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Category Archives: Better Living Through Stories

(Review) The Shame Locked Away in Giovanni’s Room

Reading 150The Paris in James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room is a kind of hell in which desperate men step on each other to climb out of the hole they’re in, never realizing it’s possible to help lift one another out of their predicament. Fear motivates everyone; they’re afraid of anyone finding out who they really are before they can, but they also need somewhere they belong. So they draw people just close enough to be used, and then cut them as soon as that need has been fulfilled. That fulfillment doesn’t last long, though, and it’s not too long before they need something else again — companionship, money, distraction. David, the protagonist, enters this scene as an unrooted American trying to find himself. What he discovers is someone whose fear overrides his capacity to love, with disastrous consequences.

David meets Giovanni, the bartender at a gay bar in Paris, as he’s asking an older acquaintance for money. Jacques hits on the mysterious Italian and strikes out; David manages to strike up a friendly if challenging conversation. Conversations leads to dinner and drinks, which leads to sex; David, with nowhere else to go, moves into the waiter’s small room where they talk and have sex all summer. Eventually, David’s girlfriend Hella announces that she’ll be coming back to Paris after their “trial separation” and he’s faced with a choice — does he fall in with the expected path to adulthood, with marriage and children? Or does he break things off with Hella to continue his relationship with Giovanni? Complicating matters is the fact that Giovanni loses his job in the gay bar where he works after the owner makes one too many passes at him.

Throughout the novel, David sees people as a means to an end; they can provide him with something that buys him more time to figure out what he wants and who he is. Jacques, the old gay man he leans on for money, is someone that David doesn’t like or respect — and he makes it clear that he thinks the feeling is mutual. However, he exploits Jacques’ sense of shame to get the money he needs to remain. His relationship to Giovanni is built on that same impulse. He feels a physical lust and confused attraction that he doesn’t know what to do with; the poor Italian is there to ease that tension, so David uses him. Later, when faced with the prospect of Hella’s return, he hooks up with a distant acquaintance just to prove to himself he’s still attracted to women. His partner, Sue, realizes she’s been used at the same time she makes a few hesitating attempts to actually connect with him. The fear of being responsible for someone else’s happiness is just as much a reason that David distances himself from Giovanni as the fear of committing to an alternative sexuality.

What’s most interesting to me about Giovanni’s Room is how sensitively it deals with David’s bisexuality as one piece of the character’s larger issue — his inability be open and honest with himself. Giovanni isn’t David’s first homosexual encounter; as a kid, he slept with a friend that he then bullied in order to hide his guilt. He also overhears an argument between his father (who is prone to drinking) and his aunt where his dad says that he just wants David to be a “real man”. Unable to work out for himself what that is, David begins drinking himself.

baldwin quoteWe see how things like abuse and neglect are internalized by the victims of it, and how that expresses in a cycle of perpetuation eventually. David was never taught how to be reflective, how to cope with hard truths, how to anticipate and manage consequences. He only knows how to run away from discomfort — into the bottle, or the arms of someone who can make him feel good, or a new city full of distractions.

The culture he falls in with is populated with people who have no idea how to rectify that, because they’re running too. Wealthy, established men run away from the pressures of having a high status in a society that would not accept them for who they really are; their shame is assuaged by one-night stands and brief, tumultuous relationships with broke younger men who need a job or a place to stay. Each partner secretly hates themselves for what they’re doing, and resents the other for taking advantage of their own vulnerabilities; it’s an environment where the basic interpersonal relationship is built on competition, not cooperation. Each partner is looking to get the most out of the relationship while putting in the least amount of work.

This underworld, full of men who want everyone to look at them admiringly but are unable to even look at themselves, encourages the worst impulses in people like David and ruins anyone attempting to be vulnerable and sincere. Even those rare moments of self-reflection are accompanied by a resignation that these men are trapped this way; any attempt to live honestly would likely end with a very long and painful fall.

The tragedy here is that so many people end up being warped and twisted in the most delicate and dangerous periods of their lives. Unable to navigate their own strange feelings, the only community they have shows them that sublimation and distraction is as good as it gets — there’s no reconciliation to be found. Society’s disrespect for their “particular tastes” becomes personal disrespect, and their behavior stems from that. Since everyone in the scene is despicable, it excuses all manner of similar actions.

So many novels about minority experiences in a particular place or time in history share this fundamental trait; the protagonist simply cannot make peace with themselves because society refuses to provide the basic respect needed to see themselves as someone worthy of that stillness. And so many novels project that this fundamental sociological rejection leads to anti-social behavior — murder, sociopathy, bitter solitude, misanthropy. This underscores the need for us to belong somewhere, to have communities that support and enrich us. But it also provides the blueprint for how institutional injustice curdles within the victims who endure it until self-hatred — and selfish, amoral behavior — oozes from our pores.

Giovanni’s Room is another cautionary tale in this vein. The closing moments of the novel find David wandering the streets of southern France all alone, imagining the miserable consequences he feels personally responsible for. We’re left to imagine what David actually does with his experience — does he sink further into despair and escape, or does he take the clarity he’s gained to make the necessary changes? Is that even possible?

