Friday, May 31, 2013

Vicious, Malicious, Bloodthirsty: Covergirl (Apparently)

So... somebody decided this was a good idea.

I mean, look. I know we had the whole Capitol Colours nail polish line for the last movie. And it's not like that was a particularly great idea either.

What will YOU be wearing to watch kids get selected to fight to death?

But something about Covergirl latching on to The Hunger Games and using it as a platform for a whole line of products, telling us they're "Coming to the Capitol this fall"... It just feels... wrong. Wronger-er. I guess part of what made the China Glaze thing tolerable was that they used Effie Trinket as their inspiration, and while that didn't exactly make it better, it did fit with the character.

But the Covergirl line fits nothing. The dark, hazy glamor of the promo images is clearly meant to emulate Katniss's "girl on fire" parade intro to the Hunger Games tournament. Hey, kids! Don't you want to look just like a girl headed to certain death and bloodshed?

Here's a snip from the press release:

“The exquisite beauty and style in the world of the Capitol is a focal point of this film. Partnering with an innovative brand like COVERGIRL to create an additional layer of beauty storytelling and inspiration for the fans is new territory that we’re delighted to explore.”
The exquisite beauty and style of the Capitol... that's what we want people to buy into.

Okay, look, is anyone at Covergirl acquainted with the word irony? Does anyone there own a dictionary?

You don't use an R-rated slasher flick to market children's toys. Like pairs with like. What this campaign tells me is that advertisers see a movie starring a girl and say, "girl = makeup". No matter how tough the girl is, no matter how little she cares about her appearance, no matter how brutal the circumstances of the film. Girl = makeup.

Tony Stark is far more intimately acquainted
with fashion than Katniss, and I don't see you
trying to sell me his makeup line.
Use Wonder Woman to sell me a product, and I'll buy the whole line. Lady knew how to accessorize and have fabulous hair and fight evil all at the same time. But don't try to sell me Katniss as a fashion model, and don't insult my goddamn intelligence.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Defense of Pocahontas

Pocahontas is a tricky movie to talk about because there's so much going on AROUND the movie that it's impossible to address the movie itself without addressing its circumstances and immediate competitors.

So yes, I've heard the Princess Mononoke comparisons. But look. Pocahontas is a CHILDREN'S movie. Princess Mononoke may be animated, but it is not for children. It's violent and ruthless and harsh. I think comparing the two as equals is intellectually dishonest. Of course Pocahontas is going to look ludicrously childish and simplistic by comparison - it's for children! You cannot make a movie for six-year-olds where a man gets his arms shot off on screen. You just can't. If you try to argue with me, you're wrong. :)

Beyond that - yes, Pocahontas was the first Disney movie to be based off historical events. Well... in that Pocahontas and John Smith were the names of people who lived in Virginia around that point in time. And that there was a guy named Ratcliff prancing about.

Look, we all know that Pocahontas isn't historically accurate.

Pictured here, the native "talking tree" of Virginia
To be honest I find the umbrage people take with this movie very bizarre considering the fact that it's basically as accurate as any other given historical Hollywood movie. Look at Troy, or Alexander, or hell, this movie's closest parallel Anastasia. People have extremely fond memories of Anastasia, and it's centered around a historical scenario where half a dozen royal children (and many others) were in fact brutally murdered. Personally, I'm far less comfortable with cutesying that up.

Is it because Pocahontas is set in America, and since it's American history it is therefore sacred? I don't know. 

Additionally, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding its release. Let me tell you the three movies in the Disney Animated canon that were released immediately prior, in chronological order: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.


Those are some damn hard acts to follow. This was the absolute peak of the Disney Renaissance. It was also a time when Disney was still taking more chances - Aladdin was not a traditional Disney Princess movie in that the main character was a young boy, and The Lion King didn't feature people at all, but was still pitched as a dramatic film. You can see this as well when you look at the movie that followed Pocahontas - The Hunchback of Notre Dame, arguably Disney's darkest and most daring movie.

Pocahontas was a risk in that it was based on a historical event, yes, but I would argue that the real risk they took was in the character arc they chose to depict. Disney movies tend to be about nice people who want something, and discover that if they have the courage to love the right person, all their dreams come true.

That... is not this story.

The real way that Pocahontas departs from the Disney princess norm is that it's a coming of age story about two characters who grow from brash, enthusiastic adventurers into mature adults who are forced to accept the harsh circumstances of the world and sacrifice their own desires for the good of others.

Pocahontas the character gets a lot of stick for being boring, and I really don't think that's fair. In the beginning of the movie she's playful and bold. She jumps off a waterfall, knocks her friend out of a boat, complains about how serious her fiance is, and goes out looking for the invaders that everyone else is terrified of. 

