About outlits

Hello, I’m Circuit B. Books, books, books – they are the only material things in this world that I desire. I’m prone to buying stacks of them before acquiring such essentials as food and clothing. Because I am very much a written-verbal learner, I have always had difficulty in appreciating (and sitting still for) the audio-visual medium of film, specifically the visual aspects*. (This problem has never once applied to animation.) However, I’ve come to respect and enjoy film, thanks in great part to the excellent recommendations from Outlit C. Currently, I am becoming fluent in the German language. To improve my writing skills, I may upload reviews/articles in German. However, an English translation will also be provided. - Circuit B Hello, I’m Circuit C. I am a hardcore literary enthusiast, cinemaphile, and wearer of aviator glasses. I tend to spend my time reading, writing, painting, admiring Hunter S. Thompson, and trying to learn how to use a variety of cameras. My goal in life is to eventually work in film and video, so that I can propagate my strange ideas more fully. I am also sort of/kind of an amateur dabbler in paints and letters, and generally bedabbled by paint (and letters, if today’s menu is alphabet soup). Otherwise, I love books, I love art, I love arthouse cinema, and I love cartoons, horror movies, and online shows. I see no reason for there to be any separation in this. I am also the voice of a small anti-Grammar Nazi group, The Grammar Communists. (Check us out on facebook!) Bantering over brandy and embracing mild dysgraphia, Circuit C (cheers)

Gone Girl

I wanted to get a couple easy, fun airplane reads. I also love David Fincher movies and Japanese horror, so I decided it would be surefire to pick Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Natsuo Kirino’s Out (which turned out to be bonkers). To be clear, I don’t really ever read thriller novels, at least for many years. This isn’t my usual go-to genre. I had no idea what either book was about. I did not know, for instance, that I would be picking up two very different discussions on gender: an often-called misogynist book by a self-proclaimed feminist, and a proclaimed feminist book that is full of pure crazy.

I also want to begin by saying that Gone Girl is one of my least favorite reading experiences.

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Gone Girl is a mystery thriller that is becoming a movie (from the director of Fight Club and Se7en, so we can definitely expect cheerfulness and joy from the screen). It is also a “meditation” on marriage… or something. Basically, half the book is devoted to Amy and Nick, two preternaturally attractive, rich, New Yorker writers who New York a lot about New Yorking New York and how New York New York New York is.

NEW YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORK!

NEW YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORK!

Then they lose their jobs and move to Missouri. Karma.

mo

I cannot express how much I despise the New York writer obsession. If the Nobel Prize for literature is hopelessly biased in many ways, I can’t say that it isn’t correct about how myopic the American literary scene is. Anyone reading literary fiction, and most especially that literary fiction that is really just middle-brow book club fiction, knows that New York is ubiquitous. It is so inescapable that even light satirizing of this New York obsession –which I think is at least a part of the novel– is still too New York. While the book does address the very real issue of artists and writers being priced out of New York’s ever inflating cost of living, it still does so with such an insular adulation for the culture and beauty of NYC that the message is lost amidst a lot of pandering nonsense. And, before anyone says, “Oh, but this book shows that New York isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! It’s a satire! It shows the dark underbelly of rich, arty New York types! The author just adores Missouri!” then I have one thing to say to you:

great_gatsby

Yes. In the Jazz Era, Fitzgerald did it first and did it better.

And this book does bear more than a passing resemblance to Gatsby. It has the supposed “normal guy” from the Midwest, getting involved with a rich, beautiful New York person who may have a secret, and revealing corruption and ruined marriages. Also, someone unlikable dies.

I think that it’s not just the Gatsby-isms or the New York obsession that has this problem. The entire book feels tired, like it’s a cobbler of various other, better novels, ones which already addressed Flynn’s issues and did so better.

When I say that Gone Girl is a cobbler of other people’s better work, I am not kidding. One of the most frustrating things about this novel is how it thinks it is so very original, saying something so daring about marriage and crime and the media. And, yet, it is literally a remake. Yes. This book has already been written. And made into a film. This is the Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale scenario all over again. Sure, Hunger Games did some things that Battle Royale did not do, but it’s still basically the American, YA, Hollywood take on the original Japanese concept. In this case, Gone Girl is just a modernized, sexed-up, ultra-violent, hammy version of Leave Her to Heaven. The difference is, while The Hunger Games homages and steals from a relatively good book, Leave Her to Heaven was bland and forgettable. It’s a Noir-lite, with not enough Vincent Price.

If your book has a twist ending, it'd be great if it wasn't the same plot as a film from 1945.

If your book has a twist ending, it’d be great if it wasn’t the same plot as a film from 1945.

Now, you may say that Flynn didn’t mean to steal the exact same plot from this not-exactly-obscure old movie. I would believe that, because Leave Her to Heaven, unlike The Big Sleep or The Third Man, is boring as hell. I would believe that, except that Flynn highlights her influences. She literally has characters discussing Noir. In one awkward bit, a character says that the story is like a Noir.

headdesk

I find this grating and condescending. I don’t even like when better authors, like Donna Tartt, reference the books that inspired their work while in universe. It’s one thing to be meta, but it’s another to just awkwardly break the fourth wall for no reason whatsoever. I didn’t like, for example, when the characters in Secret History reference Dostoyevsky and The Great Gatsby, when the book already is very obviously inspired by Crime and Punishment and, again, Gatsby. We get it. We don’t need this spelled out for us. We’re not stupid. And, I really like Secret History! You should put down Gone Girl and read that instead. David Fincher should make that into a movie!

secret

However, when  Flynn references her inspirations, she does so in an annoyingly cutesy manner. For example, her supposedly literati, sophisticated main characters are just now, for the first time reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That book, like Gone Girl, is about a missing spouse and deals with marriage, pop-culture, relationships (and also the affect of World War II on the psyche, magic, and Japanese culture, and a lot of other cool things that make it more interesting than Gone Girl). It’s a much better book. It’s also literally the most obvious Murakami book anyone could be reading. To highlight how dumb this is, that book came out in 1994. Gone Girl takes place in 2011 or ’12. And yet, these supposedly brilliant, literary, New York types have only just NOW discovered Murakami’s most famous work.

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And it’s not like Murakami is an unpopular writer. He’s famous world-wide and is always mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner. He’s a bestseller in his home country, and around the world, and has written many, many books. I’d get if the characters were only just now reading 1Q84, which is newer, or even Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is less popular. But, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? Really? Your intellectual, “brilliant” (her words, not mine) writer characters have only just now discovered this super-popular book from the mid ‘90s? Really? Oh, well, what other “new” discoveries from the troves of celebrated, popular ’90s media will they pull out? I half expect the characters to talk about that “new and edgy” Fight Club book, or that brand new Geek Love, or the just-out-now American Psycho. Then they can tell us all about this new band called The Shins and how they just discovered Wes Anderson movies.

Hey, I just discovered this band!

Hey, I just discovered this band!

This is worse than being a hipster. This is thinking you are a hipster while showing off the media that literally everyone is already into.

When Flynn writes about intellectuals, she sounds like she’s saying what she thinks bookish people should say (which is weird, because Flynn is a successful writer, so you’d think she’d be writing what she herself knows…). Time and time again she reminds us that Nick is literary and Amy is a genius. I lost track of how many times characters call Amy “brilliant”. Yet, these supposedly literary people are really not that impressive. Amy, for all her supposed “genius” can’t write anything better than women’s journal personality quizzes, for instance. Annoyingly, she incorporates these quizzes into her POV sections of the novel, to the point where I wanted to claw my own eyes out. And both Amy and Nick have only the most basic interest in literature, despite the fact that they are supposedly lost without their identities as writers and literary types, and this is a huge deal for half the book.

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This is more than just a problem with realistic characters. This is also a plot issue. If I am to believe that these characters are so torn-up about leaving their New York scene, then I better feel like they actually care about something other than “just being in New York”. Supposedly this story is also about job loss and identity, and their jobs and identities were tied into their writer scene. Now, you may say that this is the point (which still begs the question about all the parts concerning how literary and smart the characters are), but that’s kind of not the point. The fact is, even if you have unlikable characters, you still need engaging characters. Your characters have to have some drive or impetus. We are never asked, as readers, to stand back and laugh at their behavior, as you would in a satire like Confederacy of Dunces, and neither do we get drawn into madness by understanding, but disliking, characters, like Therese Raquin. It’s too confessional and immediate, and the thriller tropes keep the reader from stepping back and contemplating the disaster.

The fact is, Flynn’s prose demands very little from readers. We get simple, YA-style first-person narratives, switching between Nick’s ongoing situation with Amy’s disappearance, and Amy’s diary. At least, for the first half. And these characters are just not compelling. To be fair, Nick’s initial confusion and ambiguity does create some suspense here, because there is some mystery. What happened to Amy? Is Nick innocent or guilty? But, Amy’s diary is unbearable, a series of reactions and audience pleading about how bad she has it and how nice she’s trying to be. It isn’t a character. It’s a series of events to be reacted to. Literally not one entry has anything to do with anything but Nick. We only get a vague definition of who Amy is based on who others are and how she reacts to them. But, we do get dozens of fake personality quizzes, so at least the prose is aggravating, childish, and clunky.

 

Amy

Amy

Nick’s first half is better, and certainly his best part. He is by far most interesting when you don’t know if he killed Amy. He’s active here. He seems creepy. He has weird reactions to the police. He seems like he could be complicated and, dare I say it, compelling. Sure, his prose style is also pretty weak, with lots of ambling and whining and talking about his cleft chin (seriously), but things are happening.

Cleft chin

Cleft chin

And then we get to the second half, a twist, and everything goes to shit.

Spoilers:

I’m serious, spoilers.

 

 

 

 

Amy isn’t dead.

Of course, if you have seen or read Leave Her to Heaven, you already know the plot twist. Even if you haven’t, current storytelling convention dictates that the obviously guilty guy in any mystery is obviously not guilty, so the twist is pretty easy to spot. Amy is settling Nick up for murder because he cheated. In Leave Her to Heaven, she actually kills herself, because that is a much braver story. But in this one she just has this complicated master-plan of evil.

This causes so many problems. I don’t mean for the characters. I mean for the book. First of all, our only access to Amy’s mind has been through her annoying diary. However, halfway through the novel, Amy says that she made it all up, the diary was a fake, and she invented that Amy. This is a problem, because so far our only character development has been that diary. Now, we are left with this conniving villain, who’s so over-the-top that she makes the character from Leave Her to Heaven look subtle, and we have no real motivation. Instead, all we get is this tirade about how tired she is of being the “cool girl”. If that sounds like something from the internet, it’s because this monologue has been shared around as a meme, which is basically all it is.

But, an abstract, intellectual idea of the problems with certain forms of gender conformity is not character development. Characters are not tropes, ideas, quirks, or morals. They are people, and Amy really isn’t a person anymore. She’s just a villain.

Meh, developed motivation is for male villains.

Meh, developed motivation is for male villains.

The only vaguely interesting part of Leave Her to Heaven is that we know from the start that the main character is marrying a psycho. Granted, we know this from some pretty dated sexism about ambitious women, but we do know that she is jealous, obsessive, competitive, and will never lose. Her family knows it, and we as the audience know it. We also see her commit her crimes, and we see her humanity. We see that she is frustrated, lonely, and sad, and that actually makes her a lot scarier when you remember that she is so extremely competitive and obsessive. She’s complex (ish… it’s still a pretty lame Noir). Amy… oh where to begin? I have no idea what Amy is supposed to be. We have no development with her, no humanity, and therefore no real scariness. She just is kinda evil, and not in a No Country for Old Men way, where we have a meditation on the problem of evil from an unstoppable force. No, she’s just bad. Kinda always was bad. Just a bad seed, I guess. Like having blond hair. It just happens.

dunne

Another issue with this is that the author has also kind of ruined Nick. From this point onward, he’s the one only thinking about other people, being defined by other people, and reacting to them. He’s no longer dynamic, no longer interesting. Nick would literally have been more sympathetic if he had killed Amy, because he would be an active character. We can sympathize with and engage with unlikable, bad characters, from Patrick Bateman to Raskolnikov, but  Nick is now just man-victim to Amy’s harpy. These aren’t characters. These are figures in a bad joke.

Furthermore, from a construction standpoint, this novel doesn’t work once the twist is revealed. And I don’t just mean this because anyone who has seen Leave Her to Heaven could predict the twist a mile away. I mean that, from a writing standpoint, the story grinds to a halt. You see, with Nick now just being a passive victim and Amy having no character development, Flynn had to find some way to cram in details about Amy in order to reveal to Nick that he is married to a sociopath. She does this by just having people tell Nick stuff. That’s it. The thrilling novel of the year! People Talking About Stuff: The Book! Get ready for the thrilling mystery of the century, as characters you never met before tell your passive protagonist stuff that he should probably figure out himself. Sit on the edge of your seat as characters talk to you about scenes you’ll never get to read about.

Show? What’s that? Characters just come along and tell Nick things like, “Oh, yeah, Amy totes cray. She tried to frame me too.” Apparently framing is her MO, because she has done this to about four people. That’s just comical. In the end, Flynn just decides to let Amy tell the readers her evil plan, like a cartoon villain. “Oh, I used puppets to scare Nick because he’s afraid of puppets! We never saw this before, but I’m telling you now! Mwahahaa!” Really? Couldn’t have any scene showing this puppet fear, ever?  Even in the end, Amy just tells Nick everything that happened, even things that the readers already read about, because fuck redundancy. She even just tells Nick about the murder she commits, because God knows we can’t have any action in the entire book. That would get in the way of all the scenes of characters talking about how bad it is to not be in New York. You know, the exciting stuff.

Monologuing!

Monologuing!

Now, I am not an action-y type person, so the fact that I am complaining about too much introspection just speaks volumes about the quality of these characters. I don’t want to be in their heads. They don’t have anything compelling to say. And yet, Flynn lets them go on and on about marriage and gender and family life and art as if every word were profound insight into the postmodern condition. Because God knows I care so much about hearing middle class, privileged people whine about their love lives.

It doesn’t help that every character sounds like a teenage girl. Every character. Nick, Amy, the annoyingly nicknamed sister “Go” (Margaret), the supporting cast. Everyone. Characters talk like they are in a highschool romance, squeeing over their love lives, talking about how hot people are, or how hot they are. You know, like real life.

For instance, one of Nick’s big “flaws” is that he’s just too sexy. That’s a real character flaw, right? It’s like Marilyn Monroe’s glasses in How to Marry a Millionaire.

Yeah, because she's just hideous with glasses on.

Yeah, because she’s just hideous with glasses on.

Nick and other characters, however, reference his tragic handsomeness all the time. It’s like the author thinks it’s a disability. Let’s start an anti-defamation league for hot people. Obviously sexpots have just had it too hard for too long in this country! Clearly our prisons are all filled with preternaturally gorgeous, middle class, educated, white guys who look like movie stars. We have sports teams named for derogatory terms for hot guys. Every time a hot person commits a crime, media commentators demand for hot people to speak out against hot person crime. We don’t read any novels written by attractive people. We segregate our schools against the sexiest and most popular. We have a long history of lynching the gorgeous, banning their marriages, and stealing their lands. It’s just a crisis.

A proud and noble Affleck, struggling through anti-Affleck laws and cleft chin bans.

A proud and noble Affleck, struggling through anti-Affleck laws and cleft chin bans.

This really ties into some of the troublesome aspects of the story. Because before all of this, we just have a big, dumb, overblown bit of nonsense from an author trying way too hard to be smart and way too hard to be creepy, and getting way too into her chin fetish. (Note to Flynn, as much as you might find the scene about snapping sardine bones to be “chilling”, the cold reality is that sardine bones are soft. You won’t notice them. They’re delicious, not scary!) However, there is actually a controversy around this book, for some reason.

