Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Anxious

It's 2000. I've been invited to a high school house party, which a rare thing. I get in the family van, turn the key--and nothing. During my previous trip earlier that day, I forgot to turn off the headlights, and the battery is drained. I stay home.

(I'm relieved.)

It's 2002. I'm part of a program where university undergraduates take high school students with them to classes for a day, to give them a taste of college life; I'm on the undergraduate side of the equation. When I get to the room where the undergraduates and high schoolers are being paired up, I'm suddenly struck by how many people are there, pressed against each other, laughing, shouting. I run to the washroom and throw up. I stare at myself in the mirror for a full minute. Then I go out, collect my students, and go about my day.

It's 2003. Another house party, of the college variety. A friend I've known literally all my life asks me why I never drink at these things. My tongue stumbles on an explanation, that if I did I'd never--what? Never learn to handle these situations otherwise? Never know if I could fit in without drinking? Never stop? I turn it into a joke. The conversation shifts. I leave soon after.

It's 2006. I'm drinking (I do that now) with a group of MAs and PhDs. We're joined by another group, full of people I don't know. I'm suddenly convinced I'm surrounding by strangers and people who would rather talk to them than to me, and that my presence would only inhibit them from doing so. I finish my drink, make my excuses, leave. I'm not sure if anyone noticed.
(and I spend the walk home debating whether that's the worst or best outcome)

It's 2007. A friend is getting published, and she throws a party in celebration. I get to the party and I see a backyard full of people--but no one I recognize. I circle around the block once, twice, and walk away. I didn't want my brother back home to know I didn't go in, though, so I spend the next three hours walking aimlessly, until I feel enough time has passed. I send her a nice facebook message, congratulating her on her achievement.

It's 2008. I'm at my first big academic conference. It's in Orlando, and my family came too, for the themepark trip. I love the panels, and I give my presentation to a room full of people. There's no problem there; there never has been. I've given academic talks, led classrooms, delivered eulogies, toasted married couples, to a dozen, or dozens, or hundreds of people. Talking to a crowd is easy; being in a crowd is awful. I spend the time between sessions reading a book and avoiding eye contact. How was the conference, asks my family, returning from Disneyland. Great, I say. (And it was, pretty much.)

It's 2009. I'm in a PhD program. Whole new place, whole new group of people. I drink A LOT and indulge in certain behaviours: bursting into loud song, taking breaks from drinking to run laps around the pub. Would someone experiencing extreme anxiety draw attention to themselves in such flamboyant fashion?
(Yes.)

It's 2011. I'm meeting a friend for coffee. They reflect that when they first met me, I seemed aloof and arrogant, with the way I stood apart at parties and didn't talk to anyone. I smile thinly.

It's 2013. I'm still drinking to fight down the "flee" response at parties. It works, sort of, but only as long as I keep drinking. And I resent that I need it, and start resenting the people around me too, and lash out.

It's 2015. I finally figure that out and put binge-drinking behind me. It's a young person's game anyway.

It's 2017. A colleague (friend always seems presumptive on my part, including--especially including--every single time I've typed it in this post) gives a semi-formal public talk, in a place that's just a few minutes walk from me. I consider going, I want to go, but when the time comes, I'm seized with the worry of an unknown crowd, of a mix of unfamiliar faces and familiar that don't want or need me there, and I stay away.

I've thought, obsessively and repeatedly, about all of these instances, and others. But I've never typed them out in one place. This blog is nine years old, and I've never felt so bleakly awful in putting one of my posts out there in world. I have extreme social anxiety, and doesn't get explained away, or disappear once I've found my confidence. I don't know if talking about it will help. I know not talking about it wasn't helping.

Later Days.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

10 Things That Happened When the U. S. S. Enterprise Has Shore Leave at Deep Space Nine

A friend of mine had a birthday recently, and she had a general Star Trek theme. For the purpose of the event, I wrote up a TNG/DS9 crossover fanfic comedy routine, and I wanted to post it somewhere enduring. Thus, without further ado...

