Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars Spoilers: The Physics Awaken

There is so much about this universe that I don't understand. The politics don't make sense, the parenting doesn't make sense, and the physics don't make sense. Let's start with those.

If the Republic is restored and the Empire is destroyed where does the First Order come from and why isn't the Resistance part of the Republic? Wouldn't the First Order really be the Resistance and the Resistance be the military arm of the Republic? At least when the film starts, before the First Order blows up the capitol of the Republic? And would blowing up the capitol really totally take down the Republic because if so it's a pretty shitty form of galactic representation. Why would the Republic have a single-planet (or even single-system) base in a universe where there's solid proof that someone can relatively easily destroy a planet? If the Resistance really is the military arm of the Republic then having them in a different system makes sense because then you can't target both Republic and Resistance at the same time. But that's also why your senate should be spread out and not concentrated on a single planet in a universe where planet-destroying weapons have been developed. Just sayin'. But the Resistance seems to be resisting the First Order, which gets us to the problem of history. Does no one in this universe have history classes? It's pretty clear that the Empire and its Storm Troopers were a not-good thing, so once its last planet-destroying weapon was destroyed why did anyone from any planet have any dealings with people who pretty clearly were trying to bring back the Empire. It's not like the resources for all this shit are exactly common - Bespin is where the gas for blasters comes from and Lando Calrissian was in charge of mining it - why wasn't the supply to Empire supporters cut off? Is there no way to track shipping mainfests or flight paths in this universe? The background of the prequels was a trade agreement gone wrong - so shouldn't there be some kind of embargo in place against planets with strong First Order ties? I get that we're talking about an entire universe here, full of faster-than-light travel and smugglers like Han Solo but if your government can't keep tabs on people building planet-destroying weapons then it isn't really a very good government, is it? Which means it was actually clever of the Resistance to go rogue and not trust basically anyone but it also means that no one should trust anyone and you're in a constant state of war. Wooo Star Wars!

On to parenting: when the fuck are people in this universe going to start being honest with their children? And stop abandoning them on sand planets? And tell them who their fucking parents are? Because I'm pretty sure we witnessed some cousin-or-sibling potential incest situations between Rey and Ben. At least I sort of have to hope we did because otherwise I'm concerned about why every woman in this universe looks exactly like Amidala. Why did no one sit down and explain to a young Ben, before his Jedi training started, that his grandfather was a powerful man who made terrible choices that tore his life apart and he eventually repented of? I mean that's probably a heavy load of shit to dump on a child but let's be real - if that child is a magic kicking laser wizard you probably want to start them out right and get all the dark family secrets out of the way so they can avoid making similar kicking wizard mistakes. Like murdering all the other apprentices at a Jedi school. If Ben had been sat down by Mom and Pop and Uncle Luke and had the whole story of Grampy Ani explained to him he probably would have been scared shitless of the the Dark Side (but we all know that fear>hate>anger>suffering so who the fuck knows, maybe it WAS explained to him). Also It's becoming painfully clear that the path of the Jedi is utter bullshit. Isolating children from their families to train with celibate kicking wizards who attempt to stifle all emotions is not an effective method of raising people. Jedi aren't supposed to love, they aren't supposed to be afraid, they aren't supposed to feel anything but the force (and its balances and disturbances) which appears to have the side-effect of making force-sensitive people occasionally kill a bunch of kids. So yeah, it looks like the New Jedi Academy is just as poorly planned as the Old Jedi Academy and maybe it's time for Luke to put together some fucking worksheets that he can send out to the parents of force-sensitive children to practice at home instead of consolidating into an easily-killable clump of people who ignore/bottle their emotions. Anybody who makes a mistake bad enough to end with almost all of their students dead and then fucks off for a couple of decades instead of attempting to rectify that mistake shouldn't be in charge of children Just sayin'.

