the Janus man

I’ve nattered about it in other circles, so I might as well do it here. Be ye warned: this post is a long one.

As a consumer of media, I tend to go through cycles of intense obsession that die down to more reasonable levels after a few months (or years), but that can flare up again at any time with only the slightest provocation. To millennials, that much-bemoaned demographic to which I belong, it’s pretty par for the course. To the iGeneration, those people born after the year 2000, who are in high school or about to enter college (!!!), it’s also very much the norm. To people older than Gen Y, that’s … weird. For some reason.

Whatever. The original Trekkies pretty much laid the groundwork for fandom as it is today, y’all don’t get to sneer at us.

The point that I’m meandering towards, is that the level of obsession in the media I consume is directly correlated to the characters in that media. Whether it’s a book or a tv series or a movie, or heck, a period of history, it’s the people involved that I’m interested in, not necessarily the events.

Which is funny, because I tend to stay within certain genres and certain trappings. I’m not a horror or mystery fan. Shoot-‘em-up action films don’t do much for me. Mil scifi and hard scifi can be pretty interesting (see: Starship Troopers and The Martian), but I usually stick to space opera, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. I come for the setting, but I stay for the characters.

I stay for the authors, too. If someone writes one book I enjoy, I’m a lot more likely to read the rest of the backlog, even if it’s part of a different series or universe. That’s how I got into the Discworld: via Good Omens. And Good Omens itself I read because of Gaiman’s Coraline. Never underestimate the transitive power of a well-liked book.

It’s how I got into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If JKR is good at anything, she’s good at capitalizing on her backlist to sell the frontlist.

Which – you know, good for her. The woman’s got her own theme park. If I can be a tenth as successful as she is, I’ll have made it big.

(The Cursed Child is, uh, a different matter, but that and Pottermore are a different post altogether. Let’s table that for tomorrow.)

Anyway! Fantastic Beasts. Or more accurately, the characters of Fantastic Beasts.

The first time I saw it, I was reasonably pleased with the goings-on of the plot and the characters, up until a crucial reveal scene in the last quarter of the film. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the film, maybe skip the rest of this post altogether, because it’s a big freaking spoiler.

The casting of Grindelwald was a mistake, in my personal opinion. Mr. Depp may be a talented actor, and I may have enjoyed previous films that he was in – Pirates of the Caribbean sparked a huge interest in the Golden Age of Piracy for me in middle school – but if you’re going to have a film with a central plot focusing on domestic violence, maybe don’t cast an actor who’s been charged with beating his (now ex-)wife.

Seems kind of tasteless.

That’s the casting, though. Even if they’d cast Jamie Campbell Bower (you know, the actor who played Young Grindelwald in the HP movies), the decision to make Creepy Antagonist Percival Graves actually an international terrorist is … well … I’d still chafe at the bit, I think.

It’s not that the movie isn’t internally consistent. On the rewatch, there are plenty of clues to indicate that the man isn’t just a fashionable-and-imposing-yet-creepy dude. The slight fixation on Dumbledore during the interrogation scene is the biggest indicator that he’s actually Grindelwald. The Deathly Hallows bit, as well, works as an alarm bell for them fans that know, that all is not as it should be. But … well …

I mean, the alley scenes with poor Credence do a pretty good job of that, too. There was enough emotional manipulation in those short scenes to choke a horse. And you don’t have to be an international magical terrorist to be a manipulative creep. Anyone can be a creep! Equal opportunity creepiness!

And he didn’t have to be the literal terrorist to agree with the terrorist’s ideas. That’s the point, isn’t it? Not everyone is Magical Hitler, but he didn’t get so much power without supporters. It would have been concerning enough, and it would have remained consistent with the rest of the story (except for that pesky Dumbledore question), if Percival Graves had still been Percival Graves at the end of the movie. I get that “terrorist infiltrates government by stealing a man’s face” is one hell of a plot twist, and hey, stealing faces is a sufficiently sinister magical thing to do, so hey, why not. It’s a good “gotcha!” moment. But wouldn’t it make more of an impact to say “hey, this trusted lieutenant dedicated his life to protecting people but now he agrees with the magical terrorist”?

Especially when – and this is the particularly sticky issue – right before the reveal, he actually poses a pretty good question.

“Who does this law protect? Us, or them?”

The question was already answered two seconds ago, but the question forces us to think about it. The no-majs who were killed during the Obscurus’ rampage, they sure weren’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy. Credence, who was executed by wizarding firing squad rather than be rehabilitated, he sure wasn’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy.