10 Things That Happened When the U. S. S. Enterprise Has Shore Leave at Deep Space Nine

1) Lieutenant Reginald Enidcott Barclay swore off holodecks, but decides that he can see one just once--he's on vacation, after all. So he goes down to the station to rent one of Qark's holosuites.
"Are you sure you can handle this?" asks Quark. "These simulations... they're a lot more intense than the ones you Federation people use."
Barclay scoffs. "Listen, I, I have put in more hours on the Enterprise holodeck than any three people combined. I... I can handle this." He says it again, to himself. "I can handle this."
"Well, ok." Quark hands him the disc for "Vulcan Love Slave, Part II: The Revenge." Barclay steps into the suite for his half hour session. No one on the Enterprise ever sees him again.

2) Odo asks for Deanna's advice in the gift he picked out for her mother. It's a replica 20th century flapper-style feather boa. Deanna, in the style of every first grade teacher who's had to evaluate a macaroni "I Love You Mommy": "..... She'll love it because it's from you."

3) Judzia and Worf invite Deanna and Riker to their quarters for a private dinner--or rather, Jadzia invites Deanna against Worf's better judgment, and Riker overhears and invites himself. Jadzia and Deanna quickly find they don't get along; they debate politics, and Jadzia finds Deanna's approach too manipulative, too passive, too indirect. Deanna, for her part, believes that Judzia is too aggressive and deliberately antagonistic. Finally, Worf intercedes, telling them there is no need to fight over him, as Jadzia has already won, and that they are both embarrassing themselves. There's a moment of silence, and then Jadzia comments, "you know, Worf, for someone who can be such a smooth talker when it comes to romance, you sure can put your foot in it." She turns to Deanna. "Did he try his line on you too? About being afraid of hurting you?"
Worf interjects. "Klingon mating is very physically--"
"He did!" says Troi. "Which is odd, because in actuality, he's such a tender lover."
They spend the rest of the night debating Worf's sexual prowess. Worf is so mortified he is still sitting silently at the table an hour after the dinner ends, frozen in embarassment.
Years later, Riker will remember the dinner as one of the best nights of his life.

4) DS9 Operations Chief Miles Edward O'Brien sneaks onto the Enterprise during the night shift. He goes to the transporter room, sets out his tools, and gets to work behind the console. The next day, the Enterprise transporter chief finds a surprise. Someone has welded a leather chair to the spot in front of his console, and left a big bow and a note: "You're feckin' welcome."

5) Qark runs into Guinan, and is instantly terrified. Years ago, she gave him some advice on running a bar, and by the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, she's entitled to half his profits unless he can convince her to admit he earned his success on his own. He attempts to wow her with his state of the art holosuites, his Tellarians-eat-half-off Tuesdays, his dabo tables. She is thoroughly unimpressed, until she runs into Morn, who orders his usual. Guinan: "Quark, I have been tending bars for longer than most civilizations have had star travel, and I have never, never met anyone as demanding, as particular, as downright picky, as Morn. I don't know what you're doing here, but if you've got him as your regular, you must be doing *something* right. Consider the rule satisfied." (Because of course Guinan knew exactly what he was trying to do the whole time.)

6) Ro Laren and Kira have a series of long talks about their hopes and dreams for Bajor, and start a friendship that will last the rest of their lives. Not everything has to be a joke.

7) Riker contracts a STI from a dabo girl, and gets it treated on DS9 because he doesn't want Crusher to know. Unfortunately for him, Dr Bashir is miffed that Riker doesn't immediately acknowledge him as an equally smooth ladies' man, and "accidentally" lets slip the information. Beverley knows how to let a good joke mature, though, so she waits until Riker's next annual check-up to say "and tell me, Will, are you still experience a burning sensation in your armpits?".

8) Q pays a visit, unable to resist the two teams in one place. He runs into Garak, who introduces himself and tricks Q into doing some low level magical favors him. Q figures it out, promises to ruin Garak's family and disappears, but this was Garak's plan all along: from the beginning, he figured Q would turn on him, which is why he gave his name as a member of a rival house in the Obsidian Order. Point for the tailor spy-master.