Physics: So is Han force-sensitive and unaware of it or is the speed of light somewhat malleable in this universe (obviously somewhat malleable because 12 parsecs/flight to Degobah/other random faster-than-light stuff that ignores relativity)? Unless Han is force-sensitive and could use that as a cheat around timing there's no way that he could aim the Falcon at a planet to get in while its shields are cycling and not mis-time it badly enough that either the ship would just dissolve as it was passing through or they'd come out of light speed at its core or something along those lines. Also Starkiller base makes no goddamned sense. They fired the weapon once, destroying the seat of the Republic but as they're gearing up to fire again and destroy the Resistance base we find out that firing the weapon uses up a whole goddamned sun. Fucking what? I mean, okay, Tatooine was a binary system, maybe Starkiller base was a binary system too but it sure as fuck wasn't a trinary system or the sky wouldn't have gone completely dark while it was charging to fire. So if they fire again does that mean they're done? No more suns to suck up so that's it, two shots? Or does the planet hang on to some of that solar power to propel itself toward a new sun to suck up? If so how much time does that take because the kind of energy you would need to move a whole goddamned planet across that amount of space is ridiculous. And if you're trying to do so faster than light it's even MORE ridiculous. And stars are FUCKING FAR. Our sun is eight light minutes away from Earth which means that it takes eight minutes for light from our closest star to get here. The closest star other than our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.24 light years away which means that it would take over 4 years to get there if we were traveling at the speed of light. We're in a pretty sparse part of the milky way but even Proxima Centauri (part of a three-star cluster) is .13 light-years away from Alpha Centauri A and B so it takes weeks for light to travel between those incredibly close neighbors. And did you know that there's a specific range that a planet can occupy before it's either too close or too far from a star to support life? Starkiller base just removed itself from that range and has to find a way back into it soon or everyone on it is fucked. Everyone on it is fucked anyway because after the destruction of TWO fucking Death Stars the First Order STILL hasn't figured out that you need to decentralize and contain your power source/weapon/overload system/whatever someplace that it can't be taken down by exterior fire. These people can carve out the mantle of a planet but they still rely on surface-accessible power storage? Bullshit. Also develop a new fucking weapon. You made a Death Star only more so. Why not make a bunch of mini Death Stars that don't actually explode whole planets they just burn off the atmosphere? Seems like this would be a good solution to that whole mobility/not actually destroying suns/planets/resources issue. You don't actually need to blow up a planet to kill off all life on that planet and it seems like it would take less energy to set an atmosphere on fire or fling an asteroid at a planet than it would to make a really big explosion. Or five really big explosions. C'mon, you've got tractor beams, manipulate some gravity and have fun with physics, don't just blow stuff up and kill stars.

Anyway, nitpicky shit aside I enjoyed the movie. I liked the interplay between almost all of the characters though I think there could have been a lot more development done with Han to explain his return to smuggling as a coping mechanism. I liked everything with the new mains, though BB-8 was adorable, and wasn't too annoyed with 3PO for a change. I hope there's more Leia in later films and I hope someone explains why in the name of hot holy fuck she didn't get force training or if she did why she wasn't engaged in the training of Kylo and the other apprentices because that seems like a better use of her time than heading a Resistance that shouldn't have needed to exist in the first place. So. Looking forward to some answers and pretty happy in general. And hey, it was a hell of a lot better than the prequels!

     - Alli

Low-key sexy, highly hilarious

My parents took me to see Out of Sight in theaters when I was 12. We had odd movie excursions, what can I say? Anyway, I'm happy that it was the first Soderbergh film I saw because I believe it's one of his better ones. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is good, Magic Mike is perfect in a completely different way, and the Ocean's movies are entertaining trash but Out of Sight is wonderfully fun and subtle.

There's so much about this movie that I enjoy - it's probably the best thing I've ever seen Jennifer Lopez ever do (SO much better than all the rom-coms she's been in since, for sure), George Clooney is predictably smarmy but still manages to charm, and the cinematography is lovely but I think what really makes this film for me are all the wonderful small roles filled by great actors. Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Luis Guzman, Nancy Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Viola Davis all make appearances and are all fantastic no matter how short their time on screen is.

No, that's not what does it - it's how much ass Jennifer Lopez kicks. Or maybe how subtle and quiet the growing affection between the mains is. Or maybe it's the clever dialogue. Or maybe it's the way that Soderbergh will periodically select a particular frame to freeze and focus on for a second or two to highlight the moments the characters are sharing. Or maybe it's the overt comedy of understatement. I don't know. I just know that I enjoy the hell out of this film and I'm glad I caught it while scrolling through a basic-cable offering of movies a couple of weeks ago because it's nice to be reminded that there are quietly entertaining movies out there that are about relationships without having to be ONLY about the relationship, or about heists without exclusively focusing on the heist.

     - Alli

How about something cheerful for a change

Color me completely unsurprised that John O'Brien committed suicide shortly after he found out that Leaving Las Vegas was going to be made into a movie - and color me a little sickened that the copy I have has the words "now a major motion picture" superimposed over a still from the film as the cover. We can talk about the death of the author to distance creators from their works all we want but that still seems pretty literal and incredibly insensitive in this case.

