Recent Writing Round Up

The past month has been unexpectedly crazy, so let me begin by apologizing for/explaining my absence. I went to Fan Expo Canada at the end of August, which required a preparation (and then recuperation) period. I wrote up the Mike Mignola panel and the Women in Comics panel, if either of those subjects are of interest to you.

photo cred: quiddatively.tumblr.com

I’m the Scarlet Witch in the centre of this dream team

I then took a week off to visit Chicago; it’s incredible how much you can do for free if you look hard enough (and have connections – a friend of a friend brought us up to the lab at the Field Museum). We stumbled onto art exhibit The Happy Show, a definite trip high light (and not only because it was free). When I came back I had some family stuff to deal with, and I’ve spent this week catching up on writing.

I’m bad at updating this blog at the best of times, but I’m good at having opinions, so I have been doing some reviews! At Paper Droids I do a weekly column called Gender Issues where I look at the representation of women in comics. I was hoping to get conversation going with this instalment especially but maybe this audience will be more receptive to talking than the site’s – what’s your view on problematic humour?

I also enjoy comics events, and I attended the launch party for Sex Criminals #1 the other night. It was weird, to say the least. If you’re not a comics fan, you might like my review of The Conjuring or my celebration of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim. I’ve also got this article about why you should read a series called Saga even if you’re NOT a comics fan, and I’ll be doing some “comics for newbies” articles soon as well.

For any horror fans in the audience, I keep writing horror comics reviews for Haunt of Horrors Press, if you’re looking for recommendations. You should also like us on Facebook; you can get our content and links from around the web, as well as info on a Kickstarter, and hopefully a print magazine soon! I’ve written about horror a number of times before on this blog too, if you’d like to hear my thoughts on the genre in general, vampires specifically, or other misc stuff. With Halloween just around the corner, you might also enjoy this bizarre collective comic about a skeleton. I’m addicted to this surreal, choose-your-own-adventure style webcomic.

Now that we’re on the subject of horror, the first season Hannibal came out on DVD this week, so you might like to check that out this October (if you’re not squeamish). It’s more psychological horror than a procedural about catching serial killers, so check it out if you like spooky stories, not so much if you like things explained and logical. This isn’t that kind of show. Todd VanDerWerff of the AVClub wrote this spectacular piece on the show but it’s full of spoilers. This kind of article is what made me want to write about pop culture (incidentally, their review of the Dexter finale also reminded me why I gave up on the show after season 5, and stole all the points I was going to make in a blog post on the subject, so blame Joshua Alston for robbing you of a better update).

Over the next while I’m going to start looking for a real job so I’ll continue to be very busy, but my best posts (such as the post on satire) tend to come out of flashes of inspiration rather than determination to write something down. If inspiration hits maybe you’ll hear from me soon, WHO KNOWS. For now, I’m sorry I don’t have a better update for you, but hopefully I’ve provided something interesting for you to read! For more frequent updates, follow me on Twitter, @AllisonMOToole.

Hello new followers

Wow, I guess being on Freshly Pressed does wonders for publicity, doesn’t it? I update this blog when I can, and hopefully now that there are more of you here, I’ll be more motivated to do so! But in the interim between updates, feel free to check out my more regular writing for other sites – you can find links on the “My Writing Elsewhere” or follow me on Twitter @AllisonMOToole for updates.

Thanks for following, and I hope we can get some good conversations going soon.

Fake Geek Girls: The Only Kind, Apparently

So you’ve probably heard by now about recent misogyny at a Television Critics Association event, when Todd Macfarlane and other significant creators claimed that comics are a man’s world, and that creators shouldn’t have to write about non-straight-white-dudes, because who else is reading comics? Apparently he also doesn’t understand the difference between idealization and sexualization, between a power fantasy and a sexual one, since he believes that men are objectified to the same degree that women are (and he uses the term “stereotype,” which shows a blatant misunderstanding of the issue). 

I know I write about this topic A LOT but given this crap (and after Tony Harris’ ridiculous sexist comments about female cosplayers last year), it seems like time I posted this piece, originally written for the Queen’s Feminist Review.

Some content was taken from another post I wrote last year, but overall I think this piece is stronger and more concise.

