Don’t Break My Heart

An acquaintance on tumblr recently asked for recommendations for a tv-show to watch that won’t ‘break my heart right away’.

I gave some thought to this. Avatar? No. Firefly? God, no. Sherlock? Ever so much no. Battlestar Galactica? Frak, no. Supernatural? HELL, no. Most shows, especially if you’re inclined to get emotionally invested in the characters, will break your heart sooner or later.

So I suggested one from what is, bizarrely, one of  the emotionally safest genres – murder mysteries.

No, really. Someone dies in every episode, sure, but it’s quite rarely someone you actually know! The drama comes from the murder of unknown characters, while the known characters – police, detectives, what have you – are completely safe. They might seem threatened now and then, undergo a bit of trauma, but you know they’re going to be okay in the end. I’d never thought about it before, but when I’m feeling shattered I tend to watch either murder mysteries/cop shows or a nice medical, where the doctors are likewise pretty safe. I don’t mind people dying right and left, as long as it’s no-one I’m personally attached to. (My attitude to blood is much the same – I don’t care about anyone else’s, but come over all queasy if I see too much of my own)

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, especially if an actor wants to leave a show. But emotionally speaking, the shows where someone dies every episode are often easier than the ones where it comes as a horrible surprise. So if Supernatural or Sherlock have broken your heart, why not pay a little visit to Midsomer? The deaths won’t be surprising at all!

For the record, the show I recommended was ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’. I haven’t seen all of it, so heart-breakage is still a possibility, but it features a sassy lady detective in 1920s Sydney, who’s gloriously self-assertive and witty and there are also grumpy cabbies, charming policemen and sexy bits. I recommend it.

Two Days In One

So I really did think I’d posted yesterday. But when I looked today, I found a little untitled draft reading thusly:

I have got to start writing my blog-post ideas down. I keep having them and thinking ‘oh, I’ll write about that tomorrow’…. and then when tomorrow comes, I got nothing. And I’m too sleepy to work up a good rant. So

Apparently something shiny flitted across my vision at that point and I forgot to finish.

Have you noticed that you can get ideas from other books or movies, but the idea often doesn’t resemble that book or movie at all?

On the international flight home, I was watching Prince Caspian and thinking about skewed gender representation in fantasy, you know, as you do, and I got hit by the Idea Fairy. As best I recall, it went something like this.

Ooh, pretty.

I don’t like the plot coupons though.

Looking for missing people.

Evil magic.

Plot coupons.

What if they weren’t plot coupons? What if the series of tasks was actually, you know, not cumulative but they were just doing all different things to try to achieve an end?

And then somehow I was imagining this city, right, which is being invaded, and our Plucky Heroes have to resurrect the city’s old magical defenses but nobody knows where they are any more or how they worked and it turns out the seven ancient protective spells are curses enacted by mages killed in battle, and their spirits are in buildings and books and statues and shit and they have to get woken up so they can curse the invaders again but it’s hard and takes sacrifices  and they don’t actually need to find all of them or anything it’s just ‘let’s find as many as we can before they get here’ and there’s a couple they can’t find but the ones they do find turn out to be enough except at least one of the heroes actually dies because that mage demands blood sacrifice so they die for the city or something.

I got all of this out of ‘let’s find the magic swords’ and ‘ooh, pretty scenery’. I mean, you guys remember the Rise of the Guardians thing, where watching RotG made me think about a story featuring a ghost who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, right? I swear, I wonder how my brain makes these connections sometimes.

I like it, though. I like the idea of a story where the Plucky Young Heroes have to Find The Things and they don’t have to find them all, and they don’t find them all, because it’s not a game it’s just a matter of finding all the weapons you can because there’s a war going and you just want to save your home. When a plot coupon is not a plot coupon. I like it.

What are your feelings on plot coupons?

Adapting Classic Works

It’s big these days. From Clueless to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, stealing adapting the works of classic authors is a surprisingly long-lasting Latest Thing. Especially Jane Austen. Ms Austen is cool. L. Frank Baum is also big, theftwise.

I personally enjoy doing this. The closest I’ve ever come to finishing a manuscript is my adaption of The Wizard Of Oz, entitled Mobile City: Overlander Z. (I posted the first draft of the first chapter a while back, if anyone’s interested. Any comments will be extremely gratefully received.) But as with anything, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. I understand P&P rewrites/sequels/adaptions are getting a chilly reception lately, which is why I’ve shelved mine for now. (Jane and Bingley’s POV! Let them tell their love story! It would be fun, must get back to it some time).