9) Jake tries to bond with Wesley Crusher (who is still on the Enterprise, despite it being at least season 4 DS9 if Worf's on the station--don't worry about it), but even he's annoyed by Wesley's know-it-all-ism. In desperation, he tries to get Nog to talk to Wesley, but Nog's own Starfleet-born competitiveness places them in a loop of one-upmanship. Finally, Jake abandons them both, and a month later, his essay on how Starfleet instills an atmosphere of unhealthy competitive elitism in its cadets gets published in a space-zine.

10) On the last day of the Enterprise's docking, the two teams play a friendly game of baseball. Geordi and Data get really into sabremetrics; Riker absolutely destroys his body to make amazing catches; Deanna gets really competitive and uses her empathic abilities to play mind games with the enemy team (Rom eventually needs to be carried out in a stretcher.) The Enterprise crew illustrates why they're the best and the brightest, perfectly fusing together as a team and effortlessly winning the game. But the Deep Space Nine crew have a lot more fun.

Later Days.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Fish, Please: A Spoiler-iffic Review of Finding Nemo

I'll try to keep this one actually short. I watched "Finding Dory" on Netflix last night, and... it was fine, I guess. I think I came into the film with a net neutral opinion: I'm inclined to support Ellen DeGeneres in a lead role, but I also thought her character in Finding Nemo was pretty one note. She's given a bit more depth here, but overall, there's not a lot of depth to go around.

Elevating the sidekick to the main act isn't an uncommon choice for a sequel movie, but it is more uncommon for a sequel that gets fully supported by the studio. You can point to a lot of Disney products that spawned sequels, but the sequels themselves are almost always treated like spin-off products. I wouldn't say the world of Finding Nemo had a story left in it that was screaming to be told, but Finding Dory's premise--that Dory has remembered her parents, and wants to try to reconnect--is fine.

The format is more or less the same as the original--you have two groups that are majorly separated from each other, and both have adventures trying to get reunited. In the original, it's Dory and Marlin and Nemo; here, it's Dory and Marlin and Nemo. They meet occasional threats, but mostly just complicated scenarios, and a lot of colorfully weird ocean life. There's even the sidekick who steals the show--Dory in the original, and Ed O'Neill as Hank the octopus here.

The movie's approach to disability is kind of mixed. On the one hand, Dory's memory loss is presented as a condition she has to learn to deal with, and a lot of her flashback scenes with her parents involve them helping her develop strategies for that. That's... well, realistic isn't the right word for a movie where fish can breathe in any sort of water regardless of salt content, and a father fish calls his daughter cupcake in a world that clearly has no reference for him to do so. But at least it shows disability isn't a burden, but a part of your life. On the other hand, it's also strongly implied that if she works hard, her problem will go away, which is less reflective of real experience.

There's also an interesting tension between humans and animals here that never quite gets resolved. The marine center Dori's parents lived at focuses on "Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Release," which is nice, and suggests a virtuous, ethical approach to marine life that emphasizes human responsibility to take care of those who we can. (Would that our own healthcare start with such a philosophy.) But it's worth noting we're told about this mission by Sigourney Weaver, and the celebrity involvement with the center illustrates how commercialized it is. Is there a conflict between caring for sealife and profitting off of them? Given the mass escape at the end of the movie, it seems to imply there is. (though surely some of those sea creatures were *not* suited for a return to the ocean, and just as surely, there was some human death involved in the octopod's aggressive driving. If nothing else, someone's going to suffer for the loss of the truck.)

The film raises these issues, but doesn't go very far out of its way to say anything about them. It's just a backdrop for general goofiness. And it does that goofiness pretty well, all things considered.

Later Days.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Film Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Hell and Back

This was really distasteful, all in all. Just... ick.