In addition to identifying as a woman and a feminist, I identify as a geek – a difficult mix. I am surrounded by hyper-sexualized representations of women in all streams of media, women characters dying to torment and motivate the men who love them, conflicting messages about how I should look and dress and act, and men decrying my audacity at complaining about any of this.

I first learned that girl geeks are treated differently than the boys when I received the Lord of the Rings books for my tenth birthday, about six months before the first film was released. I adored the books and movies to the point that my grade school nickname was “Mr. Frodo.” Yet boys in and outside of school could never accept that I was a “real fan” like they were. They assumed that as a girl, I was only watching the movies for the cute boys, so I’d be asked if I’d ever played the video games, exactly how many of the appendices I’d read, and minute trivia about the books and movies to prove my legitimacy as a fan. I’d always win these contests, of course; I’d read the series twice by the time I was twelve, I knew a thing or two about it. I would prove myself to be a worthy fan in their eyes, unlike the “fangirls” only in it for Orlando Bloom’s face.

Hostility in geek culture can be neatly summed up in the fact that fangirl is held as a derisive term. According the geek community, fanboys are a little too interested in their geek interests, but fangirls are only interested in attractive men and romantic plots. Not only do these concepts ignore the potential for women to have different interests, they delegitimize the sorts of media that are associated with femininity; there is nothing in romance to make it inherently inferior to other genres aside from its association with women. Society has very strict ideas of what women are allowed to like and engage in, so exploring media outside this bubble is treated as suspect. As a result, women are shamed for enjoying traditionally feminine interests, but are told we only seek male attention if we enjoy the more masculine. Women gamers are constantly assumed to be less skilled than the men, and women who cosplay (creating realistic, detailed costumes for conventions) are criticized for wearing the revealing costumes assigned to women characters by their often-male creators. According to masculine-heavy sections of the internet – fans and men in the industry – women cosplayers select the skimpiest costumes they can find in the hope that they will be showered with praise from male nerds. Yet again, the idea that women could be genuine geeks is not within their realm of possibility.

Basic belief in the difference between legitimate and false nerds is present in less obviously hostile ways however, such as the prevalent concept of the Fake Geek Girl. Pictures, articles, tweets, and every other form of Internet expression have been written at length criticizing the women who conform to all of the stereotypes I’ve discussed; women who know nothing about their chosen geeky interest, or express their love for it in the wrong way, or don’t love the right aspects of it. Even other women will lament losing nerd cred by proximity to these Fake Geek Girls – but I’ve never witnessed any women who fit this mould. If women don’t know as much about something as other geeks, they are shamed for having newly discovered it, or for having less investment in it than others do. In the end, women are discouraged from liking anything, and can be scared to admit their interests, because no matter what they do, someone will question their validity.

I understand some of the motivation between distancing yourself from a ‘fake’ geek. Being a nerd is cool now, so we want to have some kind of exclusivity to our title. But there’s no number of hours one has to log in order to be a geek. No one was expelled from the womb with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Batman. A geek is just a person with a lot of enthusiasm for something that has been deemed geeky. Yet this extends further than nerd culture; girls who like sports or hardcore music can face similar problems with perceived legitimacy. In any of these areas, decrying fake fans – especially when we only attack women – results only in women being afraid to express their love for things, not in some kind of exclusive identity. We should be working to make this a supportive community, rather than policing arbitrary concepts of geek purity.

Girls, we don’t need to be afraid to express our love for the things we like. Being a geek is cool, and there are safe spaces to share the love and learn about new things. Be a geek, be proud, and don’t listen to the guys who say that your love is less legitimate than theirs or that you love it for their attention. I never would have made it through elementary school if I’d let their attitude get to me; I survived on my one Lord of the Rings zinger question, since none of the boys could remember what Éomer’s sword is called.

(By the way, it’s called Gúthwinë).

This was originally published in Vol 21 of the Queen’s Feminist Review (2013).

Metafiction

I sat down to write my story.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I could have written about doomed lovers, or an underdog triumphing over adversity, or an epic battle between good and evil. I could have explored the human condition, what it means to love and be loved, or the negative effects of capitalism on the proletariat. But that’s all been done before.

I wanted to write something different, something that hadn’t been done a hundred times before. But what is there left? After millennia of making up and telling stories, is there anything original left? Is there anything new to say?