I have to believe so. We can each of us unlearn the toxic ways we’ve learned to deal with each other and ourselves. But it requires claiming for ourselves the respect that society feels unable to give us, seeing each of our fellow people as individuals worthy of that same respect, and a keen, painful awareness of the consequences of demanding the things the world is not ready to provide. Living honestly is not easy by any stretch, but it is the way out of the hell people like David put themselves in.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2017 in Better Living Through Stories, Novels, Reviews

 

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(Writing) The Anatomy of the Story

Writing 150This summer I want to take the time and get really serious about my writing. That means working on it every day, reading stories from friends and colleagues as much as possible, and thinking about the aspects of my craft that I need to work on. When I asked my husband — the accomplished writer and wonderful dragon The Pen Drake — what I should work on first, it didn’t take him long to answer with “narrative structure”. After a moment’s consideration I totally see it. Plotting is one of those basic tools in a writer’s toolbox, and it’s one that I haven’t learned to use very well.

Plot is basically the series of events in a story that leads the characters through their arc. Ideally it should be interrelated with the character’s internal progression AND their external conflict; the main character’s main flaw is a significant barrier or source of conflict that needs to be overcome before the plot can be resolved. The main character is motivated to resolve the plot because it’s the only way they can get the one thing they desire. So the way the plot unfolds is inextricably linked to the internal world of the protagonist; the mistakes they make and the ultimate solution they come up with is based on who they are.

I think the main problem I have with plotting is, weirdly enough, having the protagonist actively work to achieve their goals and dealing with the consequences of those actions. In most of my stories the main character is little more than an observer, there to witness and chronicle the things that happen in the story. The protagonist takes in the action, but rarely actually initiates it, and the external stimulus is absorbed into their internal mental and emotional process.

What ends up happening is a lot of description; what’s happening in the world, immediately relevant to the viewpoint character, and how it makes them feel or changes the way they think. To be honest, I really love exploring how people are changed by the things they experience, and I love describing fantastic situations to explore how they’re interpreted through the lens of a particular person. But that’s only one half of the story; the insights you gain mean nothing until you put them into practice. You have to come down from the mountain, as they say.

So what I need to do is move further with the basic situations in my stories. It’s all well and good that a character’s life has been changed by something that’s happened, but what do they do about it? How does it get them closer to what they want? And what are the consequences of their actions on the world around them? What does that say about their priorities, and the setting?

The next Patreon serial I’m working on is a good opportunity to think about that. The plan is to make the protagonist the captain of a starship tasked with exploring the frontier and helping out in any way they can. In the first story, the crew of the ship contracts a disease that severely hampers their ability to carry out that mission; anywhere they go is now at risk of contracting the disease as well. How does the captain deal with that situation? How are his personal flaws going to make the resolution more difficult to come by? How do his actions affect the rest of the crew as well as anyone else they come into contact with? And what finally allows him to overcome those personal flaws to resolve the problem?

If all goes well, this will be the first serial of many in this setting. In future serials, the viewpoint character might shift so we’ll get a sense of how the captain’s resolution spins out to affect other officers and members of the crew. It’s ambitious, but that also means that the resolution of one plot becomes the catalyst for another — and that’s an exciting idea. To be honest, that’s what really attracts me to serialized fiction in the first place. Stories are never self-contained; they’re ripples on a continuum that keep extending outward.

Anyway, as I keep working on the pre-writing for this and other stories I’ll talk about my progress with this particular aspect of the craft. For now, I’m probably sticking to basic plots just to make sure I can construct a solid skeleton for the story I’m trying to tell. As I get more comfortable, I can move on to more complicated plots or figure out what kinds of twists I like.

If you have any advice on plotting, or any resources that have helped you figure out how to get better at it, why not share them in the comments? I’d be grateful for the help!

 

(Personal) The Best Thing About Tragedy

Myth 150Pixar’s Inside Out is an amazing film, and I’ll get into exactly what I think about it later. But for now I want to talk about one perfect moment of many in the movie because I keep thinking about it recently. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry — I won’t spoil too much about the plot or anything. It’s a small thing, but like the best emotional beats it opens directly to the heart of things when you look into it.

The premise is that the emotions we all experience — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust — are people whose job it is to make sure our emotions influence us to take action when necessary. Each emotion has a situation it’s designed for, and Joy (our main character) is really dedicated to making sure her person has the happiest life. This, of course, puts her in direct conflict with Sadness.

A character that Joy and Sadness meet while traveling suffers a loss that affects him deeply, and Joy can’t seem to snap him out of the funk he’s in. Exasperated, she steps away; Sadness sits next to him and encourages him to talk about what’s upsetting him, getting him to move through his pain instead of avoiding it. Once he’s had a good cry, he stands up and announces he’s ready to move on. After that, Joy realizes Sadness’ purpose — the pain we experience allows us to have empathy for others, to help them move through pain that can feel unbearable at times.

This first week of May was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. My sister was the one person who would have gotten me to go back to my hometown of Baltimore, and her sudden hospitalization found me on a plane there without hesitation. I got the call on Friday morning, arrived early Saturday, and saw my mother for the first time in 19 years that day. The next day, I met the father of Teneka’s children and my two oldest nephews for the first time.

That was the day we were gathered in a conference room with a small team of doctors and social workers and told that my sister was brain dead. My heart broke, not just for my loss, but for the loss of my nephews’ mother, my mother’s daughter, my brother’s partner in life. Our grief in that room connected us, as painful as it was; I can’t speak for anyone else, but being comforted and being able to comfort my family made me feel just a tiny bit better.