I found myself enjoying a lot about this novel that was unexpected - there's a respect for sex workers and the difficulties they face that's refreshing, and O'Brien gives Sera a lot of agency that's a pleasant surprise for much of the first half of the novel. She spends the middle of the novel as a victim on someone else's terms but ends with autonomy and I appreciated that. Sera knows who and what she is and doesn't have a problem with it; Ben doesn't have a problem with it either, which is unexpected and pleasant.

Ben himself IS a problem but knows it and accepts it and does what he can to minimize the damage he does to others, which is shockingly touching from a character who so clearly should be despised.

But I think that's what I liked about this novel, and what I like about O'Brien. The back of this book is covered with blurbs that use words like "squalid" and "brutal" and "dire" and that marvel over how well O'Brien did with his unflinching examination of a filthy, sordid world. But that's a fucking joke. Sera's apartment is austere, Ben's choices are his own. There is brutality in the story but it's temporary, even for the characters. O'Brien didn't write "a novel so absolutely devoid of hope" as one of the cover-blurbers called it, O'Brien wrote a novel in which people abide by the choices they make for reasons that are their own. We're never really told why Sera became a sex worker but we are shown that she finds the work satisfying and that it allows her to live on her own terms; we're never told why Ben is suicidal but we are shown that he wants to limit the damage he does and his groping for death isn't devoid of kindness or recognition of the value of other people. In fact there's only one truly reprehensible, hopeless, disgusting character in this novel and part of the hope in the story comes from leaving him behind. Gamal is the only character here who ends up leaving Las Vegas and he leaves because Sera has defeated him and taken literal ownership of herself away from him.

I've been told by lots of people (including my good friend, Wes, who gave me this book) that Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing novel, and it certainly has its depressing points but overall I think there's a message of hope that people skip over in order to chide alcoholics and sex workers and lower-class people with lower-class lives in general. This is a book that ends with a kiss, and its heroine walking away into her own personal sunset, and no book that has this kind of respect for a main character who is a gambling-addicted sex worker can be all that depressing to me.

     - Alli

O'Brien, John. Leaving Las Vegas. Grove Press. New York: New York. 1995. (1990).

Perfectly though-provoking

What a delightful book. I'm not sure why I had the idea that I wouldn't like The Color Purple but for some reason I was convinced that it would be sappy and trite. Maybe it's all the talk surrounding the movie, maybe it's that I saw the movie during a summer school class my freshman year in high school and it wasn't well discussed in the class. Maybe it's that there's a tremendous amount of negativity surrounding black women authors and I'd internalized that. But I'm very, very happy that I got over whatever preconceived notions I had about this book and finally sat down to read it.

It's wonderful. The Color Purple is powerful and sweet and sad and angry and I loved every page. Celie's quiet disappointments and eventual vocal recovery from the abuses she's survived are magical and painful to read. There was nothing about this book that I didn't adore and so much that I wished I'd read and appreciated years ago.

I don't know why I never read this book in college. I was in at least three American Literature classes, I was in a class called "The Novel in the Modern World," but I didn't take a class on black or women authors and I suspect that's why I didn't come across it for class. Which is a damn shame because The Color Purple is most assuredly an important piece of American lit, a powerful novel in the modern world, and should be read by everyone who studies literature - not just people with an emphasis on gender or ethnic studies.

I'm so angry that I don't read more books like this. I've been working on it, attempting to add more works by women, LGBTQ folks, and PoC to my library but it's so irksome that this isn't automatic. My lit classes were mostly focused on works by dead white men (though all of those AmLit classes did feature books by black men and the Novel in the Modern World class included a novel by Jamaica Kincaid); the endcaps in most bookstores are dominated by white male authors, women's lit, queer lit, and "ethnic" lit are all in separate, hidden-away sections. I am well aware that it is my duty as a reader to seek out works by non-white, non-het, non-male authors if I want to be a GOOD reader, but I'm tremendously frustrated that books by authors like Alice Walker and Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler aren't handed out in classrooms, that the stories of women of color get passed over and ignored in academia.

So I guess that's my project for reading this year - at least one book by an author who isn't a straight white male for each book I read that DOES fall into that category. It's time to improve my library because there's so much wonderful stuff out there that I've passed over for much too long.

     - Alli

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Harcourt. New York: New York. 2003. (1982).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I vant to suck your gender roles

I love vampire stories. I love Anne Rice's moody vamps, I love the silliness of Fright Night, I like cartoons about vampires, songs about vampires, movies about vampires, and books about vampires. (And no, Twilight isn't about vampires it's about toxic relationships and giving up your life to a cute dude - so maybe it's about psychic vampires because just thinking about all the flaws in that story sucks away my energy.) But for all of that I had never read the big one that started it all, Dracula. So I fixed that.

