostensibly his deep-seated concerns about climate change and sustainability--he's not in it for power or money, but because he's a berserk tree-hugger.  Also a deeply unmanly motivation.  Everyone knows trees are for girls.

Because Valentine can't bear to directly inflict violence, he's decided to outsource that job to literally everyone: his master plan to save Earth is to "cull" the human population with a global broadcast that drives aggression instincts through the roof and suppresses all inhibitions, thus sparking a worldwide brawl.  Only the chosen few who agree with his plan--aristocrats, rich people, heads of state including the entire British Royal Family and President Obama--will be given special implants that protect them from the signal.  And can also be used to blow them up if they try to warn anyone.  It's a howlingly obvious spoiler that their tech dude hacks into the system and explosively decapitates all of Valentine's minions during the climactic sequence, which coincidentally also results in the colourful and classically-accompanied deaths of basically all our world leaders, explicitly including the entire British Royal Family and President Obama.  (Since he has lines, I guess Obama could be counted as a fourth non-white character, although we never see his face and, as noted, he is present mostly to be murdered in a funny way.)

But back to Roxy, who is fascinating to me: she's not the love interest.  At all!  She is introduced in a super typical way, being nice to Eggsy during their testing while the posh boys are jerks, and they have some close moments when they nearly die during the more brutal tests.  In most action movies, this would guarantee makeouts in the last thirty seconds, but not here.  In fact, Roxy passes the final test to become Lancelot when Eggsy washes out.  Oh--but I have distracted myself again, because I need to note that as soon as the candidates were given puppies to raise during training, I just knew they were going with the old 'your final test of loyalty is to kill your dog on command', which I know is a story that was often told about Nazi soldiers but I cannot find a reliable source for.  Point is, Eggsy refuses to shoot his pug while Roxy pulls the trigger and discovers it's a blank so the dogs are never harmed.  When Eggsy is told this later, the movie acts as if he has been taught an important lesson, but I'm not sure what that was supposed to be.  It would be evil to kill the dogs, but it's 100% morally upright to only accept agents who are willing to kill a dog on command for no stated reason?  We can trust Kingsman because they would only order you to do something that appears monstrous when it's actually harmless?  This is what I'm talking about when I say the movie supports giving total and unaccountable power to the Right People.

Roxy again: after the agency gets gutted in the third-act twist, she is one of the only remaining reliable agents, so she must overcome her Flaw (her fear of heights, which makes her character multidimensional and not just a sexy prop, obvs) and use a low-Earth-orbit balloon-chair to fly to the edge of space to blow up one of Valentine's mind-control satellites.  She does so in spite of various setbacks, thus expending an appreciable fraction of the movie's special effects budget.  This means that she can't be fighting alongside Eggsy as he invades the enemy compound on foot, obviously.  Now, at first I thought--nay, hoped--this was going to be another case like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, where the girl literally saves the world on her own while the camera is focused on the boy having an action scene.  My hopes were dashed, of course.  She destroys the satellite and plummets back to the ground, with the mind-control network broken, but it turns out Valentine is able to just make a phone call and borrow a friend's satellite in roughly the same place thirty seconds later, making her entire voyage moot.  Eggsy instead has to save the day by defeating Gazelle in single combat and then killing Valentine with one of Gazelle's sword-feet.

This works, because (I am not exaggerating, I would not do that with a detail this magnificently stupid) Valentine's mind-control system only works while he personally holds down the button.  Yeah.  It's a doomsday device that turns off if the big bad lifts his hand off the biometric scanner.  It's not even, like, click once to begin murder-riots, double-click to stop riots.  This device ends the world with the same interface that we use to fill drinks at a soda fountain.

The very last scene, after Eggsy has had his Reward Buttsex (they are super-specific about this, btdubs) with the imprisoned princess, shows him returning home in his expensive suit to invite his mother to leave her abusive new husband and come live with him.  She is of course too timid and asks him to leave, and he begins to, until the husband says something impolite and Eggsy just replicates the previous 'manners maketh man' schtick.  Because he can forgive abusing his mom, but if you call him a chicken, he's got to beat you senseless.  Azathoth preserve me.

So, final tally: all surviving characters are white, almost everyone is male, everyone is straight, the two competent women are respectively evil (and killed) or the narrative goes out of its way to make them irrelevant, and you don't have to be rich to be a gentleman but you do have to wear suits that only rich people can afford.

Back in the middle of the movie, we get a truly fascinating moment.  Valentine is about to test his berserker ray on a church full of horrible bigots, and Galahad is inside investigating, brimming with disgust at their hatefulness.  He moves to leave and a woman tries to stop him, so he responds thusly:
I'm a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend who works at a military abortion clinic. So, hail Satan, and have a lovely afternoon, madam.
We are absolutely meant to think that Galahad is a stupendous badass in this moment.  Sure, he's claiming to be gay (among other things), but he's doing so in order to stick it to those awful people who think there's something wrong with The Gays, or The Blacks, or The Jews, or pro-choice people, et cetera.  Because those kinds of bigots are wretched and we should absolutely look down on them because we're so much better than them.  I mean, yes, we're also making a movie in which people of any of those demographics are either nonexistent or evil, but... that's because they're not relevant to the story, man.  Gay rights are something that you reference in order to prove you're better than other people, not something that would actually drive you to give LGBT+ people some representation in a genre that traditionally devalues them, in a movie that is explicitly about how good privileged people need to open themselves up and respect and give opportunities to the underprivileged.  What kind of social justice trash is that?

I don't know what it would take to make Kingsman a good movie, but I do know that a handful of fairly minor changes would have made it a much better movie.  Eggsy should not be white.  (Personally, given the makeup of London, I'd suggest he should be Indian, like Harry Potter.)  Roxy should be fighting alongside Eggsy during the climactic sequences, not sidelined into some special effects sequences with zero narrative impact.  Galahad should actually have a black Jewish boyfriend.  When Eggsy returns to rescue his mother in the end, he gets his own style that doesn't purely mimic Galahad, but expresses his own preferences and background, especially if that means, for example, incorporating traditional Indian dress.  They can, if absolutely necessary, keep the gun-and-dog test of character, except the correct answer is 'refuse to shoot, because a Kingsman will not do something unnecessarily evil without a good reason' and the guns are loaded with blanks in case the candidate is a terrible person.  Valentine needs much more drastic work as a character, but his best moment is when he trolls a billionaire dinner guest by serving McDonald's, so definitely run with that aspect of his persona.  Valentine throws a twist into the movie's whole privileged/commoner dynamic by being a guy who started with nothing and made himself incredibly wealthy, which puts him in a spectacular position to comment on economic class from multiple perspectives, especially pretensions of superiority.  My god, you've got Sam Jackson playing your villain, give the man something of substance to work with.

There are no reasons for any of the above things.  There is no plot-related necessity for Eggsy to be white.  There's no reason to specifically make Roxy useless.  There's no reason for the dog test, or for Galahad to insist gentlemen wear expensive suits, or for Valentine to be so extensively feminised.  You can drop all of those elements without changing the plot of the movie in the slightest.  They are there only because the writers liked them.  (I was so unsurprised during the credits to discover it was based on a work by Mark Millar.)

