Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

It's been less than a year since Tasha Robinson coined the phrase "Trinity syndrome," and yet it's already become one of the most useful terms in pop culture criticism.  Named for the female lead in Lana and Andy Wachowski's The Matrix, Trinity syndrome refers to a movie in which a female character is depicted as cool, competent, and badass, but always and inexplicably in the service of a much blander male lead (for whom she is usually the love interest).  She often loses her motivation (if she ever had one) and her ability to affect the plot in the film's final act, just in time for the lead to take center stage, and often needs to be rescued by him.  As Hollywood blockbusters become more conservative in their structures and plots, the roles they give women become more constrained, and Trinity syndrome has become a useful way of examining how the appearance of agency can obscure its absence.  Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis' most recent film and their first return to no-holds-barred SF since the second Matrix sequel, offers an interesting data point in the discussion of the phenomenon to which they gave a name.  Of all its many flaws, perhaps the most crucial is that Jupiter Ascending does not suffer from Trinity syndrome.

Perhaps the easiest way to sum up Jupiter Ascending is to describe it as a gender-swapped, space opera retelling of The Matrix.  In both films, you have a somewhat personality-free protagonist dissatisfied with their humdrum, monotonous life who discovers that they were born special, a savior figure awaited for generations.  Whisked off to a life of adventure by a sexy, uber-competent bodyguard, they discover that the truths about the world that they'd taken for granted are nothing but illusions, and that human beings are being exploited by a sinister system that sees them as nothing but fuel for a great machine--an exploitation that only our hero can bring an end to.

What's interesting about this repetition is how it reveals the ways in which telling the same story with a different-gendered protagonist affects the kind of tale you end up telling.  In The Matrix, the fact that Neo was such a blank--devoid of past, family, relationships, or even any concrete dreams or aspirations--wasn't a problem because that blankness allowed the other characters to explain the world to him and the audience to project themselves onto him (in fact one assumes that the reason the Wachowskis chose Keanu Reeves for the role was his infamous lack of affect).  That passivity, however, was counteracted by the type of special person Neo turned out to be.  His journey from no-one to The One required him to discover skills and ultimately ascend to godhood.  As passive as he was, the role in which the story placed him was an essentially active one, and his passivity was expressed by his acquiescence to this active role.  But if Neo gets to live out the fantasy of a nobody who discovers that he is actually supremely powerful, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) gets to live out the girl's version of that fantasy.  He's a warrior; she's a princess.  His specialness expresses itself in his ability to do things that no one else can; hers, in the fact that she owns a lot of stuff--as the reincarnation of the matriarch of one of the richest dynasties in the galaxy, she owns whole planets (including Earth) and their populations.  All Jupiter has to do to be special is keep breathing long enough to officially claim her inheritance--at which point the greatest danger to her (and the rest of the world) becomes that she might accidentally marry the wrong person and give them access to her property.

Jupiter spends the film that bears her name being moved from place to place--and sometimes physically tossed around like a rag doll--by the alien bounty hunter Caine (Channing Tatum), who tries to keep her safe from the various factions in her newfound family who want to control or kill her.  There's been some talk about how Caine embodies the romantic fantasies of a certain genre of bodice-rippers--endlessly loyal, his fearsome strength completely in thrall to Jupiter's needs, and constantly on display (the entire middle segment of the film, for example, finds some pretty flimsy excuses to keep him topless).  He cuts a much more subservient figure than Trinity, right down to being explicitly likened to a dog, but then that too feels like a function of his gender--Caine being a man reduces the insecurity inherent in his role, and makes it safe for him to be subservient to Jupiter. 

What undercuts Jupiter Ascending as female wish fulfillment is the fact that, unlike the bland male protagonists who benefit from Trinity syndrome, Jupiter never develops into the central character in her own story.  Caine is, in fact, a more developed character than she is (I'm speaking in relative terms, of course), with something resembling a character arc revolving around his need to find a "pack," which Jupiter comes to embody, and to regain his honor and sense of purpose.  Jupiter, meanwhile, has little in the way of a discernible personality.  We're repeatedly told that she's cynical and distrusting, but the actual character who turns up on screen is shockingly naive, willing to be led by anyone who acts like they know what they're doing.  This is a character, after all, who allows her cousin to convince her to sell her eggs and give him the bulk of her payment.  A character who agrees to marry one of the super-rich space siblings whom she has dispossessed by claiming her inheritance, simply because he has promised to use her wealth for good, and despite the fact that Douglas Booth plays him with such slimy untrustworthiness that one almost expects him to make sneering asides to the audience that start with "little does she suspect..."

In the Matrix's final act, Trinity is taken suddenly off the board, leaving Neo without his protector, which forces him to suddenly discover his own awesome powers.  Her role immediately becomes a moral one, to inspire Neo to discover his own innate greatness, rather than being great herself--the very fact that she loves him becomes evidence of his incipient godhood.  If the Wachowskis were determined to retell their most successful story beat by beat, we'd expect Caine to be similarly sidelined in Jupiter Ascending's final scenes, but instead the film remains focused on him as its action hero and the mover of its plot--even taking a moment to have another character, Nikki Amuka-Bird's stalwart spaceship captain, compliment him on his "rare courage."  Jupiter, meanwhile, gets to land a few blows against her chief enemy Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, proving himself worthy of the Oscar he received last night for his performance in another movie by fully committing to the cheesiness of this one), but since his power is rooted in his wealth, the fact that she can knock him to the ground when all his flunkies and security guards aren't around (which is down to Caine's actions) isn't terribly impressive.  She still ends up having to be rescued, and the only way in which she is less passive at the end of the film than she was in its beginning is her willingness to express her sexual desire for Caine.  The problem here isn't so much that Jupiter can't beat people up, which after all isn't the only hallmark of a hero, but that unlike Neo, she doesn't undergo any sort of transformation or inner change--in fact her journey leads her back to the exact same life she had at the film's beginning, except with a cute alien boyfriend.  Even the two films' parallel closing scenes, in which the protagonists zip through the sky, feel deeply gendered--Neo flies on his own power; Jupiter flies because Caine has lent her his jetpack boots.

But then, maybe this all has a lot less to do with gender than it does with capitalism.  Another way to express the difference between Neo and Jupiter is that he is unsatisfied with his life because he wants to do things, whereas she is unsatisfied with her life because she wants to have things.  An illegal immigrant who works all hours of the day as a housecleaner, Jupiter spends the film's early scenes lusting after the designer dresses and expensive jewelry she finds in the homes of her rich clients.  That the wish-fulfillment fantasy that the Wachowskis spin around her involves being the richest person in the galaxy is therefore unsurprising, as is the form of the exploitation she discovers.  The reason that Earth is such a valuable resource, we learn, is that its population can be harvested and converted into a goo that elites like Jupiter and the Abrasax family use to restore their youth and health, essentially living forever.  The same imagery that, in The Matrix, was used as a metaphor for the crushing power of conformity, is here used to symbolize the predatory nature of hyper-capitalism, with culled humans floating unconscious in tanks, and referred to as cattle and crops.