There are lots of good reasons that Dracula is a story that keeps getting told. The novel is complicated and exciting, full of interesting characters and perspectives and it has a fair scattering of humor for all that it's a pretty serious subject. But there are also lots of good reasons that Dracula keeps getting reinterpreted instead of simply remade and I think most of those reasons are rooted in the fact that Dracula is a product of its time and thus is confoundingly sexist and laughably stodgy.

I actually want to give Stoker the benefit of the doubt on the issue of sexism in the story - much of the novel's action is predicated on bad things that happen when men try to protect women. There seems to be a pretty heavy suggestion that hiding information from women is a bad thing and that noble idiots cause a hefty helping of the world's problems. Mina Harker is clearly one of the most important characters in the story and the reader is constantly reminded of her abilities, but in like one of the most sexist ways possible. Mina's got the brain of a man and the heart of a woman, she's got a man-brain that's stronger than her weak and frail body, she's a saint among women who is beautiful and pure, she's brilliant and so has to be kept away from knowledge because she's also sensitive and it might prove too much for her. Stoker obviously wants his readers to admire Mina but he also wants them to never, ever, for a single second, forget that she is a woman and thus unequal to the men around her - she may be smarter but she's also weaker; they may be noble but she's pure. YES I GET IT SHE HAS A SANCTIFIED AND UNTAINTED VAGINA WHICH ALLOWS HER TO BE MORE IN TUNE WITH GOD, THANK YOU FOR PASSING ON YOUR GROSS PURITY CULTURE, VICTORIANS.

I liked a lot of Dracula. I liked the epistolary narrative, I liked Van Helsing's speech patterns and humor, I liked Jonathan Harker's initial disbelief and growing horror, I liked the triumvirate whose friendship survived proposing to the same woman, I liked Renfield's wobbling sanity. But I didn't like the constant reminders about the importance of purity in women, I didn't like the illustration of corruption through failed women, and I didn't much care for the upper-class snobbery that clings to every part of the story like a film. There's a lot that's good about Dracula, and the story is tremendously engaging. But it's also a product of its time and is horribly dated and jarring as a result.

     - Alli

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Trident Press International. Naples: Florida. 2001. (1897).

Not a good sign

Last month I saw Spectre, the newest entry in the James Bond series. (I know, I'm really behind on blogging; it's been an interesting year.) Now that I'm sitting down to actually blog about the film I'm finding that I remember very little of the film unless I concentrate very hard. And that's not a good sign.

Daniel Craig is my favorite Bond. I think Casino Royal is brilliant, I completely enjoyed Skyfall and thought it was a very good film, and I even liked Quantum of Solace, which is widely considered terrible. I remember enjoying Spectre in the theater, I remember having a lot of fun watching it, and I remember essentially nothing about the plot.

There was a Jaws-like villain with evil thumbnails? And a pretty cool car chase in Italy? Monica Bellucci wasn't in the movie enough - I do remember that. Cristoph Waltz is fun to watch but doesn't appear to have much of a dramatic range (or maybe he's just being typecast these days). I don't know. I don't know. I can throw a lot of individual bits of information at you but I can't really remember the movie.

The title sequence was fun as fuck to watch but I can't recall the song. I do seem to remember that Tom Ford suits played heavily in the film but only because I fucking hate Tom Ford and thought they should have looked for a less douchey clothier. There was a fight scene on a train! It was really good but it didn't make a hell of a lot of sense. But then neither did much of the rest of the movie.

Um. Maybe I should give a spoiler warning for the one thing that really stuck out.
They made Blofeld really fucking stupid. His motivation for being the head of Spectre as laid out by this film is implausibly idiotic. SPOILERS: Blofeld started an international criminal organization, killed his own father, and faked his death to get back at Bond because when Bond was orphaned Blofeld Senior told Ernst to treat James like a brother. That's it. All the glorious cat-and-mouse of the last three films boils down to sibling rivalry. FUCKING WHAT. EXCUSE ME. EXCUSE ME THAT'S MORE STUPID THAN ANYTHING IN A ROGER MOORE BOND FILM.

So I guess that's where I'm at. I walked out of the theater happy because it was an entertaining action movie but by the next day I was busy screaming about some really flawed creative choices and the really flawed creative choices have stuck around more in my memory than the fun parts of the film that I enjoyed.

That's...that's not how it's supposed to work.

