Thursday, November 12, 2015

In My Defense

My defense is next Friday. To say that I am anxious about it would be a severe understatement. I can hardly bear to spend more than an hour or so away from it. I am having an onslaught of dreams where I accidentally sleep through the whole thing (which takes a lot of sleeping, since it's an afternoon defense). The biggest sign of all is that the anxiety has even brought me back to my poor, neglected blog. So this post is going to be a stream of consciousness hodge-podge that will hopefully let me vent some steam.

The preparation itself is interesting. Up to this point, I managed to avoid most of my worry by focusing on smaller events that were happening between the time the date was set (back in late September) and now. First, I was giving a guest lecture on narrative and ludology for my supervisor's first year course. Then I had another guest lecture on masculinity and game culture for another professor's class (this is turning into a humble brag about my guest lectures, but I'm going somewhere here, honest). Most recently, there was going to Wordplay 2015, a one day event in Toronto showcasing games that feature words predominantly in one way or another--a must-go event for someone whose research area is videogames and text. (I met Emily Short! I made a no to slightly negative impression!) In each case, the dissertation defense was something I was working on in the background and preparing for, but it wasn't until it was the Next Thing Coming that it suddenly started to really affect me.

The prep is going... all right, I think. I've met with the tech people, so I'm nominally familiar with the equipment in my defense room. I've done enough presentations to know that being familiar doesn't stop things from going wrong, but at least I'll know what to troubleshoot when it does. I've read over and over the dissertation draft, finding all the terrible typos that somehow evaded me before the dissertation went out. 

Actually, I have some advice on that note. For financial and moral reasons, I use Open Office, an open-source word processing program, over Microsoft Office, but I really wish I had converted it into MO before sending it out. The big problem was formatting it properly with the table of contents and page numbering. To make a table of contents, you need to set up headings and subheadings, and there's a bug where OO automatically adds about half a dozen lines of blank space to the first footnote of every chapter, regardless of how many times I take it out. The other problem was the page numbering--university regulations say that everything that comes before the table of contents has to have roman numeral page numbers, and arabic numbering for the TOC and everything after. And again, that's a pain to do in OO. (Maybe a pain in MO too, but it's OO I'm working with) I finally wound up having to copy the whole document into a new sheet entirely so I could start from scratch. And THAT wound up, for some reason, erasing all the alignments I did for my long quotations. I had to go in and re-align them manually, and as a result, I missed about a quarter of them. Suffice to say, OO is not maximized for 300+ pages of formatting.

I've also met with two out of the three members of my internal committee, which has been a huge source of relief--I'd really recommend it to those prepping for their own defense. Even apart from the useful advice on how to handle the defense, talking with them has reminded me that, at this point, I am the expert; I'm not just the expert on the subject, but on the defense itself. I will certainly have read it through more than anyone else in the room, and it takes a priority for me more than anyone else in the room. That second part in particular is a useful reminder, in that for everyone else, this is a routine thing--while everyone's there for the dissertation, I'm the one with the greatest emotional investment. It's a big deal in my head, but less so for everyone else. I don't think I'm fully expressing what I'm trying to say here, but I find it comforting on some level to remember that the dissertation is less burdensome from other frames of mind.

It's still going to weigh pretty heavy on my frame, though. The major task left is to prepare the slideshow. That's easier said than done. All in all, I've got a minor or major focus on approximately forty different games throughout the course of the argument, and that means a lot of screenshots that I need to line up. That's a practical aspect of game studies that isn't discussed enough, I think--how presenting a lecture on a videogame differs from more traditional media. Luckily, I have a small bank of images ready to go from previous presentations--video game manuals, Doom, Myst, and Planescape: Torment are already covered. That still leaves, however, two dozen or so games from the second and fifth chapters that need more substantiation. I spent about four hours last night watching walkthroughs of Final Fantasy: Tactics, only to realize that was watching the remake, not the original, just to get a shot of a cutscene that occurred about 3/4 of the way through the game. Film studies doesn't have this problem! (It has its own, I imagine. But not this one, specific problem, in exactly the same way.)

Anyway, I'd better get back to the work. I have promises to keep, and hours of Ni No Kuni walkthroughs to go before I sleep.

Later Days.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Story Idea: the ol' f ⊕ f

Quick story idea: a fantasy trilogy called "Fight or Flight." First book is "Fight," wherein, immediately, a crown prince type character is ambushed by a potential usurper. The rest of the book is a study of the culture in the grips of a civil war. Epic war fantasy type stuff, ala Game of Thrones. 