I wish I was kidding, because this book is way too silly to have a controversy. I mean, Amy literally tricks a high school classmate into pretending to be her to trick her parents into thinking she has a stalker, because Amy is famous, because her parents wrote children’s books about her which, of course, made them super wealthy and… Is this even a real book? I feel like I’m making this up from some really awkward dream.

But, because the world is cruel and illogical, this became a bfd and we have a controversy, and with it all kinds of think pieces.

Probably the most obvious is that Flynn wanted to write a book about how the husband is demonized by the media when the wife disappears. This does happen, because most crimes are committed by people close to the victim, so it’s not really surprising. But, sure, Flynn. I’m game. Media is salacious and vicious, and innocent people get dragged out for the vultures every time a crime happens. (Dingo baby, anyone?) The trouble is, Gillian Flynn has been accused of misogyny. And… that’s not a hard accusation to make. After all, this book has not one, but four false rape cases. It’s a story in which a character fakes her own abuse at the hands of various men, who are all super passive and just remain her victims because women be evil.

And it isn’t just that Amy is evil. Amy is evil in the most stereotypical ways possible: she manipulates her husband’s emotions, steals from him, fakes rape, pits men against each other, refuses to have a baby, literally steals Nick’s sperm from a fertility clinic to blackmail him with a baby, basically sexually assaults Nick, uses her beauty to fool others, plants porn in Nick’s house, uses Nick’s daddy issues against him… Even in petty, unrelated ways, she’s a stereotype. She’s judgemental about weight, calls other women ugly, is obsessed with how pretty and blond she is. It’s not breaking any new ground in terms of character development. She’s like if Princess Peach became a super villain. Miss Julie is more well-rounded and less stereotypical.

And women, in general, do not come out on top, from the anti-man news broadcaster, who you know is crazy because she’s anti-porn!!!, to the domestic abuse runaway who steals Amy’s money and has no character whatsoever (in comparison, see the hard-working, homeless-with-a-heart-of-gold squatters in the old mall, who have been falsely accused of, you guessed it, rape). Women are flirts who turn on Nick when he doesn’t respond to their offers of frito pie, and force him to TAKE SELFIES!!!

The_Scream

Women are mistresses who turn on Nick because women be jealous and can’t see how bad it looks to be a cheater when one’s spouse is missing.

Literally the only decent women in the story are the elegant, old-school newscaster, Nick’s mom, and his nurturing, motherly, laid-back, too cool, “unconventionally beautiful” sister, Go, who just understands Nick so well, and even makes him a sandwich and a beer when he’s blue…

What’s weird, though, is that Flynn says she’s a feminist, and that she wanted to create Amy because she was tired of women always being the victims and wanted women to be the villains once in a while.

Now, for one thing, yeah, I don’t doubt that is true. But, if you’re tired of not having good female villains (you know, aside from all the real Noirs, that did it first and better, Narnia, Harry Potter, and shitload of other popular stories), you might want to, you know, do that. Amy is such a poorly written character that rather than being shocking and scary, she was just funny. Oh, there goes Amy again! Golly, gee, who’s she gonna unrealistically frame by causing herself harm today? And that’s pretty much her entire character. She hurts herself and says someone else did it. It’s predictable. Furthermore, it’s kinda unbelievable. The character is supposed to be this evil genius, but, because this book is allergic to showing, we just hear that she’s brilliant. Hell, the smartest thing she does his write clues, read a book, and act bitchy. Her brilliant plan would actually never work, due to forensics (she drugs her murder victim first), she carries money out in the open in cash, she doesn’t know how to budget, she talks in personality quizzes, and she sounds like a teenager. She literally only gets away with her crimes because the plot says so.

And there’s a lot of that. By the time Nick and Go decide Amy is alive and framing Nick, the story still could go either way. Nick still looks guilty as hell and kind of has to jump through some creative hoops to arrive at his conclusion. Sure, he’s right, but he only is because Flynn says so. In real life, no one would come to that conclusion. It’s too far-fetched and crazy, which is also how it feels as a reader. The scarier it’s supposed to be, the funnier it is. It’s like a cheesy horror movie.

But, in terms of controversy, if you want to deconstruct gender tropes and create a female villain, fine. Go for it. But, don’t expect people to think you’re a feminist when she’s literally just a collection of stereotypes attacking poor, passive Nick. In fact, every man in the story is a victim to women and society, except for Nick’s abusive father, who only exists to make Nick look good by comparison and to give him a wooby back story.

The trouble is, Nick is also a horrible victim. He’s so passive and uninteresting that he would be far more compelling and sympathetic as a murderer. It is beyond the pale of reason to believe that he is victimized because he is too handsome, as well. Because everyone knows the biggest victims in society are sexy, intellectual, young, white men, with big houses. God knows that the media just loves to hate those guys, except that isn’t the world we live in. In fact, we’re so prejudiced in favor of good-looking people that people actually had a hard time convicting Ted Bundy, and he was a serial killer! And look at what they did to the Boston bomber. People actually irrationally love attractive people, even if it’s beyond all reason and they are clearly monsters.

o-ROLLING-STONE-TSARNAEV-570

Nick would have been so much more believable if Flynn wasn’t so fangirly about her own characters and managed to write a plain or awkward man whose chin wasn’t to die for. If he was a little overweight, people would have discriminated against him, and we all know it. That’s a real thing, and it’s shitty and cruel, and we know it happens. Fat guys are constantly being portrayed as sexist losers and manchildren. But, sexy guys? Really?

But, honestly, I think Flynn believes she is a feminist. Feminism, despite being so present, isn’t very defined anymore, if it ever was at all. Anything vaguely relating to women is feminist. And, for some reason, it’s okay to use supposed feminism to attack other women who threaten your own insecurities.

Don't worry about your size, beautiful! Unless you're one of those stupid skinny bitches!

Don’t worry about your size, beautiful! Unless you’re one of those stupid skinny bitches… I hate them. #Feminism!!!!

In reality, guys, feminism really has nothing to do with memes and Dove ads and feeling pretty. It’s more of a loosely connected conglomerate philosophy-sociology movement about the nature of being as women (woman qua woman, if you will) as opposed to Othering definitions. From this, one derives social justice actions, like fighting child brides or winning the vote. But one does not have to be feminist to fight any of these issues at all. Logically, if feminism were just a protest, as soon as these issues are abolished, feminism would be no more. This would mean it has no ontology or epistemology, and the question of “what is woman” or “how is woman to be” would not important to answer. Unfortunately, under the guise of feminism, we get a subset that just sort of use it as an outlet for their insecurities. And, sadly, the target for these insecurities are often other women.

In reality, Flynn doesn’t hate women. But, I think she possibly hates a certain kind of woman. Rather than address social beauty standards, she makes her size-two blond villain a total bitch. Meanwhile, the brunette, unconventionally attractive, old-school, supportive, nurturing Go is awesome.

gfAnd, my problem here is that for the whole anti-cool girl rant, Go is a cool girl. She’s just a different one. She’s Taylor Swift on the bleachers. She’s the one who’s relatable. She’s not blond and twiggy. She’s stately and old-school, but not above drinking beer and sharing crass jokes with her bro and watching the sports game and being totally happy to be so supportive. Flynn isn’t attacking any gendered social structures. She’s just replaced them with one that makes her more comfortable.

The thing is, though, I can’t care that much about this book, and that’s a problem. I can’t care about the loss of their jobs, for instance.The market crash affected a whole hell of a lot more than ritzy, New York hipsters, and I just cannot be compelled to read about them in such a straight, serious manner. There is no real commentary. It’s just played too straight. I don’t care about these people, and I also do not believe they could exist. I don’t believe in Amy, because I don’t know why she does anything that she does. I don’t believe in Nick, because he’s too passive to be fully realized as a character. He’s just a victim stereotype, which is not more interesting because Flynn thinks she’s subverting gender norms (except for the fact that this is a Noir, and femme fatales are literally in all of them). I don’t believe that Amy’s parents made a fortune writing children’s books about their daughter. I don’t believe that Amy pulled off any of her crimes. I don’t believe that the answer to deconstructing rape stereotypes is to use “the girl who cried rape” stereotype four times in one novel. I don’t believe that sardine bones pop when you eat them. I don’t believe our characters are smart. I don’t believe that this case would be popular in the media, at least for very long, and I don’t believe that Nick’s taped interview would go viral online. He isn’t a cat or a naked chick or someone talking about the illuminati, so… no. Also, those youtube comments in the book should mostly be swearing, hate, and people calling each other Hitler or spamming the hell out of everything. Flynn’s world is too simple, and things work too conveniently for the plot, and so nothing is interesting or believable. The details are off, and the characters are too broad.

The book doesn’t work as a thriller, because it’s plodding, predictable, and telly. It doesn’t work as a satire because it’s played too straight and nothing is sent up. It doesn’t work as a portrait of marriage, because no one really acts like this and the characters have too little development. It doesn’t work. I don’t even like addressing its controversies because it’s too silly to be controversial. Amy frames her husband with a set of Punch and Judy puppets and a cache of bdsm pornos, for pity’s sake. That’s hilarious!

And, for those who say that Flynn WANTS us to dislike the characters, and I don’t get it… Oh, I get it. I mean, I absolutely love Zola’s books, and he’s being intentionally unlikable. I understand unlikable characters. What I don’t understand are flat, passive, uninteresting ones who never change. The characters are basically the same at the end of the novel, only Nick just knows that Amy is crazy. The situation changes, but the people don’t. We don’t see them grow or learn or change. Furthermore, I think it’s pretty obvious from Flynn’s commentary about how much of herself she put into Nick’s character (being a writer, the New York thing, the job loss, and how much she freaking adores Missouri), that we can assume Nick is the good guy. He ends the book as the passive, wooby, ridiculously attractive victim to the psychotic, domineering Amy, who probably went on to wreck his car, not understand how to use a remote, and refuse to let him watch the ball game when she wants to watch a costume drama musical.

The funny part is, David Fincher isn’t really so fond of Nick. Fincher, who adapted the novel for the screen, roots for Amy. He thinks Nick is pathetic. And, frankly, that’s not hard to understand. I mean, Nick, in a Fincher movie, is the kind of character who would be mocked by his own invisible friend. Nick is the one who would get chewed out by Morgan Freeman. And, that makes sense. Fincher likes his anarchic, violent, weirdos. Hell, even in Se7en, the serial killer technically wins. If anyone could put some realism into these characters, it’s Fincher. And, maybe this totally different take, without all the stupid emphasis on Nick’s cleft chin, and with the audience actually getting to see the events, rather than hear about them, we could get a decent-ish story… that’s still Leave Her to Heaven.

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Thank goodness I paired this with a batshit insane story about dismembering bodies. Oh, wait…

The Tigerlily False Equivalency Issue

In case you haven’t heard, Hollywood wants to remake everything. That isn’t new. And, in the view of big producers remaking old things as “gritty” and “x-treme!” new things, we have a new rendition of Peter Pan. Again. That hasn’t made much in the way of headlines, because A.) more people want to see Angelina Jolie in Meleficent and B.) Once Upon a Time already does “gritty”, YA-friendly retellings of Peter Pan et al, so who cares? Plus, I just think this market has kind of worn out its welcome. At first it was cool, what with our Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but now, now that we have “x-treme!” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and “x-treme” live-action Disney cartoons, the genre of “it was old and now it’s new and grownup and filmed in HD” is not really that cool. People didn’t embrace Robocop and Total Recall, and I haven’t seen anyone getting terribly stoked about the new Peter Pan.

That being said, it did make headlines for casting a white woman as Princess Tigerlily.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

So, here we go again, the endless battle of racial casting. The usual arguments are as follows: “But, it should be about the talent, not the race! It’s just casting who’s best!”

And then we get The Last Airbender and The Lone Ranger, and clearly, no, there is no way what we got is the best. Airbender is unwatchable, and Lone Ranger just has Depp being Jack Sparrow again. Clearly this is not a meritocracy. It’s more of a stuff-producers-and-board-rooms-thought-would-sell-best-ocracy. So, capitalism. And you thought Hollywood was progressive, ha!

But, actually, a lot of people have been defending this casting decision, including a weird, Buzzfeed-style article from NPR. Seriously, first NetGeo went all Swamp People on us, and now my beloved bastion of pretention has started emulating the stuff I look up when I want to see pictures of French bulldog puppies? What’s next, putting One Direction in a Tiny Desk Concert? You leave Tiny Desk Concerts alone, evil boy bands!

Anyway, for those of you who actually pay attention to NPR (all 9 of us…) and know about it from something other than what does the FOX say, you know it’s really not a leftist station. Unless you think BBC collaboration is grossly left wing for not saying Obama is a Nigerian terrorist Muslim atheist child molester, in which case you are insane. Most of NPR is devoted to classical and underground music, trivia, car talk, Prairie Home Companion, interviews with artists and writers, discussions about the history of the world’s greatest cheese (possibly the best episode of anything ever). It’s more likely to tell you about all the craft beers you can drink at a rally than to tell you to rally. Unless you’re rallying behind craft beer. Is it perhaps more likely to appeal to someone sipping a latte in an indie café while reading Bitch Magazine than FOX’s demographic? Yes, but that’s hardly the only audience that tunes in to NPR. Although, I admit that it suffers from excessive gentrification at times, it also gives voice to unknown folk, country, and blues singers from down home places who may never have otherwise had a platform. So, I don’t know that you can say there is an NPR crowd other than the fact that it doesn’t actively fight to exclude the latte-sipper-Bitch-reader-in-indie-café the way FOX does. If anything, what you can expect is a lot of art and culture, a fascinating crossection of Americana, lots and lots of classical and opera performances, car talk, and some generally smart, solid programming, so what the hell is with this buzzfeed crap? (Says the person who inserts excessive pictures into all her posts to casually attempt at driving up hits…)

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

Anyway, I think the argument is thus: If you’re upset about this, are you also going to be upset at casting minor comic characters as black when they were originally white? Are you upset that the newest Phantom is black? Or that stage show Aladdin is Filipino?

And, I get where they’re coming from to an extent. Tigerlily isn’t exactly an iconic Native American character. Her tribe isn’t real, and is in fact named after a really racist word (no really). And, it’s not like the Disney cartoon isn’t, you know, offensive.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I'm calling it.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I’m calling it.

There, I said it. It’s an offensive representation. I’m always shocked when someone comes up and says, “Oh, Beauty and the Beast is SOOOO offensive! There’s a fleeting image of a pastor in the crowd when Gaston was going to marry Belle, because who ever heard of pastors at weddings? Offensive! And the father isn’t portrayed as a god-like figure of pure amazaballs! That’s offensive stereotyping!!!!” and then says, “Oh, don’t be so hypersensitive about Peter Pan. They’re only gross stereotypes of an entire people. Stop being so Politically Correct.”

I’ve come to a conclusion about Political Correctness:

If it affects the person speaking, it’s not Political Correctness, it’s decency! It’s morals! It’s family values!

If it doesn’t affect the person speaking, it’s Political Correctness, tyranny, and Hitler!