There's obviously space here to tell an engaging story about privilege and wealth.  For Jupiter, a poor person from what turns out to be a poor planet, to find herself instantly elevated to unimaginable privilege, and just as quickly discover that it is founded, literally, in blood, has a lot of potential.  The film's repeated insistence that Jupiter is cynical makes more sense when you realize that she's supposed to have been hardened by poverty, and a life that seemed to offer no hope of anything better.  It could have been interesting to see her struggle with her desire for wealth and her disgust at what it means--though again, that would require the film to be a lot more interested in Jupiter as a person than it actually is.  But as the saying goes, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.  Neo can be a hero in the story of The Matrix because the system he's rebelling against represents something relatively simple, sterile modern living.  Jupiter has to rebel against something much more pernicious--even within the film's ridiculous worldbuilding it's hard to imagine how she could end the system by which billions are culled so that an elite few could live forever.  Is it any surprise, therefore, that she doesn't even try?  That her triumph is the result of relying not just on Caine, but on the very legal authorities that prop up the corrupt system that so horrifies her? 

Jupiter's one moment of moral triumph--the one moment in which she does something to actually justify being the protagonist of her own story--is when she refuses to buy her life from Balem by giving him Earth, knowing that if he kills her he still won't have title to the planet.  It's a heroic moment--though again, it's worth noting that the most heroic thing Jupiter does in her whole story is to agree to do nothing and die--but unlike killer AIs, we know that capitalism doesn't play by the rules.  The film's ending, in which Jupiter goes back to her life on Earth, secure in the belief that no power in the galaxy will touch the precious resource simply because the person who owns it has refused to exploit it, is far less believable than Neo's ability to manipulate space and time in the Matrix.  The Wachowskis clearly intended Jupiter Ascending to be the opening chapter in another series, but I think the fact that, unlike in The Matrix, they couldn't hand their heroine a genuine accomplishment with which to close the opening chapter says a lot about the differences between the two stories.  Killing Agent Smith strikes a meaningful blow against the Matrix.  Killing Balem Abrasax doesn't even ding the system that gave him his power.

There are other reasons why Jupiter Ascending isn't as successful as The Matrix--the lackluster action scenes, the near-total lack of humor, the deadening seriousness with which the film takes its baroque worldbuilding--and, at the same time, it's only fair to note that despite all these flaws, I didn't find it a torture to watch.  It certainly isn't good, but it isn't the sort of slog that, say, The Matrix Revolutions was.  And while it doesn't approach the heights of zany ridiculousness that the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas achieved, there's a certain loopy charm to its overstuffed plot and its constant shifts between ever-more elaborate locations, that makes it rather easy to get through.  But it's heartbreaking to see a Wachowski film that is so similar to The Matrix, and yet falls so far from its accomplishments.  It's even sadder to realize that at least part of the reason for that difference in quality is the Wachowskis' limits--that the sort of stories they tell about women, and poor women in particular, are so much less exciting and adventurous than the ones they tell about disaffected middle class men.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Five Comments on Birdman

It's been two days since I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman and I'm still feeling exhilarated.  On the most basic level, this film is like nothing else I've seen in a movie theater in a long time, possibly forever, and I urge you to see it simply for the experience (and ideally in a movie theater, since this is a work worth being immersed in).  It's also a hard movie to write about, with multiple layers and themes, and a frenetic approach to plot that makes the format of a straightforward review feel inappropriate.  So I'm highlighting a few points that feel interesting in a film about which I could probably say a great deal more.
  • The first coherent thought I had about Birdman, even as I was still watching it, was that its overarching goal, the one thing it wanted to accomplish more than anything else, was to replicate the experience of watching a play through the experience of watching a movie.  That's not an unusual desire, of course, but usually when directors aim for it their approach is to be super-naturalistic--to limit both the space in which the story takes place and the cinematic tools they employ so that the actors and the dialogue can come to the fore (and, or course, most of these films are adaptations of existing plays, while Birdman is an original story).

    Birdman's approach is the exact opposite.  It's trying to make you feel as if you're watching a play by constantly reminding you that you're watching a movie, and using the most blatant cinematic tools and gimmicks to recreate the experience of being in a theater.  You see this in the by-now famous long takes that make up the movie.  An eye-catching and, some would say, self-indulgent device, they never allow you to forget that you are watching something that was crafted, where a less present directorial choice might have let you believe that you are merely peering through a window that shows the film's events.  But what these long takes do is force the audience to feel the physical space in which the film takes place as almost its own character, rather than a backdrop that is simply there to lend verisimilitude.  They also force the actors to stay in character far longer than they would in a conventionally-shot movie, closer to what they'd have to do on stage.  Most interesting to me was the film's use of sound.  Birdman has a stunning, percussion-heavy score (by Antonio Sanchez) that does a lot to establish the film's frenetic tone and the increasing deterioration of its hero's grasp on reality, but the way it uses diegetic sound--doors opening and closing, dialogue that comes from off-screen--is particularly wrongfooting.  These sounds are all much too loud, and they come from one side of the movie theater only, in a way that initially makes us wonder whether what we're hearing is part of the movie or happening next to us in reality (I don't think it's an accident that the first instance of this device is a cellphone ringing).

    This is, of course, how plays establish their world, and particularly events that happen off-stage, with over-emphasis compensating for the fact that the audience is being asked to build an entire setting from a stage, a few props, and some sound effects.  But when layered onto the real-world setting of a movie the result is hyper-realistic, almost an assault.  Most movies try to distract us from their artifice.  They use location shooting and a lot of clever sound editing to make us think that we're seeing something effortless, so that we can ignore the setting and focus on the story.  Birdman wants us to notice the artifice, to do the work that we would have had to do if we were watching a play.  It's putting us in the headspace of a theater audience even though we're watching a movie.

  • This all feels particularly important because the underlying theme of Birdman is authenticity.  The hero, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood star best-known for playing a superhero in the 90s, who is making a desperate bid for respectability by directing and starring in a Broadway play.  He's insistent that he is trying to create something "real," and haunted by the fear that he is actually a fake--a celebrity pretending to be a serious actor.  At the same time, he keeps seeing and hearing his titular alter-ego, who insists that it's actually the world of the theater that's a fake--why scramble for the approval of a few hundred theater-goers and the insular world they represent when you can be beloved by millions for playing something as primal as a hero?

    Whatever he chooses, Riggan is dismissed a poseur, a hack who is after prestige and fame rather than art, and so it's perhaps not surprising that he becomes obsessed with realism as a means of elevating his performance.  In this, he's joined by his co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a blowhard who, by his own admission, is only honest when he's on stage.  Mike is a brilliant actor, but he takes his commitment to realism to irrational extremes, bringing real gin onstage for his character to drink (and then bringing a preview to a halt when he realizes that Riggan switched the drink with water, insisting that doing so undercuts his performance), and trying to have sex on stage with his co-star and girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) when he becomes aroused mid-scene.  Riggan is frustrated by Mike's antics, but also clearly starstruck by his commitment.  As his grip on reality slackens, and as he becomes convinced that the play will fail and make him a laughingstock, he buys further and further into the notion that creating something real on stage means being something real on stage.  This culminates with Riggan bringing a real gun on stage with which to shoot himself in the play's final scene.  The audience's response to Riggan pulling the trigger is ecstatic, even when it's revealed that he really shot himself.  The New York Times's sour-faced theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) writes a glowing review titled "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" (also the film's subtitle) in which she praises Riggan for discovering a new mode of acting.