The following week was a struggle to absorb the twin tragedies of my sister’s passing and the cold realization of how much my mother’s health had deteriorated over time. She was a small but ice-hard woman, and she kept a clean home. Walking into the house I grew up and being hit by the smell and sight of what it had become is a shock I won’t forget. As soon as I saw her, lying in her bed, I knew that I would do anything to get her out of there and into a better situation.

My husband paused, allowed himself to recover, then immediately went to work helping her. His aunt did the same when she drove with me to help prepare for my sister’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen my mother since the day she told me not to come back all those years ago. Ryan only knew of her through the stories I told him about my upbringing. His aunt had never met her — she was a country girl from Arkansas stepping in to an inner-city home for the first time.

None of that mattered. Time and again, I found myself helped through this terrible time by friends and family stepping up to share my grief and take on a burden that wasn’t theirs. When someone else needed my help, I stepped in without hesitation. Knowing that there were so many others who would do — who had done — the same for me made it easy.

Over the week I was in Baltimore, I was able to heal the rift with my mother — who loved my husband, by the way. I was able to meet my nephews for the first time, and get close to someone who loved Teneka as much as I did. Our family came together in a way they hadn’t in quite some time, and I forged a bond with friends and neighbors that allowed me to reclaim my past. Most importantly, the beautiful, graceful connections that we formed helped ensure that my grief for my sister was tempered with an appreciation for her life and all of the people she had touched.

Our ability to feel pain is also our ability to feel empathy. We can know what it’s like to lose someone and reach out in ways that can genuinely help ease their suffering. As hard as it was to deal with everything back in my hometown, I keep going back to the people I bonded with, the deep and lasting connections we formed, all of those times where love filled the room and allowed us to be open and honest and kind. I feel sad, and I will for a long time. But I also feel incredibly fortunate to have the friends and family I do, the support that carried me through all of this, the ability to witness the best in people.

Even in heavy grief, my heart feels lifted by gratitude. I don’t know that I can express how much I appreciate the kind words and deeds of everyone who reached out over the past few weeks. Thank you all, for everything you’ve done.

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: WALL-E, Bolt, Up

Entertainment 150In 2008 and 2009, both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation were entering a new era. Disney Animation was under the control of Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lassater, who set about trying to turn around the studio. They rehired a lot of the “new guard” who had left the studio years earlier, changed the development model to put more power and control in the hands of filmmakers instead of executives, and story meetings were more a gathering of equals rather than a series of notes handed down from on high. Meet The Robinsons was the first movie to benefit from this new development process, and the follow-up film Bolt was nearly completely retooled by it.

Meanwhile, Pixar stalwarts Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter were guiding Pixar into its future; WALL-E was billed as the last of the ideas the original brain trust had come up with at the beginning of the studio, and Up seamlessly carried the tradition of emotional story-telling, iconic visuals and engaging characters forward. Revisiting these films less than a decade after their release is a bit of a trip; even though computer animation has come a long way since then, they both hold up as excellent examples of their craft.

WALL-E (2008)
WALL-E is about one tiny trash compacting robot faced with the Sisyphusean task of cleaning up an Earth that has been completely covered in garbage. We’re not quite sure how long it’s been doing this job, but we can assume it’s been an awfully long while; entire buildings have been coated with cubes of condensed junk, but there is still so much refuse all over the place. Other robots of its model have broken down in service, and WALL-E scavenges their corpses for replacement parts. The humans who would have serviced it disappeared a long time ago, leaving behind their refuse as the only clues it has about who its masters are and what they were like. This little robot has been at the job for so long it has developed a fascination with the things it finds, a love of old musicals, and a friendly relationship with a cockroach.

The first act is a bleak setting made bright by the sheer personality of its protagonist. While I was watching it, I don’t think I quite appreciated how awful and desolate an existence that would be. Like WALL-E, I was too fascinated with all the things it loved and why. Even though it was carrying out its basic programming, its experience had built a distinct personality over years, perhaps decades, perhaps centuries. We spent over 20 minutes learning about its character, how it behaved when there was no one around to interact with. It was a strangely intimate view of the apocalypse, beautiful and lonely.

EVE, an advanced robot, breaks the monotony of this existence and kickstarts the story into motion. The two robots learn about each other as WALL-E guides EVE through the dangers and wonders of this desolate Earth, and just when it shows the newcomer its most cherished secret, EVE takes the tiny, fragile plant WALL-E found and goes into some kind of sleep mode. Confused and sad, WALL-E nonetheless continues to interact and protect EVE in the hope that it will wake up one day. Its diligence is rewarded by an unexpected trip to the Axiom, the luxury spaceship that the remnants of humanity live on, completely oblivious to anything but short-term pleasure. It’s here that WALL-E reawakens humanity to its better qualities, simply by being itself.

wall-w

Love is patient.

There’s so much going on with this movie it feels wrong to give it such an encapsulated review, but WALL-E is truly an incredible film — one of Pixar’s absolute best in fact. It tells a beautiful story in service to a theme that pushes us towards being better human beings. It’s mass entertainment that takes the responsibility of its power seriously, by asking us to take a look at our societal values and consider if that’s really what we want to champion. Rampant, unchecked consumerism, a lack of consideration for our environment or the consequences of our actions, and a misplaced optimism in the idea of easy answers could lead us to a point where we’ve effectively junked the planet, and by that time even the destruction of our home might not be a big enough wake-up call.