 Book 2 is "Flight." Same starting point, but instead of responding by raising his own army, the crown prince type goes on the run. Instead of the war fantasy, the operative mode is the thriller novel, with the prince one step ahead of his pursuers. This time around, though, I play with the readers' knowledge of the first book, confounding it in some places, allowing them to predict events in others, by using the same cast of characters, but to different effect. Also include some revelations that shed new light on motivations in book 1. Both books end, somewhat anticlimatically, for a fantasy book, in tragedy. 

The third book is "Or....?". There's a number of different approaches for this one. One would be to take literally, a number of different approaches, sketching out a plethora of alternatives for crown prince beyond those explored in the first two books, and using the readers' knowledge of the fictional world derived from the other two books to fill in the blanks. Or stretch out a single one, that deliberately incorporates parts of one and two. The real question is how far to make explicit the overall model in the last run. Should the narrator play coy about the repeated structure, or is that the point where they nod conspiratorially to the reader? Could the character be made aware of "the multiverse" without it feeling too hackneyed?

The idea of multiple time lines is pretty common in science fiction, and the retellings of such universes is pretty old hat--I mean, we've even got the "evil = beard" star trek cliche. I think it's a little more rare in fantasy. The closest is the "this story has many tellings" that you get through repeated variations on fairy tales and the like, or the approach where the fantasy world is deliberately constructed as a videogame, and is thus open to restarting and replaying with different approaches. (Vivian Van Velde's books are my childhood go-to for that sort of thing, though others have utilized it as well.) I guess Robert Jordan does it too, in some of the earlier Wheel of Time books, though not to this degree.  All right, so it's a hack idea. I still think it would be a fun exercise in plotting. The trick would be to engage the reader in such a way that the repetition is a feature, not a bug. 

Anyway, just an idea to toss out there. But it's mine, dammit, and if any of youse steals it... Well, then I'll have to think of a follow-up.

Later days.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Chrono Trigger Warning

