Saturday, November 1, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Happy Go Lucky

Happy Go Lucky. Years from now, when I've forgotten everything else about Happy Go Lucky, I'm still going to remember That Scene. The rest of the show--the flamenco lessons, the sister, the boy from the abusive home, even  Poppy herself--might fade, but That Scene's going to stick with me. The plot, such as it is, is that Polly (Sally Hawkins) is thirty year old school teacher who is, basically, impossibly cheerful. She rarely does anything for more than a few seconds without bursting into a mild guffaw. It's initially very irritating and that irritation never quite goes away, but I found myself developing some affection for her as well. (Although my eyes rolled pretty heavily at the scene where she hurts her back jumping on a trampoline, which she did weekly, because she is just that damn whimsical. If she wasn't the lead of the film, she'd be the lead's manic pixie girl.) It's a good thing she's a primary school teacher, because her temperament is ideally suited for sugar-infested six year olds.

The most accurate description of the film is probably a slice of life thing; it's not a plot moving to a conclusion, but a series of vaguely related vignettes that take place at this point in Poppy's life. But while there isn't a conclusion that's built to, there's certainly a climax. And that comes courtesy of Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy's driver instructor. Where Poppy is a free spirit almost incapable of paying attention for more than three seconds--she defends her choice to take her eyes off the road to look at a passing squirrel--Scott is rigid, insisting on a rule for every occasion. In a different movie, they'd be the romantic odd couple who slowly come to appreciate each other. Here, she's not interested, and when Scott makes an inquiry to her living arrangement, she laughingly tells him she's a lesbian. Gradually, it becomes evident that Scott's rules are there for a reason--Scott needs them to keep himself under control, because underneath them, he is a very angry man. He's angry that his pupils don't give him the respect he deserves. He's angry that US government is enacting a conspiracy to draw out Satan. He's angry that the immigrants are ruining Britain. Mostly, he's just angry.

That anger bubbles to a froth when he arrives at Poppy's, and sees her saying goodbye to her new boyfriend. His instructions become increasingly angry, and when Poppy insists he's in no state to drive, he explodes at her, swears at her, grabs her, insists that it's her fault, that she's lead him on, that she acts all friendly and nice and all the time, she's laughing at him with her boyfriend and her girlfriend and her other friends and she's just a stupid fucking--Poppy calms him down only by threatening to call the police. Even then, he doesn't seem to understand how far he's gone and asks if they'll meet the same time next week. "No, Scott," says Poppy.

It's a masterful performance from Marsan. The sheer bile that spews from his mouth is one of the most powerful things I've seen in a while. And maybe it's hit me so hard because... and this isn't an easy thing to cop to... I've been in Scott's shoes. Not the hateful, vitriolic attack, but the part that comes before, the moment when you realize that someone you're attracted to doesn't feel the same way, that they've actually turned you down in multiple ways that you've fooled yourself into ignoring. And then there's the other moment--that moment when you're plunged into a deep sense of embarrassment, where that embarrassment threatens to turn into resentment. I feel bad; it's your fault I feel this way. It's lashing out, it's ugly, it's unfair--it's misogynist. And it's a pretty damn small step from look at how you make me feel to look at what you made me do. If you can blame someone for your negative feelings, you can rationalize blaming them for your negative actions too. The trick is to take that embarrassment, learn from it, own up to it, and pull yourself away from bad patterns. Life's disappointing sometimes, and it's unfair sometimes; don't heap your disappointments on someone else.

And of course, it's most unfair for women. This is what misogyny culture is--the entitled lashing out, the expectation that your feelings are the woman's faults. Poppy had to lie about her sexual orientation to get Scott to back off, initially--and yes, she treats it as a joke, because she treats everything as a joke, but she still had to do it."I have a boyfriend." "I'm gay." These are the lies women have to tell to ward off unwanted attention.And I don't think they can be blamed for not just saying "I'm not interested"; Scott's hate-filled speech is what comes out AFTER learning she has a boyfriend--imagine how he  could have responded if he thought she just didn't like him. If a film has a lesson, it's that Poppy, in response to her friends and to Scott, does question her happy go lucky nature, and makes happiness her deliberate choice instead of just her unconscious one--especially if Scott's example is the alternative. It ends the film on a positive note, but it's not that ending that's going to linger with me.

I was pointed to this movie from an online persona who goes by the handle of Movie Hulk; he recommended it after a long post (it's here--although I really wasn't kidding about the length) about the problems with the Gamergate movement. If you've been following, the parallels are obvious enough (and, in retrospect, clarifies his argument a bit for me). "The feminists are making us feel bad." "The journalists are colluding against us." "We'll never stop fighting you." Even if, magically, any trace of misogyny could be removed from the argument, it would be a movement characterized by anger. And for a long time now, any time I see something that involves responding with anger against a villainized Other--especially if that Other is a woman--what's going to come to mind is Scott, spewing hatred at Poppy for just trying to be.