Even though WALL-E has some serious and heavy things to say, it says them elegantly, gently, and with utmost care. It’s just a movie about a robot who finds love, whose affection catalyzes a sea change in a future civilization that’s lost its way. But it’s also a cautionary tale about what we’re doing to ourselves and our world, a caring reminder of the things that make us great and makes life worth living. The fact that it can be both things without sacrificing the integrity of its other layers is a testament to the storytelling of director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Jim Reardon and Pete Docter. It feels something like the holy grail of responsible fiction, of socially-minded pop-art. We don’t have many movies like WALL-E in this day and age, and that’s a shame. It’s even more of a shame that we don’t have many movies that even TRY to be WALL-E.

Bolt (2008)
It was a long time in the wilderness for Walt Disney Animation. It had been six long years since their last financially successful and critically-acclaimed movie (Lilo & Stitch), and in that time they had come up with some truly terrible films. After John Lassater took over the studio and made some much-needed changes in its development culture, we began to see some improvement. Bolt, despite its rocky road to release, is the film where everything starts to turn around and the new guard of animators start to realize their potential.

Originally, Bolt was American Dog — the second film to be directed by Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders. The story was roughly the same; a dog traveled across the country in search of his home with two strange animal companions, all the while believing he’s still living out a TV show he stars in. However, Sanders was removed from the project after resisting changes requested by Lassater and other colleagues. He bolted for DreamWorks and How To Train Your Dragon, so…at least he landed well. Chris Williams (who went on to co-direct Big Hero 6 and Moana) and Byron Howard (co-director of Tangled and Zootopia) stepped in to take over, and made a genuinely good movie in a much shortened development cycle.

bolt-cuteness

RIDICULOUSLY cute.

Bolt is the star of the eponymous action TV show; he’s an adorable white German Shepherd who has been trained to believe he actually has super-powers and needs to protect Penny, the daughter of a world-famous scientist who’s been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Calico. A misadventure finds Bolt knocked unconscious and shipped across the country to New York City, where he quickly conscripts an alley cat to help him make his way back to his owner. Along the way, he discovers that he doesn’t actually have superpowers but he doesn’t really need them; determination and resourcefulness are amazing enough.

I was really excited for Chris Sanders’ version of this story, because I loved his work on Lilo & Stitch and heard that one of the animal companions would be a giant mutant rabbit whose family lived near nuclear test sites. It was disappointing to hear he was taken off the project, and I was pretty skeptical about the details that were coming out of its development. Seeing the final product won me over, though — the character work is excellent, and the action set pieces are incredibly well-realized. Each one provides the characters with an opportunity to advance their arc, so the lessons they absorb in their downtime frequently translate into action that illustrates how far they’ve come. Bolt, the poor dog, has to realize that the world is nothing like the way he thought it was — but that it’s also just as amazing, and he can be the hero he’s always believed himself to be. Mittens, the toughened alley cat, has to learn that her previous experiences aren’t a predictor of what other people will be like, and that’s it OK to be vulnerable enough to trust people.

Together with Rhino, the extremely excitable hamster-in-a-ball, they make the perilous journey across the country to get Bolt back to Penny. The movie moves briskly but organically, with the story doing a wonderful job introducing secondary and colorful tertiary characters, building tension, releasing it with crazy action, and settling the characters into a new equilibrium they must struggle to reconcile with. Bolt, Rhino, and even Mittens in her own way, are all amazingly cute; it’s really interesting that Disney settled on a more rounded and softer house style for their computer animated movies, but I think Bolt is the movie where that really solidified.

It did really well when it came out, making $310 million worldwide against a $150 million budget and scoring 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, as Disney moved on to more ambitious and more successful projects, it got a bit lost in the crowd when we talk about the studio’s Revival era. Bolt may not have the passionate fan-base of Tangled and Frozen, but it deserves a second look — it’s a solid movie that marked Disney’s welcome return to form.

Up (2009)
Everyone remembers the prologue to this film — and rightfully so, because it’s amazing. What a pleasant surprise it was, then, to rediscover how great the rest of the film is as well! One of the great things about this project is remembering movies you had forgotten about for various reasons, or making new connections that you hadn’t noticed before. For example, now I realize that my favorite Pixar director isn’t Brad Bird; it’s Pete Docter. He has a keen eye for wonderful characterization and emotional detail that is practically unrivaled at the studio. While he’s had his hands in most Pixar productions to date, it’s the ones that he has guided as director — Monsters Inc, Up, and Inside Out — that prove his mettle.

up-house

You know you want this for a wallpaper. YOU KNOW.

Carl Fredricksen, a nine-year-old boy who idolizes renowned explorer Charles Muntz, meets Ellie, a loud and confusing girl who all but forces him into a friendship. That friendship blossoms into romance, is preserved with marriage, and the two have a happy life together. However, Ellie falls ill before the couple is able to live out their dream of traveling the world. When she dies, Carl retreats into the museum of the home they renovated, surrounded by her memory while his neighborhood changes all around him.

Fed up with the pressure to adapt to the changing times, Carl decides to simply “steal” his house by tying thousands of balloons to the roof and sailing for the spectacular jungle waterfall he and Ellie had always wanted to go to. His impromptu trip is complicated by a stowaway — Russell, an eager Wilderness Explorer who just wants to help Carl so he can get his final merit badge for assisting the elderly. A dog outfitted with a device that allows him to speak English and an extremely rare jungle bird round out the motley crew as they discover that adventure always carries with it a number of surprises.

