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Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
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I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

Character-building December 3, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, television.
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As most of you know, I’m a shameless Joss Whedon fangirl. As far as I’m concerned, Whedon can do no wrong, and his name being attached to a particular project confirms for me that said project will be amazing. So far, I’ve never been disappointed.

There are three main reasons why I love Whedon’s work so much: the amazing stories he tells (and themes he conveys through these stories), the brilliant way with words he has, and the fantastic characters he creates. It’s this third thing I’d like to talk about here.

At this point I should probably note that ‘Whedon’s’ brilliance is not all down to Whedon: his own talents are supported and supplemented by the writing skills of an ever-growing group of collaborators, all of whom do so much to bring Whedon’s creations to life. When I say ‘Whedon’ in this post, I mean, by extension, ‘Whedon and his co-writers’.

Whedon is the only TV writer so far who creates real characters. I’ll say that again, so that you have time to let my words sink in: there is no other writer on television (except perhaps Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, and in her case only some of the characters fulfil this criterion) whose characters seem like real people. That is to say, you could take any one of Whedon’s characters, from Buffy Summers to Zoe Washburne, from Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle to Topher Brink, plonk him or her in our world and imagine how he or she would act in any given situation. This is not limited to the main characters: I can imagine pre-Season 6 Jonathan as a real person, just as I can imagine Anne Steele (‘Chanterelle’ from Buffy, later on Angel) wandering around real-world LA.

Of course, this characterisation works better on Whedon’s longer-running shows, Buffy and Angel, where Whedon had longer to develop characters and show them reacting and interacting in a wider range of situations, and it’s one of the reasons why Firefly‘s cancellation still hurts. It’s also one reason why Dollhouse was so much less welcoming and so much more ambitious than Whedon’s other shows: when half your characters change personality every episode, how are we to get to know them as people?

In any case, Whedon’s characters spoiled me for regular TV. Since Firefly ended (with a brief respite during which Dollhouse screened), I have found no television show that ever approached anything Whedon created in terms of characterisation. This is not for want of trying. I’ve tried Heroes (never again), Supernatural, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the BBC’s Robin Hood, Being Human, Battlestar Galactica (which I gave up for reasons other than characterisation, but which still suffered this problem), Merlin, and, more recently, Glee. Of these, only Supernatural comes close to approaching Whedon’s talents of characterisation, and only in relation to Sam and Dean. No matter how many new characters are added, the show remains the Sam-and-Dean show, and while it is wonderful at developing the complex relationship of the brothers, it fails to demonstrate how the brothers relate to the outside world.

The other shows I’ve listed are even worse. They fail on so many ways. Some of them (Terminator, Merlin, Robin Hood and Being Human in particular – I wonder if it’s a failing of BBC shows in general?) lack any kind of character development. In Buffy, not one character begins a season in the same place that he or she ends up, and not one character in Season 1 is the same person they are in Season 7. After two seasons, Merlin is still resentful about hiding his magic, Arthur (and all the other main characters save Gaius) are still unaware of Merlin’s abilities and Uther is still bigoted and opposed to magic. Real people change. They change subtly or they change dramatically, but change they do. No person could experience the things that any character on any of these shows experiences and remain the same. (Robin Hood is a particularly egregious example of this: SPOILER ALERT at the end of Season 2, Marion, the love of Robin’s life, is killed. Season 3 sees Robin rageful and grieving for about half-an-hour, and then reverting back to his cheerful, anarchic ways. END SPOILER)

Many of the other shows fail because their writers do not realise that giving characters ‘quirks’ or ‘flaws’ does not make them real people. Heroes and, in particular, Glee are the worst culprits in this regard. Many critics and fans seem to think that Glee is edgy or groundbreaking because it features minority characters in major roles. But after watching the show, you realise that all of these ‘minorities’ have been reduced to their ‘minority-ness’: Mercedes is The Sassy Black Girl, Artie is The Saintly Disabled Boy, Kurt is The Camp Gay Guy (happiest singing show tunes and giving makeover advice) and Tina is The Shy Asian Girl. There is absolutely nothing else that defines or drives them. It’s insulting to think that these characters somehow put an end to whitewashing in popular culture. Take any one of them out of the Glee-verse and you’d be scratching your head to figure out how they’d behave. They’re about as complex and three-dimensional as pieces of cardboard.

A character’s believability lies in how long it would take to describe him or her. What I’ve said about the characters in Glee is all I’d be able to say to a person who asked ‘Who is Mercedes? What drives her? What kind of person is she?’ If someone asked me the same question about Willow Rosenberg, or Mayor Richard Wilkins III, or Mal Reynolds, or Shepherd Book, or Angel, or Rupert Giles, or Adele DeWitt, or even Victor (the Doll), you’d be here until the end of the week.

What most TV writers fail to grasp is that people are more than the sum of their parts (whether these parts be flaws, positive qualities, neuroses or cultural influences). A truly great television character is someone whose life you can imagine in scenes where he or she does not appear, or after the screen goes black. I might’ve been spoiled by Joss, and I might be castigating the writers of the shows I’ve discussed for not writing the shows that I want to see, but I refuse to believe that Joss Whedon and the small coterie of writers he’s gathered around him are the only ones capable of creating characters who are completely and utterly human.

Book learning November 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
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The only wars my family waged were with pen and paper.

Madhur Jaffrey, Seasons of Splendour.

