Friday, July 31, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Claire Temple (Daredevil)

Let's start out first with some pretty irritating news: casting spoilers show that Rachel McAdams is in talks for a major role in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. Admittedly, that's not irritating in and of itself, since Rachel McAdams is pretty cool and the Doctor Strange movie is at the very least interesting. (Though I'm still salty that Oded Fehr didn't get the lead. Or at least Pedro Pascal.)

No, the frustrating bit comes from the revelation that, according to an actual Daredevil producer, Claire Temple is not Night Nurse, the badass nurse in the comics who keeps all the street level vigilantes of New York on their feet. Well, technically what he said was that the decision to make Claire Temple named Claire Temple and not Linda Carter, which is Night Nurse's name in the comics, was because Marvel had "big plans for Linda Carter." 

And since she's pretty big in the Stephen Strange story and Rachel McAdams is in talks for a lead role in Doctor Strange, there's this long line of logic that basically says Rachel McAdams is probably playing Night Nurse, and it turns out that Claire Temple isn't her after all.

Which totally blows! I mean, first off, that's frustrating because Claire is an amazing character who basically is Night Nurse and would barely need any pushing to be that character on the big screen as well. But the bigger problem is because there was something great about having Night Nurse played by Rosario Dawson, a woman of color who has been very outspoken about diversity problems and sexism in the film industry. 

It was cool to think of Claire as the one character who would cross through all these different shows and pull together the Netflix Marvel universe with the Cinematic Universe and all that jazz. And it was even cooler to think that Claire was going to do it while adding some much needed diversity to the film side of things.

Tragically, it looks like that ship is sunk. At least a little bit. Claire's still an integral part of the Netflix Marvel universe, appearing in Daredevil and the upcoming Jessica Jones, as well as probably Luke Cage and Defenders in a few years, but it's disappointing to know that she's not going to get the chance to go on the big screen and sass out Captain America. Because you know she would.

And that's why I picked Claire Temple for this week's Strong Female Character. Not only is she a fantastically drawn, realistic, compelling, and complex lady on a show full of women like that, she's also the kind of woman who can go toe to toe with Russian mobsters, psychotic vigilantes, and grieving partners without losing her softness and humanity. Even better, she's not a saint and she's not perfect. She's a human being full of flaws and failures, with petty gripes and frustrations. She's a better person than I can really imagine being, and she's a better character than I think we all deserve.

So let's talk about Claire Temple. Screw Night Nurse, we don't need her.* We've got Registered Nurse Claire Temple to help us torture goons, stitch up our knife cuts, and tell us when to get our priorities in check.

The first moment we meet Claire Temple (who, as mentioned before, is played by Rosario Dawson), is frankly awesome. It's a moment when Matt Murdock, our titular superhero, has clearly just been introduced to the limits of his abilities. 

He's wounded, probably dying, and lying in a dumpster. It just so happens that this dumpster is the one beside Claire's building and when her neighbor finds a body where there should just be trash, he calls her right away. Matt wakes up on her couch with her stitching him back together and in that moment we know so much about Claire.

First off, we know that she's not that kind of person who calls the cops upon finding a body in her garbage. Second, we know that she's strong enough and persuasive enough to get her neighbor to help her drag a half-dead man up three flights of stairs. Third, we know she's not just a nurse but a damn good one. And fourth, we know that she's kind. She didn't call the cops or send him to a hospital, she took this strange man into her home and got him healthy again, at great personal risk. So right off the bat we know that Claire Temple is a keeper. 

But the story gets more complex there too. Because before the episode is even half over, Claire has been roped into helping the Daredevil with his mission. The men who beat him up, members of the Russian mob, kidnapped a young boy to draw him out. He needs to find this boy. And when a Russian mobster posing as a police officer comes to the door of Claire's apartment, she not only gets a firsthand view of Daredevil's abilities, she also gets a choice. Does she want to go back in her apartment, close the door, and pretend none of this ever happened? Or does she want to help Daredevil drag a body to the roof and find a missing little boy?

It's not that I was shocked she would choose to help Daredevil, but I was genuinely impressed by how she handled it. She wasn't super bloodthirsty or anything, she was just eminently pragmatic. She found herself getting overly emotional a few times and reigned it in. She told Daredevil where to find certain nerves so that their victim would hurt a lot with the least amount of actual damage. She was a big asset, and it seems pretty likely that Daredevil never would have managed to find the kid without her. Let alone that he would be dead without her.

The really interesting bit, though, was at the end when she did what no one else on the show had done to that point, and arguably what no one else did in the course of the season. She called Daredevil, the vigilante superhero, on his bullshit. 

How sad is it that this is such a rare thing? But she does and it's great. Not just in this first episode either, but all throughout her run, Claire takes the time to tell the Daredevil exactly what she thinks of his behavior. She tells him that she thinks he's lying when he says that he enjoys hurting people, but she also tells him later that she thinks he needs to deal with his issues in a more constructive way than just beating people up.

But it's not shown as some sort of "super sassy" trope or as a "wise black woman" thing. No, it's more that Claire just doesn't see the Daredevil through any filters and so she calls it like she sees it. She's not fearless, but she is brave. Brave enough to help a vigilante again and again even though she knows it puts her life in danger. Brave enough to keep helping him even after she's kidnapped and tortured for doing so. Brave enough to tell him when enough is enough and to walk away. Brave enough to come back.

Claire is so many things and I love all of them. I love that she is afraid of pain but she doesn't talk under torture anyway. I love that she finds it in herself to fall a little bit in love with the Daredevil, but I love even more that she doesn't start to fall for him until he lets her into his world. She starts to fall when he tells her his name and shows her where he lives and lets her see more of him than just the man in black who beats up mobsters on rooftops. She's not disposable, she's not a love interest shoehorned into the plot to make Matt Murdock seem like more of a man, she's a real person who likes him for real reasons. That matters.

Heck, she's the first person to fully see him for who he is, both man and superhero. She's the one who gets the first explanation of how Matt "sees", and her response is honestly perfect. She knows how to be compassionate without pity and she knows that Matt doesn't want a babysitter, he wants a partner.

So obviously I adore Claire for her interactions with Matt throughout the first season. She holds her own and quickly becomes indispensable. As I alluded above, at one point she's even kidnapped by the Russians because they've realized how vital she is to the "Man in Black". Naturally Matt rescues her, helps her, takes her back to his place and has his turn to patch someone up, and then, of course, they share a kiss.

