Monday, November 21, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 5: Understanding

My previous blog concentrated on reading as the mechanism that transports us to places and times beyond our own experience, worlds in which we may be as strong, clever, witty, brave, or beautiful as we dream of being. But what would persuade us to pick up a book that takes us into a world where we're not even keen to visit, let alone live?

Curiosity. The desire to know.

Three years ago I decided to read Orwell's 1984. I'd somehow gotten through high school and over ten years of college without having to read it, and I knew it for an important political novel, an examination of life (if you can call it that) in a totalitarian state. How do people function when their most fundamental rights of choice are taken from them? I wanted to know, so I read the book. While I certainly can't claim to have enjoyed it as I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings or Watership Down, I came away with a deep admiration for Orwell's direct and vivid writing style and a determination never to vote for a political candidate who has not read and understood 1984.

It hasn't been easy for me to hold fast to this determination in today's political climate. Populist social conservatives may regard 1984, like all fiction, as a waste of time, and may never have bothered to read it. On the other hand, big-government liberals may have read it, but they don't seem to have understood it; they evidently think that with a push here or a tweak there, Big Brother can be turned into a good guy.

But here's where matters get sticky: a great novel, play, or poem may be "understood" in different ways by different readers. For me, Orwell's novel illuminates the downward spiral that starts when we feel the choices we make and the responsibilities that go with them are too heavy for our weak and ignorant shoulders to bear, and we want someone else, someone wiser and more powerful, to relieve us of the burden. But not everyone sees it my way. Some readers might see Othello as a cautionary tale of what happens when young people refuse to listen to their parents; others see, instead, a fascinating study of psychological deterioration, or the toxic effects of racism. Some readers might be drawn to The Iliad for its depiction of the relationships between gods and men, while others are more intrigued by its portrayal of the bonds forged between soldiers in wartime. What we find when we explore a good book speaks to who we are as individuals and the values and experiences we bring to the table. Readers and writers are constantly journeying to meet one another in the middle.

We learn most, I believe, when we're open to being changed in ways we do not expect, or reminded of some truth we might have forgotten. Curious about the lives women lead in nations where Islamic Law relegates them to the status of slaves, I turned to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. What I saw most clearly wasn't the unjust oppression of women (though this was certainly there) but those same women's determination to assert their individuality and their right to learn in a society that attempts to deny them both. Seeking a story of oppression, I got a story of courage, and was reminded of the close connection between the two.

1984 is fiction. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir. Yet both shed a light on a basic human truth: Imagination is a powerful organ, and it demands exercise, whatever stumbling blocks a government may throw in its path. When we read -- particularly when we read for understanding as well as pleasure -- we are flexing the muscles of liberty.

Frederick Douglass is right. Reading is freedom.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 4: Adventure and Escape

My students always tell me that one of the chief joys of reading is "escape." For me, escape means the chance to see the world through the eyes of someone different from you -- different in race, background, nationality or ethnicity, maybe even species.

I love becoming a dragon. When one is feeling small and insignificant and set upon by the world, what can be more satisfying than imagining oneself as a mighty creature with a thirty-foot wingspan, capable of incinerating enemies with a mere sigh? Often, if I want to become a dragon, I have to change my gender. In children's and even adult fantasy literature, female dragons can be hard to find, unless I want to read Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, which I don't. (Ugh! I still remember what a dreadful movie Eragon was.) But that's another wonderful thing about reading: for a time, I can even become male, and I can take to the sky as Cressida Crowell's lovable Toothless, or J.R.R. Tolkien's arrogant and deadly Smaug (darned shame about that vulnerable spot) or George R.R. Martin's fierce black Drogon.

I do wish I might fly as female, and I'm actively looking for fantasy tales with dragon heroines, largely because I'll soon begin work on such a story myself. A duology by one of my favorite fantasy authors, Robin Hobb -- Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven -- beckons me from my bookshelf. Yet I have to say, "Later. When I've finished exploring Elantris and surviving Westeros." After all, I can't read everything at once, though I do try; usually I alternate between four different books.

Most of them are fantasy novels, because they offer extreme escape while addressing a basic need we all know, to which we can all relate. The goal of most heroes and heroines in fantasy literature, whether dragon or dwarf, human or hobbit, is to find their power, to discover what is extraordinary in themselves, a strength that will help them thrive. Often this power comes as a surprise. Bilbo Baggins doesn't know he's built for adventure; he is more concerned with being on time for dinner. Yet when a visiting dwarf questions his fitness for the dangerous task at hand, he's all ready to try his hand at adventure, and throughout The Hobbit, his success continues to surprise him. Hermione Granger doesn't know what to do with the massive intellect and the magical gifts she has been given. But when she discovers a race of mythical beings trapped in slavery, she makes up her mind to help them, and persists even when everyone around her, even her friends, is ridiculing her and telling her to stop. As characters like these astonish themselves, we may wonder, however old we are, what surprises might lie waiting in our own hearts and minds. Even as we escape, we're working with longings at the heart of human nature -- longings to be exceptional and to find some path to victory, great or small, in a harsh and inhospitable world.

A little while ago, my interest in dragons working upon me, I picked up an intriguing novel by Jo Walton called Tooth and Claw, which is basically a nineteenth-century British novel, with all the conventions and problems typical of nineteenth-century British novels -- patterned specifically after the works of Anthony Trollope -- in which all the characters are dragons. If you're wondering how such a thing could possibly work, trust me, it does. Parsons and servants have their wings bound. Sickly children are devoured by their elders (it's called "consumption") and when an old family patriarch dies, his corpse, along with his gold, is divided among his heirs. Maidens have gold scales, and when they blush pink, it's either a sign of true love or a mark of indiscretion. So as I read this book, my new enthusiasm for fantasy literature intersected with a much older fascination of mine: the realistic past, the worlds inhabited by the likes of Jane Eyre and Ebenezer Scrooge. My standard rule is that the further removed a story's setting from my own place and time, the more keen I will be to read that story.

Time travel is still a science fiction thing. The closest we can come to experiencing the past is to pick up a book. My father loves history books; I prefer fiction, either set or (better) written in the past. Not only can I learn about environments different from my own, but here, as in fantasy literature, I can become exceptional in ways where I fall short in the real world. Despite my doughy frame, I can have the strength of Achilles. I can have the sparkling wit and grace of Elizabeth Bennet, the generosity and understanding of Anne Elliot, the dignity of Dorothea Brooke, the raw courage of Marian Halcombe. I seek out heroes and (especially) heroines with at least one outstanding quality I particularly admire, and then I step into their shoes and let them show me around their worlds. Maybe I can pick up a few tips from them.

