Thursday, December 9, 2010


A few stray observations about apparently unrelated topics:

1. I've just completed my semester at North Georgia College and State University, teaching Freshman Composition I and British Literature II. It's been a good semester on the whole, and most of my students have performed quite well. Were I asked what I love most about my teaching job, my first answer would be that it gives me the opportunity to talk at length about the two things I love most in the world: reading and writing. Yet were I asked what the work does for me, I would have to respond that it keeps me connected to the real world, when the temptation to daydream and lose myself in fictional worlds is always so strong. It forces me to look outward.

Yet when I grade a set of essays, I run across innumerable mistakes in grammar and usage, many of which make me cringe, and I thought I'd devote a portion of my blog today to talking about one of my biggest grammatical pet peeves: the misuse of apostrophes. Apostrophes have exactly two purposes in English: 1) to make a contraction (to turn "do not" into "don't," "have not" into "haven't," etc.), and 2) to show possession ("George's car" or "Emma's book"). If you're not making a contraction or showing possession, you do not need an apostrophe. Entirely too many of my students -- and not just my students -- think that an apostrophe is needed to make a noun plural. I can't really blame my students too much for this mistake when all around them they see apostrophes being used to pluralize nouns, especially proper nouns, on everything from billboards to mailboxes. Once and for all, friends: a group of individuals from the same family, with the same last name, is "the Marshalls" or "the Stewarts", not "the Marshall's" or "the Stewart's"! Billboards and mailboxes, stop setting these bad examples for young people earnestly trying to perform well in Freshman Composition I!

2. Actress Helen Mirren was honored recently with a Career Achievement Award at the Power 100 Women in Entertainment Breakfast. When she mounted the podium, she seized the opportunity to blast Hollywood for "[worshiping] at the altar of the 18 to 25 year old male and his penis." What she means, of course, is that too many films are made about, and for, young men, with female characters being relegated to the sidelines, reduced to mere lust objects, or written out altogether.

She has a point. I've made this observation myself, quite frequently. If we look at the movies that target male audiences -- comedies like The Hangover, Due Date, and Hot Tub Time Machine, or action pictures like the Transformers films -- we find the characterization of females is paper-thin at best. These movies offer little or nothing for female audiences. Yet they are cranked out by the dozens each year, and no one seems to mind.

Yet here's the key: these movies make money. Virtually every critic in America hated Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, yet people flooded theaters to see it. Such movies are critic-proof. The Hangover was a hit with both critics and audiences, its misogyny notwithstanding. As much as it pains me to say it, we can hardly fault the movie industry for doing what industries always do: following the money. So if we want someone to blame for the dearth of compelling female characters and female-centered stories in Hollywood, maybe we should start by looking in the mirror.

Good female-centered movies are out there, but they will remain scarce until we show with our box-office dollars that we actually want to see them. Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right garnered some of the best reviews of the year, but audiences didn't seek them out, and Hollywood cares much, much more about opening weekend numbers than it does about DVD rentals and sales. Never Let Me Go has also been reviewed well, but it's not pulling the big numbers. Black Swan has gotten strong pre-release buzz and even talk of an Oscar nomination for its star, Natalie Portman. But we, the potential audience, have to take an interest. Few if any filmmakers make movies for the critics.

The responsibility rests with us, the movie-going public. We'll get good movies about girls and women, but only if we're willing to pony up. Hollywood won't wake up until we wake them up. In the meantime, we should take our good news where we can find it: Hermione Granger is kicking butt and taking names (Harry Potter is a wonderful example of a popular success that transcends gender), and Tangled is doing much better business than even its studio (which announced it was jettisoning future fairy-tale related projects) expected.

3. Chaos was created on an airplane recently when an elderly passenger let her dog out of its carrier, despite clearly-stated airline rules to the contrary, and the little terrier, doubtless terrified, proceeded to bite a passenger and a flight attendant. No one was seriously hurt, but the plane had to land well before schedule to make sure, causing major inconvenience for everyone involved. Charges will not be filed against the dog's owner -- but a good many people are still mad as all h-e-double-hockey-sticks at her, and with darn good reason. The dog can't be blamed for doing what dogs do when they're frightened, but that woman deserves a good thrashing; one CNN commentator suggested a re-enactment of the scene in Airplane in which passengers line up for their turn to strike one of their number who's creating a disturbance. Not a bad idea.

This woman earns our wrath as the latest carrier of the Entitlement Virus, the attitude that "I'm too good/smart/cool for rules; rules are for 'the little people;' they don't apply to someone as special as I am." She is Leona Helmsley writ small. She's eighty-nine years old, but there's no conclusive proof that this is the source of her sense of entitlement. We'll probably never find out for sure. But her actions tell us what we really need to know.

I'm not normally an advocate of lawsuits, but people whose Entitlement Virus causes inconvenience and/or injury to others should become Lawyer Food.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Not to Win a Religious Argument

Religious doctrine has made the news again. This time it's the Catholic Church's hard-line stand against birth control. The current Pope has caused a stir with his assertion that condoms may be useful in the battle against AIDS. The use of condoms specifically to prevent pregnancy, he's quick to add, is still a mortal sin.

The comments attached to the Yahoo!News article on this subject are even more entertaining, in a grotesque way, than the article itself. When last I looked there were over three thousand -- a fair number from Catholics scandalized that their Pope should start down a slippery slope that could lead to the acceptance of birth control, a good many from atheists seizing the opportunity to claim the Pope's statement as evidence that all religion is B.S., and a few eager Catholic-bashers asserting that every priest, including the Pope, is a pervert. So many comments, and -- as far as I had time to read -- nary a sane word among them. What source of friction is more maddening than dispute over religious doctrine?

Arguments over religion are nearly impossible to engage in wisely -- one of the reasons many people think they're best avoided. I don't know the right way to handle oneself in such disputes, but like the always-muddled Stephen Blackpool in Dickens' Hard Times, I have a pretty good idea what not to do.
(WARNING: I will be expressing my own religious views in this blog. If you don't care to read them, back out now.)

In a political chat room I used to frequent I read this proclamation: "A good sermon is one that makes the heathen run screaming into the night." This goes sharply against the Christian faith that I was raised with, which averred that it was never God's will that any soul should be lost, and that God would seek to reach sinners (that is, all of us) with the same urgency that a housewife turns the house upside down in search of a lost coin. From this perspective, a good sermon would not make the heathen run screaming into the night. Rather, it would make them sit down and listen. It would make them think.

(The writer of the original statement had obviously forgotten that many of the most eloquent spokesmen for Christianity, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis, were "heathens" into their adulthood, and therefore knew well from their own experience how God seeks out the lost. Many Christians are a good deal wiser today because no fire-and-brimstone sermon sent such men screaming into the night.)

But those who perceive the "heathen" as enemies to be driven away are dedicated to affirming the all too human proposition of "I'm right, you're wrong, any questions?" For them, proclaiming religious doctrine isn't about doing God's will; it's about winning, often at all costs. This approach can do a great deal of harm, often undesired.

A friend of mine from my Auburn days told me about a girl she knew, whose parents raised her in the Baptist Church and made sure she went to Sunday School regularly. The family had a good friend whom the little girl adored, who happened to be Jewish. When the man died suddenly, she was plunged into grief. The following Sunday, she was at Sunday School as usual. The lesson topic happened to be "Christianity as the only true path to heaven." The little girl listened closely, absorbing the lesson, working up the courage to ask a question. Finally she raised her hand. "Ma'am, does this mean my friend is in hell?"

The Sunday School leader looked her dead in the eye and answered, "Yes."

I'm not sure what the right answer would have been. Certainly this woman was simply speaking the truth as she saw it. But her failure to factor the feelings of a grieving girl into her equation had a result she did not intend: the girl turned her back on the church and on her faith, never returning to either. Isn't there a Bible verse somewhere that says something to the effect that a fate worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone around the neck awaits anyone who causes a little child to stumble in her faith?

I had a similar experience once, on the aforementioned political website, and, as it happens, on the subject of birth control. In the course of a discussion I got very tired of posters conflating abortion and pre-conceptual birth control, and asserting that people use birth control for casual sex alone. I believed I had a story that could prove them wrong. A couple I know and love very dearly, just a generation ahead of the Baby Boom, had been, for the first five years of their marriage, in a highly unstable financial situation (like many couples). They fully intended to become parents, but wanted to wait until they were more financially secure. So they used birth control. When they were ready, they stopped, and they were blessed with a healthy baby girl. Their use of birth control during those early years of their marriage was not a rejection of parenthood (although I see nothing wrong at all with married couples deciding parenthood is simply not for them). However, my friends have told me that those five years proved a blessing, because they had a chance to solidify as Husband and Wife before becoming Mom and Dad. It may be one reason why they are still married after almost fifty years, while so many couples of their generation endured divorces.

When I posted their story, hoping my point might take, I received this reply: "Birth control is a mortal sin, as your friends will find out on the Day of Judgment."

This poster honestly believed she could persuade me of the rightness of her stance, by telling me that two of the people I love most in the world are going to hell. Far from convincing me, such a statement would push me deeper into Perdition. I wonder how many God-fearing Christians drive people further away from God on a regular basis, simply from their eagerness to be right, and to make disputes over faith a matter of winning and losing rather than arriving at true understanding.

"I'm right, you're wrong, any questions?" Matters of faith are rarely that simple, because God speaks to us as individuals whose souls are complex, not as mobs or herds whose drives are animalistically instinctual. Forgetting that complex individuality in the person to whom we're speaking is, in a nutshell, the very way not to win a religious argument.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On My Writing: The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company

As much as I enjoy working on my novels, I have to swallow a painful truth: they may never be published. I continue to beaver away at them because I can't help myself; the daydreams are inside me and they have to come out. But I can't help knowing, in the back of my mind, that they may never mean anything to anyone besides myself and those nearest and dearest who have generously agreed to read the rough tomes.