Later Days.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Year of Villain Songs

 I've been engaged in a project, of sorts, for the past year. I was looking at a list of top "villain songs"--broadly defined as songs sung by or about a story's villain--and thought to myself, I could do better than that. And so I did. Every day, for 365 days, I've been posting one villain song, and a link to a video of it on Facebook. (I'm sure any subsequent drops in my friends is purely coincidental.) And, for the last half or so, I tweeted the links as well. For posterity's sake, I thought I'd post the list here. A few provisos:

1) This is a numbered list--to make sure I've got all 365 songs--but not an ordered list, because, frankly, finding 365 villain songs was enough work without creating some master rubric to evaluate them all. I burned through a lot of my favorite at the beginning when I wasn't sure how many I'd be doing. Beyond that, I tried to pick "special" ones for momentous numbers, generally at multiples of 25.  And the last ten or so are the best from my remaining pile.

2) Some of them have links, and some of them do not. This is largely because--see 1), making the list was enough work. They're mostly findable through a google search, if you're curious.

3) This list is not quite the order they were originally presented. I didn't keep great records of the whole list until I was fifty or so songs in, so that order's messed up a bit, and I'd do things like count 124 twice, and not notice till much later, then skip ahead accordingly. But it's close to the original order. Pardon the errors; I've marked the ones I've noticed. 

4) Favorite songs are marked with favorite.

5) There was a rather large number of songs that didn't make the 365 cut. For the most part, it's because I'm less familiar with them. If you've got something that you think should be added to the overall list, by all means, let me know and I'll put it in the extras.

Here we go, then.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Nature Talk

Every day, around mid-afternoon, the gulls in Waterloo nest on top of the mall northeast of my house.

Every day, around dusk, they leave there, and head due south to a small factory, and swoop around it for a few hours before settling down for the night.

Add to that the crows, who travel to a forested area just south of campus at dawn and dusk and caw so loudly and in such numbers that it sounds like you're standing outside a half dozen racquetball courts. (Seriously, the caws sound like the echoes the balls make when they bounce off the walls.)

Add to that the geese, who have lost their fear of people a long time ago, and belligerently walk all over campus, staring down the cars that get in their way.

Add to that the ducks, who are much more timid than their avian counterparts, and try to fit into the hole the geese have made, only to be run off by the geese at every turn.

Add to that the single swan in Victoria Park, the only bird that the geese give wide berth.

Add to that the sparrows, chickadees, and other small birds that try their best to eke out a living where they can.

And all the other animals: the groundhogs on campus, the ubiquitous squirrels, the cats constantly patrolling their territories against trespassing from--well, other cats, mostly.

And the plants too--the trees, the bushes, the ivy creeping along the walls. Even--ick--nature's mooch, the grass.

It struck me today how all these living creatures are around us all the time, whose lives we can endanger pretty easily but can't do a lot to retaliate in return. And rather than reveling in the power that gives us, I think we need to appreciate the responsibility that puts on us. I'm teaching Tolkien's The Hobbit this term--more on that some other time--and one of the theories around Tolkien's work is that he promoted the idea of stewardship with regards to the environment, that people have the moral responsibility to act like we're looking after the land and need to keep it safe to pass on to the next steward, rather than look at it as if we're the absolute monarchs. The idea is still a little too "dominion over the earth" for my tastes. It suggests that we're at the top of the structure rather than a part of it, as if the environment isn't something we need to worry about. I much rather like the idea some sci-fi pundits have suggested, that we're the planet's janitors. We should do our best to keep things running, and doing that well is worth more respect than we usually afford it.

Anyway, the point at hand is less environmental responsibility and more--be humble. There's worlds going on around us that don't see us as the center of existence. They're not hostile to us--rather, they don't care one way or the other about us at all. We're a tangential part of their system, and they're just cawing to the world, or nestling in on a convenient roof or just trying to get by.

Later Days.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Because if I'm talking about writing on my blog, it's like I'm actually writing

All right--we're going for a two stone initiative here. Blog needs more content. Dissertation needs to get written. So we'll try a positive affirmation method, whereby I state how long I worked on the diss, and how much I wrote. I will say a disclaimer right now that I will not be posting EVERY time I work on the dissertation, and these blog posts are in no way a reflection of the total labor involved.

So--today, I spent 36 minutes on the dissertation. I wrote approximately 200 words. ...Every little bit counts, ok? It's a Saturday, cut me some slack.

I *might* be a little defensive where the dissertation is concerned.

Later Days.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoilerific Review of What If

More movies. More movie reviews. Filmic experiences the likes of which mediate the world thrice over, recasting all of existence in cinematographically well-framed glory!

This particular review was actually written in stages, as I watched the film.  Thus, it's a little scattered than most, and a little more self-contradictory than most.

Starting below.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoiler-iffic review of Garden State

It's not quite a dead blog, but the pieces are few and far between, ain't they? Well, so it goes, for now.

Review of the movie Garden State, after the break.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pet Peeve with Words: Problematic edition

An English major getting pedantic about word use? How remarkable.