And it also confronts the fact that MACUSA was too blinded by pride to acknowledge that there was even a possibility of Obscurials existing anymore. They could not realize that an Obscurial was tortured into existence right down the street from their headquarters. Essentially, the government condemned a young man to die.

That law protected no one.

Graves was morally gross, but the dude had a point.

And the movie confronted us with that uncomfortable truth, right up until – whoops, actually he’s Grindelwald so we don’t have to weight his words at all. Everything that spews out of his mouth is a lie. We can dismiss the uncomfortable truth, because it came from the lips of a mass murderer.

Oh well.

The character of Graves – or GrindelGraves – was a ruthless man who would do whatever slimy thing it took to achieve his ends, but who commanded the respect and loyalty of one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie, Tina Goldstein. Her shock and sorrow when he sentences her to death is visceral, and not just because she’s about to die! There’s some legitimate betrayal going on there! What kind of man is he, that can inspire that level of dedication, and then turn around and condemn her to death?

Mmmm, he’s a terrorist. Well, there went all that moral complexity, right out the window.

On the plus side, the switcheroo means that distinguished-older-gentleman-with-the-rakish-clothes Colin Farrell is now officially a mystery. We don’t know who the real Percival Graves is! Is he an accomplice? Is he a captive? Is he dead? Until the next installment (and JKR is planning 6 more movies as far as I last heard), we have no idea. He’s Schroedinger’s character. And fandom has taken that blank slate and run with it.

I’m really hoping he isn’t dead. If we’ve introduced the face-stealing plot and we can’t retcon it, by God, let’s explore it to its full potential.

if you’re gonna break the rules …

… do it on purpose.

Because I’m more familiar with princess movies than, uh, a lot of things (what can I say: I grew up on Disney) we’re going to do the comparison using princess movies. But I’m sure you can find other examples in sci fi, or action, or any number of other genres.

Three princess movies that all contain fairytale magic, but are set in a sort of medieval/baroque/otherwise “period” era: Ella Enchanted, Cinderella 2015, and Beauty and the Beast 2017.

You know, right off the bat, that not everything is going to be realistic, because duh, there’s magic involved. At least one of the main/supporting characters is going to be inhuman. But the attitude that each of these movies takes toward that old-timey setting is very different.

You’ve got Cinderella 2015, what I’d call the middle of the spectrum. Most of the sets, the costumes, are based solidly in an 1800s French sort of style. The only obvious anachronisms are in the stepmother and stepsisters’ costumes, which are clearly done on purpose in order to show how different they are from everyone else in the story. And the fairy godmother, while she has little sparkly wings attached to her dress, is more glamorous than everyone except Cinderella — with LEDs in the skirts! — but in a way that doesn’t stick out badly, even if she only has one scene in the movie. The dialogue and setting and costumes mesh pretty well to provide that historical-feeling ambiance. (You can read a more detailed analysis of the costuming in Cinderella 2015 here.)

Then there’s Ella Enchanted, which has the fairy godmother in a mini skirt and go-go boots, and Eric Idle narrating, and Hattie as the president of the Prince Char Fanclub (zomg u guyz!), and the main character singing a Queen song during karaoke. None of this existed in the book this movie was loosely based off of, but the movie doesn’t care; it’s delightedly zooming its way through a story that can be whatever it wants, because there’s magic and elves and ogres, darn it, it doesn’t have to be realistic. The dialogue, setting, and costumes are all consistent in this regard. So the anachronisms, instead of being annoying, are entertaining. (See also: A Knight’s Tale, even though that one doesn’t have any magic involved.)

And then you have Beauty and the Beast 2017, which is very clearly trying to be modern in its sensibilities but historical in its setting and costumes, Which … really doesn’t succeed, because the modern sensibilities bleed over into the costumes, and not in a way that feels like it was done on purpose. Belle wears period clothes throughout the film except for the ballgown in the iconic scene. The contrast is pretty jarring, especially when you realize that that yellow dress wouldn’t look out of place in a high school prom; and that kind of dissonance is usually reserved for the antagonists, not the main character (c.f. Cinderella). Then you also have the dialogue, which in some moments is lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments feels like it could have been lifted straight from the original movie, and in some moments has words straight from 2017 that just immediately ruin the moment. (At least for me: the Beast saying the phrase “too touristy” was a definite nope.)

I won’t even begin to go into the dance choreography.