But this was when my respect for Claire really ratcheted up. Instead of falling into the usual superhero/love interest trap, when push comes to shove and Claire is face to face with the truth of Matt's nature, he's not the one who calls it off. Matt Murdock doesn't get a chance to break up with Claire "for her own good." Heck no! Instead, she dumps him because she decides that she doesn't have the time and space in her life to deal with his crap alongside her own.

And that's what made me love her. Oh Claire remains one of the major characters of the show, though she does disappear for a little bit. She still comes and patches up Matt. She still is there when he absolutely needs her. But when it comes to their relationship, Claire is the one who ultimately is calling the shots. She knows her limits and she knows enough to call Matt on his problems. So Claire isn't going to be some damsel fridged so the hero can learn to work past his grief. She's going to move the hell on with her life because she deserves better.

Hell yes.

It's not that I think Claire and Matt make a bad couple. I think they're positively adorable together and if I had any idea that their union could be a peaceful one, I would be throwing confetti and mashing their pictures together to see what the babies look like. But Claire doesn't want what Matt has to offer, and Matt isn't ready to consider changing. So they don't work and Claire makes the call not to pursue whatever it is they have. I respect that. I respect the hell out of it. 

Claire has agency as a character to make what is honestly the most responsible and good choice she could possibly come up with. I love that the story lets her do that. And I love that she's never punished for it.

All of this isn't even getting into the part of Claire's character where she's an incredibly competent nurse who seems to have chosen to work in a lower income part of town because she knows she can help people there and she considers it home. She's shown to be an excellent healthcare professional and she's bilingual and she's the kind of person who actually knows her neighbors... I'm just saying, I've talked about her a lot in this article, but there's so much I didn't have space to cover. 

This is a huge part of why I'm so annoyed that Marvel isn't making her a bigger character. Claire Temple is amazing. She's strong and smart and brave even when she's scared out of her mind. But she's also soft and kind and warm and compassionate. And then she's commanding and vengeful and nigh on frightening sometimes. In other words, she has all of the complexity and drama that we want in a character. Top it off with the fact that she's a woman of color who sometimes speaks Spanish because it's a language she knows fluently and the dominant language of many of her contacts? I honestly can't see why Marvel didn't want her to be in everything ever.

Or, I guess I should say, I can see why they didn't want her, but I hate it. Unfortunately, it's probably a combination of all of these traits I just listed that perfectly explain why, in the end, Night Nurse is going to be a white woman playing a romantic lead to a white man in a big budget Hollywood movie, while Claire Temple is relegated to a supporting player in the direct to Netflix shows. I can see exactly why this happened, and it makes me so mad.

So if Marvel can't handle having a character who's a woman, not white, not willing to put up with the white lead's lies, and who straight up walks herself out of being a love interest, that's their loss. 

*Actually, we do. And, to be honest, I am okay with getting more female characters added to the Marvel Universe, it's just disappointing when they so clearly have an opportunity to add diversity on the big screen and then they don't. Like making Doctor Strange white and making sure to cast a white actress as his love interest. Heaven forfend if an interracial couple were to appear!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

'Easy A', Slut-Shaming, Virgin-Shaming, and Sexual Politics

Do you ever stop for a minute and think that there was a time before we all knew who Emma Stone was? That messes me up. Every once in a while I happen to think, "What was Emma Stone doing in 2005?" and then I have to realize that I don't know. Not just because she's actually slightly younger than me which means she was still in high school then - and that makes me feel weird and old because I always think of actors and actresses as being my age at the minimum. But also because it sort of feels like she's been around forever. Thinking back to Emma Stone's breakout role is honestly a little bit distressing.


Because her breakout role was in Superbad, a movie whose popularity I genuinely still don't understand. Like, I don't get it. Why. Why this whole movie? The jokes aren't that funny, the premise is mediocre at best, and it's really just an entire film of watching Jonah Hill and Michael Cera declare how much they love each other then yell "No homo!" Plus, there's something really unsettling about realizing that Emma Stone's big breakout role, the one that put her on the map, was playing Jonah Hill's love interest in a subpar high school comedy.

But I'm not here to talk about Superbad, thank goodness. I'm here to talk about Easy A, the first movie built around Stone as a vehicle for her comedy. I was thinking about Easy A the other day and just contemplating that in the canon of movies about high school, there aren't many films that better show the double standards and tricky sexual maneuvering of an American culture obsessed with sex and purity. 

It's a movie about slut-shaming whose heroine is a virgin, and somehow the movie manages to avoid having that be her saving grace. It's a movie where the likable heroine does some incredibly unlikable things. And it's a movie that very intentionally examines whether or not women can take control of their own objectification or if there really is no good solution here. Is it any surprise I kind of love this film?

The basic plot of Easy A is, well, sort of the plot of The Scarlet Letter. But not really. Basically, Olive (Stone) is a straight-laced high school senior who is pretty comfortable with her boring life. Her parents are rad (played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci and exactly who I want to be as a parent), her best friend is kind of crazy but all right (Aly Michalka), and her high school crush at least vaguely knows her name (Penn Badgely). So it's not great, but it's not terrible either.

All that changes when Olive, in a fit of frustration, claims to have a college boyfriend. She then claims that she and said college boyfriend had sex, which means she's no longer a virgin and people should stop making fun of her for it. All of it would probably have blown over if one of her classmates, Brandon (Dan Byrd), didn't ask Olive on a date. Not because he likes her, though, but because he's gay.

He's gay and he gets bullied for it a lot, so he asks Olive out on a date so that he'll look straight. With her new reputation as a not-virginity-haver, Olive is a great date for him to have. And, the thing is, she's not unsympathetic to his plight. Brandon just wants to get through high school, and Olive knows that it's not hard to pretend to date him, even to pretend to have sex with him, so that he'll get through it alive. So she does. Loudly.

Unfortunately, that sets into motion a spiral of events that Olive can't control. The rumor mill of the school has Olive suddenly becoming more and more of a slut, while the rumor mill of the unpopular guys at school is explaining that you can pay nice-girl Olive to pretend to have sex with you so that your popularity goes up. Olive becomes the school slut without even getting kissed, and the boys she pretends to sleep with become very popular indeed. Sexual double standards abound.