As someone who lives a little too vicariously through books (and the occasional film or television series), the idea that a person might fight his or her battles on the page really resonates with me. For me, books have always provided if not guidance then at least aspirations. For almost as long as I can remember reading, I have latched on to particular characters and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to emulate them. There have been a lot of articles and posts recently about female role-models in literature (prompted in part by the upcoming release of the New Moon film and the inevitable bout of hand-wringing about the message Bella Swan sends to impressionable young women) and this post is prompted, in part, by these articles. I’ll do a links round-up over at Livejournal so you can see the sorts of things that are being said, if you’re interested.

I’m quite proud of my literary role models, on the whole.

The first character I can remember pretending to be, was, fittingly, Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (I had spent many years pretending to be fairytale princesses before that, but I choose to ignore that as I feel my identification with these princesses was more due to the fact that they wore pretty dresses and jewellery.) For those of you not familiar with the character, Sara is the daughter of an English soldier who lives in India as part of the colonial administration. She grows up pampered in a London boarding school run by the cartoonishly vile Miss Minchin, until her father’s death, which leaves her penniless. Miss Minchin, who spoiled Sara because she hoped to get rewarded by the wealthy Captain Crewe, finds herself responsible for a girl she detests. Overnight, Sara’s life changes. Instead of being the favoured student at the school, she is now a drudge teaching the younger students. She has to move out of her luxurious rooms into a cold attic, eating scraps where before she had dined on delicacies.

What I loved about Sara was not so much the grace with which she endured this change in circumstances but the way she chose to endure them. You see, Sara was a reader. (‘She doesn’t just read books, Miss Minchin, she devours them,’ her father says.) More importantly, she was a storyteller. The thing that kept me covering wooden crates with red crepe paper (to make them look like Sara’s ‘battered red footstool’) and drawing fireplaces on bits of paper in order to stick them on my wall to recreate Sara’s attic bedroom was the power of Sara’s imagination. ‘Suppose,’, she would say, meaning, ‘Imagine something better than here’.

A Little Princess was an early lesson for me in the power of the imagination to overcome the most horrendous circumstances. The book articulated something I’d only just begun to understand: that books offered readers another, infinitely more wonderful world.

The next book to set my imagination on fire to such an extent was Adèle Geras’ wonderful The Girls in the Velvet Frame. What, you might ask, did a story about five Jewish sisters growing up poor in pre-Israel Jerusalem have to do with a seven-year-old middle-class Canberran in the early 90s? For me, it was two things: the warmth of the sisters’ relationship (and their relationships with their widowed mother Sarah and unmarried, ageing aunt Mimi), and the perfection of Geras’ characterisation.

I loved the matriarchal world of the Bernstein sisters, as I saw (and valued) a similar quality in my own family (which is made up of very strong women with very close relationships). And I loved, in particular, two of the sisters: dreamy Naomi, who saw the world through rose-coloured glasses and used storytelling to occupy her two younger sisters, and practical, cynical Chava (‘I always expect bad things to happen, because then bad things don’t disappoint me and the good things come as a nice surprise’). There’s a lot of Naomi and Chava in me, and there is a lot of stubborn, determined Dvora in my younger sister Mimi. I recognised this even then, and I identified passionately with Geras’ characters.

When I was ten, along came one character who would blow them all away with sheer awesomeness. I’m referring, of course, to Pagan Kidrouk, from Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles. I read these books initially as I was invited to a talk given by Jinks at the sadly now defunct Griffith Library, and I fell in love with the snarky, sarcastic, scarily intelligent hero. It’s been a life-long love affair: if Pagan were to walk out of the pages of the books today, I would follow him to the ends of the earth, even if all he did was make disparaging remarks about my intelligence and rage at the stupidity of mankind.

Part of the appeal of Pagan lay in his identity as a literate intellectual in a largely illiterate, anti-intellectual world (the books are set during the Third Crusades). He was irresolutely bookish, with a rich, if angry, intellectual life going on in his head. He has always appealed to my book snobbery, which in my preteen days was even more fierce than it is today. I read, therefore I am would’ve been my motto if I’d heard of Descartes. Pagan made even the illiterate characters recognise the value of reading: Lord Roland, the knight whom Pagan serves, remarks (giving me a quote that has always resonated with me), ‘People who read are always like you. You can’t just tell them, you have to tell them why.’ I swooned, and I’m still swooning today.

The Tomorrow series by John Marsden also provided me with a set of inspirational characters. After briefly cheating on Pagan with Lee (haha), I settled down into a more sedate appreciation of this classic Australian series. I honestly think it was one of the most important cultural artefacts of my generation. For about five years, everyone was reading these books. When a new one came out, we’d all be discussing them on the playground, speculating about who would live and who would die. They were, for my generation, bigger than Harry Potter, and for that they’ll always have a special place in my heart: although I loved being a reader because it set me apart, I also enjoyed it when my classmates and friends read so that we could discuss books.

I also adored the characters because they rang so true. Not one of them is a stereotype or a cardboard cut-out placed in the book as a mouthpiece for Marsden’s views (which happens so often in so many YA books). Oh, sure, it was very clear what Marsden’s views were, but he let them seep through organically, whispering at the margins of one of the most gripping plots I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Marsden’s teenage characters, from Ellie the tomboyish, self-reliant narrator to Fi the sheltered princess, from Robyn the pacifist Christian to Lee the depressed, revenge-obsessed artist, taught me how to be brave. They taught me that war was hell and that I had a moral obligation to do all that I could to prevent it, and they taught me that teenagers were the most powerful, most adaptable, most resilient and most resourceful creatures on the planet.

