Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Deep Freeze: Christopher Nolan's woman problem

fridge, v. to kill off a female character solely for the purpose of giving the story's main male hero a reason to angst. Coined by Gail Simone in response to a storyline in The Green Lantern in which the hero's girlfriend is killed and literally stuffed in his refrigerator. In 1999, Simone started a website, Women in Refrigerators, that lists all of the comic book women who have been fridged.

Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've heard of director Christopher Nolan's new movie Inception. It's a long-generating story, one that he's been working on for over a decade, biding his time and building up enough of a reputation in Hollywood that he could get the backing for his dazzling mindfuck of a pet project.

And build up a reputation he has: Nolan has had a string of hits, both financially and critically. On the review-aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes, not one of his films rates below a 75%. His last movie, The Dark Knight, grossed over 1 billion dollars worldwide. There are precious few filmmakers in Hollywood who have so successfully balanced artistic achievements with the culture of spectacle, not so much infusing blockbusters with a decent story as crafting intricate scripts that just so happen to have blockbuster potential.

It's a goddamn shame, then, that he feels the need to fridge the hell out of his women.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ALMOST EVERY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN MOVIE EVER MADE. Also, I am not a scientist or a professional researcher.

Don't get me wrong: I love Christopher Nolan's movies. Memento is one of my favorites. I own The Dark Knight. Next week I will see Inception for the third time in theaters. But there's always a lingering icky feeling after the credits roll, when I watch the actors' names rise from the bottom of the screen and try to remember whether any of the women listed did anything important other than die. More often than not, the answer is a resounding no. And when they do live, they're usually evil.

Don't believe me? Let's have a look.

CASE STUDY: Memento (2000)
The movie that made us all sit up and go, "Christopher WHO?" A crackerjack film noir told in reverse about an amnesiac named Leonard (Guy Pearce) who's looking for the man who killed his wife...or is he?

The women:
Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss). A bartender who Leonard meets on his search through the underbelly. By turns helpful and treacherous, Natalie ultimately manipulates Leonard for her own purposes, using his disability to kill off or maim those who are threatening her. She's undeniably shady, but just how bad she is depends on your interpretation of the movie's events. Alive, antagonist.

Mrs. Jankis (Harriet Sansom Harris). Apparently she has no first name. Leonard repeats the story of the Jankis' several times: Sammy Jankis has the same brain damage as Leonard, but his wife doubts whether or not he's faking it, so she decides to test him. She asks him to give her an insulin shot, then another one in a few minutes after his memory has erased the first. Surprise, surprise, he wasn't faking, and she dies. This is the first instance of a wife dying due to her husband's actions. Dead.

Leonard's Wife (Jorja Fox). No, seriously, Leonard's Wife is her official credit. She didn't get a fucking name either. Oy. Anyway, she actually sort of dies twice in the movie, once when she and Leonard are first attacked; she survives the attack, but Leonard doesn't remember that, and the loss drives him through most of the film. It's revealed at the end, though, that she was actually the one with the insulin, and Leonard invented Sammy Jankis and his wife in order not to deal with the guilt. So really we get two dead-because-of-her-husband-wives for the price of one. Dead.

CONCLUSIONS: Two dead, unnamed wives inadvertantly killed by their husbands' conditions; one femme fatale. We're off to a bangup start. Movie also fails the Bechdel Test: at no point in the movie do two women even speak to each other.

The Bechdel Test: a litmus test developed by writer Alison Bechdel in 1985 to gauge the agency and autonomy of a story's characters. The test has three parts: 1) Are there two female characters who 2) talk to each other 3) about something other than a man?

CASE STUDY: Insomnia (2002)
Detective Frank Dormer (Al Pacino) hunts for serial killer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) in Alaska with the assistance of a local cop named Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). After he accidentally shoots his partner and covers it up, though, he and the killer wind up morally entangled, and Ellie gets suspicious.

The women
Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). Here's a good one: Burr practically salivates over Dormer at the film's outset, telling him that he's her idol, but she's also the only one sharp enough to catch the mistakes that Dormer made in his cover-up. Despite getting no backup from the rest of the local cops, who call her "Nancy Drew," she solves the mystery on her own and is the only one left standing as the credits roll. Technically she's an antagonist for the main character, but she's a principled one with plenty of agency. Alive, antagonist.

Kay Connell (Crystal Lowe). Every serial killer story needs a naked, beaten female victim, and teenaged Kay Connell fits the bill. She's already dead before the opening credits, so we only glimpse her in flashbacks and as a bloated corpse on a morgue slab. (I couldn't find any pictures of her that weren't naked and mutilated, so I didn't put one up.) Dead.

Tanya (Katherine Isabelle). Kay's "best friend," who was sleeping with Kay's boyfriend. Portrayed as a callow Lolita who comes onto Dormer and doesn't really care about her dead friend. Alive, but a Whore.

Madonna-Whore complex: a psychological condition in which men divide women into ultra-"pure" Madonnas who can never be sullied with sexual intimacy, and dirty, dirty Whores who can never possibly be wives or mothers. As in men's minds, so in culture. For example: every single Taylor Swift video, ever.