Through the pages I escape my own routines and embark on adventures that might prove too much for me should I meet them in the real world; yet I do get an idea or two on how I might triumph over real adversity. (What would Bilbo Baggins do?) And when I come back to myself and the here and now, I'm always just a little bit different for having seen through their eyes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 3: Advice for the Non-Reader

One of the greatest challenges a reader can face is understanding why some people don't read.

After all, aren't there so many good reasons to read? In all the classes I teach, I ask my students who are readers to tell me what they get out of the activity. Almost invariably they mention that reading offers them an escape from real-life stress; this is the first answer I get. Other excellent responses follow: reading improves vocabulary; reading broadens their perspectives on the world and encourages them to relate to situations and people they would never encounter in real life; reading helps them understand problems. From my students' mouths I hear all the reasons why I love to read.

Yet if reading offers understanding, adventure, and escape, why do people reject it? Since I often have as many non-readers as readers in my classes, it's my business to find an answer to that question. I've asked my friends and fellow teachers for help, and this is the best we can come up with:

Many young people grow up in bookless houses. They never see their parents reading. Excursions to the library are not part of their routine; bedtime stories are unknown. The only place where they encounter books is school. Most of us associate school, at least the part that takes place in the classroom, with work rather than fun. Those who read only at school tend to associate reading with work, something to be abandoned when leisure time presents itself. No matter how good the books they read in school may be, reading is still work in their minds.

The key to helping a non-reader become a reader is breaking this association, and connecting reading with fun.

This new connection isn't likely to happen if non-readers leap straight to Moby Dick or War and Peace -- unless they're especially interested in marine life or Russian history. Non-readers should begin reading to their interests, those things they already enjoy. Are they interested, for example, in sports? Then instead of getting all their sports news from watching CNN Sports Center, they should try reading Sports Illustrated, a good magazine with articles that go into depth and detail about their subjects. Over time -- this doesn't happen quickly -- as non-readers read about things they enjoy, they start to feel more comfortable with the printed word; they may move on from SI to books by or about sports heroes. They may never read Moby Dick, but at least they start to see what reading has to offer them: deeper understanding and exploration, and even the chance to step into the shoes of people they admire.

Then, when they have families of their own, their children will grow up seeing their parents with their noses in books and magazines.

And so the race of readers marches forward into new generations, even as prophets of doom continue to bray that print culture is dead.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 2: The Making of a Reader

One of the truths I stress in my college Freshman Composition classes is that good readers are made, not born. The ability to read well, to learn from and take joy in the printed word, is not some gift a benevolent fairy bestows on us while we're in our cradle; rather, it is a skill which we develop with time and practice.

Naturally, some of my students wonder how I became a reader, what combination of factors helped me to develop the skill. I have to acknowledge that it wasn't a simple, short jump from here to there, and not all (or even most) of the credit goes to me. I did receive one important blessing at my birth: reading parents. Most of the time, reading parents will raise new readers, by example more than by pressure. As my infant awareness sharpened, I saw that my parents often buried their noses in books, and that well-stocked bookshelves lined the walls of our home. So I grew up thinking of reading as a basic, normal activity -- just something people did. It never occurred to me that some people didn't read, until I would visit friends' houses and wonder where all the books were. Though I would try to have a good time, I couldn't wait to get back home where things were normal.

In my younger days I never described myself as a reader; reading was "just something I did." I preferred other activities, such as acting out wild, elaborate melodramas with my "Barbie action figures," but I read anyway, because not reading wasn't normal. As Scout Finch puts it in To Kill a Mockingbird, "One does not love breathing." As it happens, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the first books I took active pleasure in reading, one of several books I read during my middle-school years because I had seen the movie version, loved it, and wanted to know more. I discovered that the books could take me deeper into stories that already intrigued me. I now realize I may have cheated myself a little, because I did not come to these books unspoiled; the images and voices from the movies were already imprinted on my mind. I can't help wondering what my Atticus Finch might have looked like, if I had not seen Gregory Peck first.

Around this time, my parents, running out of patience with my "Barbie action figures," started to bring pressure to bear, to get me to read more. From this I learned another important lesson -- to listen to Mom and Dad because they knew what they were talking about. Mom recommended Jane Eyre to me, and I loved it. Dad pointed me toward an abridged (hey, I was only in the eighth grade) edition of Les Miserables, and I loved it. I never knew my parents to steer me wrong, and soon I was asking them to recommend authors as well as books. Mom led me into historical fiction by way of Taylor Caldwell and Anya Seton, while Dad was a guide through Greek mythology. By the end of high school, I was a full-fledged reader, and I spent my college years gobbling up Charles Dickens and getting to know J. R. R. Tolkien.

So I admit I had a lot of help becoming a reader. I adopted reading in much the same way we adopt many of our parents' values, out of trust in their wisdom. But at a certain point, as we put those values to the test, they cease to be our parents' values and become our own. My reading preferences today are very different from Mom's or Dad's -- though occasionally I may still take a recommendation from them.

But what about those children who do not grow up with reading parents? Next time, The Itch to Read Part 3: Advice for the Non-Reader.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Itch to Read, Part 1: Frederick Douglass

In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, one of the most emotionally powerful pieces of 19th century American literature, the great abolitionist leader Douglass describes how he came to understand his position in the world and the injustice of it, and felt the first stirrings of what would become a firmly ingrained determination to be free. As a boy he came into the hands of a Baltimore couple, and the wife, as yet inexperienced in the "art" of slaveholding, started to teach him the alphabet. Her husband commanded her to stop, declaring that if Douglass should learn how to read, "it would forever unfit him to be a slave."

"I now understood," Douglass writes, "what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty -- to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man . . . I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read."

For Douglass, reading held the key to illuminating the secrets of not only freedom but humanity itself. To read was to understand possibility, potential. True, his autobiography makes clear that the gift of literacy had a dark side; often, he writes, he would have been glad to "get rid of thinking," for a sense of the wideness of the world inevitably brought pain to an intelligent but still enslaved youth. But reading provided the engine that propelled Douglass on his journey toward freedom.

Reading was a life-or-death matter.

How many of us in the new millennium know first-hand the horror of young Douglass' existence? The closest we free middle-class Americans can come to it is to read his autobiography and experience, for a little while, the world he knew. Many of us turn to books in search of escape, but we gain our best perspective and understanding when, at least on occasion, we let those books take us to places that aren't so pretty.

Even those of us who love to read may not quite grasp what reading could mean to someone in Douglass' situation. Here in the USA in 2011, literacy is the norm. We take reading for granted. When we stumble onto someone who cannot read, we're surprised, even shocked. But we have problems of our own. As another great 19th century American writer, Mark Twain, points out, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them."