    There are a lot of reasons to question these final scenes, in which Riggan survives his suicide attempt, which I'll get to shortly.  But I think that Birdman itself is teaching us, through its style, to doubt what we're being told.  If making art was as simple as putting real pain, real joy, real horror on a stage and pointing a camera at them, then our culture would begin and end with reality TV.  Art is the process of saying something real by doing something fake; it achieves authenticity through artifice, not in spite of it.  In the film's earlier scenes, Riggan seems to realize this--he breaks through Mike's self-satisfaction by telling him a heartbreaking story about his abusive father, and then reveals that he was just acting--but he loses that understanding by its end, convinced that killing himself on stage is a meaningful artistic statement.  But in a movie that constantly calls attention to its fakeness, to the work that went into creating it, it's impossible to take that conclusion at face value.  What Iñárritu's hard work in making Birdman such a consciously artificial object tells us is that ignorance is not a virtue.  Art isn't something that just happens; you have to work to make it, even if all that work is to make the audience think that you did nothing at all.

  • It's not surprising that Riggan buys into the notion of realism as art, because as much as he claims to be devoted to his play, it's clear that what interests him isn't the work, but himself.  As much as Birdman is a meditation on authenticity and art, it's also a portrait of a profoundly self-absorbed man, who, as his ex-wife points out, consistently mistakes admiration for love, and is desperately scrambling to earn more of the former.  Riggan may claim that he's trying to create something real, but what he's actually trying to do is make himself real by winning plaudits and applause.  Genevieve Valentine has written an excellent essay about reading Birdman as an indictment of toxic masculinity, with Riggan's downfall stemming from his desperate need to be the big man, the star, the alpha male, and from his inability to accept that in his real life, he isn't a superhero.  But it's an observation that inevitably leads us to wonder what Birdman does with its female characters, and there the film is a mixture of success and rather bizarre failure.

    Through the three most important women in Riggan's life--his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough)--Birdman does an excellent job of conveying the frustrations of loving someone who is so completely narcissistic.  Despite being locked into Riggan's point of view for most of its run, the film shows us enough of these women to make them real, sometimes through only a single line delivery.  "I want a baby but my body won't cooperate," Sylvia says, quite simply and almost with a shrug, in one of the film's later scenes.  The contrast between her plain, undemonstrative acknowledgment of this heartbreaking fact and Riggan's movie-long tantrum over the far smaller tragedy of his failing career speaks volumes about the balance of their relationship, about who gets to be operatic and to act as if the world has ended, and who has to just keep going without giving in to self-pity.  In another scene, Sylvia, who clearly still cares deeply for Riggan, has to remind him that their marriage fell apart because he was violent and unfaithful, something that Riggan has clearly not given much thought to.  Sam, meanwhile, is the only person who manages to engage Riggan as a human being, not as an actor, and thus the only person who can come close to puncturing his belief that his play is a grand and meaningful endeavor, rather than just one more shout into the darkness among millions.

    When the film's camera leaves Riggan, however, and follows these women on their own stories, a strange flattening seems to occur.  We can see their humanity when Riggan is ignoring it, but it seems to escape Iñárritu (and his co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo), who locks them into simplistic roles and dead-end relationships.  Laura and Lesley have a romantic encounter that comes out of nowhere and isn't referenced again after it happens.  Sam falls into a romantic relationship with Mike despite witnessing the death throes of his relationship with Lesley, in which he is at his most immature and self-absorbed, and despite Mike making it clear that her main appeal to him is her youth and the reflected vitality he hopes to gain from her.  It's not unrealistic for a young woman to enter into a relationship that is clearly a bad idea (especially as Sam is just recently out of rehab and very vulnerable) but the fact that, in her scenes with Mike, the film isn't interested in Sam as a person is a problem.  She's human in her scenes with Riggan, where she's allowed to express frustration and anger in ways that aren't cute or flattering to him.  But in her scenes with Mike she becomes the muse he sees her as, batting away his bad behavior in a way that only invites more of it, and skewering his faults without ever seeming to consider that maybe they make him an unsuitable romantic partner.

  • A lot of the negative reactions I've seen to Birdman have concentrated on the character of Tabitha and the film's apparent disdain for critics.  It's true that Birdman seems to have been written from the perspective that critics are merely frustrated artists, and it's always depressing to see otherwise intelligent, creative people reveal such a bizarre inability to grasp that most people who write criticism do it because they genuinely love it.  But though Birdman doesn't offer the pro-critic perspective, I don't think it comes down as hard on Tabitha as I'd been led to expect.  Yes, she's painted as a villain, informing Riggan that she's going to destroy his play before she's even seen it.  But she also gets to explain why, and her reasons are largely persuasive--she's sick of celebrities like Riggan taking up oxygen in an industry that is already struggling, and doing so merely to gratify their own vanity--and in fact supported by what we see of Riggan in the rest of the film.  Of all the characters in the movie, Tabitha is the one who most accurately diagnoses Riggan's faults and failings, and unlike the other women in his life she is someone he has no power over (a fact that clearly frustrates him enormously).  In a movie that is ultimately so critical of its star and his delusions, it's hard to see how the person who most clearly expresses that criticism is meant to be a pure villain, even if she's hit with some easy and familiar (not to mention misogynistic) accusations.

  • One of the reasons that I'm less down on the depiction of Tabitha is that I don't think we're meant to take the about-face in her review of Riggan's play at face value.  My reading of the film's ending is that its final scene, in which Riggan wakes up to discover that he survived his suicide attempt and that his play is being lauded as a triumph, is a fantasy--that Riggan in fact died on stage.  This is perhaps a bleaker conclusion than Birdman can shoulder--aside from the fact that Riggan, narcissist that he is, doesn't actually deserve to die, it leaves most of the other characters in a lurch, from the fragile Sam who clearly still needs her father, to Lesley, whose dreams of a Broadway debut have just been shattered.  So I can't blame the film for ending more ambiguously, even if to me the true conclusion feels obvious--and to its credit, there's room to read the ending as something much stranger and wilder.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Coherence

The second stop in my short trip through 2014's lesser-known genre filmmaking is James Ward Byrkit's Coherence.  Which turned out to be fortuitous, as the comparison between Coherence and The One I Love revealed some interesting similarities, as well as telling differences.  On the surface level, the two films feel very different--The One I Love is intimate and tightly focused, while Coherence is chaotic and occasionally rambling.  Coherence has a more overtly SFnal subject matter, which it expresses through the more obvious tropes of horror filmmaking, such as jump scares and dark shadows, a stark contrast to how The One I Love conceals its horror story under a sunny, comedic tone.  And perhaps most importantly, Coherence is a micro-budget production (IMDb claims it was made for $50K, which if accurate is very impressive indeed) next to which even the small-budget, independent The One I Love looks polished and well-funded.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the two films feel like different glosses on very similar stories.  Both have a mumblecore aesthetic--Coherence's dialogue was even ad-libbed by the actors to create a greater sense of verisimilitude.  Both focus on troubled middle class white couples whose attempts at socializing are interrupted by the supernatural.  And both have doubling, and specifically alternate versions of their characters, at the core of their SFnal premise.  Of the two films, genre fans might gravitate to Coherence because of its focus on investigating and working out its central McGuffin, but though that element of the film works very well, the marriage between it and the film's character-based elements is less successful than in The One I Love.