And then it gets even worse when Olive's best friend deserts her, horrified by what a "slut" she's becoming, and teams up with the conservative Christian purity group on campus, led by Marianne (Amanda Bynes). Said purity group actually protests Olive's presence at the school, insisting that such a harlot shouldn't be allowed to go to school with the rest of them. And then Olive goes nuclear.

She buys a bunch of high end lingerie and starts wearing it to school. She makes little red A-s and pins them to all of her clothes. She starts dressing like a stripper, though, as her parents point out, "A high-end stripper, for governors or athletes." And this is why her parents are amazing.

Anyway, Olive quickly finds that her reputation is a lot more trouble than it's worth. The guys she's "helping" don't respect her at all, even pointing out that they don't actually need her consent to say they slept with her, because everyone will believe them. Olive officially no longer has agency in her story. And things get worse when Olive tries to go on a nice normal date with a boy, only to find that he expected her to put out in the car afterwards. So that sucks.

The breaking point is when Marianne's boyfriend, and co-leader of the purity group, comes down with chlamydia and blames Olive. Which is horrible for Olive, but arguably even worse considering that he must have actually gotten it somewhere. And that's when the whole house of cards starts tumbling down. Olive, frustrated that she's been used and blamed and scapegoated this whole time, lashes out at people, eventually causing damage to her favorite teacher and some other people she really cares about. So she finally decides to take back her agency the old fashioned way: by telling the truth and making sure everyone hears.

Which, admittedly, means promising to do a striptease on a webcam show. But, you know, whatever works.

The ending of the film is pretty Hollywood happy. Olive finally gets the guy, Todd (Badgely), the one she had a crush on since the beginning, and he doesn't care about her reputation or lack thereof. In fact, he was pretty sure it was all lies anyway, since she did the same thing with him when they were in middle school. They told everyone they'd kissed once when they hadn't and Todd had a sneaking suspicion that was what happened here. Olive gets to go on with her life and it's sweet that there's a boy for her to go on with, but that's not the point of the movie. The point of the movie is actually a bit sadder than that. But still good.

I mean, ultimately the point is that it doesn't actually matter, or it shouldn't matter, whether you've had sex or not. That is no one's business but your own. And that's very true. As a Christian feminist, I frequently find myself frustrated by how many people care about whether or not I've been having sex. There's so much pressure either way, you can understand why Olive felt the need to lie. I've certainly been guilty of letting people assume I've had sex just so I don't have to explain why I haven't. I'm not proud of that, but I have definitely done it.

It shouldn't matter whether or not you've had sex, but it does. That's the sad part of this movie's message. Olive's victory comes when she decides she doesn't care whether or not people believe her. Her parents still love and respect her and she has a true friend and romantic partner in Todd, so none of the rest is really important. But it sucks that her victory is essentially her deciding that she shouldn't care what people think, not that everyone else in the story realizes they shouldn't be judging her.

It's a happy ending, sure, but not a particularly optimistic one. Unfortunately, I think that conclusion, that you have to change your own attitude because society is unlikely to change at all, is the best option. It still sucks, though.

Moreover, it's genuinely awful how a woman's reputation is largely construed by people who are not her. It's based on word of mouth and rumor. The scene where a guy tells Olive that he doesn't actually need her permission to say she slept with him is horrifying. Mostly because it's true. 

It's horrifying that the people most vicious to Olive in this movie are other girls, because everyone is confused and hurt by the weird standards women are supposed to live up to. Is Olive supposed to be a feminist hero to her classmates for having lots of sex or it she supposed to be a women who doesn't respect herself? And, furthermore, how awful must it have been for people to think she was a virgin if she was so willing to lie about it? We all know slut-shaming is a huge problem, but so too is virgin-shaming. 

It is also worth pointing out that this whole story is cast in a very privileged place. Olive is upper middle class, her school is a very pretty, very well off public school that honestly looks nicer than most private schools I've seen, and none of the issue here is about money or race or class. If it were, it would actually probably be a more interesting story. I mean, what if Olive were doing this because she actually needed the money? What if her race had people already predisposed to assume she was sexually active, like how young women of color face an increased level of sexual harassment and assault? What if her parents couldn't afford to just laugh it off?

So we have to remember that this story is really set in its privilege and that for all that it's progressive, it does rather skip past the larger issues. Still, it's a good movie and it's a good thing to talk about. 

Olive's attitude at the end, though great, is really not what we want for young women. We don't want women to have to say, "Screw the world!" Nor do we want a culture so toxic about sex that it encourages young men to have it, saying that they're outcasts and not real men if they don't, while castigating the young women they're supposedly having sex with. It's a horrific sexual double standard and it's bad for everyone involved.

But I think, ultimately, Olive herself says it best at the end: "I might even lose my virginity to him. I don't know when it will happen. You know, maybe in five minutes, or tonight, or six months from now, or maybe on the night of our wedding. But the really amazing thing is, it is nobody's goddamn business."


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"I Don't Listen to the Weather" - Does Authorial Intent Matter?

I thought of this article last night while talking to my friend, Shomari, about how he hates listening to the Weather on Welcome to Night Vale. Because he's lame like that. His explanation was basically that he finds the Weather jarring and out of place in the episode, and he just wants to get back to the story. And I can understand that argument, it makes sense. But it got me thinking because I never do skip the Weather, even when I don't particularly like it. I listen to the whole thing because I know that it was chosen intentionally, it's not in the episode by accident, and that by listening to the whole Weather, I'm more closely experiencing this episode the way it was meant to be experienced.

So which of us is right?

For those of you who don't listen to Welcome to Night Vale and therefore didn't get what I mean, here's the deal. First, you should totally listen to Welcome to Night Vale. It's available to download for free on iTunes and it's phenomenal. It's like a fake community news broadcast from the world's weirdest town. Each episode highlights some new bizarre happening in town and we're given a report of the goings on of citizens and otherworldly denizens of the small burg, with the emotional and plot climax always coming just in time for Cecil, the radio DJ and "voice of Night Vale", to cut to the Weather.

Only the Weather isn't a weather report. It's very confusing for the first few episodes, but the Weather is actually always a song by a not yet popular band. The bands can submit their songs any time and the writers of Welcome to Night Vale choose each song specifically for the episode. Heck, if you have a band you can submit a song now. It's pretty easy.