To many of us are deliberate illiterates. Books and magazines on every conceivable subject surround us on every side, offering us the chance to deepen our understanding of any area in which we might have an interest, but all too often we leave them alone. What curiosity we might feel proves fleeting, too weak to push past the surface before we're ready to move on to the next thing. What Douglass looked on as empowering and liberating, we see as drudgery and tedium.

And so we slip on mental chains -- the chains Douglass was so desperate to throw off -- as easily and casually as we might slip on a T-shirt.

By "we," I hasten to say, I mean society as a whole, which is allowing print culture to die a slow death. I'm fully aware that countless individuals still relish an afternoon with a good book. I'm one of them. And so I'm devoting this series of blogs to the pleasures and lessons to be found in reading -- apart from writing, my favorite thing to do.

Coming up in Part 2: The making of a reader.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


For a libertarian, the Prohibition years are an especially shameful chapter in American history, a stretch of time when the belief in the power of government to legislate human goodness was enshrined in our Constitution. As a historian interviewed in Ken Burns' three-part documentary Prohibition points out, the 18th Amendment was the first Constitutional amendment that limited freedom rather than expanding it.

Yet both the documentary and the historical period it details raise complicated questions, which we're still faced with today: how do we find a workable solution to a genuine social problem? Is there ever one hard, fast, one-size-fits-all answer to problems like alcohol and drug abuse, childhood obesity, or widespread divorce?

Burns' film makes clear in its first episode, "A Nation of Drunkards," that excessive drinking was widespread throughout the century before Prohibition, and that it gave rise to other evils, most notably domestic violence. The "drunkard culture" accentuated the sharp gender divisions set in place by the notion of "separate spheres," the public and the private world, for men and women. Husbands and wives and courting couples did not drink together, save perhaps for the modest glass of wine at mealtimes. Rather, men gathered in saloons to drink away the pressures of work, while women waited at home; all too often, the men would return home full of fight, ready to pound on their wives and even their children. When advocates of Temperance (a huge number of them women) declared that "alcohol destroys homes," they could point to legions of examples to support their claim, examples that shed a blaring light on the greatest tragedy of addiction: the erosion of the addict's capacity for empathy.

The problem of alcohol abuse, then, was real; few could have denied it. The argument lay in what should be done about it. Some -- the wisest, in this libertarian's point of view -- advocated a case-by-case approach, in which churches and private citizens and organizations would take the lead in helping alcoholics hop on the wagon and stay there. Other favored a broader, wide-sweeping approach that took the decision out of individuals' hands. Instead of working to reduce people's demand for alcohol, these Temperance activists advocated cutting off their supply -- the simplest solution on the surface, and so, the solution that eventually won the day.

Similar battles rage today, and not only concerning the obvious issue of the War on Drugs. Childhood obesity is a problem, most would agree; as youngsters get less exercise and eat more fattening foods, they're afflicted in increasing numbers with health problems usually associated with adults, such as heart disease and diabetes. No one wants to see unhealthy children. But while some would encourage greater education in nutrition that would empower parents and children to make healthier choices, others favor simply taking vending machines that sell candy bars out of schools and other public places, and banning the use of trans fats in restaurant cooking. And so the old Prohibition story goes on: do we allow individuals to decide for themselves, or do we rush to make decisions for them in the firm conviction that we know what's best?

If the history of Prohibition teaches us nothing else, it shows us that where demand exists, supply will follow, whether or not that supply is legal. Freedom is a chaotic thing. Individuals will not always make the best, wisest choices, and they cannot expect the government to step in to protect them from the consequences of their mistakes. Until human nature can be made perfectible by external means -- hint: it never will be -- we must accept that tragedies will occur, and excessive behavior will sometimes destroy lives.

Should we try to prevent as many of these tragedies as possible? Of course. But who is best qualified to do so? Nearly always, the closer the person or group is to the problem, the more likely they are to come up with solutions that actually work. Friends and neighbors are often the best resort. Schools can lend a hand, as can churches, private charities, and even local governments. We are our brother's keepers, but our charity is usually most effective when extended to the individual brothers we have seen, rather than an abstract mass of nameless, faceless brothers we have not seen. To abuse an old cliche, elephants are best eaten a bite at a time.

We may not think of Alexander Hamilton, the great Federalist leader and champion of strong centralized government, as especially libertarian-friendly, but he does offer the following piece of wisdom dear to this libertarian's heart:

"In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution."

Mr. Hamilton, the last word is yours.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nerds in Costume: Corrupting America?

In her latest book Of Thee I Zing!, conservative social critic Laura Ingraham takes aim at what passes for popular "culture" here in the U.S., highlighting what she perceives as its most squalid, debasing aspects. Much of the time I can't disagree with her disdain for her targets; reality television, advertisements, and even some branches of popular music are squalid and debasing -- nauseatingly so. But I wonder what Ingraham expects us to do about the Snookis and Charlie Sheens and Kim Kardashians of the world. Certainly the last thing any sane person would want is for the government to step up and take charge of TV, movies, books, magazines, commercials, sports, etc. We've seen what that looks like, after all. Germany under Hitler, anyone? The Soviet Union under Stalin? What passes for art and entertainment in countries dominated by Sharia law? I'm guessing we would rather not see that over here.

However, I wish to take up a small issue with Ingraham and her tome -- small, but nonetheless irksome to a speculative fiction fan like me. In among the potshots at reality TV and dumbed-down educational standards, she finds time to express her contempt for moviegoers who dress in costumes to attend the premieres of much-anticipated fantasy films (in this case, the Harry Potter films). She finds standing in line with people clad in Hogwarts regalia troubling enough to include it in her attack on cultural corruption, right alongside the transformation of sex tape stars into celebrities.

Confession: I love dressing in costume. Along with books, new costumes are my biggest temptation to spend money. I will leap at any reasonable excuse to clothe myself in my sixteenth- or nineteenth-century finery, so naturally I relish going to places where it's accepted, nay, encouraged for grown folk to play dress-up (e.g. Renaissance Festivals, Dragon Con, Anime Weekend Atlanta). My goal when I don my costumes is the same as when I pick up a fantasy or sci-fi novel: to step out of myself and my own problems and into a character and world of my own imagination, for at least a little while.

Am I really contributing to the devolution of our culture?

What Ms. Ingraham conspicuously fails to understand is that many of us who occasionally fancy ourselves as students or professors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are actually rebelling against the very pop-culture turgidity she decries in the rest of her book. In immersing ourselves in worlds like Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or Narnia, we're fleeing the moral relativism and casual hedonism that characterize so much of the world we were born into. We're escaping the ugliness, the cheapness, the bad taste. In exchange we're embracing an environment where virtue is not some distant abstract idea but an action, a conscious decision. An environment where courage, loyalty, honor, kindness, and ingenuity may carry the day. An environment where toxic narcissists like Charlie Sheen are the bad guys, not the "heroes" whose public appearances draw crowds. Sure, it's fun to imagine wielding a magic wand or a mighty sword, but on a deeper level, when we take up that wand or that sword, we're engaging in battles that matter. We're taking a stand. Our fantasy lives may teach us the very things we need to know about ourselves.