The next author to play such a significant role in my moral and intellectual development was the wonderful, eloquent, word-weaving Philip Pullman. He gave me such great gifts: the character Lyra, from his His Dark Materials series, who is probably my favourite fictional heroine, and is definitely the most heartbreakingly human character ever to stalk the pages of a book, and the book The Tiger In the Well, which gave me a speech which has informed my political beliefs to this day. These books didn’t exactly change my beliefs (I was an atheist already, I was in favour of knowledge and consciousness and life, I was a social democrat, I was appalled by unchecked capitalism) so much as confirm them and articulate them in a way that I could not have done myself. No books have ever meant more to me than His Dark Materials and nothing has ever had, or will ever have, such a profound effect on my life.

In His Dark Materials, the idea that a very small event has the potential to create millions and millions of universes is a crucial theme. Well, the fact that my sister overheard me complaining about lack of books (I was put off by the cover of Northern Lights, which had animals on it: I’ve never been particularly interested in stories about animals) and forced Northern Lights into my hands utterly changed my life. I would not be at Cambridge without Philip Pullman.

There are several other book, film and television characters who are important to me: Amelie from the movie Amelie (who gave me unrealistic expectations about life, but introduced me to the joys of quirkiness and serendipity), Sulien ap Gwien from Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga (who showed me that one could have a fulfilled life without romantic realitionships), Una from Jo Walton’s Romanitas series (whose intense introversion and observation of other people is something with which I identity strongly) and the characters in Joss Whedon’s television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (who taught me that the family that you choose for yourself, united, can never be defeated, and that misfits can save the world).

These characters are in some ways more important to me than the themes of the texts in which they appear. As I took on all these characters and integrated them into my identity, they ceased to be the creations of their respective authors and became something different. I hesitate to say that they taught me how to be, since of course I am not as stoic as Sara Crewe, as resilient as Naomi and Dvora Bernstein, as intelligent as Pagan Kidrouk, as brave as the teenagers in the Tomorrow series or as all-around awesome as Lyra. I don’t have the courage of my convictions of Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, I don’t brighten the lives of those around me as much as Amelie Poulain, I’m not as loyal as Sulien, I’m not as determined as Una and I’m not as good a friend as the characters in Joss Whedon’s shows. But all these characters taught me who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live. Although I do not live up to their standards, that I value these standards says something essential about my identity.

When I was a child, the world seemed so wide March 22, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, memories.
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For someone whose favourite series of books is about the absolute necessity of embracing conscious, adult existence, I sure spend a lot of time reminiscing about my childhood. On days when adult life seems to ‘suck beyond the telling of it’ (Gratuitous Buffy Quote #1), childhood experiences seem that much more wonderful, their joys that much fiercer, their emotions that much stronger, the whole 17 (to pluck an arbitrary number out of nowhere) years that much more meaningful than anything the previous seven have had to offer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my attitude to my favourite texts (TV series and movies, but for the most part books) of my younger years.

It became apparent, in a couple of conversations with Sibylle, that I mythologised my personal canon of childhood to an absurd degree. Sibylle has set herself a rather awesome reading challenge this year: to read the best young-adult, science-fiction and fantasy novels out there. Since these are my three main genres, I was happy to oblige with suggestions. What we both noticed was that I was constantly saying things like ‘such and such a book was my favourite book when I was seven’ or, ‘so and so wrote the books that meant the most to me when I was a teenager’. Although I have discovered texts that I adore since hitting the wrong side of 18, they are much rarer. (Hello, current crazy Watchmen obsession! Why don’t you stand up and take a bow, Great, Epic Fangirling of Scott Westerfeld and Cory Doctorow of 2007-8? And let’s not forget the time that American Gods reduced me to a quivering heap of awed silence.)

But a recent post of Sibylle’s forced me to reexamine my rather blinkered, uncritical view of my childhood canon.

I’ve also watched Grease (1978) for the upteenth time. It was my favourite movie when I was 13, which means nothing as to its quality. I’m very suspicious of my teenage and childhood loves as I don’t think half of them were based on merit. You won’t find me writing about how wonderful something is based solely on my childhood memories of it.

Ouch. Even though she assures me this comment wasn’t aimed at me, it did make me think that I needed to assess exactly why I champion my beloved texts of childhood so fiercely.

One of the things I’ve noticed about adulthood is that you have much less time to be a narcissist. (Somewhere, my mother is rolling on the floor laughing at this admission of her most narcissistic of daughters.) I know this sounds odd coming from someone whose idea of a good time is to sit in her room, reviewing books on the internet while talking to people on IRC, but the pull of the ‘real world’ is slightly more insistent once you’re an adult. If nothing else, there’s a need to earn money to support an expensive lifestyle of Buffy boxed sets, fantasy novels and, once in a while, food. Childhood and adolescence, in contrast, offer many opportunities for sitting in one’s room, thinking about how such and such a novel (or film, or song) PERFECTLY ENCAPSULATES ONE’S LIFE. (That is, if one’s childhood is as wonderfully middle-class Canberran as mine was.) But it is not merely opportunity that causes this vastly expanded childhood canon.