Fortunately for my sanity and self-esteem, my drive towards story-making has another outlet, with much more immediate results. I am a writer for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company (www. artc. org). I may not be a published writer, but I am a produced one.

My experience with ARTC began Labor Day Weekend 2003 -- my first DragonCon. My strongest suit as an actress has always been my voice, and when I saw ARTC perform at DragonCon, my heart pounded with longing to join the group and warmed with certainty that I had something to offer it. I was just beginning a Fall semester in which I taught a Monday/Wednesday evening class, and ARTC rehearsed on Wednesdays, so my longing had to be deferred. But I would not forget the power, the dramatic intensity of what I'd heard when those gifted actors spoke into their microphones, and I would not give up my dream to be part of it. So in January 2004, I ventured to my first rehearsal at the house of Bill Ritch, ARTC's Chief and owner of the most impressive collection of books, CDs, and DVDs I have ever seen. I had only to look at that collection to know I belonged there.

On the nature of my belonging, however, I was slightly mistaken. I thought I would make my principal mark on the company as an actress. I have been acting with ARTC regularly for six years now, starting with a bit role in Fiona K. Leonard's Kissed By a Stranger (which gave me a chance to do my Edna May Oliver impression) and continuing through chatty robot detectives, femme fatale mad scientists, hapless Christmas pageant directors, Deputy Mayors, devilish brain-implant discs and more. In my favorite role, demon-possessed Egyptologist Chrissy Simpson in Bill Ritch's Doom of the Mummy, I got to use four separate voices. It was intoxicating.

But after my first rehearsal, I discovered that as much as I wanted to act for ARTC, even more I wanted to write for them. The performers' voices were unlocking stories in my imagination. Characters were shaping themselves, demanding release. Listening to Megan C. Tindale perform the heroine of Kissed By a Stranger, I began to envision a very different sort of heroine, a pock-marked musician Cinderella -- and I went home and started work on the first of my scripts that ARTC would produce, The House Across the Way. On hearing Sketch MacQuinor play the role of a stuffy Britisher to a comic fare-thee-well, I started thinking about a knight whose efforts at heroism often go astray, Don Quixote-style, but who, through a combination of nerve and skill and a resourceful sidekick, eventually becomes the hero he longs to be. So I began work on The Challenges of Brave Ragnar, which headlined ARTC's performance at DragonCon in 2007.

I couldn't have known it at the time, but when I descended the stairs into Bill Ritch's basement that fateful Wednesday night in January, I walked into a roomful of Muses. Granted, the characters I create for my ARTC plays are not always portrayed by the actors who first inspired them; interestingly, when a different actor plays such a character, he or she often draws into the light aspects of the character even I failed to see. But my heart always gives credit to the ones who, with a particular phrasing or inflection, put the ideas in my head.

I'm not the only one who finds the company members quite literally amusing. At a recent rehearsal, one of our number, Ethan Hulbert, mentioned that he could hardly look at a movie villain without an image of Hal Wiedeman -- ARTC's villain-in-chief, most recently heard as the twisted Dr. Moreau at the Academy Theatre in Avondale Estates, October 23 and 24 -- superimposing itself. When I penned my Beauty-and-the-Beast variant Nothing-at-All, Hal was my first and only choice to play the evil wizard. When I expanded the story into the novel Atterwald and gave the wizard a much broader character range, I still heard Hal's voice with each line of dialogue I penned. His is one of those deep, resonant voices you can't get out of your head, and I was gratified by the results of an experiment I tried with my newest script: instead of handing him the villain, I asked him to try out the role of the dissipated, cynical hero. Needless to say, he played it beautifully.

Since I joined ARTC, I've had eleven scripts of varying lengths produced and performed. Ragnar has gotten three airings, twice as episodes from the serial version and once as a stand-alone version. The House Across the Way, my first script, was recently resurrected and performed twice in the past year, first in March at the Academy Theatre and then again at DragonCon. For this coming year I have two scripts that have already been read at rehearsals and been given positive feedback, and God and the company willing, they will find their way into shows this year. I have yet another story idea I mean to hammer into shape during the Christmas holidays, hopefully to bring my total up to Lucky Fourteen.

A roomful of Muses, and the ideas keep coming.

What more could a writer ask for?

(Note for the curious: if you visit ARTC's website and click on the podcast link, you can hear performances of three of my scripts: Nothing-at-All, Christmas Rose, and The Worst Good Woman in the World. I hope you enjoy them.)

Monday, October 4, 2010

As a writer, I pledge

I'm always on the lookout for good things to read, and one of my sources for titles is, a compelling, nay, downright addictive website my sister-in-law recommended to me. I can spend hours browsing through lists that attract my attention. I'm drawn to fantasy fiction due to my fascination with the magical, the far away, the long ago, the metaphorical. I'm drawn to young-adult fiction because I'm intrigued by the development of identity, the ways in which young people's self-definitions shift and change as they try new things, make mistakes, and discover gifts and talents in themselves and learn to take moral/ethical stands. When fantasy and YA combine, I'll certainly take notice. So when I came across a list on Goodreads entitled, "YA Fantasy Books That Are Better Than Twilight," I clicked on it eagerly, hoping to find some recommendations. My loathing for the Twilight series is already documented on this blog, so I need not reiterate it at length.

I clicked on a popular title called Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, admittedly attracted by the shadowy gray and black image of a crushed angel on the cover. After all, several Goodreads users had voted for it as superior to Twilight... yet as I read the synopsis and reviews, I discovered the truth: it's basically a reworking of the central ideas in Stephenie Meyer's wildly popular series: distressingly average, ordinary girl becomes obsessed with a supernatural guy who treats her badly, then stalks her; despite the fact that they have nothing in common, she's convinced this hot, mysterious guy is her soul mate, and from that moment, her life becomes All About Him. In short, if the reviews are to be believed, this book echoes every single thing I loathe about Twilight.

The only thing of value I found on the page was a link to a blog entitled, "In Which a Girl Reads: Why YA Romance Needs to Change." According to this well-written examination of overdone, questionable pattern in the genre, the picture is even gloomier than I'd imagined: an overwhelming percentage of YA fantasy/romance fiction, most of it written by women, insists on echoing the tropes of ordinary, super-passive heroine and supernatural, brooding, stalkerish hero. Evidently these women are grinding out these books in the hope that what worked for Meyer will work for them, and these damsel-in-distress delusions will translate into money, money, money. Cynical as this sounds, I hope it's true. I'd certainly rather believe that than buy into the notion that nearly every woman writing YA romance fiction has the same wish-fulfillment fantasies of being a helpless empty vessel waiting to be filled by a hot, mysterious denizen of the otherworld.

Sure, many girls and women have embraced such fictions wholeheartedly. But many of us are crying, in the fiercely demanding tones of Hawkeye Pierce, "We want something else!"

Though I've assiduously avoided Twilight and all its imitators, I must admit they have influenced me as a writer. They have inspired me to make the following pledge to all my future readers as well as Atlanta Radio Theatre Company listeners who stumble onto podcasts of my produced scripts:
1) My heroines will always be good at something. They will have some tangible accomplishment (usually in the arts) as well as interests beyond boys and fashion.
2) Whenever possible, my heroines will be weird. I'm sick to death of seeing the word "ordinary" attached to 90% of YA's female protagonists. As a reader I'm drawn to heroines who have at least the potential to be extraordinary, so naturally those are the kinds of characters I like writing.
3) Even if their behavior is initially bad, my heroes will not "get the girl" until they display some genuine respect for her and demonstrate they are capable of behaving like gentlemen.
4) If stalkerish relationships appear in my stories, the plot and the description will make it clear that this is dysfunction and pathology, not true love.
5) In my love stories, the hero and heroine will talk to each other. I know one must always be careful not to overdo dialogue, and so I shall, but when I employ dialogue I will endeavor to make it mean something.
6) In the course of their interaction, the hero and heroine will discover something substantial in common. I've said this often but it bears repeating: opposites may attract, but likeness retains.

Many different kinds of stories may inhabit my head and heart over the years to come, but I think I can keep these six pledges, and in so doing take my own stand. Who will join me in my revolution?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Convention Season, Part II

"Why I Love Anime Weekend Atlanta"

My love of animation is already well-documented on this blog; I don't think I have to reiterate my enthusiasm for all things Pixar, Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies, and classic-era Disney. However, despite the sophisticated and often violent humor to be found in Chuck Jones's and Bob Clampett's best-known cartoons, the intricate storytelling and weighty themes of the best Pixar films, and the folkloric horror that characterizes some of the images in Disney's first five feature films (who can forget the transformation of Queen into hag in Snow White? The marching, menacing pink elephants in Dumbo? The grim leer of the horned Dark God in the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment of Fantasia?), here in America we can't seem to let go of the idea that cartoons are primarily children's entertainment. If we animate it, brilliant as it may be, we must be going after a "family audience."

Other nations do not hold such a limited view of the possibilities inherent in animation. In Japan, anything might be animated -- anything from gangster dramas (Baccano!) to Hitchcockian thrillers (Perfect Blue) to the agonizing downward spiral of two orphaned children as World War II nears its end (Grave of the Firefiles). These are all brilliant stories, and I wouldn't recommend a one of them for anyone under the age of thirteen. (Grave of the Fireflies may be about children, but that doesn't mean it's for children; this is a mistake people make too often. This beautiful film should come with a warning: you will want to lie down in a dark room for at least an hour after you've watched it.) "Anime" -- the term for Japanese animation -- encompasses realistic drama, slapstick comedy, thought-provoking science fiction, and wondrous fantasy. No genre is left unexplored. So when we visit an anime convention, we never know quite what we will discover. There's always some new story waiting to move or intrigue us.