As in, a warning I'm going to make a terrible Chrono Trigger pun. Also, flippancy aside, I think trigger warnings are a useful thing, and I encourage people to do them. I was proctoring for an examination today, and that means essentially three hours of standing around not using your phone or reading. It was an English test, so cheating is generally at a minimum, which meant I was largely there to escourt male students to the washroom. As the prehistoric pelican said, it's a living. It's not a particularly exciting living, though, so to keep my mind occupied, I thought I'd spend the time going mentally over the ins and outs of a favorite series. I came into the quick problem, though, that I'm not really a repeat viewer anymore. There are books I'll read again, and episodes I'll rewatch, but an entire series overview isn't where my media interest is these days. So I needed something lengthy that I'd been through so many times that it was more or less embedded in my brain. I waffled a bit, and wound up with the 1995 Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger. I'm sure I've talked about Chrono Trigger before, though I'm not in the mood to track down those entries. And I'm also not in the mood to offer much by way of explanation of the game's basic plot or mechanics. So the rest of this post is one for the Chronoheads (as I'm sure they call each other despite me just making the term up). --I could go through most of the plot in my head, with two exceptions. First, how the party learns about Melchoir--I'd totally forgotten about his Millenial Fair appearance. Second, how the party gets to the Antiquity time period--Lavos' arrival creates a convenient crater. So there you go. --Unlike its contemporary, Final Fantasy VII, the party-characters of Chrono Trigger don't really have an arc to them. They're just a bunch of happy-go-lucky folk (and Magus) who resolve to save the world from apocalypse. I'm largely ok with that, because they're still fairly fully-realized characters, if a little one-dimensional. You give me a bit of dialogue, and I could still probably determine which character said it. That's memorable character writing, in my book. --Ozzy's a perfect mid-boss character. He's scheming, manipulative, but not really good at it. He's distinct enough and difficult enough to be acceptable as a repeat character, and hits just the level of annoying you need to make beating him satisfactory, but also sufficiently annoying that it wouldn't be dramatically acceptable for him to be any more significant than that. Other JRPG characters fill similar roles: Liz and Ard in Wild Arms 2, Geshp in Shining Force II, and Ultros in Final Fantasy VI. Disgaea lampshades the mid-boss role to amusing effect. I'd have to go back to check this out, but I think one of the points in Final Fantasy VI's favor is that Kafka is largely presented as a mid-boss (albeit a particularly murderous one) until half way through the game. --And while he's largely a joke, I always felt sorry for him if you bring Magus in the party to fight him the final time. He expresses anger at Magus betraying the Fiends, and Magus utterly dismisses him: "Hear that? It's the sound of the reaper." Under Ozzie's goofiness, there's some untapped tragedy. --(I really, really hate to say this, but given the Reptites' and the Fiends'struggle against humans, and how Chrono and co are utterly uncaring about either except for how it gets in the way of their larger goals, Chrono Cross does a much better job of exploring the uneasiness of that dual existence. And given that the fiends seem largely extinct in the future (maybe they're the mutants and such?), their struggle does seem necessary.) --Two really fun longform accounts of Chrono Trigger:Reverse Design blog's version, which as you'd expect, focuses mainly on design; and Michael P. Williams' book Chrono Trigger from the Boss Fights book publisher, which digs more into the cultural and philosophical sides. --Re-using enemy sprites is pretty common in videogames, and Chrono Trigger is as guilty of this as anyone. (Though I do like the subtle visual suggestion that the Fiends are the descendants of the Reptites.) But what the game does really well is offer variations on monsters you've already encountered that require the player to shift tactics. For example, it becomes pretty clear immediately that Queen Zeal's final form is like the much earlier Giga Gais--a central head, and two appendages. But with Giga, the strategy is to take out the powerful hands and go after the defenseless head after. with Zeal, attacking the hands results in a devastating counterattack. Similar things going on with Guardian and, much later, Mother Brain. --When all's said and done, my favorite part of Chrono Trigger (besides the time travelling, maybe) is Lavos as a villain. It exists on such a larger scale than any other creature in the game, it played a pivotal role in shaping the history of civilization, and for the most part, right up until the final battle, it bares acknowledges or can acknowledge that the heroes even exist. It's just too alien to think in terms of individual humans. --I wonder if the giant decomposing corpse of a space monster in the earth's core will create any problems. Also, the whole point of the Antiquity era is that it's a society built from channeling power from Lavos, but where is Lavos getting the energy? Presumably, it's feeding off the earth in some way--if it wasn't, it wouldn't need to inhabit the planet's core. OK, looking at the game's script, it's not clear that that's what Lavos is doing; it may be sucking the earth's vitality, but the big work is harvesting the DNA of its organisms, which it does by... hanging out at the earth's core? At any rate, when the player goes to 1999 to fight Lavos on the day it arrives, it occurs to me that this is the worst possible time to fight Lavos--it's already harvested the life force it needs, and now all it has to do is bust out and leave. Is the earth in much better shape if you fight Lavos (via the Black Omen) in an early era? Or since the difference between antiquity and the future is so much less than prehistoric and any other time period, does that mean the damage has already been done? Chrono Trigger sequel: the Lavos energy crisis. --Speaking of Chrono Trigger sequels, going back and reading that Lavos (somehow) shaped all evolution on earth does lend some credence to the plot of Chrono Cross. But to say that it was responsible for humanity only, as Chrono Cross claims, is still off. We *see* humanity exist before Lavos arrives, and characters claim that it manipulated more than just humans in Chrono Trigger's final fight. So there and take that, decades-old videogame that is still rightfully considered a classic! So thinking through Chrono Trigger took up about half of the two and a half hour exam. I spent the rest thinking about this blog post. And here it is. Later Days.

Edit: I guess this is what happens when you do your whole post in HTML mode over compose mode; it eats up all your spaces. Well, I kind of like the ridiculousness of the lack of spacing, so I'll keep it as is. It makes the whole thing feel like an out of breath declaration, which fits, given my fannish obsession with the subject.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Random Thoughts, May 2015 edition: Futurama, dissertations, informed consent in fantasy, and match 3 games

This is going to be a combination of updates, and things that have occurred to me.