Set almost entirely in a single house and on a single evening, Coherence begins with eight friends getting together for a dinner party.  The roster includes two established couples: Mike and Lee, the hosts, and their close, older friends Hugh and Beth; a newer couple, Em and Kevin, who are struggling with Em's reluctance to join Kevin on a four-month work assignment; and perennial single guy Amir, whose date, Laurie, is Kevin's ex.  The improvised dialogue does a good job of establishing that these people have long histories together, but is a little more awkward at introducing the fact that a comet is passing near Earth that evening, and that strange events were recorded on its previous appearance.  Halfway into dinner, the power fails, as do the phones and internet.  Venturing outside, the friends see that the entire neighborhood is dark except for one house.  When Hugh and Amir walk over to ask if they can use the phone, they return visibly shaken, carrying a box containing pictures of the eight party guests.  Deducing that they may have scared the inhabitants of the other house, Hugh decides to leave an apologetic note, but when he opens the front door to leave, he finds an identical note there.

The bulk of the rest of the film is taken up with these strange occurrences--some of the characters decide to make another journey to the other house and meet subtly-different versions of themselves, the ones left behind see and hear strangers outside, and the house is eventually invaded by the characters' doubles.  There's a lot of Primer-style fun to be had trying to work out what's happening from a limited perspective and with little information, mapping the trajectories and movements of the characters and their duplicates.  And it's particularly rewarding that the person who exhibits the most analytical approach to the situation, and eventually figures out the full contours of her predicament and how to work within them, is Em (Emily Foxler)--though it must be said that the other female characters are less well-drawn, and that Laurie (Lauren Maher) in particular is a caricature of the crazy ex who is gunning for the heroine's man.  The solution to the mystery doesn't entirely work--and our understanding of it relies on the fact that Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) just happens to have a physicist brother who just happens to have left with him some notes about Schrodinger's cat and quantum decoherence that just happen to have been written in such a way as to explain what the characters are experiencing--but it hangs together well enough for the duration of the film, and is sold by the characters' frightened reactions and the spooky direction.

But while the SFnal aspect of the film works very well, it doesn't, in itself, earn the film's character beats.  It's clear that Byrkit wants to use the existence of parallel versions of the characters to muse about regrets and missed opportunities, and as these alternates begin visiting the house, in some cases trying to get back to their own reality and in others trying to take over this one, the question of which versions of themselves are "good" or "bad" begins to haunt the film's heroes.  Em, for example, is a dancer who passed up on an understudy role that eventually led the woman who accepted it to stardom; "that woman is living your life!" Laurie exclaims, but it soon becomes clear that she is also trying to usurp Em's role by seducing Kevin.  Aside from Em, the most prominent character in the film is Mike (Nicholas Brendon) an out-of-work actor and alcoholic who is haunted by the possibility that one of the alternate versions of himself might be violent, but who turns out to be sufficiently reckless and destructive in his own right.  (In one of the film's funniest and most meta-textual moments, our first hint that we are dealing with alternate realities comes when Mike explains to Laurie that he used to be a regular on a genre series, and then names it as Roswell.)  But, just like the coincidence of Hugh having information that relates to the film's strange occurrences, the fact that those occurrences just happen to reflect on the characters' deepest anxieties is unearned, and its obviousness means that the film's climax feels over-determined rather than cathartic.  It is never, for example, explained just why the characters keep leaving the house even when it becomes clear that doing so is scary and dangerous (a fact that the film itself seems to recognize when it reveals that the "best," happiest versions of the characters are the ones who ignored the chaos outside the house and stayed in to play party games).  They have to do so, because otherwise there would be no story and no way to work out the film's central puzzle, but Byrkit never successfully explains why the characters, as people, made that choice.

I'm terribly sorry to make this pun, but Coherence ends up unable to make something coherent out of its genre and mimetic elements.  This is far from a fatal flaw, especially when you consider how rare it is to find films that do what it does well--investigate an otherworldly occurrence in a methodical but also compelling manner.  And though Byrkit fudges the process of getting his characters to their crisis point, Em and Mike's desperation once they realize how lost they are, and their choices of how to deal with that situation, are very well done.  The One I Love may be a better example of how to marry mimetic character drama with genre elements, but Coherence is a bolder work, and earns my admiration for its boldness even if it isn't entirely successful.  Both are good films, and both are worth watching as example of what genre filmmaking is capable of.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The One I Love

I wrote some half dozen full-length film reviews in 2014, and looking back, almost every one of them revolves around the theme of how difficult it is to find genuinely intelligent, thoughtful SF movies.  "Intelligent," in this context, means a willingness to engage with the SFnal tropes that drive a story, to explore their implications on the film's characters or even its world, instead of plumping for the familiar story beats of a superhero movie or a family drama without asking what the existence of the SFnal does to change them.  As I get to catching up with the 2014 culture that I wanted to get to (and in preparation for Hugo nominating, open until March 10th), I've been exploring the year's smaller-budget genre efforts, and finding a much greater willingness to explore the limits of the genre than in the studio fare.

The first of these forays, The One I Love, is not precisely the elusive beast I've been looking for.  Rather, it takes a fantastic element and grafts it onto a mumblecore relationship drama, the sort of movie that, as Noel Murray wrote just yesterday in a wonderfully peeved essay at the AV Club, revolves around the non-problems of privileged white people (the film is the debut feature effort of director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader, but it was produced by the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, two of the most dominant figures of this stream of filmmaking).  What makes the film work is the deftness with which it achieves that graft, and how it uses it to both elicit comedy and change the contours of the over-familiar story it's telling.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are a young couple whose marriage is on the rocks.  As Sophie explains to their therapist (Ted Danson), she feels as if their life used to be full of love and happiness, but that now they have to work to achieve just a fraction of what used to come so easily.  Shortly afterwards, it's revealed that the reason for this rupture is that Ethan was unfaithful, and that Sophie, though outwardly willing to work on the marriage, has been retreating from him.  Within the film's first scene, it establishes personalities for both its main characters--he's selfish and immature, she's passive and judgmental--that are so familiar as to be stock types, especially within the sub-genre suggested by the film's naturalistic, mumbly dialogue and its delivery.  The brilliance of The One I Love is in taking this over-familiar premise and adding a genre twist to it, when Sophie and Ethan's therapist suggests that they go on a weekend retreat to a beautiful house in Southern California.  "I've sent lots of couples there," he says, "and they all came back... renewed."

Though the audience is primed to expect something strange, Ethan and Sophie treat their trip as just another weekend getaway, cooing over the beauty of the house and the grounds with an over-obvious determination that seems designed to conceal their doubts about the endeavor.  On their first night there, however, the supernatural rears its head.  Sophie, investigating the guest house on the estate, meets Ethan there and has a moment of connection, getting drunk and having sex for the first time in months.  When she returns to the main house, however, she finds Ethan there, acting as if he has no memory of their encounter.  After a fight, Ethan retreats to the guest house himself, and when he wakes up in the morning, a sunny Sophie is making him breakfast--which makes it a surprise when he finds her in the main house with no memory of doing so.  The couple realize that whichever one of them enters the guest house will meet an alternate version of the other there.  Though Ethan is freaked out and wants to leave, Sophie is intrigued, suggesting that they "explore" what they've discovered.