CW: sexual assault

All right, plot: three friends work at a downward trending amusement park. After borrowing an evil book from the fortune teller, they jokingly make a blood oath on it, only to have the friend who reneges on it (by not giving a mint to the other upon request) get dragged into hell, with the other two in tow. The oath-violating friend is kidnapped, and the other two set out in a bumbling manner to rescue him. Subplots include the Devil being in love with an angel and trying to trap the other two to pass off to her, and a half-devil, half-demon woman searching for her long absent father, Orpheus (AKA, an expert in getting people out of hell). The whole thing is an a semi-claymation style that should be more endearing than it is.

Ok, so not a great premise, though in general, I'm always willing to give the "deal with the devil" archetypal plot a go. But the voice cast is an excellent array of some top level comedians: Bob Odenkirk as the devil, T. J. Miller as Augie, one of the two friends (Nick Swardson plays the other; I don't know him, but his performance was good enough); Rob Riggle as Curt, the friend whose soul is in trouble; Susan Sarandon as an angel; Danny McBride as Orpheus; and supporting roles from Maria Bamford, H. Jon Benjamin, Jennifer Coolridge, Kumail Nankiana, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer, Greg Proops, Dana Snyder, and Paul F. Tompkins, and, while not exactly a comedian, Mila Kunis as Deema the female devil . It was basically that cast list that convinced me to try the film, despite its low Amazon rating.

Nope. In terms of plot, it doesn't work because of the sheer number of times a character acts without any particular reason, or changes their mind on a dime. Every character in the movie is kind of gross, with the exception of Deema. How much you care about the outcome depends on wanting the leads to get out of hell and rescue Curt, and I was actively rooting for failure at points. It's demeaning to all its female characters--of the four significant ones, two are supposed to be comical because of their grotesque bodies (fatness and age), and the other are ridiculously sexualized. The male characters in regards to the women are either "Good Guys," horndogs, or alternate randomly between the two. And Orpheus' backstory and the movie's climax hinge directly around tree rape.(The worst thing that can ever be leveled at the Evil Dead series is that it popularized tree rape as a comedy trope.)

Let's unpack that last one. By far the most interesting idea the film has is that Orpheus is an action hero/smuggler type, but in person, he's also a self-important asshole. Danny McBride in general is hit or miss for me, but I think he does pretty well in the role. But it's heavily implied that the reason for his behaviour is a tree molestation. And at the end of the story, our heroes lead the devil into a tree rape ambush. It's all gross, and doesn't improve with repetition.

A frequent debate in comedy is what, if anything, should be off limits. On the one side, you have people arguing that comedy that's racist or misogynist or turns rape into a punchline trivializes and normalizes certain modes of thought. On the other hand, you have basically the free speech argument, that comedians should be free to say what they want, and that humour can be a useful tool for critiquing social issues.

In virtually any circumstances, I'd defer to the former argument, and absolutely understand anyone who refused flat out to tolerate jokes on one of these subjects. For me personally, my response to the second argument is that yes, you're free to say that--but being free to say something doesn't also free you from the consequences of saying it. And yes, humour can be a useful tool, but in that case, message, execution, and audience come into play.

For example, let's compare this movie to Amy Schumer's "Friday Night Lights" sketch in 2015. (And yes, there are a lot of valid arguments that can be leveled against Schumer too, but for the argument at hand, the focus is the sketch.) It's a sketch about the prevalence of rape culture in sports, and it works for me. The humor makes a statement about the connection between rape culture and sports, by exaggerating the players' sense of sexual entitlement. In Hell and Back, it gets a decent amount of humor around Orpheus, through the juxtaposition of our notion of an ancient Greek hero known for his devotion to love against his actual character as a jackass fratboy. But the tree rape doesn't have that humour. Basically, it seems to be playing on three ideas:
a) it's funny because it's a reference to Evil Dead
b) it's funny because men being raped is inherently funny
c) it's funny because powerful men being raped by trees is inherently funny

a) is really more a substitute for humor rather than actual humor. b) and c) are basically just ways of trivializing rape against men, which just perpetuates really awful notions about masculinity. It's gross, and I think a lot less of the film for including it, and a little less of the people associated with the film.

Incidentally, my favorite gag of the film is a repeated gag where Paul F. Thompson voices a soul undergoing very small amounts of hellish torments.