I closed my laptop and groaned. Maybe this would be easier with a pen and paper; it would be more symbolically potent that way, at any rate. I doodled for a few minutes, but that was getting me nowhere so I went back to the laptop.

“Have you seen him?” said a voice from behind me.

“Um, who?” I turned around, to be greeted by a tall man with excellent mutton-chop sideburns.

The man grunted in a way that suggested I was eating into his very valuable time. “The prisoner 24601. The man called Jean Valjean.

“Oh. Uh, no. No I haven’t. There’s a prison just down the street, you could-“

I was rudely interrupted by another man walking in from another room. Upon seeing my other guest, he mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “merde.

A fire lit in Javert’s eyes but before he could speak, I jumped in. “Gentlemen, while I have you here, I need some advice. I’m supposed to be writing a story, a metafictional story, but I don’t know what to write about…” I trailed off and hoped that the ellipsis implied the question.

Looking me straight in the eyes, Javert said “all stories end when justice is served. Write about a wrong that is righted.”

“Compassion for fellow man is more important; if we show compassion we are being just,” sermonized Valjean, although probably more to his cohort than to me.

Javert snorted, “Compassion is what the meek call weakness. It is far nobler –“

“Okay! Okay! Thank you, that’s enough,” I sighed. This was no more helpful than the doodles I’d been drawing. Maybe less helpful.

“You could write about me. I’m always popular.”

Death leaned her scythe against the wall and stepped between the pair of men. “Although isn’t every story about me, in a way?” She smiled sweetly at Javert, who seemed unnerved.

“Death is the noblest act of all, if it is done in sacrifice!” proclaimed Sydney Carton, who was now lying on my couch.

I mused for a moment. “But what do I know about death? Even as a teenager I never gave it much thought, except in horror stories. Obviously I’ve never actually died, or even come close, and I find the whole subject kind of depressing to be honest.”

Death smiled again, this time at me. I could see why that had made Javert so uncomfortable. “No one knows anything about me, honey, that’s why they talk about me so much. I’m life’s greatest mystery.” She stretched out her arms as if to say ta-da!

I swallowed. This conversation was not going in the direction I had hoped. “Well, I’ve never liked mysteries very much, and I’m not philosophy student.” I snickered awkwardly, but was cut short by a trumpet flourish. A balding man stepped down from his lion-drawn cart and held up his hand, as if to silence the room. No one was talking anyway, so he just stood there for a minute, establishing a more sombre atmosphere, I suppose.

“The great battles of history are forever a dignified subject for writing,” Caesar announced grandly. “I’ve written volumes about my experiences in Gaul which are still read today. The truth will endure longer than any fantasy you can concoct. For –“

“HEY!” I shouted. Valjean had been eying my fresh Bavarian multigrain bread, but gave me a look of feigned innocence when I jumped out of my chair. Now that Valjean knew I was watching him, I turned back to my laptop, where a striped cat was stretched across my keyboard.

The Cat grinned, “but what is real, really? Is your real really more real than mine? Or theirs? Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

I didn’t really have a response to that one. I was still mulling it over as the Cat disappeared when I felt a cold hand on my shoulder. “He was correct, you know,” said a thickly-accented voice. I turned to face glinting fangs and black hair in a widow’s peak.  “Human lives are nothing more than compilations of imperfect memories, coloured by bias and emotion. History is written by the winners, as they say.”

Gesturing to Caesar, who was already in a snit at having been interrupted, I agreed with the Count. “Scholars’re constantly arguing over history anyway, finding new angles and arguments for who won or lost, who was lying, what they didn’t tell us…”

Dracula chuckled. “You do the same in your own mortal life. You edit your own experiences through a lens of emotion. You hold onto the things you wish and discard the rest. My story was committed to paper, and is more real to the masses than you are. In the minds of the masses, I truly shall live forever!”

I raised an eyebrow. “Until another author comes along and rewrites your story. The Dracula of the public unconscious is as-played-by Bela Lugosi, not Stoker’s version. And don’t even get me started on him.” I pointed at Frankenstein’s creature, who had shoved Carton off my couch, where he was now languishing dramatically.