At its heart, Up is about the importance of moving through the entirety of the grieving process so that you can move on with fulfilling the rest of your life. But it’s also about how the connections we make help us to do that. Carl lost his whole world with Ellie; even though his desire to finally fulfill the dream they had together causes him to take action, he was also using it as an escape to further retreat from the world. It was only after meeting Russell, and Dug (the dog), and Kevin (the bird), that he rediscovered his spirit of adventure. It feels weird to keep plot details hidden, especially after all these years, but the conflict that arises when the group arrives in the jungle serves as a cautionary tale. This is what happens if you disengage from people; this is what happens when you decide that it’s just too hard to work in tandem with others who are different.

Beyond the prologue, Up is filled with amazing visual moments. The Fredrickson house is simultaneously setting, metaphor and additional character, a refuge and a fragile thing that needs to be defended. Almost every scene it features prominently in is amazing, and what’s best is that Carl’s balloon-assisted flight isn’t even the most unlikely or wondrous thing in the movie. Docter does an excellent job of taking these high concepts and grounding them with real emotional weight. Even when things get silly or unlikely, we’re completely taken in because we understand what’s at stake for all of these characters.

When Up was released, it received near-unanimous praise; it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, while being nominated for three more awards including Best Picture. It is a crown jewel in Pixar’s animated canon, and rightfully so — it continues their dedication to telling wonderful stories that simultaneously teach us how to be better people. Docter’s touch with showing the value of being in touch with our emotions and each other is invaluable, and Up is one of the best examples of the magic he can weave if given the chance.

 

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(Monday Fiction) A Letter to Puxineathas Goodfellow (2)

Writing 150I’m not going to lie — the only thing more fun than writing that letter from Pux was researching more about gnomes as they’re settled in Pathfinder. The more I learn about gnomes, the more I feel like I should play them more. This will probably upset My Husband, The Dragon to hear. But the section in the core rulebook on gnomish humor? That is *totally* my jam. I incorporated a little bit of exaggeration in the letter, but I also thought it would be a good idea to have Pux come across as friendly and encouraging through at least the first exchange. As he and Malcolm warm to each other (and I learn more about them), they should let out more of their distinctive personalities in the writing.

Here is Malcolm’s second letter to Puxineathas Goodfellow.

Dear Mr. Puxineathas,

Yo, thanks for the rose quartz! You cut that yourself? I’m really impressed, dude. It looks freaking dope! I brought it in to show my friends at the last RPG Club meeting in school. They liked it, but they said it didn’t come from no gnome and it was probably made in China somewhere. They might be right, but I don’t really care. I love it, and China’s all the way on the other side of the world, so it still came a long, long way.

Thanks for telling me about your Burrow and what you do and everything. It’s pretty cool that you have this job you really like, and that you’re really good at. I bet if I had like, 80 years to study one thing I’d be really good at it too! But we don’t live that long. Some of us don’t even make it out of high school; my friend’s sister got shot last year crossing the street, and about six months ago somebody pointed a gun in my face and tried to rob me. I didn’t get shot, but they beat me up a little bit. I was a little crazy after that. I got real jumpy about loud noises for a while, and I wasn’t sleeping good so I got mad at people really easy. I talked to a counselor at school and she taught me about breathing when I feel upset or scared and sometimes it helps, but not really though.

I don’t know why I’m writing that in this letter, to be honest. I guess it’s just…nobody’s ever given me anything like that before. You were really cool about it, and your letter made me feel a lot better than I felt in a long time. I’m sorry it took me so long to write you back, but I was kind of stressing that mine wasn’t going to be as good as yours and had to build up to it. But then I thought I should just…sit down and write what comes out, you know? So that’s what I’m doing.

Oh! So…I had to do a little research on Baltimore because you asked about it and to be honest I didn’t know that much about it. It was founded in 1729, which is 287 years ago, so like…it’s about as old as a pretty old gnome. What’s weird is that it’s one of the oldest cities in our country, but the United States is a pretty young country in the grand scheme of things, so.
We don’t live underground like you guys do or anything. We have a lot of buildings in different neighborhoods, which are like, little sections where the same kind of people live. It’d be like if all the poor people lived in one part of your Burrow, and rich people in a nicer part, but then you had like, I don’t know, gnomes of all one color living in an entirely different part and sometimes they spoke a different language. Baltimore’s like that. We each have our own little territories, and sometimes we go outside of them but most of the time we don’t.

I really like going to different places, though. One of my favorite places to go is downtown, especially the library. It’s this big, big building that you could just get lost in. Whenever I can, I try to spend the whole day there from the time it opens at 10 to when it closes at 5. I can only do that in the summer, because it gets dark too early otherwise and walking to the bus stop is kind of scary. But man, there are so many books there. I like reading a book and thinking about something else that sounds like it’d be cool to read about and finding whatever other book looks fun. I read a lot. I’m pretty sure I know the library by heart. It’d be cool to get a job there, but I don’t even know how that would happen. Maybe something in the summer.