When this movie was new, some folks said it was a male wish-fulfillment epic in a comparable place to Jupiter Ascending and its nonsensical female fantasies.  Apart from finding it personally offensive that anyone would suggest Kingsman represents my wishes, I am now compelled to watch Jupiter Ascending to determine whether it has anything like the same kind of bloodlustful hatred in its heart for the Wrong Sort of People.  (I would bet a bulletproof bespoke Savile Row suit that it does not.  I have mostly seen it called 'confusing', to which I can only say 'if you want confusion, try to figure out what Kingsman is saying about hereditary wealth'.  But Kingsman has a sequel in the works and Jupiter Ascending does not.)  So, expect that soon, and because I'm now wondering how difficult it would be to write a not-bigoted spy story for the modern day, please do make further suggestions in the comments on how to improve on the classic spy tropes and their terrible implications.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Erika vs Jem and the Holograms Episode 4: Unicorns and Larceny


Also Rio tried to break up with the band because he was starting to have pants-feelings for Jem, but Jerrica convinced him to stay. One of the orphans (Ashley) is getting into trouble and befriending the Misfits. The Holograms made a music video and were doing an interview about it that the Misfits crashed, and now Jem is trapped by flaming sound equipment. WHATEVER CAN HAPPEN NEXT? I'm guessing Rio saves her, but who knows?

At the start of the episode nothing is on fire anymore, Jem is about to be crushed by falling equipment but Rio saves her from being crushed. Again. Does Jerrica have some sort of curse put on her? Is that why she inherited everything and Kimber, as far as we can tell, got nothing? Their Dad was all "Listen, Kimber, I love you both but when I made that deal with an elder god to make sure the company succeeded, the eldest was the one who got cursed, so I need to make sure she can defend herself. Holograms seemed like a good way to go."

Jem faints, Rio is instructed to carry her off to the TV show hosts dressing room, and the interview goes on without Jem, and with the Mistfits banished. Jem comes to with Rio looking after her, and, not really thinking, tries to put the smooching on him. Which is when the other girls walk in, on them smooching. He made it four episodes before cheating on his girlfriend. With his girlfriend. The Holograms are giggling at how Rio will react when he finds out they're one and the same, but Jerrica is worried. He's so proud! He'll think I've made a fool of him! The only solution is to NEVER EVER TELL HIM. Okay, she doesn't say she should never tell him, but come on, that's obviously going to be what the show does.

Cut forward to the Holograms getting booked at some big Vegas gig! Woo! Except--oh no! The Misfits are opening for them?! DRAMA! And by drama I mean danger because the Misfits' immediate response is "Better make sure they can't go on so we're the main act. Time to peer pressure Ashley to commit her first felony!"

So the girls go off to Vegas, hop onto an airplane, off of an airplane, and into their car. The one they always drive. Did they have the rockin' roadster driven to Vegas while they flew so they didn't have to rent a car? The girls hang out at the casino and Jem has a whole song about how she's afraid Rio will get mad when she tells him "the whole thing has just been a game", and I just--he's gotta be wracked with guilt by now for having kissed Jem. He loves Jerrica, we know that, he has made that very very clear. He tried to stop managing the Holograms because he was developing feelings and didn't want to hurt Jerrica. At this rate he's going to find out they're the same person when he tries to confess he's been cheating on Jerrica and is going to leave her for Jem.

Amazingly the Misfits' plan this time doesn't involve anyone getting set on fire or crushed. They get Ashley to lure Aja, the smartest member of the cast, into the luggage section of a bus and trap her in it. Then let the bus take off to New York. She might get a bit banged around, but it's unlikely she will meet any serious harm. Well, physical harm. Psychological, from being trapped in a dark crowded enclosed space for (according to Google maps) 37 hours... Okay, there might be some issues with dehydration or starvation, but I'm sure the bus will pull over for a pit stop and someone will hear her yelling before then. Either way, for the Misfits, way less fucked up than normal! I guess since they're using Ashley as their catspaw, they need to start small before getting her into the harder crimes. She obviously feels guilty about it though. It's okay, you'll learn to start drinking to numb that pain soon Ashley.

Aja escapes the bus luggage, and immediately asks for directions from the creeps catcalling her. They start to argue and a nearby cowboy on a motorcycle offers her a ride, which she takes, without hesitation. He pops a wheelie and they're off for like seven seconds before they hit traffic. She continues on running in her high heeled sandals with socks. Aja, you're supposed to be the smart one. Don't ask the guys cat calling you for directions and don't get on a creepy cowboy's motorcycle, he isn't even wearing a helmet.

The search continues back at the casino where the leader of the Misfits (Pizzazz) hits on Rio, again, telling him to dump Jem. He doesn't say "I'm not with Jem, I'm with Jerrica" but instead says "You don't deserve to breath the same air as her" and throws her off. Sick burn? No, no it isn't, but she seems pretty angry. It looks like the Misfits have won until Aja sprints on screen and asks them to go "warm up the audience for us" Pizzazz seems uninterested and they walk.

So the girls go on. The Misfits are pissed; Pizzazz and Roxy blame Ashley for messing up. Ashley overhears and runs off to hide in fear, thinking they might hurt her. The third Misfit, the Not Awful one, Stormer, finds her and comforts her. It is at this point that we see Zipper and some goons go by to rob the casino with the intention to put the money in Jem's room and get her arrested. They put on steel knuckles and punch a chain so hard it shatters and explode into the vault, which happens off screen, so I can only assume they punch their way into that, too.

I do need to point out that Zipper is still wearing his jacket, which has his name on the back, and just made them all put on masks to do this, while still wearing his coat. With his name. In big red letters on the back.

Ashley and Stormer watch the whole thing happen, and, both being not-totally-awful, wonder what to do. The answer is not "go to the police immediately" because Jem is promptly arrested, even though she has been accounted for and on stage this whole time. Pizzazz, pissed Rio wasn't DTF, tries to get him arrested too. Jem points out "I WAS ON STAGE HOW COULD I POSSIBLY HAVE STOLEN THE MONEY" (it's a good thing no one knows about her earrings because actually, she could have, but shhh). Ashley bursts out after the commercial break to clear Jem, because she heard them say they were going to plant the money on her.

The detective is all "Listen, I need to do an actual investigation, I'm not even saying Jem DID anything yet, she was probably just an accomplice" but then a "mystery lady" (Stormer, covered head to toe and wearing a very large hat) comes forward to say she saw something too but needs to talk to the detective in private. The detective is just all "Fine but you better not be wasting my time" and I love how he is just rolling with this. Like, anonymous phone calls I would get, but someone literally in disguise is just called "mystery lady" and invited in to have a chat.

Stormer and Ashley get Jem & Co. free (even though Jem is the only one who is cuffed). Ashley sees Jem leap into Rio's arms and she lives with Jerrica, she knows Rio and Jerrica are a thing. Wouldn't she want to say "Hey I think your boyfriend might be cheating on you?" [WW note: Ashley, being a normal human being, hasn't yet considered the possibility that Jerrica's own boyfriend ceases to be able to recognise her while making full-body contact because she's wearing a laser wig.]

Raymond, realizing none of his schemes are working, decides the way to make his group more popular is to actually have them perform. Hah--just kidding. He hires a PI to stalk Jem to find out who she REALLY is so he can menace her more effectively.

UP NEXT IS THE FASHION SHOW! Launching the clothing line for Jem and the Holograms. They perform and... their music videos make less and less sense. I mean, Jem rides a unicorn, which bucks her off because, uh, she's not a virgin, I guess? That's not important. What's important is that Jem and Rio run into each others' arms farting rainbows. I'm not joking. I don't even need to write jokes in these posts. I just have to summarize what happens. Everything is Jem and the Holograms and nothing hurts.