The Weather is always a few minutes long and it's a break from the action of the story. It's an auditory intermission, taking your mind away from the plot and the characters so you can listen to some sweet jams. Since they feature a lot of different and frankly bizarre music, though, it's not uncommon to find the Weather kind of jarring or unpleasant. I mean, no one likes all the music they're randomly exposed to, right? And so no one likes the Weather all the time.

So my friend is completely within his rights not to like listening to it. But the question is, should he anyway? Because that's the sticky thing about authorial intent. The authors of Welcome to Night Vale clearly put the Weather in there on purpose. It's not like they slipped and edited in a four minute experimental percussion piece by accident. The songs that make up the Weather are meant to be there. So if we want to listen to WTNV, should we listen to the Weather too?

I'm not sure I have a good answer for this. Authorial intent is a really complex issue. How much value do we and should we give to the people who create the stories we enjoy? Do we have to enjoy those stories in exactly the way they intended? Is it better to read/watch/listen to them in the way we most personally prefer? I have no idea. But I do know that this is not a new issue.

In fact, the way we read or watch or listen to a piece of media can greatly impact how we enjoy it. It's like how the books you read for school are almost never the books you actually end up liking. Or how it's a completely different experience to see a television show without commercials edited in. Or season breaks. It's weird reading a comic book in a trade paperback without having to wait a week in between issues. Reading a whole series of novels without having to go a year or so in between installments. Or watching a big budget action movie on an iPad.

There are a lot of ways that we consume media without really adhering to the ways the creators of that media intended it to be enjoyed. I'm guilty of a lot of this myself, honestly. I have a Master's in Screenwriting and I know how television shows on major networks are actually structured around their commercial breaks, but whenever I get the chance I make sure I can't even notice those breaks, either watching them on the DVR or on Netflix. I know that movies like Mission Impossible 3 really need to be seen on the big screen, but then I watch them on my arthritic laptop and complain that I don't enjoy them.

Maybe the biggest one for me is Charles Dickens, though. I loathe the works of Mr. Dickens, and I'm not overly fond of him as a person. But a big part of that is probably because his works have been compiled into novels and they were never actually intended to be read that way. 

Charles Dickens wrote his stories as periodicals in the newspaper, publishing new chapters every week or so (maybe month, who cares). He was paid by the word and his audience might miss a chapter or pick up in the middle, so he was constantly going back over the story to make sure everyone followed along.

Then those stories were compiled into novels and I was forced to read them and I hated them because they're so dry and so long and so repetitive. Is this a case where I just don't like Dickens, or is it because I'm reading Dickens in a format he never intended these stories to be read?

And yet, there doesn't really seem to be a good solution to this problem. Right now I'm in the process of rewatching Fringe on Netflix. It's a great show and I watched the first two and a half seasons as it was airing, but then grad school picked up and I lost interest and got busy and so I never finished the show. Now I'm rewatching it so I can finish it out, but does that mean I should watch it the way I did the first time, with a week in between each episode and three months in between seasons?

That is the way the show was meant to be watched. It's not like 2010 was the dark ages, but it was ever so slightly before binge watching became as popular as it is now, and so I don't think Fringe was ever meant to be watched in a single sleepless weekend. But that's just what I did with the second season. Have I made the story worse for myself? Seriously, how does this work?

I honestly don't have an answer to this. As much as I am a writer and I strongly believe in narrative cohesion, I also like binge watching. I like reading a bunch of comics in one big heap. I'm impatient and lazy and the idea of watching one episode every week even though I have all of them available to me right now is horrifying.

Plus, it's worth considering that binge watching kind of does make me like the show better. There's no time to get bored of the characters. You immerse yourself in the story. When I went through my Tamora Pierce rereading phase a year or so ago, I got so into that world I could basically recite facts about it. That's fun! I like being that into a particular headspace.

On the other hand, some books and movies and shows are meant to be read or watched in a certain manner and to do otherwise really does impede on the experience. A friend of mine watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the first time on a plane because it was showing on the little TV in the seatback and for some reason she didn't like it. I wanted to scream, "Let me show it to you on a big television with a great soundsystem so you can get immersed in the story and love it like I do please!" That is a movie that was meant to be watched with the volume all the way up.

And then there's other issues of authorial intent. The one that always comes to mind is Inception and how the fans of that movie went kind of bonkers afterwards trying to figure out if the coin Cobb spins in the final frames of the film ever falls. In other words, fans spent hours and months and in some cases years trying to figure out if Cobb was ever able to come out of the dream or if he was stuck in Limbo for all eternity.

Christopher Nolan is a talented and clever director. So you know what the answer to that question is actually supposed to be? "I don't know." The answer is intentionally ambiguous. Just like the creators of Welcome to Night Vale didn't slip and accidentally insert a song into their podcast right before the climax, Christopher Nolan did not forget to finish the final shot of his Oscar nominated movie. He didn't run out of funding and have to scrap the last frame. He wanted it to be that way. We should respect that.

Then again, should we? I'm not talking about Christopher Nolan here, but haven't you noticed that some creators aren't actually very good at figuring out how their work would best be enjoyed? George Lucas is very talented (ish) and all, but he is crap at figuring out how the order of his movies should go. The most fun way to watch all the Star Wars movies was actually figured out by someone on tumblr and it goes like this: watch episodes four and five - then go back for the backstory of one, two, and three - then watch six. And it's great! George Lucas didn't come up with that, a fan did. So does his authorial intent matter?

For a more recent example, take Kyla's recap of Hannibal from yesterday. She expressed disappointment that the show took such a big jump in time without letting fans properly emotionally process it. 

As she commented later, the jump probably would have worked better if, like the writers originally intended, the events of episode seven had happened as the end of season three and the events of episode eight were actually the start of season four. That nine month hiatus in between seasons would have helped the fans reconcile the time jump and would have made it less jarring and more enjoyable.

I feel like I'm going around in circles but that's because I really am. Here's another example of how confusing authorial intent can really get: the Clerks movies. Kevin Smith, who has his moments of auteur-level authorial control, wrote a character named Randal into his debut movie Clerks. Also Randal is in Clerks II. Kevin Smith wrote and directed Randal as gay. He has stated in interviews that Randal is supposed to be a deeply closeted gay man in denial of his sexuality. Meanwhile, the actor who plays Randal, Jeff Anderson, has stated publicly that he thinks Randal is straight. Which one of them is right? Who wins that argument?