Enjoy your funtimes, they're about to end! Forever.
Which brings us to John Smith. I actually really love this character (and find it interesting that he never gets talked about in terms of being a Disney Prince... sure they didn't get married, but hell, NEITHER of the two main characters in Mulan are royalty! And all we even got from them was a hug!). For one thing, John Smith does have a personality, and it's similar enough to Pocahontas's that we understand exactly why they love each other. Their relationship is by far the most believable out of the Disney couples except for maybe Mulan and Tiana's. It happens naturally, over a period of time, and there's no question of why or whether they would sacrifice themselves for each other.

Also, John Smith loves Pocahontas for being strong and smart. He actually doesn't mention the way she looks ONCE in the entire movie. Four for you, John Smith.

At the beginning of the movie, both characters smile and joke and bounce around the screen. But as relations between their respective groups grow tense, this relationship that has become so important to them becomes more and more difficult. They both risk being pariahs by seeing each other, and both are begged not to continue the relationship by their closest friends. So on a personal level, their relationship is unquestionably the most important thing to each of them.

But then things come to a head between the Indians and the settlers, and both characters attempt to sacrifice themselves for each other. (Pocahontas manages to do it without getting hurt, so I say she wins.)

At the end of the movie, they have to sacrifice their relationship for causes bigger than their own personal desires. Make no mistake, this is Pocahontas's story - John Smith begs her to let him stay or for her to come with him and she refuses both, because he needs to leave in order to live and she has to stay in order to continue protecting her people as the chief's daughter.

Responsibility blows.
To wit: Pocahontas is one of the very, very few depictions of a sacrificial kingship theme for a woman.

Sacrificial leadership used to be an exceedingly popular theme (as we've talked about, at length). Our society isn't quite as into the idea of honor as cultures previous to us, but you can see its echoes in stories all throughout history: King Arthur, The Golden Bough by James Frazer, Tolkein's work. But it's vanishingly rare to see it used for a lady. That's pretty refreshing. 

And although John Smith is a big part of the narrative, this is unquestioningly Pocahontas's story. We see that she is the one to make the big choices for both of them at the end. Pocahontas is the one who has grown and learned enough to make the hard decisions while John Smith clings to idealism, but ultimately accepts her judgment as correct.

So yeah, as a historical piece, Pocahontas is about as accurate as The King and I. But so what? It's a solid, beautiful movie about a capable, courageous young lady. I can get behind that.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Poetry for the Beginning of the Work Week

For those of us fortunate enough to have yesterday off, anyway. Hope you had a lovely weekend and Memorial Day!

So, Samuel ibn Naghrillah! An Adalusian Jew fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, he was a Talmudic scholar living in Iberia under Moorish rule circa 1000AD. He was almost unique in that he was an elite of both Jews and Arabs, and he played a huge role in Muslim-Jewish relations. Samuel went from being a shopkeep to being the vizier of the king, and playing kingmaker to the line of succession in order to put the more widely favored candidate on the throne. He made it all the way to the head of the Muslim army, which is not just an astonishing feat for a Jew at that time, but at any time.

He also wrote poetry. I'm not entirely sure when this guy slept.

The Apple 
I, when you notice,
am cast in gold:
the bite of the ignorant
frightens me. 
An apple filled with spices:
silver coated with gold.
And others that grow in the orchard,
beside it, bright as rubies.
I asked it: Why aren’t you like those?
Soft, with your skin exposed?
And it answered in silence: Because
boors and fools have jaws.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Sorrows of the Young Hipster

I always have to laugh when people get irritated about "these kids today". We all want to think that the next generation is the new and most annoying generation of all time.

But look, hipsters are nothing new.

In ye oldeny times of 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the owner of the world's most impressive name and writer of a novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther.

With a title like that, you know it's gotta be good. In fact, 24-year-old Goethe laid the foundation for the Romantic movement with his woeful epistolary novel detailing the doomed love between a young peasant girl and the dude who knows she's engaged before he gets all up in her business. (It was also autobiographical, which got real awkward for everyone involved, especially Goethe.) Peasant girl gets married, Werther suffers poetically a bunch, and then eventually shoots himself and dies.

This book is basically what happens if you mix Romeo & Juliet and Sherlock Holmes. Goethe ended up hating this novel and saying he "could not have been more haunted by a vengeful ghost". Arthur Conan Doyle feels your pain, bro.

"I can't help it that I'm popular."
The novel was a big success. Like, a really big success. Like, everyone quickly started wishing the book would go away.

How did this get here?
It started a trend of "Werther-Fever" where young dandies dressed like the character in the novel, showed up at Goethe's door to generally annoy him, and even committed copycat suicides. No, really. It was actually such a problem that the book was BANNED in a bunch of places.

So be grateful, I guess. Instead of duckface and Times articles, we could have yellow pants and blue jackets. And angsty poetry recitations at dawn (*shudder*).