The hotel manager (Maura Tierney). According to IMDB, she's "Rachel Clements," but I don't recall her ever being called by her name in the film. She's shown to be hard-working and professional, but is also deeply compassionate. When the sleepless Dormer is coming unglued, she listens to his desperate confession and advises him. This is the first instance of another motif in Nolan's films: women acting as the conscience of men. Which, hey, it's still using a woman as a secondary prop to a man's emotional arc, but at least she isn't evil. Alive, good.

CONCLUSIONS: Not so bad. We have two strong, principled, professional women, though one of them is technically an antagonist. We've also got a dead, mutilated teenager and a Whore, kinda balances out? No on the Bechdel Test: no two women speak to each other through the whole movie.

CASE STUDY: Batman Begins (2005)
Taking over the Batman franchise, Nolan took him back to his roots for an origin story, detailing how Bruce Wayne trained himself into a crime-busting machine.

The women woman
Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). As the one woman in Batman Begins, Rachel is brave and smart. As the only ADA with the figurative nads to stand up to the crime syndicate, she's an invaluable ally to Batman and Jim Gordon. She's also another "conscience woman," directing Bruce away from vengeance after his parents are gunned down. (Which, by the way, isn't it funny how much Bruce flashes back to his dead father? While never seeming to give a thought to his dead mother? Yes, I thought that was funny, too.) Rachel does need to be saved an awful lot. Alive, good.

CONCLUSIONS: No chance at the Bechdel test, but Rachel is still a fairly good female character...

CASE STUDY: The Dark Knight
Nolan's second entry in his revival of the Batman movies.

The women
Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal): ...d'oh! Now, obviously the Batman franchise is based on pre-existing material, so Nolan can't 100% be blamed for this one. But still, every comic book director picks and chooses which canon to use from the books, and this is what Nolan chose. (God help us if he ever tries his hand at Catwoman.) ETA: I've been informed in the comments that Rachel Dawes was NOT in the comics and that her movie character was not based on any recognizable pre-existing Batman character. So Nolan created a woman and introduced her into the Batman universe solely for the purpose of killing her off. Not only does her death provide angst for Bruce Wayne, it turns Harvey Dent evil and Jim Gordon borderline-suicidal. Wow, screw fridging, that's like a deep freeze! Dead.

Detective Andrea Ramirez (Monique Gabriela Curnen): Shown to be Jim Gordon's strong right hand, despite the fact that she's a rookie. She ultimately betrays them all to the crime syndicate, gets Rachel killed, and almost gets Jim Gordon's family killed. Alive, antagonist.

Barbara Gordon (Melinda McGraw): Exists in the movie solely to be Gordon's wife, mother of his children, and a Madonna. The only time she's ever seen outside their home is when she and her children are taken hostage by Two-Face; she puts up absolutely no fight even when the dude has a gun to her son's head. (And while we're on the subject of Gordon's family: Gordon's son is "Jim Gordon, Jr." but guess what his daughter's credited as? "Jim Gordon's Daughter." That's right, she gets no name, and it's made explicit in the movie that she's not her father's favorite. Nice.) Alive, but a Madonna.

ETA: I totally forgot about Judge Surrilo! You know, the female judge who was willing to preside over Dent's prosecution of all the mobsters at once. You know--the one who gets blown up. Yeah, that one. Dead.

CONCLUSIONS: All the women are either dead, evil, or a Madonna. The film sort of passes the Bechdel test in that Ramirez calls Barbara Gordon to warn her that she should leave the house; but that's done at Two-face's gunpoint, so it's sketchy at best. Apparently the only way to get women to talk to each other in Nolan movies is to point a gun at them.

CASE STUDY: The Prestige
Two rival magicians, Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale), duke it out in turn-of-the-century England.

The women
Julia (Piper Perabo). Angier's wife. Drowns--half-naked and bound, onstage--during a botched magic trick; the messup was possibly Borden's fault, and her death incites the antipathy between the two. The manner of her death is of some importance: there's a strong undercurrent through the movie about the sacrifices that magicians make for their craft, and it's understood that women are a necessary sacrifice. See below. Dead.

Sarah (Rebecca Hall). Borden's wife. Hangs herself in despair because of what she believes is her husband's fickle nature and unfaithfulness. What she doesn't realize is that she's actually married one of two twin brothers; they never tell anyone the truth because it would mean exposing their best magic trick. So basically Borden watches his wife sink into depression and alcohol abuse rather than tell her the truth, all for the sake of his career. Lovely. Dead.

Olivia (Scarlett Johansson). She is first Angier's assistant; Angier sends her to spy on and sleep with Borden, and she switches sides in disgust. She's a good accomplice, particularly for Borden who she helps revolutionize his career. They fall in love, but she also becomes disgusted by his fickleness. Again, the twins can't be bothered to tell her the truth. Despite being traded like a pawn between the men, she has a fair amount of agency and independence. One could argue that she's a Whore, but given her sympathy for the dead Sarah and her decision to leave Borden, I think that she avoids that trap. Alive, good.