I’ve realised that I like texts in three different ways. These can be roughly summarised thus:

  • Head: These texts appeal to me solely on an aesthetic level.  I appreciate the technical proficiency of their creators, and in some cases, their complex themes, but I feel no desire to reread or rewatch them.  I can’t list any examples because, once I’ve read or watched such texts, they exert no further pull on my imagination.
  • Head and Heart: These texts are aesthetically pleasing and speak to me on some personal level.  They have some kind of meaning that either fits in with my worldview or has some relevance to my life, and tend to encourage me to want to write about them and discuss them with others.  The majority of the books of my childhood would fall under this category, as would most of my current personal canon (Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series, China Miéville’s books, Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, Dollhouse, most of the immrama that I’m writing about for my dissertation).
  • Head, Heart and Soul: These texts are technically proficient.  They possess themes which speak to me on a personal level and make me want to write about them and discuss them with other fans.  But, most importantly, they make me reexamine who I am, make me want to change, to become better, to think more.  These are the texts that I would quite possibly die to save.  Thinking about these texts makes my life worth living.

This last category contains such things as His Dark Materials, Buffy, Firefly, Sara Douglass’s Troy Game series, Parkland, Earthsong, Firedancer, The Beast of Heaven and Taronga by Victor Kelleher, The Tiger In The Well by Philip Pullman, The Vampire Chronicles, Catherine Jinks’s Pagan series, Adele Geras’s Tower Room series and book The Girls in the Velvet Frame, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, the films Amelie and Waltz With Bashir, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, Jo Walton’s Tir Tanagiri Saga, Cirque du Soleil’s show Quidam, Buile Shuibne, and the graphic novel Watchmen.

Of that list, only American Gods, Small Gods, The Vampire Chronicles, Buile Shuibne, The Troy Game, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, Waltz With Bashir, Firefly and Watchmen were read/watched by me when I was an adult. And of that small list, the only ones read/watched by me after I finished my undergrad degree were Waltz With Bashir, Watchmen, American Gods and Small Gods. That’s a very small proportion of a rather large personal canon.

I do read slightly less than I did as a child (when I would routinely read three books a day), but that can’t be the only reason. Of the three books a day I read as a child, after all, not all became Head, Heart and Soul books. Why, then, are so few of the texts that have meaning for me texts I’ve discovered as an adult?

It’s not a reflection of quality. Objectively, I know, for example, that the Pagan series is of a much higher quality than the Vampire Chronicles, and that Victor Kelleher is a much better writer than Sara Douglass. I might (after doing Honours in English literature, working for five years as a book reviewer and two years as a feature sub-editor) know a bit more about what makes for bad writing than I did as a child, but none of the ‘childhood canon’ books on my list are badly written. I’ve read them all many times as an adult, and they remain as wonderful now as they seemed to me as a child.

Perhaps it has something to do with the relative complexity (and stability) of one’s adult identity in comparison to the fluidity of the identity of a child. A child is, to a certain extent, unformed, and capable of possessing many facets, not all of which must be satisfied in a work of fiction. Thus, the part of my child-self that consoled itself through ‘supposing’ was satisfied with A Little Princess, while the part of it that thought all humans were beasts found expression in the works of Victor Kelleher. I did not require a text to be all things to all parts of my personality, and so was satisfied with texts that embodied just some parts of that personality. As an adult, I require more of my texts, and so, for the most part, am disappointed in this regard. A text must, as I wrote elsewhere in this blog, speak to me and for me and and about me, but it must do so to and for and about all parts of my identity.

That is asking a lot of a text. In fact, in the face of my high-maintenance requirements of texts, it’s a wonder any have managed to find their way into my personal canon at all since I turned 18. So thank you, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Ari Folman, Alan Moore, Sara Douglass, Jo Walton, Anne Rice, crazed anonymous medieval author of Buile Shuibne, and Joss Whedon for somehow finding a way into the seething mass of contradictions which make up my mind, heart and soul. Sometimes, your writings are the only things that make me feel anything for this confusing, terrifying, beautiful and heartbreaking thing called adulthood. For this, I am eternally grateful.

The limits of my world are the limits of my language February 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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Last week, I was rather exasperated with Joss Whedon’s latest show, Dollhouse. The absence of Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue worried me.

It’s the dialogue that sets Joss shows apart from their more mundane cousins. It’s Joss’s way with language that makes his shows the thing that other TV series can only aspire to be: shows with a heart.

I fall in love with Joss’s characters for their humanity, and it is through their words that this humanity shines through. Without memorable language, they’re nothing more than the mechanisms that drive a plot.

Almost as soon as I posted this, however, I realised I was fundamentally missing the point. This was because I had misinterpreted the central theme of the show. I had viewed the concept of the Dollhouse (where people with wiped personalities had new personalities implanted in order to fulfill the fantasies of wealthy clients) as a metaphor for the actor-director/writer relationship. But it’s not. It’s more ambitious, and chilling, than that. I got one half of the equation right: the Dolls (or Actives) stand in for actors. But it’s not about actors and writers/directors. It’s about actors and their viewers.

Joss has never been one to shy away from confrontational subject matter. And he’s always handled it incredibly responsibly. However, in the past, he has used various mechanisms to make things easier for us, mechanisms with which to soften the blunt and sometimes disturbing matters he explores. (Joss himself has recognised this. This was why, The Body, one of the most emotionally difficult Buffy episodes to watch, has no musical score. Joss felt that music would soften the blow of that episode’s subject matter.) His characters’ witty dialogue is another such crutch. Just as his characters use language as a weapon to fight the often ghastly situations in which they find themselves, we use their clever dialogue as a way to enjoy their suffering. This language is not distracting – we still know exactly what is going on – but it does help to stop the shows from being unremittingly grim. (We see this in its most perfect conception in ‘Once More With Feeling’, Season 6’s well-known musical episode. The silliness of the sight of Buffy dancing around, punctuating her song with demon-stakings, makes us forget, for a moment, that the words she is singing are heart-wrenchingly bleak.)