"If I sit here awhile longer, I'll probably have a super deep thought.
Any time now. Aaaaannnnnyyyyy time."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fast and Furious Inclusivity

You know what? I want to talk a little more about the cast of Fast 6.

I know, I know, I'm giving this movie WAY more thought than it deserves. And yet, it's a massively successful action movie that's more intersectional than not. It's inclusive of gender and ethnicity to an extent that many "smart" movies are not. I think that may be worth a closer look.

Okay, so we've got a main cast of nine that comprises the "family" that makes up the core of this movie. And though they're not pictured here, there's two other characters that are consistently on screen enough to qualify as mains.

Big Bad. That henchlady there is scary as hell, but not
in it enough to qualify.
Agent Riley. Hey, check out those clothes. They cover her
So yeah, let's look at this. Out of a main cast of 11, we can break it down into:

4 white actors
3 black actors
2 hispanic actors
1 asian actor
1 Israeli actor

7 men
4 women

3 white men
3 black men
1 asian man

1 white woman
2 hispanic women
1 Israeli woman

Up until Fast 6, the last Fast and Furious movie I watched was the first one. What I remembered from that movie was an awful lot of women in bikinis shaking their butts around drag races while the white cop did his thing. But look at this! It is possible to acknowledge the existence of people other than the default white male, and still make a profit. IT CAN BE DONE.

So speaking about diversity of characters...

Can we just talk for a second about how incredibly great it is to see Michelle Rodriguez play a role like this?

In the movie, Letty is a tough criminal who looks and acts hard. Not saying she isn't gorgeous because... come on.

But they're not afraid to let her look rough.

She's entirely self-sufficient, saved no more than the guys save each other, wears no revealing clothing, and acts about as sexual as the guys do (which is to say... a bit?). What I'm saying is, the movie isn't trying to sell Letty as a sweet, kind, supermodel-gorgeous love interest (yes, she is in real life, but movie logic is not real life logic or this movie would never exist). And to compound on this, at the beginning of the movie Vin is shacked up with someone who is supermodel gorgeous.

This is not to diss on Elena - I was so happy
that she got a dignified exit at the end. "This
is your family. I have mine." Yeah! You can
do better, Elena! Promise!

And yet the entire movie is about Vin Diesel being so in love with this harsh, uncompromising woman that he'll do anything just to try to win her back.

Think about that for a second. How great is that? A movie about a guy who's madly in love with a woman who is not the most beautiful in the group - in fact, to be honest, Letty is probably the least traditionally beautiful. Certainly not the nicest. But it doesn't matter, because Vin is in love with her. It's almost like... how real love works! Gasp! Oh, and as a bonus, it's implied that she and the Big Bad had a thing going on for awhile there, and Vin never brings it up or acts jealous.

I'm not saying it's great art. But I am saying that...

"This woman is yours now. I have paid my whore. I owe you nothing.
And you are nothing to me. "
You could do worse.

Selma Ruins Fast and Furious Six

Let me give you a quick rundown of the things that do not function in the Fast 6 universe as they do in ours:

  • physics
  • guns
  • anatomy
  • geography
  • technology
  • reality
Trying to explain the plot of this movie is like trying to paint with jellyfish. You could try, but you'd just hurt yourself, and why are you doing that anyway?

But I love you all, so I will try.

Roll call! From left to right: Heel-Face-Turn McGee,
The Hot One, Donatello, European Accent, Lestrade, Vin Diesel,
The Rock, Looks like Vampire Diaries, and That Guy I'm Pretty Sure
Was in That Movie About Cheating on the SAT
I'm glad the movie starts off with a convenient montage to let us know that the laws of physics are no longer in effect. Vin and Brian (ex-cop) are honeymooning in Spain, possibly as a threesome since Brian's wife keeps calling them a family. And Brian gives the "you don't know what you got till it's gone" speech... to Vin. I'm sure his wife appreciates that.

Then again... maybe she does.
Meanwhile, somewhere institutional, people keep handing The Rock files that he can crib the script off of. Vin's ex-wife through temporary deadness has been spotted, so The Rock leverages Vin into working for him to take down this ex-SAS guy that cannot decide on an accent. Is he British? Well, the script says so, but his accent seems to be aiming for a mix of German and vaguely Eastern European.

We do the Ocean's Eleven roundup, and the only thing I learn is that Roman is hot and product placement is the 10th main character in this universe. Did you know that bazillionaires still use Nokia brick phones?

See that blue thing in the barrel? Yeah, that's a NOS bottle.
45 minutes in, this movie remembers it's about CARS! The family's brilliant plan is apparently to let the London cops do all the work for them. ...Okay, fair. But then end up getting involved since the bad guy invented a go-cart racer that flips sedans. This has a pretty easy solution since The Rock has no problems keeping up in his armored truck.

Our resident ex-cop has apparently forgotten how guns work, since he tries to shoot a sniper using a long-distance assault weapon WITH A HANDGUN. 