I’ve been rereading Jane Austen’s works lately, as I frequently do when I’m tired or depressed or don’t have anything new to read or it’s Tuesday, because I love them and will basically read them over and over forever. It struck me that while P&P adaptions are rampant, and Sense and Sensibility and Emma have had their turn in the spotlight, you don’t see a lot of Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park or Persuasion gadding about in new covers or movie adaptions.

Which is a real shame, because while Mansfield Park is reasonably tightly anchored to its own time, the other two would adapt pretty well, especially as Clueless-style movie retellings. (I know a lot of Austenphiles don’t like Clueless. I don’t care, I think it’s just adorable) Take Northanger Abbey: idealistic, slightly silly young girl goes on holiday, meets cute guy and sweet or duplicitous girls, visits guy and his sister, frightens herself half to death with wild imagination, marries boy. It’s got Hit Romantic Comedy written all over it.

Persuasion would be even better. Girl is firmly discouraged from getting married at nineteen, boy leaves in a huff, woman never really gets over the loss, then is taken advantage of by her self-absorbed sisters and father, before meeting boy again, having a couple of adventures, rescuing father from marrying sister’s scheming friend and then living happily ever after. It would transition really well into a modern setting, I think, and I like Anne as a heroine. She’s a bit over the romance-heroine hill instead of being a Young Thing, philosophical about her disappointments, and always considerate of other people’s feelings – unlike charming but thoughtless Elizabeth Bennet, just for example.

The more I think about this, the better the idea sounds. So IT’S MINE AND I CALLED IT.

I’ve always meant to try scriptwriting…

Animated Ladies: Sleeping Beauty

Or: Why I Love Merryweather.

Merryweather argues... as usual.

Merryweather argues… as usual.

Sleeping Beauty is another story that, while on the surface appearing to be a typical if Disneyfied fairy-tale, is completely motivated by female characters. Aurora is the Victim, and a fairly standard one – pretty, sweet, and ultimately helpless. Maleficent is of course the Villain… but the Hero isn’t Prince Phillip, who’s likeable but helpless in the face of of Maleficent’s magic. Phillip is a stooge for the real Heroes of this story – the Three Good Fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They deflect Maleficent, hide the princess, rescue the prince and pretty much carry him to the final battle, arming him with magic and all but drawing a target on Maleficent for him. If a Hero is defined not as ‘the principal male character’ but as ‘the principal active or motivating character’, as generally I think they should be, it’s definitely the Good Fairies in that role here.

If it weren’t for one thing, I’d suspect the Good Fairies of having some kind of master plan. The movie opens with them unable to move directly against Maleficent, but by the end Maleficent is dead and their twinkly little hands are technically clean. Given that they’re the ones who set up the amelioration of the initial curse, then are also the ones who put Aurora within reach just in time for Maleficent to enact it, then set Phillip on Maleficent with all the force of their magic behind him, it could be a clever plot.

Except for the fact that Flora and Fauna are as thick as bricks.

And they are. There are exactly two moderately bright people in the whole damn movie. Maleficent, who has terrible taste in minions but takes sensible precautions like locking up the True Love, and is only foiled because King Hubert lets something slip in Flora’s hearing. Maleficent knows the fairies are idiots, and couldn’t have expected them to react so effectively or so fast.

The other one, of course, is Merryweather. The youngest (her hair is still black, not grey like the others) and the most confrontational, she’s the only one with a grip on common sense. When Flora suggests sneaking off and raising the baby themselves, Merryweather’s response is a practical query as to who’ll do the housework. Flora assures her ‘Oh, we’ll all pitch in’, but Merryweather’s expression indicates that she isn’t fooled. Flora is the boss. Fauna just wants to take care of the baby. And who’s going to be doing everything else? Junior Fairy Peasant Woman Merryweather, that’s who. She’s also the one who wants to confront Maleficent directly, which the others won’t do because of the Good Fairy Rules.

Much later, when Aurora is turning sixteen, Flora and Fauna decide to make her a pretty dress and a fancy birthday cake respectively. Merryweather’s response to Flora? “But you don’t know how to sew! And she’s never cooked!” Yep, Merryweather’s been doing the grunt work for the last sixteen years all right. She drags the other two down to earth, insists on using magic to do something that Aurora/Rose will actually like, and is graciously allowed to clean the house with magic for a change. Okay, yes, it’s her squabble with Flora that tips Maleficent off, but she’s still far and away the brightest of the fairies.