But it is in fact the case. The word I would like to complain about is "problematic," a word that tends to get used a lot in academic and socially conscious contexts:

Exhibit A: "How comic frames and panels operate for the reader is problematic because the reader is able to see so much at once, but sequencing -- even with the retraceability and the limited omniscience available from the design of the comic book page -- remains very important." (Compromised Divisions: Thresholds in Comic Books and Video Games)
Exhibit B: "Chris Franklin provides an excellent example in the dangers of playing with history by analyzing Civilization. He argues that the representation of barbarians as less-than-human beasts  is problematic and supports the idea that “some peoples or social constructs [are] below consideration as equals.” (Critical Distance).
Exhibit C: "Say what you will about Joss being a bit problematic with his treatment of women -- I give him credit for trying and for being an ally." (Comment section, "Joss Whedon Tweets About Anita Sarkessian -- The Mary Sue)

Between the three of examples, "problematic" is a placeholder for "arguable sexist in some circumstances" (C) to "demonstrating a racist, colonial perspective" (B) to (A) "potentially a problem for an artist trying to convey a guided narrative."  That's a lot of versatility for a single word--and I think that's a problem.

In its literal interpretation, "problematic" is simply "something that contains a problem." So it's a perfectly accurate term to use in all these cases, for any general case where a problem or even a potential problem may exist--that covers a lot of ground. On the other hand, as examples B and C suggest, it's also a term that's taken on a more specific meaning within writing concerned with issues of justice and equality. There, it functions as a sort of shorthand for some sort of perceived prejudice that the writer sees in whatever they're discussing. And in that sense, it's a handy (can that be considered a pun on shorthand?) way of summarizing that issue without having to explain it at length. And sometimes, that's a necessary step, to keep the focus on whatever the actual main topic of discussion may be.

And there are other arguments justifying the term's use as well. There's a common saying I've seen online that it's not women's job to inform you about feminism; it's not a minority's job to explain racism to you; more generally, the onus should not on the oppressed to justify their oppression. And that's one hundred percent right. If someone tweets that Whedon's treatment of, say, racial issues is problematic, your first response should not necessarily be to ask them to clarify, because, among other reasons, unless you are very, very careful in  crafting your request, it will sound more like a demand to defend themselves. Instead--you have access to google. You know how to use the internet. Do your own homework. (I'd acknowledge that it's a slightly different case if the use popped up in an online article published on a pop culture news site--in that case, the author's presenting themselves more as an expert, and questioning is more appropriate. But still, remember context, and remember that it's generally best to see what you can find yourself to answer a question, if the resources are available to you.)

And finally, I think one of the reasons that problematic enjoys such frequent use is that it plays a useful role in keeping discourse civil. If you replaced B or C with their equivalent substitutes, then you're implicitly if not explicitly accusing the original creators of racism and sexism, which starts a pretty emotionally charged discussion. Given how belligerently many have responded to the term "misogyny" in the recent Gamersgate grossness (and with responses that often demonstrate how "misogyny" was exactly the right word) there's an argument to be made that to keep a discussion even, a less charged word like problematic may be the way to go.

 But here's the turn in the argument.  I'd counter the idea that problematic keeps a discussion civil with the argument that what we need is less even, "both sides present good points" style of argument, and more direct accusations. If we reserve racism or misogynist terms only for the worst cases, then it's easy for many to pretend, as the Gamersgate case again demonstrates, that systematic sexism or more subtle forms of sexism exist. Let's not allow racist, sexist, or any other oppressive behavior to hide itself behind the more genteel term "problematic."

My other problem with problematic is that it's quickly joining the ranks of those words I try to steer my undergraduates away from, like "good" or "important"--because it can be used so generally it becomes overused, so it becomes not so much a tool for the writer to keep the focus where they want and more a sign to the reader that they can turn off their active reading and just coast until something... important... is said. Problematic is often used as the opening for the argument, a way of easing the reader into the topic until the writer has time to fully explain what they mean by the term. Slowly introducing an emotionally charged subject is not by any means a bad idea, but since "problematic" gets trotted out for that so frequently, it's becoming the online article equivalent of the phrase "since the beginning of time" in first year college papers.

Finally, my last beef against the term problematic is that its widespread use cheapens the topic at hand. To return to my original examples, underlying sexism in popular science fiction/fantasy television is not the same as colonialist racism reflected in videogames that center on strategic conquering. And they are certainly not the same as the problems of authorial intent. Using the same word to apply to all three situations suggests an equivalency between them, one that undermines the actual social context in favor of some universal wrong. While problematic can then be used as a rallying term to unify people from disparate tracks of life, it could just as easily be used as another oppressive tool, whitewashing difference and lived experience.

I'm not saying don't use the word "problematic." It's got a lot of arguments in favor of it, as I've noted. I'm probably going to keep using it too. But I'm going to try to be more aware of how I'm using it, and to what end.

Later Days.