That's the first and best thing I love about Atlanta's biggest tribute to anime, Anime Weekend Atlanta:
1) The viewing rooms. Throughout the convention's three days, various anime films and shows of all different varieties are screened for fans. Many of these films and shows aren't available on commercial DVD; the convention gives us our only chance to glimpse them. Each year I've visited AWA, I've found myself engaged by some new story. This year it was Baccano!, with its wildly eccentric cast of gangsters, thieves, hit men, and other shady characters, and The Glass Mask, with its imaginative girl protagonist who yearns for a career on the stage. In previous years I've gotten excited by Romeo X Juliet, a take on the famous family feud which may have precious little to do with Shakespeare but offers plenty of action and romance, and Rose of Versailles, which tells the sad story of a girl reared as a boy, who grows up to serve as the captain of Marie Antoinette's guard. Historical drama, forbidden love, coming-of-age, machine guns and violence -- I never know quite what waits around the corner at AWA.

2) The manga (Japanese graphic novel) reading room. This convention knows that the visiting fans love to read, so it sets aside a nook where we can go, choose from a varied selection of manga volumes, and sit and lose ourselves in a good story. (AWA is all about stories.) I never read many comic books when I was a child; in the manga reading room I can make up for lost time. One small objection: manga novels are usually multi-volume, and too often the room will only make one or two volumes available -- perhaps because they want to be sure we'll be driven to visit --

3) The dealer's room. Here, as at DragonCon, we see how many and varied are the ways in which we fannish fools may be parted from our money. Plenty of manga dealers will offer to supply those volumes missing from the reading room. DVD merchants will hawk those marvelous shows we've been watching in the viewing rooms, so we can see them in all their multi-episode glory; they know, as we know, that outside the convention these shows won't be easy to find, for sale or for rent. Movie posters, trading cards, T-shirts, artwork, anything a geek's heart desires can be found within those walls. Perhaps the most valuable things we can take out of the dealer's room, however, are the inner commodities of self-control and restraint -- to look, to want, and not to buy.

4) Artist's Alley. Area artists with an infinite variety of styles inhabit this room, offering to draw popular or obscure anime characters upon requests. When I visit the Alley, however, I'm not much interested in commissioning drawings of someone else's characters. Instead I write down descriptions of characters from stories I'm working on, and I give them to an artist and ask for sketches of them. I have favorites who seem to understand exactly how my imagination works. When a vision in my head suddenly appears before me in pencil, it's incredibly rewarding. The Alley's only drawback is that whenever I traverse it, I lament my lack of ability with paintbrush and pencil.

5) "Anime Hell." I have to include this because it is certainly one of my favorite things to experience at AWA, but I'm not quite sure how to describe it. It takes place from 10 p.m. to midnight on Friday night, and it consists of a collection of shorts, some intentionally hilarious and some downright ridiculous in their earnestness, all designed to fill the audience with a sense of sublime wierdness. Anime Hell is not for the easily offended, nor is it for those who take themselves too seriously. But I always find plenty to make me laugh till I hurt.

6) Costumes! I get to dress up here, too. Most of the geeks at AWA come clad as their favorite anime characters, but I always see plenty of generic costumes, worn by people like me who fancy daydreaming themselves into another time and place without inhabiting a specific character's skin. Whether specific or generic, costumes are always fun to see.

Like DragonCon, AWA is for people who relish stories and storytelling. Also like DragonCon, AWA is hard to leave. "Day-after-Christmas Syndrome" always characterizes the homeward journey. The best my husband and I can do when we're down in those dumps is assure ourselves and each other that the year is awfully short, and we'll be back at the Cobb Galleria and Renaissance Waverly before we know it, looking over the program and choosing what shows to see and what discussions to take part in. In the meantime, our passion for stories and storytelling will not desert us.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Convention Season, Part I

Since 2003, Labor Day weekend has meant only one thing for me: DragonCon, that glorious festival where we of the geek persuasion, we who love fantasy novels and science-fiction movies and comic books and cartoons, gather to celebrate the things we love and show off our sartorial splendor, everything from from elaborately tailored Ancien Regime gowns to barely-there leather tunics and halters. Adults playing dress-up! What could be more joyful and liberating?

Two weekends later, Anime Weekend Atlanta arrives, and again we gather, this time with a more focused enthusiasm. Again we dress up and proclaim our love for animation, storytelling, and daydreaming. It's not a question of setting the Inner Child free. It's about reminding the Outer Adult that the power to imagine, to fantasize, enriches human existence whether one is forty or eighty-five.

This past AWA, scholar and writer Helen McCarthy put into short, simple words why I look forward to these conventions every year: "It's like going to a big party with only people you like. You know you're going to like them; how can you not, when you all love the same stuff?" This quote may not be 100% accurate, but the gist is there.

So here's my tribute to Convention Season, my second-favorite season next to Christmas, and so sadly past for 2010.

What I Love About DragonCon:

1. Panels. DragonCon is organized into "Tracks" which give me the opportunity to discuss your favorite shows, writers, and myths with others who love them as much as I do. I can go to the "Young Adult" Track to find out what books worth reading have been published this year, and then hop over to the "British Media" Track to discuss Doctor Who, or H.G. Wells, or comic fantasist Terry Pratchett, or adaptations of Shakespeare. In the "Science Fiction/Fantasy Literature" Track I can listen to some of my favorite writers discuss how they create characters and plotlines, and I can participate in a debate about the boundaries of the genres. Courtesy of the "Animation" Track this year, I got to hear Spongebob's Tom Kenny, Futurama's John DiMaggio and Billy West, and Adult Swim's Dana Snyder, George Lowe and C. Martin Croker trade hilarious quips and impersonations, and I got to see a wondrous cartoon short based on a concept Walt Disney worked on with Salvador Dali. The Tracks cover just about every area of media entertainment I love most. And being in the same room with those who share the love is downright electric.

2. The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. This unusual group performs radio drama just as it would have been performed before a studio audience circa 1940. When I first saw them perform at DragonCon 2003, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Since January 2004, I have been. Every DragonCon, ARTC performs both original and adapted science-fiction, fantasy, and/or horror scripts before an enthusiastic audience. I've been involved as an actress (my favorite role came in 2008, with William A. Ritch's script Doom of the Mummy) and as a writer (thus far I've had two scripts performed at D*C, The Challenges of Brave Ragnar in 2007 and The House Across the Way in 2010); to ARTC I owe some of my proudest hours. ARTC brings fantasy to life. So naturally, the crowd at DragonCon embraces us.
(A sister group of ARTC, the Mighty Rassilon Art Players, also deserves a mention here. Until recently, MRAP has delighted D*C audiences with such parodies as Buffy: Warrior Princess, Welcome Back Potter, and From TARDIS With Love. It was in the midst of rehearsals for The Return of the King and I in 2004 and Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter in 2005 that I got to know the man who would become my husband. Thanks beyond measure, MRAP.)

3. Costumes, costumes, costumes! I don't "cosplay" -- that is, dress up to resemble a specific character from science fiction or fantasy literature, movies, or TV. I just don my favorite Renaissance Festival garb and go, imagining myself into the shoes of any fantasy heroine I feel like at the moment. I know first-hand how costumes can enhance daydreams. And while I may prefer a more generic fantasy wardrobe, I do relish watching the march of people clad as Star Wars Stormtroopers, various Doctor Whos, superheroes, supervillains, warriors, and princesses. My favorite characters never fail to put in an appearance somewhere.

4. Dragon*Con TV. I'm not even going to attempt to describe it. But one simply has not been to D*C if one hasn't gotten a glimpse of advertisements featuring "The Most Interesting Man on Tatooine" or "Thinkin' Strips: Zombies Don't Know It's Not Brains."

5. Fire of Brazil, a Brazilian steakhouse within easy walking distance of the Con Hotels in downtown Atlanta. My husband and I have made a tradition of indulging in a meal there for the past several years. It's expensive, but one can actually eat enough food at such a place to make it worth the price. We never fail to run into some of our fellow Con-goers, but the restaurant is a haven of quiet and low lights, a brief respite from sensory overload.

6. Music. DragonCon invites plenty of musical guests, and I always enjoy getting to know some group I've never heard before. This year I discovered Pandora Celtica, an acoustic or a capella harmony group who entertained the crowd with such songs as "Danny Borg" (to the tune of "Danny Boy," of course) and "Do You Want to Date My Avatar?" Every year I also get to revisit old favorites like the Celtic folk-rock group Emerald Rose, who, for their DragonCon performances, mix their traditional favorites with Con-themed tunes like "His Majesty's Airship Corps," a tribute to Steampunk, and a warning to role-playing gamers called "Never Split the Party."

7. The Dealer's Room, home of hundreds of merchants of costumes, posters, books, comics, playing cards, T-shirts, and art, just waiting to separate DragonCon's herd of smart, imaginative fools from their money.

These are just a few things that make DragonCon an event I relish attending every year. Coming up next: What I Love About Anime Weekend Atlanta. Some things may carry over, but they're not quite the same. AWA deserves its own blog.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Fiction Wing, Edition 2

I've been told I need an "attention-getting sentence" to sell my story, Atterwald, to an agent or editor. I have a draft of that sentence:

"Among the shape-shifting hal'ryth'kei, a sweet, sad story unfolds, of a heartless wizard, his invalid son, and the captive fiddler girl who must find a way to heal him -- or else."

If that doesn't sound anything like what I've been sharing with you, well, just wait. And now, without further delay, I present the second section.

