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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Personal: All of the Injustices in the World

Buddhism 150Over the weekend, my dear husband played a beautifully ridiculous game called Asura’s Wrath. It’s not so much a video game as an interactive story, and this is the way the story goes: a demigod named Asura is one of the Eight Celestial Generals charged with protecting the world from monsters called Golma. After helping to beat back the worst of these golma (a planet-sized monstrosity that bursts forth from the world’s core), Asura is betrayed and framed for the murder of the emperor he serves. This sets into motion a chain of events that spans over millennia.

The game is full of the craziness that’s distinctive to epic anime. Asura’s enemies are gods, so displays of world-shattering power are par for the course. One of the things that makes the game so engaging, though, is how each of the characters — both Asura and his seven antagonists — are fairly well-shaded. Each of the Eight Generals has a particular vice that flaws their character. Asura’s (if you couldn’t guess) is his wrath, which makes sense. He was betrayed by his brothers, his own daughter has become a pawn used to further their own ends, and he finds himself constantly demanded to accept that this is the way the world works. He rages against that; it’s what fuels his power and propels him through that quest.

But it also makes his journey so much more difficult. Throughout the story, Asura fails to stop and consider the effect of his actions. He can’t tell when someone is legitimately attempting to extend an olive branch, and his default action is to punch whatever stands in his way until it isn’t there any more. There are a few times when he gives himself over completely to his rage and becomes a force of destruction. Even though his cause is just and his heart is in the right place, his inability to focus his anger properly really hurts him.

It got me thinking about the anger being expressed by various under- and mis-represented populations online. One of the great things the Internet has done is given us a voice to share our experience of the world, to get together and talk about the various ways we’re being under-served by the culture we’re in. I’ve been exposed to experiences I never would have even thought about otherwise, and I have an inkling about all kinds of things that I’ve never considered before. These communities are now able to speak up to challenge a lot of assumptions made by people in positions of power, and get together so that their voices can be amplified. It’s a wonderful thing.

The tone of that speech is something else entirely, however. Many of the people in these communities — to which I belong — are incredibly angry over the treatment they’ve been forced to endure and the litany of reminders given to them every day that our culture is at best indifferent about them and at worst openly hostile. This anger is, of course, justified; no one likes to be marginalized, and the fact that our entire society is built around assumptions that — by their very nature — does just that is a very difficult thing to deal with. Living an existence where so much around you tells you that you’re less than is a hard one to muddle through.
I understand that frustration and in many ways I share in it. And I believe that frustration can be focused into a useful tool for change. It can motivate us to speak up where otherwise we would remain silent. It can encourage us to be persistent in standing up for the equality we seek with our fellow men. It can push us through confronting prejudices and bigotry, guide us through the stress of insisting that being disrespected because of who we are is not acceptable. Our society is not fair and just; we must fight to make it so.

What I’m seeing in my community — and quite a few others like mine, comprised of people on the fringes of understanding by the mainstream — is that the anger we feel is being allowed to simmer, to boil over, to burn anything and everything around it. Instead of being honed and focused, used as a tool, it’s being used as a bat to beat down anything we don’t like. Instead of a torch being used to light our path, it’s a conflagration that burns everything around us.

Discussion and disagreement is being actively discouraged. Attempts to find other ways to engage people outside of our communities, or suggestions of other ways to handle things are being shouted down by cries of “tone policing!”, “appeasement politics!” and “fake ally!”. The anger is burning through the system of our discourse, creating a firestorm that sucks the oxygen out of any possibility for debate and collaboration.

I think that this anger is causing us to treat other people very poorly. It’s making us lose sight of the fact that the system we’re fighting against is made up of other people who, like us, just want to be happy and free to pursue their goals. The fact that they’re part of this unjust system, that they may consciously or unconsciously benefit from it, is no fault of theirs any more than our under-privilege is ours. A lot of these people have never been exposed to the concepts that we’re forced to fight against all the time. That’s not willful, malicious ignorance or some kind of character flaw. It’s just a lack of exposure.

We could be teachers and leaders. We want to be treated with compassion and respect, we want people to believe us when we say how systemic and deep the inequality of our culture is. Yet we treat the people who would be receptive to our ideas as some kind of impossibly dense enemy. We treat all requests for clarification as a demand to justify our beliefs. We treat disagreement as oppression, when it’s not. It’s an opportunity to explain our perspectives, to illuminate our experience, to engage with people and bring them to our cause.

I know that many of my friends in minority positions of varying stripes are angry about the hatred their community received just for being who they are. I understand that. But I don’t understand how it’s possibly helpful to treat others with that same intense anger just for being who *they* are. If we want to create a world in which we’re treated equally no matter who we are, it’s very unlikely we’ll do it by burning everyone who tries to engage with us.

Mistakes will be made, of course. Our would-be friends and allies are only human. It will take a long time to relieve them of misconceptions; we’re working against thousands of years’ worth of inertia, in some cases. We must be patient, and we must be compassionate. We’re asking society to undo generations of mistaken thinking and actions based around it. If we hope to have a chance of doing it, it IS our job to lead them to where we are.

I know that this argument will come as tone policing to some. Policing implies that I actually have some power to dictate your tone or silence you, and clearly I don’t. You’re free to express your anger however you see fit, and there’s not a thing I can do to stop you. All I’m doing is asking you to consider the consequences of that expression. How does it get us closer to the world we want to live in? How does it bring people together so that we can each and every one of us be free to be who we are without fear? How does it spread tolerance and compassion?

I have to draw a line in the sand with this. I respect each person to behave in a manner that they see fit, but I can’t engage with a community that lashes out with anger in all directions, towards friend or foe alike. I will continue to work for a world where the systemic injustice we experience is understood by all and undone. But I will do so with compassion and respect for all, no matter what their place in that system might be. And I will expect my friends and allies to do the same.

