Sunday, August 28, 2016

My Queer Queue, August 2016: Objectification for all

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Monday, August 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three: Wood and Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Good movies for people who like bad movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, August 7, 2016

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

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

He also posted this, presumably on July 5th:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One: A Place for Demons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kote gives him this face...

Pictured: Viola Davis, unimpressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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