“Woe is me,” he wailed, “my story has been re-written more times than I care to count! A man tempted by the bounds of human imagination, by the bounds of science and nature, is eternally tantalizing. In more than two hundred years, this fable has never become irrelevant or untrue. You constantly test the limits of human ingenuity, and feel obsession, madness, longing, and loneliness along with us.” Through this whole speech, he gesticulated wildly with increasing fervor. “For our tale speaks to the very core of human nature, something I profess to know little about, for I am a wretched, loathsome monster. My hideousness is kept vital forever by thrill-seekers unable to look away, and every time I curse myself and my creator anew –“

“YES, okay, thank you.” I had to stop him there. If I hadn’t, I’d have been forced to add another ten pages to this story.

Elizabeth Bennett stepped with care over muck left by Caesar’s horses. “Whatever you write, it should include a woman who knows her own mind. There are few enough of those nowadays,” she said coolly.

“Oh they can be found, if one knows where to look,” declared Dorian Gray with a rakish grin. He slid a questing hand toward the small of Elizabeth’s back. She slapped him.

“A mystery is the most satisfying of all tales, mademoiselle,” smiled Hercule Poirot. “It provides stimulation for the little grey cells, n’est-ce pas?”

“And It must have plenty of food and plenty of songs,” added Bilbo Baggins, before joining Valjean around my pantry.

“That’s enough!” I all but screamed. The room had long-since descended into a noisy mess, my control unravelling along with it. I took a deep breath and tried to calm the cacophony of voices surrounding me.

I managed to quiet the voices down to one. “I think I may be able to help,” said the Bard. “Take a collection of stories the public knows well, and write them in a way that will transcend time and place. If your story speaks to the human condition, as said the Creature, it will be lauded by the masses.”

“That’s easy for you to say! I’m not trying to write the next Hamlet here! And what help are you anyway? Some people don’t even think you wrote your plays! You’re not helping me at all!” I leapt up, my frustration reaching its peak. I looked around the faces in the room and shouted “NONE OF WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS HELPING!”

“Then make us say something different,” said Shakespeare gently.

Yet again, I had nothing to say. I closed my eyes, but I could feel the crowd slowly fade away. Shakespeare did have a point; my culture-obsessed mind is a permanent jumble of everything I’ve ever read or seen or heard.  Rather than try to ignore or sort through this mess of influences, maybe I’d be better off working with them. Maybe acknowledging my literary predecessors would be the best approach. I took another calming breath and turned again to face my desk.

I sat down to write my story.

This was originally published as an assignment for ENGL 488, Queen’s University, Prof Yaël Shlick, October 31, 2012.

Tonight marks my final night at Queen’s

The housemates are gone and the internet in our apartment is off, so I’m sitting in the mostly empty student centre so I can use the internet

I can hear people downstairs on their way to the final Throwback at the campus club

I was looking forward to having a night to pack by myself, but forced solitude always bums me out a bit

I’ve had a pretty incredible time for the past four years, both here and at the Castle in England

I’ll miss my housemates, being able to see them whenever I get home, when we would tell each other about the minutiae of our days

I’ll miss my choir, the constant in my life, singing every Sunday night

I’ll miss the Castle, experiencing Wales and Morocco and France and many parts of England for the first time, and getting to take itty bitty classes in a court yard

I’ll miss some of my English classes, having the free reign to discuss literature however I wanted to with people who wouldn’t be frightened off by big words or uninteresting subject matter

I’ll miss walking down to the lake on sunny days

I’ll miss trips to Dairy Queen in the rain and late night runs for Froot Loops and Classic Rock nights and Halloween with friends from Ottawa and choir rookie nights and housemate fashion parties and pre-drink sessions before a messy night at Ale or Stages

I won’t miss the arts-based budget cuts and Conservative, pro-rich-white-men attitude that pervades this university

but I’ve had some pretty incredible experiences and I wouldn’t trade them for the world

A Lesson in Satire

You may have heard by now about Matt Forney’s “humour” piece entitled “How to Rape Women and Get Away With It.” Trigger warning: this piece ‘jokingly’ condones rape and describes it in vivid terms. EDIT: A mere 2 hours after I wrote this piece, the original article is down, but I think you can get an idea of its content based on the title alone. He did however post this hilariously insincere apology, which is almost as good. In response to backlash this caused, Forney has informed we “pansies” who were offended that his piece is satire.

But is it?

