Monday, February 24, 2014

Bookstore Intimidation

I love being inside bookstores and libraries. Some of my fondest memories as a child are from visiting the library or going up to the children's floor of Barnes and Noble and reading and reading for hours. Sorry about that, Barnes and Noble. But as I've gotten older and become a little bit more serious about wanting to become a writer (I would say that this phenomenon began sometime around high school) I sometimes experience what I call "bookstore intimidation" when I walk into a bookstore or library. Now, this a terrible term for this condition because that last sentence just showed you that "bookstore intimidation" had happen in both bookstores and libraries. And also online on goodreads or amazon. And elsewhere, you know what, forget it.

Let me actually explain what I mean by "bookstore intimidation" before I get caught up in the terminology I made up. Have you ever thought about how many books and plays and graphic novels and other written materials with a narrative have been written already? Have you ever just thought about how many of these things exist in the universe, not to mention all the television show and movie scripts? It's not difficult to see why people claim there's nothing new under the sun and we keep telling the same stories over and over. This is a part of bookstore intimidation. As a reader this can be a wonderful thing. How can you ever get bored? There are so many things that have been created to entertain and engage you. Or it can also be terrifying when you realize you can't possibly read all the books that you want to read. But this brand of bookstore intimidation is about writers.

Sometimes I don't know how other unpublished writers who have ambitions to write books can walk into a bookstore and not have panic attacks. How can you say, I want to add to this massive literary tradition without being choked by the anxiety that you couldn't possibly produce something that hasn't already been written? Where is that place for you on the shelves? Even if you did manage to finish a manuscript and miraculously get it published, how would anyone find you in this sea of books full of material much worthier of an audience's time? This is bookstore intimidation. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

In My Own Little Corner

I am very frustrated by my lack of social media capital right now. Sometimes I'm quite happy to exist in my own little corner of the internet. I exist in different spaces without being tied to any one community. I don't really draw enough attention to have to filter out negative comments. And that suits me just fine. But sometimes it's frustrating. Like when you put in a ton of effort to write and select photos for a post and no one reads it. Or when you need people to go look at this thing so you'll be invited back and you can't harness the social media capital and networks you've been building up because it doesn't work that way. I'm not a youtuber or blogger with an army of minions. I can't use my dispersed network of contacts in the way that they can. And so while I am content with my anonymity and lack of entanglements most of the time, yes, sometimes it has obvious drawbacks. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Today Is Not a Writing Day


I'm letting you know right off that bat that this post is going to be completely worthless. If you insist on reading past this point you have no one to blame but yourself. Today is just not a 'writing day' for me. There are days when I write multiple posts in one day and answer a bunch of emails and messages and maybe even make time for my fiction work. This is not one of those days. I am fully capable of typing. My hands aren't broken. I'm typing right now. But there are just those days when you sit down at your laptop and you are acutely aware that anything you write that day is going to be garbage. This doesn't make any sense but I feel like the words are coming out of my elbows and not my brain. Everything from my elbows down is engaged in the process of writing. My fingers are engaged in the mechanical work. But my brain is not. My brain is only engaged as much as it needs to be and I'm working off of muscle memory. I can't think of anything more insightful that "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." I can't even write easy review posts that would take me a half hour to finish on a good day. It's not the same as writer's block. Somewhere in there I know what I want to say. Maybe I've already laid out the groundwork in an outline and no creativity is necessary. But I simply cannot engage in the actual act of writing. My brain refuses to cooperate. Today is one of those days. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

More Thoughts On The Lego Movie

And now for my non-gender related thoughts on the movie. As with my other post, this will contain SPOILERS for The Lego Movie. Also, rambling. A lot of rambling.

1) Voice Work: I think Will Arnett as Batman and Alison Brie as Uni-Kitty really knocked it out of the park. Not only were they perfectly cast but they really seemed to have fun with their roles and give it their all. They also both had great comedic moments that they really sold well. Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius was Morgan Freeman, but he did a great job being Morgan Freeman. I thought Liam Neeson was a little disappointing in the Bad Cop role. He did a fine job but it was just a little disappointing with the bar that Will Arnett and Alison Brie set. I found Chris Pratt to be a little bland as Emmett but I thought it worked because his character was supposed to be somewhat generic and ordinary so he didn't really need a unique voice and he was never required to go to emotional extremes. I thought Elizabeth Banks was probably the weakest member of the cast. Her voice was too flat and I wish she would have given Wyldstyle a bit more attitude. Another actress probably could have done more with the part. Charlie Day was fine as Benny. There was nothing all that distinct about his voice or performance but he had a great moment towards the end of the movie. Will Ferrell was just alright as Lord Business/President Business but I understood why he was cast for the live action part of the film. As I said in my post on gender representation in the film, it gave me serious Jumanji vibes which I actually liked.