But in Dollhouse, Joss has done away with such props and crutches. He is not making things easy for us any more.

A thought struck me: much as he appreciates his passionate, rabid fans, Joss is uncomfortable with fandom. He is uneasy with exactly what it is that makes us appreciate his work, which is, for the most part, bleak. Although his shows are ultimately hopeful, they are packed with pain and suffering. By the time she is 22, Buffy has been fighting demons for eight years. She went to school on the mouth of Hell. Her boyfriend turned evil when she slept with him. She killed him. She died twice. Family members, friends and countless innocent bystanders were killed, by the forces of evil, or just by the sheer bad luck of ordinary life. Angel comes to realise that doing the right thing is not a grand quest for redemption (with a shiny reward at the end), but just a daily, unglamorous, ultimately futile struggle. In Firefly, Mal Reynolds sees the utter destruction of everything he believes in, and copes with this by becoming emotionally deadened.

And yet, pain, suffering and all, fans adore these characters’ stories. Joss is using the metaphor of the Dollhouse to explore his viewers’ voyeurism.

He’s always attempted to hold a mirror up to society, and this time he’s doing so without the flattering lighting. As Buffy would say, ‘everything here is hard, and bright, and violent’. He’s creating a story about the darker side of fandom, the unwelcome truths we’d rather not confront. What he’s trying to do is explore the unhealthy nexus between the fantasies of fans, and their conflation of actors with the people they play.

I’m reminded, at this point, of a panel interview of the cast of Heroes at a convention. They were answering questions from the fans. I noticed that almost every person who asked questions of Zachary Quinto addressed him as ‘Sylar’ (the name of his character on Heroes), and that this was making Quinto incredibly uncomfortable.

And that, in essence, is what Dollhouse is about: Whedon’s unease with Quinto’s unease at being equated with the character he played. The Dolls have no personality but that which they are given for the enjoyment (or purposes) of those who hire them. For the fans asking questions at that convention, Zachary Quinto had no personality but that of the psychopathic serial killer he plays, for their enjoyment, on Heroes.

Our reactions are so ambivalent because we are being confronted with an ugly truth about fandom we’d rather not face: if watching the exploitation of others gives our lives meaning, what kind of lives are these?

I want the fire back February 15, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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So, unless you were hiding around an internet-variety rock, you’ll know that Joss Whedon’s latest show, Dollhouse, aired for the first time on Friday night. I think it must have been the most eagerly anticipated show in the history of television; no other TV writer seems to generate as much slavish adoration as Joss Whedon. As a fellow Whedonista once commented on Whedonesque, ‘you realise if Joss were to tell us to take to the streets and riot, our only question would be ‘torch or pitchfork?'”Whedon’s fans are not only devoted, but also incredibly skeptical of the networks, in particular Fox. We worry, with good reason, that the mercenary Network Executives In Suits will fail, yet again, to recognise Joss’s genius and mess his latest show up, making it impossible for it to succeed. When we heard about the rewrites, about Dollhouse airing in the ‘dead zone’ of Friday night, we knew we were in trouble. ‘Save Dollhouse‘ campaigns sprang up even before the show went to air.

Now that you have all that background, I hope you’ll understand the near-insane levels of excitement among Whedonistas on Friday night. As one we (or at least those in the US and those watching online) sat down to watch the latest creator of our beloved Joss.

Is it possible, from this perspective, to view the show objectively? I’d say no. Our mindset is already ‘In Joss we trust’. Joss can do no wrong.

This is why it’s so painful for me to say that I was completely underwhelmed. The premise of Dollhouse had sounded amazing: people with their personalities removed have new personalities implanted so that they can fulfill assignments for clients. The whole thing’s meant to be a metaphor for being an actor, how to be a successful actor one must be an empty vessel into which a writer and director can pour whatever personality is required. The show also stars Eliza Dushku, who has worked with Joss before, bringing the character of Faith to life with great pathos and poignancy. It should have been a winning formula.

But something is missing. Where is the snappy dialogue? That’s what I look for in a Joss show: the witty one-liners, the trademark slang, the mixing of pop culture references and literary allusions, the slightly different lexicons that distinguish one character from another. It’s the dialogue that sets Joss shows apart from their more mundane cousins. It’s Joss’s way with language that makes his shows the thing that other TV series can only aspire to be: shows with a heart.

I fall in love with Joss’s characters for their humanity, and it is through their words that this humanity shines through. Without memorable language, they’re nothing more than the mechanisms that drive a plot. It’s language that distinguishes River Tam from Cameron Phillips, Angel and Spike from Mick St. John and Cordelia Chase from every other queen bee to be found on the TV screen.