The Misfits, being The Misfits, wanna do something to fuck shit up, so they set off the sprinkler system at the end of their show. Which isn't so bad, actually. They don't even pull a fire alarm or start a fire, they just point one of the stage lights at them and book it. Kimber knows it was them. She knows. But they can't prove it! I BET YOU'RE STARTING TO WISH YOU HAD MAYBE LET THEM CALL THE COPS ON THEM AREN'T YOU KIMBER. BACK WHEN THEY DID THINGS THAT COULD BE PROVEN. AND ALSO NEARLY GOT A LITERAL BOATLOAD OF PEOPLE KILLED.

The girls go back the their secret base to change, and the PI, rather than squinting to see who Jem is as she coming out, sneaks into their secret base. HE COULD HAVE DONE ONE THEN THE OTHER BUT NO. Synergy's alarm system goes off, which is just saying "intruder" over and over again. The PI, best there is, smashes her with a chair, and the terminal that IS Synergy explodes.

This is the first time I've actually been worried about what might happen. TWO DAYS BEFORE THE BIG BATTLE OF THE BANDS AND SYNERGY IS SMASHED! Without Synergy, there is no Jem! And the person who built her is dead! Will they lose the battle of the bands? WILL JERRICA FINALLY HAVE TO EXPLAIN TO RIO WHO SHE REALLY IS?


*Next week being whenever I write about Jem next. Not actually next week. Shhhh.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Storm Front, chapters five, six, and seven, in which Will tries to ban the author from writing women

Someone brilliant on tumblr pointed out that "I can't even" is basically the modern redux of "Well I never".

I cannot even with Dresden, folks.

Storm Front
Chapter Five: Men Are From Mars And Frankly Sometimes I Think We Should Just Be Sent Back*

Dresden has had a long day of being near naked corpses, staring into the soul of a powerful man who knows how to get what he wants, and silently judging a woman for having the temerity to not be a stupendous man-wizard badass, so he decides to unwind by going to his favourite pub, McAnally's.  I... I will--deep breaths, Wildman, deep breaths--I... will... take the high--oh my god I know it's a real name but how do you just--keep it together, man!--Iwilltakethehighroad and not make any of the extremely obvious jokes because I am a writer with some sense of decorum and maturity.

Dresden spends a full page rhapsodising the old-timey glory of the basement pub, with thirteen of all of its fixtures and wooden pillars that break up the flows of magic from all the "broody, grumpy wizards" that hang about there.  No electronics more complicated than a lightswitch, only homebrewed ale and a bar where you pick your food up yourself, LIKE A MAN, instead of having some waitress do it for you like these fancy types all expect these days.  I'm wondering how many other actual 'grumpy wizards' we're going to see, since it seems like even one more is immediately going to make it obvious how boring Dresden himself actually is.  He recognises (but doesn't name) two guys playing chess in the corner, and orders a steak sandwich and ale from Mac, who hardly ever talks but only says things that are wise.  UNLIKE A WOMAN, OBVIOUSLY.

Worldbuilding!  Harry grabs a wizard newspaper and reads to us about a story in which some kids got high on 'ThreeEye', which supposedly gives you precognition, and blew up a convenience store which they believed was somehow destined to explode anyway.  Harry doesn't buy it: "If it was serious stuff, the department would have already called me by now."  What department?  The police?  The wizard police?  Is Dresden also a wizard cop?  (Why aren't there wizard cops?  Why aren't there wizards already insinuated into the police force to handle magical crimes instead of forcing them to grab consultants like Dresden?)

Mac observes that someone followed Dresden in, and Dresden identifies "Miss Rodriguez" by her perfume, but of course, being a woman, "She probably wouldn't think about her perfume giving her identity away when she could assign my mysterious, blind identification of her to my mystical powers."
  • Characters who are unnerved by Dresden's mysterious powers: Murphy, Monica, Rodriguez
  • Characters who are unimpressed by Harry's supposed potency: Carmichael, Marcone, unnamed chapter-one mailman.
I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's something that distinctly categorises these two groups.

In case we didn't already suspect from the surname Rodriguez, Susan is Latina, helpfully hinted at in her paragraph of description which separately includes references to her "dark beauty", "dark, straight hair", "dark skin of her forehead", and "dark eyes".  So, there's those things.  Let's just bask in the discomfort of exotification and the immediate sexualisation of the only woman of colour.  Dresden made have mulled Murphy's legs and had uncomfortable highschool-cheerleader fantasies about Monica, but Susan Rodriguez shows up and suddenly we're one misstep away from this becoming the swimsuit issue.

Rodriguez is a reporter for the Chicago Arcane, a tabloid magazine that occasionally catches the real thing (like the Unseelie Incursion of 1994, when Milwaukee quietly disappeared for two hours), and she's figured out he's a real wizard.
She was the one who had fainted after we'd soulgazed.
Her feminine vulnerability thus established, she immediately sets about using her spicy Latina sex appeal to try to drag a comment out of Dresden on the murders.
"Just a hint," she pressed. "A word of comment. Something shared between two people who are very attracted to one another."
Dresden is of course too cool to be so easily swayed, at least on the outside, but regardless of how hot she is, Dresden knows that the hottest thing about her is the way society has ingrained her with the conviction that she can and will never be pretty enough:
One of the things that appealed to me about her was that even though she used her charm and femininity relentlessly in pursuit of her stories, she had no concept of just how attractive she really was--I had seen that when I looked within her last year. 
"Harry Dresden," she said, "you are a thoroughly maddening man." Her eyes narrowed a bit further. "You didn't look down my blouse even once, did you," she accused.
Dresden remarks sarcastically on his incorruptible purity, She laughs, and he takes the opportunity to check out her awesome boobs, because HE IS A MAN AFTER ALL.

This scene is stupid and I'm not going to provide more details on it than I have to.  Dresden refuses to answer her questions even when she turns it into a cute 'yes or no' game and then uses that to 'trick' him into agreeing to get dinner with her Saturday night at a nice restaurant.

I kinda loved Ender's Game and Shadow the first times I read them, even if I brim with scorn now.  Eye of the World had a few charms, sort of like a clueless old man telling mostly-harmless stories of his youth but unable to stop calling women 'skirts'.  I already hate Dresden so much I'm honestly not sure I can get all the way through this book this time.  Already I look back fondly on a mere month ago, when I thought things were actually going to happen in this book and I hadn't gotten to know our insufferable protagonist yet.  Updates as the hatred evolves.

Dresden bemoans the ease with which she 'tricked' him into this date.  (Just not going is apparently not an issue.  Why?  Is a wizard's word literally his bond?  Did she enthrall him while he wasn't paying attention?  DOES SHE HAVE A MIND-CONTROL SIGIL IN HER CLEAVAGE?!)
"Why did I say yes?" 
Mac shrugged. 
"She's pretty," I said. "Smart. Sexy." 
"Any red-blooded man would have done the same thing." 
"Hngh," Mac snorted. 
"Well. Maybe not you." 
Mac smiled a bit, mollified.
I'm going to act like this is confirmation that Mac is ace or gay, although I presume it's actually supposed to mean that he just makes better decisions because he's too smart to get tangled up with those tricksy girlfolk.  Dresden mulls how he's going to fit this date into his schedule, and whether he should account for the possibility of naked fun times afterwards.  He is seriously concerned.  After all, he's never done well with dating:
I mean, a lot of teenage guys fail in their first relationships. 
Not many of them murder the girl involved.
Faith and fucking begorrah.  Not only is Butcher giving us a dead woman in Dresden's past to make him sad, not only did she die violently, but he is the one who killed her and you know that means that it was a tragic accident for which he blames himself and it will be the responsibility of other people to explain that Dresden shouldn't feel guilty for killing his girlfriend.