He couldn't sleep. He had thought that a shape-change might help him relax, but in his mouse form his fur had stood on edge and his blood had run hot. His heart had felt several sizes too large for his body, as if it had refused to transform with the rest of him. After an hour of this discomfort, he'd given up, shifted back to human, and reached for a book he kept hidden under his pillow.

It was called Forms of Magic Among the Tribes. He'd found it tucked away in the back of a shelf of what served as a library in their village, and he'd checked it out and brought it home hidden under his coat. He'd been racing through it hungrily, but just now he cared to read only one particular section, the entry on owl-magic. An owl-magician was a useful friend and a deadly enemy. He could bless the villages of those who pleased him with the rains needed for a bountiful harvest, but he could send the mightiest of storms to obliterate the homes of those who angered him, or else curse their villages with a crippling drought.

As he read, he envisioned his Verina gliding over a little town, her wings stretched to their full span. As the wind passed through her feathers she cast a cool, gentle breeze down on the folk below. They never looked up -- never realized that an angel was blessing them.

He cast a glance toward his window and noted the blackness that preceded the coming of dawn. Verina would be settling down to sleep now. She would light upon the ground and stretch herself back into her human shape and rest her golden head upon her pillow. Unlike most tribes owls slept in human and not animal form. What treasured possessions did she surround herself with? And what thoughts drifted across her mind as she closed her eyes?

The lettering on the pages blurred, and his hands lost their hold on the book. Thinking he must be drifting off to sleep, he shifted shape, then wrapped his long tail about him, his usual slumbering posture.

His teeth chattered as if he were shivering, yet his fur and skin burned. His heart swelled to bursting. The scent of owl enveloped him. Her spirit permeated the very air he breathed.

The walls were changing, brightening to a soft, muted white. The straw-stuffed mattress beneath him was softening to moss, then to cloud. As he gazed at the vault in the strange ceiling above him, he floated upward to meet it. Closer he rose, until he thought he would collide with it -- and it dissipated like a curtain of mist. A bright blue day-sky stretched above him, dotted with voluminous clouds. His head spun with giddy delight, and his hands reached out to clasp the nearest cloud...

His hands, yet not his hands. They were woman's hands, with long and graceful fingers. This dizzy intoxication, this glory in the day-sky, was likewise not his own.

The white hands tore off a ball of cloud just large enough to hold; then the fingers began to shape it. Gently, carefully, they lengthened it, then smoothed and spread it, until at last it bore the semblance of a pair of great white wings: the wings of the Guider. The fingertips shook, spreading a glimmer-dust over the wings.

The hands drew back, and the cloud-wings began to beat, to rise until their glow filled the sky. His heart/not-heart grew fuller still, and he let out a laugh -- a girl's laugh. The part of him still himself tensed in recognition.

This is her dream. I am in her dream.

A thrill of horror racked him. He was trespassing where he had no right. Should she find out, she would loathe him forever.

How was he to extricate himself? A wave of queasiness swept through him as he floundered. Silver-white feet stumbled on the cloud where they were treading. He drew a breath through his teeth. If he tried too hard to pull himself down from the day-sky he might drag her with him, compounding his crime.

The feet halted. He -- no, she -- looked around, sensing something amiss. She's found me, his mind cried. Guider, your strength!

Her face rose before his eyes, yet he found no anger in it. Her gaze was bright but gentle, her mouth set in the familiar pensive smile. "Good morning," she said, with a nod.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hey, Mainstream Hollywood: I've Had It

I have to be honest with myself. I know I drive my hubby, my family, and my friends crazy with my perpetual complaints about depictions of women on the Silver Screen and the increasing (it seems to me) scarcity of decent movies with female protagonists. They tell me to stop beating a horse that's long dead, buried, and decomposed. I have to tell them with a sigh: I wish I could. I would dearly love never to utter a word of dissatisfaction about the portrayals of women in the movies again. And on occasion, I resolve firmly to do just that, to convince myself that when all is said and done, fictional characters don't matter. But my resolve never sticks, because mainstream Hollywood keeps supplying ample grounds for my ineffectual protests.

This summer, for instance. Mainstream Hollywood has given us a child's handful of movies with female protagonists, but they've been losers with critics (e.g. Salt, Sex and the City 2, Killers) or at the box office (Ramona and Beezus). Where's this year's Mamma Mia? some might cry. Hopefully, nowhere -- since that movie's box-office triumph didn't stop it from being a painfully bad film.

I've just read James Berardinelli of ReelViews' take on the latest "women-will-flock-to-see-it-because-we're-too-stupid-to-tell-the-difference-between-a-good-movie-and-a-bad-one" schlockfest Eat, Pray, Love. Apparently this story makes every effort to turn a shallow, selfish woman who breaks her unoffending husband's heart into a "heroine" worth admiring and even emulating. I put that together with what I know of the other female protagonists we've seen this summer -- the neurotically passive Bella Swan of Twilight: Eclipse; the shrill, screaming harpy-ditz of Killers; the fashionistas of Sex and the City 2; the butt-kicking but inscrutable and painfully fetishized Salt -- and I can't help thinking that mainstream Hollywood has been taken over by screenwriters, male and female, who construct their female protagonists after the pattern of Jack Nicholson's cynical writer in As Good As It Gets: "I think of a man, and then I take away reason and integrity."

I have never cared much for As Good As It Gets, but that line has stayed with me. Reason and integrity -- two very basic human virtues. It's difficult to admire or even care about a character who lacks either quality, let alone both. So they are now my watchwords when it comes to any fictional female I encounter. She doesn't have to kick butt. She doesn't have to save the world. She doesn't even have to have much education. But at significant points in the story, she must display reason and integrity.

My own writing must follow this principle; if it doesn't, I've done very badly indeed. In my story Atterwald, my heroine is asked to choose between saving the man she loves and saving the village where she grew up. She rejects this choice and resolves to try to save both. (To know whether she succeeds, you'll have to check out the novel when it's published; hopefully it will be, before I reach that point in my "Fiction Wing" posts.) Of course she's motivated by emotions, her love for her sweetheart and for the family who raised her. But she understands instinctively that to choose one over the other would seriously compromise her integrity.

The female characters in this summer's mainstream films have not been completely without reason and/or integrity. Both Barbie and Jessie display it in Toy Story 3, as does the smart, courageous character played by Ellen Page in Inception. But in neither film is the female the protagonist. These worthy ladies are supporting players in stories that center on males. Nothing wrong with that -- except that the female protagonists we do see are so irksomely lacking in those important qualities that often we may find ourselves sympathizing more with a supporting (male) character: the put-upon assassin husband in Killers, the forsaken husband in Eat, Pray, Love, and just about every poor soul who has the misfortune to get involved with drama queen Bella Swan.

Frankly, I've had it with these women, and I've had it with the Hollywood that keeps feeding us these bimboes and expecting us to like them. It's enough to make me boycott Hollywood product altogether until the mainstream Big Screen gives us a good movie with a decent female protagonist. The trouble is I'd have to wait so long for such a film that I might miss the next Pixar movie. I'm not sure I can risk that.

I guess I'll have to content myself with complaining -- and many apologies, in advance, to those who love and care for me who have to put up with it.

(NOTE: I have frequently used the word "mainstream" because limited-release, independent films have been known to invest their female characters with reason and integrity. Winter's Bone, by all accounts, is a very fine female-centric story. Foreign films are also off the hook; some of the best female characters of the past decade have come from films with subtitles.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Fiction Wing, Edition 1

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Atterwald, a novel I am preparing (at a distressingly slow rate) for possible publication:

This is a tale of the hal'ryth'kei, the people of the second skin, creatures who are two beings, with two natures in one. It begins with an enmity between two tribes, a difference beyond reconciliation...

For as long as he could remember, Brendis had loved to watch the owl-people parade into view at sunset, riding proud and tall upon their deer. Lately he had a special reason to stare.

He laid his hoe down at his feet, licked his upper lip and frowned at the stinging salt taste of sweat. He looked up and out, toward the rim of trees on the horizon. He held his breath and tensed at the clop of deer's hoofs.

"Back to work, Bren," his brother snapped. Arne was still busy with his hoe; Brendis knew from the crunch of turning earth beside him. "You know how Mother bellows if she catches you idle."

"I don't care if she bellows."

The first owls emerged from the wood -- silver-haired gentlemen in top hats and stiff, sharply tailored frock coats, nodding with regal condescension at the mouse-people at work in the field. Why they did that, Brendis could not say, for the mouse-folk paid no heed to the parade. Only he seemed to know the owls were there.

More owl-folk appeared, all in neat frock coats, all with slim, bolt-straight figures. A tiny part of him hated them and their beauty and aristocratic mien. He hated finding himself enthralled by them, helpless to look away.

His stomach spun as his special reason cantered into view. Unlike the others, she wore a riding-suit of pale gray, with a white kerchief about her neck and a gauzy veil streaming down her back. But even without these odd color choices, she would have stood out from the rest. Some of them might wear their honey-gold hair in ringlets; some of them might be blessed with skin like white rose-petals; some of them might boast soft oval faces with bright, clear gray eyes; but all of these beauties combined in her alone. Even they might have added up to nothing, were it not for her smile, so wistful and pensive that he constantly wondered what she might be thinking.

Brendis had to think of the golden maiden by some name or other, so he had invented one for her: "Verina," the Glory of All Owl-Kind. But this invented name did not satisfy him. He would only feel content when he could present himself to her and ask her true name.

But his kind did not speak to their kind.

He remembered asking his mother just why this was. She had sniffed a non-answer: "Because it isn't done. All we need know about them is that they're there."

Brendis had vowed then and there never to ask his mother a serious question again. In the five years since, he'd kept that vow. Hundreds of serious questions plagued him without mercy on a daily basis, but he kept them to himself and sought answers on his own.