* "Not sure if _____ or ______"
"You're _____ is bad, and you should feel bad!"
"I don't want to live on this planet anymore."
"__________ do not work that way!
"I'll make my own ___________! With blackjack, and hookers!
Not an original observation, but Futurama's clearly going to be more remembered as a meme generator than a TV show. There's a Buzzfeed article in there, somewhere."
Just posted this on Facebook. I don't really feel like fleshing it out too much further at the moment, but it's an interesting issue.Arguably, Futurama has had more cultural value as a source of memes than as a TV show. That probably still holds if you talk financial value too--but only if you factor in the ad revenue generated by the hundreds and thousands of sites that have deployed variations of these memes to get clicks. It's not money that's going to the show creators. Then again--who creates a meme? Its original coiners, or its major circulators? If I ever have a spare couple of days, it's a new media area I'd like to delve into more fully.

*The dissertation's reaching a boiling point. My defense is projected for September--though I've only got permission for one more term of grad school, so that's a fun future hurdle--and I'm still coping with the notion of what comes next. I should be applying for things and submitting other things like crazy but... I'm not there yet. It might be the same sort of procrastination that led to the degree delays to begin with, but I feel like something still needs to click. Soon, hopefully.

*Speaking of clicking, I've been reading Rachel Aaron's The Legend of Eli Monpress. I'll probably have a full review somewhere at some point, but an idea in regards to the series popped into my head today, and I want to preserve it. The magic system in the novel is essentially the animus version, with a genie twist. That is, every object in the fantasy world--manmade or natural--if it's of sufficient size, is inhabited by a lifeforce, a sentient spirit. Wizards can communicate with the spirit, and bind it to them and make it serve them, ala the genie/master relationship. So far, so good. But what Aaron adds to the concept that really makes it interesting is the idea that the current dominant group of wizards, the spiritualists, believe that it's unethical to bind a spirit against its will. The only spirits you can call on as servant, then, are the ones that you enter into a willing relationship with, where both parties supply the other with what they need, and both may break it off, if they wish. In short, it's a fantasy universe where magic is based on the idea of informed consent.  That's kind of amazing, and makes the series really relevant in terms of greater cultural issues. Yes, there's a huge difference between consent as relates to sexuality and as it relates to magical spirits, but framing the relationship in terms of ethics and moral responsibility over personal desire creates some really interesting parallels.

*I gave a talk this week based on the third chapter of my dissertation. I got some good feedback on it, but in a lot of ways, it's the wrong point in the dissertation process to be soliciting feedback from outside of my committee. I'm really glad I did it, and I understand my own argument and how it's perceived a lot better now, but it would have been better to have pursued this sort of thing earlier. At that point of writing, I was too caught up in the idea that I couldn't put anything out there until I had my committee's seal of approval; more experimentation could have been helpful. That's something to remember.

*Conversation overheard on the bus today: "When I was a kid, I used to read while I walked around, with my nose in a book." "Me too! It really bugged my mom. She thought I'd walk into a tree, or something."
Me, in my head: "I AM ONE OF YOU."

*This weekend is all about prepping for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and writing the paper for the Canadian Game Studies Association. I've got some draft notes, but it's time to flesh them out. If I was a better planner, it'd be a presentation on dissertation-related material, or even a revised version of this week's talk. Instead, it'll be a look at the cultural, economic, and design-related issues involving Match-3 type games. Basically, it's a chance to take some of things I've said  about Match-3 games and put them before a larger audience. I'm thinking five minutes on the social and economic aspects of Match-3 games in general, five minutes on how some of them incorporate narrative skins, and five minutes on how Marvel Puzzle Quest in particular approaches these issues.  If anyone's interested, I might put the piece up here when it's done.

Later Days. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Build A Better Frankenstein: Teaching a Sci-Fi Class, Short Story edition

Yes, for the pedants in the crowd, it's build a better Frankenstein's Monster. But that felt like too far a departure from the "Build a Better Mousetrap" allusion I was going for, so here we are.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Quotations: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

"Back when the rest of us were learning to play wallball and pitch quarters and drive our older brothers' cars and sneak dead soldiers from under our parents' eyes he was gorging himself on a steady stream of Lovecraft, Wells, Burroughs, Howard, Alexander, Herbert, Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein, and even the Old Ones who were already beginning to fade--E.E. 'Doc' Smith, Stapledon, and the guy who wrote all the Doc Savage books--moving hungrily from book to book, author to author, age to age. (It was his good fortune that the libraries of Paterson were so underfunded that they still kept a lot of the previous generation's nerdery in circulation.) You couldn't have torn him away from any movie or TV show or cartoon where there were monsters or spaceships or mutants or doomsday devices or destinies or magic or evil villains. In these pursuits alone Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insited was part of the family patrimony. Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in accute detail, know more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. (If only he'd been good at videogames it would have been a slam dunk but despite owning an Atari and an Activision he didn't have the reflexes for it.) Perhaps if like me he'd been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn't. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn't have passed for Normal if he'd wanted to.">
This struck a bit closer to home than I'd like to admit. It's never too far below the surface, is it? And it matters so much more to you than anyone else. Later Days.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Retrospective: Warioland II and THE DISCOVERY OF GREEEEED