Anyway, do you have any favorite books? How many do you have? I’ve got 37 books under my bed. They’re mostly role-playing books, but I’m getting a few novels now too. I’m saving up for a copy of Lord of the Rings, which is like, this big story about a bunch of people who have to throw a cursed ring into this volcano or else this bad guy is going to end the world or something. I saw the movies when they came out, and they were pretty tight, so I guess the book has to be better, right?

When I get some more money, I can send you my favorite book right now. It’s about this unicorn who finds out she’s the last one in the world, but she thinks it can’t be true so she goes out of her forest to find others and has all kinds of adventures along the way. She finds them in the end and they’re all free and stuff, but for some reason the ending is still really sad. I guess it’s because she found all these people who helped her and stuff, and now she has to go back to being alone. That sucks, going out and seeing all this stuff, and then coming back to your own little corner knowing that this is all there is for you forever. I don’t want to be like that.

But it sounds like you’re good where you’re at, and that’s cool. I’d really like to come visit where you live, but I don’t think that would work out too good. The ceiling is probably really low, and I’m pretty sure I can’t get to your Burrow anyway. But hey, maybe I can be a gnome in my next game or something, and you can give me pointers on how to act.

I hope you’re making awesome jewelry. I can’t wait for your next letter!

Sincerely,
Malcolm Williams

 

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(Movies) DisneyFest: Treasure Planet, Finding Nemo, Brother Bear

Entertainment 150In the 2000s, Disney animation seemed to be flailing. Their flagship movies weren’t connecting with audiences nearly as well as Pixar’s projects and they were farming out sequels to a lot of their most popular franchises at this point. DisneyToons would release Return to NeverLand, The Jungle Book 2 and Piglet’s Big Movie around this time and the less said about these, the better.

Still, a lot of the movies in the animated canon during this time are worth a second look if you haven’t gone back to them in a while. Treasure Planet is a diamond in the rough, while Brother Bear is just about the furriest movie you could ask for — until Zootopia came along, that is.

Treasure Planet (2002)
Treasure Planet is an almost perfect movie that is nearly ruined by the comic relief character. I don’t mind them as a rule, especially if they reveal an unexpected depth or they’re used in a way that deepens the story. That’s just not the case, here; while it’s true that BEN ultimately provides the last piece of the puzzle for our heroes, it’s also true that he contributes nothing to the story and in almost every instance makes things worse. That’s really too bad, because the rest of Treasure Planet is one of the best father-son relationship stories that Disney has ever produced.

Ron Clements and John Musker (you know, the guys who also directed Moana) co-directed this remake of an Italian reimagining of Treasure Island, moving the action from the high seas to outer space. It’s actually not as hokey as it sounds; the production design is a surprisingly seamless blend of high-tech future and Victorian aesthetic populated, of course, by vaguely animalistic aliens.

Jim Hawkins is a troubled kid raised by his single mother in an inn that sees travelers come in from all over the galaxy. He longs for adventure, but that yearning all too often translates into a talent for getting into trouble. Adventure literally comes crashing through his door in the form of a huge spaceship; Jim’s given a map, told to beware the cyborg, and is immediately chased out of his entire life. Eventually he and his bumbling mentor, Dr. Doppler, commission a ship to search for the fabled Treasure Planet.

The writing for this movie is top-notch — for the most part. The exposition is obvious but well-handled, and the character moments are all extremely well-realized. When the tenuous relationship between Jim and the cyborg Long John Silver crystallizes into a surrogate father-son bond, the film really takes off. The sequence set to “I’m Still Here” is a master-class in animated storytelling, if you ask me. Their relationship forms the backbone of the movie, and even though you generally know how it’ll play out (it is, after all, Treasure Island) the emotional beats are still incredibly effective.

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A really strange fishing trip

Once the crew arrives on Treasure Planet, they meet BEN the robot. From there, your tolerance of Martin Short channeling the worst impulses of Robin Williams will likely determine how much you’re able to enjoy the movie. As I said before, BEN is almost aggressive in his awfulness; he provides a series of needless complications that the far more competent heroes have to dig themselves out of, and the ultimate justification for his existence is…well, it’s not worth it. He’s just terrible and he sucks the joy out of nearly every scene he’s in. It’s such a bizarre misstep in a movie that had been deftly handling the high-wire act of its premise before then.

Still, don’t let BEN scare you off; Treasure Planet is a great movie that really should be appreciated more than it is. It failed badly at the box office, unable to make back its budget in theatres; critics were mildly impressed with it, but not enough to recommend rediscovering it on DVD. I think it’s underrated, but flawed, like so many of the Disney movies in the animated canon that people consider “lesser” works. The passion and creativity on display is impressive, even if there are one or two disastrous moves.

Finding Nemo (2003)

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Motherfucking heroes

After cracking fur in 2001’s Monsters Inc., Pixar decided that they were going to sink or swim with animating water by setting an entire movie in the Pacific Ocean. The gamble paid off big time; the technical merit of Finding Nemo is almost immediately obvious, but the storytelling is really what made the movie such a smash hit. Finding Nemo takes the parent’s searching for his lost child story and crafts a parable about fear, courage, accepting and overcoming our limitations. It’s a fable that bakes its message so thoroughly into its story that learning it is part of the entertainment.

Marlin is a clownfish who lost his entire family — his wife, Coral and the clutch of eggs they were protecting — in a predator attack, except for one egg he named Nemo. The attack left Nemo with an under-developed fin, and Marlin with such an intense fear of anything dangerous that he nearly smothers his son with worry. When Nemo’s act of rebellion gets him taken by divers, Marlin is broken out of anxious paralysis to travel across the ocean and save his son. He’s joined by Dory, a blue tang with memory loss, and together they meet the strange and motley inhabitants of a world much, much bigger and wilder than they imagined.