"Pick up that tool now, Bren!" Arne huffed.

Brendis reclaimed the hoe and went through the motions of pawing the earth with it, never taking his eyes from Verina. His breath caught in his throat. Now came the moment that had stirred him for years.

The leader of the parade -- the tallest and proudest-looking of the silver-haired gentlemen, mounted on a six-pointed stag -- folded into himself. His shoulders shrank and his arms and limbs retracted, and suddenly, where a man had been, a wide-winged gray owl hovered in mid-air.

On their leader's signal, the other owl-folk transformed simultaneously; Brendis, his gaze locked on Verina, saw her melt into a ball of bright snowy-white feathers. She stretched her wings, and with the others she rose and soared over the jagged tops of the trees.

Watching them vanish into the horizon, he heard his brother grumble, "Don't see why you stare at the owls. It's not as if they're doing anything remarkable. They're only changing shape."

"It's beautiful when they do it."


"Because they take wing. Imagine what it'd be like, to be bound to the ground one minute and then take to the sky the next."

Arne responded with a grunt and a shake of his head.

Brendis turned his eyes from his brother to the deepening sunset sky. Where had she disappeared to? What might she be looking at right now? Sometimes, when he thought very hard about her, he could imagine himself flying with her, the wind brushing his toes. He could even catch the sharp green scent of the pines below.

Such imaginings were generally fleeting, but lately they'd been growing clearer, more intense, giving him hope of a time to come when he might linger in the air long enough to for him to tell himself he wasn't dreaming.

In the sky with her -- the place he most wished to be. Something strange growing inside him whispered it might not be impossible.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I love Looney Tunes

It's difficult to put into words exactly why something is funny. Descriptions don't manage it. We know funny when we see it. And funny, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I prefer The Simpsons to Family Guy, but legions of fans take the opposite view. I once showed my DVD of The Princess Bride, a hilarous parody of fantasy/adventure movies, to a group of college freshmen, and I could count on one hand the number of laughs I heard. So writing a good explanation of my love for the cartoon shorts released by Warner Brothers during Hollywood's Golden Age isn't as simple a task as it might seem. "Because they're funny" simply won't do, and a detailed explanation of how and why they're funny might fall flat. I know a good number of people, some in my own family, who don't find them funny at all.

Perhaps the best place to begin is this: I love them because when I watch them, I understand the value of caricature -- the exaggeration of a single character trait to ridiculous extremes.

In live-action entertainment, caricature annoys me in the extreme, hence my dislike for most live-action sitcoms. (Monty Python gets a pass; I have a weakness for British accents.) When caricature elbows its way into an hour-long drama or adventure, I resent its intrusion. My husband and I are currently watching our DVDs of Due South, a series I mostly missed the first go-around. The show's two central characters, the compassionate straight-arrow Canadian Mountie and the cynical, tough-talking Chicago cop, seem like caricatures on first acquaintance, but as we get to know them, we see them in depth and dimension that persuades us to make an emotional investment in them. An episode we watched the other night, however, gave me an unpleasant surprise: a guest character, played by Jane Krakowski of Ally McBeal fame, who proved to be the most infuriating type of caricature (for me), the Dumb Blonde Who Won't Shut Up. All the danger and conflict in the episode stems directly from this dimwitted chatterbox's unwillingness to listen when someone else is talking. I kept waiting for her to "get better," to show some dimension, to swim beyond those shallow waters; she never did. The result was an episode nearly as irritating as the character herself.

Yet in animation, caricatures don't make me angry. If they're detailed enough, they can be as endearing as the most well-developed and complex live-action heroes. The best cartoon shorts from the Golden Age, particularly Warner Brothers releases, understand exactly what a caricature should do: inspire us to laugh at ourselves.

All Looney Tunes enthusiasts know that two distinct Daffy Ducks exist: the wild, no-holds-barred Daffy who first bounced across the screen in "Porky's Duck Hunt" in 1937, and the impulsively greedy, calculating Daffy popularized by Chuck Jones in shorts like "Rabbit Fire" and "Ali Baba Bunny." Each Daffy takes an element from the human blueprint and exaggerates it to a raucous extreme: longing to break rules in the first, the drive for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement in the second. They have in common yet another human trait, the desire -- nay, the need -- to win. As we watch him frustrate poor hunter Porky Pig's efforts to apply the laws of basic logic to him, we root for him to continue pole-vaulting over those laws and only wish we could follow; in some way, his victory is ours. Even when we're not rooting for him, we understand him because we sense his presence inside us. When the world is after us with a gun, what more sensible option could there be than to persuade it to aim at someone else? Of course, Daffy's efforts at this, just like our own, are doomed to failure. He gets the gun-blast in the face every time. Blam! Take that, Us!

In almost every Looney Tune character I can find some part of myself. I can identify with Sylvester as he gazes hungrily at that annoying little bird in his precious gilded cage and longs to take him down. Like Foghorn Leghorn, I'd like to have a voice loud enough to sound right even when I'm wrong. When I'm screaming at my frozen computer or waiting an age for a website to load, I'm Wile E. Coyote, fuming at yet another technological failure. Yet these caricatures share a distinctly admirable quality: they never give up.

Then there's Bugs Bunny. He's different from the others because he isn't like us. Rather, as Chuck Jones has pointed out, he's what we would like to be. Who wouldn't want to outsmart hunters, gangsters, bulls, opera singers, gamblers, witches, and Martians with as much panache as he? Because we wish ourselves into his paws, we can imagine his triumphs (for a little while) as our own.

Adult animation fans are often asked a Rorsach Test kind of question: "Are you Disney or Warner Brothers?" My answer is very simple: I'm both. Each one meets a need the other can't quite reach. When I want to get misty-eyed, when my heart needs to latch onto a beautifully-told sentimental tale, I look to Disney. When I want a good, hard laugh at what is best and worst in myself, I look to Warners. I treasure them equally, and I'm very grateful I don't have to do without either.

Now, a short list of favorite Warners cartoons, with a favorite line from each:

"Robin Hood Daffy": "Actually, it's a buck-and-a-quarter quarterstaff, but I'm not telling him that."
"What's Opera, Doc?": (sung) "Yes, magic helmet -- and I'll give you a sample!"
"Duck Amuck": (sung) "Daffy Duck he had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, And on this farm he had an igloo, E--I -- E... I... Oh."
"Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century": "Gad, how do I do it?"
"One Froggy Evening": (sung) "Please don't talk about me when I'm gone..."
"Bugs and Thugs": "He's not in this stove!"
"Rabbit Hood": "I will probably hateth myself cometh the dawn!"

These lines won't make a bit of sense tho those who have never seen the cartoons. But my fellow Looney Tunes fans are probably having a good chuckle right now.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 3

With a four-alarm fire under his collar, a poster on a conservative website declares, "Women put Barack Obama in office!' Of course, since he's a conservative, he's saying this like it's a very bad thing. In his mind an entire gender -- half of humankind -- bears equal responsibility for the election of a politician he dislikes.

If I could meet the man face to face, I might point out to him that I am a Libertarian, not a Democrat, and I did not cast my vote for Barack Obama. Therefore, by no logical standard can I be held accountable for his election. However, I suspect that I would be wasting my breath. That man has drunk the logic-killing hemlock known as Collective Guilt, the notion that an entire group of people should share the blame for the actions of some.

By the logic of Collective Guilt, I should also feel ashamed of the drowning of Susan Smith's and Andrea Yates's children, the false accusations of rape leveled against three Duke University lacrosse players, and the popularity of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. But I refuse to acknowledge responsibility for crimes, wrongs, and misjudgments in which I played no part, simply because I have certain reproductive organs in common with the responsible parties.

Collective Guilt cannot take root in common sense. Anger is behind it -- the kind of blind, unreasoning rage that, in the early '90s, looked at a white truck driver and saw the four white policemen who were acquitted of the charge of brutality against Rodney King. This rage can't content itself with homing in on one or more guilty individuals. It must target a larger share of humanity, sometimes seeking to hold them accountable for atrocities committed before they were born.

As a student of history, I do think it important to examine the weakness in our human nature that made possible such great crimes as human slavery and the Holocaust. Only by knowing how such things happened can we ensure that they never happen again. But I am too young to have owned a slave, or to have given tacit permission for the murder of millions of men, women and children in concentration camps across Europe. While these crimes may have stemmed from weaknesses that all humans (not just select groups of us) share to some degree, and we owe it to ourselves to examine and understand those weaknesses, I should not be punished for them, in the form of either reparations or some angry man's scorn.

A quick look at those very crimes that make us shudder in horror reveals Collective Guilt at their heart. The Nazis sold the German public at large the idea that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ and the failing economy, and so all of them, down to the tiniest infant, should pay for those crimes with their lives. Ministers in the pre-Civil War South declaimed that an ancient curse against one of Noah's sons extended to all blacks, and therefore American slavery was justified. And because huge numbers of people bought these lies, American slavery persisted for decades, and over six million people died in the Holocaust. The individuals caught in these turmoils were never given a chance to defend themselves; they were punished for wrongs, real or imagined, committed by people they had never met.

Why are we so quick to believe in Collective Guilt, when it goes so clearly against anything and everything resembling logic? Simple -- it's an easy way to avoid looking at human guilt, our own imperfect nature. Rather than examine head-on the flaws we all share, we invent a guilty "Them" to stand against a blameless "Us." We can hug our own righteousness if we can heap blame on "Them," and hugging righteousness is, of course, a favorite human pastime.