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

What’s weird is that almost every time someone invokes the ol’ PC it has exactly jack to do with being PC. What’s the political bent here? Real PC talk is like refusing to discuss money in politics, calling rich people “job creators”, and other forms of politicized language. What we’re referring to is just manners. It’s just being decent toward someone else and not caricaturing them as something sub-human, which, if you’re going to do any Nazi comparisons, is way, way, way more apt. Nostalgia doesn’t exempt someone from being respectful. You can’t be like, “Oh, I thought it was funny to laugh at Stepin Fetchit as a kid. So, that must be totally okay, you PC Nazis!” That works about as well as saying, “Oh, I enjoyed staring at people in sideshows! Therefore The Elephant Man is a liberal Nazi Hitler PC movie for making me recognize the humanity of people I just wanna stare at and mock!”

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

Also, stop invoking Hitler, people.

There actually is a difference between casting a black Phantom or a black Nick Fury, and casting a white Native American or Asian character. And, here’s why. We do not have a shortage of white actors in roles. Most of our heroes, romantic leads, and overall casts are white. Even in good movies, like Her, we’ve apparently conceived a very white future. If you’re a white actor, you are only limited by the number of other white actors you’re competing against. It’s not like there are only a handful of decent roles for you, and the rest of the time you’ll be in some niche like Tyler Perry movies or direct to DVD fare, or low-budget arthouse selections that will pay you in pennies while the director sells organs to get a single theatrical release. And, the majority of our celebrity coverage is also of white Hollywood.

So, when a white role is given to an actor of a different ethnicity, it’s not taking away from a tiny pool of representation, and it’s not taking one of the few jobs an actor can get. It’s not like when Nick Fury became a black character that was the only role for white people. The entire Avengers ensemble is white!

Furthermore, there is history to consider. Who has told the stories? Whose voices get heard the loudest? In cases of Native American representation, they have been cast by white people in circuses and mock train robberies to play “savages”.They have been cast as antagonists for cowboy heroes. They have been cast as hippies for a yuppie earth-love analogue of bourgeois values. There is a long history of appropriating and defining their culture as whatever white people want it to be.

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance...

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance…

However, how often do we see Native American roles? Really. Ask yourself that. And, how often in roles when the race is incidental, like a rom-com heroine, a scientist, an action star, do we see Native actors just getting cast? Are you saying that Native American peoples just cannot act, that acting just isn’t a thing they can do? The fact is, when you give a Native Role to a white person, it’s not the same as casting a black Phantom. It’s not the same because there are hardly any Native Roles written, for anyone.

It’s also not the same because Phantom of the Opera is a stage show, so there are many, many chances for people to play the title role, in many productions. Plenty of white people have played the Phantom. Most. Pretty much all. This is only making the news because it’s the first time on Broadway, maybe ever, that he hasn’t been white. Also, stage shows don’t follow the same rules as movies. People bend gender, race, age, et cetera, all the time. While there is a lack of representation for particular groups, and I wish every talented actor could be cast fairly, it’s much more fluid than movies. You can cast a 47 year old woman as a teenaged boy in an opera. But, you can’t cast white people as Asian people in Cloud Atlas and have it not be incredibly uncomfortable and scary as hell. Film demands more verisimilitude.

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

And, again, the argument that Tigerlily isn’t a good role kind of doesn’t… work at all. What, you’re saying the source material and other adaptations are racist, so we have to be racist? I thought these were supposed to be reboots. Are we not rebooting the character, just keeping the stereotype? Why? Why do that? Why bother rebooting at all if you think the original should just be left alone? What is the point of that?

And, lastly, I think that producers don’t give audiences enough credit. They have really strict ideas about what audiences will and will not watch. They think that boys won’t follow the adventures of girls, and it was a cliché truism until The Hunger Games and everyone proved them wrong. Which, if you have ever encountered human beings outside of a very strict bubble, you already knew. Little boys have long been just fine with stories about girls, like Pippi Longstocking, which was a favorite when I worked in children’s libraries. A favorite of more boys than girls, actually.

Gee, I wonder why?

Gee, I wonder why?

 

People also think that America will only watch white people, so they do things like make the racially diverse Avatar the Last Airbender a white vs. Indian/Middle Eastern story.

Aang-Katara-avatar-the-last-airbender-26506247-720-480

 

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

And, yes, I know that Zuko becomes good. But, that’s not really the point, especially since there won’t be any sequels to the movie. The point is, the show has many fans, and they love it, and they love the characters, and they don’t want to see a bunch of bad child-actors shoved into roles that that shouldn’t fill. Not only shouldn’t they fill the roles because they are bad actors, but also because these aren’t white roles. Part of what people love about the show is its world-building, and it is built on distinctly non-white culture. This is just what the show is. Casting white actors just feels like cultural appropriation. It also just looks silly.

Similarly, audiences didn’t love Jack Sparrow Tonto, and that movie was an enormous disaster.

When Hollywood has occasionally rebooted material with black actors in what had been white roles, it’s also not a role contingent on race. The Karate Kid’s race is incidental. And, there’s nothing about being an orphan that makes Annie inherently white. But, Tigerlily and Tonto are specifically written as Native American characters. The Karate Kid and Annie are not played in white-face, and the characters are not representing some specific part of white history. They’re just kids, and kids are everywhere. Tigerlily and Tonto cannot be played as white, because the characters are Native American. It isn’t like having a black Karate Kid. It’d be like having a black John Smith, where race is in fact integral to what we are representing. Or, in terms of fiction, a black Snow White doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. If your character is written as inherently a specific race, then the actor doesn’t just make the role his or her own. The actor has to appropriate the race, and it is awkward. Depp didn’t play a role that had once been played by a Native actor. He played a role that is a Native character, and that is the difference between this and other race-bent reboots.

Tonto-depp

I don’t think that the meritocracy argument works, mostly because it isn’t a meritocracy. But, even if it was, it hinges on the idea that only a white actor would be best for the part. There are plenty of white actors who are very talented, and there are many roles for them, but to say that they also need the roles of other races is to imply that other races aren’t as talented. Yeah, Roony Mara is a great actress, and she may have done really well reading for Tigerlily, but does that mean that no one else could do as well in the role?

It isn’t as if Tonto or Tigerlily are especially great Native American roles. But, with so few Native Roles, and Hollywood’s disinclination to cast non-race-specific roles with diverse actors, there are only so many opportunities for work. This isn’t an issue of whether or not it’s okay for these stars to play race-bent roles, but whether or not other actors are able to get work at all.

My question is: did the filmmakers even try?

 

And this brings me to a recent pseudo-news, celebrity faux pas story about Heidi Klum, who recently dressed up like a historically inaccurate “sexy squaw” stereotype for a German reality show.

Also, this photo sucks. It's too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Also, this photo sucks. It’s too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Although I don’t think German reality TV ever needs to be news, any more than American reality TV or British reality TV or any reality TV, what interested me was the reaction. People were outraged, not over Klum’s “redface”, but over the fact that anyone considered it racist. People were quick to point out that, you see, Americans just don’t get that Germany has a tradition of seeing Native American people in this way.

Because we all know that if Germany has a traditional view of a particular race, it’s best to follow that view without question. I don’t remember a time that has ever been racist in the slightest…

However, this does bring up an interesting point. The argument isn’t whether or not the people represented care, but whether or not white America or white Germany are the best white people in this white person argument. The voice of the Native American people doesn’t matter.

This is regularly the argument behind race issues, that white liberals are just whining and other white people should do their thing. The only people whose possible offence is even questioned are white. The idea that someone from another race might actually have opinions about how they are represented is never questioned. Which, for the record, they do.

Another reaction I saw was that if people like Heidi Klum do not dress up as stereotypes of Native American culture, then the Native American peoples will only be represented by casinos. In other words, Native Americans don’t have a culture anymore. They’re just poor. And, white people now rightfully own all that is attractive about their culture and can appropriate it as such.

Because a long tradition of romanticizing Native Americans has never led to anything bad.

The fact is, Native American voices do exist. There are actors, artists, writers. If you are more familiar with a white woman in feathers than you are with Zitkala-Ša, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mary Brave Bird, and Sherman Alexie, then it’s not that Native American culture is missing but that you’re systematically ignoring it.

Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite people of all time and author of Fahrenheit 451, once said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

By not knowing these writers, or artists, or employing actors to represent their own people, you’re silencing the culture. It isn’t that casinos and silly modeling reality shows are all that are left for Native Americans. It’s hard to read, so let’s just watch Heidi Klum take sexy pictures for a reality show.

The greatest sin a person can commit these days is asking someone to care about something. The best way to bring on rage is to say, “Maybe you should eat something that doesn’t hurt the environment, or be more energy efficient, or not commoditize a person based on sexual appeal in order to sell beer, or not sexualize young girls, or not support exploitative businesses, or care about the representation of a people.” It doesn’t cause people to change oh-so-much to say that maybe Heidi Klum’s bad photoshoot was also pretty racist, or that maybe we should actually start casting Native American actors. But, even this small amount of change is enough to send people into a rage of tooth-gnashing and pants-wetting.

But, in the end, these aren’t abstracts that white liberals and white conservatives do or do not care about. These are issues about people, people who have their own voices and cares, and whose culture is very real.

It’s not that they don’t have a voice. It’s whether or not anyone is listening.

 

 

 

I Hate Dystopian Literature

That isn’t entirely true.There are quite a few dystopian novels I like, a lot. But, I don’t like contemporary dystopias. There, I said it. In fact, with very few exceptions, I don’t like the genre at all. But, with the new Hunger Games knockoff Divergent (quickly followed by two visually cloned dystopian films, The Giver and The Maze Runner), I don’t think it’s going away soon, at least in the movies Hollywood chooses to adapt. (Edit note: As far as publishers are concerned, though, it’s kind of yesterday…)

So, let’s first look back a little at the development of the modern and contemporary dystopian story and where we have this odd, new trend. Because, it is an odd trend. The Mean Girls and 16 Candles of today now feature evil governments and martyr protagonists taking the place of school dances and popular kids. It’s a sociologically interesting trend.

Our stories have gone from this:

Clueless

To this:

hunger games

In many ways, the first real, modern dystopia was We by Zamyatin, a Russian author whose dissenting work made him one of the most banned writers in the USSR.

we-us

We is a story about social philosophy. In the USSR, there were artistic and social movements from Russian Constructivism to Taylorism, which deemed that one could create a rational utopia through mathematical harmonies and collectivism. In the novel, the dystopian society thinks and communicates through numbers and mathematical formulas, all while living in a literal protective bubble. The main character, rather like in Orwell’s later work, 1984, briefly has a chance to change his life, through the influences of a woman and the discovery of the outside world. This is the basis for the entire novel. I would not go so far as to say this was a brilliant work of fiction. For one thing, the mathematical aspect of the novel is not entirely realized, since the author was not really a mathematician, and furthermore the technology and speech makes it very dated. There are also some troubling racial politics, as the dystopian society is racially integrated, but the narrator still, for some reason, has to constantly say negative things about the only black person he knows. Classy. And I can’t help but note that integration seems kind of tied to the negative aspects of the collectivist society. However, one cannot deny that this is really the kind, if not the quality, of dystopias that should be written. Zamyatin was writing against a powerful and corrupt government, and used the science fiction story to illustrate concerns he had with the world he lived in. He also risked a great deal to write this book, and it widely banned in his home country. That’s a key that most fans of dystopia forget. Almost all fans and writers take exactly 0 risks these days. I mean, The Hunger Games has a hilariously unironic Subway tie-in deal, so if anything screams that that dystopia isn’t coming true, it’s a Hunger Games meatball sub.

subway

What I am saying is that dystopia does not have its roots in stories about oh-so-special people who are special, and there’s some kind of baddy government or something, and the special people have a love triangle, and bang! Boom! Bang! Exciting!

Shatter-Me-HC-c

That really isn’t the history of dystopia. Also… I would not suggest reading that…

Other landmark dystopian classics followed. 1984, which I’m just going to assume almost everyone has read by now, is the quintessential dystopia.

poster_1984_lrg

It draws heavily from We, but creates a far more sophisticated world. Orwell’s understanding of language not only provides crisp prose, but also a world where language, as opposed to numbers, is the key. The twisting and distortion of language, through New Speak, is a huge element, almost as popular a concept as the iconic Big Brother Is Watching.

bnw

Another landmark text is Huxley’s Brave New World, which, for some reason, is faddish to pit against 1984. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Ahem, so, lyk, we thought we would be in 1984, but really we’re, lyk, in Brave New World, because of TV and stuff…”

Yeah…

(By the way, speaking as a non-TV owner, let’s stop bragging about how unplugged we are when we all, yes all of us, binge-watch shows on our computers. True Detective in one sitting, am I right? We aren’t superior to TV viewers. We’re just more efficient…)

It really pains me when literary criticism gets turned into this sort of nonsense. What, did Huxley only write one book? Did Orwell? Are they necessarily at odds? Are there only two dystopian novels worth talking about? What is with this insanity? To make the books an either-or decision, pitted against one another, and to simplify their messages to “1984 has tough gov’ment” and “Brave New World totes choses ur own captivity” is really to lose the value of each novel. Dystopias are, by necessity, abstracts of social concerns, and each address specific concerns within the context of a novel’s structure. Therefore, a concern in 1984, such as the loss of communication through increasingly politicized language, is not at odds with the bread-and-circuses deadening of the senses in Brave New World. Neither are either of these books at odds with the critique of collectivism and constructivism present in We. I have no idea why the so-called literary analysis of dystopia has become, “Pick one, and only one!” but it’s seriously counter-intuitive when discussing a genre that is entirely about different social critiques. It would be best to look at all angles, would it not?

Or can there be... only one?

Or can there be… only one?

And, it think that kind of, “Pick one angle! Only one!” reading is something that will come back and bite the genre in the butt. People really start arguing about is the baddy in a dystopia, as if one political side is full of heroes and the other is full of google-eyed monsters.

451

Another noteworthy book is actually from a very different writer than the previous three. This is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a different writer for a number of reasons. For one thing, where Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were intellectuals, approaching abstracted theories through science fiction modes in a rather Dante-esque fashion, Bradbury was a self-taught writer. His sources came from observation, newspaper writing, and his imagination was formed by classic Hollywood genre pictures and pulp fiction. He was a man of dinosaurs, sideshows, spaceships, and his love of literature and the imagination came from his own pursuits and studies.

Here is a quote explaining why I love this man:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

Greatest mind ever? Oh, maybe… maybe…

He never went to college. He was not a major political figure. And, he remains one of the best writers of the era. Bradbury’s fiction is often, almost always, interested in imagination, and the way people approach and love books is a huge part of what inspired his work and what he feared in society. Good characters value books, imagination, robotic Poe-themed houses, movie animatronic model dinosaurs, and they value these things even more than life, at times. Imagination, for Bradbury, is something akin to keeping innocence in the world, and the loss of both wonder and fear is a sign of something deeply wrong with society. This theme is most obvious in his dystopia, but many readers forget that it appears in many of his works. In Graveyard for Lunatics, a character’s loss of his beloved movie models is the impetus for his loss of innocence, and the loss of innocence for many others. His love of his art, the creation of worlds, not unlike creating novels, is his connection to life and humanity. In The Marian Chronicles, characters fleeing government censorship build robotic monuments to Poe, and yet the human characters are also destroying the leftover culture of the Martians before them, replacing beautiful, ancient cities with hotdog stands.