2) Animation: I thought the animation was fantastic as someone who isn't a fan of Lego. I will still probably always favor 2D/hand-drawn animation and a softer look but the movie was bright and colorful and I think it did a great job cleverly adopting a style that mimicked the sense of playing with Lego sets. Almost everything was made to look like part of a Lego set in the movie. The water in the shower, the bullets fired from the guns, the smoke emitting from the train, the rolling oceans were all done with Lego-like pieces in a very impressive way. Of course everything did not have that look. There were some written materials and a few scenes where things in the background lost the look of the bricks or individual pieces. And the abyss leading to the real world did not have the look of Lego pieces which really should have been a bigger hint earlier in the film.

3) Conformity/Nonconformity: The film presents a totalitarian state but unlike dystopian settings like those presented by Orwell, in Emmett's world, everyone is genuinely happy and pleasant. I didn't get a sense that the cheerfulness was forced upon them or that it was similar to a Pleasantville situation but there was an emphasis on positive energy. People followed instructions for happiness that involved saying hello to everyone (and other things I did not take notes on). The theme song of the movie that everyone in the community loved is called "Everything is Awesome." There is a marked contrast between the face President Business presents to the world and the real demeanor of Lord Business. The emphasis is on cheer and positiveness and Taco Tuesday.

The messages of conformity and nonconformity abound throughout the film. The construction workers are instructed to "take everything weird and blow it up" and build it "exactly how it looks in the instructions." The moment before he touches the piece of resistance, Emmett panics and doesn't know what to do because he doesn't have his instructions. Emmett is even more of a conformist than the other citizens of the state. In the video footage interviewing people in his life he is described as a "blank slate," "nothing," and someone who just says yes to other people's ideas. You might assume that since the film is against conformity that Emmett will save the day because he is "special" and there is something unique about him. You would be right and also wrong which is part of why this movie's message on the subject feels confusing. On the side of nonconformity, Emmett has strange but original ideas. When they need something that spins to attach to a wheel, he attaches his own head. He also invents a double decker couch which ends up saving our heros when their submarine is destroyed even though his idea has been described as "the worst." Metalbeard calls upon him to save them "with ideas so dumb and bad no one would ever think they could possibly be useful." But the plan he formulates relies on his knowledge as a member of this conformist society and not his special, unique qualities as a master builder. He tells them they must "follow the instructions" instead of building something unique because it's what their enemies won't expect. He teaches them to work as a team, having seen them struggle to build the submarine because they were all building their own versions of the submarine at the same time. This is a lesson he has learned from a construction worker and working as part of a unified collective. The way he distracts the robots is by singing "Everything is Awesome." Vitruvius celebrates Emmett as "the special" because his "mind is already so empty there is nothing to clear away." I thought this would come back when I saw the Think Tank that Lord Business created. Surely by trying to hook up Emmett's mind to the Think Tank it would somehow short circuit the device. Nope. Of course, that would have been a different movie that did not have the live action component. But when Emmett returns from the live action world, he is a master builder. So, individuality again?

And yet, when Wildstyle asks the citizens to ignore the promise of Taco Tuesday that distracts them from the realities of their world and what President Business is doing, she calls their liberation Freedom Friday (but still on a Tuesday) and asks them to exercise their imaginations and "break the ground and build the things that only you can build." So is the movie urging extolling the benefits of conformity and teamwork or uniqueness and individuality?

President/Lord Business' goal is to establish order. He wants to "keep things exactly the way they're supposed to be." Since he's the villain, this suggests that we should be against order and rigidity. He captures the master builders and hooks them up to his Think Tank where he uses their creativity to generate the instructions that drive the world he has created. Which implies that unified thought is a positive thing because it can be very powerful and because the instructions are what allow the citizens to be so productive (Emmett specifically talks about how they were able to build the giant tower/office building).

4) Corporation: Before you learn that President/Lord Business is a stand-in for Finn's dad who is consumed with his job (likely as an architect I suppose) the movie seems to be sending some kind of message that I was never able to decipher because of the live-action portion of the film. In the Lego world, Lord Business disguises himself as President Business and heads a company called Oxtan. I have no idea if that's an acronym for something or it has some meaning in another language but for the purposes of the film, it seems to reflect an anti-business, anti-corporation slant but it never goes anywhere because the villain isn't an evil dictator using a corporation to take over the world, he's a child's father trying to do his job. He also has the notable quip "It's not personal. It's just business" which feels like something an evil, unfeeling corporation says before doing something terrible. I'm sure it's a sentiment espoused by an evil CEO on multiple episodes of Leverage. I also felt like they were trying to say something about the close relationship between corporations and business and government but again, it didn't go anywhere as that didn't end up being the point of the film.