     - Alli

Hot and cold

I don't get Hesse. I was pretty lukewarm on Siddhartha, I enjoyed Demian, but it took me weeks to read Steppenwolf because I had so much trouble getting into it and enjoying it. Maybe it's that the first two books have actual chapters, and you can easily plan a course of reading in bite-sized chunks while Steppenwolf doesn't break down into smaller sections easily. Maybe it's that Demian and Siddhartha are from the perspectives of younger people while Steppenwolf is told by a man who's set in his ways. Maybe it's that Steppenwolf is more pointedly metaphysical and fantastical than the two other stories. Maybe it's just that Steppenwolf is longer. But something about this book just didn't work for me.

And it was all the more frustrating because the first fifty or so pages DID work for me - I really enjoyed and dug into the beginning of this novel but by the time I reached the Steppenwolf pamphlet in the story I lost interest. The book went suddenly from introspective and wounded to masturbatory and lurid.

Maybe it's that the characters Hesse wrote were such boys. They're all clearly male, almost all feverishly masculine, and not a one of them is really mature. And that's tolerable in books about boys but Steppenwolf is a book about a grown-ass man who still wants people to fawn over him and pity him like a spoiled child.

AND THEY DO. Hermine is explicit about babying Harry Haller, the landlady babies him, he throws a tantrum like a baby when his college friend's wife doesn't respect his vision of Goethe. The only characters who don't bend over backwards to give Harry sex or drugs or an education or validation are Mozart in a dream sequence (who instead spends his time rightly teasing Harry) and Harry himself, who is correct in his impatience with what he is.

And I guess I'm frustrated. Hermine is a fantastic character who remains a complete and unsatisfying mystery. There's so much I want to know about her but I left the book knowing nothing about this fascinating woman except that she was willing to drop everything to shape her life around improving Harry's life. The same is true of essentially every other person in this story. They're all interesting and I want to know more but all I learn is that they love and want to care for Harry.

Which I guess is how I'm going to have to enjoy this novel. I'll accept it as a brilliant temple to exploring masculine fragility and the obsession with worshiping male mediocrity, but as anything other than a cutting criticism of those concepts the book is a disappointment.

     - Alli

Hesse, Herman. Steppenwolf. Bantam Books. New York: New York. 1971. (1929)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Stories to tell

The mistake I made in preparing to write this blog was clicking on the Wikipeda page that tracks all of the connections to The Dark Tower series in the Kingiverse. That ate up a couple of good hours and all just so that I could tell you that there was an eight year gap in the publication of The Dark Tower and The Wind through the Keyhole. Which is, incidentally, a delightful book.

When I was a kid my dad used to read "The Pension Grillparzer" to my sister and I. It's a short story in the middle of The World According to Garp and was my first introduction to John Irving. As I've grown up and moved through life and giant piles of books I've mentally created a category of Grillparzers - stories within stories that might work as bedtime stories to introduce my potential children to authors I like. I love this sort of thing. Everyone knows about the play within a play from Hamlet but no one seems to talk enough about the self-contained worlds you can discover in other books. Neil Gaiman seems to be particularly good at this (in addition to hiding stories in his introductions and end notes), within-a-storytelling is very present in Lord of the Rings, you'll find lots of within-a-storytelling in any universe that needs to have a background mythology set up fairly quickly so you see a fair amount of it in SciFi. There are sections of The Wind through the Keyhole that are going to be read to my children at some point in the future. And  they won't even be traumatized by the Stephen Kingishness of the story because this isn't a horror story, it's a fairy tale.

The structure of the book is a bit clunky, which I guess is probably clear from the paragraph above. There's a frame story, a main narrative, and then the story within a story that's really more of a standalone novella. The frame story is really only there to remind you of the world we're watching from in case anybody forgot what was going in the eight year break from Mid World; the main narrative is an action story with monsters and gunslingers who are still young enough to not anticipate big mistakes; the story within a story is really the meat of the thing, though. It tells a story of magic and dragons and nuclear mutants and terrifying storms that all pale in comparison to the sheer stupid horror of human pettiness. It's a wonderful little moralistic story that is spooky and sad and about how absolutely much it sucks to grow up and lose the magic in the world.

I've written enough about King that everyone reading should know I'm a huge nerdy fan but this is one of those nice reminders. King's books are all over the map - he's written a western/magical epic, a story about a dog with rabies, alien horror stories, werewolf stories, vampire stories, a terrifying story about rats in a cellar, a novella about a man wrongly imprisoned, a novella about a decapitated corpse performing Lamaze breathing, at least four post-apocalyptic thrillers, and one very good book about a good but stupid king who once killed a dragon. Now there's another story that's essentially unlike any of the others but fits into the King canon brilliantly. It's excellently done and I'm very happy to have read it.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. The Wind through the Keyhole. Scribner. New York: New York. 2012.