Each one of us is a member of the flawed human family. In our lifetime we will accumulate a vast store of mistakes, misjudgments, and wrongs for which we must one day be called to account. But each one of us has sins enough to bear as an individual, without adding the additional burden of crimes committed by those who share our gender, race, ethnicity, or nationality. When I stand before my Maker, I will accept the responsibility for my own bad choices, not for my race or gender.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Five Signs That Much Is Right With the World

Reasons for despair are always abundant. You won't have to hunt hard or far to find them. It's Election Year, so campaign ads are infesting our television screens, some promising miracles and quick fixes to complex problems, others savaging other candidates; both types of ads have an equally shaky relationship with the truth. Meanwhile, our economy continues to struggle. Joblessness is unacceptably high. Arabs and Israelis are still dedicated to destroying each other. Women in the Muslim world are still too often shrouded in identity-effacing robes. If that isn't enough to depress us, we can always talk about the weather.

But if we look a little harder, we can still find signs that, on occasion, Life and the World work just as they should. Here are five signs I've found that God is indeed in his Heaven, and on the job.

1. Lindsay Lohan is in jail.
I used to like Ms. Lohan. While her fellow Disney alumna Hillary Duff busied herself with portrayals of characters whose brains are made of fluff (Lizzie McGuire being the most famous example), Lindsay tackled more intelligent characters in movies like The Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, and A Prairie Home Companion. Since then, however, she's displayed a horrifying lack of judgment in both career (Georgia Rule?? I Know Who Killed Me??) and life. Her real-life misjudgments seem centered around the notion that because she's a sparkly celebrity, the universe owes her something and other people's feelings matter not. Granted, she's been cursed with a reprehensible mother who has taught her just about every wrong lesson a mother can teach a child, but it's nonetheless time to hold her accountable for steamrolling over other people. Locking her away is a blow to the eye for Entitlement. Now, if the public would just lose interest in those skanky Kardashian sisters, our popular culture would be substantially cleaner, purer, nobler...

2. Inception is No. 1 at the box office.
I haven't yet seen Christopher Nolan's paranormal thriller, so I can't speak to its quality first-hand. However, in a summer that kicked off with the mediocre Iron Man 2 and has slogged on through the likes of an unadventurous Robin Hood, a tacky Sex and the City 2, a much-better-when-it's-only-two-minutes-long MacGruber, and an A-Team that illuminates near-Shakespearean qualities in the original 1980s TV show, a thought-provoking drama that needs two viewings to be understood is a breath of fresh air. This summer just about every mainstream film is some sort of rehash; even the marvelous Toy Story 3 is a sequel. Kudos to the moviegoing public for showing some love for what we've been missing: a truly original film.

3. Georgia's fountains are working again.
I have a love-hate relationship with rain -- mostly hate. Rain would be all right if I never had to drive in it, run through a parking lot in it, or take my dog for a walk in it. But as much as I loathe rain, even I have to admit it has its uses. Georgia has recently suffered through a long drought. In such conditions, every drop of rain is needed for drinking and bathing; superfluous aesthetics must be ignored. During drought days, few sights are more disheartening than a dry, deserted fountain. Now, thanks to the rain's return, Georgia's fountains look as they should, gleaming in their rightful beauty. The whish of the water whispers to us, "No drought here." Long may the fountains flow.

4. Georgia's rigid sex offender laws are being relaxed.
Pedophiles and other such deviants are human garbage, but the laws put in place to deal with their crimes, like schools' zero-tolerance policies under which heroin and Tylenol are equally banned, are based on a one-size-fits-all principle that only works in retail, and very rarely then. Under these laws, a sixteen-year-old boy who sleeps with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend would be subject as an adult to restrictions that prevent him from living too close to a church or school, as if he were no different from a kidnapper or molester. Now our legislature has finally realized this may be a tad on the unjust side. About time.

5. I have nerds in my classes this quarter.
As a teacher, I am obligated to help all my students as they need it and treat each one with the respect that one human being owes another. But as a nerd, I can't help smiling inside when I encounter fellow nerds in my classes. By "nerds," of course, I mean people I can imagine running into when my husband and I make our yearly pilgrimages to the Georgia Renaissance Festival, DragonCon, and Anime Weekend Atlanta -- people who know what a Tardis is, who can talk about the differences between J.K. Rowling's and J.R.R. Tolkien's novels and their screen adaptations, or who have a favorite film made prior to 1970. I appreciate the assurance their presence gives me of the wideness of our nerdy tribe. They don't get extra consideration on essays and tests, but I like knowing they're there.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 2

At the end of my last blog on this subject, I left you with a question: what can we do about the human tendency to think of ourselves and others in collective terms? If we all think collectively on occasion, if we can't help ourselves, why should be bother trying to do anything about it?

Becuase collectivist thinking threatens constantly to compromise our belief in God's most precious gift to humankind -- free will.

Our relationship with free will is ambiguous. On the one hand, free will means we have choices, and we like the sound of that. on the other, it means we are responsible for those choices and must bear the blame if they lead to bad outcomes. We don't care so much for this. So we manufacture collectivism, one of our most effective and convenient little devices for relieving ourselves of this responsibility. If certain virtues and flaws are programmed into our group identity, they are neatly beyond our control.

I should note that not all collectivist thinking is created equal. It's all flawed, but some more seriously than others. Often we make judgments about individuals based on a group affiliation they have chosen -- profession, political party, etc. "Lawyer jokes," for instance, are quite common. Greg Smith may not conform to all these negative stereotypes, but his choice to enter the legal profession may indeed say something important about him. Likewise, when we find out Betty Jones is a Republican, certain assumptions about where she stands on the economy, the war on terror, or abortion might not fall too wide of the mark. Of course, not all lawyers or Republicans are alike. No group, even a chosen group, thinks entirely in a monolithic block. But these judgments based on chosen group memberships are not as threatening to the concept of free will as those judgments we base on gender, race, age, or nationality of birth -- matters in which we have no say.

If we do not choose our gender, age, or race, we cannot be blamed for them, and it makes no sense whatsoever to hold an entire gender, age, or race accountable for the misdeeds of a few or even a majority. Likewise, we cannot justly be credited or praised for our gender, age, or race, and the virtues of a few or even a majority cannot be attributed to all. Why should anyone expect to be rewarded or honored for something he or she neither earned nor accomplished?

We expect it all the time. We seek out that cheap rush of pride that comes with the accomplishments of "someone like us." I'm as guilty of this as anyone. It delights me to see women nominated for Academy, Emmy, or Tony Awards in the writing or directing categories and winning Nobel Prizes for science and literature, confirming that women can and do excel in these areas -- as if I had any claim to their brilliance. How often do we settle for this cheap pride, rather than making the effort to accomplish something of our own?

Similarly, when we decide that gender, age, or race are somehow blameworthy qualities, we can let ourselves off the hook. The most dangerous negative stereotype is the one we believe about ourselves. Young men who convince themselves that Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods committed adultery not because they are flawed individuals but because they are male and "that's just what men do," no longer have to make the effort to be faithful; they've decided that their "playing around" is a foregone conclusion. A young black woman who believes that people of her age and gender are "naturally" bad at math need not put time and energy into her math homework; when she fails, she can always claim that being black and female, she couldn't help it.

With every such notion, we kill our belief in free will by degrees. We don't even realize that at the start of it all, we chose to believe the collectivist lies, and afterwards we will reap the negative consequences of that choice.

The best way to start combatting collectivism is to own our choices, good and bad. We can claim both our accomplishments and our mistakes, without seeking to pilfer other people's. When our achievements reap reward, we can tell ourselves and others, "I did that -- not because of any gender or race I happen to belong to, but because of the individual I am, with a mind and soul unlike any others."

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Feminists, pick your pop-culture battles!

(WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Toy Story 3. Read only if you've seen the film or have no intention of seeing it. It's a good movie. Go see it. Then come back and read my blog.)

Leaving indie films and foreign films out of the equation for the moment, I will state that the number of high-quality mainstream movie releases for Summer 2010 (so far, at least) could be counted on one hand. Among those, Pixar's Toy Story 3 is by far the most enjoyable. In fact, nothing else comes close. This smart, funny animated film about toys is a single bright spot in a summer movie season dominated by dreck.

But when Natalie Wilson of Ms. Magazine goes to the film, she sees not an oasis of quality but a bearer of dangerous sexist and homophobic messages. According to a recent article she posted, Toy Story 3, while admittedly clever and fun, tries to convince its audience that the only good toy is a heterosexual male toy. First, she claims that male toys outnumber female -- hardly unusual when most films feature five significant male roles for every one female. Second, the female characters are presented in a stereotypical light: Andy's mother is a nag, and Barbie is a helpless over-emotional whiner. Third, the film bashes gays in the form of Ken, whose metrosexual love of fashion is severely mocked. Due to these three points, we should look on the film with suspicion even as we enjoy it, lest we buy into the anti-PC messages.

I've seen Toy Story 3, and as my husband could certainly tell you, if a movie contains sexist messages I can see them coming a mile away. I saw nothing remotely sexist, or maliciously collectivist in any way, about this film, and my jaw is scraping the floor at Wilson's criticisms.

What I notice first is what Wilson doesn't mention. Only one female character possesses stereotypically negative "female" qualities, and her role is very small: Molly, Andy's little sister, who seems all set to become one of those shallow, hyper-appearance-conscious teenage girls whom psychologist Mary Pipher calls "female impersonators." Were all the female characters variations of Molly, Wilson might have a point. But Wilson doesn't mention Molly at all; instead she disparages the mom, who doesn't nag any more than any other mom might while supervising her son's packing for college. Wilson also conveniently forgets the film's most appealing female figure: little Bonnie, whose imagination and gentle care with toys almost make the loyal Woody forget Andy, and who becomes the rightful inheritor of Andy's toys at the end. (The last scene before the credits roll, which features Andy and Bonnie playing together with Woody, Buzz & co., is one of the most touching in recent memory.) If Molly is a female impersonator, Bonnie is adorably and delightfully herself. I have perfect faith that she'll grow up to be an art nerd, not a fashionista.