The parallel experiences of Marlin and Nemo — who helps rescue the fish trapped inside the dentist’s aquarium he ends up in — show how capable any of us are when we push ourselves with proper motivation. Marlin learns that he needs to let go of that crippling fear in order to hold on to the one thing that matters most to him; Nemo learns that even though things might be more difficult for him because of his disability, he shouldn’t let that stop him from dreaming as big as he dares. The film doesn’t treat Nemo’s fin as a non-factor; he does have to learn how to achieve risky and dangerous things while working through a very real physical disability. However, the story doesn’t treat Nemo as incapable just because of it. He’s smart, brave and resourceful; he accepts his fin as part of who he is, but he also comes to realize he’s so much more than his disability.

It’s amazing to me that we haven’t come further with disability in stories in the 14 years since this film; that Finding Nemo still feels like a story we desperately need but rarely see is troubling. But it’s a testament to Andrew Stanton’s great skill as a storyteller that this feels like a shining example of how to get it right. Both Nemo and Dory — and Marlin for the matter; his anxiety could be viewed as a disability as well — learn how to navigate the world through their issues to become the best versions of themselves they could be. By travelling with Dory, Marlin learns that it is possible for Nemo to do great things and face danger, coming through the other side with important lessons. He also learns the depths of his resolve, and it’s a beautiful thing to see this little fish have that personal awakening.

The animation, of course, is breath-taking even after all this time. The colors are bright and engaging, the character design is gorgeous (how in the world do you make fish, with their alien physiology designed for sea life, recognizably, relatably human?), and the water effects are astonishing in an understated way. There are so many set pieces where you get swept up in the story as it unfolds, but only later you appreciate the sheer technical expertise needed to pull it off. Marlin and Dory navigate a shark-chase through a sunken submarine; an underwater mine field with really impressive explosions; and being swallowed by a whale. The fact that the animation moves so fluidly without calling attention to itself through all of this is a pretty big deal.

Pixar really has set the standard for CGI animation in this generation, and Finding Nemo is another example why. The marriage of top-notch storytelling and technical ability is rare, and it’s even more so when a studio manages to bake it into their culture so thoroughly they can consistently churn out instant classics. This is only their fifth movie in their eighth year of feature-film animation; it’s an astonishing run that no one other than Disney has ever managed.

Brother Bear (2003)
Brother Bear, perhaps unsurprisingly, began development after the surprise and run-away success of The Lion King. Michael Eisner wanted to make more animal-based pictures, and asked for one to be set in North America. Originally, they wanted to do a retelling of King Lear, which meant that the “king of the forest” would be a natural fit for the species to tell the story through. In an effort to make the film more charming, elements of the story were removed or replaced and in the end we get Brother Bear — a gently sweet film where the animation is streets ahead of the story, which actually isn’t that bad.

Kenai is the youngest of three brothers in a Native American village just recovering from the Ice Age. After being disappointed by his long-awaited totem (the bear of love), Kenai and his brothers hunt down a bear that had stolen their salmon catch. The hunt goes disastrously, and his oldest brother sacrifices himself to save his siblings; Kenai is thought to be lost as well sometime later, and the middle brother Denahi swears revenge on the bear who took his brothers. In reality, the spirits have turned Kenai into a bear so he can learn a lesson about the perspective of the other.

The film becomes a road-trip buddy comedy. Kenai picks up Koda, an orphaned cub trying to make it to the annual salmon run, which is like a big family reunion for bears. Along the way, the bears meet a lot of different forest animals and save each other from various natural hazards. Just when Koda and Kenai click, Kenai realizes that he’s responsible for the death of Koda’s mother; not only does he have to make amends for what he’s done, he also has to find a way to keep his brother Denahi from killing him and his new-found friends.

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Family of weirdoes

Brother Bear is incredibly earnest, and that’s not a bad thing. I really like its message, even if it’s not particularly subtle or woven through the story with much of the skill we’ve gotten used to in Pixar films. The humor is pretty juvenile, though, so it feels made for a younger audience as opposed to being a true family film. As a huge fan of bears, I’m willing to handle that — especially considering that Kenai chooses to remain a bear at the end of the film. The animation and character design are great, and the nifty storytelling trick of changing the aspect ratio along with Kenai’s form is perhaps the most clever way they bake the premise of the story (learning to see things from a different perspective) into the form of the story itself.

Still, there’s a lot that doesn’t work. Phil Collins writes and performs music for his second Disney animated film here, but the songs aren’t nearly as catchy as they were in Tarzan and they’re mostly unwelcome intrusions into emotional scenes. Just when things are starting to come together and you feel yourself getting emotionally invested, here comes Phil to really hammer the theme home. A lighter, defter touch would have gone a long way here and allowed the movie to stand beyond the pleasure of its premise and visuals.

Brother Bear really is one of the lesser movies of the Disney animated canon, and that’s largely due to the flaws in its storytelling. The look and feel of the world it creates is great; you really want to spend time there. But the way the story is told prevents us from falling into it completely; we’re reminded way too often of the construction of it when we really don’t want to notice the seams. Unlike Finding Nemo, Brother Bear calls attention to itself, asking you to be impressed with the effort instead of allowing you to be dazzled on your own.