I so wish I was kidding.
The Rock saves Brian by leaping off his truck, off a bridge, onto a speeding car. Thankfully, his biceps protect him from harm. Sadly, Vin's ex-wife Letty has gone over to the dark side and shoots him in the shoulder. Which he walks off. Literally. And pulls the bullet out himself. And sticks one of these on it. 

Dude, I routinely make more of a fuss over splinters than this guy makes over a freaking gunshot wound. Roman is all, "When a woman starts shooting at you, that's a clear sign to back the hell off."

But Vin is all, "You don't turn your back on family." Jesus, these guys are more loyal than the Scooby gang.
"It's okay! We can fix her!"
Roman and SAT guy go out with European girl and The Rock's personality-void but awesome henchwoman. There's actually some fairly funny and relevant banter about the ladies taking on a baddie because "He's a man." Roman objects to this, saying, "I don't know, it's just disrespectful. He's a man. What's that supposed to mean?"

The ladies kick ass and take names (seriously, they don't mess around. It's a visit to PainTown, population: him), and the boys nom popcorn and appreciate from afar. I could see how you could call this fetishizing or trivializing, but honestly, I'm okay with it. I'd much rather that movies show men appreciating capable, competent women for their talents.

And I like what happens next even better - a flock of bad guys appear, and instead of racing to help the ladies, the boys assume that they'll take care of themselves and race after the Big Bad. The movie doesn't make a big deal about it, they just go their separate ways, but I really like that touch.

Then there's parallel fight scenes between Henchwoman/Letty and Roman/SAT/Big Bad. Both fights are treated with equal respect (no respect for the mechanics of actual fighting, but, uh... you win some you lose some). It's a good scene, although plotwise it makes zero sense and has no impact on anything.

Next there's a drag racing scene, which proves that nobody involved with this movie has ever actually been to London. Vin and Letty do the talking thing... AHAHAHAHA OH MY GOD THE CAR HAS NOS BOTTLES BUILT INTO IT. 

I cannot even describe to you how much I am not kidding.
Vin and Letty talk, and then Big Bad and Vin talk, and then Vin and The Rock talk, and OH MY GOD THIS SCENE GOES ON AND ON AND ONNNNNNN. I don't pay you to talk, I pay you to look good and flip cars!

Okay so FINALLY it looks like we might get to wrap this up. Brian went to jail, where he learned that Letty lost her memories in the most convenient accident ever, and Big Bad didn't kill her because he... somehow found this out... and for some reason cared... I guess maybe we're supposed to think that he kept her around to manipulate Vin with, but honestly, that's giving this movie way more credit than I'm comfortable with.

There's a chase scene where a tank explodes out of an armored lorry on a bridge. And Vin jumps out of his car, across the bridge, catches Letty in midair, and slams them down onto a car windshield.

Letty: "How did you know that car would be there to break our fall?"
Vin: "That car would break our fall only in the sense that it would break all our bones just as efficiently as the concrete. Assuming that I could vault into the air off a sedan speeding 80mph. Across a bridge. And grab onto you in mid-air without ripping my limbs off. Um. I mean - some things you have to take on faith?"

Brian learns absolutely nothing of value in jail and comes back just in time for Big Bad to kidnap his wife and get her to shriek down the phone at him. Family comes first, so to hell with the millions of people he might kill with this doomsday device (doomsday computer chip just doesn't have the same ring), give him what he wants!

A plane comes to pick up Big Bad, and the family races after him because now they've decided that he'll kill Brian's wife if they DON'T take the chip back. Couldn't have decided this before, guys? Could have just, idk, held a gun to his head while he was handcuffed? No? Okay.

Basically there's a lot of this:


No, really.

Like, seriously.

Oh for F*$% sake.
European Accent falls off a car speeding a million miles per hour, but since everybody else does this too, it seems very unfair that this apparently kills her. Still, Vin zooms out of a flying on-fire plane and manages to keep track of the doomsday device at the same time, and then there's a BBQ, so... all's swell that ends swell, I guess.

It's hard to hate this movie. The plot only seems to have a vague idea of how the real world operates, and I'm fairly sure The Rock had a bet to speak dialogue that only came out of Hallmark cards ("You need a wolf to catch a wolf"), and it's just... stupid. The characters aren't tremendously likable, and other than Roman, Vin, and Letty, are completely forgettable.

But at the same time, Fast 6 does have a little bit of heart that's hard to ignore. It really believes in its family message, and that plays out more believably than it could, probably because of how forgettable these characters are. You feel like an outsider looking in on a comfortable group of friends as you watch. You don't really care about them all that much, because they're not capable of that kind of charisma, but you understand that they're a tight-knit group.