As far as the female toys go, how did Wilson miss Jessie? As in Toy Story 2, Jessie is tomboyishly active, not a passive porcelain doll like Bo Peep (whose absence from Toy Story 3 I scarcely felt). Feminists like Wilson might have a problem with Jessie because her judgments are rash, and while she makes decisions, they're often the wrong decisions. But to me, one of the greatest signs of strength is the ability to admit your mistakes and make every effort to correct them -- and this Jessie does, in spades. Moreover, Barbie's depiction is much more complex than Wilson would have us believe. Sure, she's first seen bawling when Molly throws her into the donation box, and sure, she moons over Ken and his dream house (what else could we expect?), but when it counts, she takes decisive and clever action to save her friends. Criticisms of Ken don't hold much water, either. At the film's end, Ken the "metrosexual" becomes the strong, wise leader of the Sunnyside Day Care toys that his one-time boss, the tyrannical Lotso Huggin' Bear, failed to be.

Yet I wonder most at Wilson's choice of Toy Story 3 for her attack, while apparently oblivious to the multitude of sexist messages that surround her at the multiplex.

Did she miss Killers, in which Katherine Heigl plays, as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum puts it, a character "stitched together from shreds of every dispiriting, routinely accepted trait so popular and so soul-killing in the female characters currently prevalent in crappy action-romantic comedies"? The trailer alone made me want to gouge my eyes out, as Heigl flies into her shrill, helpless shrew routine (Eeeeew! A gun!) while her assassin-for-hire husband tries to save their lives. I'm told she "gets better" at the end, but a sudden shift in the last five minutes of a film, as opposed to a change that's been coming on gradually, fails to convince. Here, it seems, would be a far worthier mark for Ms. Wilson's darts.

Did she miss the posters for Eclipse, the third film in the incredibly popular (and I use the word "incredibly" in its most literal sense) Twilight series? Here is a story that features a "heroine" incapable of thinking for herself, ruled in every way by her desire for a hunky male, at the mercy of the stronger characters and forces that surround her. It romanticizes female passivity and dependence. Bella Swan makes Toy Story 3's Barbie look like Xena Warrior Princess, yet this character has become the conduit of thousands of tween-to-teen girls' daydreams. Surely this is more sexist, and more potentially damaging, than anything we've seen in Pixar.

Did she fail to notice how movies with male protagonists continue to outnumber movies with female protagonists, and how often female-centered movies are notoriously poor in quality? Did she have a thought for how often, even in supposed "chick flicks," the female characters are called upon to do little more than look glamorous and pine for men (yes, Sex and the City 2, I'm looking straight at you)?

Hollywood needs to clean up its act where women are concerned. It needs to start releasing female-centered films that are actually good. But attacking Toy Story 3, a movie that offers more good news than bad where its females are concerned, smacks of Boy (or Girl)-Who-Cried-Wolf Syndrome -- never the solution to any problem.

If feminist pop culture critics are looking for a real sign of something wrong, they should hearken to Ellen, the "Modern Lady" of Info-Mania. A couple of weeks ago, this light-hearted and often hilarious look at pop culture featured Ellen's look at the strong undercurrent of misogyny in beer commercials. She let roll a series of clips which feature attractive women being knocked unconscious in touch football, catapulted into pools, pooped on by horses, and otherwise disparaged and humiliated. The gender hostility was palpable. (What such commercials say about men isn't exactly flattering, either.) Though Info-Mania presents all its segments in a humorously cynical way, this one left me more sad than amused, as I wondered at yet another apparent sign that guys and gals don't trust or even like each other anymore.

This is a problem worth looking into, Ms. Wilson. Aim your arrow here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 1

(I call this "Part 1" not because I have a specific series planned, but because I have more to say on this subject than one blog can cover, and I know I'll be revisiting it.)

When I teach Freshman Composition, I start by asking my students what, in their view, separates a good essay from an okay-to-bad one. After they give me some of their opinions, I give them mine, and often they coincide beautifully. One thing they always bring up is "specific details," whereupon I explain that specificity is achieved through the kinds of examples used. Okay-to-bad essays rely entirely on the collective, the plural, the hypothetical. Good essays balance the collective with the individual, the plural with the singular, the hypothetical with the actual. As a result, good essays linger in our memory, while okay-to-bad essays dwindle into darkness about fifteen minutes after we have read them.

Individual, singular, actual examples have a greater hold on the memory for a simple and obvious reason: readers relate to them. Confronted with statistics and percentages, we may nod our heads and think about them for a minute or two, but we quickly move on. Confronted with a specific situation involving an individual with a name, we pause long enough to consider, "What if that were me?" or "What would I do in that same situation?" It's easy to dismiss statistics and collective examples as if they had nothing to do with us; with a well-told and on-point example involving an individual, that individual's problem -- momentarily, at least -- becomes ours. This difference in response offers a hint of the problems with collectivist thinking.

Collectivist thinking is fairly easy to define. It's synonymous with "Groupthink," the tendency to think of ourselves and others in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, religion, etc. To put it more concretely -- every time you see a T-shirt or a bumper sticker that reads, "It's a [fill-in-the-blank] thing; you wouldn't understand," you're looking at collectivist thinking.

When we're reading an essay and the writer backs up her point with a specific, individual example, and we relate to that example regardless of the age, gender, or race the individual comes from, that example gives us an inkling of the similarities that bind the human family together. Collectivist thinking is in the business of highlighting differences rather than similarities, discord rather than harmony. "We're over here; they're over there. We have our problems; they have theirs."

Worst of all: We -- the people of the same age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. -- come in all kinds; we vary. But They -- the people from The Other Generation, Gender, Race, etc. -- are All The Same.

The biggest problem with collectivist thinking is that it's impossible to avoid. The hilarious Muppet musical Avenue Q tells us, "Everyone's a little bit racist"; sadly, it's true that everyone's a little bit collectivist. Collectivism is our defense mechanism against the often overwhelming complexity of the human race; it's our misguided attempt to give sense to inexplicable behavior. "Oh, she expects me to guess what she's feeling because that's what women do," or "He's attracted to the gangsta lifestyle because he's a black teenager," may be easier for us to understand than the fact that these people make questionable choices because of a myriad of factors and variables that have gone into making them the individuals they are. Also, collectivist thinking comes from a dangerous place: our experience. Let's say, for argument's sake, that everyone over seventy whom we have gotten to know well has turned out to be quick-tempered and narrow-minded. It's easy, then, to think all people over seventy must be the same. If we meet a new person over seventy, even though that person may be brilliant and sweet-tempered, our low expectations color our experience with this person; we're likely to see narrow-mindedness and bad temperament even where there is none, because that's what we think we'll find.

I've seen this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in action: an acquaintance of mine, some years ago, was distressed because her boss, with whom she got along well, had resigned, and she was worried about who might replace him. Her biggest worry, she confided, was that her new boss might be a woman. She had clashed with every female boss she'd ever had, and as far as she was concerned, if the new boss turned out to be female, a clash was inevitable. The new boss was indeed female, and, sure enough, my acquaintance clashed with her. I had to wonder how much of this clash was due to the new boss's short-sighted personality, and how much was due to my acquaintance's low expectations.

When we form our expectations based on collectivist thinking, we make trouble for ourselves, and the stereotypes on which our expectations are founded perpetuate themselves. Yet we continue to think collectively -- to attempt to understand people in monolithic group blocks rather than on a case-by-case basis -- despite the fact that sooner or later, we should figure out that any attempt to understand a group, without accounting for the marks of individuality within that group, is doomed to failure.

I'm not innocent in this. I recall the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. I had forgotten all about the timing of the announcement (I'd gotten sick of this story some months ago and was trying to ignore it), and I'd gone to the store to pick up groceries. As I was driving through the parking lot, I caught sight of two young black women shouting for joy and high-fiving each other. Immediately I remembered that the verdict had just been announced. My next thought: "They acquitted him."

Why did I assume at once that these two young women were celebrating O.J.'s acquittal? What evidence did I have for this assumption? One of them could have just gotten engaged, or one could have been congratulating the other on a promotion at work, or they might have been old friends who hadn't seen each other in over a year. The potential reasons for their behavior are infinite. But I concluded that it was about O.J., because months and months of media coverage had convinced the collectivist part of my brain that every single African-American believed O.J. was innocent and wanted him acquitted, or simply wanted him acquitted regardless of his innocence or guilt.

Yes, the announcement had just been given, and yes, Simpson was acquitted. But I will never know what those two young women were celebrating about. All I'll know is that when I saw them, collectivist thinking came first, and common sense later. Though I try to keep myself aware of it and to curb it whenever I can, I'm just as prone to collectivist thinking as anyone else. And it scares me.

Those Muppets in Avenue Q are on to something. So, what can we do about it?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Favorite TV Cops

Television gives me a chance to daydream myself into the shoes of people who do a job I would never consider doing in real life.

I could never be a cop. I admire the work that cops do; I like knowing every minute of the day that a large force of people has accepted the duty of ensuring my safety, along with everyone else's. But I would make a lousy police officer. For one thing, I daydream far too much; a good cop stays alert and aware at all times. For another, I'm a physical coward; I can't run, punch, or kick worth a darn. Finally, and most crucially, cops must deal on a regular basis with humanity at its most reprehensible. Violence and perversion I'd prefer not to think about, they have to confront head-on. (I couldn't make it past the second episode of Law & Order: SVU because I was too icked out.) Yet when I watch a high-quality cop show, for a little while I can see through the eyes of these men and women who do what I couldn't.