CONCLUSIONS: Two dead wives, twice the manpain. (Or well, triple, if you count the twins separately.) This story, too, was an adaptation; but, again, Nolan chose to take this project on. Something about dead wives really appeals to him. Sarah and Olivia do speak to each other once, but only so that Sarah can object to Olivia calling her husband "Freddie," so it's definitely about a man.

CASE STUDY: Inception, 2010
A team of extractors led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) invades the mind of an energy magnate, but they're dogged by a shade from Cobb's past, Mal (Marion Cotillard).

The women
Mal. Let's get the obvious one out of the way: the dead wife. And not only is she dead, we actually see her die four times over, both in dreams and in real life. Twice are suicide, once she's shot by her husband, and once she's shot by the movie's other woman. Her madness and eventual real-life suicide were her husband's fault. After her death she haunts his subconscious and is the film's femme fatale and villain. Plus, most of the time she's she's not even real. Besides the few flashbacks where she's crazy and suicidal, she spends most of the movie as a goddamn projection of Cobb's memory of her, laced with his guilt and self-loathing. She has absolutely no autonomy of her own. It's like Chris Nolan's worst hits, all wrapped up in one admittedly-gorgeous Frenchwoman. Very dead, antagonist.

Ariadne (Ellen Page). Curiously, the film that has the worst representation of women also has the best female character that Nolan can offer to date. Ariadne is described as an ever better architect than Cobb was, she's the only teammember who calls him on his emotionally-disturbed shit, yet she is a constant support and guide for him. She's the supreme example of woman-as-conscience, persistently pushing Cobb to face his demons. Ultimately she's the one who completes the job they were hired to do, by shooting shade-Mal and literally drop-kicking Fischer out of Limbo. As the newest teammember, she's a stand-in for the audience, asking all the questions we're wondering; though Cobb is the main character, we're meant to identify with level-headed Ariadne. However, she is still a prop to Cobb's emotional and physical journey. We do see her "die" at one point, stabbed by Mal no less. On the scale of Christopher Nolan movies, she's pretty damn good, but he's still got a long way to go. Alive.

CONCLUSIONS: A decidedly mixed bag. The very best and worst, packed into one. It also comes closest to passing the Bechdel test: Ariadne and Mal talk, but Mal is technically a projection of Cobb's mind and their conversation was subtextually about Cobb. So it's debatable.


+ Going through the IMDB database, I counted up the number of named characters in the above movies. (Although as we've seen, "named" is a fairly relative term -- "Gordon's Daughter" and "Leonard's Wife," for example.) There were 94 names roles for all of Nolan's major films. (I'll confess I haven't seen Following or Doodlebug. If someone has, please chime in.) (ETA: Somebody did chime in! Ryan Meray reports: "In Following, the only woman in the film dies. Also fails the Bechdel test.") Even being generous with what constitutes a name, only 23 of those roles belonged to women.

+ Of those 23, only 17 had speaking roles (more than one line).

+ Of those 17, only 9 were alive at the end of the movie.

+ Of those 9, 5 were antagonists, Whores, or Madonnas.

+ That just leaves the hotel manager in Insomnia (who apparently has a name -- I was generous there), Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, Olivia in The Prestige, and Ariadne in Inception. One of them dies in a later film, and one "dies" in a dream, one is almost a Whore, and one barely has a name.

+ Of the 6 women who are wives in Chris Nolan movies, only Barbara Gordon survives her movie. Of the other 5, 4 commit suicide.

+ Of the 8 women who die, 6 are inarguably cases of fridging. Remember, "fridging" means killing a woman off solely to give the main male hero a reason to angst. The two wives in Memento match this profile to a T, as do the two wives in The Prestige, Mal in Inception, and Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight.

But fridging is obviously only part of a larger problem in Nolan's cinescape. Recent studies have shown that women get only about 30% of the speaking roles in films and tv shows, despite making up half the population. In Nolan movies, only 23% of the named roles are women. I haven't the wherewithal to examine the percentage of speaking roles that belong to women, but I'm guessing that it's not many.

Again, let me be clear that I am a fan of Nolan. I belive he's a visionary. But speaking as a woman who watches his movies, I find myself longing to see someone like me onscreen, who doesn't die horribly. I want to believe that he is better than this. I want to believe that he just hasn't been challenged on it yet.

Consider this your gauntlet, Mr. Nolan.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thaumatrope twit-fic

My 140-character story about the Big Bad Wolf has been published by Thaumatrope, a Twitter magazine for Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror fiction! Check it out!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Inception's plot, summarized in handy graphic

Credit to dehahs on deviantart. I love it when the universe of a work is rich and deep enough to inspire creativity in others. Judging from the amount of fanart and fanfiction that I've seen already on the Interwebs, Inception is definitely one of those works.

San Diego Comic-con: the Nerd-Herd rideth

Through the infinite kindness of friends, I was able to get a) a free all-weekend pass to the San Diego Comic-con, and b) a free place to stay while down there. All I had to pay for was the plane ticket, transportation and food, which, I'm still living on ramen for the rest of the month, but ENOUGH OF THAT REAL-LIFE WHINING. To the con report!