For all that I don't really have answers to these questions, I think the examination of authorial intent is really important. We need to think about this stuff if we're going to be critical and intelligent in our consumption of media. No, there aren't any obvious answers. But that doesn't mean the questions aren't worth asking anyway. If we think critically about how a story was meant to be consumed, then we are examining both the author's intended meaning and our own reaction to it.

So, ultimately, I think it's okay that my friend skips the Weather when he listens to Welcome to Night Vale, as long as he understands that the Weather is there on purpose. Authorial intent isn't the voice of God, but it is important.

And now, the Weather:

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

RECAP: Hannibal 3x08 - Where Did the Time Go?

Quick reminder that we have Kyla Furey of Feedback Force doing weekly Hannibal recaps for us right now because she is awesome.

This is the first episode of Hannibal in a long time (maybe ever) that left me feeling unsatisfied, uncertain, and - dare I even say it - disappointed.

It’s a shame, really, because this episode has a lot to recommend it. It’s got an absolutely wonderful and intriguing first performance by Richard Armitage as Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon. It’s got one of the most interesting and disturbing crime scene re-creations in a long time* (although that might just in part be contrast from not having seen one in so long), and it had the smile-inducing return of Team Sassy Science with Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams (Price and Zeller, respectively).

What bothered me most of all about this episode I think was the lost time. The bulk of the episode takes place three years after the previous episode, and a lot has changed since we last left Hannibal in police custody in Will’s driveway. In broad strokes, here’s the episode:

Hannibal’s in jail, with Alanna and Chilton as his nominal keepers. He seems only vaguely interested in them, more bored than anything else. Alanna, at least, seems very aware of the danger he could still potentially pose. Chilton is, well, Chilton.

Meanwhile, a series of gruesome murders have begun and Jack Crawford has once again reached out to Will Graham to help solve them. Will has been away from the business for three years and has found and married (or is at least living with) a lovely woman named Molly and her son and all the dogs. He comes when Jack calls, but very reluctantly.

Unfortunately, his efforts and the combined forces of Will, Jack, and Team Sassy Science are pulling up nothing of use, and so Will is forced to re-visit Hannibal in order to regain the mindset he needs to really get into the brain of this killer.

That’s all that technically happens in this episode; it literally ends on the start of the scene re-uniting Will and Hannibal. There’s a lot of surreal character-defining sequences with Richard Armitage that are amazing and animalistic and truly bizarre in some instances** and really give a strong sense that “Oh, this guy is straight-up crazy.” But those are just mood scenes that give us very little actual information about the man behind the Red Dragon (or the “Tooth Fairy,” as the media apparently calls him).

It took me a while to pinpoint what I didn’t like about the episode. After all, I didn’t have a problem with things not happening in the early part of the season when it was all arch, dream-like emotions and lovely European landscapes. No, I think what really bothered me was, as I said, the lost time.***

There is a very strong implication in this episode that people have changed. Hannibal is different - he is more withdrawn, less arch. Will is certainly different, given that he’s apparently having trouble coming to grips with the psychotic mindset the way he used to. Not to mention, you know, the whole “family” thing that he’s finally apparently achieved.

But my question is, how did we get to this point? What happened in those three years? This show has always been so on-point with its emotional arcs, so driven in terms of really letting us feel the characters. It seems crazy that so much emotional character development just happened off-screen, and we’ve gotten not an inkling of it.

When we last saw Will, he was psychotic and unstable enough not only to follow Hannibal to his own death, but to willingly and randomly (okay, not entirely randomly, but still) bite off a piece of a man’s face. 

How the hell did he get from there to the point where he was stable enough for a family? Where he is far enough removed from death and violence that he can’t readily summon it anymore? What even is his current mindset? Was the last time we saw him his rock-bottom, or did he have further depression to spiral into without Hannibal before he could start to recover? We see into him so much less this episode than in any other since maybe the first season.

And what about Hannibal? How does he feel about being in prison? What was his emotional journey like since his capture? Is he really bored, or just waiting? Is he angry? Was he, in the beginning? Does he miss Will? Or has he come to terms with not seeing Will? Where is his head at?

Again, so much of this show is usually spot on with the character emotions that I feel completely adrift after this episode. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be feeling, which has never happened to me before with this show. I don’t know what any of the characters are feeling, which is unheard of.

I really think the show needed another episode between the last one and this one. Maybe we could’ve pruned some space out of the tone-setting early episodes of the season and placed it here. I want to see Hannibal’s descent into the darkness of captivity as paralleled with Will’s journey back out of it. I want to see Will meet Molly, and figure out who he has to be around her to manage this concept of “family.” I want to see Hannibal play with the press, and then get bored of it. I want to see Jack have the option to approach Will and decide against it. I want to see Will intentionally distancing himself from anything crime- or violence-related. I want to see Hannibal pining after Will in prison.

For heaven’s sake, the first half of this season was a drawn-out, tension-filled five episodes before Will and Hannibal even saw each other again, and that was after an absence from each other of only a few months. And now, when they haven’t seen each other for literally years, we get basically a single scene of Will saying, “Well, I guess it’s time for me to see Hannibal again,” and boom, there he is?**** It just seems so abrupt, so unrelated to everything this show has been so far.

My hope is that we’ll get part of this emotional back-story as flashbacks as we go further into the season, but I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s not where the show intends to go. I know this show’s days have always been numbered and they were really in a rush to get to the Red Dragon stuff, but I really think you could have had, if not a whole ‘nother half-season, then at least an episode or two of how the time apart changed Will and Hannibal to help ground us in the now, and make this reunion truly mean something.

* My favorite part of this is that when Will enters the scene, his flashlight becomes a “window to the past” (as Bryan Fuller put it) that allows him to see the fresh crime scene in little circular splashes of light that disappear as the flashlight swings away.

** My favorite part of his sequences was the scene where his head becomes a film projector, wrapped up in old celluloid like bandages and projecting light from his eyes and mouth.