Bradbury, perhaps more than anyone else in the genre, placed a primacy on beauty, understanding that it is not simply the freedom to think of a particular ideology or moral, but also to enjoy and appreciate art that can be so very important. So, when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, the story doesn’t just focus on government restriction of thought. The characters burn books, but what replaces the books is given equal attention. The world left behind is not only misguided in thought, but also bereft of meaning. The characters have no real purpose to live and their actions of either violence or passion do not seem to matter. On the other hand, the good characters are willing to risk death and even die in order to maintain meaning.

f45109

Bradbury was quoted saying that one does not have to burn books. One only has to get people to stop reading them. I would add, one could replace great books with a sort of thoughtless page-consumption and get the job done just as well. The empty consumption of entertainment is as critiqued as the excision of literature.

images

I think that often when talking about dystopias, A Clockwork Orange gets left out. I think a lot of people do not remember that it is actually set in the future, and also a lot of people have a set image of dystopias as Evil Empire vs. The Little Guy. However, this need not be the case, and a true dystopia is merely one which uses political and ideological issues to illustrate a particularly bad future. I say “true dystopia” to differentiate between this and what are really post-apocalyptic stories like The Road or I Am Legend, which are more about survival after the disaster and may not even discuss ideology at all.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

Clockwork Orange manages to provide a great deal of detail about the setting without ever telling the reader too much. It’s a corrupt future. Crime is rampant. And, there is a great social disorder, a bankruptcy of morality, a nebulous lack of purpose. The main character spends the first segment of the novel committing acts of violence and maintaining his primacy in his gang. Then, he goes through the infamous Ludovico Treatment and is unable to choose anything but goodness. The novel uses this contrast, a character who only chooses evil being forced to only choose good, to ask questions about free will and morality itself.

Clockwork'71

And, what I like about this novel, and why it is one of my favorite books of all time, is that it doesn’t make the evil some sort of empire. True, the evil empires in Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin do influence the main characters to do evil things, but the evil is clearly stemming from the fact that the characters are under a bad rule. That is the focus of the moral examination, and this is something I do not especially care for in large doses. In Clockwork Orange, Alex, the antihero and narrator, commits acts of horrific violence and depravity, and really just because he enjoys it.He has the same uncomfortable truth we see in The Dark Knight, in the portrayal of The Joker: there is something too human, too entertaining, too understandable in the enjoyment of evil, and that, not scary clown makeup or one false eyelash, is what makes these characters so frightening and so hard to ignore.

singinintherain

Alex takes pleasure in doing wrong, as though it is an art to him. This is illustrated in the way he also loves Beethoven, and how the Ludovico Treatment actually takes from him his ability to feel pleasure in Beethoven’s music. His freedom to do evil is also his freedom to choose beauty. This creates a complex character dilemma, where the reader both sympathizes with and abhors Alex as both demon and victim. And, the evil Alex does, which is truly chilling and disturbed, is not caused because there is a Big Bad Government, but because Alex chooses to be evil. In fact, when the government intervenes, through the morally terrifying treatment itself, it forces Alex to be good. Therein lies the paradox, as it were. Furthermore, if you read the version with the author’s original last chapter, added later on by publishers, you see that Alex’s only real, true cure for evil is boredom. Evil, in the end, becomes tedious, and the sociopathic main character has nothing left to live for.

And that is a very important message! That evil isn’t some exotic, different Other, totally outside of ourselves. It’s not monsters, scary-looking people, political opponents, people who look or live or worship differently than we do. Society has a strange way of othering and glorifying evil. Othering, by making evil something that is not us, even if it means believing conspiracy theories or propaganda. A good example is how every group calls every other group Hitler, and then compares itself to Holocaust victims.

–Also, don’t ever do that.

I cannot tell you how much I love this sort of dystopia, as opposed to the governmental big-bad. This is because instead of giving readers a venue through which they may feel put-upon or victimized, the book forces readers to question their own capacity for right and wrong.

First, a few other mentions in the realm of classic dystopia. One author whose name may not immediately jump to mind is Philip K. Dick. Many people outside of science fiction and online communities do not know this man’s name. And yet, we know his stories, because they have made up a great deal of our pop-culture landscape. Ever see movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report? Yeah, these all came from one Mr. Dick, a strange writer who believed that aliens communicated with him. No, really.

001

Philip K. Dick’s views on science fiction are far more in line with Bradbury’s, if Bradbury thought his Martians were real and was a conspiracy theorist. Although Bradbury is by far the more popular writer in the mainstream, with literary circles fondly embracing him, Dick is actually more successful in Hollywood. And, yet, most people have no idea that these movies are based on books, let alone books by one author.

do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep

Probably his most famous work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from which we get the movie Blade Runner. The movie is a rather loose adaptation, but the story is simple. In the future, there are humanoid robots which do work for a civilization that has depleted its natural resources. They, however, are not supposed to be integrated into human society as real people. The line between humans tracking down robots, and robots themselves becomes increasingly blurred. Now, we have seen this before, most notably in the film Metropolis, and the animated remake of the same name.

The depressing as hell animated version...

The depressing as hell animated version…

At first blush, this seems like it may not even fit with the dystopian genre, and would instead be at the most a post-apocalyptic story. However, further reading shows that both the story and Blade Runner are in fact based on an ideological dystopia. Unlike Big Brother and other evil empires, this is about corporations. The story is about consumerism, and through the unbridled corporatism of the setting, humanity becomes commodity and the robotic product is indistinguishable from the human producer. Product and producer are one.

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You see this theme again in the sci-fi portion of Cloud Atlas.

Moving back to the evil empires, there is one more angle, that being the evil theocracy.

The-Handmaids-Tale-Englis-007

Margaret Atwood took the formula of 1984 and We and gave it a feminist bent when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a story about a future where a dictatorial theocratic society has taken rule, and created a sort of Christian Taliban social policy of female oppression, regressive sexual politics, et cetera. It introduces another category of evil rule into the dystopian complex. In a genre where often the Stalinist themes pits evil empires against religion, Atwood looks at contemporary societal conflicts and creates a religious empire, like a cult that also runs the government.

For the last two landmark examples, I’ll cite two very different writers. One is Orson Scott Card, best known for book and subsequent series Ender’s Game –and also for his controversial politics. The other is Alan Moore, the man who brought the idea of literary graphic novels to the mainstream –and also known for his controversial politics. Card’s Ender series really does not initially seem very dystopian.

EndersGame

It’s futuristic, but the future is one of aliens and spaceships. However, it is what happens on earth, and the backdrop for his story, which is very dystopian and provides his criticism. Focusing on the first book, Ender’s Game is about a third child in a population-controlled future, the downtrodden hero, Ender. Ender is taken from his abusive sociopathic brother and saintly sister and placed in a space-school to learn how to defeat aliens by playing lots of cool video games. It’s actually somewhat better than that sounds. But, the dystopian aspects take the form of the government control itself. When is it okay to commit acts of violence and who may morally be used? Is what they do justifiable? The story also has a parallel plot about the brother and sister taking over the government through the use of what is basically a blog.

I’ll remove any ambiguity. I don’t think Card is a great writer. I think his prose style is basic and his ideas tend not to be very well… thought out. The blogging aspect requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, for one thing. For another, I do think that Card lets his characters get away with making morally indefensible choices based on the fact that they have no idea what they are doing. While that leads to some good questions about the nature of war, I feel like, from a story standpoint, he chose a very safe route for his character. Ender does not know about his major conflict, and so it isn’t a conflict for him. Instead, he has these Harry Potter conflicts of fitting in at special school and being a special boy, none of which is as interesting as the big conflict that the main character never knows is a conflict and therefore is never conflicted about.

Ender_s_Game_2713059b

It’s like having a story about dropping a nuclear bomb, but making the main character totally oblivious to what is happening. I think the moral could be sustained far more interestingly in a short story than a novel, which leaves us with pages and pages of a character playing strategy games that don’t feel very connected to the actual point of the story. Adventure, ho.

However, I would say that Card is one of the most influential writers in terms of where the genre is today. He gave us a magic boy character. Oh, sure, Ender is actually a genius, not magic, but the archetype is still there. And, more than anything else, this trait will influence the dystopian trends of today. Although the trends of today may just be miming Harry Potter, not Ender, so I don’t really know.

"Yer a special main character, female-Harry."

“Yer a special main character, female-Harry.”

Also, Card is kind of a bigot, but that’s extrinsic to the quality of his work. I just had to address that elephant in the room.

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Moore, on the other hand, is far to the left of conservative, Mormon Card. Moore is an anarchist who believes in wizardry. And, when I say anarchist, I neither mean rioter or dork-with-an-A-symbol-hoodie. I mean that Moore is philosophically in-line with Bakunin and Bookchin and Dorothy Day and the band Chumbawama. And, he uses his work to illustrate his politics and philosophy through the pop-art of graphic novels. Does it work? Hell’s yeah! I may like Clockwork Orange best of these novels, but Moore is the writer I have read the most. It’s not just that he managed to seamlessly melt literature and comicbooks into one glorious pop-art entity, like some superhero Warhol. It’s not just that he mixes pop-culture with philosophy. Oh, no, he’s also just kind of brilliant. That’s all. Just a great, great writer with smart, intellectual plots, and memorable characters.

WatchmenRorschach1229102

So, what’s so dystopian about Moore? Well, his most obvious and purest dystopia is V for Vendetta, but I would argue that The Watchmen is also a dystopian story. In V, the future is ruled by fascism, and the titular antihero works as a vigilante against the Nazi-esque government. This sounds straightforward, and in lesser hands (like, say, the makers of the V for Vendetta movie, which sucks), it could easily be pretty simplistic and stupid. However, Moore understands perhaps more than anyone else in his medium the idea of moral grays. V fights against a government that is undeniably evil. But, he does so through acts of terrorism, and he quite literally tortures an innocent.

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He is chaotic anarchy personified, the first wild blasts against the armor of a dictatorship. The evil empire of the story is also more interesting than the parody of the Bush administration in the movie, although one would be crazy not to realize that it is also a parody of the Thatcher administration. But, more than any specific leadership, the rule is one of fascistic abstraction: limited communication, 1984 style Big Brother, curfews, control of the populace, Nazi-like concentration camps, theocratic corruption, censorship, control of the media. V’s fight can be seen as both a necessary attack on evil, and also a morally ambiguous action of someone who commits atrocity because he has no army. Interestingly, the same may be said for many people called terrorists today, which leads to some very interesting questions about who we root for. Do we root for V’s actions, which can be legitimate terrorism, if we see the trappings of Hitler on the enemy? Furthermore, how much of V’s vendetta is personal, based on his own experience in a concentration camp? The end, with Evey Hammond donning the iconic mask, says that anarchy, as an ideal, will go on, but in the hands of the gentler, the post-revolution proletarian rule.

ideasdonotdie

The Watchmen is also a dystopia, if one doesn’t become too fixated on the superhero aspect. The story parallels actual history, and asks how much freedom are we, as a society, willing to give up for protection. And, after we have protection, who protects us from the protectors. Who watches the Watchmen? That is the central theme of the story, and one which, in a world of government spying and other miscarriages of justice, feels all the more apt.

watchmen_02-1280

 

So, if you can’t tell, I really, really, really love these graphic novels….

Also, Ayn Rand wrote Anthem. So, honourable mention, even if it is by Rand. It’s actually not bad. Like, at all. Even if you hate Rand, it’s a pretty decent retread of the ideas in We. It’s not extremely influential, but it’s a decent, little book.

So, my purpose of outlining these books is to note that dystopia has a rather varied past. Which really begs a very important question: why do they so often sound exactly the same now?

Pretties

And why, if I love many of these novels, do I kind of dislike the genre as a whole?

Well, first of all, I am going to posit that we, as a reading populace, have sort of forgotten what dystopia means. I don’t just mean writers passing off vague apocalypses as dystopia, just to create an easy baddy for our preternaturally sexy protagonist. I mean that as readers we have forgotten how to read a dystopia. For one thing, dystopias are not prophesy.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

They are not predicting the future. They are, instead, focusing on a problem in the era of the author and discussing it through science fiction as a sort of metaphor or analogy. 1984 is analogous to problems in the USSR, for instance. Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the problem with losing books and great thought. But, even beyond this, many issues in dystopian classics are not about a particular power, but about individual problems, problems which readers may even find within themselves. Have we stopped reading great works? How do we judge the actions of others? How to we value freedom? What would we do?

"Which boy do you choose?" isn't actually a dystopian issue.

“Which boy do you choose?” isn’t actually a dystopian issue.

And, I think that the personal aspect of dystopia, the part which makes Alex such a compelling and frightening character in Clockwork Orange, this is the part that has been excised from reading. Instead, dystopia has become the biggest nail-biting, pants-wetting act of hysteria since people realized they could call all their enemies Hitler.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, “So, lyk, my political opposition is like Big Brother! Or, the people I disagree with are like Brave New World! Also, The Hunger Games is going to happen!”

Yeah… isn’t that all-too-familiar? How often to we hear horribly lame excuses like this, “I wanna say [insert extreme racial slur] without ever being questioned ever! Because people might question me or not want to hire me, that’s New Speak! Political Correctness is New Speak! I am entitled to be hired, even if my rampant racism makes me the very opposite of a team player!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re on the brink of being shot as a First Amendment hero for your brave use of the n-word. Nevermind that even Westboro ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead Baptist has been legally protected as free speech, this status affirmed in 2011, so that the most hateful of speech is legal in the US. Nevermind that you’re not entitled to, say, getting paid piles of cash to say whatever you want to a major TV audience (*cough* Duck Dynasty, you’re not constitutionally entitled to a reality show *cough*). Nevermind all that. Some New Speak law is comin’ ‘round the bend, yo!

JLC in closet

Furthermore, what is interesting is how vague dystopias have become and how both sides gleefully use dystopia to say not, “Hey, let’s talk about our problems!” but “OMG, that’s exactly what my political opposition will do!!!! Run for the hills whilst pissing yourself dramatically!”

Perhaps there is no greater example of this trend than the way in which people read The Hunger Games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Hunger Games became this popular. It capitalizes on two extremely popular tropes: a magic boy (or, in this case, extremely talented girl) archetype, and the love triangle of teen angst. It’s the natural offspring of Harry Potter and Twilight, two of the biggest publishing trends of the entire history of print. (Wrap your mind around that for a while…)

What many people seem to forget while thinking about which HP character they would want to date and which Hogwarts house they’d like to be in, is that Harry Potter is actually pretty political. The story may be about a magical boy who does magical things in a charmingly magic place (and, I’m not making too much fun, because I actually do like this series). Harry Potter is also about an evil ruler with a racist agenda, classist and racist issues in the wizarding world, the problem of media control, and even government corruption. For a story that started out with a wee orphan boy learning that he is magic and getting a fluffy owl friend, it ends with a huge bloodbath surrounding an anti-racism resistance of young people forming basically vigilante bands.

Thank, JKR… That was… exactly how I wanted to end my kiddie reads session. With horrific slaughter and attempted genocide. Happy reading, kids!

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War... Happy reading.

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War… Happy reading.

But, again, this kind of ending, and the maturing of the HP audience, mixed with their sudden interest in love triangles and escapist romance, made for the perfect meld for The Hunger Games. We were, as a world, apparently okay with seeing massive child-murder, and were also a little excessively jacked about the young vigilante groups. And political revolution in general.

Feel the magic.

Feel the magic.

The political climate has been one of resistance and revolution. Even the conservatives have adopted revolutionary rhetoric. And, we, as a society, were getting really comfortable with being doomsdayers. Religious apocalypses, ecological doom, even facebook all had write-ups about how doomed we were in our doomy doom. And, with a pre-existing template called Battle Royale (which is just better, sorry), it’s really not shocking that the story of a talented main character girl in a dark, scary world of evil would have a love triangle while kicking ass. That’s like the least shocking trend ever.

What is shocking is our lack of sophisticated reading. Both the left and right have had this weird argument about whose enemies are more like the dictatorship in this teen adventure series. What is even worse is how happy these people apparently are in seeing themselves as, well, the victims.