So here's a salute to five of my favorite television cops (though not, I should add, my only favorites -- just the five I've chosen to salute in this blog), each of whom shines in my eyes for different reasons.

1. DCI Gene Hunt, Ashes to Ashes. If 24's short-fused, torture-happy Jack Bauer put on several pounds and sported a British accent, he might be something like the wild and crazy Hunt. Due process demands fair treatment for those accused of crimes, but in fiction-land it's enormously satisfying to watch an obviously guilty criminal get his butt kicked, and Hunt's favorite method of interrogation involves cornering sleazebags in the Men's Room and shoving their heads in a urinal. Contrasting with more cerebral DI Alex Drake (see #5), Hunt lets his finely-honed instincts drive him right where he must go. He hasn't undergone a single day of sensitivity training, and one never knows just what he'll do or say next. This unpredictability, coupled with the charismatic performance of actor Philip Glenister, makes him compulsively watchable.

2. Constable Benton Fraser, Due South. A live-action Dudley Do-Right, to be sure -- but in this case, we can trust him with our lives. The anti-Gene Hunt, he hasn't undergone a day of sensitivity training because he would never need it; his instinctive civility and good nature come through in his dealings with everyone, from his fellow cops to civilians to perpetrators. (To give you an idea, he walks into Chicago carrying his gear because he keeps letting someone else take the next taxi in his stead.) This goofy kindness is allied with erudition and powers of perception worthy of Sherlock Holmes. On paper, Fraser might come across as impossibly perfect, but his boundless goodness is handled with wit, and actor Paul Gross makes him simultaneously irritating and loveable.

3. Detective Lennie Briscoe, Law & Order. When this show was at its peak, few shows were more compelling. Many fans watched it for Sam Waterston's unstoppable DA Jack McCoy (admittedly an intriguing figure), but Detective Lennie Briscoe, played by Tony Award-winning actor Jerry Orback, kept me tuning in week after week. Wry, acerbic, blessed with a dry wit and a worldly-wise baritone voice, Briscoe could inject humor into the most disturbing situations. ("Three gray suits -- a wild and crazy guy," he remarks as he and his partner search the closet of a murdered Parks & Recreation official.) He's what we'd often like to be: the clever, detached observer who never loses his panache. Sadly, Orbach died during the show's run. While other departing actors were replaced without a single lost beat, the show was never the same without Briscoe.

4. Agent Olivia Dunham, Fringe. Amazon women who can out-punch, out-kick, or out-shoot evil males are a dime a dozen, but Olivia merits a mention here because she's a thinker, with strong powers of observation as well as imagination. Her soldier-like dedication to her work has left her personal life rather sparse, but unlike other shows confronted with the same situation, Fringe does not treat Olivia as an object of pity. She's not cold or misanthropic; we see in her haunted eyes that she carries with her every misfortune she has seen, but she is strong enough to bear it. In this paranormal series, experiments performed on Olivia as a child have left her with supernatural abilities, but only a few episodes show her utilizing them. She doesn't need them in order to be strong.

5. DI Alex Drake, Ashes to Ashes. Conscious of political correctness, many writers fear to show female crimefighters as fallible or vulnerable. Yet here we have a lady cop who's been literally shot back in time to 1982, and who is on occasion threatened, kidnapped, and rendered helpless. So what's so wonderful about her? While she may be down from time to time, she's never out. Even in the aftermath of being rescued, she bounces back with all her strength. Like Olivia Dunham, Alex leads through her brain, utilizing her knowledge of abnormal psychology to work out the most puzzling crimes. And like Constable Fraser, she responds to those in need, even frightened gun-toting "perps," with perception and empathy. Alex doesn't seem to know kung fu. We don't see her going in for a lot of hand-to-hand combat. Compassion and intellect are her weapons, and she bears them with style.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What's wrong with contemporary Hollywood, Part 2

"The Problem of Remakes and Sequels"

Shrek Forever After. Sex and the City 2. Iron Man 2. Robin Hood. The A-Team. The Karate Kid. Toy Story 3. Is it just me, or do this summer's movie offerings carry a distinct whiff of "been-there-done-that"? Is it getting harder to find a movie potentially worth seeing, that is neither a sequel to an earlier film nor a remake, "re-envisioning," or "reboot" of an older movie or TV show?

I should point out, before I go too far, that remakes and sequels are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, nor are they unique to contemporary Hollywood. Remakes, for instance: in the 1930s and early 1940s, studios looked back at their output in the very early '30s, the dawn of the Talkies, wrinkled their noses at the primitive technology of just a few years before, and said to themselves, "I'll bet if we made it again now, with our superior sound technology, we could make it better." In some cases, they weren't far wrong. I haven't seen the 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol, but I can say that the 1938 remake, starring Errol Flynn and David Niven, is a fine film. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was adapted for film three times in ten years -- first in 1930, then in 1936, and once again in 1940; it's generally acknowledged that the 1940 version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, is the definitive adaptation, the undisputed classic. Even after the craze of "let's-remake-those-primitive-early-talkies" passed, some remakes continued to be high-quality. Alfred Hitchcock remade his own 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1956; while I'm partial to the earlier film (largely because Peter Lorre stars in it), many film buffs prefer the '56 version. A Star is Born was first filmed in 1937 but got its definitive version in 1954 (though the less said about the 1970s remake, the better). A fair number of film fans like 1957's An Affair to Remember at least as well as the original 1939 Love Affair. So remakes don't have to be bad. What makes the difference between a remake that equals or even surpasses its original, and one we'd rather forget?

It is not, as many think, the remake's closeness to the original in terms of dialogue and setting. Gus Van Sant attempted a scene-for-scene remake of 1960's Psycho, and despite (or perhaps because of) the duplication, this remake has gone down in recent film history as an unqualified disaster. What was the remake missing? What are so many of these revamps of classics often missing?

Attempts to be faithful to the letter of the original are likely to fail. But it helps if those remaking an older film, particularly a classic, can at least wrap their minds around the spirit, the soul of the original, and understand what made it a memorable film. Remakes can't duplicate the spirit of an earlier film any more than the letter, but if the writers and directors are guided by an understanding of that spirit, they're more likely to put their finger on how to make the story work for a contemporary audience. Recent remakes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Day the Earth Stood Still conspicuously lacked this understanding; accordingly, they tanked. Honestly, who got the idea that Adam Sandler was the modern era's Gary Cooper, or that Keanu Reeves could make an adequate substitute for Michael Rennie? In the 1936 Frank Capra film, Longfellow Deeds is naive but wise, and emerges as a hero; Sandler's Deeds is a fool throughout. Michael Rennie is stalwart and strong as the alien Klaatu; Reeves is a mere mannequin. Similarly, I don't hold out much hope for the upcoming remake of The Karate Kid, because in the teasers I've seen, Jaden Smith exudes 'tude, whereas in the original, the underdog Ralph Macchio has a sweetness about him, and we root unreservedly for this nice guy to finish first.

If Hollywood must remake, revamp, re-envision, or reboot older material, it's better off doing what it's doing this summer: sticking with material from the 1980s. Today's filmmakers are more likely to understand the spirit and soul of something like The A-Team than something like Casablanca; after all, these filmmakers actually lived through the '80s. However, the problem remains: we've seen it before. Classic Hollywood could get away with remakes because more films were made per year; we got more remakes, but we also got more original material. In contemporary Hollywood, where we see far fewer films per year, we can't afford so many remakes. I know I can't be the only one getting impatient for something new.

Like remakes, sequels aren't necessarily bad. Some sequels manage to surpass their originals. 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein is more admired by today's cinephiles than 1930's Frankenstein, though both are good films. Most fans of the Star Wars films name the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, as the best. More recently, Toy Story 2 and The Dark Knight proved at least as good as their originals; some fans like them even better. X-Men United, the second of three films in the series, is lauded as superior to both its original and its sequel. I'm not a fan of Iron Man 2, but plenty of reputable critics liked it.

So where's the problem with sequels? For me, it's a simple matter of understanding the components of a good story. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a movie strikes box-office gold, the powers in Hollywood deny that movie's plot the right to an ending. Like American television shows (and often to the same bad effect), they have to keep going and going. Even the best studios are falling prey to sequel fever. Proverbial and literal wild horses could not stop me from going to see Toy Story 3, and The Incredibles cries out for a sequel, but with plans for sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. (two stories that came to suitable ends) in the works, Pixar Studios may destroy its own reputation as the one studio in Hollywood that has never released a bad film. Its rival animation studio, Dreamworks, has long since succumbed to sequel fever. The first Shrek film offered a funny, moving tale that managed to parody and salute fairy tales at the same time, not an easy feat. But with each successive sequel the charm has diminished. The first sequel had its moments, but the third was disastrous, killing my taste for a fourth. And all the sequels forgot the most important thing: the story had finished! Dreamworks's Spring 2010 release, How to Train Your Dragon, is actually better than even the first Shrek, and it comes to an enormously satisfying conclusion. Now, thanks to high box-office returns, the studio plans to blast that conclusion with a sequel.

Unlike remakes, sequels to popular films are almost sure-fire box-office successes, and, of course, this is, and has always been, Hollywood's bottom line. Is the proliferation of remakes and sequels a sign that the studios are fresh out of original ideas, or are those studios simply giving the public what it wants? (I suspect it may be a combination of both.) If we're going to see any change in the picture, then we, the moviegoing public, have to demand more of Hollywood. As Charlotte Bronte asserts, "It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility"; we want action, in fiction as in life. We have to let them know, with our box-office dollars, that we're hungry for something new and different. We want to be taken to new worlds; we want the thrill of discovery, and we should not be forced to settle for the comfort of familiarity.

Enough already with the "been-there-done-that."