It’s not enough to have a cool idea, even if your previous cool ideas included:

  • being sick of horror movies where the little blonde girl got killed by the bad guy (usually in ‘punishment’ for being promiscuous), and created a series where the blonde girl chased the bad guys into the dark alleys and beat the s*** out of them.  Oh, and having the bad guys represent the horrors of highschool;
  • a vampire with a soul seeking redemption by acting as a supernatural private detective in the anonymous, uncaring streets of LA;
  • what the Star Wars prequels should have been: a band of lost souls looking out into the blackness of space, all seeing very different things; and
  • an aspiring supervillain charting his quest for a place in the Evil League of Evil in a vlog.
  • oh, and releasing the story of said supervillain in three acts, streamed free online and later available for download, made on the smell of an oily rag and bypassing the grasping networks altogether.

These brilliant ideas have earned Joss a crazed, hopelessly devoted gang of fans, who will love him no matter what. Whether we love Dollhouse, will, unfortunately, be another matter.

I’m reserving judgment until I’ve seen more episodes. And if I do end up being disappointed, I’ll likely blame it on the meddling of the Fox network. But I’d really like to have another group of characters whom I can care about as much as I care about Buffy and the Scoobies, Angel and his gang, Mal and his crew and Billy/Dr Horrible, Penny and Captain Hammer the Corporate Tool (whose fists are not the hammer). Here’s hoping.

You! Out of my genre! January 10, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, reviews.
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This post was meant to be about Regurgitator, but when I woke up and saw that my LiveJournal friends’ page was filled with responses to a series of articles about YA books, I knew I wanted to give my 10 cents’ worth.

I spent a few hours digesting what the articles were saying, and will briefly summarise them here. (They are summarised in the order of the links I posted above.)

The first is a review and discussion in The New Yorker about Kathy Koja’s novel Headlong. I have not read the book, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the writers’ assessments, but I have read many YA novels in the course of my six years of YA book-reviewing (and, more importantly, my 16-odd years spent reading YA books). And what I would say to the authors of this review is ‘you are utterly, irredeemably, disrespectfully, inexcusably wrong’. The review not only damns all young-adult authors with its faint praise of Koja’s book, but also insults the intelligence of every teenager who has ever picked up a book and seen him or herself reflected back in its pages. The authors as one describe YA writing as ‘facile’ and ‘uncomplicated’, teenage girls as narcissistic and imply that YA writers have an easier time of it than ‘proper’ adult writers.

What is wrong with these people? If the best you can do in discussing YA writing is refer to The Catcher In The Rye and Twilight, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. If you think of YA literature as typically preachy, two-dimensional and unrealistic, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. If you are talking about emotionally and philosophically complex YA writing and you (as Americans) do not refer at least in passing to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, which has been nominated for a Hugo Award, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, you are doing it so wrong you might as well not even do it at all.

All right, let me take a deep breath and move on.

The next article is from the New York Times, and looks at the way in which teenage girls supposedly read (they allow ‘a novel to carry them so effortlessly from one place to another that for a time they truly don’t care about anything else’), with a focus on the Twilight phenomenon. It’s a brief, sweet article, full of a yearning for the lost Eden of teenage self-absorption, and a recognition of the importance of books in the forming of identity. Something about it bugs me, though. It’s slightly patronising. Although the author is saying that this phase of reading is an essential step on the journey to adulthood, she’s saying it’s a phase. Something to grow out of. It’s as if there’s something shameful about reading something that’s badly-written, or seeking to be transported to another world, or hoping to find echoes of yourself among the words of others – as if to do so as an adult is childish, a sign of emotional immaturity.

I’m not even talking about the Twilight books here, because I have a whole range of problems with them that I may go into at some point. There’s just something profoundly unsettling about a journalist implying that teenage girls will read any old junk, as long as it appeals to their inherent narcissism.

The final article is from The Atlantic, and purports to be about ‘what girls want’. In actual fact, it’s an attempt to explain why what girls want is Edward Cullen. I’m still struggling to make up my mind about it. The writer certainly has a compelling argument for the appeal of everyone’s favourite sparkling vampire, one with which I’m inclined to agree – but that’s the problem. I find the argument disturbing.

Twilight is, in its essence, a story about teenage female sexuality, sans sex. (It is, as the author of the article writes, a ‘1000-page treatise on the art of foreplay’.) And yet Meyer’s extreme preachiness – her ‘true love waits’ abstinence-only views, her extreme pro-life didacticism – is not merely wrong, it is dangerous.

I remember reading an article about the appeal of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (and by extension Bluebeard, Jane Eyre and every other story where a mousy little girl loves a devouring ogre) and saying, ‘yes, and yes, and yes I agree’ to the following point:

It is the story of the ogre and the little girl, where she loves him because he may kill her, and he accepts her (and doesn’t kill her) because he loves her fear.  That’s why they can live happily ever after – as long as she doesn’t recognise the Gothic mansion of his appetite for what it is.  – Michael Wood, ‘At the Movies’, London Review of Books.

Nothing wrong with that assessment. It is entirely true. That is how some teenage girls (and some women) think about sex. It’s the abstinence and the anti-abortion (even if, as happens in the final Twilight book, carrying the baby will probably kill the mother) that disturb me. As I’ve said elsewhere, when a series is as popular as Meyer’s Twilight, there’s a serious cultural reason for its appeal. What worries me is what, in the common experiences of teenage girls, Twilight is talking to.

If you want a more honest, and less dangerous, depiction of female teenage sexuality, I would point you in three directions. The first is the entire Season 2 arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in particular the episode ‘Innocence’. The second is The Dead of the Night (the second in Australian young-adult writer John Marsden’s Tomorrow series). The third is The Amber Spyglass, the concluding book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. All of them are written by middle-aged men, and all of them treat female teenage sexuality with respect, dignity and responsibility.