Demon: "Welcome to Pizza Hut Taco Bell. What'll you have?"
PFT: "I think I'll have a medium pizza with pepperoni."
Demon: "All out! Only tacos! Because you're in hell!"
PFT: "Oh, I see."
Demon: "Now ask for a cheese pizza."
PFT: "All right. Could I get a---"
Demon: "No! Welcome to hell! Order again!"
PFT: "You know,  I think I see where this is going."

More of that. Less tree rape.

Later Days.



















Monday, January 2, 2017

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of Black Christmas

With a lot of older entertainment, or technology, or what have you, after a certain period time, you stop appreciating them in and of themselves and appreciate them more for their historical association and context. For example, I absolutely don't have the patience for using a typewriter, but I can appreciate its significance to the 20th century, and to artistic movements like block poetry or the avant garde, ala Johanna Drucker's work.

 This shift can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy--you encounter something in the mindset that it's more valuable as an artifact than an experience, and that colours the experience you actually do have. For me, the biggest blindspot that creates is with film. I have this mental stumbling block where I know intellectually that pre-1980s film is full of works just as popular and entertaining as a lot of current stuff, but I almost always go into an older film assuming its greatest value for me will be its historical significance. As such, I start off thinking that it'll be the cinematic equivalent of brussel sprouts--I know it'll be good for me, but I certainly don't expect to like it.

And that's largely been the mindset under which I've undertaken my great Tour of Horror. For almost a year now, I've been surveying horror films and horror film theory, allegedly in the name of research for One Particular Game (see the other blog). But the earliest I was willing to go was the 1978 Halloween. I just couldn't convince myself that anything earlier would be relevant, especially with my subfocus on the slasher film genre. I was wrong. And it took the 1974 Black Christmas to show me the light.

The plot is certainly slasher at its core. A sorority has emptied out for Christmas Vacation, reducing its members to those about to depart--the alcoholic housemother Mrs Mac, and the puritanical Clare--and those with nowhere else to go--the Jewish student Phyllis "Phyl" Carlson, the British exchange student Jess, and Barb Coard, the verbally explicit sorority sister whose mother has unexpectedly cancelled her trip home. Throughout the film, they are tormented by prank calls that escalate into misogyny and death threats, but unbeknownst to them, the call is--famously--coming from inside the house.

That's a probably a good moment to return to my original point, by way of a videogame analogy. For the longest time, I thought of the 1998 game Baldur's Gate as the starting point for the modern Western RPG. It spawned a number of very successful sequels and spin-offs (a list potentially including one of my favourite games and dissertation topics, Planescape: Torment), it's clearly present in the DNA of BioWare, one of the most successful RPG developers still in existence, and its overall emphasis on choice and good/evil alignment has been majorly influential on videogames at large.  It wasn't until I sat down last year and actually played a few hours of the game for the first time that I appreciated how meta it was, how thoroughly self-referential the game was in its use of genre tropes that were already well trod. Thus, the potential problem with viewing it as a point of origin, that such a perspective obscures BG's own predecessors.

You can probably see where I'm going with this, or you will by the end of the next sentence. Before I started this Horror project, my earliest film foray into horror (discounting a probably-too-young viewing of Macaulay Culkin in the Good Son) was the 1996 Scream. Again, we have a major milestone for a genre--Scream set the tone for the postmodern horror film, and spawned imitators and influenced films from I Know What You Did Last Summer to the diminishing returns of  Scary Movie to full tilt postmodern horror like Cabin in the Woods or Last Girls. And again, perhaps even more obviously, it's not the origin at all, as its infamous starting phone scene clearly echoes Black Christmas, with a tech upgrade from multiple phone lines to the cell phone. (And yes--there's a good chance the urban legend of the caller in the house predates Black Christmas as well.) My watching of Black Christmas was a very vivid reminder that my preconceptions hold me back.

This post is veering into essay length, and I've barely scratched the film itself. So let's switch to bullet point.