The thing is, there’s always going to be something that doesn’t quite mesh with everything else. And that’s okay. But it’s like writing an essay for English class. If you want there to be a Solid Theme (i.e. Belle being “not like other girls”), then everything you do has to be related back to that theme. Make her other clothes more modern too, instead of just the ballgown. Or, if you want the solid theme to be “this could have taken place in a palace not far from Paris in the 1700s”, then even if you’re stuck on Emma Watson not having to wear a corset, you could at least make some kind of nod to the fashions of the time instead of that .. ruffled, cake-layered … thing. But the key is consistency.

I don’t care — and your audience won’t care either — whether you go full-on Research Mode and toss in as much trivia/jargon/whatever from that time period as you want, or whether everything is neon lights and karaoke. Just as long as it’s entertaining, and as long as it’s consistent.

The Stopping Point of Sympathy

Warning: Here be spoilers for the latest Game of Thrones episode 7×04, for them as hasn’t seen it yet.

There seems to be a line that people draw in the sand when it comes to the amount of bull they will put up with from characters. Puppy kicking is usually the first one. As soon as you see a character harming an animal, that character has to die.

Different people draw different lines in the sand, of course. For some people, Cinderella saying that she stays with her awful step-family because she needs to keep living in her parents’ house that they lived in for hundreds of years, well, that’s a bit too stupid for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for her. (I am very much not one of those people. But that’s an opinion for a different post.)

For some people, the fact that Wesley threatens to strike Buttercup in the movie (and actually does strike her in the book) despite how much he claims to love her, well, that rings a billion alarm bells for them, and after that they lose all sympathy for him.

And for some people, the fact that Daenerys Targaryen refuses to help Jon Snow to the benefit of every life in Westeros Essos and beyond, purely because she wants him to bow and he won’t (because there’s no time for politics when literal ice zombies are coming)–

Well. You can imagine that some people might lose all sympathy for her.

It’s amazing how a formerly sympathetic character can become, well, former, in the space of a few short episodes. Daenerys had a complicated personality; most people on the show do; so it wasn’t like she was entirely pure and perfect before Season 7 started. But someone had to bring King’s Landing around Cersei’s ears, and Dany was the girl to do it.

But as Jon Snow points out, they’ve got bigger fish to fry these days. The problems that these characters face are literally life and death. And Daenerys is too focused on her personal goal of conquering Westeros to acknowledge that.

And even when Jon shows her a most convenient proof that White Walkers are real, she still insists that unless he swears fealty to him, she will not help.

This is the point when my BS indicator went into overload. Sorry, Daenerys, but for that last battle between the Dothraki and the Lannisters, I was actually rooting for Lannisters this time. Roasting people alive is an effective tactic, sure, and no one ever said war was nice. But the Casterly Rock plan was created specifically to avoid roasting people alive. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean your next step is to start roasting people! And I wouldn’t be surprised if her dragon Drogon died from this. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted an incredibly valuable resource for no reason whatsoever.

Try to divorce yourself from the Mad King’s reputation now, Dany. I dare you.

The trouble with Bad Boys

Aka: the Twilight phenomenon.

Acknowledging that I was a wee middleschooler when the Twilight books first boomed kind of dates me — as either Too Old To Be Cool or Very Much A Young’Un — but hey, I have an insider’s point of view. Yes, I was Team Jacob. Hold on, this is actually relevant.

The fact that Jacob was a werewolf was the main reason I was Team Jacob, but there were other reasons too. (Hold on, I’m getting there.)

My sister was very much Team Edward. One of the mutual friends we had at summer camp was also incredibly Team Edward. And naturally we had big arguments about who was better and, naturally, which of us was right and which was a soppy idiot. Ah, middle school. Preteens are savages.

In fact the main reason I was so firmly Team Jacob and so anti Team Edward was that Edward was a creepy vampire stalker who literally wanted to drink Bella’s blood, but Jacob, on the other hand, Would Never Hurt Bella Ever.

Yes, I believed this even after reading New Moon. You know, the one where Jacob forcibly kisses Bella and she punches him to try to make him stop, and then he tells her it’s her fault her wrist is broken.

So romantic, right?

</sarcasm>

But this whole Girls Liking Bad Boys, whether the boys in question are vampires or leather-studded bikers or powerful demigods hellbent on conquest, is a bit of a puzzler. Loki murders hundreds of people on the screen and girls swoon? I mean, really? I was fourteen and embarrassing once too, but really, younger self?

I think I’ve figured it out, though. Here it is, the Theory of Awkward Antihero Obsession:

“Bad guys are attractive because they have the ability to do bad things to other people BUT, and this is the important caveat, they would never hurt ME.”