 

The AFI Top 100 Films: The Godfather Part II (#32)

Entertainment 150The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall
Written by Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay) and Mario Puzo (screenplay, novel)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

When Ryan and I were watching the AFI Top 100, we decided that it would probably be a good idea to save The Godfather Part II for review until we had seen the original. That way we get to see both halves of the story reasonably close to one another and we’re not forced to try and remember all the players and relationships for the sequel, because there are many. It was a good call; when you see this movie right after the original it feels like a natural extension — and completion — of the story.

Here we see the moral degradation of our anti-hero Michael (Pacino) as he maintains and expands the empire of the Corleone family; through flashbacks we see how his father Vito (De Niro) built the Corleone name in the first place. Both men engage in acts of ruthless violence to protect their place in the society they find themselves in, and it’s hard to imagine how their grabs for power could have played any differently. The parallels are striking, and it really serves to highlight the differences between Michael and Vito.

Back at the turn of the century, young Vito Andolini escapes Sicily after his entire family is killed for a slight to the Don committed by his father. He arrives in Ellis Island, is given the name Vito Corleone, and falls into crime as a youth after his meager job at a neighborhood grocery store is taken and given to the nephew of some Don. Through shrewd maneuvering he manages to take out this Don and gain control of the neighborhood. What’s interesting is what happens after that; Vito tries to look out for people who can’t look after themselves. He also goes back to Sicily to get revenge for his family. Even though slights are not forgotten, Vito conducts himself with something of a code — you give him the respect he feels he is due, and he can be a generous and loyal friend.

By contrast, Michael pushes away his friends and allies. The only thing he really understands is working through fear and intimidation. The enemies of the Corleone family multiply from the previous film, grow bolder. Perhaps it’s his outsider’s status or just his natural temperament, but Michael simply doesn’t have the knack for managing people that Vito possessed, and it shows. An assassination attempt early in the film triggers a series of violent retributions both within and outside of the organization. By the end of the war, Michael — like Vito — is victorious, but his mastery comes at a far heavier price.

The ending of The Godfather, Part II is a simple gut-punch that shows us just how far Michael has fallen from the principled youth at the beginning of Part I. The power he wields is absolute, and he has the mind to wield it effectively (if not subtly). But his circle of confidants has shrunken drastically, and the price of that power is something he realizes must be paid.

Michael is an anti-hero done well; he has enough expertise that you have to admire him for what he’s able to pull off. He’s smart and competent, and principled enough that you empathize with him. It clearly hurts him to do what he does, but at the same time the position he’s in demands that he do it. You want nothing more for him than for him to find a way to get out of this with his relationships intact, but there’s simply no way for that to happen. His cold, mean anger is “earned” by the end of the movie — he’s been deeply hurt by various betrayals, and while it pains him to cut himself off from his support network it’s an understandable move.

If anything this movie is even more epic than the original; Vito’s story gives it a weight and scope that definitely enriches the material. Just about everything that made Part I such a feat is present here, and stretched to see what else it can do. It’s a sequel that builds on what’s come before in just about every way — story, technique, the subtlety of the performances. Together, Parts I and II tell a wonderful American epic about the price of power and success, how the struggle to attain the American dream so often results in a hollow, meaningless victory.

I have to recommend that you watch both of these movies, as close together as possible. They’re immense, ponderous, deep and sprawling. But they’re oh so very good. I liked this movie a bit more than Part I, but only because the stories benefit from what’s come before. The work of being connected to the world of the Godfather has already been made; now we can really get our hands dirty, so to speak.

When you see this film and consider what De Niro and Pacino have done since (say, Analyze This or Jack & Jill respectively) you can see why people scream bloody murder; how could minds responsible for these performances possibly think those movies were good ideas? It boggles.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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(Storytelling) The Breath of Life

Myth 150I watched the series finale of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland a few days ago, and I have to say that the ending of it kind of encapsulated what was wrong with the series as a whole. There were a number of surprisingly dark moments but they paled in comparison to the writers’ commitment to making sure that there were almost no lingering consequences to them and the characters who should have been affected most by them didn’t really need to deal with them at all. By the end of the hour, the villain had been vanquished, anything bad that had ever happened to the protagonists had been rectified and “rewarded”, and everyone got to live happily ever after.

It was frustrating. There was a much more interesting and inventive take on Wonderland somewhere inside that show, but it only got to shine infrequently and was immediately snuffed out. I certainly don’t mind the idea of a family-friendly adventure show — in fact, it’s what I was hoping Wonderland would be — but there’s a weight to the series that was sorely missing.

The characters really stood out to me as a central problem. Alice, while portrayed admirably by Sophie Lowe, was pretty much a walking cliche generator about the power of love. The only thing that defined her was her dedication to the cursed genie Cyrus. Her giddy optimism seems completely unmoored from her experiences within the series; when we first meet her, she’s been mentally beaten down in an insane asylum, and is just about to admit that her time in Wonderland is completely made up. Throughout the series, we find out that Alice’s relationship with her father has suffered mightily, and she’s been all but replaced by a new stepmother and sister in the meantime. These are character-defining tragedies, but we can’t trace the Alice of the series back to what we knew of her before her latest stint in Wonderland.

The Knave of Hearts, Alice’s stalwart companion in this adventure, doesn’t fare much better. Throughout the series we learn that he left the fairy-tale realm of Sherwood Forest with a girl named Anastasia because of her disapproving mother. They live a hard-scrabble existence in Wonderland before Anastasia is seduced by the Red King while attempting to steal his jewels. She promptly abandons him, marries into royalty and becomes the Red Queen. There’s little to make us understand why she would do this, and why she would eventually change her mind on her wedding night. The Knave, so heartbroken by the betrayal, asks for his heart to be removed by the Red King’s mother (?). Then he goes on about his business before breaking Alice out of the asylum.