I missed Thursday night, unfortunately, and thus didn't catch Tron, The Walking Dead, or the Avengers panels. Boo. My plane landed around noon and I got to the con at 1:30 or so. After picking up my pass I went straight to get in line for "The Joss Whedon Experience," which started at 3:00; but when I got there the line was so long that it wrapped from one end of the convention hall to the other. Security told me point-blank that I wouldn't get it. This was my first brush with The Doom Ballroom. A warning to future con-goers: if you're seeing any show in Ballroom 20, get in line three hours in advance. I never tried to see anything in Hall H, but I suspect it comes with the same warning.

Suffering that early defeat, I wandered out onto the exhibition hall and immediately regretted that life decision. It was terrifying! I've always had a problem with crowds but HOLY JESUS, this was bad. Honestly the biggest problem wasn't even the sheer number of people, it was that people would stop to take pictures of the Halo soldiers squad, or the Slave Leias, or a Big Daddy from Bioshock, and the clumps of picture-takers would swell like tumors as more people stopped to see what the excitement was about. I had decided at the last minute not to take my digital camera with me as I haven't got the money to buy an SD card and thus wouldn't have been able to take many pictures anyhow. I had planned to buy a disposable camera; but at the con I resolved against even that, and instead put my head down and slogged through the crowds. If you want some better pictures than I could have took, here's a good set.

I headed back upstairs for more panels, dropping in on the "Spotlight on Stan Lee" for some batshit ramblings--most disorganized panel I saw, but charming in its own way--including Stan Lee's history of writing "romance stories" and how he got his start as an office bitch in his wife's cousin's publishing company. An interesting tidbit to me was the details of how the Comics Code got started: it was all really due to Dr. Frederic Wortham, a psychiatrist who wrote about the harmful effects that comic-book violence and sex had on children, and was quoted as saying, "If I should meet an unruly youngster in a dark alley. I prefer it to be one who has not seen Bonnie and Clyde." Dude was really scared of kids.

I slipped out of that panel halfway through and rather abruptly ran into Zachary Quinto, aka Spock in the new Star Trek, rather randomly hanging out in the hall taking pictures with fans and signing autographs. He was unexpectedly tall, but just as good-looking. Probably sensing the oncoming nerd-herd of fanboys and girls, security whisked him away before I could get any closer. The security down there was kind of ruthlessly effecient, yo.

I continued on to "Graphic Novels: The Personal Touch," with Gabrielle Bell, Howard Cruse, and Jillian Tamaki. It mostly told me stuff that I already knew. I left some samples of A Teenager's Guide and Nevermore with the panelists, then left the con to forage for food. The surrounding restaurants were, surprise surprise, ridiculously pricey. The Gaslamp District was full of steakhouses and lobster houses and the like; if you're at SDCC and trying to eat cheap, be prepared to walk a ways up 5th Street (the street that the convention hall lets you out onto). If you go up far enough there's pizza by the slice and a Subway, or if you get all the way up to Broadway then take a left and walk two blocks, you'll find Horton Plaza, a big mall with plenty more options including a Panera where I ate a very good breakfast on Monday. Basically, bring good shoes and expect to walk a ways for your cheaper lunch.

Heading back to the con, I went straight to get in line for the "Girls Gone Genre" panel, which was the best life decision I made at the con. GREAT panel, featuring women from many different sides of the entertainment business: Felicia Day, Kathryn Immonen, Laeta Kalogridis, Marti Noxon, Melissa Rosenberg, and Gail Simone. Annalee Newitz, the EIC of I09, moderated. They talked a bit about being women in their respective fields, and had very different reports. Marti Noxon called Joss Whedon "a bigger woman than I am," and had a very positive, even sheltered experience writing on his shows; Melissa Rosenberg definitely had met some resistance and was usually the only woman and least-paid member of a staff. A very interesting comment that several of them made was that they were not taken seriously if they were at all "glamorous." If they showed up in a dress their opinions were brushed aside; but if they wore sweats and didn't wash their hair, they'd be listened to in the writing room or wherever they needed to convince men to hear them.

Kathryn Immonen gave Marvel credit for several initiatives that had brought in more female writers, and scoffed at accusations of "stunt casting" on the creative teams of books. Laeta Kalogridis was once fired from Bionic for "not writing women well," and was replaced by a male writer; yet Jim Cameron is her biggest mentor and ally. Gail Simone initially passed on Wonder Woman because she didn't want to be the chick writing a chick book, but she says now that she doesn't write for one or the other, she just tries to write good stories. They all agreed that the idea of writing specifically for female or male readership is pretty ridiculous. Kathryn Immonen reported that in certain sections of the comic book industry, "female readers" are synonymous with "non-readers," and Melissa Rosenberg reported that it's always a shock to movie studios every time that a product is driven by women, like somehow they forget that women exist in between those peaks of involvement. On the subject of a Wonder Woman movie (they were all frothing at the mouth for one), Laeta said that while movie studios want a star to drive up box office, that's a mistake: superhero movies don't need star because the character is the star. Melissa is launching her own production company called "Tall Girl Productions," geared towards female-friendly projects.