And, here’s where things get stupid. Well, stupid-er. Because we’re already arguing whether or not the right or left are the big baddies in a children’s book series, which is already pretty dumb. But, apparently, some people are actually arguing that The Hunger Games, a teen love-triangle story based on a pre-existing Japanese novel about media violence, is actually going to happen.

The_Scream

And this is really where I start to have a problem with dystopia, as a whole. I am not the first person to point out that our society’s obsession with dystopia is actually pretty narcissistic. Oh, our problems today are just so much worse than ever, ever before? And, really, when confronted with this, many people have told me, Yes. They do believe this. Furthermore, they believe we are either in a secret, unknown dystopia now, or about to go into one, and then they scream about Hitler, because reading history, like reading legislation, is less fun than screaming. Yep, today we’re worse off than the victims of slavery,the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution, and the Black Plague –combined. Not because we’re suffering. Most of these people are very comfortably situated in a privileged class, because those who aren’t don’t have time to argue about dystopia. No, because something bad is going to happen. In the future.

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The trouble with dystopia as a trend is that it really isn’t doing justice to these authors in context, or doing justice to the books themselves, or being literary at all. Dystopia, especially dystopia that allows one to insert themselves as the hero and their political opposition as the enemy, is escapism. We are imagining our own martyrdom and delighting in it.

" You've got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What's say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it." Christipher Titus

” You’ve got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What’s say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it.” Christopher Titus

We aren’t escaping from reality to enjoy a magical adventure with Harry and buddies, or even a silly romance with sexy vampire boys. We’re escaping to imagine ourselves as heroic martyrs in a world of extreme violence, and to imagine our suffering at the hands of people whose politics we don’t agree with.

 

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn't vote for my candidate.

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn’t vote for my candidate.

 

Okay, so that kind of freaks me out.

I don’t really blame the authors, anymore than I blame Burgess and Kubrick for copycat Clockwork Orange crimes, or think that American Psycho is the reason we have spree killings. I think that Collins wanted to write a smart story about the media, and, in fact, the games themselves were inspired by reality shows like American Idol, not by any legislative policy. No, I blame our poor readership, obsessed with escapism, obsessed with characters whose skin they can fill, and unable or unwilling to read more intellectual texts which may put history and culture into some kind of context. It may sound harsh, but I think we read very poorly.

And, I think that this obsession with dystopia has fostered a breeding ground for serious paranoia. Remember how I said I would get back to Card’s politics? Well, he may write fiction, but he also thinks about the possibility of a “satirical” (but totally possible, and Obama is evil) future, where youth police the streets and we live in a dystopia. And, the fact is, when your rationale comes from a reading body that mostly consists of teen books and stories about doom, and not much fact-checking or study, there is no dystopian possibility that seems too insane or remote.

Whaaaat? It could happen!

Whaaaat? It could happen!

I’m sorry if I’m coming down hard here, but there is a reason. Here’s the thing, if you believe your enemy is evil, is going to make kids fight to the death on TV, is Hitler, is the devil, then you are justified in your mind to do whatever you want to this enemy. After all, you’re a hero. You’re preventing Nazi-1984-Hunger Games-Voldemort! So what if that person is totally innocent NOW. This is NOW. Now is just before the dystopia. In the future, that person will be guilty, so any pre-emptive strike is justified.

And, this is why I like dystopias like Clockwork Orange and sci-fi like Minority Report, and the works of Bradbury and Moore, better than other examples. I don’t like examples where evil is because of a big bad. Even if the stories have subtle dissensions from this, that’s clearly not what readers are getting. This is even worse, to me, when the evil is a specific group that isn’t actually doing this evil. Now, if your group is the Nazis, that makes sense. They did do these horrible things. But, if your group is liberals, conservatives, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gay people, feminists, et cetera, then you run a risk of paving the way for pre-emptive strikes against them. This is why I don’t even like Atwood, despite her acclaim, because I think it breeds bigotry against religious people who haven’t actually done the terrible things in the novel. And I don’t like Michael D. O’Brien’s Children of the Last Days series, because it specifically says that liberal media is covering up for an evil dystopia of left-wing, gay, feminist, Satanic, hippie, Gaia-worshipping Nazis (yeah… he has a lot of axes to grind, I guess…). It’s all based on “what if…?”. I don’t like “what if…?”.

In Burgess’s novel, Alex is our narrator, our guide, and we see the world through his eyes.

His scary, scary eyes...

His scary, scary eyes…

We sympathize with Alex, the raping, murdering, thug. We sympathize and this makes us question ourselves, morality, freedom, and the evil that we ourselves could do without choosing to do right. We all have a choice.

Dystopia too often becomes shorthand for lazy political accusations based more on personal feeling and emotional gut-reactions to people and parties we dislike, than it is used for helpful social critique.

We talk a lot about remembering history, almost always in reference to remembering that Hitler was a thing and so therefore Hitler is everyone the speaker dislikes. I say, remember all of history. There’s another scary, bloody era that we might want to recall: The Salem Witch Trials. And, this talk of dystopia and preemptive strikes has far more in common with that than with any heroic rebellion against any teen series baddy.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

Remember, the people who killed witches and burned devils and werewolves were also afraid, and trying to protect themselves. But, in the end, they are the ones we remember as the monsters. So, the next time you want to call someone Hitler, ask yourself: Has this person started a genocide and invaded countries, bringing about a World War? If the answer is no, chances are good that this person isn’t Hitler, or a dystopian villain, or a witch.

paranorman

 

And chances are, the one you fear is just as scared of you as you are of him.

And in that dreadful place Those spooky, empty pants and I were standing face to face! I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked. I howled. I yowled. I cried, “OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!” But then a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble. They were just as scared as I! I never heard such whimpering And I began to see That I was just as strange to them As they were strange to me! So… I put my arm around their waist And sat right down beside them. I calmed them down. Poor empty pants With nobody inside them. And now, we meet quite often, Those empty pants and I, And we never shake or tremble, We both smile and we say…”Hi!” -Dr. Seuss

And in that dreadful place
Those spooky, empty pants and I
were standing face to face!
I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.
I howled. I yowled. I cried,
“OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE
GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!”
But then a strange thing happened.
Why, those pants began to cry!
Those pants began to tremble.
They were just as scared as I!
I never heard such whimpering
And I began to see
That I was just as strange to them
As they were strange to me!
So…
I put my arm around their waist
And sat right down beside them.
I calmed them down.
Poor empty pants
With nobody inside them.
And now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble,
We both smile and we say…”Hi!”
-Dr. Seuss

Literati outrage of the day.

Outlit C

The Fascinating Badness of The Host (movie review)

For those of you who have lives and don’t obsess over film lineups, let me tell you something. 2013 kicked so much ass. It was a great year for film.

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We had one of the most honest and compelling stories about slavery and race ever put on film. We had a love story about humanity’s tenuous relationship with technology and where that leaves us as a species. We had the Coens doing a music-based period piece. We had a visually spectacular (if screenplay-challenged) space drama that has literally transformed the way we can even talk about cinematography. Disney hit it out of the ballpark with their most cohesive animated picture of what people are kind of stupidly calling “New Disney” (but I’ll get to that later). And that’s just looking at the really obvious pics. Miyazaki was back. We had The Wolf of Wallstreet. Matthew McConaughey shocked everyone and made it like his big, bad year of the Matthew in Matthew land (seriously, who would have guessed?).

 

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Blue Is the Warmest Color enchanted and shocked everyone. Man of Steel was, at least, hugely controversial in the tentpole community, dividing critics and audiences into raging fanboys of pure wrath. We had Frances Ha, A Touch of Sin, Nebraska… Sophia Coppola made a film, and so did Soderbergh.This year made us discuss civil rights, the human person, love, desire, and the fact that you may not actually be as talented as you think you are. Even our biggest financial hit was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which, despite being in a trend I really loathe (I keep trying to write a post about my problem with dystopia, but it’s not ready) was still pretty smart. But, this was the year that gave us experiments like The Act of Killing, and hard-hitting documentaries like Blackfish, and it marked the year former Disney stars joined with the guy who made Trash Humpers to recreate what I can only call a pop-music vision of hell!

Spring-Breakers-film-by-Harmony-Korine

And, from the looks of things, 2014, what with its Lars von Trier-ism and Wes Andersonianism, among other things, will be pretty damn cool.

But, in the midst of all this, there was a strange, mega-flop movie. A strange, strange, little trainwreck that I can’t really understand. It topped multiple worst lists for 2013. It was adapted from an infamously bad YA novel. It is The Host.

Even the poster is bland as wonderbread. That takes talent.

Even the poster is bland as wonderbread. That takes talent.

Spoilers a-plenty, folks!

–And my friend and I just had a conversation about this, so I’m going to blog about it for no other reason.

What is with this movie? Where do I even begin? For one thing, any movie so roundly hated by critics is, in my book, intriguing. Just how does one fail so greatly?

Being the Paul W.S. Anderson of literature helps...

Being the Paul W.S. Anderson of literature helps…

But, what was even more intriguing was the fact that there is a vocal minority who really love the movie. And, even more than this was the fact that I could not really look away from what I saw on screen. I heard from many critics that it was bad because it was utterly devoid of interest, and while I agree that the script is flaccid, there isn’t any real tension or drama, and nothing exactly happens, I wouldn’t say that it’s uninteresting. It’s too awkward to be uninteresting, like watching someone deliver a really bad speech, or being stuck in an elevator with a sobbing stranger.

For the apparent majority of the world who did not see this movie, The Host is a film with a glorious 8% approval rating on RT (no, really), and follows the story of Melanie. She lives in a prettied-up, typically YA version of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers universe, where aliens have come down to earth and done the whole body-snatching bit. But, instead of pod people and scariness, we have ancient, glowing starfish creatures from beyond worlds and a whole lot of meh. The glowing starfish aliens have inhabited human bodies and ended all conflict, resulting in peace and cleanliness, a situation which never ever makes the heroes question humanity or free will. Seriously, it’s like if in A Clockwork Orange no one ever really questioned the part about the Ludovico Treatment that stopped Alex from killing and raping, and therefore gave us a meaty moral quandary to begin with. Kind of hard to ignore that aspect, once you bring it up, but it’s never addressed. In fact, once on earth, most of the aliens are pretty passive, even to the point of blindly believing one another like the characters from the rightfully-forgotten, utterly-stupid Invention of Lying.

But, Melanie, you see, is not alone. She is a heroic, baby-brother-saving, loving, kind, personality-free bundle of attractiveness, and she gets captured by the not-pod people. They put an alien in her head, an alien with the incredibly unoriginal name of Wanderer. But, Melanie, through the same specialness that stops Edward from reading Bella’s mind but never gives Bella any active personality traits, overcomes. She doesn’t vanish, and now we have two minds in one body, and Melanie is out to find the last of the humans while Diane Kruger-Javert pursues in her best Gap summer collection…

GAP, for all your clichéd "obsessed character" needs!

GAP, for all your clichéd “obsessed character” needs!

…and Wanda learns about love. Will Melanie get her body back? Will Wanda and Melanie ever understand one another? Will the survivors believe that Melanie exists or will they kill her for being a not-pod-person? Will little brother’s sudden injury make Wanda have to save the day like Lassie? And, more importantly, how will two minds in one body handle having two separate crushes on two hot boys? Whaa-whaa!

Two generically attractive boys?! Scifi adventure, ho!

Two generically attractive boys?! Scifi adventure, ho!

Yes, this is from the same author who brought you Twilight.

But, I’m going to try and be fair here. I think a lot of people just saw this as Twilight’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except with a love square instead of a love triangle. This isn’t exactly correct. And, I want to first say something about the infamous Stephanie Meyers. She is… about average. Really. In the demographic, that nebulous YA… thingy that everyone talks about, she’s nowhere near the bottom of the barrel. As a former librarian, trust me, there are so many worse books out there. However, few have become so ubiquitous and with so many obsessive fans, and without really offering a whole hell of a lot in terms of content or… prose style. It’s sort of become its own thing, outside of the whole paranormal love stories for teens trend, where you have people insisting that they are incredibly well-read for having obsessed over the series, (and fanfiction writers making their own horrific hits by adapting the story as a really lame erotic novel). So, while I understand the hate, and I really do, I think it’s sort of misapplied. A lot of people say that these books are terrible, but then go on to praise books that are just as bad, or even worse. People lament the lowering of reading standards, but then refuse to budge from this swamp of teeny romance adventures.

How is this in any way better than Twilight?

How is this in any way better than Twilight?

I leave you with this: If you A.) are reading great literature and find the influence of Twilight to be detracting from literary discussions, B.) a teacher trying to get students to read something else, or C.) a reader of highly intelligent children’s and young adult fiction who hopes to see trends change in favor of The Book Thief or Looking for Alaska, then you can complain. Although category C does not include readers of YA paranormal romance novels or thinly expressed dystopias that serve as a backdrop for love triangles.

So, that being said, I don’t hate Meyers as much as I get annoyed with ostensibly educated adults picking Twilight over Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The Unvanquished. Meyers is sort of incidental. And, for a writer who gained so much popularity in basically mainstreaming her subgenre, it’s actually admirable that she did somewhat mix up her formula. Which, she did. At least, judging from the movie. I haven’t read the book and don’t intend to.

I think part of what is facinating about the movie is that it actually has some interesting concepts. The story is about the emotional microcosmic effect of the Body Snatchers story, which could be interesting. The two minds in one body idea could have been very interesting, as well. There is a lot at stake for these characters, and how they grow to trust one another and what this might mean for them could be great fiction. There is a scene toward the end when Wanda (they do call her that) is going to sacrifice herself so that Melanie can be free, and the two become very emotional and call one another sisters, and this could be really moving except… we never see this. At all. All emotion is just told to the audience and we’re supposed to infer that it’s real.

This is why people say the movie is so boring. Which, technically, it is. The story takes a high-concept scifi plot, and it uses it to study these two characters and their relationship. It should be an intimate portrait of two literally alien minds finding unity, and not one that is out of place in today’s world. But, we never really get to see these characters at all. Bizarrely enough, the story is actually very much driven by plot, through some Hunger Games style tough-girl action, a cat-and-mouse pursuit, and other chase and action sequences. This is what propels the story and its changes, and the characters really only act or react based on these external forces. What is Melanie like? We hear about how strong and brave she is through others, and she does sacrifice herself for her brother at the start of the story. But, we only really get to hear about Melanie’s abstract goodness and see her do… things. But, what is she like? How is she strong? What is her personality? I have no idea. For that matter, what is Wanda like? She’s ancient and is supposed to have all this wisdom, but most of the dialog just sounds like two young girls getting catty, emotional, insecure, scared, or just exposition-dumping. Oh, and most of all, having crushes on OMG BOYS!

I wish you DID choose to love, instead of just telling the audience that you are in love.  Would have been nice, since this is apparently a central theme... OMG BOYS does not count as a romance.

I wish you DID choose to love, instead of just telling the audience that you are in love. Would have been nice, since this is apparently a central theme… OMG BOYS does not count as a romance.

And that brings me to the next and probably biggest issue of this film. You know how some really high-concept movies chose to use an emotion or a sense, or maybe a framing device, and it just doesn’t work on screen. Take the scent scenes in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. They’re awkward because the filmmakers can’t convey smell through the medium. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but these filmmakers can’t do it. Well, this story has a script problem that works like that. Melanie and Wanda share a mind, and so we are treated to a script which is dominated by Melanie and Wanda’s thoughts. And, for a film about their thoughts, it’s unfortunately not very interesting or revealing. Melanie doesn’t want to disappear, and she doesn’t want to do what the aliens want, and she doesn’t want Wanda to kiss her boyfriend. It’s not very revealing, and it sounds really funny to have this angry girl voiceover interrupting scenes with lines like, “It’s… crowded.” when thinking about how she feels with two minds. Wow, that’s really deep, Melanie. And, furthermore, this kind of writing always feels like it’s done by an amateur who thinks that her one-liners are so golden that they can replace any actual character development. Oh, snap! She said it’s crowded and she has two minds in her body! Ooooh, the brilliance!