Makes sense, mostly. There’s a sense of self-preservation in there somewhere, so that’s alright.

The problem with the Twilight books, while we were mid-craze, is that our definitions of the word “hurt” varied so much. Now, of course, we’ve grown up a bit and we can recognize that both Edward and Jacob are creeps.

But was it a good story?

It seems like most of the movies and books that I like include at least one minor (or major) character that I like, who bites the dust. Well, considering a book like Les Misérables, where only three major characters make it out alive, basically any character you attach yourself to is going to die horribly; the disclaimer is right there in the title. But even regular things like, well, like GotG2 or Wonder Woman, have cool characters that I really like that somehow manage to die. For a reason, yes! For a reason that is consistent with their previous characterization, yes! But still.

I can still remember the first time a character I liked died, because I pitched a fit in the Sears by the refrigerator section and my dad had to calm me down again. What can I say, I was a weirdly emotional seven year old. These days I don’t have melt-downs in public places, I just write fanfiction. A much better coping mechanism, if you ask me.

But when I tearfully described how Rose had been killed in Martin the Warrior, my dad asked a question that made me very reluctant and also very mutinous and also very, very confused: “But was it a good story?”

Uhh, sure, Dad, it was a good story, I guess. But the character died. And I didn’t want that character to die, I wanted the bad guys to die. Only the bad guys are allowed to die. (What can I say, I was seven. I still believed an evil alien was mind-controlling my third grade teacher.) And the fact of that character’s death hovered over everything else. I haven’t read any Redwall books in uh, probably about a decade, but off the top of my head I can tell you that the ones I reread included Taggerung (because it had an otter as a main character) and the ones I didn’t reread had Martin the Warrior at the top of the list.

But was it a good story? Well, that’s the kicker, because it depends on what you think of as the story.

To some people, it’s the plot and only the plot that constitutes the story. The swashbuckling pirates steal from the rich and escape the British Navy and ride away into the glittering sunset. The girl escapes from her evil stepfamily and sews a beautiful dress by hand and marries the handsome prince. Keanu Reeves kills a bunch of people as revenge for Theon Greyjoy killing his pet dog, and the Green Goblin, sorry Willem Defoe, helps his old buddy Keanu out.

To other people, it’s the characters that are the story, and the plot is nice and they enjoy it but it’s basically window dressing. Say what you like about Jane Austen, but Pride and Prejudice is about characters making decisions about themselves and each other. The plot isn’t grand, and it doesn’t have to be, because the characters are strong enough to propel the plot by themselves.

So when my dad asked, “Was it a good story?” and I sullenly answered “I guess,” we were working off different definitions of the word.

It’s pretty difficult to want to return to a story that includes part of the story dying off, unless (like in Les Mis, or Rogue One, or Romeo and Juliet — stop giving me that side-eye, they do have this one thing in common) there’s a big old disclaimer stamped everywhere and really what you’re reading is how and why they die. But meanwhile, people who focus on plot are just puzzled as to why you’re sobbing into your handkerchief in the theater.

“The movie was better”

“… and other sentences to irritate the heck out of nerds.”

When it comes to films like The Golden Compass, or the Harry Potter movies, then “the movie was better” becomes utter sacrilege. But for other films, sometimes it’s actually the truth. No, wait, hear me out.

Take Coraline for example. Yes, it added a character; yes, some of the scenes were completely rearranged, or even nixed; yes, the end result is very different from the original book. But having another person her age around made Coraline’s situation a little more stark. Having more scenes with the Other World enchanting her made more sense. And the end result, while different, was an enjoyable film with not only cool stop-motion animation but a story that had more than one lesson to take away from it.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like Coraline the book. I just enjoy Coraline the movie as its own, separate, entity. And the same can be said for other book-film or book-musical adaptations. Does Les Mis the musical slightly butcher themes and character development in order to fit over 500,000 words into a three hour play? Yes. But, taken as a separate entity, it’s just as much fun as the book, and much more accessible. Fewer people are likely to run screaming from Hugh Jackman’s singing in the 2012 movie than they are from the Waterloo digression in the book.