I have been induced to read these words with my own eyes and for that there can be no forgiveness.

The chapter mercifully ends not long after that and I'm going to have to read ahead a bit to see if I can survive this or if I'm just going to get angrier and angrier every chapter until I challenge the book to mortal combat and one or both of us dies amidst rain and fire.

Chapter Six: How to Pick Up

Blessedly, this chapter contains almost none of Harry's thoughts on women, and focuses on the essential premise of the book: a wizard who is also a detective.  Harry gathers up some materials from his apartment and goes on a long drive out to the Sells' lakeside home for some investigating.  After scoping a bit in normal terms (he grabs a tube for camera film under the stairs and notices the suspicious state of the garbage bins) he sets a faery trap and monologues at us about magic for a while: true names and magic circles, how they work, how you bait a faery, that kind of thing.  It's not bad, apart from my grievances with Dresden's tone, which is 60% made of the author winking at the reader (the faery disappears in a twinkle like Santa, not that Dresden would dare try to trap Santa because he's far too powerful, don't cross Saint Nick, ha ha).  Said faery, whose true name is a beautiful cadence but goes by Toot most of the time, falls into the trap and agrees to ask around on Dresden's behalf, reporting that there were people at the house last night having sex and they ordered a pizza.

That done, the author realises he's hit a lull and so falls back on Raymond Chandler's famous axiom, 'a man bursts into the room with a gun', although that's not nearly magical enough, so instead a man bursts out of the woods with a sword.

Chapter Seven: How Not To Worldbuild

The man in question turns out to be Morgan the Warden, White Council agent in charge of making sure Dresden never does anything fun at all.  He has concluded that Dresden is the murderer, on the basis that Dresden once before killed someone with magic and Morgan has just been itching to get his justifiable homicide on ever since then.  Like all the characters in this story who don't want to have sex with Dresden, Morgan is not supposed to be smart.

Dresden points out that he's done nothing illegal (apparently trapping and extorting faeries is completely legit as long as you don't actually mind-control them) and that if Morgan wants to try to prosecute him for it they'll have to convene the entire very busy and ill-tempered White Council, so he should drop it.  Morgan relents and puts away his enchanted sword, but then demands to talk to Dresden unofficially and grabs him by the arm.
I didn't dare mess around with Morgan when he was acting in his role as a Warden of the White Council. But he wasn't wearing that hat, now. Once he'd put the sword away, he was acting on his own, without any more official authority than any other man--or at least, that was the technical truth. Morgan was big on technicalities. He had scared the heck out of me and annoyed the heck out of me, in rapid succession. Now he was trying to bully me. I hate bullies. 
So I took a calculated risk, used my free hand, and hit him as hard as I could in the mouth.
Like any classic Manly Hero, Dresden has four emotions: Lust, Condescension, Wounded Pride, and Punching.  Some have theorised about the existence of umami, the so-called 'fifth emotion', but no research has yet found any conclusive evidence.  Morgan starts to threaten him, but Dresden counters that he legally doesn't "have to put up with it" unless Morgan is on official business.  Morgan can find no legal grounds to "come after" Dresden, and so lets him go.

(Good news, everyone: if you punch a cop while they're not in uniform, they're legally required to just stand there and take it, apparently.)

To my everlasting delight, Dresden thinks Morgan is too stupid to realise that there's no law against punching back, and he eventually does so, flooring Dresden in one hit.  Ten points to the old guy with the really inadvisable ponytail!  (He has a terrible ponytail, we're told.)  Having finally expressed their true feelings to each other, Morgan and Dresden part ways, and Dresden fills us in on his backstory.  To my immense shock, the magic-kill that Dresden was convicted for was not his first girlfriend like he implied, but his original magic teacher, an as-yet-unnamed dude who "tried to seduce me into Black wizardry".

Before we go any further on that subject I'm just going to give the floor to Martin Luther King for a minute:

"Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high and clean."

White Council and Black wizardry.  Awesome.  Top marks again, Butcher.  Also,  Dresden, your male teacher tried to "seduce" you while you were young and impressionable.  Not in any way a statement with homophobic connotations.  Nothing.  [irony] Pure as the driven snow. [/irony]

So, it is legal to defend yourself or helpless people with lethal force, giving Dresden a pass on getting executed, except that apparently there's no protocol for judgment when the defender successfully kills their attacker.  I... what.  Shouldn't that come up all the time?  Obviously, whether lying or telling the truth, any wizard who kills another wizard is going to claim it was self-defence.  That is why we in the muggle world have detectives and stuff.  Why is Dresden talking like his case was such a weird aberration?

(Also, I would like to know more about necromancy in this world and whether there aren't a lot of cases that could be solved quite easily by talking to ghosts.  Can they talk to ghosts?  Is that why most wizards try not to kill other wizards?  Or is it illegal to summon the dead?  Too Black?)

So Dresden was let go from that case on super-probation, and can now be executed for breaking any Law of Magic, apparently?  He wonders if some members of the White Council don't want him dead for daring to practice wizardry openly.  I wonder why they don't have a law against that.

Dresden concludes that the only way he can clear his own name is by researching the eeeevil magic that was used to murder those two, and his best lead for that is Bianca the Vampire Madam, so off he goes, wondering if Morgan will kill him in the belief that he was the murderer, or for doing illegal research into the murder, or if Murphy will kill him for edging in on the police side of the investigation.  He is surrounded by troubles on all sides.
You know, sometimes I think Someone up there really hates me.
Me, Dresden.  It's me.

Next time: We meet Dresden's cat (charming) and haunted skull named Bob who loves to get up to zany antics like sexual assault.  If you listen to the wind, you can hear me screaming.


*I suppose I should make a consistent note that these books don't have chapter titles and I'm just making them up for funsies, lest new readers be confused that the titles are so much more entertaining and thoughtful than the text.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Dear world: Please stop calling my Prime Minister "Daddy"

A little late to this perhaps, but this Canadian has a request to (politely, naturally) make of you.

Please stop thirsting over new PM Justin Trudeau.

Pictured: New Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau

I understand. The average politician looks like a leather handbag in an expensive suit who sold their soul for the suit. Trudeau has flowing locks and looks like he might still have a soul. 

Pictured: Trudeau giving his best bedroom eyes with deeply questionable facial hair

Next to them, he looks like a total beef cake. I get it. But out of that context? He's ok looking. 

Pictured: Trudeau looking shocked that I just called him ok looking. 

I'd let him buy me a drink at the bar, I've got enough French in me that I know my Mother would probably be dissapointed if a Nice French Boy who looked like that chatted me up to not even give him a shot. You know, pretending he's not like 15 years older than I am and we're not both married. 

Pictured: An awkward close up of Trudeau with different deeply questionable facial hair

Still, I think it's kind of disrespectful of the world to have ignored our election up until after we elected a babe. Do you know anything about his policies? Like his plan to run a 3-year deficit to stimulate the economy, or ungag scientist (which has been a huge problem) or to launch an investigation into missing and murdered indigenous women and generally a huge push towards evidence based policy making? Also he wants to legalize pot. Not one I care much about but I know how y'all do. Do you know he probably could have run with promises of high-fives because our former PM is a baby-eating robot with a shitty band who is super racist and had been in power for ten years and Canadians desperately wanted him out? Are you yet questioning our wisdom in electing a man who has actually had super villain facial hair?
Pictured: Trudeau with super villain facial hair and flowing locks

Because you should be. I mean, it's not like we had any other options, but still.