The Knave is supposed to be a cynic/pragmatist, but there’s clearly still a beating heart underneath that. He wants to do the right thing, and it’s clear that cynicism is a bad defense mechanism that never really fit. But if any semblance of emotion was literally ripped out of his chest before the events in the series takes place, where does this morality come from? Is there something beyond emotion that provides a person with a sense of right and wrong?

This could be an interesting thing to play around with, but Wonderland never does. The Knave goes from a cynical foil for Alice to a love-lorn romantic to little more than a plot device over the course of the series; the more we learn about him, the less clearly defined his character.

The others in the series — villain-turned-ally Red Queen/Anastasia, super-villain Jafar, and living MacGuffin Cyrus — don’t fare much better. We’re given a series of events that justifies what each of these characters want, but we have little sense of why they want it other than being implicitly asked to buy that they’re supposed to. We know what they want, what they need to do to get it, but no idea who these people are really.

But it’s not for lack of trying, I suppose — the writers try hard to make sure their characters are distinct, that their stories are told functionally well. It makes me wonder what exactly is missing with Wonderland’s characters, why they don’t feel like living, breathing people.

That was a question that gives me pause; in general, what do you look for in characters to make them feel whole? For me, it’s got to be the stuff in the margins — little things that point to deeper character traits, that make those characteristics feel ingrained, almost subconscious. Let’s say that the Knave is a bit of packrat because being surrounded by a lot of stuff comforts him; he spent a good bit of time poor with Anastasia, and anything that reminds him of that reminds him of how sucky it was and that he lost the love of his life. Maybe there’s some secret bit of him that believes if he accumulates a lot of wealth he just might be able to win her back. Or, say, Alice has a very hard time being alone, or being accused of lying is one of those things that will send her off to a rage. Maybe she has a hard time opening up to strangers because of her experiences with her stepmother.

We, as people, contain multitudes of ideas and ideals. We’ve been touched by so many different things that influence us. It makes sense for habits, conscious and otherwise, to arise from these influences. When a character can be boiled down to one trait only, that character won’t be interesting enough to carry a serialized TV series, shortened season or no. The fairy-tale characters of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland should probably be steamlined, heightened into archetypes, sure — but when you have 13 hours to tell your story there’s got to be room for a little more texture in there.

As it stood, the characters seemed relatively inert, bouncing from event to event with little in the way of an internal life to influence their trajectories. As a result, the characters felt like pieces being moved on a chessboard; while the game being played here might be interesting in a thought exercise kind of way, there just wasn’t much of an emotional hook to really get me to settle in.

The lesson to be learned here is that you need to make your characters as real as you can with the space you’re given. If you’re telling, say, a 30-minute story in an anthology episode or something, that’s one thing. Not a lot of real estate for detail, so you strip the character down to their essentials. But if you have a lot of time with a character, it really helps for us to slow down and take a look at them away from the story, to give them texture and room to breathe. Once we understand why characters relate to certain ideals in the way they do, we engage with them more deeply. When we understand what they want and why they want it, we want it for them much more readily.

But for now, I’ll open up the floor: when do you notice yourself becoming really invested in a character? What are some of your characterization pet peeves?

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in Reviews, Television, Writing

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Godfather (#3)

Entertainment 150The Godfather (1972)
Starring Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and James Caan
Written by Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay) and Mario Puzo (screenplay, novel)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I’ve become fascinated with stories of regular people becoming extraordinarily bad ones. I’m not talking about the “fairy tales from a villain’s perspective” story that have become a bit of a thing; I’m talking about stories like Breaking Bad, that take a beaten-down high-school chemistry teacher, gives him a cancer diagnosis and an undiscovered streak of hubris, and watches him explode into a brief, shining star of a meth kingpin. These stories speak to the capacity for evil within us all, and remind us that all it takes are a few wrong choices and circumstances to turn us into nasty people.

I’d like to think that a lot of our preoccupation with the anti-hero in modern pop culture can be traced back to The Godfather, one of those cultural touchstones that everyone knows about it even if they haven’t seen it. Michael Corleone blazed the trail for Walter White in a lot of ways, starting out as a Marine and outsider of the Family and ending up ruthlessly seizing control of the organized crime scene. This movie shows us how he got there — through the continual threat to himself and his family.

But it’s not just the threat to the Corleone Family that molds Michael into the man he eventually becomes, and it’s not just being threatened that makes monsters out of any man. It’s the nature of the threat and the ultimate way we decide to deal with it. Sitting in on Mafia meetings, Michael soon learns that the confrontation they’re in is one of those that will only end in someone’s demise. Once it’s been reduced to an “us vs. them” scenario, survival becomes the only thing that matters. And Michael and everyone around him will try to do that at any cost.

What makes Michael’s journey from Marine to mob boss so compelling is that he does these horrible things for fairly understandable reasons. There’s a genuine love for his family within him, even knowing who they are and what they do. When they’re threatened he doesn’t retaliate out of malice or a spirit of vengeance — it’s merely the most expedient way to eliminate a mortal threat.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a military man that Michael proves to be so good at strategizing the Corleone family’s escape from complete ruin. A ruthlessly tactical mind reveals itself in the face of this adversity, and he’s all too happy to use it to not only save their place at the table, but grab a better one when the opportunity presents itself.