And believe it or not, this movie passes the Bechdel test, both in letter and in spirit. The women are generally treated as characters, not props. The movie is actually surprisingly uplifting from an "issue" standpoint - two black characters get the chance to show up a snotty white guy, the movie chooses not to use sexual assault as a casual plot point - which I appreciate immensely, there's a variety of ethnicities just existing in the movie much like they do in the real world rather than being chosen to fulfill a stereotype, and the women act like actual human beings.

Final conclusion? I'm buying the soundtrack.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What's On The Radio

Guys, stealing the hook from children's sing-along songs is verging on cataclysmically lazy.





Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Short Story!

Let's get this weekend started right! I have here a short story of the Arthurian sort for your amusement. Something just for fun. If you like (or hate) Lancelot and/or Merlin and/or Elaine of Astolat, you may get a kick out of it. Or if you just like strong, tricksy ladies (inspired by historically strong, tricksy ladies) and stalwart knights!

Not quite so much of this, though it is very pretty.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I Volunteer as Leader

And now we come to the end of this extended cut of sacrificial kingship as a concept, what happened this got so out of control. It's just... I just love this theme so much, and, and, I got carried away, and...

Hokay, so. When last we left off, we'd established that the idea of a king as a noble leader willing to sacrifice himself for his people is fundamentally rooted in our worldwide mythology. That's why we all love characters like Aragorn, who are willing to sacrifice not only their lives but also their personal happiness for their people.

That's all fine and well in a fantasy setting where you have pure evil and pure good, but is it really relevant in a modern-day context? Does the divine right of kingship have a place in the modern world?

Let's talk about Tom Bombadil for a hot second.

He's of the jolly, beardy sort.
In case you've forgotten him, or never read The Lord of the Rings (since they wisely left him out of the movies), Tom Bombadil is the most powerful character in LOTR. Gandalf and Elrond and everybody says so. He could hold the One Ring forever and never be corrupted by it. And if Middle Earth fell to Sauron, he would be the very last to fall.

But none of that matters, because it's not in his nature to fight. He will not take a stand against Sauron, and therefore all the power in the world doesn't matter. Lesser men are forced to do the things he technically could do - but won't.

In ye oldeny days and even now, leadership and goodness are often conflated with genealogy. There's a few reasons for this - one is that when kings were running things you needed justification for their rule and you wanted to be reassured that the right guy was in power. And also, it's just easy. Heyyy, this guy is awesome because God made him born into this family, therefore he was MEANT to do this job. Abracadabra.

I like to think we've made a bit of progress. Leadership abilities are not restricted to a particular gene pool - or a particular gender, for that matter.

Instead, I propose the notion of sacrificial leadership. Where the strength of character to lead others and be willing to sacrifice yourself (or at least a part of yourself) for them comes from within whatever you are.

A really great example of this is Katniss in The Hunger Games. Don't worry, no spoilers, although it applies to later events in the series too... But all we really need to look at is the very beginning.

They’re not our kids, of course. But they might as well be. Gale’s two little brothers and a sister. Prim. And you may as well throw in our mothers, too, because how would they live without us? Who would fill those mouths that are always asking for more? With both of us hunting daily, there are still nights when game has to be swapped for lard or shoelaces or wool, still nights when we go to bed with our stomachs growling.
When her father dies, twelve-year-old Katniss chooses not to give up. She chooses to provide for the sister she loves and the mother she doesn't. She puts their welfare ahead of her own, feeds them when she can't feed herself. And of course, we all know that she makes the ultimate sacrifice for Prim.

“Prim!” The strangled cry comes out of my throat, and my muscles begin to move again. “Prim!” I don’t need to shove through the crowd. The other kids make way immediately allowing me a straight path to the stage. I reach her just as she is about to mount the steps. With one sweep of my arm, I push her behind me.
“I volunteer!” I gasp. “I volunteer as tribute!”

This doesn't only apply to life-or-death situations. In my upcoming book, the hero is a rich CEO who runs the family business out of duty. He knows that he has the means to employ a large number of people and to make positive changes in the world, so he feels that it would be irresponsible to step down and just dabble in hobbies and have fun for the rest of his life.

So yes, as much as I have always loved the theme of sacrificial kingship in literature/film, I think we've moved past the idea of divine right. Nobody deserves anything because they happened to be born in a certain situation. But life isn't about what we deserve. Life isn't fair. We have to make the best of what we have and the best of what's inside us. We can use the term sacrificial leadership to encompass heroes and heroines both past and present. Some people are born leaders, and (at least in literature) in order to complete their character arc they need to embrace that ability in themselves and be willing to sacrifice themselves (or part of themselves) for the greater good.

Like Aragorn.

Tolkien once killed a man in an outlining contest.
Just, not like his crown.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Locked Monday

I'm sure there are many interesting facts about this guy, but I don't know any of them. I just like his poetry.