Often, between playing big, long videogames, I try to seek out a shorter or older game as a sort of palate cleanser. After Bravely Default--I'm providing a link even though it's just a short scroll below on the main page--and before I lovingly toss my time into Pillars of Eternity, I decided the game would be Warioland II. A discussion of the difference that the money-loving anti-hero makes, after the break.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Restrospective:Does Bravely Default Bravely Rise Above Default?

Normally, when I finish a game--especially a game that spent over a hundred hours of my life, from beginning to end--I've got something to say about it, even with JRPGs, which, when not doing something noticeably different, tend to cohere to a small set of cliches. Nier has its ruminations on genre and violence. Chrono Trigger is still cool for the way it depicts a struggle against a being who literally doesn't comprehend that the heroes of the story exist, because they exist on an entirely different scale of being. Radiant Historia encourages the player to think in terms of a sequence of events instead of connections in space.

But Square Enix's Bravely Default doesn't have any of those things. Everything I can think of to say about it is interesting largely in the way it came from somewhere else first. Even the fact that it has killed my interest in playing  JRPGs AND the fact that it is a pastiche stitched from other JRPGs are both the major talking points I used for crafting my response to Ni No Kuni.

Part of this I have to admit is my fault; I've played many JRPGs over the years, and that has worn into me certain expectations and familiarities, which if I didn't have, it would have made BD seem a lot fresher. But really, so much of the game seems a rehash of other things I've seen. Repeating large portions to shake up what we take for granted about the plot was Nier's big schtick. Playing with temporality in turn-based combat was Radiant Historia (as was the reality hopping in later). The build-a-town mini-quest has been done from Dark Cloud to Breath of Fire (although I'll give points for adding the 3DS' Street Pass functionality to the mix). Even the plot is jumble of JRPG cliches about restoring the four crystals to save the world, and yes, there's a twist, but again--conventional JRPG story with a last act twist is a cliche at this point too. It would help if the characters were a little more developed, but really, they're just typical stereotypes with a weird fixation on--

Wait, no! I've got it! The unique part of the game is its party chats concerning food!  ...Except Dragon Warrior has had the same party chat function, and it's no more food-oriented than Star Ocean. Carry on, then.

More on the search for anything worth searching for after the break.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nierly Done with this Pun forever

I had to play a few hours of Nier today to get the point where I could talk about its book-like interface system for the dissertation. And I had to play to that point because Nier's endgame (spoiler, I guess?) doesn't really leave things in a state where doing that is possible.

What I found is that Nier is a wonderfully complex game (albeit somewhat graphically low for a mid to late Xbox 360 game), one whose eventual story is set up right from the start, and design choices that contribute to the overall aesthetic in a meaningful way all build on each other. It's an unusually rich, creative game for a JRPG low budget (for AAA, anyway) game.

I never want to play it again.

I felt the same way going back to Ni No Kuni (which is much more diminishing returns than Nier) for its dissertation section; there's a point in lengthy games where enthusiasm is displaced by entropy, and trying to research the game at the same time only makes it worse. Nier's a wonderful game, and I could (and have) written pages and pages extolling its virtues, but I really, really don't want to subject myself to having to go through it again. Ah well; I'm an hour or two in and at the shrine where Weiss becomes a party member, so the end's in sight.