After the panel was over, there was a huge giveaway of books and sweatshirts for Marti Noxon's next project I Am Number 4. (I tried to read the book that it's apparently based on, but it was pretty bad. Concept was cool, but the prose was awful. Here's hoping she can translate it better to a different medium.) The hoodie giveaway was a nightmare: all the boxes were stacked at the back of the room in one location, which created a huge tumor of panel-goers all trying to get a shirt. After watching in horror for a bit, I took action and climbed up on top of the box mountain, ripping them open and throwing hoodies out into the crowd. It was kind of awesome, the best part of which was when Gail Simone--in an elegant dress and hair do-dad--elbowed her way through for a hoodie. I said I'd trade one for a hug; she obliged and I told her she was an inspiration. She asked what I was inspired to do and I said "write comic books!" and we engaged the High-Five before I returned to Hoodie Mountain.

(It should be noted that the entire time I was waiting for and in this panel, my friends Kristen and Lauren were waiting for the True Blood panel in the Doom Ballroom. After waiting in line for 2.5 hours, they didn't get in. SERIOUSLY. Ballroom of DOOOOOOOOOM.)

After getting dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe with some of the boys from the Dark Horse booth, Kristen, Lauren and I headed back (passing director Edgar Wright on the way) for "Worst Cartoons Ever." And dear God, they were so bad. This is a long-running panel, so if anyone goes again, DO NOT MISS IT. Aside from old crowd favorites like Mighty Mr. Titan, there was this one...the one with the monkey. That's all I can call it. The title was actually something like Experimental Animation, and Jeff Beck, who was emceeing the panel, said it would give Guillermo Del Toro nightmares. He wasn't kidding. It was the creepiest shit I've seen all year. Everytime you thought the creep factor was at 10, it went to 11. I can only hope that they show it again next con, because the crowd freaking loved it, even as we were cringing backwards in our seats.

I started off Saturday bright and early with the "Marvel Comics Writers Unite!" Which was actually something of an accident on my part, but turned out to be an awesome accident because Matt Fraction! Does anyone else out there know the awesomeness of Matt Fraction? I will confess I walked away with something of a boycrush. Dammit, he had scruffy hair and snarky wit and a skinny black tie and nerd spectacles and big leather bracelets on both his wrists and spent the entire panel staring at the table in front of him rather than making eye contact with the audience, even when he was being witty and fanboying the other panelists. He also mentioned having a daughter and how much that has affected his desire to write strong female characters, because he knows that he and his wife will raise her to be an independent thinker and if he writes exploitative crap he'll have to answer for it one day. In other words, precious! I wanted to put him in my pocket and take him home with me. I'm only human, dammit! Gonna have to look up his stuff now.

Next was "Spotlight on Gerard Way," which was kinda underwhelming. Besides Way, Scott Allie and Gabriel Ba were on hand, but no one really had too many new projects that they could talk about. Way called himself lame and said that he couldn't talk about the movie at all. They did confirm that Killjoys is coming out next year for sure, as is Way's album with his band. There was a cute moment when a little boy in the audience presented Way with little Lego versions of The Umbrella Academy characters, and he admitted that he gets so shy when people do that or when they cosplay his characters. They all wanted to see someone do a Spaceboy cosplay. The umbrella represents protection, Way wants to see Gary Oldman as Hargreeves and Jared Leto as Kraken, he and his wife had a geekout over Joss Whedon the night before, and if Gerard ever wrote The X-Men, he could only do it if the cover read The Motherf'ing X-Men.

After that panel ended I braved another trip into the exhibition hall to visit Artist's Alley and try to network a bit, then swung by the Dark Horse booth to check up on my peeps. It was super-crowded so I jetted, but I was told later that during the Gerard Way signing that transpired shortly after I left, one girl was so excited to see him that she spontaneously started bleeding from the nose and mouth. The Dark Horse peeps did their best to take care of her, but she apparently had to lie down on the floor of their booth for a while. Which, whoa. Also later that day, someone got stabbed with a pen. There were all sorts of rumors about this flying around the con, including an inter-fandom argument between zombie-lovers and Harry Potter fen in which someone's eye got gouged out, but the truth is that two grown men got into an argument during the Resident Evil panel about one sitting too close to the other, and one of them stabbed the other near the eye with a pen. I can't even qualify that with a joke.

ANYWAY. Kristen, Lauren, and I went to the "Queer Press Grant Roundup Panel." The folks behind Prism Comics are giving out $2,000 to encourage LGBT comic book creators. I'm totally going to try for this! This is exactly what I need.