Who doesn’t love the discovery of a hidden talent? I’m not sure what Michael’s prospects would have been if he hadn’t gotten involved, but chances are quite good that he wouldn’t have been nearly as feared or respected doing anything else. That combination of regard and wariness that is afforded to the very powerful is a heady temptation; it’s no wonder that he fell under its spell.

Of course, the movie does an incredible job of stitching an epic out of a number of low-key moments. It’s grounded in the realism of 70s cinema, and that makes the iconic scenes feel natural and lived-in. There’s a reason that so many people in organized crime (apparently) idolize this movie — there’s a reason the folks on, say, The Sopranos quote and reference it as religiously as the Bible. It’s a romanticized look at an awful profession, grounded just enough that anyone can insert themselves into Michael’s shoes.

The cinematography, the direction, the acting — all of it’s perfectly placed. It serves as a template for just about every mob movie or series that comes after it. The importance of this movie to the cultural landscape simply can’t be understated. You can’t touch the legacy of The Godfather.

But for me, it keeps coming back to Michael Corleone and the fact that he was doomed to sink towards his worst impulses the moment he stepped into his sister’s wedding. Even though The Godfather takes great pains to paint the Corleone family as the “good” bad guys, they’re still unquestionably bad — and it’s important to note that Michael’s fall is a tragedy to be pitied, not an arc to emulate.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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Personal: Life After Crunch Time

Gaming 150There wasn’t a Friday Fiction last week because a) my full-time job has been pretty demanding this past week and, b) any free time I had was devoted to putting the finishing touched on my Pathfinder game. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I wanted to do, and in the end making sure that the game was ready had to be my one big hobby project for most of the week.

If you’re not familiar with Pathfinder, it’s basically Dungeons and Dragons with some rules tweaks. D+D 3rd ed. was a very popular game, and when Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast/TSR decided to come out with a drastically revamped 4th ed., people balked. The new edition was more like a video game than a traditional table-top role-playing game; word around the table was that the powers that be wanted to make a rules system that could work through every type of gaming platform — tabletop, miniatures, video games. For some reason TSR decided to bail on the idea fairly early in, but 4th ed. was already a thing so….good job there, guys.

Pathfinder basically took the ball and ran with it, publishing a core rulebook that promised to make a lot of the problems with 3rd ed. (and there WERE problems) a bit more palatable while publishing new content including adventures and settings. I’m not sure where it sits on the popularity scale in general, but among my (admittedly small) circle of friends it is THE de facto fantasy RPG. You want medieval magical fantasy? You play Pathfinder.

I’m running a campaign that’s been going for a little over two years now, and the characters are getting fairly advanced — around 9th level or so. This means all the usual beginner’s stuff won’t represent much of a challenge for them; they can pretty much punch goblins and skeletons and the like without breaking a sweat. The demands of their abilities and the demands of the story means that the stakes have to be raised continuously — but not too much, or else you’ll end up with dead player characters before the story’s finished.

With my particular story the PCs have sailed across an ocean that’s been…corrupted by outside chaotic influences. As far as anyone knows, no one has been able to travel by ocean for over a hundred years, but they’ve managed it while sampling just some of the horrors that are out there in the open water. They’ve done this to get to an island where they believe a dimensional portal has been constructed, allowing demons and…other, more terrible things to enter into the world. One person in their group, a paladin named Alexander, had gone as part of a scouting party two months before and hasn’t been heard since. They have reason to believe he’s in a bad way.

On getting to the island, I wanted to give my players an immediate and memorable welcome — but this isn’t easy when you’re dealing with 9th-level players being backed by an entire squadron of paladins. Their entire purpose in life is to hunt down evil creatures and destroy them, and they have an astonishing array of abilities that lets them do just that. I needed to find a way to give the upcoming skirmish a proper scope while still making sure it’s challenging and fun for the players.

I’ve learned a few things after running the game I wrote last week; that it’s really OK to ‘fudge’ or simplify rolls that don’t directly involve player characters, that the less you have to worry about moving pieces the better, and accuracy will be trumped by great, exciting description every time. Pathfinder is a system that tries to construct rules geared towards a balanced, repeatable result. While that’s appreciated by a lot of people, I’m sure, the work it takes to get that result really disrupts game flow and can suck the life out of a game at the precise moment it should be at its most exciting — during combat. I’ll be working on other skirmishes of that scope (and bigger) as the players move closer to their objective. Hopefully they’ll get better as they go along.

In the meantime, the crush of deadlines has subsided for a time and I find myself with a bit more breathing room. I hope to put the time to good use; I’ll make sure that I write my blog entries a bit early so I can polish them a bit more before posting, and I’ll begin writing one short story and editing another. Here and there, as ideas come to me, I’ll be putting together the next Pathfinder session. I know that I have a good story in there, but I’m mostly concerned about being able to tell it in the best possible way.

Diet and exercise has gone about how they usually do — ups and downs. But it’s still at the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to cook in as much as possible. There are a few more trips to the store before I’d feel comfortable cooking off the top of my head one lazy Sunday afternoon, but I’m getting there.

So, those are my goals for the week: consistent writing, eating in, some sort of exercise every day. What are yours?

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in Diet and Exercise, RPGs, Self-Reflection

 

The AFI Top 100 Films: Gone With The Wind (#4)

Entertainment 150Gone With The Wind (1939)
Starring Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard
Written by Sidney Howard (screenplay) and Margaret Mitchell (novel)
Directed by Victor Fleming

When I was but a wee leveret in the wilds of Baltimore City, I loved Gone With The Wind. This was a time before it (or anything) was readily available, so I waited for it to air on TNT every year. I’d watch it in two parts on weeknights, then in its entirety the following Sunday evening. It was something of a tradition for me. I got to the point where I knew entire stretches of the movie by heart. I was that big of a fan.

