Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Nick and Norah" and genre

I watched Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with some friends two weekends ago. 15 minutes in I knew that it was going to make for an interesting discussion - not because the movie was particularly good or bad, but because it I knew it was distinctly cruder than some of the people I saw it with were expecting.

Briefly, then: two of our group found the film discomforting, with their main complaints relating to the unrealistic handling of Norah's drunk friend and Nick's ex-girlfriend's interest in Nick. Why, they asked, was the film so casual - or, rather, irresponsible - in its failure to address the risk of sexual violence posed to the drunk girl, wandering the bars and streets of New York, and to the ex-girlfriend, who Nick abandoned while she was stripping in a parking lot? And why the hell would the ex-girlfriend have wanted a nerd like Nick in the first place, much less want him back?

Good questions, both. And also, I countered, somewhat unfair. What they should have been critiquing, rather than the film, I suggested, was its genre - because Nick and Norah is a genre film in the now-familiar (well, evidently not that familiar to my two friends) American Pie/Apatow model in which young people do ridiculous and self-destructive things, discover important stuff about themselves, and rarely pay any sort of consequences. And it makes as much sense to criticize these films for their failure to address sexual violence as it does to criticize, say, an action film for misrepresenting the accuracy of handguns and failing to address the real danger of getting shot and bleeding profusely. (A la the old 'it's just a flesh-wound' joke.) There's a sort of apoliticism at work in both forms that seem to ask that we don't take them all that seriously, that we recognize there's a sort of fantasy at work and that it's not really like real life.

That's not to say, of course, that the absence of sexual violence in the former genre and death of the hero at the hands of gun-fire in the second is not problematic. Quite the opposite, in fact - that genre fiction of any kind misrepresents real life for the sake of narrative ease and intelligibility (I mean, we couldn't laugh at the movie or want Nick and Norah to get together if Nick's abandoning his girlfriend led to her sexual assault) is totally something that we should acknowledge and discuss. And if we start to mistake their genre fantasies for real life, well, that's also hugely problematic - which is why I go to the trouble of asserting Nick and Norah's genre-pic status in the first place. But is it ultimately fair to ask for that kind of self-reflexivity of a genre pic, to expect it to address these issues and asks these questions of itself? No more fair, I think, than it is to ask Die Hard to explicitly disclaim its own ultra-violence as needlessly sensational. It's not individual action films or romantic-comedies that ruin people - it's their refusal to see these films as action films or romantic-comedies.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Uncanny X-Men 503 and THAT scene

I wanted to write something else - less contentious, more literary - about Matt Fraction on the X-Men, so it's a shame that this has to be the first thing. See, there's a scene in the middle of 503 where Cyclops and Emma Frost are investigating the Hellfire Cult's warehouse, during which Emma dresses up in some bondage gear and, presumably, things get a little unprofessional.

The thing is, as we learn at the end of the issue, it's not Emma in the bondage gear. Apparently, I was the only person (on a message board, at least) who was immediately skeptical - "this is kinky even for you", Cyclops' mentioning that she's unnecessarily in his head, and the uncharacteristically glowing red eyes were pretty much a dead giveaway. Or so I thought. But there are other, rather obvious clues: the story arc's mystery villain, the Red Queen, is shown telepathically extracting information about Emma Frost's personality earlier in the issue, and Emma admits to having no idea what Cyclops is talking about when he mentions the scene at the end of the issue - after which Cyclops immediately sees the Red Queen, who he identifies as his ex-wife, Madelyne Pryor. So it's implied and not totally clear until the end, but it happened nonetheless: Cyclops was telepathically raped. (If you're still not with me, see my brief discussion of the issue of consent in the very last paragraph of his blog post.)

When I asked why no one was talking about this on the message board, it was suggested that it's a sort of comeuppance for Cyclops. During Grant Morrison's run, Cyclops and Emma had a psychic affair that the former dismissed as not disloyal to his wife because it wasn't physical, and so Maddie is sort've toying with that logic - that is, it must not be sexual assault because it was only psychic. And, going back to Claremont's pre-Inferno days, the same person suggested that the story element of tricking him into doing something without his informed consent is not unlike the process by which Madelyne was herself transformed into a villain during what she thought was a dream. Notably, Cyclops didn't accept this as an explanation of her transformation, nor did he accept any blame for the mental distress that led her to that point, much of which was his fault.

So to the extent that it seems to be invoking these earlier moments of Cyclops' hypocrisy and using it against him, it works. But there's something so incredibly distasteful about the suggestion of rape, here, that I just can't get past. Maybe it's just that sexual assault is so often sensationalized, and that instances of gender-reversal of his sort are so often handled poorly, that I'm having a knee-jerk reaction that will turn out to be unfounded. And maybe it's also because I have some affection for Madelyne's original character and didn't like her transformation into a villain in the first place - and so I find it additionally detestable that she's been reduced again, this time into a rapist.