I am increasingly seeing satire being held up as a shield for comedians to hide behind when offensive aspects their work are challenged. They claim that readers are taking their works too seriously, as they are meant to be light-hearted. Many writers seem to believe that satire is an excuse to say whatever one wants, no matter how offensive or crude, but that isn’t quite right. Let’s look at some technical definitions of satire:

A poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon.  – The Oxford English Dictionary

That’s good, but a little general. Let’s get a bit more specific:

A literary genre or mode that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets, whether persons, groups, ideas, or institutions.  Unlike comedy, which is primarily geared toward amusement and entertainment, satire generally has a moral purpose: to provoke a response to correctable human failings, ideally some kind of reform. – The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms

I especially like the second definition, which notes that satire often isn’t funny at all, but is intended to bring about a new way of thinking in its readers, if not actual social change. Satire originated in ancient Greece and Rome, but one of the most famous pieces of Western satire (and one of my favourites) is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein he explains that the solution to 18th century Ireland’s struggles with the British would be solved if the poor Irish sold their babies to be eaten by the rich. As he says, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Swift goes on to describe the various ways babies can be prepared and served, and what can be done with various parts of the body. It’s kind of funny; a reader might laugh from shock or at his creativity concerning some of the baby-dishes (the only aspect of satire that some modern comedians seem to understand). However, it is clear from the beginning that his piece is intended to be a condemnation of the aristocracy’s exploitation of the working classes. Swift’s horrible comments have a clear purpose: to bring about a new way of looking at the rampant poverty in Ireland, hopefully leading to real social change.

Stephen Colbert is an excellent modern satirist. He can push the envelope himself, but it is always clear that he is meaning to display how dangerous the ideals his character holds can be, and is not advocating them. The Daily Show often does similar things with its correspondent sequences. The reporters will take on a stance of agreeing with the people they interview, but with the eventual intention of revealing their views as being ridiculous and even harmful.

Although it doesn’t have to be, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report demonstrate, as did many from Horace to Alexander Pope to The Simpsons before them, that satire can be very funny. Humour can be an accessible and entertaining way to deflate a subject, whether individuals, institutions, or society in general. But this is the most important point – the aim of satire is always to reveal hypocrisy, vice, and other wrongdoing or wrong thinking. Tackling taboo subjects is not foreign to satire, as Swift’s piece demonstrates, but simply saying something offensive is not, in itself, satire. One must have the intention of changing the way that the reader sees the subject at hand, or forcing them to recognize the ridiculousness of the target subject.

Technical definitions aside, I’m not even sure I understand the joke of pieces like Forney’s. He is just saying horrible things for the sake of controversy, hoping to shock readers into laughing. That isn’t comedy – that’s laziness. Anyone can imagine horrible things to do to dead babies, but it takes a creative mind to turn that into biting social commentary. Satire is meant to change the target’s (and often the audience’s) way of thinking, and humour should make the reader laugh because of some kind of unexpected or appreciated connection or punch line. You don’t necessarily need humour to make satire, nor do you absolutely need to make controversial comments along the way. It is possible to use humour and take a satirically-straight tactic on controversial issues if you successfully open a door to conversation about the issue and if you make clear that you don’t condone the views you are pretending to hold, but that is difficult and is rarely accomplished well.

A good general tip: if you can’t identify a target or way of thinking that you’re trying to change or bring down, your piece isn’t satire. If your focus is on a group or person who is already hurt by society the way it is – such as, say, rape victims – rather than the person or group who is doing the attacking, you’re doing satire wrong. If you’re not trying to change anything and are trying to offend people for a cheap laugh, you’re probably just an asshole.

A Modern Gothic

No one ever warned me that studying at a bona fide English castle could have downsides; being miles away from civilization can make you a bit stir-crazy, and I didn’t think cafeteria food could be worse until I tried Quorn, a meat substitute so artificial it is banned in North America. However, the worst part about studying at this castle was the possibility of being alone there at night.

The Castle is supposed to be haunted by the wife of a previous owner, usually called the Grey Lady, and a poor soul known as the Headless Drummer. Reportedly the Grey Lady was spotted in the Castle’s conference room a year or two before my stay there. I’m not exactly a believer in the supernatural, but it’s harder to remind myself that ghosts probably don’t exist when I’m alone in the dark. That castle is spooky enough without ghosts, and legend has it that Horace Walpole had it in mind when he wrote The Castle of Otranto.