Later Days.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Dissing the Dissertation

Two excerpts from the dissertation:

Another Sierra game, the 1991 remake of the original
Leisure Suit Larry came with brochures for in-game locations, and the questions were thus reflective of the game’s so-called, and more than slightly misogynist, humor: “What do the cowgirls have at the Palamino Ranch?”; the correct answer was “c: Jugs o’ moonshine.”

the 1988 game Wasteland not only had a booklet of paragraphs, it included fake entries to dissuade players who would “cheat” by reading ahead. The very first entry, in fact, is one of these:
1 You creep up to the window, and in the soft muted tights [sic], you see a tall woman with long, blond hair. She sits before a mirror and brushes her hair, then stands and walks over to the sunken tub to her left. She kneels and her blue, silken robe drops to the floor. She turns the water and steam slowly fills the air. You watch in fascination as she reaches down into the tub, whirls, and points an Uzi in your direction. ‘Stop reading paragraphs you’re not supposed to read, creeps.’ She sighs deeply. ‘Next time I’m going to demand they put me in a Bard’s Tale game, this Wasteland duty is dangerous.’ (1)

The problem with writing a dissertation on the subject of the history of videogames is that the history of videogames is full of stuff like this. Yeah, it's sexist, and, as dissertation me claims, arguably outright misogynist, but mostly... it's just *embarrassing.*

Honestly, off the top of my head, the only game stuff I can think of that's funny that was clearly supposed to be funny is some of the stuff from Saint's Row the Third and some of the more absurdist endings for Japanese fighting games.

Later Days.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Feminism and Rhetoric

I've been teaching an online first year rhetoric course this term. And what that means for our university in particular is that all the readings have been chosen beforehand, all the lectures recorded before I was ever assigned the course, and all the assignments planned ahead of time (but I still get to write the final, which.... thanks, I guess?). And as you'd imagine, not all of the texts have been ones that I would have chosen. They're all wonderful texts for a rhetoric class, just not the particular texts I would picked; it's a matter of personal preference, more than any other consideration.

In particular, I was uncertain of this week's reading, a section from Hélène Cixous' Laugh of the Medusa. It's a good read, but not what I personally would have picked out as the singular example of rhetoric and feminism. (That the course has only a single text on rhetoric and feminism is a different issue.) It is, I thought, too complicated, too complex in its use of language, too steeped in psychoanalytical discussions about the phallus. I braced myself for a reading response set that suggested the class had listened to the lectures and skipped the reading (a fairly common occurrence, given some of the responses although I also have a large number of really good responses on any given week, and I do my best to encourage such responses).

 As you can probably guess from my own rhetoric, I was wrong. The reading has led to more thoughtful, engaged responses than anything we've done so far. Yes, there have been some half-hearted engagements, as always, but most of the class has responded with above average engagement, especially some of the women, who have mentioned that the essay speaks to them on a personal level. I'm drawing three conclusions from this. First, it has been a humbling reminder that my students are better and smarter than I've been giving them credit for. Second, it attests to the power of Cixous' writing, that it still resonates. And third, it suggests that, sadly, a lot of her critique still applies, that women today still feel pressured to write in a voice not their own.

It's been an eye-opening course, in more ways than I was expecting going in.

Later Days.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Triad: Women in Fantasy

I'm not planning on turning the blog into nothing but book reviews, or even reviews, but as I said before, I've got a backlog of book review content. In fact, one of the advantages of having a backlog is that I can do a bit of picking and choosing in terms of grouping similar books together so that I actually have something significant to say that applies to all three.In this particular case, that means pairing two recent reads with an older one, by way of contrast. After the break, we have reviews of Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men, Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife, and Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child.

I'll warn you in advance--these are all books that got me thinking a fair bit, so the reviews are lengthier than usual AND I have a lot to say afterwards. All worth saying, of course.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Triad: Could Be Worse Ever After

Ah, the blog. Or, as it is at the moment, that thing I do when I'm between videogames, just finished a book, and there's no new shows on because it's Super Bowl Sunday. There's been an alarming build up of book triad reviews building up over the course of the last year or so. I haven't done one of these since 2013. My goodness. That means there will also be a lot of me going "wait, wasn't this the book with the guy who did that thing? To that unicorn? Or was it a pegasus?".

Let's get right into my equine questioning, with reviews of Karen Miller's Empress, Jonathan Stroud's Heroes of the Valley, and Peter David's Fable Blood Ties, after the break.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Into the Woods

First: it's no Through the Woods, the horror-based graphic novel by Emily Carroll. Though both works use travelling in woods as metaphor, it's to rather different ends, and, frankly, Carroll does it better. Rather, it's the musical turned movie. In case you're unfamiliar with the plot, its essential idea is that it takes four strands of fairy tales and puts them in a blender. There's the baker and his wife, who are trying to break a witch's curse by collecting a cloak red as blood, hair yellow as corn, cow white as milk, and shoe gold uh, gold; a girl going to grandmother's house; a boy Jack trying to sell his best friend, the cow; Rapunzel of corn-yellow hair, and Cinderella, who probably doesn't need further explanation. They all get in each other's way, and, long story short, the survivors work together to fend off a giant woman. As you do.