I was really looking forward to seeing it as part of the AFI Top 100; it had been at least ten years since I watched it, even though I had seen it at least a dozen times. There’s always a sense of trepidation when you revisit a fond memory from your childhood. Does the story hold up as well as you thought it did? What little details do you notice now that flew over your head when you were younger? I know a lot more about slavery and the curious way Hollywood has approached the subject than I did back then; just how cringe-inducing would seemingly innocuous details seem to me now?

The answer is very. Gone With The Wind is a deeply problematic film, and not just because of the way it asks us to think of slavery as “not that bad”. True, it engages in a bit of revisionist history, painting the antebellum South as something of an American Eden. But the issues go deeper than that, right down to the core of the story and its heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. I had always gone with the popular opinion of Scarlett — she was a Southern spitfire, full of flint and steel, able to take whatever came her way and make the best of it. But on watching the film this time, I have to say that I think she’s a sociopath.

The movie is roughly four hours long, and a LOT happens in it, but the basic through-line is this. Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) is one of the daughters of a wealthy Irish landowner in the South. Right around the time the Civil War is heating up, she’s set her sights on dashing Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes (Howard). However, Ashley loves her neighbor Melanie (de Havilland) and they agree to get married just before every able-bodied man is called to fight. Through the troubled years of open rebellion, loss and reconstruction, Scarlett tries to survive, woo Ashley and resist the charms of scoundrel Rhett Butler (Gable). It’s a sweeping epic of a story with wonderful setpieces and so many memorable scenes. Rhett is a singular type of hero, complicated and contradictory, and you can’t help but feel that he should be throwing his affections after a better person than Scarlett.

Throughout her life, Scarlett manipulates and cajoles men into doing what she wants them to do; she marries twice not for love but to spite someone and propel herself into a better financial position respectively, and she tries to get Ashley to run away with her while her entire family is depending on her and Melanie is recuperating from an extremely difficult birthing and a harrowing trip from Atlanta back to the O’Hara’s plantation. She has disdain for just about anyone that she doesn’t have a use for and only thinks of them once they can do something for her. Simply put, she is the worst.

It’s actually a testament to the great charisma of Vivian Leigh that the character can be so reprehensible yet still engrossing. You find yourself caught up in her struggle despite her thoroughly amoral behavior, even if it’s because you hope the people she’s with make it through all right. Scarlett is caught between her dream of a romanticized life (Ashley) and the kind of life that she brings to herself through her actions (Rhett), yet both options feel simply too good for her; there are times where you really wonder if she’s even capable of love, or if her feelings for Ashley are some sort of self-serving reflex, or a passing desire taken root and amplified because it couldn’t be fulfilled.

I know it seems like I’m coming across really harshly with Scarlett, but really…her lack of empathy knows no bounds. She whips a horse to death outside of Tara and feels not the slightest bit of remorse, immediately moving on to the house. When Melanie goes into labor during the fall of Atlanta, all she can think about is how inconvenient it is for her and her plans to get out of the city. She volunteers at a veteran’s hospital just to pass the time, and pretty much bolts as soon as she gets her fill. Later, she goes back to try and get the doctor to preside over Melanie’s birth, but only so that she can get it over with and leave the city before Sherman arrives. Everything is only considered by how much it affects her; she is thoroughly, consistently selfish. It’s astonishing.

And her myopic, self-centered view of the world permeates the rest of the movie. Scarlett’s way of life is seen as idyllic, and the Northern interlopers who flood the sacked and razed land are only out to make a quick buck, hoodwinking naive and recently-freed slaves into serving their interests. The slaves themselves are either stupid and indolent (Prissy, as played by Butterfly McQueen), slow but completely content to serve their masters (field overseer Big Sam, as played by Everett Brown) or a caustic but doting servant (Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy — the role that made her the first African-American Oscar winner). There are some scenes that are shocking in their treatment of black people as little more than props — particularly one where a bunch of little girls are waving palm fronds over a bunch of sleeping belles.

I realize when Gone With The Wind was made; in 1939, Hattie McDaniel couldn’t actually pretend the premiere in Atlanta due to the Jim Crow laws of the time. She couldn’t sit with the rest of her castmates during the Oscar ceremony where she won for Best Supporting Actress. She couldn’t even be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery upon her death more than a decade later because they wouldn’t accept black bodies. In a roundabout way, the movie actually helped galvanize the black community into speaking up about its representation (and treatment) in the entertainment industry and the whitewashing of history. In truly American fashion, Gone With The Wind provided a mixed blessing by being so tone-deaf about its subject matter.

But it’s important to point out the image it bolstered at the time and how it informed the perception of the South for decades afterward. It holds up an idyllic, false image of a really ugly period of American history, and it holds up Scarlett O’Hara as its champion. She’s supposed to be the shining virtue of Southern pride — resourceful, proud and determined. But to me, she’s just cold, manipulative and selfish.

I wish I could simply take the movie for what it is — a romantic epic that tells a great love story, populated with indelible characters and great dialogue. Gone With The Wind is certainly that. But I think we’re meant to identify with — maybe even admire — Scarlett, and that’s just asking too much. The movie does what it set out to do exceedingly well, and Clark Gable gives one of the all-time great performances for a dashing romantic lead. But the heart of the movie is rotten, there’s simply no way around that. Once you realize that, the rot pervades everything in it.

Still, I highly recommend that you see Gone With The Wind. For better or worse, it’s a tremendous piece of our cinematic history. Just don’t confuse it for our actual history; you may end up coming away with the entirely wrong lessons.