5) Commercial: This movie was basically a giant commercial for Lego. It featured many different Lego sets and highlighted characters and sets and franchises licensed by Lego. You are inundated with images of Lego products that you can go buy in stores. But the main message of the movie is also trying to sell you Lego as a brand and an activity. Lego is the brand of imagination and fun and possibility. Lego believes that everyone is special and that everyone is capable of building something that only they can build.

As with Disney movies, their inspirational message is focused on believing. When Vitruvius is training Emmett he tells him "All you have to do is believe. Then you will see everything." When Emmett is among the other master builders Vitruvius advises him "Don't worry about what the others are doing. You must embrace what is special about you." And once Emmett knows that the prophecy is a lie, Vitruvius tells him that he created the prophecy knowing that "the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe you can be. I know that sounds like a cat poster but it's true." Now, not only is this an inspirational message but it creates the lowest possible barrier to entry. Go buy a Lego set. All you have to do is believe and the answers will come to know. You will know what to build. All of the townspeople are told that they should "build the things that only you can build." It's fairly clear that the movie is speaking to the audience. But in case you missed the subtlety of that, Emmett/Finn tells Lord Business/his father "you don't have to be the bad guy. You are the most talented, most extraordinary, most interesting person in the universe. You are the special and so am I. And so is everyone." Did you get that? And so is EVERYONE.

6) Target Audience: As a PG-rated animated film, this film is obviously intended for children. But it also attempts to appeal to a wider audience. First of all, I will say that this doesn't skew young (unlike a film like Tangled) and instead would probably appeal to a young audience between the ages of eight and thirteen. However, there are also references to older Lego sets (including an NBA Lego set) that are clearly targeted at older audience members who remember those sets. Benny the spaceman/astronaut is an older Lego character whose paint is starting to wear off. We see him struggling with a newer computer only to excel when he is confronted with 1980's technology. He is desperate to build a spaceship, recalling the set that he probably came with. This film also targets DC fans, making Batman a major secondary character with plenty of specific jokes. The film also sets up a fun dynamic between Superman and Green Lantern (voiced by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill respectively). As you can tell from my post on gender, I do not think this film is really targeted towards women. I think there are certainly signs that they tried to appeal to women but it still left me feeling shut out. Another demographic that I feel like this film might alienate is people who use Lego blocks for business models. The film implies that Finn's father is an architect. He tells his son that the models of buildings and towns that he has built aren't toys. He says "the way I'm using it makes it an adult thing." But the film rejects this idea of order and sets that are kept in place with Krazy Glue. It champions play over work. Which is all well and good but is that saying that Lego blocks are always going to be toys and that you shouldn't try and use them to make your city models?

7) Where's My Pants: There's a running joke about a bad sitcom called Where's My Pants in the movie. I'm not sure what it's trying to skewer if it is indeed trying to skewer something. I think it has something to do with keeping the populace occupied with mindless fare. Wyldstyle has a joke that seems to go along these lines when she says "you don't know me but I'm on TV so you can trust me."

8) Real World Elements: I love the way they incorporated real world elements into the film. The Kragle (Krazy Glue) was a fantastic reveal and it was a bit surprise for me at least when the "piece of resistance" ended up being the cap to a tube of Krazy Glue. And as someone who is more than a little familiar with nail polish, I also enjoyed the use of the Q-tip and nail polish remover to erase Bad Cop's good face.

9) Tropes: There are a lot of recycled ideas used to varying degrees of success. Obviously there is the idea of the "prophecy" and "the special" which is subverted nicely. There is the love interest who is initially impressed by the male protagonists abilities only to be disappointed when she learns the truth ("you're not the special. you lied to me [...] to think I was going to follow you to the end of the universe") only to then fall in love with him anyway because "he is the hero [she] deserves" and she must be his prize for saving the day. There is a romantic rival for the love interest's affections who does not appreciate her. When Emmett touches the piece of resistance, he has a Chuck/Matrix moment where images are downloaded into his brain, though this only returns when he imagines a creature that signals to Vitruvius that he had a vision. The explanation of the plan is presented in traditional heist movie fashion. There is an older mentor character who must sacrifice himself and who quite amusingly can't tell his predecessors (Gandalf and Dumbledore) apart. There is a core team with two minority feisty characters, one who is more of a tomboy and one who is more traditionally feminine. The live action portion recycles a familiar lesson about parent-child relationships as well as fitting into the father-son dynamic that is usually used.