Late one night I was studying in the small meeting room on the second floor of the Castle, when a custodian came by informing me that he was shutting off the lights, asking me to do the same when I left. I packed up a short time later, around 1:00 am. At this point I remembered the recent ghost sighting – which had happened in the adjoining conference room (not to mention that I was a floor above the entrance to the castle’s small dungeon). I decided to exit into the Elizabethan room, so named for a giant fireplace and old decorations meant to evoke that era. The stone and high ceilings in the Elizabethan room evoke the Gothic even in daylight, so in near-darkness it was simple to imagine Walpole’s Manfred or poor Matilda on the floor below. I took out my £9 phone, hoping its meagre light would help me get down the old wooden staircase. There was no way I was crossing the second storey platform to the enigmatically named Drummer’s Room; if any room in the Castle was haunted, it was that one. I descended the stairs and crossed the floor as quietly as possible, thinking the whole time of the passageways beneath the Castle of Otranto, casting myself as Isabella as I all but ran through the windowless passage that connects the Elizabethan room to the courtyard in the middle of the Castle.

The courtyard possessed an eerie quality, somehow cut off from time. Inside the Castle, one is surrounded by modern updates; electric lights, modern desks and chairs, placards labelling rooms. Outside, aside from some modern wooden benches, I imagine that little had changed since the last occupants of the castle had left or Walpole had perhaps visited. The paltry moonlight was obscured by the looming castle walls, and I could all but see a giant helmet before me, perhaps with Conrad’s body still beneath it.

I passed back into the interior of the Castle, where thankfully the reception lights are always on, and was greeted outside again by a thick English ground fog. “Stick to the road. Keep clear o’ th’ moors,” I snickered to myself. At least the moon wasn’t full – although that meant that there was almost no light aside from sparse streetlamps, reduced to halos in the fog. I walked (or more accurately, stumbled) through a grove of ancient and gnarled chestnut trees, the light on my phone being no help. I probably could have mused on the mood brought on by the trees, but I was too busy trying to find my footing to scare myself much. The brief paved path proved a respite, until I came to a dark wooded section of the walk. To make matters worse, the darkest part was also up a hill. I walked as fast as I dared, surrounded by night rustlings of various bunnies, badgers, birds, and who knows what else. Until I heard a sound not unlike a person feebly yelping. I quickened my pace, fleeing like Isabella from Manfred’s dread embrace, although my pursuer was most likely a screech owl.

At the top of the hill, the road was paved, streetlamps were numerous, and residence was in sight. I glanced back at the Castle once more. In the fog, it looked ethereal, stuck in time. During the day, it was a gorgeous place to learn; at night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something walked there, and it walked alone.

This was originally published as an assignment for ENGL 499, Queen’s University, Prof Yaël Shlick, October 12, 2012.

So begins the 4th year of undergrad (and a new blog!)

I haven’t posted much this summer, but hopefully a new blog will change that.

It looks like I’m applying to grad school in October, so I’ve decided to revamp my online presence – the good stuff from my old blog is still here, I’ve just purged some of the ramblier stuff. Which I will celebrate with this ramble.

This is the first year I’ve not been involved with Orientation here. Everyone seems to be having a blast, and I’m really happy for them, despite expectations that I’d be really jealous and nostalgic. I chose this summer to go Fan Expo Canada and then recover from that instead of rushing back to school, and I can’t say I regret that decision, since it was a blast. But I am glad to be back at school now.

Being in my last year, I’m finally starting to get used to the idea – even excited about – seeing myself as an adult. With grad school, I’ll still have a few years of being a student ahead of me, but I’m getting excited at the prospect of getting my own apartment and feeding and clothing myself. I mean, I’m still terrified of that, but I’m excited too.

It’ll be hard to attend regular classes after my amazing time in England last year, but hopefully this year can be ALMOST as good.

Tonight I’m heading out with my lovely housemates for the first time this year, and classes start on Monday.

Wish me luck?

Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Because it needs to be said: I am a Wes Anderson fan. I don’t think enjoying his films is a case of ‘getting it’ or anything like that, but I can understand why some people wouldn’t like them – he uses the same aesthetic in every film, regardless of settings of time or place. His characters can seem interchangeable from film to film; the adults act like bored children, while the kids are tiny adults.