Besides, my long, flowing costume skirts are my own private antidote to the "slut chic" I see on every side. In my fantasy travels I may have to defeat orcs and Death Eaters, but I will never meet a Paris Hilton. There are no Kardashians to be found -- though maybe a few Cardassians, that no one in her right mind would want to keep up with. As long as I'm in Middle Earth, I'm light years away from Jersey Shore.

So let us have our costumes, Ms. Ingraham. Under our Hogwarts cloaks, we may have more in common with you than you realize. After all, if you know about the costume parades at the premieres, you must have gone to see Harry Potter.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pixar and Women, Part 2 -- Finding Nemo through Toy Story 3

5. Finding Nemo. Opinion is divided on the success of Dory, the blue tang with short-term memory loss who accompanies sad-sack hero Marlin on his quest to save his captured son Nemo. Some viewers find her an impossible ditz; this is understandable, since every time she manages to do something awesome, she forgets it immediately. But as I see it, the movie makes it clear that short-term memory loss is not stupidity, as Dory proves helpful at several crucial points. She even gets to utter the film's message, as Marlin laments his inability to protect his son: "If you never let anything happen to him, nothing would ever happen to him."

6. The Incredibles. My favorite Pixar film, and an unqualified success on every level, including gender roles. Middle-aged, unwillingly retired superhero Bob Parr might be the film's chief protagonist, but even more than Dot and Atta before them, his wife Helen and daughter Violet, both "super," have growth arcs of their own. Helen, a.k.a Elastigirl, tries to be the ordinary suburban housewife, but finds in time that the role doesn't suit her; to save her family and reconnect with her husband, she must tap into her extraordinary abilities and become Elastigirl again. Violet, a painfully shy and awkward teen, learns even more dramatically to embrace her powers, and in the end generates the force field that saves the entire family. If neither of those characters are one's idea of a heroine, there's always that divine fashion designer for superheroes, Edna Mode, indisuptably the film's funniest character.

7. Cars. On paper, Sally Carrera may not look like much: she's the film's conscience, the agent of flawed hero Lightning McQueen's redemption. We've seen this type of heroine so often that it's become rather a thankless role. But thanks to some deft screenwriting and the charisma of Bonnie Hunt, the character becomes smart, classy and funny. The movie's a bit disappointing coming after The Incredibles, in that Sally is its only significant female, the other female roles being miniscule. All the same, while they might have been background noise, at least they were there, which is more than can be said for--

8. Ratatouille. Fiery French cook Colette is a wonderful character, funny and temperamental and proud of her work, and kind-hearted enough to see the potential hero in shy loser Linguini. But she is the film's only female character. Where are the female rats? The rodent world of protagonist Remy seems so exclusively male (at least, only the males get to speak) that we can be forgiven for wondering just how the little boogers manage to reproduce. I understand why Remy must be a male -- so that we can enjoy Oswald Patton's fine vocal performance. But does the plot demand that Remy's parent be a father, not a mother? (A mother would have been a refreshing change.) Does it demand that his sibling be a brother, not a sister? Despite its other excellences, the movie provides a distressing example of "Male as Default Gender" where animal characters are concerned.

9. WALL-E. 2008's most romantic film, largely because it boasts two well-developed protagonists. I would argue that those who claim Pixar has never given us a female protagonist have not looked closely enough at this film, for EVE is just as much a protagonist as WALL-E. WALL-E, bless his little robotic heart, does not really change much in the course of the film; he doesn't need to, since he's all but perfect to begin with. Rather, those who come into contact with him grow and evolve; foremost among them is EVE. She's the one with the growth arc, the originally all-business 'bot who learns not only how to love but how to take joy in life. She and WALL-E save the day together, and in the end, she must save his life. A true heroine. Also, unlike in Ratatouille, we do get an interesting female supporting character here: Mary the human, who finds true love at first touch.

10. Up. Such a lovely film in so many ways, but in terms of gender roles, almost as much of a failure as the first Toy Story. The movie introduces us to what could have been a strong female character -- tomboyish Ellie, who yearns for adventure and whose vivid imagination comes through in her artwork. Fifteen minutes into the film, however, she is dead, and afterwards, the only voices we hear are male. Kevin the bird, a silent character, turns out to be female, but alas, she's nothing more than a feathered damsel in distress. This one must also be slipping John Lasseter's mind when he claims that the studio has always tried to include very strong female characters in its films. If it isn't, I really do have grounds for worry about Holley Shiftwell's screen time.

11. Toy Story 3. For this one, I can only point you to my previous blog, from June 2010. A rousing success.

So this is Pixar's track record with regard to women -- some hits, some near misses, very few out-and-out fails. What does it say for the hope that a worthwhile heroine might emerge from a "bromance" like Cars 2?

It says I'd better go see the darned thing, and find out for myself. I may not be crossing off the days, but I'm keeping an open mind.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pixar and Women, Part 1 -- Toy Story through Monsters Inc.

For the first time in over a decade, I'm not looking forward to the next Pixar release -- and with me, Pixar has always been the big-screen equivalent of "appointment TV."

Oh, I'll go to see Cars 2, and I don't doubt I'll have a pleasant time. Some Pixar works are better than others, but the studio has yet to release an out-and-out bad film. As the Pixar team's take on espionage pictures, Cars 2 will at the very least be worth seeing. Why, then, am I not crossing off the days till its release?

Because when I check out the movie's homepage on the Internet Movie Database, I find that the top fourteen characters and voice actors listed are male. That's right -- you have to scroll past fourteen male names before you reach your first female. Two voices I normally trust, Ain't It Cool blogger Nordling and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter himself, have said that the new girl car character, Holley Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer) is one worth keeping our eye on. But I find myself doubting them when I see that she is billed seventeenth. She isn't even visible on Cars 2's IMdB homepage; you have to click on the link to "Full Cast and Crew" even to know she's in the film.

That shouldn't surprise me, given the route the creators have gone if the trailers are to be believed. Ever since the first Cars, Pixar has revealed itself as the one studio in Hollywood capable of crafting a moving and convincing love story. For my money, 2008's WALL-E ranks as the most romantic film of its decade. But for Cars 2, romance is being set aside in favor of the "bromance" between cocky Lightning McQueen and his tow-truck pal Mater. Sally Carrera, the smart, charming heroine of the first film, has been reduced to a walk-on. (She's billed fifteenth.) This is in keeping with the "bromance" genre: females are superfluous. If they achieve any prominence at all, it's only to cause trouble. (For a recent example, we have Ron Howard's The Dilemma, called by critics "a date movie, if you want to be sure you'll never see your date again.")