She’s also the stoutest, which I love. Instead of being the ‘pretty’ one, the youngest fairy is a short, round, sassy little badass who takes Maleficent’s crow down with one zap and is clearly going to Get Shit Done as soon as she’s the Senior Fairy. She’s one of the only examples I can think of of a fat female badass in animation – the only other one leaping to mind is Ma Dola, the feisty pirate captain in ‘Laputa: Castle In The Sky’, though my memory is lousy and there are probably more.

There is a Maleficent movie coming out, which I’m looking forward to. But I’m sad that there’ll probably never be a Merryweather movie, in which a stout, confrontational little fairy kicks some fairytale butt. It’d be great.

The Right Message

“If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

This quote is attributed to Sam Goldwyn, though I discovered it via John Scalzi. Goldwyn was talking about movies, but I think it’s equally applicable to all forms of fiction. It’s a clever and memorable phrase. Do I agree with it… well, yes and no.

If the purpose of a movie, or novel, or whatever, is to convey a Very Important Message, then unless that Very Important Message is that good dialogue is crucial, that book or movie is probably going to suck. Nobody likes being pounded over the head with a Very Important Message – among other things, it’s very annoying to be treated like an idiot. When a book takes me by the hand, leads me to its core conceit, tells me at great length how important it is, then follows with a series of examples, then tells me again – let’s be honest, at that point I’ve already put the book down and walked away. It’s horribly prevalent in YA fiction – drugs are bad, kids! Be nice and pretty so boys will like you! – but it sneaks into adult-oriented fiction too, usually in the form of dreary ‘realistic’ Literature that leaves you just terribly, terribly depressed. (This trend is why I almost never read Lit anymore)

But you can’t create a full narrative without conveying some kind of message, even if it’s ‘Robots are extremely cool but perhaps not quite so cool as Michael Bay thinks they are’.  And I think it’s very important to be aware of what message you’re sending.

Take the Dragonlance series. A flawed but still beloved masterwork that I adored as a teenager and still fondly revisit. But there are bits I have to skip over, including nearly all the references to the Gods. See, in the Dragonlance series, the True Gods have turned away from humanity because humanity became arrogant, and the Kingpriest of Atlantis Istar gave them attitude so they destroyed the whole city and went off to sulk. Oh, and ditched all the other sentient races too because ask the humans that’s why they fucked it up for all of you.

Really. The whole city. In a hissy fit because one priest was mouthing off. And now the sentient races have to come crawling back and prove that they’re penitent and humble enough to deserve the gods’ attention again. These supposedly good and noble gods who are acting like toddlers throwing a tantrum.

I hate this so much.

If you want to write gods who are petulant douchenozzles, fine, go ahead. If you want to write gods who are wise and noble and pure and everything, cool. But for the love of all that is textually appropriate know the difference. Add in Tika being a doormat to Caramon’s massive self-absorption, Tanis being a raging twerp who lets his penis do his thinking way too often to make a convincing leader, and the Solamnics and the elves being utter assholes and people just being stupid for plot coupons…

Let’s just say that I tend to come out of the books thinking ‘you know, Raistlin was evil and all, but I can really see why he made those choices’. When your villainous traitor who abandons his twin to die and later decides to become a Dark God is making more consistent moral choices than almost everyone else, and isn’t even in the top five for Characters Making Bad Bad Decisions, you need to think about what you’ve done.

I haven’t actually read Twilight. I’ve tried, but the prose-style really does not work for me at all, and I didn’t like the story nearly enough to put up with it. However, the not-so-subtle themes of ‘creepy stalker = romantic’ and ‘love means letting him assault you repeatedly’ have been reasonably well documented. And may I just say, eeeyuch.

There are way too many circumstances in which the Good Guys get away with doing incredibly ethically questionable crap because they’re the Good Guys so whatever they do must be okay. No. It’s not. I don’t care how heroic your hero has been until now, if he turns around and stabs an old lady or utterly lets down someone who’s had his back for the last two hundred pages, I want consequences. I want it acknowledged that he’s fucked up and to see him have to fix it. There are no moral passes, not for anyone, not ever.