 

All of that said, something about most of his films really works for me. I love his single aesthetic, and I think it adds to the worlds he creates for every film. His obsessive attention to detail makes his work a visual treat even on repeat viewings; his literary and filmic references are a nice nod for nerds like me, and I find I can relate to most of his characters – even if they are mostly disenchanted rich white guys. So that’s why this weekend, instead of seeing Snow White and the Huntsman or Prometheus, I trekked to the only theatre in Toronto playing it to see Moonrise Kingdom.

The story is simple enough: a small island town is uprooted when two ‘troubled’ 12-year-olds run away from home to start a new life together having fallen in love. Drawn into the search for the young couple are the local deputy (Bruce Willis), runaway Sam’s Scouts master (Edward Norton), young Suzy’s attorney parents (Bill Murray and Frances MacDormand), and child services (personified by Tilda Swinton), called in when Sam’s foster parents no longer wish to care for him.

 

Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the star-crossed lovers are fabulous, and perform perfectly within Anderson’s style. Anderson showed in Rushmore that he could get wonderful performances out of young actors, and that ability is on in full form in this film. There are a number of impressive performances out of the many young actors. I had some reservations about how well Bruce Willis would fare within Anderson’s world, but he musters a quiet earnestness that feels right at home. The same can be said for Edward Norton, whose passionate Scouts master is at once pathetic and highly endearing. Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, and Frances MacDormand all do well with their supporting roles, giving their antagonistic characters some sympathetic qualities. Look out for fun cameos from Bob Balaban and Harvey Keitel, as well as regulars Jason Schwartzman and Eric Anderson. (Surprisingly, neither Wilson brother appears).

 

The story of young love against obstacles is not a new one, but it is hard not to get invested in it. What sets this story apart is the world going on beyond the central figures. Comparative little time is spent developing the supporting characters, but we still get a sense of their lives and relationships – in standard Andersonian fashion – through a glimpsed conversation, a casual line of dialogue, or a photo placed on a desk. The relationships, as always, are central, but this film has more action than Anderson’s previous live-action films. Like The Fantastic Mr Fox, Moonrise Kingdom feels like a storybook, perhaps one of the fantasy stories loved by the heroine. Aesthetically, Anderson’s films all resemble ornate dollhouses, this one with pure love at the centre. Even their names, Sam and Suzy, seem picked out of a book for children. There is something reminiscent of Peter Pan and Wendy about the leads in their more childlike moments – they try so hard to be adults, but with so many unhappy adults in their lives, why would they want to grow up? And like a storybook, it ends with a flood, a chase that ends on a rainy rooftop, and softening villains.

Moonrise Kingdom fills the checklist of things to watch out for in a Wes Anderson film; if that won’t get in the way of your enjoyment, and if you’d like to watch a not-so-quiet character comedy about young love and flawed people helping or hindering it, then I highly recommend this film.

The Importance of Storytelling

As a pop culture junkie, I tend to get very invested in the books I read, the TV shows I follow, and the movies I watch. When I find a story that I really like, I spend more of my time than I probably should thinking about it, talking about it, and analyzing it. With that much thought tends to come an emotional attachment, so when I finish particularly long series, I tend to spend the rest of the day in a… let’s call it Reader’s Melancholy. I’m sad to have to leave characters once I’ve been through so much with them. Sure, I can re-read or re-watch, but I’m sure everyone can agree that nothing is the same the second time through.

It’s not only the length of the story that brings this on though; stakes are equally, if not more important. You need to go through serious ups and downs with the characters, have gained and lost with them. So it’s not by virtue of being long that. Even finishing Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities I felt something similar. Maybe it’s just being at the close of the characters’ journey. Finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic series prompted my writing this post, because I was genuinely sad to leave those characters and that world, even if I wasn’t completely enthralled for every single moment of the series. I’ve read and loved other longer series, but this one was, well, ‘epic,’ in all senses of the term. There were incredible stakes for both the characters and the rest of the world. Another series to which it is often compared, Fables, is also amazing, but I sort of created my own ending for that one. The main story wrapped up after 100+ issues, and the characters had lost very little, all things considered. I love the series, but I don’t know if I want to read more of it, since it seems like it should be over, and that not much was lost, despite a huge war. Many super hero comics and fantasy/sci fi shows have similar problems; death loses some potency when characters can come back to life. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example,featured some permanent deaths, but they were the exceptions to the general rule. I like to pretend that the comics don’t exist (and, to some degree, neither does season 5 of Angel) to make the ending of Buffy seem more permanent and powerful. Finishing that series the first time, I cried in the final scene simply because it was done. There was no more, and my overwhelming thought was “what now?” It was hard to leave Buffy and her friends behind, but I also felt like I had to. Their story in Sunnydale was done, and even if they are still having adventures in comics, I feel like I’m not a part of them anymore. I was a silent but heavily empathetic spectator of seven years of their lives, and somehow, it feels to me like my journey with them is complete. The story they were telling, the story I was a part of, is done. I stopped watching Being Human after series 3 for similar reasons.