I want to believe that Nordling and Lasseter are right, that the IMdB billing is all out of whatck, and that Holley Shiftwell will prove an important figure, a heroine worth rooting for rather than a bromance-spoiling femme fatale. Pixar has taken a lot of heat lately because its protagonists have always been male (the studio's release for next year is an attempt to remedy this); last year, on this very blog spot, I had to defend Toy Story 3 against charges of sexism. In his interview with Nordling, Lasseter states that the studio has always tried to include "very, very strong female characters" in its films. If we're to have any hope for seventeenth-billed Holley Shiftwell, we need to look at Pixar's track record, to see if Lasseter's statement holds water.

So let's begin at the beginning:
1. Toy Story. Pixar's first feature-film release, and a winner out of the gate in every respect except one: porcelain doll Bo Peep, the blandest of all the characters. Even voice actress Annie Potts can't inject humor and vigor into this passive, lifeless creature. Her lack of vivid personality would not be a problem, except that 1) all the characters around her have personality to burn, and 2) she's the movie's only prominent female, the others being background figures like Andy's mom and Sid's horrible little sister (noteworthy only for being cruel enough to force poor, confused Buzz Lightyear into a frilly apron and call him Mrs. Nesbitt). The lack of a worthwhile heroine does not stop the movie from being top-grade entertainment, but in proclaiming that the studio's films have always had strong heroines, Lasseter must be forgetting this one.

2. A Bug's Life. In the matter of female characters, the studio completely redeems itself here. Most would say it's not as good a movie as Toy Story, but in terms of active, interesting females we have black widow spider Rosie, the dowager Queen Ant, and her two daughters, Dot and Atta. Misfit Flik may be the movie's protagonist, but both Dot and Atta are given a chance to learn and grow in the course of the film, and learning and growth are the stuff of which interesting, strong characters are made. Tomboy Dot learns to use her wings just in time to fly in search of help for her imperiled colony. Early in the film Atta is prissy, narrow-minded and unsympathetic, but by the end she has found her strength, inserting herself between the bruised, fallen Flik and the threatening foot of the villainous Hopper. Far from being background noise, they play crucial roles in saving the day.

3. Toy Story 2. A mixed success where female roles are concerned. Mrs. Potato Head makes me long for temporary deafness, and Bo Peep has even less personality here than she does in the first film, but Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl is an interesting and believably flawed character with room to grow. At first she is Woody's antagonist, but soon enough they are staunch allies. He does have to rescue her at the end, but Joan Cusack's voice work manages to endow the character with toughness and vigor. She's anything but forgettable.

4. Monsters, Inc. As in A Bug's Life, here we have several interesting heroines to choose from. Bonnie Hunt, so appealing in Cars, voices a supporting role here; no matter how small her role, she always sounds smart. Then we have an actress who always sounds dumb, squeaky-voiced Jennifer Tilly, playing ditzy secretary Celia -- a character who then demonstrates an ability to think on her feet and save the heroes from danger. Scratchy-voice bureaucrat Roz is also a lot more than she seems. Then there's the toddling human child Boo, who turns the monsters' world upside down. Though the film's main protagonist, big furry blue monster Sully, tries to protect her, in the end it's Boo herself who fights her demons and emerges triumphant. By this time, Pixar is indeed building up a roster of strong female characters, even though the protagonists are always (so far) male.

Next Blog: Pixar and Women, Part 2 -- Finding Nemo through Toy Story 3.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 4

"Know Your Enemy: Demographics" Continued

I'm a full-time demographic loser. I belong to groups whose existence the demographic demons prefer not to acknowledge. On the one hand, I'm one of those "girl geeks" who would rather watch superheroines kick bad-guy butt than watch fashionistas powder their noses while they pine over men; I'd rather see a good adventure than a romantic comedy, and accordingly I can't help wishing female characters played more prominent roles in adventure/action films. Warner Bros./DC Animation's Justice League Unlimited was one of the first good shows to give superheroines a fair share of screen time (though the same company's animated series of Batman and Superman paved the way with their depictions of Batgirl and Supergirl). Accordingly I was a big fan, and I was crushed when the show was cancelled even though it was quite popular.

But I went from sad to mad when I learned why the show was cancelled despite its popularity, and realized I belong to yet another group deliberately ignored by demographics-worshippers: adult animation fans.

Adult animation fans and comic book lovers enjoyed JLU and were eager to see more. In cancelling it, Cartoon Network couldn't argue that "not enough people were watching," but in their eyes, the wrong people were watching. They wanted an audience of children, so they cancelled JLU and replaced it with more kiddie-friendly fare. The demographics demons do not deem adult animation fans a worthwhile audience to target. According to their dictates, here in America at least, cartoons are strictly for kids, and any cartoon that doesn't appeal specifically to kids is a failure. This wasn't always the case. In the days of classic Hollywood, cartoon shorts accompanied every feature, regardless of the demographic to which that feature appealed, and so, to quote one of the geniuses of the animated short subject, Chuck Jones, the creators of those shorts were "forced to make them for ourselves." But as the animated short died, so did the notion that animated fare might appeal as much to adults as to children, if not more so. In our current demographic-ruled climate, only the creators of The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park, as well as Pixar, with its depiction of middle-aged and elderly protagonists, have challenged the idea of animation as just, or primarily, for kids.

Adult animation fans aren't even the hardest hit group; we at least get thrown the occasional bone. The people the demographic demons most assiduously disregard are those over the age of 55.

Demographic-based cancellations aren't a rare thing. Matlock and Murder, She Wrote get a lot of ridicule as the shows of choice of elderly viewers, but one can see why seniors would be drawn to those shows: both depict seniors as active, energetic problem-solvers who are important, even valuable, in the worlds they inhabit. Both shows were cancelled while they were still popular, in order to make room for shows that would appeal to younger audiences. Look at television now, and you'll find seniors all but wiped off the map of the airwaves, except as minor supporting characters. On the big screen the picture is similarly bleak: seniors' stories rarely get told, because that hot young demographic supposedly won't flock to movies about old people. Two years ago, however, one movie studio had the cloud to make, then sell, a film with an elderly protagonist, and because the story was told with wit and poignance as well as color and adventure, audiences embraced it. The film? Pixar's Up.

Up -- along with almost all good-to-great films -- concerned itself more with storytelling than with demographics; its creators never assumed that its potential audience was only interested in seeing movies about people identical to themselves. If we want to see film and television that would actually merit the name of art, we have to take on the demon Demographics.