After that I warily headed toward the Doom Ballroom. Miraculously, there wasn't a line for once and I slipped into the end of the Fringe panel. I don't watch the show but the cast seemed absolutely charming, especially Joshua Jackson. Whenever someone asked them a question, they would respond and then someone on the cast would come up with a trivia question; if someone in the audience got it right, they got a free shirt; if they got it wrong, they got a free shirt anyway. One of the questions pertained to the secret ingredient of some kind of compound used on the show, and Joshua Jackson was all, "Hey, I've got a great hint for this!" before taking a sip of water and leaning close to the mic to burble it between his lips. The audience member guessed marijuana and Jackson chirped, "You win a t-shirt! And a five to fifteen year prison sentence!" Like I said, charming. I should really watch that show.

The next panel in the Doom Ballroom was "The Vampire Diaries," which I do watch and was thoroughly excited for. Most of the cast was there, and were hilarious. For some reason I didn't take notes on this one, so I'm relying solely on memory. Nina Dobrev and Paul Wesley were gorgeous and immaculate while Ian Somerhalder looked like he'd just had sex in a broom closet. Which, come to think of it, Matt Davis kind of did, too. Make of that what you will. Davis and Steve R. McQueen sat at the end of the table and spent most of the panel snickering at the others, particulary at any comments that could remotely be construed as dirty. Writer Julie Plec described them as "Beavis and Butthead." Somerhalder said he hates playing scenes in which Damon is being a good guy; he doesn't know what to do with himself (which probably works for Damon). McQueen wants a girlfriend who doesn't die. They confirmed that we'd be seeing werewolves then played an exclusive sneak peek at next season, which mostly consisted of people stabbing each other and Damon telling Stefan that he kissed Elena and Damon making out with Katherine (OR ELENA?) and then Katherine telling Damon that she didn't love him, then her telling Stefan that she DID, and Stefan telling her that he hates her and then her GUT-STABBING STEFAN, and H'OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS, IT IS ON. SHIT IS GONNA GO DOWN AND KNOWING THIS SHOW, THAT'S ALL FROM THE SEASON-OPENING TEASER.

Ahem. Annnnnyway.

Next up the girls and I went to "Gays in Comics: Year 23!" As a quick aside, I've heard that Westboro was protesting the con; apparently they did it Wednesday, the first official day of the con, so I missed them. I'm strangely regretful about that. From the sound of it, the counter-protests were awesome. Most of this panel was devoted to talking about developments and the expanding roles of gay characters. An audience member came up with the best question of the night: do people feel like it's important for gay characters in comics to actually come out and say "I'm gay," or is it enough for it to be strongly implied? Some of the panelists (the straight ones, actually, not that I don't feel like this could be a valid viewpoint) felt that it's not important for us to know right away that a character's gay, and that a person's sexuality shouldn't be their defining characteristic; Howard Cruse, the godfather of gay comics, though, raised the excellent point that the default assumption for all characters--and for society at large--is that everyone's heterosexual, and for us to be able to find one another requires some identification. I fall into the latter camp, but I acknowledge the former as the ideal scenario. We shouldn't have to identify ourselves becuase it shouldn't have to matter; but until it stops mattering to the Westboro Baptist Church, we're going to need to speak up if only so that we can find and support one another. That's my .02 cents.

Got up bright and early to brave the Doom Ballroom with Lauren for Glee. We spent probably two hours in line, and got in at the end of American Dad, which I really wasn't too happy about. I had always known that Seth MacFarlane was something of a smug prick, but wow. He's a monumental smug prick. He and the other panelists started making fun of the people who were coming up to ask questions. One guy had a monotone and MacFarlane asked him if anyone had ever told him he had a robotic voice, then answered the question in a robot monotone. I'd feel worse for the fans if they weren't a bunch of pricks, too: as we were hanging out in line a guy in a makeshift 300 costume walked by and one of the American Dad fans yelled sarcastically, "Yo, way for half-assing your costume, dude!" It was like a bunch of frat boys invading a Magic: The Gathering party. I wanted to summon the Nerd-Herd Security Squad and have them thrown out.

Flip that whole vibe around and that was the "Glee" panel. Ryan Murphy was there, as was Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Heather Morris, Kevin McHale, Jenna Ushkowitz, and Naya Rivera. (No Mark Salling, though he was scheduled. Alas! Hope he didn't get sick or something.) Before the cast came out they rolled a highlight reel of season 1; the crowd loved all of it, but especially Burt Hummel's anti-"fag" speech. Everyone kept bursting into spontaneous applause and yelling, "That's right!" and "I love you, Mr. Hummel!" The cast were lovely. Chris Colfer was wearing a Transformers t-shirt and told us that he felt right at home as he is "a huge, awkward nerd" himself; he'd love to do "Time Warp" on the show, and Ryan Murphy teased us with the possibility of a Rocky Horror episode. Jenna is a Vampire Diaries fan as well and was in an actual glee club in high school. I want to be Amber Riley's friend in real life. They have the post-Super Bowl timeslot and will be doing some kind of tribute episode there. Oprah was scarier for them to meet than Obama. Next season will be more intimate with the characters and at some point we'll be seeing Mercedes go to church and taking Kurt along. Chris got veeeeeery nervous, all wide-eyed Bambi, so apparently that was the first time he was hearing about that one, too. I spent the whole panel waiting in line to ask a question: I thanked Ryan Murphy and Chris Colfer for their work then waved a threatening fist at the panel and demanded a boyfriend for Kurt. They promised that we'd see one soon but didn't give specifics, the buggers.