Immediate Thoughts on The Lego Movie... Gender

Today I'm going to basically do the same thing I did for Frozen except this time I took notes and it's a few hours after I saw the movie. Warning: Major spoilers ahead for The Lego Movie. Do not read this unless you've already seen the film or you don't care about spoilers.

1) Gender: I will go into the female characters one by one but let's start by just talking about gender in general. Lego has a well-documented issue with gender representation and the way they market toys to boys and girls. There are many other blogs that cover the issue of gender segregation of toys and the way the properties that Lego licenses already have a lack of female characters. Overall, I thought the movie was aware of the gender issues but it didn't really go far enough to solve them. I kept track of all the female characters in the movies. But my notes are slightly illegible scribbles so feel free to correct me if I make any mistakes. Aside from the female characters I'm going to specifically call out, there were also a lot of women in the background who didn't speak and women on billboards and written materials (instructions) in the film.

One of the first female characters we see is Emmett's neighbor who fits a "crazy cat lady" stereotype. She has a big sweater, a fanny pack, glasses, and an abnormal number of cats.

The main character, Emmett, works at a construction site. There are a handful of women in this scene, though they're still in the minority. The filmmakers made a point to have one named female character called Gail. I felt like they were trying to make us very aware of her presence (because of the concerns about representing female characters) because they repeated her name an unusual amount of times like "Look, there's a girl!" Gail said something in the footage where Emmett's "friends" were interviewed about him and another character described her as "perky."

In the Old West set all of the female characters are in corsets. The women we see are on stage or moving around the saloon apparently as waitresses. Not that this doesn't represent something of a reality in the Old West (especially in popular imagination) but there were other roles women played at that time (though maybe not in a saloon). However, exiting the saloon, you never see other kinds of female characters. None of the cowboys are women. When the characters pass by a pig pen you do not see a female character tending to the livestock.

When we see characters from the Star Wars set, Princess Leia is absent. To be fair, Luke is also absent but he's not one of the few female characters in that franchise.

2) Wyldstyle: In talking about Wyldstyle it's impossible to not talk about the prophecy at the same time. Let's start with the prophecy. One of the biggest flaws with the movie is that it very well could have had a female hero. The prophecy states that the "special" can be a "lass or fellow." This had me excited because there could have always been a third act turn where a female character ends up being the hero. But no, in spite of her abilities, she was still just the love interest. During the film, Wyldstyle gets to show off her skills at fighting and also building with Lego materials but it doesn't come out of nowhere (as with other Minority Feisty characters) as she trained with Vitruvius thinking that she would become "the special". And the film doesn't really give a good reason for why she couldn't have been "the special." Before Vitruvius realizes that Emmett was the one who found the "piece of resistance" he gives her the speech about how she is "the special." I almost felt like the film was taunting me. Later Wyldstyle tells Emmett "I wanted it to be me. I wanted to be the special. [...] I was right there in that construction site and then it turned out to be you." Again, I kept imagining a film where we might have had a female heroine. But the thing that really cements my frustration is that the prophecy is a lie. Vitruvius eventually reveals that he "made it up. It's not true." Which means the whole time I was watching a movie where I was told Emmett had to be the hero instead of Wyldstyle because he was the one who discovered the piece of resistance, she could have been the hero the whole time!!!

I have an issue with the way Wyldstyle is introduced. I understand what they were trying to do. We were seeing her from Emmett's perspective as the protagonist. But when you frame a character's introduction that way, you align the audience's perspective with the protagonist's perspective so what you see when you look at Wyldstyle is "potential love interest." In her first scene after showing off her building skills when she first takes off her hood you get the same old slow moment hair tossing scene. Later, we again see Wyldstyle through Emmett's eyes. He ignores what she is saying as she explains the situation with President Business and instead hears "I'm so pretty. I like you. But I'm angry with you for some reason." Now, as a savvy viewer you recognize this as something bad. You're on the side of the writers who are acknowledging that Emmett should not be ignoring Wyldstyle or trivializing her and reducing her to a love interest. But this move still forces you to see through Emmett's eyes. Whether or not you want to, you are also forced to ignore what Wyldstyle is saying.