The best way to do this is to vote with our wallets, to seek out movies and television shows that don't fit the usual demographic patterns and that actually promise to tell stories that don't turn on stereotypes. Being fortysomething, I'm not far away from that over-55 group that gets ignored. Indeed, mature adult audiences, audiences over thirty, find themselves disregarded at nearly all times of the Movie Year except the fall. We adults need to let the "money men" know that we are here, and that when we throw our support behind a movie, we too can make a hit. Who do the money men imagine turned The King's Speech into a moneymaker? I'll give them a hint: it wasn't teenage boys.

The bottom line: we'll get the kind of art we deserve. If we're not satisfied with what we're seeing, we have to demand something better, and make our feelings known with the dollars we spend. If we're not willing to do that, then we'll only prove the government right: consumers can't be trusted to promote worthwhile art.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 3

Demographics -- the division of a population into specific "target audiences" based on gender, age, race, and social class, in order of importance. A device designed to smooth the paths of marketers and advertisers, and with which Hollywood's "money men," the ones who determine which films and television programs see the light of day, are slavishly concerned. If you want to find the villain in our story of Art and the Consumer, here it is.

Looking at the definition, it's not hard to see why concern for demographics stacks the proverbial deck against the creation of powerful, inspiring, and/or edifying films and TV shows. If producers are going to appeal to a "target audience," they must first determine what that audience wants to see -- what they care about, what they hope to become, how they think about themselves and others. An attempt to understand an individual on these bases would make perfect sense, but demographics are not individuals. They are the entertainment industry's version of Groupthink, and accordingly, producers, directors, and writers who make demographics into minor gods will, perhaps without even realizing it, make stereotypical judgments about the desires and values of men or women, young or old, blacks or whites or Asians or Latinos, and then make movies and TV shows based on these judgments. Stereotypes about target audiences all too often lead to stereotyped characters and situations.

Men -- more specifically, young men -- are the favored demographic of marketers and advertisers, and so a significant majority of films are made with them in mind. (To be fair, this bias in favor of the young male demographic is less evident on television.) At no time is this more noticeable than during the summer, when 90-95% of the big-budget releases are about men, for men, and in the genres men are reputed to prefer: raunchy comedies which feature boy-men in a long flight from anything resembling responsibility, bonding over beer and cars and complaints about women (who generally fall into two types in these films: available bodies or ball-busting shrews); and rousing actioners starring either superheroes or normal guys who are really good with guns and/or explosives. Occasionally a good movie, one with substance and intelligence, may emerge from these genres, but the stereotypes on which they pivot make it unlikely. For every Dark Knight there's a Spider-Man 3, and for every J.J. Abrams' Star Trek a Transformers 2.

When women are the demographic in question, the emergence of a high-quality film becomes even less likely. The best recent movies about girls and women -- Hanna, Jane Eyre, True Grit, Winter's Bone -- show little concern with demographics at all; they set out to tell a story rather than to please a target audience. (NOTE: this is true of the best films, period, whether the protagonist is male or female, young or old.) Women as Target Audience supposedly worship Oprah, are addicted to The View, loved Mamma Mia! and devour all things Twilight, and in our heart of hearts want nothing more than pretty things and a non-threatening, emasculated girly-man to worship and rescue them. As a demographic we are shallow indeed, and deep films are never made for supposedly shallow audiences.

Except that we're not a demographic. We (male, female, young, old) are individuals with complex and often contradictory desires. For my part, I'm indifferent to Oprah, loathe The View, despised Mamma Mia! and find Twilight et. seq. nauseating. In addition, I'd much rather watch Justice League Unlimited than Sex and the City, because in my book, superheroines are far cooler than fashionistas.

Alas, movies don't get made for women like me -- not if the producers involve have demographics in mind. All too often, if you don't fit the stereotype behind the demographic, you'll have to wait long and search far to find a movie to enjoy.

(Coming Next: a demographic problem worse than gender -- Age.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 2

The question: how can we consumers ensure that the best art -- paintings, music, literature, films, television, dance -- gets created, produced, and enjoyed, without the help of government funding?

The answer is obvious: we need to throw our weight behind the best art. We need to vote with our wallets. When we consumers clearly demand high-quality art, supply will not lag far behind.

Then we run into the real trouble -- the phrase "high-quality" and its inherent subjectivity. I'm prepared to state without equivocation that certain television shows, namely Keeping Up With the Kardashians, its spinoffs, and Jersey Shore, are just plain bad, and there's precious little room to argue otherwise. But what about The Hangover, or Lady Gaga's music, or the collected works of Tom Clancy or L. Ron Hubbard? These, I have to acknowledge, are simply not to my taste, and I can't judge them as worthless from an objective standpoint.

If we the consumers are going to step up and assume responsibility for the arts in this country, one of the first things we have to do is be willing to accept the existence of art we dislike, and even resist the temptation to put quotation marks around that word art. We have to understand that not everyone looks to art for the same things. Some of us seek pure escape, some enlightenment and understanding, and others beauty. In each of these aims we find a heavy measure of the subjective. Some listeners may find more beauty in a Rush song than in a Mozart piano sonata. Many readers have found a great deal of wisdom in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, while others dismiss this trilogy, along with all fantasy, as pure escapism.

We need to allow room for as great a variety of art, for as great a variety of tastes, as possible; we can't expect all works of the imagination to meet our own personal specifications. If we do, we'll resemble a relative of mine who once dismissed the great Ella Fitzgerald as untalented because she didn't have as good a voice as her favorite opera singer. I wince to think what the arts might be like if this relative had the ordering of them.

All the same, while too much control is far from desirable, neither is laissez-faire the best approach. Some books, music, films, and television shows are superior to others, and we don't see quite enough of the good stuff. There is a problem, particularly in the areas of film and television, which needs to be addressed. Many of us might be blithely unaware of what this problem is, and might assume that film and television producers are merely "giving the people what they want" when they present us with dreck like Epic Movie and Jerry Springer. It's not that simple. A certain factor stacks the deck against substantive, rewarding stories in film and television.

It's called demographics.

(Watch for Art and the Consumer, Part 3: Know Your Enemy.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 1

I heard this simple observation in a trailer for a documentary called Missinterpretation: "We can't be what we can't see."

The possibilities we sense for ourselves come from all we see around us, not only in real life but in art -- books, plays, films, music, dance, painting, photographs. Since art shapes our perceptions of ourselves and the world so crucially, artists have tremendous power. But so do we, the consumers, who determine which works of art succeed or fail and, ultimately, which works of art see the light of day. It's a habit, particularly among conservatives, to rail at artists whose decadent, hedonistic, often nihilistic output shatters rather than mends, degrades rather than uplifts. I've made such complaints myself, and sometimes I have to use force to bring myself around to the truth: we consumers get exactly the kind of art we ask for.