[I should also note that this scene caused me to reconsider an element in the last Casanova story arc where something surprisingly similar happens, though it escaped my notice in the moment. In that story, Casanova is undercover as his sister, Zephyr, and has a sexual relationship with a male terrorist named Kubark - who, predictably, feels deeply betrayed and disturbed when he learns that Zephyr was never Zephyr at all. This fits all the same criteria for any legal or moral definition of rape - you can't give informed consent when someone is withholding information that prevents a full awareness of the consequences of your actions, ie. when they're lying about who they are or intend to do you harm. And yet I totally missed it - probably because Casanova is deeply apologetic and Kubark is totally evil, responding with homophobia rather than admitting any emotional pain. It's probably to Fraction's credit that he can do this twice before I catch it, and that it can work so well in the context of the story. But I still find it a troubling sort of trope.]

Saturday, October 18, 2008

God probably wanted me to write this

There were a couple articles in Time, recently, asking whether evangelicals telling folks that God wanted them to be rich or wanted them to get a house were to blame for the financial crisis. In short - if God wants you to get a mortgage that you shouldn't be able to afford, then he'll "make a way" and it's beyond you to question the logistics. It's easy to see that this road leads to disaster, in retrospect if not in the moment. Especially when you're encouraged to avoid looking down that road in the first place.

Of course, the market meltdown will hardly prompt a crisis in faith. I'm sure that people will find a way to rationalize God wanting them to suffer a crushing setback. (I'm also sure hubris will factor in, though not in the way that I would think to apply it.)

It all reminds me of one of my favorite religious paradoxes. Two sports teams meet in some sort of championship, and both extol their faith in God and assuredness that he'll help then win. And then one team invariably loses. They find ways to rationalize it, but it simply comes down to God not wanting them to win - which they deal with shockingly well, considering how sure they were that God wanted them to win beforehand. (Again, it was probably Satan-induced hubris, right? As opposed the Christ-induced confidence of the other team, I guess. Too bad we couldn't tell them apart beforehand and skip this whole thing.) But they never seem to make either of the leaps from there that, to me, seem entirely logical: 1) God just doesn't fucking care about whether you win a trophy when he has stuff like, say, natural disasters to concern him; and 2) maybe God just doesn't like you.

But, then, I don't really get any of this religious stuff.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It's the same everywhere, depressingly

With elections underway both here, in Canada, and the USA, I'm subjecting myself to twice the normal dose of bullshit politicking. There are all sorts of examples, but the ludicrous spin-doctoring that's happening on both sides of the border is perhaps the most aggravating. For example:
  • An inquiry in Alaska found that Sarah Palin abused her power in attempting to have her brother-in-law fired from his job in law enforcement. The McCain/Palin team's response? It was "a partisan-led inquiry" whose findings can't be trusted. Which might hold water if it was a Democrat-led inquiry. Only it wasn't - the Republican members outnumbered the Democrats by more than two-to-one. So unless Palin's such a maverick that her own party would take a "partisan" position against her...
  • An FBI expert confirmed that the relevant portion of a controversial audio tape, where the current Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, can be heard confirming to a biographer that he offered a dying independent Member of Parliament a bribe for helping to bring down the former Liberal government, had not been tampered with and represented an unbroken conversation. But the PM, who claimed that his response and/or the question had been doctored, has refused to address the tape, and his legal team is arguing that the findings somehow vindicated the PM. Because, y'see, at some point afterward the tape was stopped and rewound a bit, and used to record another piece of the same conversation. Clearly, they seem to be implying, the biographer erased the part where Harper said "Just kiddin'!" by recording over it - and in the PM's presence, no less.
I have nothing of much substance to add. I voted in an advance poll and I'm taking my usual efforts to subtly influence people. But it's no wonder that people are made too fall so easily for misdirection and outright lies - there's so much of it that deception becomes the normative state of mass politics.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Sleep and irretrievable ideas

I really need to start sleeping with a note pad or something beside my head. Often, I'll lie in bed for half an hour or longer, thinking or theorizing about something that I had been reading or working on and a really good idea will come to me. Unfortunately, unless I get out of bed to write it down, I usually can't remember it in the morning. (It's the same way with my dreams - about 10 seconds after I wake up, all I can remember is that I had a dream.)

Case in point: I distinctly remember thinking last night that I had an idea that I should blog about. But all I can remember now is that I had
an idea. Of course, the caveat here is that if I can't remember the specific idea then I can't very well be sure that it was actually any good. Or that any of them are ever very good. (Almost-relevant Beatles anecdote: Paul McCartney often talks of a party where, in a drugged out haze, he told Neil Aspinall that he had discovered the meaning of life any Neil had to record it for him. When Paul woke in the morning he couldn't remember the meaning but recalled where he had put the paper. And written on the paper? "There are seven levels.")

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Meet the new library, same as the old library

For the first time, I decided to check out a book in electronic format yesterday - through NetLibrary - since it would save me the trouble of having to travel to the actual library. Now, you would think that the advantage of reading an eBook through the school's library is not simply the convenience of reading from home, but also the fact that you don't have to worry about someone else having already borrowed the book and leaving you high and dry.

And if you thought that, you would be wrong, since it's not uncommon to get a message like this: "This book is already in use. Please try again later."

Inexplicably, every library only gets one "copy" (?) of each eBook, and if someone is reading that copy, well you're shit out of luck. But it's comforting to know that someone took the time to examine the library's weaknesses and, having identified them, subsequently duplicated those weaknesses in an entirely different medium.