A Locked House - W.D. Snodgrass

As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught   
Fire, someone could have broken in.   
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found   
It locked tight, safe and sound.

I mentioned that, once, as a joke:   
No doubt we spoke
Of the absurdity
To fear some dour god’s jealousy   
Of our good fortune. From the farm   
Next door, our neighbors saw no harm   
Came to the things we cared for here.   
What did we have to fear?

Maybe I should have thought: all
Such things rot, fall—
Barns, houses, furniture.
We two are stronger than we were
Apart; we’ve grown
Together. Everything we own
Can burn; we know what counts—some such   
Idea. We said as much.

We’d watched friends driven to betray;   
Felt that love drained away
Some self they need.
We’d said love, like a growth, can feed   
On hate we turn in and disguise;
We warned ourselves. That you might despise   
Me—hate all we both loved best—
None of us ever guessed.

The house still stands, locked, as it stood   
Untouched a good
Two years after you went.
Some things passed in the settlement;   
Some things slipped away. Enough’s left   
That I come back sometimes. The theft   
And vandalism were our own.
Maybe we should have known.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fishing for Kings (Sacrificial Kingship Part 2)

So! Now that we've gone into the background of modern thinking about mythologic archetypes, we can talk about two particular concepts: the sacred king and the maimed king.

The sacred king was the cornerstone of Frazer's theories about ancient civilizations. In his work, he postulated that in the past, the life and eventual death of kings represented and growth and death of the vegetation, a "dying and reviving god". This human king provided for his people for a time and then eventually was sacrificed back to the earth. (I have some problems with this theory... namely that back in ye oldeny times most people were nomadic and didn't do a ton of agriculture... but this is about lit theory and therefore my historical issues with it really aren't relevant.) In any case, this connects to the fact that both in ancient and far more modern history, some kings are viewed as sacred beings. This could mean that the king was credited with good fortune. Or it could mean that your people view you as responsible for their well-being and sacrifice you in order to get a better harvest next year.

The maimed king (also known as the Fisher King, as he was referred to in T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land) seems to come from Arthurian legend. In the tales, this king was wounded so that he suffered from impotence, and his lack of fertility affected the earth around him and turned it into a barren wasteland. This legend is super freaking weird in all of its incarnations (there's a version where this king asks his followers to cut off his head and then his head keeps talking and keeps them all company on their trip back to Britain idk idk guys the Celts were weird). In any case, when purehearted people eventually come fetch the Grail he was hanging onto and this somehow heals him, his restoration represents the growth of vegetation in spring. Rebirth, if you like.

SO. These are cool and all, but not terribly interesting concepts unless you're super into agriculture and ye olde civilizations that may or may not have been nomadic. So why talk about them at all?

Because I think that these are necessary concepts if you want to understand what sacrificial kingship is and why it works. The idea of a king being responsible for the fate of his people, and being willing to lay down his life for their good, is deeply embedded in not just one culture, but essentially every culture. While history tells us that kings are flawed and often corrupt, our legends and mythology tell us a very different tale. Belief in the goodness and rightness of our kings is practically part of our DNA.

It's why characters like Aragorn work in fiction. We see from his introduction in The Fellowship of the Ring that although Aragorn is a good leader and has royal blood, he has no desire to be king and happily plays around in the mud while the stewards of Gondor do their thing. (Yes, I know that the films gave him all this inner conflict about being Isildur's heir, because of course if your great-great-great-great-great-whatever was susceptible to corruption, so are you, because that is totally how ancestry works. This isn't in the books and it was stupid anyway so I don't care.)

The books aren't overt about it because they aren't nearly as focused on Aragorn as the movies are, but we see clearly that Aragorn is happy in his current circumstances and views kingship as a burden. There is nothing kingship could give him that he wants. He's used to living as free as it's possible for a man to be, as a nomad following whims of the moment. Kingship is a cage - as Eowyn later notes.

In fact, in the books Aragorn proposes to Arwen and she accepts, but Elrond forbids them to marry until Aragorn is king of Gondor. And Aragorn does nothing. He loves Arwen, but he loves his freedom more. You could argue that he doesn't want to upset the political situation with things being kinda shaky in Middle Earth, but know who's on the throne as steward? Denethor.

This guy is definitely a savvy political player; I foresee no problems at all.
While in the movies Aragorn has to achieve self-actualization and gives himself lots of hugs, in the books Aragorn's arc is him eventually deciding to put the needs of others before his own needs and becoming king despite his own wishes. We get a bunch of lines like, "I have come because Gandalf begs me to do so." and, The hobbits still remained in Minas Tirith, with Legolas and Gimli; for Aragorn was loth for the fellowship to be dissolved. "At last all such things must end, but I would have you wait a little while longer." Also this: "I have," said Strider. "I dwelt there once, and still I return when I may. There my heart is; but it is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond." 