As I've grown older and moved from liberal to libertarian, I've had to put aside many of my youthful ideas, including the notion that the government has a responsibility to subsidize art. I used to look on such funding as confirmation of the value and importance of the arts, particularly when I heard arts funding's opponents express a generalized contempt for all works of the imagination as "wastes of time." But I have come around to the belief that art is too crucial for the government to be trusted with it. We, as private citizens, should step up and support great art ourselves rather than asking others to do it for us.

Then comes the sticky question: can high-quality art thrive under a free market blown by the winds of ephemeral popularity? Will the public throw its support behind classical music and ballet in a way that enables orchestras and dance companies to flourish, or will the concert halls sit empty while crowds pack the stands to see Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber?

Mass consumers are not as predictable as producers and marketers like to think. Sometimes we do the right thing. We made blockbusters out of Peter Jackson's sublime Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the summer of 2010 we flocked to the multiplexes to see the mind-bending Inception, sending the message that we were hungry for a movie that was neither a sequel nor a remake. More recently, we took to our hearts the kind of movie that we usually dismiss as "elitist": a character-driven British period drama called The King's Speech.

But we've also made household names out of people whose disgraceful behavior and complete lack of talent, intelligence and honor should fill us with loathing -- classless, charmless, graceless famewhores like Paris Hilton, the sisters Kardashian, and perhaps most repellent of all, "Snooki." When Rutgers University pays this bubble-brain, who has boasted of getting a book published when she hasn't read more than two books in her life, more than award-winning novelist Toni Morrison for a speaking engagement, something is very wrong.

Blaming Snooki is a waste of time. She's just doing what comes naturally in a market-driven pop culture: using what she has in order to make money. No, we are to blame, when we have said with our dollars and attention that we're willing to buy what this creep is selling.

That's the bad news -- we're the problem. But the good news is that if we accept responsibility, we can also be the solution. If we want better art, we have only to demand it. If we can organize and make things happen in the area of politics, surely we can do the same where art is concerned. Art, after all, influences our hearts and minds more directly than politics, and it's in our hearts and minds that the most permanent and meaningful changes take place.

(Coming in Part 2: What can and should be done.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Women's History Month"

The month of March is nearly over, and at last I sit down to blog. March is "Women's History Month," and as a woman who likes to take note of other women's accomplishments -- not because they do me any credit, but because they enhance my sense of possibility -- I feel obliged to devote my March blog to it.

Politically incorrect though it may be, I have found myself wondering on occasion why there should be a Women's History Month at all. Why do we have to set aside a special time, apart from all others, to focus on the marks that various strong, wise, and gifted women have left on history? If their accomplishments are of sufficient substance, surely we would take notice of them at all times of the year, and their names would be spoken, without suspicion of "tokenism," alongside the male statesmen, soldiers, poets, artists, and philosophers who have helped shape our world. Mark Twain famously disliked Jane Austen, but her gift for wry social commentary equals his. Sojourner Truth's cry against injustice, "Ain't I a Woman?" might not be as polished as Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," but it reverberates with equal truth. Setting aside a special month to honor women in history strikes me as a bit like setting aside a special Oscar category for Best Animated Feature, so that brilliant and moving animated films don't stand any real chance of winning Best Picture -- it's a way of saying, "You're not good enough to play with the Big Boys."

Yet when I asked my mother why we have a Women's History Month, she set me straight, as she so often does.
Women's History Month exists to honor women who aren't Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I or Eleanor Roosevelt, women whose hard work and initiative and intelligence may have gone unnoticed in the storming pageant that is History. Women whose contributions might have fallen through the cracks, not because they weren't important enough but just because we couldn't be bothered to notice. Women like Ada Augusta Lovelace, for instance. I'm able to type this blog on this computer because of the work of Ada Augusta Lovelace, a mathematician who, along with Charles Babbage, created an early 19th century computer prototype. Women like Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann, who composed music even though their society urged them to be content with performing it, like "proper ladies." Women like Maya Lin, whose design for the Vietnam War Memorial stirred controversy, but whose finished work now stirs hearts.

And then there are those women whose names are utterly forgotten, or whose historical identity has been swallowed up by some great man to whom they were connected, so that if we remember them at all, it's as "Wife of ____" or "Daughter of _____". Women's History Month is a time for us to acknowledge that they, too, were thinkers, readers, innovators, and explorers, though they may have chosen a private rather than a public forum for their talents. As we remember them, we understand that the truest, most lasting changes take place not on the battlefield or on the floor of the House or Senate, but in the hearts and minds of a nation's people. These are the changes over which these wise unsung women preside.

So yes, Mom, Women's History Month does serve a vital purpose, not just to cast a spotlight on the wide variety of contributions women have made and continue to make in both the public and private arena, but to enhance our understanding of history itself, and all that it encompasses.

Yet still, I don't need to set aside a special month to focus on the women in history who have meant the most to me, whose voices have echoed over the centuries to put my own thoughts and feelings into clear, beautiful words.
Emily Dickinson:
"Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness is;
'Tis the majority."
Charlotte Bronte:
"It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it... Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do."

I'll let Jane Eyre have the last word.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Favorite books and authors to teach

I have two kinds of favorite books: those I love to read, and those I love to teach.

Occasionally they will overlap, but for the most part they are distinguished by their different purposes, one private and the other public. The books I love to read are for me alone. They nourish and nurture my daydreams, which then give rise to the stories I write. I don't talk a great deal about them, unless I'm surrounded by like-minded fantasy geeks at DragonCon or at an Atlanta Radio Theatre Company rehearsal. The books I love to teach, however, demand to be shared.

Though I like to discover new "teaching books" almost as much as I enjoy stumbling onto a new author whose works are prime daydream food, I have a few I return to again and again, books and authors with something specific to offer a group of students. They aren't ones I would pick up for a cozy comfort read. They don't offer me the chance to do brave deeds in my imagination. But they hold human nature and society, with their eternal struggle between order and chaos, against a powerful light.

Author: Edgar Allan Poe.
When it comes to introducing students to literary analysis, nothing beats Poe. Students new to analyzing literature are tempted to take stories very literally, to accept at face value what the narration tells them. With Poe, bless his twisted heart, you can't do that. Common sense tells us that the events in the last scene of "The Tell-Tale Heart," for example, could not be unfolding precisely as the narrator describes them. Students are forced to see past the veil of his distorted perceptions to discover the real truth. They have to dig past the surface -- the key to literary analysis. Poe's stories, with their characters on the edge of madness or beyond, also give them a compelling look at human psychology, so driven by desire for love and power.