Take the movie Thor. Thor is an arrogant jerk who tramples blithely over his little brother’s feelings repeatedly and acts like a jackass in general and then tops it all off by starting a war in a fit of pique and then mouthing off to Odin Allfather. And what happens to him? His brother tries to kill him, Odin strips him of his powers and casts him out and he gets tased by a cute intern who does not care to have big burly men staggering towards her shouting. And rightly so. Thor is a petulant douchenozzle god done right – the consequences of his actions hit him hard and he has to actually deal with them and stop being a spoiled brat. And he knows that Loki’s fall is in some part due to him, his fault for being a selfish jerk and a lousy brother, and that’s something he has to deal with too. ‘Actions have consequences, and sometimes it’s something that you can never undo’ is the message of both Thor and Loki’s character arcs, and it’s a good one.

In conclusion – don’t write just to send a message. But please, please be aware of what message you’re sending.

[Edited because Mel is right – writing with a message in mind isn’t bad at all. But writing only to send a message is not generally a good idea.]

Animated Ladies: Whisper of the Heart

If you’re looking for movies with strong female characters who aren’t solely identified as the love interest, watch Studio Ghibli. Pretty much any Studio Ghibli.

But today I want to talk about one of my persistent favourites, the often under-rated Whisper of the Heart. Spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to keep them minimal!

The protagonist is a girl! Not unsurprising in a movie made by Hayao Miyazaki – his female protagonists substantially outnumber the male. Shizuku is in junior high, and she is an avid and passionate reader. She notices one day that most of the books she checks out of the school library have already been borrowed by a Seiji Amasawa, and begins trying to find out who he is.

It’s really not a spoiler to mention that Seiji turns out to be the cute-but-annoying guy she keeps running into, as it’s pretty obvious. Seiji is an unusually appealing love-interest – he’s sometimes a bit of a jerk in his attempts to get Shizuku’s attention, but it’s not particularly intentional and he’s a well-realized character in his own right, with an unusual ambition of his own.

So there is a romance, but it’s not all or even the biggest part of Shizuku’s character development. That is reserved for Shizuku’s attempt to transition from merely loving to read to writing stories of her own. It’s a movie about an aspiring writer! Someone young and determined and still struggling to figure it out. (I would recommend this movie and the Emily of New Moon books by L. M. Montgomery to any young aspiring writer – they’re very honest about how hard it is and how much work it takes, but they’re still encouraging.)

As for the other animated ladies in the movie, there are several! There are eight ‘named’ female characters, as opposed to only four male – plus the Baron, who… well, he’s a special case. Shizuku’s sister Shiho is actually one of my favourite characters in the movie. She’s a university student, very take-charge and bossy as older sisters often are (I’m allowed to say this, I am one), and only peripherally involved in Shizuku’s story. She nags Shizuku about her grades and how important school is, and complains that Shizuku doesn’t do her share of the house-work, which is clearly true. Part-way through the movie, she moves out, leaving their shared bedroom to Shizuku, which is important to her later.

Shiho provides one of the clearest examples of the fact that, while Shizuku is totally immersed in her own crisis, other people’s lives are going on around her. Shiho has her own story, of which we see only tantalizing hints. She visits an aunt, talks to her mother about moving out and managing money, reminds Shizuku that school is important and sends letters that she doesn’t want Shizuku to look at too closely. That’s all we know, but she’s very clearly a person in her own right, adding an element of depth to the movie because it’s not an isolated story floating in film-space – it’s a moving window focused on Shizuku that sometimes passes other people with other stories.

Shizuku’s mother Asako is also a student – she’s completing grad school, so money is tight for the family. She’s concerned about her younger daughter’s grades, but has only limited time and resources to ride herd on Shizuku, having her own studies to do! Again, she’s a well-recognized individual with her own priorities, who clashes with the protagonist without in any way being a villain.

Shizuku’s best friend Yuko is a staunch supporter who has a crisis of her own during the movie. She and Shizuku sing with two more of their female friends, and eat lunch in the school nurse’s office – she  seems very friendly with the girls, and takes an interest in what’s going on in their lives. In contrast, while Shizuku’s father the librarian, Seiji’s grandfather the antiquarian, and Seiji himself are all important to the story, I can think of only one scene where they actually interact with each other. Like women in all too many other movies, the male characters appear primarily when interacting with a member of the opposite sex, usually someone more important to the plot than they are.

Add in the facts that Whisper of the Heart is beautiful to look at, has genuine struggle without any need for a cartoony villain, and is about an aspiring novelist, and it is no wonder that this is one of my very favourite movies.