There is some incredible stuff going on in YA literature, and there has been for some time. It’s fantastic that such institutions of the mainstream media are giving this genre the time of day. But until journalists stop filling their assessments of YA literature with qualifiers, equivocation and inaccurate and insulting representations of the genre, its writers and its readers, I’d prefer it to remain languishing in its current ghetto-like backwater. We – the young-adult writers, reviewers and readers young and old – know it’s fantastic. And we know why it is fantastic. And these New Yorker, New York Times and Atlantic journalists do not. Let’s hope that one day, they understand what they’re missing.

‘We appear to find ourselves in a bit of a-‘ ‘don’t-‘ ‘-grey area.’ ‘-say that! Can we just get through one damn day without saying that?’ July 25, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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A few warnings and disclaimers before I get into this post. The first is a warning that this post is ABSOLUTELY SPOILERIFIC, so if you haven’t seen Dr Horrible or The Dark Knight and want to, read on at your peril.

Disclaimer #1: I hadn’t seen anything Batman-y since I was three years old and watched the cartoons on TV. I went to see The Dark Knight because Heath Ledger has been one of my favourite actors since he danced down the school sports arena singing I Love You Baby to Julia Styles in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Disclaimer #2: I am a Whedonista of the worst kind (no, I don’t say ‘Browncoat’, because I became a rabid Joss fan before Firefly). A fantastic quote by CowboyCliche on Whedonesque pretty much sums up my position: ‘You realize, if Joss were to make a thread telling us to take to the streets and riot, our only question would be, “pitchfork or torch.” ‘

So bear this in mind when reading what I have to say about the matter.

Well, unless you’ve been doing the online equivalent of hiding under a rock for the past two weeks, you’ll know that Joss Whedon’s latest project, Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog has been a cult internet hit. You might’ve watched it. You might be planning to download it on iTunes. Or, like most of my real-life and online friends, you might’ve been subjected to a series squeeing fangirlish discussions of it and its brilliance.

I’m not going to provide a full, essay-like analysis of the essence of Dr Horrible. That’s being done perfectly well on Whedonesque, on Facebook, and on LJ groups like drhorriblesing. No, what I want to do is talk about a specific aspect of Dr Horrible, and indeed of all Joss’s work – the notion of evil. I’m going to compare it with how evil is presented in The Dark Knight. And, just so you can be perfectly clear what you’re getting yourselves into, I’m going to say that Dr Horrible does a better and more nuanced job of exploring this theme.

Dr Horrible typifies a few key Joss Whedon beliefs. The first, and one that no-one besides me seems to have noticed (if I’m wrong, point it out, please) is opposition to solving problems with grand symbolic gestures. Joss has adamantly expressed his opposition to this on many occasions, the most notable being on Buffy. I’m thinking in particular of the several episodes about Jonathan (‘Earshot’ and ‘Superstar’) where he attempts to fix his problems in dramatic ways – first by killing himself at school, secondly by using magic to make himself the most powerful and loved person in the world, both times with utterly disastrous consequences.

In those Jonathan episodes, his plight is conveyed with a great deal of pathos and empathy, but there is little doubt about the moral message that underpins each episode. Jonathan may be a pitiful character, but his attempts to fix his life are wrong in their drama. He needs to help himself on a smaller scale.

This theme is, of course, writ large in Season 6 in the figures of the Trio. Here is evil that is utterly banal (shout out to Hannah Arendt) – three bumbling nerds who make robot girlfriends, have a van with a horn that plays the Star Wars theme and don’t know how the plural of ‘nemesis’ They’ve decided that being ‘evil’ is the way to fix all their problems.

And this, in essence, is what Dr Horrible is about. We know less about Dr Horrible than we do about the Trio, and because we’re watching Dr Horrible from his perspective (and because his hammer-fisted nemesis is so unlikeable) we empathise with, and cheer for, him in a way that we do not for the Trio.

Joss has a way of getting us to cheer for sociopaths, though. What is Spike, after all, but a serial killer? What is Angel but a self-pitying former sadist? Why are we so quick to forgive Willow for her Season 6 evilness? It’s because we see them in all their nuanced, messy, humanness (even if they’re not human). Dr Horrible is no exception. His real-life alter-ego, Billy, is a bumbling but witty (as only a Joss character can be) man who is quietly in unrequited love with the girl he met in the laundromat. He brings her frozen yoghurt. He stabs himself with a spork. He has a PhD in Horriblenss. What’s not to love?

And yet…and yet there’s always an ‘and yet’ in a Joss show. In this case, it’s one of Joss’s other pet themes: be careful what you want. You just might get it.

Billy wants, desperately, to get into the Evil League of Evil. His arc is showing how he gets there. Throughout the film, we’re all cheering him on, wanting him to fulfill his evil potential. He has to kill someone to get there? So what, it’ll probably be Captain Hammer, that unpleasant ‘corporate tool’, and the world will be better off without him. We all forgot that we were watching a Joss creation.

Be careful what you wish for, the consequences are always monstrous. So, Billy kills someone, but not the someone he expected. He enters the ELE with a bang. He becomes the evilest of them all. As others have pointed out, his ‘real-life’ persona, Billy, gets banished to the blog and Dr Horrible takes over. And he learns the true nature of evil: to be always alone, and always lonely. It’s a terrible story (in the sense of ‘filled with terror’), and it’s spot-on. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is being alone when surrounded by other people.