  • The whole reason I watched Black Christmas now is that I wanted to start the horror film podcast Faculty of Horror, and their first episode is Halloween vs Black Christmas. I still haven't listened to the podcast, but I have at least now seen both films. I'll say, then, that I think Black Christmas wins out. Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent in Halloween, of course, and there's some fun with the supporting cast, but overall, Black Christmas uses its cast to better effect. It also helps that there's less pontificating about people "born evil" and fewer "ugh why are you doing that it is the stupidest thing" moments.
  • The Internet has decided that Lethal Weapon and Die Hard are Christmas movies. In that case, Black Christmas should totally get counted before them, right? I mean, Christmas is in the name. The plot is centered around the holiday (ie, as an explanation of why there's so few people in the house). And, via the carollers scene, I think it does a much better job juxtaposing the supposed innocence of the season with the violence of its events.
  • Deviation from Slasher tropes #1: the "innocent" girl is the first one killed. (Hey, the word "spoiler" is in the post title for a reason.)
  • And what they replace her with is so much more interesting in terms of what the film does with gender. Instead, our final girl is not just sexually active, but pregnant, and steadfast on getting an abortion.  I appreciate that the film doesn't vilify her for this stance, and instead presents her boyfriend's insistent claim on her body as extreme. (Granted, it needs to do this, for the ending to work and to make plausible the idea that the boyfriend is the killer, but it's still appreciated.)
  • Deviation from Slasher tropes #2: Mrs. Mac. Ever notice how slasher killers are weirdly fixated on teens and 20-somethings? Mrs. Mac, the veneer of respectability for the sorority house, is a wonderful character who you'd never find in a later slash flick. Her alcoholism and general resignation mixed with pride over her station at life is simultaneously tragic, comic, and awesome. She loves her sorority and acting as mother to the group, but is also aware that she's a farcical character and somewhat a pitied one, for her failure to create a "real" family and move beyond the sorority. Gender again--the way we undervalue and mock the spinster figure.
  • Watching a horror movie about a familiar place made monstrous through a stranger's presence takes on a different resonance when you do it in a building where the pipes bang randomly.
  • I think it was Friedrich Kittler who discussed how uncanny the gramophone was before people became familiar with it. If there's one thing horror film has shown us, it's that any piece of technology, especially communicative technology, can be rendered uncanny if it's pushed in a way we don't expect. Modern cinema has thoroughly--oh so thoroughly--explored this unfamiliarity with the camera, from the Blair Witch Project to the Paranormal series, but I love how the "call from inside the house" does it the household phone. We've come to expect some degree of distance that the telephone (or smart phone) provides; when that distance is eroded, when a female space like a sorority house is violated, the result is horrific.
  • Deviation from Slasher tropes #3: No gratuitous sexuality. It's a film set in a sorority house, but there's no bikini pool scene, no panties shots, no pointless nudity. There's two nighties: one appears during an asthma attack, and the other is wrapped around a fully clothed Mrs. Mac. Honestly, if anything disqualifies it from slasher status, it might be this one.
  • It's kind of surprising how little information we get about the killer and his motives. Again, that's partly necessary to make the ending work. And again, I prefer it to Halloween's approach, which was to give a potential origin AND the explanation of the killer being "born evil." I wouldn't say it's a deviation from slasher tropes, but it's certainly different. It keeps the focus on the cast, which I appreciate.
  • It bears remembering that this entire film is premised around an explicitly gendered threat--the danger posed by sexually threatening phone calls. (And that's a big a problem now as ever. Maybe even worse, given the options open to internet trolls. They don't need to be physically present in your house to ruin your life.) As such, if there's a theme here, it's the mistreatment of women. I like how that's present in everything--not just in our lead and her boyfriend and implicit in Mrs. Mac, but also in details like the police not taking the matter seriously until an assertive male comes and insists on their action. The ending is possible only because all the men around feel it's ultimately okay to leave alone the one woman left standing. If anything qualifies it for ur-slasher status, it's the attention it pays to gender, which is a major part of the subgenre.
So, thanks to Black Christmas, I've gained a new respect for all older movies (mutters under breath: "That were released after 1973.")

Later Days.