Animated Ladies – The Rescuers

There are never enough female characters. This will remain true until ‘the hero, the grumpy one, the fat/big/dumb one, the cute kid and the girl’ is no longer a standard team lineup.This is a convention that drives me absolutely bananas, all the more so because I have once or twice caught myself doing it because I’ve actually internalized this crap. Women should not be only a token presence, despite the increasingly strict narrative conventions that bias towards males – so today’s post is about a movie that is an exception to that stupid rule.

I’ve been watching a lot, and I mean a lot of animation since I had a kid, even more than I did before, and I would like to shout out to the original ‘The Rescuers’, which passed the Bechdel test long before the Bechdel test was cool… or even invented. Spoilers ahead!

Of the four primary characters, three are female. And they never, ever talk about men. The plot goes like so – the primary villain, Madam Medusa, has a passionate, desperate desire for the fabled Devil’s Eye diamond. In order to obtain this thing, she has kidnapped sweet little Penny from Morningside Orphanage. The other two primaries, Miss Bianca and Bernard, get wind of this and on behalf of the Rescue Aid Society of mice (they are mice), go to the rescue.

So let’s start with Penny, who we see first. She’s a little girl in a very scary situation, something which isn’t really downplayed much. She’s been kidnapped, she doesn’t know where she is, and these people who use alligators as guard-dogs have not only held her for three months, but keep putting her down a scary dark hole in the ground where water comes in and might drown her. But Penny fights, to the best of her limited capacity. She tries repeatedly to escape, she puts messages in bottles and throws them out of the boat where she’s being held, she yells at Nero and Brutus (the alligators) when they catch her and gives the dopey sidekick Mr Snoops as good as she gets. Penny is The Victim, but she doesn’t passively wait to be rescued – she does her best to escape while going along with her captors as much as she needs to to keep them from hurting her. She’s smart, and she’s doing pretty damn well for a kid of 6-8.

Miss Bianca is the Hero of the piece, not Bernard. Bernard is unmistakeably second banana from the get-go. Yes, Miss Bianca suffers from some negative stereotyping (fussing about wrinkling her dress, making them late because she has to pack a few things, etc), and Bernard gets to save her from peril once or twice, but nevertheless she is unmistakeably the one in charge. Bernard does what she tells him, both because he has the world’s biggest crush on her and because he really doesn’t know what he’s doing. You see, when the Rescue Aid Society intercepts one of Penny’s letters-in-a-bottle, they agree that someone should be sent to investigate. Miss Bianca, the Hungarian representative, promptly volunteers. The chairman waffles about changing times and danger and goddamn women’s liberation okay fine you can go but you have to take a MAN with you. Then he calls for volunteers from the male representatives, trying to put Miss Bianca and the mission safely into male paws. Miss Bianca is not having his shit, though, and says sweetly that they’re all so kind, but if she has to take a guy she thinks she’ll take Bernard – the cute but doofy mouse janitor who just fell into the bottle and got stuck. The Chairman splutters, but she gets her way, and control of the mission. She gives the orders after that.

Madam Medusa, the Villain, is presented as a sleazy trollop – bad makeup, sagging figure in a skimpy dress, and so on, and that I don’t care for. But she is unmistakeably The Villain, with a pathetically incompetent male sidekick, Mr Snoops. She runs her own business, has her own evil plans and goals, and never shows the slightest interest in men. She’s the one who trained the alligators, who frighten Mr Snoops, and she drinks, drives recklessly, and waves a shotgun with abandon. She’s clever until she loses her temper, and if she isn’t quite as badass as she thinks she is, she’s not doing half bad as a credible villain. (Okay, she’s no Ursula, but she’s pretty good!)

Oddly enough, Miss Bianca and Madam Medusa, the Hero and Villain, never interact directly beyond Medusa freaking out about mice being in the house and waving her shotgun around. But they both talk to Penny, not once but multiple times, and (aside possibly from references to the pirate’s skull) never discuss men AT ALL. Bianca, Medusa, and Penny provide the entirety of the plot’s motivation, almost all of its smarts, and most of the romance – though Bernard crushes on Bianca, she’s the one who makes the move.

It’s silly and cheesy and still problematic in spots, but give The Rescuers credit – it had strong female characters before Strong Female Characters were required, and it’s a fun watch.

However, watch with care – the Rescue Aid Society song is one of the most potent earworms I have ever encountered. I actually woke up humming the damn thing.