And while in the movies Boromir is all tetchy about GONDOR HAS NO KING; GONDOR NEEDS NO KING; EFF YOU ASSATHORN, in the books Boromir flat-out begs Aragorn to come fight for Gondor as its king. "I was not sent to beg any boon, but to seek only the meaning of a riddle," answered Boromir proudly. "Yet we are hard pressed, and the Sword of Elendil would be a help beyond our hope - if such a thing could indeed return out of the shadows of the past." 

And later... "Mayhap the Sword-that-was-Broken may still stem the tide - if the hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only, but the sinews of the Kings of Men." 
"Who can tell?" said Aragorn. "But we will put it to the test one day." 
"May the day not be too long delayed," said Boromir. "For though I do not ask for aid, we need it. It would comfort us to know that others fought also with all the means that they have."

The ending in the book is not a happy one for Aragorn. He is forced to take up his right of kingship and do his best by the people of Gondor, no matter what he would rather his fate be (and, just to rub it in, Gondor does have peace under his reign as he sits on the throne - just like he claimed his fate wasn't). It's not a tragedy of course, but his happiness is qualified by the fact that he'd rather be somewhere else doing something else. BUT he's a good king doing right by his people, which takes precedence over personal happiness.

But what about divine right of kingship and that whole ickyness, you may ask? Does blood (either through ancestry or sometimes trial by combat) really justify kingship? Does it matter?

Well... Check back for part 3.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The King is Corn, Let's Eat


Yeah, well, too bad.

In 1890 a Scottish guy named James Frazer published The Golden Bough and everyone immediately dove for their fainting couches. The Golden Bough was a comparative study of mythology and religion that analyzed both alike from a dispassionate perspective. His analysis concluded that human thought progresses over time from belief in magic to belief in religion to belief in science. While that seems like a common enough thought now, back in the day if you didn't go to church every Sunday they started gathering logs in anticipation of the witch-burnin' party. (Not really, but back then effectively everyone was religious. Atheism was almost unheard of.) So to analyze religion from an anthropological standpoint was revolutionary, and in fact completely revitalized the field of anthropology.

By the third edition this sucker
expanded from one volume into
While most people today haven't heard of The Golden Bough, almost everyone has heard of the people whose work was self-admittedly influenced by it (this sentence structure and verb/noun agreement is so horrendously awful that I actually decided to keep it instead of edit. Such horror must be preserved), including but not limited to: Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, Ezra Pound, William Gaddis, Mary Renault, T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and H.P. Lovecraft.

One of the main things that The Golden Bough tried to do was to isolate the shared ideas of different religions and myths into clearly defined elements - such as fertility rites, human sacrifice, sun worship, etc. Frazer's hypothesis was that old religions were fertility rites that revolved around the worship and eventual sacrifice of a sacred king. The king symbolized plants and I swear to God I am not just making this up. Basically the idea was that the life and death of a chosen king (who also symbolized the sun) mirrored the growth and death of the crops that kept people alive.

Also this Anthropologist/Egyptologist named Margaret Murray (born 1863) wrote a bunch of stuff about how she believed that there was this huge underground cult of pagan covens that practiced frequent human sacrifice until they were driven underground by the witch hunts that started around 1450. Included in this writing was the idea that a bunch of English Kings like William Rufus were secret pagans. And this woman was a professor at University College London and published by Oxford University Press. Academia in the early 1900s, you are crazy. And this really had nothing to do with anything but I thought it was hilarious.

This looks legit.
Sooooo this post is getting way long already, so I think this is gonna be a 2 or 3 parter. Those of you that aren't passed out in front of your computer by now, very good. You have been edified or something.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Disney Princesses, the "Obligingly Sweet" Edition

Hey so, I know everyone is up in arms about the changes to Merida right now (me too don't get me wrong), but can we just talk about the other Disney princesses for a moment? Because their looks have been updated too, and, um...

Why does Belle have sex hair? And why is Rapunzel giving me bedroom eyes? Cinderella's all... wispy, and Jasmine looks like this adorable sweet midget, which is sort of the... opposite of her characterization. Tiana and Aurora are the only two that look halfways normal, and even then, why is Aurora's hair suddenly done in crimped sex kitten waves?

For some reason Ariel was relegated to the B-squad where Pocahontas usually sits, but check this nonsense out!

Her head is as big as her torso and her eyes take up half her face.
I see that Disney has discovered anime.
Mulan looks a little checked out.
Wow Pocahontas, you're looking rather... coiffed. And happy. I miss
your bitchface.
Also, this description of Pocahontas:
Pocahontas loves nature, and she spends her time exploring the land. After she falls in love with a man named John Smith, it's up to her to discover her destiny and bring peace to her people.
"Pocahontas found a man so then she got to do stuff." Eff that noise! And this one gives me rageface too:
Jasmine is a dreamer who loves her pet tiger, Rajah. She's free-spirited, confident, and kind. When she meets Aladdin, she discovers the wonders she's often imagined outside the palace walls.
Excuse your face, Jasmine LEFT ON HER OWN. Before she met Aladdin. That's HOW she meets Aladdin. I know I'm being nitpicky here, but come on, there is a huge difference between "Jasmine is the kind of girl who ventures out of the palace she's always known on a quest for adventure" and "A dude brings Jasmine along on his adventure so she actually gets to do stuff".