I haven't decided how I feel about Wyldstyle's physical appearance yet. She wears her hair in a ponytail. She has blue and pink streaks in her hair. She is dressed in all black and wears a hoodie for most of the film though she wears a dress with a corset in the Old West scene. Her eyelashes are prominent and she is wearing lipstick. There are a lot of ways you can interpret her look and I'm not sure where I fall just yet. Is she a manic pixie dream girl? Is she a positive character because she has "masculine" attributes? Is she a positive character because she lacks certain "feminine" attributes? Is she a positive character because she has certain "masculine" attributes but also wears makeup? The movie also explains her name by having Vitruvius say a throwaway line about her being one of his students who was so insecure that she kept changing her name. Like Flynn Rider's character in Tangled who is revealed to be a Eugene, Wyldstyle is eventually revealed to be Lucy. By setting her name up as a point of insecurity, it seems less like a strong personal choice that she makes as an individual. Characters also make fun of her name and ask if she's a DJ.

In the film, Wyldstyle is dating Batman. This further reduces her to the role of love interest and mocks her personality. She has a line that sticks out to me. In describing the song that Batman wrote for her she says "This is real music, Emmett. Batman is a true artist, dark, brooding." There is the idea that she's not really a tough character or that this isn't her personality. You could take it a step further and imagine that she's merely tried to adopt Batman's "darkness" though that's just conjecture. But the idea that the personality that might make her an interesting female character isn't her true self is reinforced later when she knows the lyrics to Everything is Awesome and Emmett teases her by reminding her that she said she didn't know the song and telling her that he doesn't think that she's as tough as she acts. (I'm paraphrasing.) She has relationship issues with Batman to make way for her relationship with Emmett. It also means a lot of her screentime is spent on relationship drama. He is unsupportive and is seen trying to "bail on them" and she tells him "I need you to have a better attitude."

In case you were in doubt about Wyldstyle primarily being a love interest in spite of how capable she might be (following in a long line of female characters) Batman confirms it by letting her be with Emmett because  "He's the hero you deserve." Yes, I know it's a Batman reference but it also confirms that the hero gets the girl as a prize.

3) Master Builders: Let's take a closer look at the Master Builders who are female characters. The Master Builders are important because they represent all the of the characters who are capable of changing the world around them (at least through part of the movie. More on that once we've finished with gender.) I've already talked about Wyldstyle. The film also includes Princess Uni-Kitty, Cleopatra, Wonder Woman, the Statue of Liberty, a mermaid character, and one other female character I couldn't identify. (There was also another female character in Metalbeard's flashback. When he talked about it though he specifically talked about the loss of "one hundred of our fallen master builder brothers".) Of these characters, Wyldstyle, Princess Uni-Kitty, Wonder Woman, and the mermaid character are the only ones who speak. Now, this might not seem so bad but Wyldstyle is the love interest, Uni-Kitty is another member of the core group and I was able to write down everything else the other female characters said (that's how few lines they had).

The mermaid characters says "What's that on his ankle?" calling attention to the tracking device on Emmett's leg.

Wonder Woman gets one joke "To the invisible jet! Dang it!" She also says "Oh, no."

In the sequence with the NBA Lego characters, Cleopatra is a cheerleader. She still doesn't talk.

4) Uni-Kitty: Uni-Kitty is a primarily pink cat with a unicorn horn and horse's tail. She is voiced by Alison Brie and she is absolutely adorable. She is also another Minority Feisty. She does get her moments in the film. Basically she is a very cheerful character who tries to repress anything that makes her sad or angry. Nothing new there. The first time we see her break is when she mourns the loss of her home (a giant puppy shape structure). The second time she breaks is when she finally gives into her anger at the end of the movie and goes on a rampage. Her role in the big plan is to distract President Business with Bruce Wayne as two business people. She goes in with glasses drawn on her face and adorably just says "business, business, business" and other gibberish but it kind of reinforces this childish, incompetent character as cute as the joke is. So we still have one love interest and one childish, "feminine" character. When she gives in to her anger at the end of the movie, she turns red and has sharp teeth and is very aggressive. Basically, less "feminine." Basically, problematic.

5) Sister: The ending of the film is very interesting. I wish I'd been able to get the entire quote down but this is far as I got. Finn's father (Will Ferrell's live action character) says "Now that I'm letting you come down here and play guess who else [...] your sister." And the film ends with the Lego characters that Finn's sister controls entering the Lego world. Which is great. I'm glad that the film ended inviting girls in the real world to also play with legos. But why did it take so long? Other than the fact that it continued the long tradition of father son films (this movie gave me Jumanji vibes) why did Finn have to be a boy? Why couldn't we see a Lego Movie created by a girl? Or by a brother and sister? Imagine not seeing Emmett as the hero because the framing device was that a girl had created the story. Imagine the tropes we would have avoided. Imagine this world from a female perspective.

I realized this post was getting very long so I decided to write a separate thoughts with my general thoughts on the movie (the voice work, animation, messages, etc).