After that was over, we barely had time to eat lunch before the con started shutting down. Kristen, Lauren and I parted ways and I wound up sticking around the Dark Horse booth to help break everything down (usually they throw out everyone without an 'exhibitor' pass, but they had an extra one at the booth and so for the latter half of the day I was 'Brian'). My primary function was putting boxes back together and loading things up. It was long, exhausting work, but actually a lot of fun for me and my "must-be-helpful" instincts. The exhibition hall was almost nice without all the people packed in there. I wound up getting a Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Panel to Panel book that had a page torn out and was gonna be thrown away. One of the ladies organizing the company dinner invited me along and I wound up going to a very nice steakhouse/lobster restaurant right across from the convention center with about half of Dark Horse. Most excellent food, and marvelous company. Unfortunately I had to leave them before the party got into full steam, but such is the way of it.

In all, a fun but exhausting weekend. By the end of it, everyone was desperate to get home to their own beds, and Oregon water. Walking away from it, I'm most excited for the Vampire Diaries season premiere. SHIT'S GOING DOWN.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: Inception (spoilers)

I'm not going to bother with a full review for the movie -- short version: awesome, you should check it out for the whole dream sequence in the hotel if nothing else; I also happen to think that while this was ostensibly Chris Nolan's baby and Leo Dicaprio was the star, it's Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose career will benefit most -- in favor of trying to figure out the ending.


I have seen three options postulated in the after-movie discussions. There are the obvious two: either Dom (Dicaprio) woke up all the way and is finally back with his kids in real life ("the top fell eventually" theory), or he never came back up from Limbo after Ariadne left him down there and the whole sequence of him going to rejoin his kids is his own fantasy ("the top stayed spinning" theory). After I got home and went online, I saw a third theory: that Dom never woke up from his first time in Limbo with Mal, and everything in the movie was a dream.

Proponents of the third "all a dream" theory point out that a lot of the "waking world" sequences did seem a little far-fetched and unreal--particularly the way the Kobal engineering goons in Mombasa seemed to pursue Dom much like the projections of a subconscious mind (something that Dom's projection of Mal points out). However, I find this theory to be both improbable and narratively unsatisfying. Dom was not present for every sequence in the movie: Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) teaching Ariadne (Ellen Page), for example, or Yusuf and Arthur's solo time in their dream-worlds fighting off multiple attackers. And while he had knowledge of those events, we actually saw them as an audience, which would imply that Dom had to have seen them, too. From a narrative standpoint, yes, logically the whole thing could have been a dream, but then what would have been the point of making the movie at all? And what would have been the point of watching it, if all the characters in it are just projections and the whole plot merely the whim of a trapped mind? Like I said, unsatisfying.

So I think it comes down to whether the top stayed up or fell down after the screen went dark. The whole point of the movie was to question reality, so obviously Nolan wrote it to be open-ended, giving hints in either direction. Let's take a look:

The top fell down theory
  1. The top wobbled a bit at the end. Usually when it spun in a dream, it stayed perfectly still, spinning in place forever.
  2. We saw the kids' faces at the end, something that we pointedly never saw in the dreams.
  3. "Ariadne" comes from Greek mythology. She was the daughter of Minos and helped Theseus kill the minotaur and escape from the labyrinthe, a highly symbolic role given her relationship with Dom.

The top stayed spinning theory
  1. We did not actually SEE the top fall down, and Dom didn't stick around to watch, either, despite being visibly nervous about how familiar everything felt.
  2. And anyway, Dom's totem is spectacularly unreliable. First of all, it was Mal's totem to begin with, and second, he showed it and explained how it worked to multiple people. I realize that was to exposit how the thing worked and why he kept spinning it all the time, but seriously, now.
  3. The kids were in the exact same position that we always saw them out the back deck, wearing the same clothes and appearing not to have aged. It was never mentioned how long Dom had been away from them, but in the real world when he spoke to them on the phone from Japan, they sounded older.
  4. Why was Miles waiting for Dom in LAX? Wasn't he just in Paris? Admittedly Dom could have called to tell Miles about the possibility of his homecoming, but still. Seemed kind of convenient.
After I watched the movie the first time, I was adamant that the top wobbled and that he was awake. (Well, actually first I yelled "Sonofabitch!" rather loudly when the screen went black, getting laughs from people around me.) Having watched it twice now, though, I'm convinced that Dom was still dreaming at the end, mostly due to the kids.

If you have other items of evidence to add to the list, comment below.