But, the thing is, Melanie really isn’t that interesting as an independent person, either. Her scenes with her boyfriend are basically as follows: Escapee survivor Melanie runs into generically hot male survivor. He kisses her. She says that he must not have kissed anyone in a while. Next scene they’re together and an item. Then, she’s been taken. That’s basically all of her epic romance, and yet her memories of this romance are part of what make Wanda take her side. Why? Has she never taken over a body that kissed before? Wanda has taken over bodies before. Do they not have romance? Is that specifically human? What about the rest of the humans? Were their romances not romantic enough because they didn’t involve kissing on an abandoned sofa? What makes this romance special? Nothing! The story gives us nothing.

To illustrate, I, like all the many non-fans, really struggled with telling the difference between the two male love interests, Wanda’s and Melanie’s. I don’t remember one, single personality trait or attribute other than “kisses Saoirse Ronan” and “has hair”. And they both qualify for those traits. I THINK Melanie’s generi-boy was more angry at Wanda-ified Melanie than Wanda’s generi-boy, but that could have been the other way around because, in the end, they both have this weird romance thing going on with Soairse Ronan’s two-minded body. Wanda’s boy even asks if Melanie can step aside, aside in her own body, so that he can use her body to have an intimate moment with Wanda. The moral quandaries present in this are never, ever addressed, other than Melanie feeling jealous when her boy kisses her when it’s actually Wanda. The getting of boys is more important than the ethical issues.

That is basically the story. Melanie convinces Wanda to go with her so that Diane Kruger doesn’t put Wanda in a new body and kill Melanie, because Diane Kruger is a bitch in this movie. Oh, but her driven-like-Javert obsession and emotional outbursts that are totally unlike all the other not-pod-people hide a secret! Can you guess why this supposedly calm alien being would be so stressed out about an alien whose host is still there? What secret could that be?! Yeah, she has a host still there. It’s pretty obvious from the start, and there’s really no conflict about this. You just kind of know that this is the case, and then it’s revealed at the end and the audience goes, “Yup.” I don’t know if it was supposed to be a surprise, because they don’t dwell on it very long. It’s just kind of a thing that the filmmakers forgot about through most of the shooting.

Other than this pursuit, Wanda and Melanie find the survivors, led by William Hurt in his best Jeff Bridges impression. The story really just kind of fizzles out into… stuff. The people don’t trust her and want to kill her. For no apparent reason, Hurt lets her live. For no apparent reason, Melanie won’t let Wanda say that she’s still alive. She could easily tell Wanda things that only Melanie would know. Their lives are at risk. But, nope, she lets everyone she knows and loves think she’s dead, including her supposed one-true-love of this tale, and her beloved brother, because reasons. Maybe they are explained in the book, but not here. Then, people want to kill her, but then they don’t. I have no idea how Wanda gets a love interest, but it just happens. Melanie’s love interest kisses Wanda, and that makes Melanie mad, and somehow that tells love-boy that she’s still there, I think? I don’t remember how that worked. Eventually, they accept Wanda, but then the brother gets an infection on his leg because we don’t have time for character development. So Wanda and Melanie save the day by getting medicine from the aliens. Diane Kruger almost finds them, but doesn’t, but then she does, but then she fails and is sent away into outer space while her host is okay. Stuff just happens.

Mostly this stuff.

Mostly this stuff.

If you’re sensing that there’s not much of a central conflict, that’s because there isn’t. Most of the actions are not propelled by anything other than the assumptions people make about what stock characters should do. It’s sort of like the way fanfiction writers don’t need to provide their characters with motivation, because the characters come from a pre-existing source and the fans know how they will react in a given situation. This doesn’t work when you have original characters and they don’t seem to react at all, or at least not in a way that makes sense. And, the weird part is that this could be fixed. I think part of what is so fascinating to me, besides the way no one acts like a real person, is that the problems aren’t insurmountable. Melanie and Wanda should have more conflict, a Gollum-type struggle, except one that ends with this conjoined-twin style sisterhood. But, they opt to simply tell the audience what the characters are like and the interactions aren’t revealing. Often Melanie just says things like, “Oh no!” and other dull phrases we could probably just assume she would say. Wanda pouts, which is inconsistent with her character as an ancient, wise alien being, and says things like, “You’re angry when I kiss a man you do love, and you’re angry when I kiss a man you don’t. It’s very confusing.” Wanda, it’s confusing that you even love a different species, one which doesn’t look anything like you and has a much shorter life span and no personality, especially under these circumstances. Care to elaborate at all? We can literally hear your thoughts, and yet we don’t know them. Who is Wanda? She’s a collection of traits, but no soul, and her alien lifeform is LITERALLY called a Soul!

From the Avatar school of "shiny things replacing good visual design". Oh, the wonder...

From the Avatar school of “shiny things replacing good visual design”. Oh, the wonder…

The conflict between the survivors and Wanda could also have been fixed. Wanda could have risked herself to save conveniently-injured-brother-who-always-needs-sacrificial-saving at the beginning of her meeting with the survivors, thereby earning their trust. It’s cliché, but it’s better than, “Oh, Wanda, we trust you now! Because feelings!” Diane Kruger could have been a better threat, maybe actually placed them in real danger, maybe been believed by the other aliens instead of being kind of brushed off and impotent. The stealing missions (a weirdly minor plot point, considering that these serve as our action scenes for a lot of the movie) could have had higher stakes, killed characters we remembered, put people in grave danger. The brother could actually be torn up about seeing his sister but not having it be her, and that could be an emotionally strong part of the story. Instead, he just kind of exists so that Melanie can have someone to save, and then Wanda can have someone to save. The scene where Wanda gets the medicine could actually have some stakes. The aliens could not believe her. She might have had to sneak inside. She might have had to get past some security. There could have been tension, but instead it just works itself out perfectly and everyone goes home, and little brother is okay. Everything just resolves itself too easily.

And, this brings me to my biggest problem. The emotional core of the story should be Melanie and Wanda’s relationship as… I guess brain-sisters. They call each other sisters, and supposedly love one another by the end. I guess. I mean, they say they do, and that’s what counts for character development in this movie. People just say Melanie is strong and special, and Wanda is wise, and that people are in love, and that romances are powerful, and that Wanda and Melanie love one another. But, they never really show it. We just have long, drawn-out shots of the desert, which is probably one of the cheapest things a scifi drama could show us. Blade Runner gave us a neo-noir, space-age, Tokyo-influenced city.

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Star Wars gave us multiple planets and space wars, and giant space stations that look like evil moons, and Cloud City.

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2001: A Space Odyssey gave us innovative space effects, prehistoric lands, new technology, and mind-bending visuals.

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Paprika took us inside dreams.

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The Host shows us where they filmed Gerry. Adventure, ho.

And before you say, "But Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't take us to new worlds!" remember: THAT was a horror movie. It relied on humans not knowing what was happening and then finding out the truth. This is pure scifi, post-invasion, and does include scifi elements in technology and visuals. It has no excuse for being this lazy. Also, Invasion doesn't look lazy. Both movies. They're both more visually interesting.

And before you say, “But Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t take us to new worlds!” remember: THAT was a horror movie. It relied on humans not knowing what was happening and then finding out the truth. This is pure scifi, post-invasion, and does include scifi elements in technology and visuals. It has no excuse for being this lazy. Also, Invasion doesn’t look lazy. Both movies. They’re both more visually interesting.

No, the problem is that at the end Wanda is going to give up her life for Melanie. It should be a really sad scene, but the weight is lessened by the lack of character development. Still, Ronan is a good actress and conveys real emotions at this scene. It has some genuine stakes here. People aren’t just doing stuff that fizzles out and becomes nothing. This is the big, emotional core, the conflict, the ethical dilemma. I thought, “Okay, movie. I didn’t like you, but this is something. You’re being daring. Way to go. Life isn’t a pretty package where everything resolves itself, like in Twilight. Actions have consequences and reactions, and the consequences of Wanda’s epiphany about humanity and the value of life means that she cannot also have a teeny-fantasy ending with a cute boy and all and… no.” Nope, at the very end we have deus ex random-dead-hot-chick, and Wanderer gets a new body without any moral obligation to the previous owner. Nevermind that her boyfriend is apparently okay with making out with the dead girl they had just moments before. Yeah, that’s not creepy. At least Wanderer can have no consequences or emotional stakes. And, hey, good thing that corpse was hot and all. And of age. And not elderly. And female. Bam! Conflict gone! And in the end they find other aliens and humans living happily together as they have learned to do, and it’s all going to be okay.

Thank God we had this dead Emily Browning on hand, or else Wanda might have had to live in a yucky, not hot body! That's the real tension here, folks.

Thank God we had this dead Emily Browning on hand, or else Wanda might have had to live in a yucky, not hot body! That’s the real tension here, folks.

Now, I actually do like one part of this story. I like that in Meyer’s books she foregoes killing all the baddies to solve everyone’s problems. I think that killing all the baddies is a horrible lesson for young readers, especially when creating a group or race that is just bad and okay to slaughter.

They're ugly and not obviously Western, so kill them with impunity.  Slaughter their families. Who cares?

They’re ugly and not obviously Western, so kill them with impunity. Slaughter their families. Who cares?

I like that the aliens are just kind of confused and living as they know how. I like that Wanda is good. I like that most of the aliens are not as obsessed as Diane Kruger. I like the message of peace. But, Meyers doesn’t know how to express this message in a way that still retains storytelling drama. The Twilight “Saga” builds up to a climactic battle that just kind of fizzles out, and our protagonists never actually have to work for their happy ending. In The Host, Wanderer doesn’t die, the alien’s peaceful reign is never expounded upon, how aliens and humans can live together if aliens have murdered most of humanity (at least their minds) is never explained. At one point in the story, Wanda discovers that humans have been cutting out aliens and killing them, in order to free the human hosts. But, after a brief emotional breakdown and a, “How could you?” moment, that’s resolved. People say sorry, and that’s it. Wanda has literally been living right next to a room where her people are being cut apart, and she pretty quickly understands. Conflict isn’t important. It’s just kind of left alone, and we’re not expected to care because the cute girls got the cute boys in the end.

That is Meyers’s real interest: her romantic fantasies. That’s her focus, that’s the cause of all character motivation, and that’s what interests her. And, sure, it’s okay to be obsessed with young romance above everything else. If you’re young. And have a major schoolyard crush. And are Tina from Bob’s Burgers. Otherwise, grow up, writers and audiences. You give us ethical dilemmas and ideas, but you leave us with OMG BOYS! That isn’t good storytelling. That’s Tina’s erotic friendfiction.

Tina-Belcher

Like Tina’s stories, this is more about how cute people are and how much they want to kiss (or, in Tina’s case, pinch butts). This isn’t even a romance, as it tells us nothing about the nature of love. This is a middle school rush of hormones.

The story alone, however, isn’t why this is awkward. It is a huge part, true. Meyers does like to forego all storytelling in favor of cute young people making out, and the alien invasion becomes backdrop for another of her weird romantic fantasies. However, the way the movie tells the story is also very strange. Like I said before, the voiceover is unintentionally funny… until it becomes annoying. Melanie and Wanda never seem to say anything very important or interesting. But, beyond that, we have a lot of scenes where the director just cuts back to Diane Kruger looking intense and wearing all-white clothes. I guess this is to remind us that she still exists, since her threat of pursuit is pretty unevenly handled. So, many of these cut-aways are just pointless shots of Diane Kruger in the desert. However, important emotional scenes and character development are rushed over in favor of explaining how the survivors grow wheat and… more shots of the desert.

"I'm still in this movie, right? Do I have a scene? No? Okay. Send my paycheck. I'll be in my trailer drinking campaign and waiting for the next time Tarantino calls me."

“I’m still in this movie, right? Do I have a scene? No? Okay. Send my paycheck. I’ll be in my trailer drinking campaign and waiting for the next time Tarantino calls me.”

And this is another thing. This movie looks terrible. I mean that in the extreme. For some strange reason, I have heard fans say that this movie is beautiful, but I think what they mean is that the actors are beautiful. Or, maybe they are so used to sloppily color-filtered, CGI explosions a-la Michael Bay that they are actually enchanted by clear imagery and takes that last longer than two seconds. Or maybe they have seen every previous film in their entire viewing history on a very small cellphone and only now have witnessed a movie on a big screen? I have no idea, because the movie does not look good. The director is Andrew Niccol, and he’s not a stranger to directing scifi. He did Gattica, and he wrote and co-produced The Truman Show. But, this film just falters. The use of the desert feels beyond cheap, never even exploiting the dramatics of the landscape, and the cave sequences look like the cheapest and least believable sets.

Gee, this looks SO real! It looks like a perfect representation of a low-budget set from 1972!

Gee, this looks SO real! It looks like a perfect representation of a low-budget set from 1972!

They are so boring and uninspired, and never once reflect any of the interest or even visuals of being inside a cave. It looks like of like a play structure in a dinosaur-themed amusement park, but without dinosaurs. It looks like it was thrown together in a week with some plaster and spray paint. The most interesting things that we see are wheat and wheat production, and some glow-worm things. None of this is interesting, and the GC moments feel very obvious. The flashbacks are shot in this corny, golden light, so swoony that you’d be forgiven for thinking a freeze-frame was the cover of a romance paperback.

Yes, this is exactly what I would do if I were being pursued by aliens.

Yes, this is exactly what I would do if I were being pursued by aliens.

Furthermore, the pacing and editing are so listless that many of these scenes feel like they should just be cut. They don’t create atmosphere, because we aren’t seeing anything all that interesting (other than a very cheap shooting location and a very cheap set), and they do nothing to further the plot because there is no conflict.

Now, I love a good, low-fi, low-budget, little picture. And, if the director wanted to make that, that could have been interesting. But, these movies, like, say, Wendy and Lucy or Wristcutters: a Love Story or a Dogma 95 production must rely on a strong understanding of visual language, and powerful emotional and/or intellectual cores that keep the viewer invested in the piece. Wendy and Lucy has beautifully composed shots and a gritty, unrelenting realism that propels the plot and heightens the emotional outcome.

Also, shot composition. Learn about it.

Also, shot composition. Learn about it.

Wristcutters uses its minimal special effects to a quirky advantage, to create a world just off-kilter enough to me fantastical, and also has a snappy, smart, funny script.

Another movie filmed in the desert in an "off" version of our world. It can be interesting.

Another movie filmed in the desert in an “off” version of our world. It can be interesting.

The Dogma 95 movies, and semi-Dogma films (I don’t always know all the rules) follow a specific aesthetic code and use their low-fi look to create an intentional effect meant to force viewers to question and contemplate the moviegoing experience.

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves

If The Host wanted to be a small picture, it needed to be much smarter, tighter, and more emotional, and actually do something with its technique, instead of mime the action sequences and romance scenes of other movies.

I kept thinking that the book must be really short and so the director didn’t have much story to work with and had to fill in the gaps with scenery. However, it turns out the book is enormous. I wondered why the director would spend so much time on nothing at all when there is so much book to cover. Then, I remembered it’s a Meyers book, and that means probably 800 pages of story are devoted to the protagonist whining and to descriptions of hot boys. Because she really is Tina Belcher.