*** That and, I’m sorry to say, Molly. Or at least her actress. This isn’t a crazy shipper Hannigram thing; I really want to like Molly. I think Will needs something healthy for him, at least for a while. (Plus anyone who thinks that someone else can fill the spot in Will that Hannibal fills is just kidding themselves.) I just don’t think the actress has really got the timing of this show down. All of her lines felt really rushed to me; she didn’t give them the time to breathe and settle that the dialogue on this show is famous for and really requires at this point. Hopefully we’ll see more of her that will change my mind.

**** I guess technically we get a letter from Hannibal earlier, but again I have so little idea of what either of them are thinking surrounding that letter that it almost doesn’t even count.

Kyla Furey is an independent game designer and writer. She is also one of the hosts of the game-analysis podcast, Feedback Force, and hosts a weekly Saturday night game livestream on Twitch TV. She enjoys the surreal and the moody in her media, hence her great love of NBC’s Hannibal. You can follow her on Twitter @Kyla_Go where she livetweets Hannibal on Thursdays at 10pm Pacific, following which, she posts delirious stream-of-consciousness reaction videos on YouTube.

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Is 'Dog with a Blog' Dadaist?

Okay, for those of you who come here for my brilliant and profound considerations of popular culture, which I assume is clearly the main reason people visit this site, then you probably want to sit this one out.* I have no profundity today. Nope. I have no logical thoughts whatsoever. Today's post can literally be summed up by a shot of my face skewed up in confusion because all I have to say is "What. WHAT? Wat."

This deep and meaningful questioning of, well, everything, is because last Friday night, curled up on my very comfortable couch for some post-GREs couch potato-ing, I stumbled across a show that broke me. I mean that very really. I watched this entire episode of what I can only assume is a real show that people really watch and pay for and I feel like something inside me died. That show was Dog with a Blog and I have no idea what happened. But I think I just discovered a secret cache of dadaist philosophy on children's television.

To back up, I have done absolutely no research into this show. I didn't go and watch more episodes to get a better idea of if this particular one was representative of the show as a whole, I'm afraid to find out how long it's been on the air, and frankly the concept of looking it up on IMDB horrifies me, so we're really flying blind here. But this is what happened.

First I was lulled into a false sense of security by finding a rerun of an episode of Gravity Falls playing on the Disney Channel. Gravity Falls is a legitimately good show that I will definitely talk about someday for reals, so my barriers were down. I was enjoying myself. Then the episode ended and the network proceeded on to the next show. That show was Dog with a Blog and I was totally going to turn it off. Only I didn't.

I didn't turn it off because from the first second I genuinely couldn't believe that this was a real show really on television. 

It's like how when I first saw a trailer for Jack and Jill, that disastrously terrible Adam Sandler movie where he played his own twin sister, I was sure it was a prank. A fake trailer. A movie that didn't actually exist because no one is stupid enough to pay for it. Only it is a real movie that really does exist and that you really shouldn't watch, and this show is real too. 

The premise of Dog with a Blog, as far as I can tell which is not very far, is this: there's a dog who can talk. His name is Stan. He is apparently married to another dog and they have two little puppies together. The puppies are really stupid but can also talk. Stan and his dog family live with a human family. This human family does not know that Stan can talk and also that he runs a semi-successful website, with the exception of their teenage daughter, Avery.

I did not gather from this one episode why Stan can talk or if every animal in this world can talk and only Stan went public or if there was magic involved or if Stan is actually an alien... We just have to go with it. Stan is an obnoxious freaking dog that can talk and the teenage daughter is the only one to know. Maybe? At least that's what this episode made it seem like.

She's the only one who knows because literally everyone else in the family is painfully stupid. The parents are the kind of idiots you see most often on kid sitcoms like this, but who seem to be too moronic to actually function in society. I mean, we are told that they hold down jobs, but I do not believe it.

The other children, an older teenage son and a younger preteen daughter, are also stupid, but with slight variations. The son is stupid and obsessed with girls. The daughter is stupid and obsessed with fashion. I hope you're managing to remember all of this riveting character development.

The only member of the family who can tie her own shoelaces seems to be Avery, the daughter who knows about the talking dog, and her life mostly revolves around her friends. Or at least it does in this one episode. Her friends are a sitcom-only group of motley misfits. One is a supervillain-esque inventor who speaks in an affected British accent, one is an angry goth, and one is a sunny airhead whose entire personality appears to be "stupid". Avery meanwhile is very smart and nerdy and "quirky". So it's clear to see why these people are friends.

That's the setup of the show. I think. Stan the dog does things and the family does things and I guess we're supposed to laugh? But personally I spent the entire episode I watched marveling at the sheer dadaist surrealism of the show. You think I'm kidding? I genuinely could use this episode as an example of how the amplification of sitcom tropes creates a story in which humor is abstracted past the point of being funny, the surrealism of the story becomes almost Dali-esque, and NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING ANYMORE.

I meant it when I said that this show broke me.

The episode I watched, which I have not looked up the title for because I don't want to know, had three main storylines. First, Stan the dog tries to teach his puppies how to play pranks on people using a soundboard app on his iPad. Why the dog has an iPad we are not told. Second, Avery discovers that her supervillain friend and her goth friend are dating and worries about group dynamics. Third, the father has an extra ticket to a geology exhibit at the museum he supposedly works at and tries to figure out how to trick his stupid family into going with him.

In the first plotline, which I think is supposed to be funny, the father dog spends the whole episode playing "pranks" on the humans of the house trying to teach them what practical jokes are. So he uses the soundboard app to record them talking and then remix the words to be weird and crazy and "funny". The puppies do not understand until they finally do and prank their father. The end of this horrible horrible storyline. 

It's horrible, for the record, because the talking dogs are incredibly obnoxious. Stan is smug and downright smarmy, like a fedora-bro you just want to punch, while the puppies are so "cute" it makes you want to hurl. They call him "dada". Ugh. If only that were a reference to dadaism and Russian futurism. If only...

The Avery plotline is like a whole season worth of drama on another show piled into one twenty minute episode. First the boy and girl reveal that they are dating and that they're worried it will hurt group dynamics. Then they date and do hurt group dynamics. Then they break up. Then their two other friends decide to get them back together because it was sad that they broke up. 

But they're too stubborn to apologize to each other. Then everyone is transported to a medieval faire. Then the friends use the soundboard app and Stan the magical dog to trick their buddies into apologizing and reconciling. Then the two lovers kiss. While wearing gigantic costume masks that block their faces. One of them is a dragon and the other is a knight. What.