I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film, but it should be noted that on paper, its opening beats seem far more reminiscent of a horror movie.  Many horror stories begin with a family that has been broken--by infidelity, death, or financial troubles--traveling to a home that represents a new hope for the future but whose secrets actually tear it apart, either to come back stronger or to reveal that the rifts within it were irreparable.  But though The One I Love hews closely to the beats of a horror story, all the way to its end, that genre never felt like the right fit for it.  The film's comedic tone (and its sunny look, with director McDowell taking full advantage of the lush Ojai scenery and the beautiful estate on which it's set, shooting the film, at points, almost like a tourist commercial) defuses the scariness of its premise even as its events veer farther and farther from normalcy.  The very fact that Sophie's suggestion to go back to the house seems reasonable--and perhaps even therapeutic--suggests that science fiction is what you get when you replace the danger and menace of a horror story with humor and a gloss of rationality.

Though Sophie and Ethan lay down ground rules that give them each equal access to the guest house (and reinforce the film's treatment of the numinous as a form of therapy--the couple agrees, for example, that the guest house is a safe space and that neither one is allowed to spy on the other), their enthusiasm for it is quickly shown to be unequal--as are the versions of each other they find there.  Sophie's "Ethan" is a better version of her husband, funny, interesting, and most importantly, emotionally open.  He's able to apologize for his infidelity and thank her for sticking by him in a way that the defensive, self-absorbed Ethan has clearly never done.  "Sophie," meanwhile, is a nondescript male fantasy, swanning around in slinky negligee and pretty dresses and cooking forbidden bacon for breakfast.  To his credit, Ethan doesn't seem interested in spending time with her, insisting to Sophie that "there is no version of you that I'd rather be with."  But this is might be because he senses that just under the surface of "Sophie"'s Stepfordian perfection lies an icy disdain for the kind of man who might desire it, which takes very little prodding to reveal itself (it shouldn't come as a shock, at this stage, that Moss is an exceptional actress, but she's fantastic at conveying the layers of both Sophies--the anxiety that underpins the real Sophie's breeziness and good humor, and the bitchiness that occasionally erupts from under "Sophie"'s placid surface).  As the weekend draws on, Sophie becomes more entangled with "Ethan" while Ethan goes to ever-greater and more unethical extremes (unsurprisingly, the couple's ground rules are quickly abandoned) to try to save a marriage that may be beyond repair.

The film's final act turns the screw even further, with both couples sharing space, pretending to have a normal, "fun" evening together even as the absurdity of the situation and the tensions between them rise to a fevered pitch.  (This isn't quite an Orphan Black level of complexity, but there are several scenes in which Moss and Duplass play against themselves and at least one that has all four characters on screen at once, all of which are accomplished with a smoothness that is impressive from a newbie director working with what can't have been a huge budget.)  When Lader's script shows its hand and reveals the true purpose of the retreat and just how Ethan and Sophie are going to be "renewed" by it, it's almost a relief to be able to abandon the couples' pretense of normalcy and congeniality, and if the film can't quite make a coherent SFnal concept out of its mysterious premise, it certainly comes close.

In the end, The One I Love does turn out to be a horror story, of a sort.  None of its four characters end up getting what they want, and its happy ending only lightly conceals a rather nasty judgment on all of the couples that are formed and reformed within its story.  It's not an ending that I can imagine getting from a mimetic mumblecore film, a genre that in my (admittedly not huge) experience tends to avoid strong negative emotions.  In the film's climax, Ethan makes the requisite big romantic speech to Sophie, telling her that while he may not be as good a partner as "Ethan," he is real and he believes in their relationship.  The fantastic premise of the film leaves space for a version of this story in which this kind of grand gesture doesn't work--and in a way whose consequences are far stranger and more tragic than a simple divorce.  If I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film despite its horror story shape, it is because of this--because it uses the meeting of the fantastic and the mundane to add a new twist to a familiar story, to suggest a new consequence to the shopworn circumstances of its characters.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Winter Crop, 2015 Edition

After a profoundly lackluster fall pilot season, the networks and cable channels seem to be pulling out all the stops for the midseason.  Just about every odd, high-concept, genre-ish series on the roster seems to have been held back for January, and if the resulting shows aren't always good, they're at least interesting to think and write about.  Not covered at length in this post, but still interesting, are Empire (whose concept I respect but whose episodes have a weird habit of collapsing into incoherent messes around the 20-minute mark), new comedies Togetherness (low concept but extremely well made), Man Seeks Woman (high concept that doesn't quite work but is funny enough to be worth a second chance), and Schitt's Creek (horrible title; surprisingly clever writing and some stellar acting from a great cast; too much reliance on cringe humor for my tastes), teen-oriented shows Hindsight and Eye Candy (sometimes YA shows work for adults; this is not one of those times, but it's nice to be reminded that unlike adult viewers, kids aren't expected to survive on procedurals alone), and detective show Backstrom (which hasn't aired yet, but whose concept--a jerkass policeman whose rudeness is tolerated because of his brilliance--is so familiar that it seems out of place in this winter of originality; I doubt I'll bother watching the first episode).
  • Mozart in the Jungle - Amazon's latest series, about the behind-the-scenes antics at the New York Symphony, does a lot to recall the immortal, inimitable Slings & Arrows, and though that comparison does a lot to make the show enticing--I'm a sucker for any story that makes a serious effort to show its audience what's unique and unusual about its setting, rather than turning it into the same soap-inflected workplace drama we see everywhere--it also sets a high bar that Mozart in the Jungle can't reach, largely because it doesn't seem to have a clear idea of its story.  The ten-part season's early and late episodes have a fairly conventional let's-put-on-a-show structure, focusing on aspiring oboe player Hailey (Lola Kirke) as she gets her big break, flubs it, and then out of the blue gets to make her debut through the musical equivalent of being on hand when the star twists her ankle on opening night.  It's not badly done, but it's a conventional story that Mozart doesn't find much nuance in, and Hailey herself is too timid a character to carry the show.

    The season works much better in its middle segments, when it focuses on Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), the orchestra's new, superstar conductor, who has been brought in to make classical music edgy and sexy, but turns out to have more depth than his bad-boy image suggests.  Like Slings & Arrows's Geoffrey, Rodrigo is at once a buffoon and someone who is deadly serious about his art, terrified of losing its immediacy in the pursuit of commercial success, but also aware of the need to reach an audience.  The best parts of the first season see Rodrigo struggling to find the truth in music that can sometimes seem ossified and over-familiar--as when he takes the orchestra on a "field trip" to perform the 1812 Overture in a vacant lot, to the surprise and delight of the people in the neighboring buildings, or when he's chastised by his anti-establishment, performance artist wife Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder) for selling out in order to gratify his ego.  (These are also the parts of the season that make the best use of Hailey, who becomes Rodrigo's assistant, mentee, and only real friend.)  These parts, however, don't amount to a whole--Rodrigo's seeking is scattershot, taking a different form, sometimes silly and sometimes sublime, in each episode, and giving the season as a whole a shapeless feeling.

    Mozart in the Jungle is a comedy, which means that it finds a lot of humor in backstage politics, squabbles over supremacy, and irreverence towards a cultural artifact that is usually treated with deadly earnestness.  But at the heart of that comedy is something serious and often quite sad--a group of people giving everything they have to be a small part of something ephemeral and inherently flawed.  Whether it's Hailey killing herself to become a better player without knowing if she can ever be good enough, cellist Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) who is approaching middle age and wondering what she has to show for her career, former conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) who is coming to terms with no longer being the rising star, or Rodrigo himself, who is at the top of his game but terrified of never producing something transcendent, what makes Mozart in the Jungle work is how seriously it tells stories about people who are serious about their art (without ever forgetting the mundane and ridiculous aspects of that life).  But it hasn't yet found a story to tie those characters together, which prevents it from being the great show it might have been.