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So, with a movie this bad, why do I find it so interesting? I think, in part, is how the concepts really should be so much better than they are. I like the paranoia of the original and 1970s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so it stands to reason I would like to hear a new take (just… not this one). However, I also just find the awkward choices really intriguing. Why are all the conflicts resolved so quickly? Why isn’t there more tension or emotion? Why the voiceover that doesn’t actually tell us anything important about the character and yet never shuts up? Why cast two male leads who look so much alike? Why is the store just called Store? Did the aliens change it? Why? And, what is the tone supposed to be? It’s not romantic, because we don’t get enough development of our characters, and they don’t have any chemistry anyway. It’s not an action movie, because there is no tension. It’s not a character piece, because there isn’t any character development. It’s not really scifi, because it doesn’t explore its concept so much as create a reason to put two voices in Ronan’s head. It’s not realistic, however, as most people behave in a truly bizarre way, dictated more by what the plot just says they must do than by any natural action. Melanie needs more anguish over her helplessness, more conflict with Wanda, more passion and drive, and, for the love of moviemaking itself, a personality. Her romance needs to have more development so that it feels romantic, since it is what drives Wanda to action. Wanda needs to seem more like a wise, interstellar traveller and ancient being, and less like she has amnesia. She needs more conflict with what she believes is normal and right, and her new connection with Melanie, and she needs a lot more conflict when she finds out that her race is being killed by the survivors. Also, her interspecies romance must be explained and, again, be romantic. I’m not against love stories, but if this is a love story, give us love. I don’t want to see schoolyard crushes, and I don’t believe that an ancient glowing starfish from deep space would have such a crush. And, the survivors need to qualify just why they decide to trust Wanda. And Melanie needs to qualify just why she wants to be kept a secret, even at risk of her own possible execution.

Pictured here: not a replacement for character and story.

Pictured here: not a replacement for character and story.

I think this movie makes me want to fix it. That’s my best explanation for why it fascinates me so much, other than the uncanny valley feeling of watching actors portray totally unhuman emotional responses. I think this movie makes me annoyed because I think there is a need for this kind of story. I think scifi needs to be able to look at the interpersonal and the human, as well as the high concepts and imagination. I think that young adult stories need more messages of peace and integration, and solving problems through unlikely but gentle solutions. Sometimes the gentle touch really does solve everything. It can happen in real life. But, the story needs someone to tell it who is not obsessed with boys. This OMG, BOYS motif in YA fiction is really irritating. Just having cute boys around is not in and of itself a love story, and certainly not enough to carry a novel or a feature film.

Unless you’re Tina Belcher.

Then Tina grabbed Jimmy Jr.'s butt.

Then Tina grabbed Jimmy Jr.’s butt.

Outlit C.

 

Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? Never say “Earth”

Grist

For over three decades, David Fenton has played an unusual role in the environmental movement: marketing it. The company he founded, Fenton Communications, has worked with everyone from Nelson Mandela to MoveOn.org. It recently managed an anti-fracking campaign for Yoko Ono (fracking, it promised, would ruin New York’s groundwater, and therefore its bagels and pizza).

David FentonDavid Fenton.

To many environmentalists, what Fenton does — with all the celebrity chefs and celebrities, period — is … a little bit simplistic. To his opponents, he’s the Great Satan. If you find an article about him online, it’s probably a hit piece.

“People working in the nonprofit world sometimes have trouble adopting a marketing mindset,” Fenton Communications wrote in a 2009 report.  “But in the end, the goal is for people to ‘buy’ our ideas — ideas for a better world.”

Fenton recently talked with me over the phone…

View original post 1,366 more words

Discussing Horror: Tod Browning, Vampires, and Freaks

This isn’t the end of the Defending Disney series. I’m still writing that. But, since that isn’t the only part of pop-culture that interests me, I wanted to branch out and start another series for another often maligned genre: horror.

UNIVERSAL-MONSTERS-COVER

If anything, the evils of horror are even more ubiquitous than Disney’s controversies. Feminists point out the fetishized female violence and damsels in distress. Religious people dislike the use of the supernatural, demons, and the occult. Gun rights activists blame horror movies for violent crime. Progressives criticize their portrayal of sexuality, because have-sex-and-die isn’t exactly progressive social policy (although some people approve). And, in general, horror fans are considered weird, awkward, creepy, and generally stereotyped as the kind of people you don’t want around your kids.

I’ve been told before that I don’t seem like a horror fan because I am “too calm” and “too bookish” –and I briefly worked for a horror magazine. This one.

Here, however, I am saying “discuss” instead of “defend”, because I find it more interesting to run these stories through social and theoretical schools of criticism than spend my time talking about all the controversies surrounding every horror film and work of literature. Also, I may not necessarily defend a film or book, but that doesn’t mean that I do not think that we can understand these stories in their social contexts.

So, you don’t have to like it. We’re just going to try and understand it and look at the tropes through different cultural lenses. And, since horror is a pretty broad subject, I’ll be taking varied selections, from Universal classic monsters, to silent scares, slashers, “goreno”, Asian extreme, cult horror, exploitation, arthouse, and cross-genre blends.

And, who best to start off a discussion of horror than the man who gave us one of the most classic horror movies of all time, 1931’s Dracula, by Tod Browning, starring horror legend, Bela Lugosi.

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This film really needs no introduction, as Lugosi’s performance has become so legendary that I would bet if you were to mimic Dracula right now, you would mimic Lugosi. He’s the one who have us that awesome slicked-back hair, the way he swishes that opera cape, and his eerie line delivery. Cinema legend has it that the line delivery was due to Lugosi, who was native Hungarian, not being fully fluent in English. In fact, Lugosi was so associated with this role that he was buried in his Dracula costume. And yet, although this movie is so famous that until recently every other vampire movie was a footnote to this version, I find that not a lot of modern audiences have seen it.

Maybe this is because the movie is from the 1930s, and a lot of people seem to feel a disconnect with Old Hollywood acting these days, as well as the old-timey special effects and, well, it’s in black and white. Not to be condescending, but if we’re honest that is a real handicap for some viewers. I think this is a shame, since many people now associate old horror movies with bad horrors, like Robot Monster, and seem conditioned to laugh at the dialogue or special effects without giving the movie a real chance. However, this one actually really, really holds up.

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And I’m not just saying that because I watched it for the first time as a child, at night, by the light of the fire, in my grandparents’ house in the woods, surrounded by cats, with wind and coyotes in the distance and… it was epic.

No, really, this movie still works. For one thing, the old film footage has been, as they say, lovingly restored, so the clarity of picture should not be a distraction. However, some of that old, warm feel from the film stock really, in my opinion, helps create the mood for a good horror experience. Part of what I love about horror is how weirdly cozy it is. It is cozy to be scared, to curl up with the popcorn and hot chocolate and everything. Halloween has always been a really nostalgic holiday for me, and the old footage and style really sets the tone for childhood Halloween experiences, at least for me. Something about it just screams candy-apples and community haunted houses.

Who doesn't love celebrating scary things with friends?

Who doesn’t love celebrating scary things with friends?

But, aside from my personal feelings about the movie, the style is actually very affective. We may have seen the creepy castles, the cobwebs and shadows, the black capes, and bats before, but this is one of the earliest examples of the tropes. And, Browning’s direction really pushes the subtle eeriness that made these clichés affective in the first place. The scene when Dracula walks up the stairs has a really great moment when he is suddenly on the other side of thick cobwebs, having passed through them. This really drives home the otherworldly quality of Dracula’s character. There has always been a sort of tragedy to the vampire, cursed with immortality, as an eternal Other and monster, and here Browning highlights how much of an outsider Dracula is, that he does not belong in this world, even on the physical level.

classic-horror-lugosi-dracula

Of course, the use of shadows, the gloomy lighting and angles, only further unsettle the viewer. But, it is actually the scenes of light that can be most unnerving. In one scene, Dracula attacks a sleeping woman. She has a light on. She is in her bed. The scene remains chilling because it strips away our security. If you aren’t safe in your own bed, in the light, then you’re always vulnerable.

You will never be safe again!

You will never be safe again! (Also, subtext: Bad touch! Bad touch!)

But, it is the subject of the Other that really plays as a theme in the films I’m highlighting here. Dracula is an outsider because he is a monster. He’s frightening, a cold-blooded predator. When the ghost ship arrives, the entire crew slain by their vampire passenger, that is genuinely chilling. And yet, there is something enigmatic and interesting about Dracula. He’s sophisticated. He’s a gentleman. And, he is also a tragic character. In one scene, he speaks wistfully of death. Life and death, and what they mean to him, are what separates him. Life is blood, he says. Death is unattainable. Life, then, is the death of others, at the sacrifice of his own rest. Survival is the hunt, and the vampire is the everlasting predator.

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Compare this to Tod Browning’s next film, 1932’s Freaks. After the success of Dracula, Browning wanted to make the greatest horror movie ever made. That next year, he released the story of a sideshow performer who is seduced by a trapeze artist. It starred actual sideshow artists, including Violet and Daisy Hilton, the conjoined twins, and other famous figures in the sideshow world. However, there is a twist. The sideshow characters are not the freaks, and the real monsters are the beautiful trapeze artist and her lover, who only trick the main character so as to con him out of his money.

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It may not seem like an incredibly edgy movie. After all, today we are used to seeing the outcast and disfigured characters as the heroes and the handsome characters become villains. That’s basically the plot for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as well as movies like MaskEdward Scissorhands, and The Elephant Man. However, in 1931, we lived in a different cultural landscape.

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Film historians, meet pseudo-science. We’re probably going to see a lot of it. In the mid to late 1800s, a British scientist named Galton proposed a genetic theory. He called it eugenics. While it is basically the creationism of genetics today, back in the day it was all the rage. People had blood-line purity awards. People thought they could predict crime by the way someone’s eyes or head looked. It took a lot of ideas from another pseudo-science, phrenology, which held that examining the bumps in skulls would determine things like intelligence and criminal aptitude. You can see this played to chilling effect in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, when the sinister slave-owner, Candy, saws a skull in pieces to reveal the inside.

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Of course, as seen in Django, this prejudice extended to race, and it would eventually inspire the Nazis. But, the idea that it was somehow unnatural to have mixed bloodlines or to be different from the norm is a much earlier and more wide-spread concept than the Nazi agenda. A great scene from Spielberg’s Lincoln really showcases this, with characters citing a very misinformed notion of “natural law”. And, for all intents and purposes, you can basically rest assured that 9 out of 10 times someone references “natural law” they are about to be a raging bigot –and also not understand what Natural Law means.

In the 1930s, it was not only edgy, it was downright counter-cultural to make a film like Freaks. This wasn’t just horror pushing the envelope. This was a socially conscious, progressive piece of cinema that pushed the boundaries of social acceptability, morality, and cinema itself. And Browning didn’t pull any punches. Audiences had seen sympathetic portrayals of disfigured characters in the past, what with Lon Caney playing both Erik from The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1923). But, these characters were created with make-up, and were also both based on pre-existing literature. Also, and I don’t know if many people realize this now, but the 1925 Phantom was considered pretty low-brow. It’s really not a very arty silent film, despite what people say about it these days, when comparing it to other, dumber versions. 

The fact was, even though characters like Quasimodo and Erik existed, they were played by a mainstream movie star. In Browning’s film, however, no effects were used. The characters are real, 100%, with, of course, the exception being what happens to the villains at the end. But, I won’t spoil that for you. Furthermore, these are not villains. The sideshow performers are friendly, they have their own culture, they are loyal to one another, and they are portrayed as uniquely talented, not even as tragic. When bad things happen to them, you feel genuinely sorry, and not because they are victims due to their differences. No, you feel sorry because they are good people who are getting exploited.

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Consider how even to this day we tend to portray characters as entirely defined by their “otherness”. A great example of this would be Glee. What is the defining attribute of Artie? Well, he’s in a wheelchair. What are his conflicts generally related to? His disability. Likewise, what is Kurt’s definite attribute other than his extreme gay… ness? But, this extends to other media. How often do we see characters whose only defining attribute is that they are black, or female, or blind, or gay, et cetera? These two-dimensional characters become tired clichés, like the Mammy, The Magic Black Man, The Underachieving Minority Student With a Dream, The Strong-Independent-Woman Who Don’t Need No Man, The Love Interest, Walking Boobs, The Inspirational Handicapped One, and The Sassy Gay Friend. Although sd seem to have made a breakthrough in portrayals of little people due to the talents of one Mr. Fantastic, Peter Dinklage, who proved to many viewers that when it comes to superstars, tall, dark, and handsome is really best two out of three.

The Man, the Myth, the Superstar!

The Man, the Myth, the Superstar!

Considering how ridiculously hard it is to get past this stereotyping problem in 2014, it’s amazing that Tod Browning wrote these characters in 1932. Hans and Frieda are a couple broken apart by the conniving femme fatale of a villainess, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they are little people. Likewise, the reportedly very upbeat Johnny Eck, who plays The Half-Boy, is an optimistic, happy-go-lucky kind of person. Aside from an ongoing gag about Violet and Daisy’s disagreements, they are also interesting characters, a little sassy, somewhat diva-ish, but interacting like any other pair of sisters. And the list goes on.

So, how did this progressive piece of media play with 1930s audiences?

Banned.

Oh, yeah, it was that controversial, with critics expressing shock at the unseemly display of these “others” alongside “normal people” –presumably before sniffing through their moustaches and saying, “Most unorthodox! Most unorthodox! Harumph! Harumph!”

The film ruined Browning’s career. He continued to make movies, but his fame as the great director of Dracula was pretty much nixed. It would be like today’s audiences discovering that David Fincher had made The Human Centipede. Maybe he would still work, but no one would want to give him a budget. Even so, Browning managed to make a few more films, but these were mostly forgotten flicks in the low-budget horror genre. However, his contribution to film history with his two most memorable works has been astounding.

The idea of The Other is a huge theme in horror, and Browning highlighted this as a source of both pathos and terror. In Dracula, Otherness is due to monstrosity, being something outside of society because of one’s own evil nature.shadows In Freaks, Otherness is due to society being the monster, with our heroes placed outside of the world due to how prejudiced everyone else is. These two themes, one of the otherworldly or outsider-by-action villainy, and one of the isolation imposed on Othered characters, are both prominent in the horror genre. Horror does not often teach a straight-forward lesson, but instead it shows audiences what they fear, turning a light on the fears, as it were. In Dracula, audiences confront fears of the unknown, of being vulnerable to evil, and of being consumed by this evil, as victims themselves become vampires.rats

In Freaks, audiences are forced to considered where they stand in society, and whether or not society’s fears are actually what should frighten us.freaks-photo-3 What is more scary? The demonized outsider or the one doing the demonizing? Who is the real monster? What are we so afraid of? (Why aren’t we supposed to end sentences with prepositions?) Both films question whether or not we, the audience, can become villains, either by our treatment of others or by being consumed by an evil. In Freaks the “normative” person is a part of a society that creates monsters. In Dracula, the normal people can become the outsider and monstrous Other through evil forces.

And remember, even if you keep the light on, even if you are under the covers, monsters can still find you.

Pleasant dreams!

Pleasant dreams!

C.

Defending Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s celebrate with a movie about lust-driven attempted homicide –for kids!

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(And, for anyone wondering, the reason why I have not updated recently was because my old laptop was crashing every few minutes.)