One last thing, just one: has there ever been a Christopher Nolan film in which a woman wasn't fridged (i.e. killed off in order to give the main male hero a reason to angst)? Think about it. Batman Begins: the mother dies. The Dark Knight: the girlfriend dies. Memento: the wife dies. The Prestige: the wife dies, THEN the girlfriend dies. Insomnia: teenaged serial killing victim dies. And now Inception: the wife dies, four(?) times.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Drumming diary: Joining the Delegation

Apologies for the long break on my drumming diary, but many things have been afoot. I appear to have joined a blues band, Get Down Jones and the Delegation. It's a long-running band fronted by a guy named Barney who's well-respected in the Portland blues scene.

You can listen to some tracks on the site there. I didn't play on any of them, but I'm currently learning them all in order to start playing gigs with the band ASAP.

The first gig being this weekend. Yikes. Pardon me while I return to frantically scribbling down cheat beat sheets, heh.

Fortunately their style of blues is fairly easy to play and groove-heavy. Once you get the groove down, you can settle into it and let your body swing and twist to the beat. It's like dancing, with little stutter-steps and dips on the break measures. 3 and a break. 3 and a break.

I'm working on "Built For Comfort" right now and twisting around some of the breaks to be more imaginative. One of them I've replaced with a bit of Panic! At the Disco's Northern Downpour; another, I've thrown in a quick skip of Led Zeppelin. Unabashed thievery is the musician's friend.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New hormone potentially erases lesbianism and other masculine behavior in fetuses

This is some of the most terrifying news that I've heard in a while: an endocrinologist in New York named Maria New has for several years been encouraging pregnant women to take a steriod called dexamethasone, ostensibly to prevent congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). CAH can mess up a kid's adrenal glands and require lifetime steriod treatment, as well as cause ambiguous genitalia in girls. One might think that studying ways to prevent this condition might not be so controversial, and yet:
The challenge here is . . . to see what could be done to restore this baby to
the normal female appearance which would be compatible with her parents
presenting her as a girl, with her eventually becoming somebody's wife, and
having normal sexual development, and becoming a mother. And she has all the
machinery for motherhood, and therefore nothing should stop that, if we can
repair her surgically and help her psychologically to continue to grow and
develop as a girl. -New, 2001

Gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and
leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression,
and sexual orientation become masculinized in 46,XX girls and women with 21OHD
deficiency [CAH]. These abnormalities have been attributed to the effects of
excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain
and later on behavior . . . We anticipate that prenatal dexamethasone therapy
will reduce the well-documented behavioral masculinization. -New and colleague Saroj Nimkam, 2010

I don't know what's scarier, the possibility that the treatment doesn't work -- as testified to by some of the women who took the steroid during pregnancy and whose children now suffer birth abnormalities -- or the possibility that it does.

If this steriod was actually effective in altering the physical appearance, behavior, and sexual orientation of a girl fetus, I could easily see a groundswell of support building for its widespread usage, among the same people who abhor fetal stem cell research. Because experimenting on babies is totally legit as long as it supports their cultural agenda. Gotta make girl babies more GIRLY, and eager to make more babies.

Comics: Swallow Me Whole ***/****

Title: Swallow Me Whole
Author: Nate Powell

Winner of the 2009 Eisner for Best New Graphic Novel, Swallow Me Whole has been marketed as Young Adult, and I'm exceedingly grateful for that. It might seem like an obvious choice given the ages of its teenaged protagonists, step-siblings Ruth and Perry, but the novel deals pretty heavily with serious mental illness. Speaking as someone who's been close to these issues in the past, I wish that I had had a book like this as a teenager, and that there were more of its kind.

Ruth and Perry dwell in an importantly-ordinary, Christian-leaning community, and have an importantly-ordinary family. Their interior lives are far from ordinary, however: serious-minded Ruth is obsessed with insects and hallucinates talking swarms of cicadas; awkward Perry sees a wizard balanced on the end of his eraser who urges him to draw. The delusions seem to run in the family, as their dying grandmother reveals to Ruth that she's had visions, too, that led to a lifetime of painting strange, ghostlike flying blobs with gaping mouths.

Memaw's deterioration hangs over the story even as Ruth and Perry grow up before our eyes and stretch their arms toward adulthood. Aside from each other, they don't get much help with their visions and visitors. Ruth does wind up on medication after going into a fugue state at school that's at first is mistaken for drug use, but when Perry nervously reveals the source of his wizard drawings to a family doctor, though, his concerns are brushed aside as "stress." It becomes an increasingly difficult struggle for these two to just get through the day, and for one of them that struggle careens downhill.

Powell carefully allows us to see Ruth and Perry's hallucinations, but to experience them as well. His use of unconventional and sometimes confusing panel sizes and placement detaches us, finger by gripping finger, from reality and makes it painfully clear how difficult it can be to live with mental illness. It seems easy to say that a tiny talking wizard is absurd and fantastical; but as the teens' problems are misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and even encouraged by their delusional grandmother, one can see the solid ground of their lives falling out from underneath Ruth and Perry, until they float through the dark swirl of Powell's artwork.

The ending, which I shan't spoil here, drives this point home. Something happens that makes us question whether Ruth's delusions were real after all. It throws the reader into a level of ambiguity and uncertainty that mimics, but likely cannot even come close to, the experience of living with an altered mind.