The family plotline has the father announcing his extra ticket and his wife and two children doing everything possible to get out of going. They escalate their avoidance tactics until the father decides to tell them that it's going to be a big "rock show" and "the stones" will be there. The whole family thinks that he is talking about the Rolling Stones because they are stupid and very proud of how stupid they are, and then they go to the museum and are very unhappy. The end.

I feel like this does not fully do justice to the confusion of actually watching the show, though. I'm not sure how to fix that.

Because, really, I'm not sure anything can compare to the sheer terror and confusion that raced through my mind when it finally sunk in that, yes, this is a real show. Real people made this show. Real people write episodes of this show. Presumably real people watch and enjoy this show. And I had never heard of it before in my life.

I'm just... this seems like the kind of thing I should know about. For science.

And I'm not kidding when I say that the only thing I could think of while watching this was that it was a kind of dadaist experiment in the abstraction of humor. For those unfamiliar with dadaism (which is completely reasonable because you can live a long and happy life without knowing about dadaism, trust me), dadaism was a European avant-garde movement in the early twentieth century. It became incredibly influential in the art scene and helped create the surrealism movement, the pop art movement, and a lot of other cool stuff.

Dadaism, at its heart, is a leftist rebellion against war and bourgeois capitalist values. The dadaists held firmly that "logic" and "reason" were tools of the bourgeois capitalist society that they used to bring about war. As such, the dadaists embraced chaos and irrationality and not making much sense. They called themselves not an art movement, but an anti-art movement, committed to breaking down colonialist, racist, and capitalist structures by confusing people into thinking for themselves. 
Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of the First World War. This international movement was begun by a group of artists and poets associated with the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition. The origin of the name Dada is unclear; some believe that it is a nonsensical word. Others maintain that it originates from the Romanian artists Tristan Tzara's and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words "da, da," meaning "yes, yes" in the Romanian language. Another theory says that the name "Dada" came during a meeting of the group when a paper knife stuck into a French-German dictionary happened to point to 'dada', a French word for 'hobbyhorse'.
- from The Language of Art Knowledge by Dona Budd 
Dadaism was intended to offend people out of complacency. It wasn't supposed to be beautiful or good or pleasant, it was meant to be shocking and ugly and harsh. So, yeah, I think Dog with a Blog is kind of dadaist. A little bit.

Not so much because it's horrific and it offends my senses, though it kind of does, but more because I feel like it does to sitcom humor what dadaism sought to do to fine art. It abstracts it past the point of meaning and in so doing makes clear the underlying absurdities we have been lulled into accepting. Dog with a Blog feels aggressively unfunny. Each sitcom cliche unfolds with more absurdity than the last. The laugh track doesn't so much feel out of place as it does atonal and out of sync. Honestly probably the closest thing I can compare it to is David Lynch's Rabbits

Word of advice, don't google that unless you're ready for some very unsettling dreams tonight.

Anyway, I'm not saying that Dog with a Blog is actually dadaist. That seems probably unlikely, if for no other reason than because it's on the Disney Channel and that goes against everything dadaism stands for. But I do think that the show is aggressively weird and not very funny in a way that seems maybe intentional? Or at the very least not being guarded against.

And it seems to me like this sort of absurd abstraction is happening a lot in children's media right now. Not the cool surrealism of Adventure Time and Steven Universe and Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall and Bee and Puppycat and all that, but the distressing slide into madness started by Teletubbies and apparently continued with Dog with a Blog. I mean the way that it almost feels like network executives are doing madlibs to come up with shows now. 

Then again, maybe it's an age thing. I distinctly recall loving Ghostwriter, and the premise there was pretty absurd itself. Let's not even get started on Wishbone, which featured a Jack Russell Terrier playing the lead in classical literature reenactments. Or what about Square One? It was a math show about spies. I think.

The point is, I don't think I have a point. Maybe I'm just too old to really appreciate Dog with a Blog. Maybe I'm too cynical and have lost my childish wonder. Maybe it's all of that and also none at the same time. Or maybe Dog with a Blog secretly really is a dadaist children's show, intent on disrupting children into seeing the horrors that surround them.

I'm honestly not sure which one of those options frightens me the most.

*Check back this afternoon for an intellectually worthwhile recap the most recent Hannibal, courtesy of Kyla Furey, our resident Hannibal expert.

Monday, July 27, 2015

'Boondock Saints' - Men Shoot Gangsters, Women Don't Exist

This article was originally written as part of Bitch Flicks' theme week on Cult Films and B Movies like two years ago. I'm crossposting it here because I'm lazy and I don't really feel like writing something original today. I mean, I guess I could pretend there's a more grand and interesting explanation, but there isn't. Sorry.

I fell in love with Boondock Saints the summer that I turned sixteen, about four days before I went off to live and work at a Christian summer camp for eight weeks – a torturously long time when you’ve just fallen in love with the most profane and violent movie possible. I was told that I shouldn’t watch it, that I couldn’t watch it, because it was too violent, too swear-y, too much for my faint little heart to take. I told them to eff themselves and watched it anyway. And I fell in love instantly.

It was a long lasting love affair too. I had the poster hanging above my bed, I still own a copy on DVD, and I saw that film so many times that I could recite it in real time as my college roommate watched in horror. I even went to see the sequel. In theaters. On purpose.

But it wasn’t until last year, when I started to write out a list of my all-time favorite movies that I realized something important: I might love Boondock Saints, but it doesn’t love me back. Or, specifically, it doesn’t love my gender. That was when the romance started to fade.

To back up a little, Boondock Saints is a cult shoot-em-up film released in 1999 and written and directed by Troy Duffy. It stars Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus as the McManus twins, two good old Irish boys living in South Boston who receive a message from God to go kill gangsters. Which they then proceed to do with alarming vigor and good humor. They’re pursued by Agent Smecker, played by Willem DeFoe, and helped by good friend Rocco, played by David Della Rocco.

Also, Billy Connolly turns up as a terrifying hit man known only as “Il Duce,” and Dot-Marie Jones makes a brief cameo as Rosengurtle Baumgartner, who kicks one of the boys in the crotch. But I digress.

The film is weird and violent and profane, like I said. The basic premise, that Connor (Flanery) and Murphy (Reedus) are on a holy mission to rid the world of evil is both strange and deeply non-Biblical, but there is a thrill to it that makes you want to believe. The plot kicks off when the boys are involved in a bar fight with two enforcers for the Russian mob. After the fight, the mobsters go track down our heroes and try to finish the job, but Connor and Murphy get the drop on them (literally), and kill the two men.