These are the Disney princesses I'm used to (except Tiana, because it is actually impossible to find a picture of her and Pocahontas together. Which... hmm). And while they don't exactly promote a range of healthy body types, at least they do have some small variety in build and expression. I particularly appreciate that they have shoulders, which none of the updated princesses seem to possess. I think what I hate most about the updated princess look is the vapid doe-eyed kawaii expression they all have.

I will give Disney credit for one thing, though. This ad is awesome and adorable:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Selma Ruins Hannibal

The other night I started watching the new Hannibal TV show. I was actually pretty excited; I can't resist anything with cops and I enjoyed the Edward Norton Red Dragon movie (to an extent. To the extent that Edward Norton was in it). I'm going to compare the show mainly to the two movies and one Red Dragon book, since that's the closest parallel. Even though the events of Hannibal the show take place before Red Dragon, the subject matter is essentially the same.

The idea behind the show is great. I love the conceit of two men toeing the line between good and evil; one on each side and close enough to touch. You can watch them influence each other, and wonder what it might lead to. The good in Graham highlights the good (or at least... the charming and sympathetic) in Hannibal, and the evil in Hannibal seems very close to the surface in Graham.

That being said, I don't think it's ever been executed particularly well.

I freely admit, this is a HARD concept to pull off. The fundamental nature of this relationship is that it's two brilliant minds clashing with each other. Therefore, the show/movie/book has to portray two believably brilliant characters and their interactions. That is not an easy feat. There's a reason that most stories about geniuses are told through the lens of an everyman.

In the books and movies, I think the main problem tends to be veering into the ridiculous. Cannibals aren't exactly the most subtle subject, and THEY ARE NOT EVEN THE BIGGEST PROBLEM HERE. I mean, the villain of the Red Dragon book and movie is called the Tooth Fairy.

The show suffers from a similar problem, in that it's about as subtle as a piano falling off a cliff. Into a bear trap. That's run over by Optimus Prime.

Either the show thinks we're stupid or it's clawing desperately at every semi-clever idea it comes across. Every point is repeated a zillion times (OKAY WE GET IT GRAHAM IS AUTISTIC FOR THE LOVE OF GOD STOP TELLING US ABOUT HOW HE HATES EYE CONTACT). And when they do get hold of a nifty idea, they BEAT IT INTO THE GROUND. Like when Graham comes across a dog on the way home from a crime scene. Dogs are known to be man's best friend, and good judges of character. We see that this clearly domesticated dog (as evidenced by the leash and collar still tied to it) has to be convinced with food and patience to come anywhere near him. When it does, he takes it home and takes care of it. That's a pretty clever way to show that Graham is trying to reconnect with his humanity.

But then Graham says, "Say hello to the family," and we see FIFTEEN FRIGGING OTHER DOGS IN THE HOUSE. Good lord, show! We get it! He really really really is worried about the state of his humanity! Do tell!

On top of that, Graham just doesn't look the part. When Edward Norton played the role he looked tired and wan, but there was clearly iron in him. You believed that he was a man on the edge holding it together by force of will.

In the show, Graham twitches with nerves all the time. He looks on the edge of a breakdown, but not the kind where you'd turn into a serial killer. More like the kind with a lot of crying jags involved.
I mean come on, he looks like Robin Williams and Q
had a lovechild!
And to be honest, the constant fantasy sequences where he acts out a killer's deeds or sees their handiwork just served to make it feel even more exaggerated and cartoonish. Then Thranduil's party elk showed up to hover symbolically outside his window and it just... no.

"Do not fall down these evil paths, my son. The dude
abides. I promise you, the dude abides."

"Son, do not attempt to jack my swagger."

Not to mention Hannibal himself. I'm fairly certain his directing consisted entirely of "BE MORE EVIL". With Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal, there was an aura of menace but he was also capable of looking harmless and grandfatherly. This guy? There is no way anyone would trust this guy to hold their ice cream cone, let alone to be involved in a criminal investigation. He oozes slime.

Come on, I'm pretty sure you can do better than this,
c'mon, really FEEL the evil...
There you go.
While there were a few clever touches I liked (the best of which was Hannibal's careful interactions with Graham, where he comes to Graham on his own terms and reinforces his behavior with continued patient interaction and oblique compliments), it wasn't worth it overall. Unless you enjoy your thrillers being administered with a sledgehammer, I'd give this one a pass.