Pictured: NDP leader "Angry" Tom Mulcair looking like he's earning his nickname

If nothing else, please, stop calling Trudeau "Daddy". It assumes a level of intimacy that even Canadians don't (yet) have with him. Let us, as a country, work out our own weird sex stuff before throwing your own baggage in there. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hallowthon 2015 Anthology: For the Final Girl in all of us

Will here: Happy All Hallow's Eve-eve-eve-eve, gentle readers. 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.  To save everyone time, here we present the SS&S Hallowthon 2015 Anthology, with myself and the blogqueen offering you some brief thoughts on a score of better- and lesser-known horror films, in case you seek assistance picking something to watch this weekend.

Erika here: Also a warning, a lot of these are movies I saw more than five years ago, so I may have not noticed or forgotten some of the more messed-up aspects of some.

(Content: misogyny, racism, gory violence, and sexual violence.  Fun content: the greatest documentary of our time, and VAGINA DENTATA.)

Erika - As we all know, the greatest documentary of our time. That aside, I think Peter Venkman should get slimer'd. Not that he would notice as he is made of slime. Seriously. Fuck that guy.

Will - Oh my god Erika this isn't a documentary MOVING ALONG

Evil Dead
Will - Not the original with Bruce Campbell, but the remake from a couple of years ago.  Much less terrible than I expected.  Don't know if I could call it 'good'.  Teens isolate themselves at a cabin in the woods--not for a weekend of drinking and sex, but as an intervention to get their addict friend clean.  Everything goes horribly wrong because one guy decides to read aloud from a book that literally has 'don't say these words' written in the margins in blood.  Gory as hell, a huge amount of bodily mutilation, and a literal rain of blood in the last scene.  Not as inherently misogynistic as I would have expected--the original Evil Dead is famous for the 'tree rape' scene, which was exactly as gratuitous and voyeuristic as it sounds (the tree even ripped open the woman's shirt for the audience's benefit).  In this version, the victim does get bound by an animated tree, and some kind of monstrosity spews out a demon eel that slithers up her skirt, but the whole thing is incredibly gross and violating (and a key plot moment) rather than played to arouse.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Erika - When I first saw this movie, I went in expecting it to be awful. I was very very wrong. It was magical. It's campy and cheesy and Abraham Lincoln kills vampires with an ax. Horses are thrown. Love yourself. Watch this movie.

Will - The only caveat I'd add is that this is a very White Savior kind of historical revisionism along with the vampire revisionism.  Abraham inherits his mother's sense of equality ("As long as any of us are slaves, none of us are free", which...) and stands up for it his whole life.  Vampires are responsible for the transatlantic slave trade and they throw in a line specifically to note that Africans were getting 'sold' to white people by other Africans, in that way that really defensive white people always want to make sure that we all know that we're all culpable, really, and I mean I don't even see race so why do you have to make such a big deal about it--et cetera.  So there's that.  On the other hand, Anthony Mackie plays Lincoln's best friend Will Johnson and, upon learning that they're going to fight vampires, jumps right in with deadly efficiency.  Lincoln required an extensive training montage, but Johnson is just like "Oh, are we doing superhero stuff now?" and goes into bullet time.

Erika - My old roommate, Devin and I got back from the bar late one night and weren't ready to crash yet, so we booted up Netflix and found this. It's about a Good Christian Girl who is attacked by reams of sexual predators and defends herself with her vagina teeth. She doesn't escape the non-stop sexual assault, but her teeth give her agency to fight back. Either way, it features a doctor, horrified, shrieking "VAGINA DENTATA" and I don't know what else you want from a movie.

Repo! The Genetic Opera
Erika - It's more an aesthetic than a movie, and not a great one. The music is tragically lacking, but has Anthony Head who is a surprisingly decent singer and makes up for a multitude of sins. Strangely, he isn't even in the best number of the movie. Also Paris Hilton's face falls off.

Will - Worth seeing if you don't mind some gore.  I guess it's supposed to be an indictment of the modern American healthcare system and the encroaching forces of capitalism?  But if I get into dissecting that for analysis, we'll be here all day.  Sarah Brightman as Blind Mag is magnificent and probably a wizard.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Erika - I thought I was buying the first one when I bought it, not the (older) re-make. It's the first time I have bought the wrong movie and gotten a better one than I hoped for. This movie terrified me. It manages to be high tension and super creepy without using jump scares or gore. It's just, it's just a really well written and done. If you like getting your pants creeped off you, but like, not in a sexy way, check it.

Practical Magic
Erika - When scrolling through Netflix with Will trying to figure out what to put on this list I suggested this one. I hadn't seen the movie in like, ten years, but I remembered enough to think there was something to write about. I was right. Not that that should surprise anyone. This is a movie that is about women, and women loving and trusting each other to overcome anything. They also kill the same abusive boyfriend twice.

Will - Also there are two love spells used in this movie and I have a variety of questions as relating to consent and mind control whenever that sort of thing happens.  But I'd say the movie leans toward the idea, not that the targets are compelled to adore each other, but magically made intensely aware of all the things they could love about each other and lets things flow from there?  That's not textual at all, I admit.  Great scenes with women coming together to support each other in dire circumstances, even when they otherwise don't get along.  Like most things in life, needed more not-straight people.

Rosemary's Baby
Erika - Which is scarier? Being impregnated with the literal spawn of Satan (without fun Devil sex but with the extra challenges breast feeding) or having everyone in your life teaming up to gaslight you about it? Well, in this movie, you don't have to choose!

Human Centipede
Erika - I did not want to see this movie when I saw it. I didn't really know what I was getting into, which added to the glee of those with me as they cackled at my unprepared horror. Devin and his twin Doug decided this was what they wanted to do for their birthday, so my gift to them both was having to explain to my father what it was. Neither of us have forgiven them for this. The movie actually isn't as gross as you think it will be. It's gross, and it's fucked up, but the worst of it happens off screen. If you were thinking of seeing this movie but afraid of explicit gore, it's not that bad?

Will - I have literally cut people off midsentence to keep them from explaining the premise of this movie to innocent bystanders who didn't know better.  Thus do I earn my place in the Elysian Fields.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Erika - I do not remember being introduced to the soundtrack of this movie. I just... always knew it. I have fond memories of my Father dancing around the kitchen in his underpants, making breakfast, singing "Sweet Transvestite" with all he's got (and my Dad is a very enthusiastic singer). The only copy of the soundtrack we had was on a tape, so after switching to CD there were a few years where I kind of forgot about it until my Discman died and I went digging through my old tapes. I was walking across the street when I realized what, exactly, most of these songs were about. I didn't get hit by a car, but not be as wide a margin as I would like to claim. The soundtrack alone is worth the watch if you've somehow not already seen this campy, sexy(?), parade of absurdity.

Will - The blogqueen tried to make me watch this a couple of years ago, but I was exhausted and she made me go home halfway through because sleeping through Rocky Horror is on her list of forbidden acts, along with wearing socks (Erika- Only to bed) and giving her husband ideas.  So when I did actually see it all the way through this summer, it was at a local theater with a shadowplay cast and a lot of call-and-response from the audience.  I'm not convinced that actually made it any harder to understand what was going on.  This is a weird movie and the terms 'transvestite' and 'transsexual' are both waaay out of fashion now, and while I'm all for more LGBT characters in cinema, there's a lot of coercion and dubious consent here.  I get why it's an iconic film (and apparently they're remaking it with Laverne Cox as Dr Frank-N-Furter) but I was not as enchanted as I hoped.