  • Galavant - When the new network shows were announced last spring, Galavant was the one that I thought I would enjoy the most.  I like whimsy, and I firmly believe that it offers a greater scope for meaningful statements about the human condition than the more fashionable "realism" of grim-n'-gritty.  So an all-singing, all-dancing pseudo-medieval romp sounded like it could be absolutely delightful.  In the intervening months, however, I (and the rest of the TV-reviewing public) discovered and fell in love with Jane the Virgin, a show that does exactly what I wanted Galavant to do--combine a ridiculous premise with good humor, smart writing, and real emotion to create something as heartfelt as it is fun.  The problem with Galavant is not just that it falls short of the standard set by Jane (which is, after all, one of the most remarkably assured and well made debuts of the last few years, and thus perhaps not a fair comparison), but that even by the more modest ambitions of its obvious inspirations--chiefly, Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights--it's kind of a dud.  A musical comedy should have good jokes and good songs, and Galavant scores barely 0.5 out of two--there are some good jokes here and there, but also a lot of obvious, pratfalls-and-farts humor that feels hopelessly dated (the latter camp includes the show's unfortunate fondness for using gayness and male sex as the focus of its jokes).  The songs, meanwhile, are clever but almost instantly forgettable (with the unfortunate exception of the title song, an earworm that only becomes more annoying the more the show repeats it).

    Having said all that, it should also be said that Galavant is a lot more enjoyable than it has any business being.  This is mostly down to the cast, and chiefly Timothy Omundson as the evil (but is he really just lonely and misunderstood?  No, he's actually evil) King Richard, the titular hero's nemesis.  In Omundson's hands, even the show's trite writing and lackluster jokes become rich meals, and he manages to tie together his character's villainous and sympathetic sides to make him the most watchable person on the show.  Though no one else in the cast is quite on that level, everyone is very good--from Vinnie Jones as Richard's leg-breaker, a bruiser-with-a-deadpan-delivery role that Jones has played a million times before, but always impeccably, to Mallory Jansen as the love of Galavant's life, who threw him over for the life of a queen and now terrifies even Richard with her sadism and lust for riches (though wisely, the show follows Jane the Virgin's lead in giving even this castrating bitch character layers and insecurities), to Karen David as the damsel in distress who is actually much smarter and more competent than the show's hero, to Luke Youngblood (Magnitude!) as Galavant's enthusiastic and slightly weird squire.  (The actual star of the show, Joshua Sasse, gets a little lost in the shuffle, a predictable result given that he plays the only straight-ish man in the ensemble, but one that might have been counteracted with stronger writing.)  If Galavant isn't quite on the level that I hoped it would achieve, its strong cast can usually smooth over its infelicities and dead moments to make something that is at least fun to watch, if not actually any good.

  • Marvel's Agent Carter - After seven years, massive lobbying from fans, and what felt like tireless legwork from star Hayley Atwell, the MCU has finally produced a female-led vehicle (albeit a limited-event series of only eight episodes).  That's the kind of buildup that can lead you to dread watching the pilot episode for fear that it won't live up to your expectations, and in Agent Carter's case I also worried that the show's central gimmick--both the female lead and the 1946 setting--would be allowed to substitute for decent writing.  The first two episodes of Agent Carter--in which Steve Rogers's former colleague and love interest finds herself shunted to the side in the post-war reality, struggling to prove her worth in a world awash with virulent sexism--did a lot to dispel my concerns.  They build a rich, interesting world (though oddly enough, far more interesting for its ordinary period setting than for the glimpse it gives us of the SHIELD precursor organization, the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which so far comes off as a by-the-numbers law enforcement organization whose odd purview doesn't really register) and jump-start a twisty plot that sees Peggy recruited by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to spy on her own bosses and find out who is stealing his inventions.  The series's limited timeframe--though galling when you consider that it's being treated as a junior sibling to the lukewarm and underperforming Agents of SHIELD--helps a lot on the storytelling front, forcing the writers to cut out the fat and deliver nonstop plot (including some fantastic action scenes).  But that same breakneck pacing also reinforces the sense that there's not much there there.  Where Agents of SHIELD has at least the potential to comment meaningfully on, and perhaps even question, the core assumptions of the MCU, Agent Carter seems content to work within them, delivering an enjoyable romp without much nutritional value.  Even the show's skewering of sexism, though valuable, is more than a little self-congratulatory given that it's looking back seventy years--and especially considering that this back-patting is coming to us from people who, again, took seven years to be persuaded into telling a story about a woman.

    What's keeping all this afloat, and at the same time gives the show its anchor, is Atwell's performance as Peggy.  She's excellent as a larger-than-life hero who is barely tamping down her frustration at not being allowed to do what she's best at, and at being expected to give way to people (men) who aren't even half as smart or competent as she is.  That kind of uber-competence, however, can leave a character feeling unapproachable, so the smartest thing that Agent Carter does is give Peggy a sidekick who both respects and challenges her.  The fact that this position is filled by someone as unexpected as Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy), Howard Stark's butler and the inspiration for Tony Stark's AI of the same name, only makes the rapport that he and Peggy quickly develop more delightful.  Acting at some points as Peggy's Alfred and at others as her trainee, Jarvis brings out her humanity--the irascible, impatient side of her that just wants to feel useful, and sometimes leads her to act recklessly out of the belief that she's the only person for the job.  Somewhat less successful is Peggy's nascent friendship with Angie, a friendly diner waitress played by Lyndsy Fonseca--it's never quite clear why Angie is so eager to befriend Peggy, and Fonseca plays her so young that it's hard to see what Peggy gets out of the relationship--but it's nice that the show clearly sets out to pass the Bechdel test on a weekly basis (though on that front it would have been nice to see other women in Peggy's workplace, who might help or even hinder her efforts).

    One point on which Agent Carter disappointed me is the near-total absence of people of color from its story.  This is hardly surprising given Agents of SHIELD's problems on this front, but especially for a series that has clearly set itself the goal of telling stories about people who have been left out of the official history, it's sad to see.  There are no doubt people who, when questioned about the show's uniform whiteness, would reply "but people of color just weren't allowed to do anything interesting back then!"  Ignoring the fact that this is exactly the same excuse used to justify not telling stories about characters like Peggy Carter--and just as untrue in both cases.