After the critical and boxoffice disappointment of Pocahontas, Disney released another risky, very mature, artistically original film, this time an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine the trepidation at the Disney studio at the time of its release. When they realized that, no, actually, the public does not love their new direction, it was too late to do anything about Hunchback. And, in the end, the response to the lavish animated spectacle was lukewarm, with audiences confused by the dark and sexual nature of the plot. The movie cost around $100,000,000 to produce, and it did make a profit and Roger Ebert gave it four stars. But, I think it’s been the movies lasting power and success compared to extravaganzas like The Lion King which lead some people to see this as a failure. And, by some people, I also mean the studio. Whatever direction the company was trying to move in, it definitely back-peddled hard, and this film has been considered one of the downward post-Renaissance slump movies.

I think that part of the trouble people have with this movie is trying to figure out what the target audience is supposed to be. The movie is really, really dark, starting out right away with the murder of a mother who is trying to protect her infant.

Child-friendly mom-murder, from Disney.

Child-friendly mom-murder, from Disney.

And, that’s just the beginning. The father-son relationship between the hero, Quasimodo, and the antagonist, Claude Frollo, is really twisted, even more so than the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. The movie also deals with discrimination, and with rather more sophistication than Pocahontas, although I blame that on the fact that there isn’t an institutionalized anti-gypsy discrimination in the USA. Most Americans don’t really have much of a connection to the culture at all, as they form a very small minority, which is why Disney doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone while representing their culture.It’s also why TV shows like Hemlock Grove make no sense.

In what high school would THIS guy be bullied? I don't care if he is a werewolf, it wouldn't happen.

In what high school would THIS guy be bullied? I don’t care if he is a werewolf, it wouldn’t happen.

However, it’s the movie’s depiction of sexuality and violence which really sets the film apart as a truly dark and, honestly, strange Disney production.

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The movie features an attempted burning at the stake, a mob, institutionalized discrimination, violent oppression, and even an attempted genocide. The depiction of gypsy relations works as an eerie analogue for Nazism and other forms of ethnic cleansing. But, what really sticks with audiences is Claude Frollo and his obsession with Esmeralda. It’s not just desire and ego, like Gaston’s jealous anger over Belle. No, Claude Frollo sees Esmeralda and is overcome with very explicit lust, which serves as his motivation for every horrible thing that follows in the story. This isn’t usual Disney, and the company would never again touch on this sort of subject.

So, what do I think of this story? Well, unlike Pocahontas, I actually would really defend this film as flawed (very, very flawed, but we’ll get to that) but powerful. First, let’s look at the art. If Hunchback has one unquestionably solid attribute, that would be the animation. The art design is brilliant, the most mature and honestly least-Disney to date.

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The characters are even more angular and realistic than those in Pocahontas, and the studio also used shadows to create more 3D appearances and expression, a technique you see in quite a bit of anime.  The movement is also spectacular, perhaps even more so than its predecessor, since the film has scenes of acrobatics and dancing that showcase the animator’s keen observation of human anatomy.

However, it is the scene design that everyone remembers, and rightly so. The representations of architecture, cityscapes, even the light of stained glass windows are so absolutely stunning in their design and accuracy that they have the power to dazzle audiences even to this day. God_Help_the_OutcastsThe scene of Esmeralda praying in the cathedral are some of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of animation that the studio has ever produced. god-15Furthermore, the illusion of camera angles, including soaring “crane shots” of Notre-Dame itself, are spectacular in their effect, and the use of CG blends seamlessly with the 2D animation in a way that rarely works this well.

I really have nothing negative to say about the art in this film. It is spectacular through-and-through. Even if every, single aspect of the film was a failure, the art would make it work viewing. Rather like the transformation scene in Cinderellaits visual power justifies its existence.

So, does this mean that it is another beautiful-looking film that does not hold up in the storytelling department, rather like the final release of The Thief and the Cobbler?

A childhood acid trip from hell...

A childhood acid trip from hell…

Actually, no. The movie succeeds on multiple levels. The first and most obvious would be the villain. Claude Frollo may be the greatest villain Disney has ever produced, and I don’t say that lightly because the studio has created some truly dynamic villains. He’s just so complex, even more so than our heretofore most human villain, Gaston. Frollo is motivated by a conviction that he is doing good, which makes him actually all that much more frightening. Goodness, for Frollo, is a code of ethics that gets very much intertwined with his own biases and desires. However, he justifies his prejudices and even his most barbaric acts, by conflating his beliefs with morality. When his conviction in his own moral superiority is threatened by his lust for Esmeralda, he decides that she is in fact to blame for his desires.

Victim Blaming: Flirt with the wrong creepy guy and he'll use that as justification to burn you alive.

Victim Blaming: Flirt with the wrong creepy guy and he’ll use that as justification to burn you alive.

He persecutes her for witchcraft and for being sexually open, and even tries to have her murdered. The song “Hellfire”, one of the single most powerful moments of Disney animation, showcases Frollo’s conflict between his strict religious sensibilities, his confused sexuality, and his cold egomania. If he cannot have Esmeralda, he would destroy her, and within the song he justifies himself to a choir of faceless monks (representing his religious dogmatism) by blaming both Esmeralda and the temptations of satan.

In today’s political climate, I really can’t think of a Disney film that covers an issue that remains so timely and important. Conflicts generally are perpetrated by people believing that they are doing the right thing, or at least convincing themselves of this. Moreover, the creepy sexual politics of an authority figure trying to either own or destroy an object of desire are eerily familiar. There is a strong sense of a victim-blaming mentality in Frollo and how deeply uncomfortable he is with a beautiful woman who happens to be rather flamboyant with her looks. Furthermore, the movie shows that Esmeralda is a good, moral person, and the puritanical Frollo is the one obsessed with sexuality. That’s pretty heady stuff.

Shockingly, being sexy and being morally good are not mutually exclusive. I know, in these Medieval Ages of... 2014, this must be a difficult lesson.

Shockingly, being sexy and being morally good are not mutually exclusive. I know, in these Medieval Ages of… 2014, this must be a difficult lesson.

Another major plus, branching off from the Frollo discussion, is the music. The music is just really good. It moves from religious chant to Broadway-style numbers to pop ballads with wonderful continuity. Well, with one exception, “A Guy Like You”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The choral moments are really lovely, dark, and powerful. “God Help the Outcasts”, Esmeralda’s song while she is in sanctuary in the cathedral, is a beautiful piece, and one which contrasts Esmeralda’s prayer for her oppressed people with the “health and wealth” morality of the more privileged worshippers. Some people have actually criticized this scene for being anti-religious, and I honestly have no idea how that could be. For one thing, it’s literally a prayer. That song is an actual prayer. Someone please tell me how praying is anti-religious. The scene, with lines like “Were you once an outcast, too?” directed at a statue of the Virgin Mary, intentionally creates a parallel between the oppressed people of the story and the Biblical story of Jesus and Mary. And, with Esmeralda praying before a religious statue, walking through lit candles, and singing “God help my people!”, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a more overtly religious depiction in any piece of children’s media.god-1 I think the criticism comes more from a sort of classism that sees the wealthy worshippers as somehow more religious than the poor gypsy girl, which… kind of makes me think this movie is right about more things than we’d like to admit. However, even that criticism is just wrong. While Esmeralda’s selflessness in her prayer(“I ask for nothing…” is a line) is definitely contrasted as the better prayer than the other requests in the church, the other characters are still quite sympathetic. They are seen as unhappy, and their prayers are more of a misguided attempt to find something meaningful than a condemnation for their selfishness. One woman tragically flings up her hands and asks for love. How is that not sympathetic?

Also, I’m pretty sure this scene is in the book and it is definitely in the 1939 version, where Esmeralda is even more explicitly contrasted with the other worshippers. In that version, she prays for God to take all she has as a sacrifice to save her people. So, if anything the Disney version is tame by comparison. 1939

But, of course, it is”Hellfire” that takes the cake as the best song in the movie. Disney villain songs often tend to be the best, but this one is especially good. It’s not a very fun song, like “Be Prepared” or “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”, which are enjoyable to sing along with. No, this is honestly getting up there with some classic Broadway pieces as a complex song that is combined with a chanting, Gregorian-style choir. It begins with Frollo saying a prayer about his virtue and righteousness, very poised and self-collected, and then it slowly crumbles into emotional madness as he obsesses over his lust for Esmeralda. It’s powerful stuff, and maybe the most emotionally complex scene in Disney history. His prayer turns to real sexual confusion, asking why he is having these feelings. And, because of his own code and his own prejudices, he turns these desires into real moral agony and eventual murderous rage. By the time he starts to sing “Like fire, hellfire…” The song breaks down into both the character’s own moral fear and a deeply disturbed internal conflict of violence and lust. And, again, from Disney!

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I really love how while Frollo sings “It’s not my fault!” and blames Esmeralda for his desires, the entire faceless-monk choir sings “Mea Culpa!”, which is Latin for “My fault”. This has further subtext, since the “Mea Culpa” of a Catholic Mass is a prayer of admitting one’s sins are, in fact, one’s own fault. This kind of complex religious dynamic is really unusual for any children’s movie, especially the House of Mouse.d-hell-8

And, I have to say that the scene when Frollo stars rubbing Esmeralada’s scarf all over his face is pretty damn creepy, the director giving us a no-holds-barred depiction of a sexual predator. frollo2Although, whenever I see it, I do start getting little Dario Argento flashbacks to his “Your female smell!” scene from that really weird, Italian Phantom of the Opera with all the rats…

Lemme just snort up some of that female smell off your scarf, if that's cool...

Lemme just snort up some of that female smell off your scarf, if that’s cool…

So, with all this praise for the movie, you’d think that this would be my favorite Disney film. Well… no. Actually, it’s not.

The trouble is, when dealing with a story so dark, so unusual, so, well, not kid-friendly, Disney was having its own internal conflict. Disney is the happiest place in earth, right? And its image had become one of wholesome, family entertainment. It’s about finding your dreams and love and all that, not about creepy, old men obsessing over their own sexual repression and locking their disfigured adopted children in towers while plotting genocide. None of that screams Disney. So, Disney had two options for a consistent film: One, it could abandon the dark stuff and make a totally different movie or, Two, it could go all-out adult and make a really good, dark film.

They chose a third option: not to make a consistent movie.

So, this is where that Disney formula, the one about finding dreams, wanting more, true love, and cute/funny sidekicks comes in. Does it work? Oh, hell, no. No, it does not work at all.

We seem to be in a totally different cartoon...

We seem to be in a totally different cartoon…

Now, a little Disney optimism would be just fine. Even in the 1939 version a lot of the more depressing elements of the story were taken out. In the book, Esmeralda dies (oh, and she also gets raped, and not even by Frollo), and Quasimodo dies holding her dead body. The end.

It’s no surprise that Disney would make a happy ending, or make Quasimodo a sort of free-spirit, wanting-of-more Disney archetype, or cut out the whole rape thing. They also change Frollo’s occupation and really tone down the religious criticism from the book. In the novel, Frollo is a priest and the Catholic Church is heavily criticized. In the movie, Frollo’s occupation is secular and he just happens to be a religious nutjob, kind of like Glenn Beck (zinger!). Also, all the other religious characters are portrayed from benign to downright noble, and the ending shows everyone getting together and learning something about tolerance and acceptance.

Pro-justice, racially tolerant priests and scenes of overt prayer from the good guys, and people still think it's anti-religious?

Pro-justice, racially tolerant priests and scenes of overt prayer from the good guys, and people still think it’s anti-religious?

In the book the main characters just die horribly and the Church comes across like an outdated institution of prejudice. Despite this heavy editing of the source material, some religious critics still found the movie objectionable, and I really cannot understand why. How much more removed from the source material would it have to be?

Anyway, some changes just make sense. I don’t expect Disney to go all Lars von Trier all of a sudden and execute our heroine.

"It's the second to last song!"

“It’s the second to last song!”

But, Disney didn’t just make the movie happier and less religiously controversial. It went full-Disney, and it does not work at all. Basically the entire fault is with the sidekicks, who really, really kill the movie. These would be the gargoyles and Esmeralda’s goat, none of which should be prominent enough to ruin a movie about human drama, but there you have it. The gargoyle’s are based on the Three Stooges, itself a weird artistic choice, and they spend the entire movie cracking dumb jokes and singing horribly out-of-place songs like “A Guy Like You”. The humor doesn’t even make sense because “A Guy Like You” is about how Quasimodo is actually good-looking and can “get the girl”. What the hell, movie? And, it is big, over-the-top, ridiculous, like a rejected song from the Genie, and no one ever talks about it again.

Again, like a totally different cartoon.

Again, like a totally different cartoon.

And the gargoyles are in the whole movie! They aren’t even Quasimodo’s imaginary friends. They are very real and partake in the final fight scene, all the while making horrible jokes. Disney, we live in a Miyazaki world! Kids can and will watch movies with battle scenes that are just action sequences.

Honestly, I think that about halfway through Disney thought, “Wait, sexual predators and murder? What the fuck are we doing?” and started cramming stupid, kid-friendly moments in to make up for that. But, that really hurts the tone of the film, and ruins serious moments with stupid fantasy and an ongoing gag about how a gargoyle is in love with the goat… What the hell, movie? And this does the most harm to our romantic couple, Esmeralda and Phoebus, who in this version is her lover and not, you know, a rapist. To be fair, if I remember correctly, the ’39 version does the same thing. However, the lack of character development, especially when contrasted to the villain and main character, really makes these two seem kind of bland. Esmeralda looks amazing, with her great character design, and she does interesting things, like dance and stand up for others, but her personality is really not that interesting. couple She’s just kind of a Mary Sue, a beautiful, self-sacrificing woman who everyone is in love with. That’s not that interesting. And Phoebus is John Smith-dull, making Disney Prince-style quips and heroics that seem kind of out of place.

Quasimodo is also not really the most compelling character, although he’s better than our lovebirds. Yet again, we have a love triangle where the character who doesn’t “get the girl” (I know, it’s kind of a regressive concept in itself…) is the more interesting one. He’s upbeat and kind-hearted, and you do genuinely feel bad for him. I wouldn’t say he’s exactly an original character, though, since he seems pretty strongly influenced by The Elephant Man. But, that’s a great movie, so if you are going to borrow from someone, make it David Lynch.

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Tonally, the movie is all over, from horrific to childish to blandly light-hearted to tragic, and the transitions basically don’t exist. I feel like the studio didn’t have enough confidence to believe in this project and really push their artistic boundaries. Instead, they held back, dumbed it down, and shied away from the real heart of the story. Which begs the question: why adapt this story at all?

Well… remember what I said about Disney’s relationship with the mega-musical and how influenced Beauty and the Beast is by Phantom? Well, what’s the other big, successful mega-musical everyone loves? Oh, yeah…

French misery, by Victor Hugo

French misery, by Victor Hugo

Huh, I wonder if that had anything to do with the decision? It’s only a Disney musical adaptation of a work by the same author, featuring mega-musical style songs and big-choral moments, just like that other music. But, I’m sure that in no way influenced the decision at all…

In the end, I think most people, and especially the studio, look at this movie as kind of a miss. This is too bad, really, because it has a lot of good. And, it’s also too bad because the studio learned exactly the wrong message and instead of deciding to make films more brave and more adult, they decided to abandon that idea and go with the funny, cutesy moments that actually were the real flaw with this movie. And, because of this, this is basically the end of the Disney Renaissance. Oh, they have one last hurrah, but it’s definitely a back-peddle from the direction they tried to go with Pocahontas and Hunchback. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to see what Disney was going for with this brief foray into the mature and its break from its image. Which is too bad, because the idea was really interesting, even if the execution didn’t always pay off.

Oh, well, at least we have this, one big, beautiful, messy movie about sexual predators, murder, and genocide from the Happiest Place On Earth.

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