Agent Smecker is then called out to figure out what the hell happened. Smecker, who is inarguably DeFoe’s best and most interesting character to date, deduces the exact events effortlessly and is proven right when the two boys show up at the police station, turn themselves in, and claim self-defense.

The story would end right there if during the night spent in jail, the two men didn’t receive a vision from God. A mission, you might say, that calls them to “Destroy that which is evil, so that which is good may flourish.” This all tracks in with a sermon shown in the beginning of the film that cites the murder of Kitty Genovese as a sign that good men must do something to stop evil from spreading. All well and good, but I’m not sure the priest was calling for mass murder.

Which is precisely what happens. Connor and Murphy start picking off members of the Russian and Italian mobs, with a little help from their friend Rocco, a low-level numbers runner. They get so good at it, in fact, that Smecker is at a complete loss and the mob is running scared. It all comes to a climax when they try to take out the Don of the Italian mob in Boston, get captured, and come face to face with the man hired to kill them – Il Duce. Except Il Duce is actually their father, and the men happily reunite to go off and kill another day.

Like I said, it’s a weird, violent movie.

There are, in all honestly, a lot of things worth discussing with Boondock Saints, from the way it is one hundred and ten percent a white, male fantasy of justice and badassery, to the fact that it’s so Biblically inaccurate as to be kind of painful, to Agent Smecker as one of the most interesting gay characters to grace the silver screen, to the fact that it’s honestly just a very strange story, chock full of coincidences and arguably terrible writing that somehow becomes awesome instead of cliché. But let’s focus in for a minute on what turned me off of it. Let’s talk about the ladies.

Or, rather, let’s talk about the lack of them. In point of fact, the women of Boondock Saints are most notable by their absence. I can count the number of named female characters on one hand, and none of those characters appear in more than two scenes. That’s actually a false representation as well, because only one of them appears in more than one scene at all. Of all of the female characters in the film, not a single one receives more screentime than the scenes of Agent Smecker in drag toward the end of the film.

That is bad enough in and of itself, but there is also the actual characters to consider. Of the female characters shown or mentioned, one is an unnamed stripper (who, ironically, is the most visible woman in the film, appearing in two whole scenes), two are junkies and sluts (according to Rocco), and one is Rosengurtle Baumgartner, an avowed lesbian who we are supposed to laugh at for taking offense to one of Connor’s jokes. She kicks him in the nuts. He deserves it.

There are two more women of note in the story, but both had their stories cut down in the final version of the film and appear mostly in the deleted scenes on the DVD. One is Connor and Murphy’s mother, who calls them to wish them a happy birthday, and the other is a nice girl outside the courtroom who gives the news cameras a completely convincing and not at all ridiculous explanation of why she is perfectly fine having seen someone shot to death right in front of her moments before.

Like I said, that’s pretty much it. There’s a waitress, a nun in a hospital, an Italian grandmother, and a female news reporter, but I genuinely struggle to think of any more female characters. At all. In the entire movie. It would seem that in the world of Boondock Saints, women are not just irrelevant to the narrative, but also virtually invisible. They just don’t seem to exist.

I suppose it makes sense, given that the film is a white, male power fantasy. Connor and Murphy are the ultimate slacker heroes, the guys we’re supposed to want to be. They have no formal education, but somehow happen to know about six languages fluently. They seem perfectly content living on the fringes of society, because tough guys don’t need furniture or shower curtains or functioning plumbing, I guess. They’re religious, but in the cool way. They don’t have to learn how to use guns, or find out where to buy weaponry, or even struggle as they assume their mission. They just effortlessly seem to know what they need to do and then do it. No fuss, no muss. Without a second of training they are the two most proficient hit men ever to grace the streets of Boston.

It’s a fantasy, and you can see why it would be intoxicating. They’re good at what they do. They’re cool. What they do is unassailably (within the context of the movie universe) right. They get to shoot people and have fun and laugh with their friends, and it’s fine because it’s all justified by God. They don’t kill women or children, so it must be okay, right?

Well, no.

The ethics of the film are one thing, but it says a lot about the world of the movie that it’s able to go nearly two hours without a single important female character showing up on screen. There are no women cops, there are no women in the mob, there are only a couple of wives or passers-by or maybe a drug-addled girlfriend or two. But no one who matters. The acting characters in the film are all overwhelmingly and vocally male.

Even the ethos of the characters, that they will destroy that which is evil, but leave alone the pure and blameless, is inherently sexist. Because when they say pure and blameless, what they mean is the women and children. In this universe, women are not even people enough to do things wrong. We do not have enough agency even to commit evil.

But here’s the problem. I know all of this, and yet I still like the movie. I mean, I’m not in love with it anymore. The scales have lifted off my eyes, and I can see it for what it is – a bloated, self-aggrandizing, violent ode to vigilantism – but I still enjoy it.


I think ultimately it comes down to something deeper. Something about how it took me eight years to realize that the movie was toxic for women. I genuinely did not expect this story, or really any story like it, to include women. I naturally didn’t even think to look for a female character to relate to, because it inherently assumed there wouldn’t be one.

Troy Duffy, aware of the criticism he received for this first film, included a major female character in the execrable sequel, Boondock Saints: All Saints Day. In it, Agent Smecker is gone and in his stead we have Agent Bloom (Julie Benz). But this is just another stunt meant to show how “progressive” and “totally not sexist” Duffy is. Bloom is relegated to a backseat role, and shown to be yet another innocent in the world. She’s a badass lady cop, but actually just a scared little girl who needs to be protected. And if she happens to fulfill a couple of fantasies about women in power suits and heels while she’s at it, then so much the better.

I wish I could tell sixteen-year-old me not to bother with this movie, that I should, for once, listen to my friends and back away slowly, but I don’t think I would, even if I were given the chance. Because as much as I now can see this movie for the sexist doggerel it is, it still has a place in my heart. It was the movie that taught me how much fun schlock flicks could be, the one that showed me that a movie doesn’t have to be good to be fun, and the movie that introduced me to one of my all time best friends. I wouldn’t take it back.

But I still wish it didn’t make me feel so gross inside.