Think about the ending of The Lord of the Rings. Would anyone really be interested in a sequel about Frodo’s and Bilbo’s adventures over the sea? Or Sam’s quiet family life, for that matter? We were with them when they saved Middle Earth, but that tale is done, and so is our part in it. We know that they’ll go on to live their lives (and via appendices can get quite a bit of information about those lives), but to keep reading would seem… wrong. Like selling out, almost. I can imagine that Harry Potter fans would feel the same way. A good ending closes the story, but lets you know that the world will keep turning whether you’re there or not (unless you’re reading Cat’s Cradle or similarly apocalyptic fiction).

So what is the point of this? Do I just get too invested in fiction? Am I just a crazy fangirl for crying everywhere for the simple reason that Les Misérables or King’s Dark Tower series ended? Well, I think that this Reader’s Melancholy (or Watcher’s Melancholy, as the case may be) is a testament to the importance of storytelling. We like to feel connected to other people, even if those people are fictional. You can get inside the mind of a fictional character in a way you never can with another person. You can see these characters at the best and at their most vulnerable. And we connect with real people through mutual love of stories; when meeting someone for the first time, once you get past the requisite questions about work and family, movies and TV, sometimes books ultimately come into the conversation. We bond with our friends and family over the shared experience of watching fiction together. Once you’ve seen Darth Vader announce that he is Luke’s father, waited for Hamlet to just make up his damn mind, or watched Jack sink into the ocean and wondered why Rose couldn’t just shift over a little bit, you now share that experience with Luke, or Hamlet, or Rose, and with every other person who has shared that experience too. Not to mention stories that transcend time and culture, or at least borrow from earlier stories. The legends we have today about King Arthur were being changed and molded and re-appropriated all over Europe for hundreds of years before they got to the versions we know today and we’re still changing them! There’s something king of magical about the thought that the stories and characters in shows we’re watching today – like BBC’s Merlin or historical dramas like The Borgias, Spartacus, and HBO’s Rome – were exciting audiences hundreds or thousands of years ago. Sometimes, even more than that, where ancient stories and mythologies are involved; who isn’t somewhat intrigued by the stories from the Odyssey or the Aeneid ­even if we aren’t reading them in verse? Stories become ingrained in our cultural minds; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western world (and probably beyond) who has never heard “to be or not to be,” or who wouldn’t understand that something is unnatural if it features the “Franken” prefix. Characters from literature and myth live longer and burn brighter than do most historical figures.

Besides, it must be boring to live in the real world all the time. Or, as Shirley Jackson states, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Daydreaming, making up our own stories and engaging with others’, keep us sane. Stories let us bond with other people, but also let us escape inside ourselves from the stresses and monotony of every day life. You can learn about yourself and about other people, feel less alone, even pretend to be someone else through stories. And there are so many different kinds of stories out there in different mediums, there’s something for everyone.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that I need to get out more and spend less time reading or watching movies. I’m not denying that I probably do spend too much time immersed in the fictional, but I can’t really say I regret it. I’ve read stories that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and I can connect them to stories and real life today. Through them, I feel connected not only to the characters about which I’m reading, but to the other people reading the stories – living or dead. I like to escape from everyday tedium, even if just to read about someone else’s. My life is enriched by all of the stories I’ve heard or read or seen, and through them, I’ve learned much about myself and about humanity in general. Stories help us interpret ourselves, each other, and the world around us, and I think that life would be less interesting and less rich without them.

Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
– Neil Gaiman,
The Sandman: A Midsummer Night’s Dream