What’s cool is when you have something like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, where the director lifted an obscure comic character, Yondu Udonta, and took the bare bones of his identity and then created a whole new personality for the films. Maybe comic nerds are tearing their hair out over this, but I think it’s pretty neat. Take a look at Yondu’s page on the Marvel wiki. He’s a big blue alien with a bow and arrow, and he’s one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Well, James Gunn sure expanded on that. An empathically controlled floating arrow, a space pirate crew, a tragic backstory, some truly hilarious dialogue, and a character arc that I think could make a pretty decent oneshot movie. I haven’t read the comics that feature the original Yondu, but dang if I didn’t enjoy the new Yondu.

And that’s what it’s all about, really. Pandering to the masses is what entertainment is for. There can’t be room for snobbery.

Cursing in YA

On the one hand: You need a relatively good imagination to be able to insult people without using a curse word, and if you cram enough multisyllabic words in there it can be quite satisfying in and of itself. Shakespearean insults are nice for this sort of thing, but pull out a thesaurus and I guarantee that you’ll find something that not only came from one of the past two centuries but that sounds pretty impressive. SAT words! Yay!

On the other hand: There’s no substitute for the pure simplicity of saying a four-letter word. It gets across your meaning exactly.

On the other other hand: Characters who want to swear, but who can’t swear for one reason or another, are freaking hilarious. See Calhoun in the Pixar film Wreck-It Ralph. Now there’s a lady who wants to cuss a blue streak.

On the fourth hand: Characters (and people) who swear all the time, at the drop of a hat, can also be funny, but it’s a fine tightrope between “okay that was hilarious” and “dude, what the heck, you use these words so much that they’ve started to lose all meaning”. See the Melissa McCarthy movie Spy, where every single scene contains at least three four-letter words.

And YA is a touchy subject because, you know, kids are involved. Teenagers. I shudder to think what teenagers would do with the knowledge of swear words! Swearing in their literature! They’d start swearing in real life!! Oh the uncouth youth!!!

Yeah, I went to public school, and I guarantee you, they already know all of those words. They just don’t say them in front of you.

So when it comes to YA — books written for and about teenagers — it doesn’t really make sense to cut out swearing altogether. Like I said, they already know the words; a lot of them use them like they’re going out of style; frankly it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. And to quote from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day:

“I didn’t hear you swear.”

“Yes I did. I said ‘damned’ and ‘hell,’ and I meant them.”

“Oh, that’s not swearing. They came out of the sinful category an age ago!”

I’m not going to tell you that you have to swear. Sometimes coming up with alternatives can be way more fun, a way to flex your creative muscles. But let’s keep the pearl-clutching censorship to ourselves, shall we?

Wonder Woman

Warning: spoilers ahead for the movie.

When practically the first piece of exposition is a tale about how all the Greek gods were killed except Ares, I was pretty skeptical that this would turn out better than another Wrath of the Titans movie (or that awful Gods of Egypt thing). Having extensively read Greek mythology as a child, movies like that tend to make me cringe. The Greek gods can’t, don’t, die. That’s kind of the whole point. So the first few minutes I was just a little bit waiting to see how bad it was going to be.

The interactions between Steve and Diana were everything I could have hoped for. The culture clash was interesting and sometimes quite funny. Walking away from the movie, I was glad we finally got a superhero movie where the female character is the main focus and not the sidekick; and especially where the female character is just as well developed as any male protagonist. But mostly I thought about the antagonists in the story.

On the one hand, Hades was refreshingly absent as the bad guy; on the other hand, Ares was the bad guy, and Ares in the original myths is actually a pretty chill dude for being the god of war. Okay, substitute one stereotype for another. War is bad, rah rah, men are all good hearted if it weren’t for the devil’s sorry I mean Ares’ influence, rah rah. You know the drill.

The movie set out to fool you. Clearly David Thewlis and his mustache were not the bad guy. Clearly the fellow with the German accent was the bad guy, especially when he breathed the weird blue fumes. See? Evil comes in a little glass vial, or behind an unsettling mask. I do have to admit I was a little disconcerted when he revealed himself and went full armor mode but still had the signature Thewlis mustache. I’m sorry, dude. I can’t take you seriously anymore. All I can see is Creepy Remus Lupin in a metal suit.

It’s a study in assumptions. Diana makes a lot of them through the movie — part of that previously mentioned culture clash. The part where she declares that the Germans are all good people when out from under Ares’ influence made a lot of people in the theater cringe, and made Steve cringe too. The world is messy and imperfect and you can’t always win. And even when you do win, there are losses. I’ll admit that on a storytelling level I appreciated why Steve didn’t make it, even if on the audience level I was disgruntled.

It was an interesting movie with good characterizations, an interesting premise, and a lot of explosions. All in all, not darn bad, even with the skewed Greek mythos.