 

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Personal Post: Blinders

Self Improvement 150One of the things that I’ve realized about myself is that I don’t have a particularly vast reserve of willpower or stamina when it comes to projects. About half the time I feel comfortable in my abilities to get things done, and I’ll develop a project plan with a schedule and milestones and everything. I manage to keep this up for a few days before I inevitably fall behind because I’m trying to do too many things at once or I just haven’t predicted the correct amount of energy for a particular thing that needs to be done. The deadlines get missed, the projects get scrapped, and I’m surrounded by a mess of broken plans for quite some time.

I realize that coping with depression means that I’m never going to be able to be “on” all the time. My brain simply doesn’t work that way. When I feel myself getting ‘depleted’ for lack of a better word, it just makes things worse to push myself on beyond my abilities. I have to put down the burdens I’ve taken on, give myself space to rest and recuperate, and pick up again as I feel able. While this might work on a personal level, it doesn’t quite cut the mustard for the outside world, with its hard deadlines and expectations.

Most of what I do, personal-goalwise, is trying to interface my own internal process with that of the outside world. I really want to work in a way that’s efficient and consistent, so people know what they’re getting with me. I want to be the kind of person that can write three blog posts a week here at the Writing Desk, two posts a month at [adjective][species], run a Pathfinder game twice a month and cough up a publishable short story at least once a month. This, in addition to a full-time job, an ambition to cook in more often than I eat out, a goal to exercise at least thirty minutes three times a week and any social engagements that I’ve going on.

It’s a lot to do. And it’s all stuff I want to do, very badly. Still, it’s work, and work takes effort — moreso for me than it should. I’ll admit freely that I never really learned how to work hard when I was a kid; schoolwork came easily to me and I never learned how to beat my head against a wall until it came down. It’s one of the lessons I really wish I had had.

Still, all that’s to be done is deal with what’s in front of me. I’ve been trying to be very disciplined about the exercise first, and the writing second. I haven’t been writing exactly every day, but a lot more often than I have been. I’ve been reading more than I have in ages, and swirling the ideas and pieces of story and storytelling in my head quite a bit. It hasn’t added up to productivity yet, but it’s getting there.

I’ll keep pushing myself as hard as I can for as long as I can, with the understanding that the day will come when I need to take a few days’ rest. For now I’ll just aim to be as productive and efficient as I can.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2014 in Reading, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

Friday Fiction: The Thin Man (Sleepwalkers)

Writing 150(I wanted to get away from Abigail for a moment and explore the story of someone else. I think the setting needs a lot of work; the magic and tone have yet to feel really grounded, though the characters are slowly but surely taking shape. I like the idea of moving fairy-tale creatures into the hard world of the urban center, but I’ve been so far removed from it I’m not sure if it feels authentic or if I come off as an interloper making my best approximation. This is very first draft-y, a proof of concept for the kind of scenes I’d like to have in an eventual novel of this. 

The Thin Man is based roughly on Eshu — both the African trickster god and the kith from Changeling: the Dreaming.)

Even though he walked down the street like he owned it, everyone on the block new the thin man had no business there. He floated down the cracked sidewalk as if those shined brown oxfords never touched the ground. His suit cut far too clean and sharp a silhouette. His dark skin shined under the street lights, and he was surrounded by a sweet smell, an aroma of coconut and cinnamon. He shared nothing in common with the usual people hunched over the marble steps in front of packed rowhomes. They sagged beneath the weight of their baggy clothes. They dragged their boots through the ever-present trash in the gutters. They smelled like Olde English and blunts.

He always seemed to be directly under a street light whenever anyone looked at him. The halogen bulb made him glow, outlined his features clearly enough that you could make him out a block away. The thin man in his shined shoes and tailored suit and precise, squared-off haircut held an expensive-looking phone in his hand. His fingers were long and thin and well-manicured.

Normally the men on the street would have swarmed this fool the moment he stepped into the neighborhood. They would have ruffled his clothing, threw him into the gutter, relieved him of his wallet and phone. But for some reason they couldn’t quite place they left him alone. They would look at him, think about rolling him, and then there would be something about him that gave them a bad feeling. It kept them away from those pools of light he stood in. They stayed stooped in the shadows and mumbled.

If they had thought about the voodoo priests down south, or the Sufi who danced through Turkish markets, or the old man who sat on a stump and told stories down by the river; if they had looked at him with their back facing the nearest library and their feet pointed in the direction of the nearest blues hall; if they had smoked a little bit more and talked a little bit less, they would have seen what kept them away. It was a set of eyes too large for the human head, sharp and clear and as purple as void. It was ears that were long and pointed like daggers, cutting through words he heard until they bled. It was the way his features were sharp and angular, put together all wrong but in such a way that they couldn’t come together any other way. They would know he was not one of them, and not just because of his suit.

The thin man himself walked down the street, glancing at his phone, looking up to double-check its findings. The street was dark and mostly deserted. Half of the rowhouses were boarded up, their marble stairs dirtied with soot and grime. The street lights were busted or burned out everywhere he wasn’t, an impossible fact he took for granted. He briefly wondered what he could do to revitalize this place. Despite appearances, it wouldn’t take much — maybe a new business here or there, a couple of gentrified residences. A graffiti artist painting a mural, a community garden. That might do nicely.

But first he had to find the kid. The app told him that the child was close, and that he was close to having his Grand Dream. It was not a good one, if the lights were any indication. The next block over, he could see tendrils of smoke curling around traffic signs, railings, cars. Alarms were going off, and the halogen bulbs sputtered and died. In a few minutes, he supposed, neighbors sleeping in their beds would be seized by a powerful nightmare.