 
 

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(Movies) Hold On To Each Other or The Krampus Will Pick Us Off One By One

Entertainment 150Christmas-themed horror movies have a really poor track record; except for Gremlins, I can’t think of anything that could even remotely be considered good. Well, until now at least. I’ve already gotten into a few debates about this particular film with other folks, so please understand your mileage may vary. But for me, last year’s “Krampus” — which I only now got around to seeing — blends horror, comedy, and Christmas spirit perfectly. It delivers a cautionary tale that’s endearing and relatable, deeply silly, and actually kind of chilling all at once. The story turns out to be a meditation on what Christmas — and every winter holiday before it — is meant to be for the people who celebrate it, and the horrors that befall us if we forget it.

Tom (Adam Scott) is the patriarch of a typical American family preparing for the chaos of Christmas. Sarah (Toni Collette) is his wife trying to make the perfect holiday; his mother is an old-school German-speaking home-maker, while his daughter Beth is more interested in her boyfriend than her family. Adding to the stress, Sarah’s sister Alison is visiting for the holidays — with her obnoxious alpha-male husband (David Koechner) and four children in tow. To top it off, Sarah’s aunt Dorothy crashes the party to add her particular brand of cynicism, chain-smoking and binge drinking.

Only Tom’s son Max still believes in the Christmas spirit. That changes when his cousins embarrass him at the family dinner table by reading his letter to Santa out loud, exposing true and tender feelings about secrets that might be better left unrevealed. Hurt and angry, Max rips up the letter and tosses it into the wind, inadvertently summoning the shadow of Saint Nicholas. A supernatural blizzard cuts off power to the entire town, and that’s when the bloodletting begins.

Krampus tries to blend a kind of existential horror with demonic set-pieces that feel designed to be crazy enough to force a laugh, and how well it succeeds depends on your tolerance for tonal whiplash. I found it best to just buy into the film’s big request for a suspension of disbelief; once I did, I discovered that there was something surprisingly thoughtful lurking beneath the silliness.

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— HERE THERE BE SPOILERS —

Beth goes first, heading out into the storm to visit her boyfriend. She finds his home open to the elements, unnaturally frozen and everyone missing. On the way back, she’s chased by a horned figure jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she hides under a truck. Just when she thinks she’s escaped, another monster attacks her from the bushes. Tom and his brother in law are attacked as they go looking for him, and the family barricades themselves in the house. This, of course, doesn’t work — one by one, they’re isolated and abducted. As their numbers dwindle, their relationship to one another changes. Instead of focusing on what they hate about one another, they cling to each other a little tighter. Each terrible, strange disappearance forces them to band together that much more desperately.

This is where the movie starts to feel like it actually has something on its mind. Omi, the German grandmother, tells the story of how the poverty of her village made her lose her Christmas spirit when she was a young girl. Krampus visited, took everyone, and left her alone to serve as a witness. Now that Max and his family realize what is happening, they do their best to escape together; Omi stays behind to confront the demon, and that leads to a series of sacrifices. Tom gives his life to save his family, then Sarah gives hers to save her children. Eventually, Max tries to give up his life to save his cousin.

I might be overthinking this, or it might be the dire times we find ourselves in, but it was fascinating to watch these people realize the importance of unity against an often harsh and unforgiving world. As the home becomes increasingly unsafe and the family is driven into the bitter cold, I’m reminded of people learning to band together in ancient times for warmth and shared resources through the dark chill of winter. The festivity and merrymaking isn’t just because there was nothing else to do; these holidays are meant to deepen the bonds of community and remind us of the importance of our relationships. Gifts aren’t the meaning of Christmas; they only represent it. We give each other offerings to show our loved ones what they mean to us.

The consequences of forgetting how to be part of a community are often invisible and can easily go unnoticed. And by the time we realize that something has gone dreadfully wrong it’s too late. Max’s family struggle against a world that has suddenly turned against them in the worst way, and they display tenacity, ingenuity and bravery in the fight — but it does nothing to stop all of them from dying. Max begs and pleads with the demon to reverse what’s happened; he apologies, he promises to remember his lesson, he even gives Krampus back the coal bell he received as a token of his ordeal. Then he is thrown into a pit, and wake up in his bed.

Downstairs, his family is enjoying Christmas morning. For all of their flaws, they share a common bond that fills the room with warmth. Then, Max opens his gift — Krampus’ coal bell. A chill quiets the room, and everyone looks away from each other as they remember the horrors they’ve experienced.

That image is a chilling one. Instead of reaching for each other to share and relieve their suffering, they retreat into themselves. It strikes me as a particularly nasty version of hell; taking a moment that should connect us and trapping us within it with people who simply cannot do so. Being alone in that room full of people is an exceptionally lonely feeling.

So, this Christmas, I’ll make it a point to be more open about the things that frighten or depress me — and I encourage you to do the same. It’s more important than ever to bring ourselves together, to hold on to one another before it’s too late. We haven’t reached the tipping point yet, but I worry that it’s so close. We have to learn how to band together; we may have our differences, and we might disagree, but what happens if we don’t is terrifying and irreversible.

Hell is a banquet table where everyone has no option but to use forks that are too long to feed ourselves. Heaven is what happens when we decide to feed each other instead.

 

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