The Loved Ones
Erika - I don't even know where to start with this movie. I'm not squeamish but yikes. Gore, psychological horror, sexual horror, incest, I just--if you are looking for a movie that you will sit back and say "Wow, that was super fucked up in more ways than I have seen any one movie be fucked up in" then this is the deeply fucked up movie for you.

Garden State
Erika - What's more horrifying than a whiny entitled privileged white dude and his fantasies of a manic pixie dream girl who will fix all of his problems? Great aesthetic and soundtrack too.

Will - The most subtle psychological thriller of our generation.

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane
Erika - This should be called "Mandy Lane needs some better fucking friends" because every single one of them is awful. (Okay, the lone black guy (Bird) doesn't totally suck.) Also: unnecessary sexualized violence. I am not saying sexual violence, but the first girl is killed after giving a blow job by getting a shotgun rammed in her mouth as if she were giving a blow up before having her head smashed through. It's a slasher flick that fancies itself clever. I will give it credit that I didn't see the whole twist coming, and it makes some interesting visual choices.

Will - It's a very aware movie that becomes less cliche as it goes, both in narrative and cinematic styles.  Could have done with a little more character exposition, since the motivations driving the whole murder spree are never given very clearly, and unlike most slashers that actually matters.  There are enough hints given that you can piece something together, but a lot left up to interpretation, and I'm never sure if that's intentional or if the filmmakers just thought they were so clever that they didn't need to say more.

Shaun of the Dead
Erika - Since the saturation of the zombie market, Shaun of the Dead is an especially nice reprieve. It's clever and genre savvy without feeling "wink wink nudge nudge tee hee this is a zombie movie" with actually developed characters. Could stand to have more women and POC and fewer white dudes, but it's at least sort of a horror movie so I guess I can only hope for so much.

Will - Probably the best we're going to get in terms of 'ordinary people face the zombie apocalypse'.

Erika - A movie that started off so strong and then went so wrong. It starts off with some psychological horror and cat-and-mouse type stuff between a grown woman and her adopted 9 year old daughter, with the 9 year old being the villain. Because if horror movies have taught me anything it's that children are creepy as fuck (and people wonder why I don't want any). Like many disappointing horror movies, it starts off clever and then takes a sharp turn into standard slasher horror right at the end.

The Witches of Zugarramurdi (English title: Witching & Bitching)
Erika - This is a weird movie. Weird in a good way, but weird. A group of robbers are trying to get away after their first heist but they get grabbed by a coven of cannibal witches who are trying to bring about the apocalypse. The basic theme and morals of the story are that women are evil and unstable, while men are immature and useless, but mostly well-meaning.

Will - I'm generally not one for gross-out humour, 'battle of the sexes' plots, or MRA talking points.  Especially screw that one guy in the first seen who's like "the judges always favour women in custody cases" because that's not even slightly true.  On the other hand, this has canonically bisexual secondary characters who become a happy couple, which probably makes it more progressive overall than 90% of Supernatural episodes, or Steven Moffat's portfolio.

Erika - Almost all of the weird-ass movies on this list that I saw in theaters I saw at the same weird local theater and I hope everyone has one of those. This was a movie that I actually regretted seeing there though. Again, one that is best described as "weird" but I wouldn't say "good weird". If it had been a half hour long, I probably would have loved it but it was just so long. Still, if the premise of "A homicidal car tire with psionic powers goes on a rampage and also acts as its own framing device" catches your attention, it's probably worth checking out.  Just maybe be willing to skip through a bit.

Will - I actually like this movie.  Not even as 'I guess among horror movies it's bearable'; I legitimately enjoyed it, which was a huge shock the first time because I have always hated standard-issue slashers.  The thing is that this one came before most others and didn't use their bloody cliches.  The daylight scenes are at least as unsettling as anything that happens in the dark.  The horror has less to do with jump scares and more to do with an emotionless implacable force randomly deciding to kill all your friends.  It also pretty much codified the final girl who faces the monster and lives.  That said, when your villain is 'an escaped murderer from an insane asylum', it's not like we're going to get anything like a thoughtful film.  Pure id.

Erika - When a husband and wife duo of "too-cool-for-school" scientists are told to stop their research on genetically engineering creatures, they cross lines of ethics, morals, and pretty much everything that gets in their way when they continue in secret and start splicing in human DNA as well. This movie starts off well. It challenges boundaries and ethics and social expectations and largely tries to be high minded about it even when getting into deeply uncomfortable territory. Which is what made it so terribly disappointing when it turned into a monster flick in the last few scenes and gets rapey.

Erika - I have found the formula for good Lovecraft reading: read his shorter short stories. That's it. Otherwise he spends forever building up and up mundane circumstances to like, a paragraph of weirdness that overall is unsatisfying (I'm looking at you, Rats In The Walls).  But the shorter ones tend to get to the weird stuff sooner, and feel like a bigger payoff without as much puttering around. All that to say, I haven't actually read Re-Animator. The Husbeast has, and he tells me it's super racist, which isn't terribly shocking. The movie is not. It is however incredibly sexist. The treatment of the lone female character is awful, she's stripped of agency, objectified, and assaulted. It does a better job getting to the weirdness more quickly than Lovecraft's writings often do, but the whole movie was a bit of a let down for me. The aesthetics are kind of fun but beyond that I don't have much nice to say about it, and a lot of negative. This is the only one on the list I am straight up telling you to skip.

Will - This is simultaneous not a Vampire Movie and also the best vampire movie I've ever seen.  A couple of two-century-old women are permanently on the run for reasons the mother refuses to explain to her daughter.  There are decapitations and literal waterfalls of blood and a Dangerous Romance between a frail human and the immortal vampire who won't risk hurting an innocent.  There are positive depictions of sex workers and their work, and a sort of thematic crescendo that we should all be able to agree, whether living or undead, that the most important thing to do is defy and destroy the violent institutions of patriarchy.  (On balance, this is an ultra-white movie and there's a fair about of offscreen rape-as-backstory, so it's not all sunshine and murder-daisies.)  Basically the anti-Twilight.  I recommend this movie to anyone who doesn't find the subject matter unwatchably disturbing.


So that's our selection of judgments for this year--feel free to add your own in the comments if there's something else in this vein that you wish more people knew about.  Also, expect more judgments of creepy stuff in the weeks to come, as Will finally gets around to marshalling his thoughts on the undying saga that is the Supernatural series, and the X-Files revival in January 2016 spurs some talk on the amazing Dana Scully and how weird it is that no one seems to talk about how super racist this sci-fi classic really was.

Erika has written far enough ahead that her posts should run uninterrupted through the next month in spite of NaNoWriMo, so enjoy those.  Will insists that he has got his side covered as well but he is not a reliable source.  Happy Halloween, folks.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Erika vs The Nightmare Before Christmas

I am a huge slut for stop-motion animation/claymation. I used to mess around with it as a kid and it will never stop being magical and amazing to me. I've also talked before about how much I love musicals at length. As such, Nightmare Before Christmas holds an extra-special place in my heart, but we all need to consider something for a moment here. And that is Nightmare Before Christmas, despite having been an icon of counter-culture wannabe goth/emo teenagers in my youth (is it still? I'm too old to know and I don't have any cousins in the right age range) is basically the story of a jock, who is loved by all, doing something stupid and realizing his nerd childhood friend is the right girl for him all along, with a heavy dash of cultural appropriation.

Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King, even though he is a skeleton who lives in a graveyard and doesn't have any discernible ties to pumpkins at all, is adored and admired by all of Halloween town. He is a leader in his community, The Best at The Thing everyone loves. He also has an excellent dog. I mean, all dogs are excellent, but Zero's a good ghost dog. He knows to bring back the bones they play fetch with, none of this having to hunt it down yourself nonsense. He also has a jack-o-lantern nose.

 Pictured: Happy ghost dog with jack-o-lantern nose who just wants to be your friend, Zero

So what sort of popular hero would he be if his shiny perfect life didn't have a flaw? That flaw being HORRIBLE ENNUI! To which his solution is the equivalent of going to India to do a bunch of yoga and getting a culturally insensitive Om tattoo on his ankle. The whole number of What's This? is him wandering around and marveling at how quaint everything is. Life here is so simple and exotic! Jack is totally a white tourist on a trip to try and "find himself". He spends a whole song there and "wants it for his own". He comes home and is now the expert on this other culture and gushes to everyone about it. No one quite gets it, but they love and worship Jack so they roll with it. Only Sally thinks something is wrong with him latching onto this other culture, but her concerns are ignored.

Jack knows he doesn't quite understand Christmas since it isn't his culture, and when he can't "crack the code", he decides the solution is simple! He gave it too much credit and depth to start with! He rewrites the bits he doesn't understand with his own culture and preference. With the confidence of a white guy, he barges in starts trying to take over, ignoring the one person (Sally) who is trying to tell him "No, nothing about this is a good idea". He forces out people native to the culture he's stealing (Santa) and takes over, harming others in the process. Most of those toys attack and have teeth; people are getting hurt. Sally, being the smart one, goes to try and free Santa from Oogie Boogie because shit is hitting the fan. Because Jack is the hero and not Sally, this ends with both of them in danger.

When the military is called and are actively trying to stop Jack,  his first response is to assume people are celebrating him, and he's confused and wounded that they don't like his take on their culture. Jack doesn't even think "Wow, I hurt people". He thinks "Well, I messed that up, but I had fun and everyone got a cool story out of it!" Then, after he reaffirms who and what he is, he thinks of getting Santa back so he can fix what he messed up. Better late than never, I suppose? This is the closest Jack comes to learning a lesson, realizing he's not good at a thing and should leave it to the people who are. He does not realize that he can't be good at this thing because it is not his culture, and he never grew up with it,of course.  Just that he has his own that he's better at so might as well stick with that one!

He rushes home, finds Sally and Santa being menaced by Oogie Boogie, saves the day, Santa goes off to save Christmas--and I want to note here that it is Santa, on his own, who saves Christmas. Jack doesn't get to help. Jack realizes, now that he is alone with Sally, "Oh, she's been helping me and being sensible and not just worshiping me this whole time. Maybe we should date." I have no idea how ragdoll/skeleton sex would work, but we know Sally is at least somewhat modular, so... I guess it would be kinky?

Let's talk about Sally for a moment. She and Jack are apparently good friends. We see her looking out for and taking care of Jack repeatedly, and yet he doesn't listen to her or notice her home life is incredibly abusive. She has to drug the Professor to ever get out of the house. This is played off as "haha typical teenagers" but the Professor scolds her for this. He wants her around to take care of him and gets emotionally abusive when she wants to have her own life. The thing is, she's happy to take care of him! She is, by her nature, a caring and nurturing person! She just wants to do her own thing too. Not content to let Sally do her own thing, and realizing it's not just a phase, he literally locks up Sally. Jack goes to see the Professor he doesn't think to try and say hi to Sally, which means he is ignorant to the fact she is literally locked up just down the hall. We see her rip off limbs to get away from the Professor, and eventually she runs away. Which leads to her living on the street as she tries to hide from the Professor. Again, Jack remains ignorant to, even while having her sew for him and hanging out in his home.

I don't know what about any of this is supposed to be counter-culture, or why so many kids latched onto it as such. Aesthetics, I guess? Which was certainly the depths of "counter-culture" for most of the people I knew who were latching onto it. I still love this movie, but let's be honest: Jack is a self-centered, self-absorbed dude whom everyone worships for reasons that aren't totally clear and faces no consequences for his actions because there is a whole system in place to continue worshiping him. All he has to do is be moderately friendly and score a touch down scare some children. Sounds awfully familiar.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Cabin In The Woods: Joss Whedon doesn't know what deconstruction means

What's this?  Not a Dresden post?  Yes, dear readers, because it is October and tumblr's love of Halloween is sufficiently infectious that I was all "Hey, we should do a bunch of posts on Halloween movies this month" and the blogqueen was all "I like that idea but let's not go overboard" and I was all "CAN'T HEAR YOU, TOO BUSY BEING THE PUMPKIN KING" and she was all "FUCK YOU I'M ALREADY WRITING A POST ON NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS" and she is the blogqueen, so her word is law.  But I get open the gates, with a little more than two weeks to go before Halloween, with my unrelenting judgment of Joss Whedon and all sexist nerds who think satire means 'the same old rubbish with a wink and a funny voice'.

Something Short & Snappy Hallowthon 2015 presents:
The Cabin In The Woods

This movie is three years old now, so I imagine most of the people who actually cared about seeing it unspoiled have already done so, but just in case you're not aware, the actual premise is a spoiler, so if for some reason you want to see Joss Whedon writing self-satisfied horror in the manner that he originally intended, read no further in this post.  There's not much meaningful to say about the film without talking details.

Now, as soon as I said 'Joss Whedon writing', most of us could probably guess (with or without seeing the film) that this movie is incredibly proud of how clever it is.  Horror movies come with a lot of tropes and cliches--back in the 1990s, Scream revitalised the genre by making a slasher flick full of people discussing slasher flicks, a harbinger of the super-meta media that has rocketed to popularity in the last couple of decades.  I don't actually like Scream (not least because that mask fucking terrified me as a child), but I can't deny that it was a clever idea to make a film in which people actually tell each other to do the things that the audience normally has to shout, like 'don't run upstairs, there's no escape there'.

But that's been done now (on through three sequels and a Netflix series), so how can someone brim with satisfaction at their own cleverness now?  The same way bad parodies work: force everything to fit to the cliches of the genre at their most extreme, presented utterly without commentary or analysis.  TCITW is a movie about a world (spoilers begin here) where humanity managed to seal away some eldritch horrors thousands of years ago and can only keep them sealed by performing a sacrificial ritual every year, which must fit the format of an ultra-typical horror movie.  So the movie opens on an underground complex where people are going about what seems like an ordinary semi-industrial office job, which we slowly discover is actually the central control room where they bait a group of young adults into a sealed environment (the titular cabin and woods) and let loose monsters to slaughter them.  Real people don't fit the requisite cardboard-cutout characters, of course (the jock, the nerd, the comic relief, the sexpot, and the virgin), so the action of the movie is two-sided: Our Heroes trying to escape monsters in clever ways, and the showrunners manipulating and pushing them back onto the rails like a bad tabletop gamemaster.

Thus, the ordinary is presented as clever because it gets labelled: on their way to the cabin, the kids stop and ask directions from a gruff hillbilly who tells them to turn back, and the scene gets intercut with shots of the showrunners talking about how important it is to the ritual that the kids be warned "by the Harbinger" but continue anyway.  All the protagonists start out as intelligent college kids, but (for example) the girl who's supposed to fit the 'slutty' archetype was convinced to dye her hair blonde and dosed with cognition-slowing drugs so she would drag her boyfriend out into the woods to have sex and die.  At one point the jock says 'stick together while we search the house', gets a dose of gas from the nearest air vent, turns around again and says 'actually, let's split up to cover more ground'.