Two of the music numbers in particular stuck with me, not because of the music really (honestly, all of the songs were kind of forgettable), but because of what they said about fairy tales. The first was sung by Prince Charming and his brother, where they try to one up each other with tales of love-lorn woe: respectively, that one keeps fleeing the ball at night, and one is stuck up in a tower where the only means of access is her hair. And it's hilarious. One rips his shirt open in a fit of passion; the other does too, because, well, you can't be upstaged when you're singing to no one in the middle of the woods. It's a song that perfectly captures the campiness of the project, the gentle mocking of the whole idea of Prince Charming.

Likewise, my other favorite also skewers the idea of fairy tale. Near the end, the aforementioned survivors are quarreling over whose fault the giant woman's assault is, and eventually they turn their accusations to the witch. She takes all of five seconds of that before launching into her own song, then being swallowed up by the earth, the gist of the song being, "Fuck all y'all, everyone has life tough, I'm outs." First: the witch is played by Meryl Streep, so already it's a recipe for being awesome. You'd have to actually work at making Maryl Streep bad in something. Second: I like the point of the song, which is that, yes, if you need fairy tales, if you need good and evil, then you do need someone to blame, but life isn't as simple as that. Also, fuck all you guys, like any of you are any better. Which, really, is something we all feel, isn't it?

It kind of lost me in the second act, which is unfortunate, because it's where things are supposedly getting interesting. The second act is where the happy ending of the fairy tale gets deconstructed; instead of everyone's happily ever after, the giant's wife shows up, and people start dying at an alarming rate. Now, that's a premise that's got potential, especially if you want to point out that rather than living in a fairy tale, it's better to have your "moment in the woods" and go back to the rest of your life. But it felt like the film was going in too many directions--pathos for the multiple deaths and resulting despair, some farce in the baker's wife having a fling with Prince Charming ("I'm in the wrong story!"), and somehow wrangle an actual happy ending. But it didn't really work for me. Take Cinderella and the Prince's parting--their final words post-break-up are "I'll always remember the girl I chased after" and "I'll always remember the prince from afar." It's played as this bittersweet moment, but really, it's terrible--they are basically saying to each other "I really wish you turned out to be the imaginary version of you I had in my head, and getting to know you made things worse." Now, that's a great sentiment in a farcical send-up for fairy tales. And a good character beat for a realistic relationship. But it's played straight, and... eh.

Or take the Prince's fling with baker's wife. Ok, it kind of sets the idea that she gets a bit starstruck by royalty. And that, for whatever reason, the woods really do it for her. But she's one of the more grounded characters in the story, and before this point, her main arc has been getting her husband to realize they need to work together for a child. The seduction happens a little too instantly, in the face of all that. But again, the subsequent part where she realizes that she was glad the moment happened, but prefers her own life--good, mature relationship beat, good farcical bit. But then she's immediately killed by the giant woman after coming to this conclusion, so it comes across that the story is punishing her for sexual violation. Which is kind of a mixed message.

Or take the giant woman. Now, even by the original story standards, she's pretty justified in coming down and being angry; Jack stole from her and murdered her husband after she welcomed her into his home (less justified: the mass destruction towards people who had nothing to do with her plight). So the struggle against her is less good versus evil and more "well, whatever we few remainders need to do to stay alive." The song to commemorate the fight "Not Alone" kind of gets at that, when it discusses how there's no good or bad, just sides, but at the same time, it's pitched as kind of a rallying lullabye--I think I would have preferred something more darker, and Pyrrhic.

I didn't mind what the film was trying to do. Taking shots at fairy tales and exploring the woods as a sort of Bhaktinian carnival (you can't spell carnival without the letters for carnal!) are both good things. But I like my characters a bit more developed, or my farces with a bit more of a knowing wink. So while the actors are great and the concept is fine, it didn't come together for me.

Or to put it differently: singing numbers that aren't as catchy as I'd like them. Emotional beats that lacked the development needed to pull them off. Radical shifts in tone. It's a modern musical, all right.

(Final thought: Even though the metaphor is more apt, the sexual awakening subtext for Little Red Riding Hood does get a little creepy when the part is played by a 13 year old/)
Later Days.