Author: Flannery O'Connor.
In the world of fiction, violence is a good thing. Granted, some of the most powerful violence in literature is psychological, but good old physical violence always makes a useful attention-getter. Students are rarely bored by an O'Connor story, in which the air crackles with violence. Here the physical and psychological brutality dovetail, and students discover a disturbing but edifying mental "scorched earth" in which characters are stripped of everything they have known and counted on. It's as scary as anything they might encounter in a slasher film, but here, unlike there, important truths about basic human fallibility are laid bare. One need not ascribe to O'Connor's rigid Catholic doctrine in order to see them.

Play: Othello.
One of the most important and inescapable elements of literature is irony, which occurs wherever there's a disconnect between appearance and reality. Life teaches us repeatedly that we can't always trust what we see, and Othello, with the powerful master manipulator Iago at its center, shows the manifold ways in which reality might be bent, as well as the ways our fears and desires shape or perceptions. Othello also offers a harrowing emotional experience, as a sympathetic heroine becomes the victim of Iago's machinations. Since Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not merely read, I like to show my students the DVD of the 1991 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which features Ian McKellen as a frighteningly charismatic Iago and Imogen Stubbs as a plucky and winning Desdemona; you can't help wishing you could leap into the scene and rescue her. Basso profundo Willard White also makes a powerful Othello.

Book: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
A few nights ago, on Jeopardy's Teen Tournament, the final question asked the young contestants to identify the author of this quote: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; now you will see how a slave was made a man." I did a mental happy dance as each contestant got the name right. I felt like sending their parents and teachers a thank-you note. The name "Frederick Douglass" should not be forgotten for many reasons, not the least of them being his brief but powerful autobiography which details his youthful days as a slave. The Southern slave system might be long gone, but Douglass's book retains its relevance, and the famous quote touches on why: it brings up a question that never goes out of style -- "what shapes our identity? How is an individual consciousness formed and strengthened or thwarted?" In looking at Douglass's battle for control over his identity, students may be led to think about all the ideas and experiences that have gone into making them who they are.

Literature both reflects its time and reaches beyond it; from it, students learn simultaneously about the past and the present, about a world removed from their own and the world they move through now. That's why it matters, and why it will continue to matter after new technologies have come and gone and morphed into shapes we can't yet imagine. God bless good stories.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Good movies I've seen

I'm a film buff for the same reason I love to read: I love stories. Good stories are food for the imagination; they fuel my own itch to write, and they enhance my understanding of people, places, and things beyond my own experience. Books and movies are by no means interchangeable; the former will always be of the greatest value; but the latter offers its own brand of storytelling, touching certain centers of the imagination, provided the viewer engages the movies actively, instead of choosing the role of mere passive receiver.

Every year brings with it new movies to love, though some more than others. This year we suffered through a dreary summer marked by a plethora of sequels, remakes, and rehashes. Among the bright spots were a rare really good sequel (Toy Story 3), an original film (Inception), and some intriguing foreign films (France's Micmacs, Sweden's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo et. seq.) But this fall has offered a wider variety of must-see movies, some "Oscar bait," others with little or no goal beyond being thoroughly entertaining. I have not seen all I wish to see, but I can comment on a few:

1) Disney's Tangled. My husband and I took my mother-in-law to see this film, and when she expressed concern about a crowd, he assured her that the film had "played out" and we would most likely have the theater to ourselves. Wrong-o. By the time the movie started, every seat was occupied. Since then, we've still noticed large crowds of both children and adults going in and out of theater screens showing Tangled. This movie has legs, because people are going more than once, and they're telling their friends, "You really need to see this movie! It's so much fun!"

And fun it is. In live-action land, Hollywood has apparently lost all ability to make a good romantic comedy. But that's what Tangled is: a good romantic comedy (with music, no less!), complete with lively, witty interaction between a lovable rogue hero and a dreamy, naive, but gutsy heroine. There's also a thoroughly despicable villain who has managed to convince the heroine that she loves her and genuinely has her best interests at heart, when all she cares about is the eternal youth the heroine can provide. This is a villain whose biggest weapons are emotional manipulation and the power to undermine self-esteem; her relationship with the heroine is by far the most interesting hero/villain connection I've seen in an American animated film. Sure, it's a Disney film, and Disney is not the quality powerhouse it once was. But this romantic-comedy confection is surprisingly rich in character and theme. I can't wait to see it again.

2) TRON: Legacy. This movie has gotten considerable grief from critics for being "shallow" and relying solely on effects to sell it. I'm not so sure. I only know I got quite caught up in it when I saw it. I got quite caught up in last year's Avatar, too, but after I left the film and had time to think about it, I started to feel ashamed of having bought into it so thoroughly. I have felt no similar buyer's remorse in the wake of TRON: Legacy. Under all the lighting and color effects and high-voltage action there's a pretty weighty theme: the destructive drive toward perfection, and the truth that it's humanity's imperfections that save us. Now I'm about to commit Geek Heresy: I actually preferred this sequel to the original. Both featured Jeff Bridges being awesome, but I liked the sequel's young protagonist, and this time the heroine, played by Olivia Wilde, at least has a personality and some charisma, despite getting knocked out and captured a bit too often. ("The girl," Cindy Morgan, was definitely the weak link in the original's cast.)

3) The King's Speech.
This may well be the best film I have seen in the past three years. I don't speak lightly. I've grown weary of critically-acclaimed Oscar bait which prides itself on being hip, edgy, and emotionally hollow, like the bleak and ice-cold black comedy Up in the Air and even the strong, powerful, but distant war drama The Hurt Locker. What a relief to find that this year, the critics (and the public) are embracing a movie that proves a film with heart can still have something important to say. This movie manages a feat that few dare these days: it makes us care while it makes us think.
This movie has just about everything I have a weakness for:
1) a period setting -- the 1930s;
2) searing, powerful performances, especially by Colin Firth (the man to beat for Best Actor this year) and Geoffrey Rush;
3) smart, witty dialogue;
4) interesting and, in the end, moving relationships, not only between Firth and Rush as the insecure Royal and the commoner who helps him conquer his stammer, but between Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter, as one of the sweetest and most romantic married couples in recent cinema history.

Will it win Best Picture? I'd love to see that happen, but I'm not counting on it. Ten years ago it would have been the movie to beat, but the Academy has changed since then, and is now more inclined to favor hipper, edgier, darker American fare (e.g. The Social Network) over well-told but more traditional stories from foreign shores. But whatever the Academy chooses to do, The King's Speech will hold the foremost place in my heart.

Movies I still haven't seen but really want to see:
True Grit, Never Let Me Go, Winter's Bone, The Kids are All Right, The Illusionist (an animated offering from France that might scotch Tangled's chances at an Oscar nomination), The Fighter, Let Me In

Movie I still remember very fondly several months after seeing it:
How to Train Your Dragon