The man quickly walked down the street, unbothered by the cowed and hostile stares he received from the people around him. One more glance at his phone told him that the kid was in the house right in front of him, halfway down the block. He stopped and turned. The house’s porch light, long sinced burned out, turned on to illuminate him. From the cracks between the walls, dark and shadowy tentacles writhed around the building. There was no doubt about it. This was the place.

He looked around and picked up the lower half of a broken bottle, setting it down in front of him. It took a little bit more doing to find a whole bottle, but he managed it and set it just behind the broken one, closer to the rowhome. Then, a 2-liter plastic bottle he found in the gutter. He stacked these, one behind the other, shortest to tallest, then placed a hand on the top of the bottle. He felt it cut into his skin, a small trickle of blood running down the side.

He put his hand on top of the next bottle, then the next, leaving a small red print on the cap. Then, just a little higher behind the 2-liter, he placed his hand on nothing at all. There appeared a small red plane of light, about the size of a two-by-four. Higher still, another lit rectangle, and another, all the way up to the house’s second-story window.

The thin man climbed the stairs he had made, looking down towards the porch light. It turned off as soon as his feet left the ground, bathing him in darkness. If anyone were to look his way, they’d see a man in a suit walking on thin air. The impossibility of the magic in the eyes of the uninitiated would dispel it, and he’d collapse the twenty feet or so to hard concrete. And that simply wouldn’t do when he was trying to save a small child from himself.

Inside the window, he saw a child’s bedroom with no one in it but a large, hulking monster. It was black all over, enormous and hunched under the ceiling, covered in a constantly-writhing mass of little black tentacles. It slid its glowing red eyes around the room, then towards the window. The man smiled. Classic bogeyman. Powerful, but easy to deal with if you knew how.

He pulled a buzzer from his pocket and stuck it to the outside wall. The window opened once he pushed the button. As he climbed in to the kid’s bedroom he pulled out a small laser pointer, flicked it on, and turned it on the monster.

The effect was immediate and dramatic; the room lit up in a flash, as bright as daylight. The monster’s surprised expression instantaneously burned into the wall around the closet door it had emerged from, its tentacles raised as if in surrender. The horrific shriek was cut off once it was slammed back from this world and into the next, leaving behind nothing but its shadow. The residue was crude and roughly drawn, a child’s crayon painting of a monster. The man winced. He would need to clean that off. But first, he needed to make sure the kid was all right.

He settled down on his knees, then hunched over as low as he could to peek under the bed. The kid was there all right, wide-eyed and panting. He was right on the cusp of his Dream, the traumatic and wonderful incident where his true nature would awaken and he would claim his birthright as a Sleepwalker.

“Hello,” the thin man said, smiling as he felt the magic of the kid’s transformation wash over him. His suit faded to reveal a lavender thawb under a bisht as richly purple as a desert sky.

“Hi,” the kid said, the word short and panted through his breath.

“Just breathe. It’s going to be OK.” The man felt his eyes change, enlarging and taking on an almond-shape. The iris, pupil and sclera merged into a solid, jeweled purple. “I’m here now.”

The kid’s own eyes widened. Horns erupted from his forehead, and his legs squirmed as they grew fur. “Who…who are you?”

“I’m your Dreamcatcher,” the thin man said, and closed his eyes as the kid erupted into his new life.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Sleepwalkers, Writing

 

The AFI Top 100 Films: Lawrence of Arabia (#5)

Entertainment 150Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean

Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? No? Well then, you should probably put down the Internet and go watch it as soon as possible. Because it’s the internet, this review will be waiting for you when you come back (though it might be a little defaced). Go forth, and educate yourself!

(Don’t read this part until you’ve returned in about five hours.)

Wasn’t that a *pretty* movie? With a very, VERY pretty main character? Full admission — I didn’t actually see a movie with Peter O’Toole in it until Venus, so it was quite shocking to know that he was pretty much a fairy sidhe back in the 60s. It was almost as bad as finding out that Frank Langella oozed jellicle-cat charm in The Seven Chairs.

Hello, you handsome man.

Hello, you handsome man (on the right, of course).

Peter O’Toole brightens up the desert as T.E. Lawrence, an actual British army soldier who embedded himself with Arabian allies to take on the Turks during World War I. Lawrence begins his career as something of a misfit, disregarding authority and his colleagues alike until he’s sent on what’s essentially a diplomatic mission to assess the prospects of a British ally aiming to claim the Arabian peninsula for himself and his kin. Once out in the field, Lawrence finds a wily yet effective manner that allows him to take whatever comes his way and use it to his full advantage. There’s a surprising amount of grit in him, too; when it really counts, he digs deep to find a reserve of it so he can do what’s essentially impossible. It’s through these feats that he gains the respect of his Arabian hosts and eventually comes to be considered one of them.

As Lawrence navigates the various groups he finds in the desert, he discovers a number of tribes that really don’t get along all that well. For different reasons they’ve been rumbling with each other for a very long time, and it’s only under his urging that they put aside their differences to combat the greater threat of the Turks. Maybe it’s for this reason (and subsequent military successes) that he comes to think of himself as something of a big deal for these guys. When he comes back to his British command post, it’s in traditional Arabian garb instead of his British uniform. The conversation he has with his superiors makes it clear that he’s flipped, and he’s representing the interests of the Arabians more than his home country’s.

When he returns to the warfront he launches a number of guerilla attacks on the Turks. The attacks aren’t without their toll, and one particularly bad episode leaves Lawrence fundamentally shaken. He and a lieutenant are captured by the enemy and beaten, possibly molested. After that point, much of the fight has gone out of him — it’s only at the insistent urging of an ally that he pushes on to the big prize of Damascus. Once British interests are fulfilled and it’s clear that the Arabians may know how to take a city but no idea how to keep one, Lawrence is dispatched back to England. His destiny, for all intents and purposes, has been fulfilled.