  • 12 Monkeys - The thing that makes Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys such a great film--and such an enduring classic of SF cinema--is that it takes a fairly standard, Terminator-ish premise and, at every turn, refuses to indulge in the heroic tropes implied by it.  So the hero, James Cole, is mentally unstable and ultimately powerless, his life defined by the powers that have sent him back in time and the time loop that limns it; the alleged villain, Jeffrey Goines, turns out to be nothing but an entitled brat with neither the ability nor the mental focus to do the evil deeds ascribed to him; and, of course, the film's central story is one of failure, of how a single man failed to prevent an apocalypse engineered by corporate and financial interests against whom no hero could ever triumph.  That Syfy's rebooting of the film into a series jettisons that wondefully bleak message and dives straight into the very tropes that Gilliam's film mocked doesn't exactly come as a surprise, but it's still disappointing to realize the series's complete lack of self-awareness.  You have to wonder: did anyone involved with the show even watch the film?  Not only does 12 Monkeys appear to be telling the Terminator story straight, with Cole (Aaron Stanford)--who in this iteration of the story is not just a lab rat but a self-directed agent, and even has superpowers as a result--teaming up with scientist Cassandra (sigh) Railly (Amanda Schull) to prevent the end of the world, but it seems to have forgotten that in the original film the titular Army of the Twelve Monkeys were a false lead, setting up pharmaceutical heiress and mental patient Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) as the first step down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy to end the human race.  Possibly this is just the pilot setting up expectations that the rest of the first season will explode, but given how little attention it pays to the emotional beats that gave the movie its heart--Cole's detachment from humanity in both the future and the past, Railly's descent into madness alongside him--it's hard to hope that the series is interested in being anything more complex than a techno-thriller, a task which the pilot manages competently but with very little flair.  In that sense, 12 Monkeys is the exact opposite of what we got when the Terminator franchise was brought to television with the late, lamented Sarah Connor Chronicles, a series that actually took the time to wonder what it would be like to know that the end of the world is coming, or to travel back from an apocalyptic future into a comfortable but doomed past.  Again, that's not a surprise, but it is a disappointment.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on Nominating

Is it just me, or does it seem as if Hugo season gets longer and longer every year?  The first few months of the year are taken up with nominating.  The spring is dedicated to arguing about the nominees.  The summer is spent anticipating the winners and then--which is really much more fun--obsessively analyzing the nominating and voting statistics.  It's only in the fall that we have a brief reprieve, and then the whole thing starts all over again.  Which it has--at the end of this month the Hugo nominating period will begin, and in anticipation of that, I have a few thoughts for people who are, or are considering becoming, Hugo nominators.
  1. Because it seems that every year there are more people coming in who find the Hugo rules baffling (which they are, I'm not judging here), let's get the boilerplate out of the way.  You are eligible to nominate for the 2015 Hugo awards if you are:

    • An attending or supporting member of LonCon 3, the 2014 Worldcon.
    • An attending or supporting member of Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon, and you purchased your membership before January 31st, 2015.
    • An attending or supporting member of MidAmeriCon II, the 2016 Worldcon, and you purchased your membership before January 31st 2015.

    If you're a member of any of these groups, you should receive an email from the Sasquan awards administrator informing you of your eligibility to nominate some time around the end of the month.  Note that members of LonCon and MidAmeriCon can only nominate for the 2015 Hugos, not vote for the winners--to do that, you need to be a member (attending or supporting) of Sasquan itself (but that's further done the line).

  2. It's become traditional for authors to greet the new year by posting "award eligibility posts" listing their Hugo-eligible work from the previous year.  And it's become equally traditional for fans, critics, and other authors to criticize this custom on the grounds that it's pushy and creates a culture in which authors feel obliged to campaign for awards.  At which point the authors and fans who are pro-eligibility posts weight in and, well, the last two weeks on twitter happen.  I said my piece on the subject last year (and if you're looking for a 2015 variant, Ian Sales has the goods), and I pretty much stand by that except for two additional comments.

    First, though I haven't changed my mind about the central point of my post last year--that awards, and the Hugo award in particular, are not for authors, and that to treat them as yet another means for self-promotion is to distort and pervert them--that argument feels a lot less urgent this year.  In fact, the entire eligibility post discussion is starting to feel like a distraction, because if the evidence of the last few years--and the 2014 awards in particular--tells us anything, it's that award eligibility posts, in themselves, don't actually do anything.  If you're a new author who published a few short stories in 2014 and you put up an eligibility post which you publicize to your 500 twitter followers, it's really not going to have any effect on whether or not you get a Hugo nomination.  If, on the other hand, you're someone with a blog that gets thousands or tens of thousands of hits a day, or if you get linked to by someone like that, then your chances of a nomination are pretty high whether or not you "informed" anyone of your eligibility.

    For better and worse--and there are ample examples of both cases--we have created a situation where the Hugo nominees are determined primarily through campaigning.  Last year when the nominees were announced there were several attempts to distinguish between "good" and "bad" campaigning--to argue, for example, that Larry Correia's Sad Puppies ballot (which gave us Vox Day, Hugo nominee), and the campaign to get all fourteen Wheel of Time novels nominated for Best Novel, were substantively different from, say, my posting my Hugo recommendations on this blog, or John Scalzi recommending me for the Best Fan Writer Hugo.  I don't believe that's true.  I think that in all four cases you have people recognizing that the system operates in a certain way and working within it to achieve their goals.  I would love to have a conversation about whether that's a good thing, and what--if anything--we should do about it, but before that can happen there needs to be an acknowledgment of this new (which is to say, at least five years old) reality.  And part of that means getting over the reflexive defensiveness of authors who won't admit that they've chosen to prioritize their own career over the Hugos as an institution (which, you know, is a perfectly defensible choice), and the reflexive snobbishness of fans who pretend that the Hugos were ever free of manipulation and logrolling.

  3. The second comment I'd like to add to last year's thoughts about award eligibility posts is this: if you're an author who, some time in early January, put up a post on your blog listing the work you published in 2014, and you do not also have on your website an easily-found, up-to-date bibliography, then I honestly have no idea what to do with you.  One of the ways in which we can tell that award eligibility posts do nothing in themselves is that, for their stated purpose, they are fucking useless--if I show up on your blog in March, I'm not going to dig through your archives to find out when exactly you posted about your eligibility.  I'm going to look for a bibliography--preferably one with links, and sorted by publication date--and if I don't find one, I'll probably just move along to the site of another author who actually wants me to nominate them for a Hugo.  So many authors refer to eligibility posts as a service to their readers, and yet they forget to perform this most basic service--and, to my mind, a far more fundamental act of self-promotion.

  4. To get back to the issue of campaigning, ever since I got my hands on the 2014 nominations breakdown (which is to say, within minutes of the end of the ceremony--the Hugo administrators know their people), I've been haunted by one particular couterfactual.  If Larry Correia's Warbound and The Wheel of Time hadn't been nominated--in other words, if there hadn't been concerted campaigns to get those specific works on the ballot--the next two nominees were Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls (two votes from tying for fifth place) and Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria (six votes from tying for fifth place).  In other words, if the Sad Puppies and Wheel of Time fans hadn't done their thing, we would have had, for only the second time in the award's history, a best novel ballot where four out of the five nominated works were by women.

    Now, I can only assume that as far as the majority of the Sad Puppy voters are concerned, preventing this result is merely icing on the cake.  But I hope that at least some of the Wheel of Time voters consider it a loss, which brings me to my next point: if you are someone with a big megaphone (or even a mid-sized or small one) and you decide to use it to campaign for the Hugos, take a moment to consider the consequences of your actions.  If you succeed, what kind of award will you be helping to create?  What picture of the field will it reflect?  In ten or twenty or thirty years, when future fans look at the ballot you helped shape, what will they think of you?