They have a gas that makes people think it's a good idea to split the party.

I try to take stories in on their own terms: I'm not criticising TCITW for not being deep, or for not explaining how one invents a gas that makes people think it's a good idea to split the party.  The premise is "What if you had to orchestrate a real-life horror movie in order to save the world?" and something like that is just a throwaway joke that everyone's supposed to nod at and move past.  (I do greatly prefer the parts where things are actually orchestrated and people break the stereotypes--in keeping with exploitation horror of the past, voyeurism is a big part of the ritual, so they put the nerd in a room next to the final girl where he discovers he's got a one-way mirror to watch her undress.  Villainwise, that's a smart move to ratchet up the sexual tension, but the nerd is also not a total skeeze, so he overcomes temptation, warns her about it, and they switch rooms.  Naturally, the girl then watches the nerd, who is played by Jesse Williams and therefore hot like fire and hella jacked, take his shirt and belt off before she covers the mirror up again.)

No, if TCITW was just kind of smug about all its tropes and references, I wouldn't take much issue with it: the dialogue is often fun and funny, the cast is excellent, and it raises some interesting moral dilemmas when the heroes find out the truth and have to choose between actively murdering each other or passively ending the world.  (I disagree strongly with their conclusion, but more about that in a bit.)

My core problem with the movie is, as you readers have probably guessed, is that it involves Joss Whedon trying to be clever about gendered roles and that is a recipe for disaster.  Horror movies in general and slasher flicks in particular have a history of misogyny, sex-shaming, objectification and voyeurism, and sexualised violence against women that hardly needs to be expounded upon here.  The bright points are those rare occasions when the tradition of the 'final girl' gets turned into something like an icon of strength, resilience, and courage in women.  (Take perhaps the most famous 'final girl', Ellen Ripley of Alien--Sigourney Weaver, of course, shows up in TCITW specifically to explain the trope.)  It's sufficiently common that even this movie's 'ritual' incorporates it: as long as everyone else dies and the 'Virgin' suffers, the ritual is complete and she might be allowed to survive and win.

This is too obvious for Joss Whedon's cleverness to abide.  No, while the protagonist  Dana is a woman, the actual hero of TCITW is Marty, the comic relief.  He's resistant to the mind-warping drugs and hypnotic suggestions because he's stoned all the time, he carries a collapsible steel bong that he uses to do battle with the monsters (and successfully takes down the one that tries to kill him personally), and constantly fills the audience surrogate role of 'Hey, maybe we shouldn't do this obviously dangerous thing'.  He also locates the secret entrance to the villains' complex, hacks into their equipment, rescues Dana from her monster (after killing his with a trowel), and leads her down to the lower levels to confront the big bads.  He gives us the moral of the story as well--society is fundamentally broken and deserves to be wiped out--and the final question of the story is whether Dana will murder him (and save the world) or break the cycle (and let the ancient death gods rise up to slaughter us all).

Except: Dana doesn't even get that moment of agency, because as she's quivering, gun in hand, choosing whether to kill one person by action or billions by inaction, Marty keeps her from noticing the werewolf creeping up behind her and the clock runs down while they're fighting.  Afterwards, as they wait for their doom, Dana says she probably wouldn't have done it anyway, but actually letting her make that choice wasn't dramatic enough, apparently.

Raise your hand if you're shocked that Joss Whedon looked at a genre where strong female protagonists occasionally win (while hordes of other women are slaughtered, usually after flashing the audience) and said "No, this will not do, I need to bring something fresh to the table by having a sarcastic scruffy man save the helpless girl and drive the plot."  It's not the muscular dude, or the smart dude, or the hot chicks (either flavour, sexy or virginal) who save the day, it's the pseudophilosophical guy with funny lines and weed and no luck with women.  Yeah, that's definitely not Whedon's author avatar.

The phrase 'deconstruction' has gotten popular in the recent years, but the meaning has kinda shifted.  It's common enough now to use it as we do on this blog, to just mean 'unsympathetic critical analysis', but the word itself is older and more nuanced than that, to the point where I can't even begin to parse the original source material by Derrida.  (Neither can a lot of scholars, leading to a bunch of people trying to create secondary explanations that actually make sense.)  I'm not going to pretend I understand it either, but I can tell the difference between a meaningful commentary and shouting "Society thinks sex is dirty so the blond slut always dies first!"  Like: thanks, Joss.  We know.  We know that's how it always goes.  Are you in fact clever enough to come up with a twist on that, or are you just going to have a lot of people point out that the girl got killed five minutes after going topless and call it groundbreaking?  "But what if she was manipulated into doing it?"  SHE IS ALWAYS MANIPULATED INTO DOING IT BECAUSE THESE SCRIPTS ARE ALL ARTIFICE.  There are no actual choices going on.  The only difference this time is that the people in the script are scripted to acknowledging that they're following a script but under no circumstances question it.

Without getting too far into a very different kind of essay, I also want to vent my frustration against the ending and the idea that Our Heroes made the right choice by dooming everyone: in order for someone to say 'society is corrupt and we all deserve to burn' they have to be either the ultimate supervillain or have an incredibly narrow and specific concept of what 'the whole world' means.  We're talking about more than seven billion people in the world, all living radically different lives in different circumstances, different choices, different values, different traditions.  The typical stoner-philosopher appears to mean "Capitalism is messed up, our government is ineffective, and I can't get laid, so the whole thing might as well burn", which to my mind just shows a lack of interest or creativity.  If it's about the atrocities humans have committed in the past, well, we've got almost two billion people under the age of 15 and I'm inclined to give them a chance to do better than us.  If it's about the stories we tell supposedly illustrating our inherent corruption, well, show me an Anishinaabe slasher flick or something, because I'm not sure our traditions are as universal as you're claiming.

But I'm getting all Doylist about this instead of interrogating it from within the framework of the movie, where the logic appears to be "Humanity is under constant threat of annihilation by malevolent gods unless we make bloody sacrifices, therefore we deserve to be annihilated by malevolent gods", which... does not flow for me.

The ultimate problem with TCITW, I think, is the nature of the big bad gods behind it.  They are meant to stand for us, the audience: one girl has to get naked and die because the gods demand it, people must suffer because the gods demand it, it all has to happen over and over again because if the showrunners don't give the gods what they want, they--that is, we the audience--will rise up and end the world, and frankly that is blatant buck-passing.  The closest thing you can get to a 'message' out of TCITW is that these same horror movies keep getting made because that's supposedly what we want, but let's look at the facts: Twilight features blood and monsters and decapitation, but it also features girls who get to live forever with their infinitely-loyal sexbot husbands, and the Twilight movies made more money than you could fit in a cabin in the woods.  Google searching suggests to me that the highest-grossing slasher flick of all time, the original Scream, in total grossed about $189 million internationally (adjusted for inflation), whereas the first Twilight laughed that off at an easy $225 million and New Moon hit $326 million.

I'm not saying Twilight is good--what kind of monster do you take me for--but I am saying that in the case of Auteur Joss Whedon vs. We The Demanding And Disgusting Public, the evidence speaks soundly in favour of these things not being how you pander to the plebes.  There are no all-powerful market gods demanding that these same exploitation-film cliches get repeated over and over again: these movies get made because filmmakers like to make them.  That's the twist TCITW needed: in the end, when they've forced Dana to kill Marty to save everyone else, and everyone agrees that the rituals must go on because that's just how the world works, we find out that the Director is actually just a power-hungry misanthrope who dangles the (false) threat of ancient gods over everyone else because they just really like watching young people die naked.

Guess that was a step of realism too far?