But what kind of destiny is that? Lawrence enters into the war a confident man just discovering the singular he abilities he possesses for success in it. When he leaves, he’s disillusioned, hollowed out and purged of any desire to touch those parts of himself again. There are a couple of episodes that force him to directly confront the violence of war, and both of these leave him disturbed. Interestingly, it’s not because he finds that violence distasteful — it’s because he loves it far too much.

The movie touches on a few things that are really fascinating, but doesn’t get too deeply involved with them. Was Lawrence something of a sado-masochist? There are a few details in the film that establish a through-line suggesting so. How did his capture and torture change him? What exactly happened there? He was already beginning to tire of the toll that war takes on a person, but that single experience actually broke him in a very real way. I wish we could have explored that fallout in greater depth.

But this isn’t really that kind of movie. It’s an epic of grand scale, full of massive set-pieces and intense, fascinating episodes that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other movie. This is the very first film that presents the desert as a thing of beauty — a harsh, austere one, but a beautiful landscape nonetheless. It offers us glimpses into the mindset of the people who call this place home, the various cultures that live there, the reasons why there hasn’t been a unified Arabia. What I find most impressive is that it does this without judgement or exoticization. The Arabians that Lawrence meets are flesh-and-blood people, not noble savages or Godless heathens. They have reasons for doing the things they do, an established perspective, and a code that they do their best to live by. In these highly-politicized times, it’s a really great thing to see.

Director David Lean clearly knows how to establish a unique, lived-in world. His previous entries on this list (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago) are certainly a testament to that. Lawrence of Arabia is the most visually-striking of the three, because he sees how such a barren world can be attractive, worth fighting for — and he shows it to his audience quite well.

Ultimately, Lawrence is disappointed in the outcome of his Arabian adventure precisely because these people are just like everyone else. They can be selfish, stubborn and uncompromising. It’s the very same traits that set him apart from his British colleagues, only manifested in a different way. I have a feeling that perhaps he thought there would be the chance to do something special during his travels through the peninsula; when his war turned out to be pretty much like the other war he left behind, that really took the wind out of him.

But of course, my interest in the story lies with its people; this isn’t necessarily where Lawrence of Arabia shines. It is one of the finest (if not THE finest) epics put to film, set in a region that really sets it apart from anything else. It’s definitely worth seeing, for its cinematography and score for nothing else. Though O’Toole, Guinness and Sharif put in wonderful, magnetic performances, elevating the writing through their sheer charisma. Even though it doesn’t quite go to the places I’d really love to see, Lawrence of Arabia takes me to places I’d never be otherwise.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

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The First Quarter (b. 1/2014 – d. 3/2014)

Writing 150I’m sure today there are going to be a lot of blog posts from alternate universes where people say the exact opposite of the things they normally stand for, and that’s fine. Major internet companies have actually gotten really clever with their April Fool’s Day pranks, and I’m looking forward to seeing and sharing the best ones. I have a bit of a tin ear for pranks myself, though — I either come across as too pointed and/or mean or too strange to evoke anything other than confusion. I’ll leave the actual pranking to the experts until I come up with something awesome enough to pull off. You’ll simply have to put up with earnest navel-gazing from me today instead.

The first three months of 2014 are in the record books, and I haven’t really done a whole hell of a lot with them to be honest. I’ve been struggling in the quicksand of more ambition and less willpower for some time now, and my scattershot approach to my goals has been my undoing. At the time of this writing, I haven’t finished any short stories so far this year; I’ve run two or three Pathfinder games; and I haven’t been updating the blog as often as I should (three times a week). I’m saying this not to rub my face in my failure or anything — I just want to take stock of how far away my productivity has been from my goals.

So what gives? Pretty sure it’s the same problem as always — making plans to do something is not the same thing as actually doing something. When the appointed time comes to work on my game, or a short story, or a blog entry, or exercise, or eat well, there’s the crushing weight of Resistance aiming to stop me from doing the things I know I should be doing. Work has been too exhausting, and our TiVo has piled up, so it’d be easier to nuke a dinner and catch up on a TV show or two. Or I’ll actually write something and hate what I’ve done, scrapping it as soon as I’ve taken a look at it. Or the fear of the blank page consumes me to the point that I simply give and read what someone else has written instead.

On a high level, I’ve come up with a number of solutions for this. The difficulty arises when I’m trying to tie that mindset to individual, small moments. My toolbox for combating fatigue or fear or apathy in the moment is astonishingly bare, and that’s something I’ll need to deal with.

I need to turn my home into a place where productivity and creativity is welcome and expected. I’ve been trying to change my personal space so that it’s more comfortable and I’ll actually want to sit down there and bang something out; that means clearing clutter, making sure there’s a system in place so that clutter doesn’t appear again, making sure that my computer desk has the peripheries needed to make sure I have as few excuses as possible to write.

Progress is there, but it’s slow. I realize that in a very big way I’m going around in circles, identifying the problem, putting a solution in place, failing again and again. And perhaps I’m simply too close to the situation to see what’s really going on. Either way, it’s very frustrating to feel that need to write so strongly that I can’t turn it off, but not strongly enough to push through all the obstacles in my way.

At any rate, I’ve fallen off the wagon for the month of March, and now it’s time to get back on again. Hopefully I can stick to the plan a bit more closely and develop more discipline so that it’ll be a while before I have to set things down again. I’d like to write two short stories this month, make sure there’s a lot on the Writing Desk for you nice folks to read, have my Pathfinder game sketched out well in advance and work on clearing away distractions and obstacles to writing regularly, eating healthy and exercising. This month, it’s back to basics. I’m rededicating myself to the things I find important. Again.