  5. The flip side of this, of course, is that each of us, no matter how big or small our megaphone, has a vote.  None of us, individually, can counteract a campaign like Sad Puppies, but it would have taken just two more of us voting for Lauren Beukes, or six more for Sofia Samatar, to have taken away a bit of their accomplishment.  And the good news is, one of the consequences of the new, campaign-oriented Hugos is that it has never been easier to find interesting, worthwhile work to nominate.  Many authors have begun supplementing their award eligibility posts with recommendations for other nominees.  Many fans are doing the same--I'll be posting my nominees, as I did last year, closer to the nomination deadline.  Last year, Aidan Moher performed a useful service by collating many of these recommendations posts into a master list; he informs me that he plans to do so again this year, so watch his blog or twitter feed.  Resources like Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) and Writertopia's John W. Campbell Award Eligibility Page can help to find nominees in categories that have historically been neglected.  As much as they are politicized and easy to manipulate, the Hugos are an award where every vote really does matter--especially in the nominating phase.  So if you're eligible to nominate, do take the time to study the field and make your voice heard.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 47 books in 2014, which, strangely enough, is exactly the same number as I read last year--not sure that's ever happened, and certainly not since I started keeping track.  It was a very odd year too, reading-wise, with periods of intense and enjoyable reading alternating with long fallow stretches in which nothing appealed and the thought of concentrating on a single work was positively wearying.  Nevertheless, looking back at the books I did manage to read this year, I'm impressed with their quality and how much I enjoyed them.  Usually these end-of-year posts include examples of the year's worst reads as well as the best ones, but this year I don't really have any nominees for the former category.  The closest I came to a bad book this year was Dorothy L. Sayers's Five Red Herrings, in which Sayers takes her obsession with "fair play" mysteries to unreasonable extremes, bogging the reader down in minute descriptions of the various suspects' movements, travel time calculations, and of course train schedules, that completely overwhelm any interest we might have had in the characters, the detectives, and even the central murder.

Nevertheless, Five Red Herrings was a blip in what has otherwise been a strong year for mysteries, which make up a full third of the year's reading.  This is down largely to two series--the Holmes canon, which I revisited for the first time since my teens (you can see my thoughts on the various novels and story collections at my Storify account), and Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels.  I've read (and in some cases reread) the novels featuring Wimsey's love interest and fellow detective Harriet Vane, but this was my first time through the solo novels, which I am reading in order.  With the obvious exception of Five Red Herrings, it's turning out to be a delightful experience, with Wimsey shining on his own as both a character and a detective (though the classist and occasionally sexist aspects of the novels can be hard to take).

Otherwise, it was a quiet year for genre reading.  Aside from the mysteries, most of the books I read were either literary or historical fiction.  I tend to seesaw between the two extremes as my year-end reviews point out to me how I've neglected a particular corner of my reading, so expect a stronger genre year in 2015 (and anyway, there are quite a few genre novels I'm planning to read in the coming weeks as I gear up for Hugo nominations).  Something else that I'd like to focus on in 2015 is reviewing the books I read, which I've neglected terribly this year--though I planned to do so several times, I don't think I've written a single full-length book review this year.  Next year, I'd like to not only get back to that, but maybe change up the format of reviews on this blog a little.  Instead of concentrating my shorter book reviews into recent reading roundups, I'm thinking of posting them as I go in individual blog posts (I might do the same thing for film reviews as well).  I don't know if that's a format that will suit me--I think I've nailed my colors rather firmly to the long review--but it's worth experimenting with.  At any rate, my reading resolution for 2015 is the same as every year's, and the same, I think, as every book blogger's--to read more, and more widely, and to blog more about what I read.

For the last few hours of 2014, however, here are my best reads of the year, in alphabetical order of the author's surname:
  • Spin by Nina Allan

    I'm very much looking forward to Allan's debut novel The Race, which is sitting in my TBR stack, and a great deal of that expectation is rooted in the exceptional quality of this 2013 novella (which deserved a lot more awards attention than it got).  Allan's prose is spare and her story is low-key, but with those deceptively simple tools she constructs an elaborate alternate world, in which religion and government are subtly but powerfully different, and magic is real but heavily regulated.  The story of a young artist struggling with a difficult family history and her nascent magical powers is woven into the myth of Arachne in ways that are delightful and thought-provoking, but an equal pleasure is Allan's handling of the seemingly mundane topic of an artist discovering her voice and style.  The fact that the heroine is engaged in the traditionally feminine (and thus frequently delegitimized) field of textile arts only makes the seriousness with which Allan depicts her process more enjoyable.

  • Longbourn by Jo Baker

    I had no idea what it expect from this book, and yet it's lingered with me through the year.  The concept seems gimmicky and calculating--Pride and Prejudice retold from the perspective of the Bennetts' servants--but not only does Longbourn tells its own story, into which the original novel intrudes only occasionally, but it uses its central concept for a lot more than just a refreshing perspective shift.  Through her heroines--the thoughtful, searching maid-of-all-work Sarah, and the level-headed but loving housekeeper Mrs. Hill--Baker explores not only the life of a Regency servant, but the effect that class has on women's roles in that era, and on the limitations and expectations placed on them.  The final encounter between Sarah and Elizabeth Bennett is devastating for what it reveals about the two women's choice between freedom and security, and for the value that is placed (and often not placed) on their work.  Far from repeating Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn uses its outline to make its own statement, and is all the more powerful for it.

  • Versailles by Kathryn Davis

    I read several books this year by Davis, an author of quasi-slipstreamy literary fiction whose dense, impressionistic prose shifts time, place, and point of view at a moment's notice.  Versailles--a short novel about Marie Antoinette--is the one that has stuck with me.  As much about the palace and its history as it is about its heroine, the novel switches from her point of view to potted histories of the palace, to interludes with her servants and courtiers.  Amazingly given its slight size, both the character and the place emerge as fully-formed creations, and Antoinette in particular is sympathetic and interesting (though perhaps a little too prone to self-justification).  It often feels as if historical fiction is too beholden to realism, too conventionally structured and plotted.  Versailles is a rare and welcome instance of an author experimenting within that form, and it yields great results.

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

    A bit of a cheat, since this isn't a book that I read for the first time in 2014, but as my return to Hill House revealed, the first time I read this book it went completely over my head.  In my mid-or-late teens, I expected a haunted house story to have, well, ghosts, and preferably an explanation for them.  I wasn't able to understand that what makes The Haunting of Hill House so scary is the house's unknowability, and even more than that, the hauntings that the ghost-hunter protagonists--and particularly the troubled, childish heroine Eleanor--bring with them when they come to stay.  The second time around, I feel as if I've discovered this novel for the first time, and am kicking myself for not revisiting it sooner.  It seems as if, in recent years, Hill House's star has dimmed a little in favor of Jackson's other and equally magnificent novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle--perhaps because its conventions have been recycled by works like House of Leaves, whereas Castle remains utterly unique.  I think it may be time for a rediscovery--I'm sure I'm not the only one who needed to be reminded of what a sharp, tense, frightening novel this is.
Honorable Mentions:
  • HHhH by Laurent Binet - At once a nonfiction account of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, a fictionalization of it, and a meditation about the gap between the two, this novel (?) is surprisingly readable and entertaining for such an odd experiment (and such a grim topic).

  • The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - A lush, beautifully written historical fantasy about the lifelong love between a 19th century French winemaker and an angel.  Weird and indescribable, but utterly enchanting.

  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner - This slim volume constructs a whole fantasy world, complete with manners and conventions, within a few chapters, and the political and social drama that it sets within that world (not to mention its central love story) is instantly engaging.

  • Tenth of December  by George Saunders - Sharp, funny, and often extremely weird short stories.  Genre readers will like Saunders's forays into that field, but his mimetic stories are equally distinct and memorable.