Which segues nicely into my discussion of The Dark Knight, a film about a lonely and alone guy who has a responsibility to protect the people around him and yet remains distant to preserve his sanity.

So, what can I say? I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I guess I was underwhelmed.

Yeah, Heath Ledger was amazing, yeah, the film was ‘dark’, but no, it wasn’t thematically complex, deep and meaningful, ‘Hollywood at its best’. It took a fairly cop-out-ish route and explored the notion of the fine line between heroism and villainy. Through the prism of the war on terror.

That was my main gripe. If you take this analogy to its logical conclusion, The Dark Knight condones torture, rendition, Guantanamo Bay and all the iniquities of the ‘war on terror’. Let me explain.

The basic stance of The Dark Knight is thus: The new villain (the Joker) has no discernible motivation (this is shown several times when he gives different ‘explanations’ for his scars) for his ‘evil’. Thus, the ‘good guys’ decide, he revels in chaos – in fact, he’s chaos incarnate. And this new breed of evil, one that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be controlled in the usual way. The law is powerless to stop it. We need a new kind of hero, a ‘dark knight’, one who is prepared to descend to the same evil level to defeat the evils of chaos. In other words, terrorists have no desire or motivation other than to spread chaos. They want nothing, they have no grievances, therefore we have carte blanch to use all manners of evil, extra-legal methods to defeat them.

Which strikes me as morally abhorrent.

The Dark Knight is a simplistic film that masquerades as being something much richer in meaning than it actually is. It makes heroism out of cruelty and writhes piously and deceptively in a false exploration of the brutalising effects of the ‘war on terror’ on the American soul. It masquerades as a film about grey areas and moral ambiguity, when in fact it is simply two-and-a-half hours spent deferring its inevitable and disquieting conclusion. It is, in other words, pure evil.

Dream, work, play… June 11, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in childhood, fangirl, memories, work.
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Sometimes I simply adore the kids at the school. Today, not only did I have the most amusingly trippy conversation ever with one of them, but a bunch of the others watched the Buffy film. I shall give further details about both occurences further, but first, let me relate a truly bizarre dream I had last night.

The dream took the form of a home-video memory, and, at the time, seemed totally plausible as something of which I’d have a video record. I was six, and, with two-year-old Mimi, cycling around Lake Burley Griffin. Nothing unusual about this, except that I didn’t learn to cycle without training wheels until I was seven, and Mimi certainly couldn’t ride a bike at two.

It was a hot summer Canberra day, and Commonwealth Park was full of people out enjoying the sunshine, dressed in a fetching array of early ’90s clothes: men in stubbies, kids in leggings and big, fluoro T. shirts and women with crazy, permed hairstyles. Some people were running through the sprinklers, a throw-back to a less water-conscious time.

All of a sudden we met up with E., an old family friend who is my age and whom I’ve known since the first day I moved to Canberra (when I was three). She was dressed in her school uniform, riding a small bike through the water of the Lake, to school. This wouldn’t work for many reasons. Firstly, she was dressed in the Red Hill Primary uniform – but at six, she still attended Griffith Primary, which only closed down when we were eight. Secondly, she lived on the same side of the Lake to her school. Dream logic ftw, huh?

Finally, Mimi and I arrived back at our old house in Forrest, which, inexplicably had a bush shower in the kitchen. Umm, no it didn’t. All the time, I was an observer of this dream, rather than a participant, as if I were watching it on TV. It was a very strange experience.

Part II
My trippy conversation with one of the kids at the school was as follows:
Me: Be more careful when you run around with hula hoops, please.
Kid: I am careful, but my master makes me bad.
Me: Your master?
Kid (climbing up on to the equipment): Yeah, I have a master. He’s invisible and sits on my back and tells me to be evil. You can’t see him.
Me: Can I speak to him?
Kid: No. He only speaks to me.
Me: So, what’s his name? If I speak to him, can you tell him what I say?
Kid: His name is Aslan, but he’s not the Aslan from Narnia.
Me: Hi Aslan. It would be very helpful if you could tell (kid) to be good, not evil.
Kid (thinking): He says that if you want to speak to him you need to fight a big battle and face a challenge. And then, the reward would be DEATH.

I gave up, bemused and amused.

I am further amused at the older kids’ obsession with my own favourite TV series (and the seminal show of my teenage years), Buffy The Vampire Slayer. They’d been nagging for ages to bring in a DVD and watch it on a rainy day, but we always said that because the series is rated M, they’d not be allowed to watch it at school. But they somehow figured out that the 1992 movie was rated PG, and today they brought it in to watch. Unfortunately, I was not in charge of this activity, and so am still a Buffy movie virgin, alas. Since Joss (AKA God) himself has described the film as an imperfect rendering of his perfect Buffy vision, however, I suppose it’s not too much of a loss to me to have missed out yet again.

It did, however, remind me of when the film came out. In Australia, it came out when I was nine, in 1994. I was not allowed to watch it (and, indeed, wasn’t all that interested), but several of my friends (whom I’ll assign random initials) were. My best friend at the time, S., and two boys in my year, E. and K., were utterly obsessed, and spent their days playing Buffy, carrying around smelly garlic and sticks stuck together to form crosses. S. also persuaded her mother to let her raid the herb cabinet, and packed our shared desk with packets of ostensibly vampire-repelling herbs. Good times.