Monday, July 26, 2010

The Avengers movie

I realize that it's early, and that there's a very good chance that they're not done putting the team for this movie together... but really? Marvel has already cast 8 people for the Avengers movie, and only one of them - and he's not even an actual member of the team - is not white? And only one of them is a woman? There have been something like 100 members of the Avengers, and you couldn't find room for, like, Luke Cage or Warbird?

And when they realize this and start adding more women and non-white people, it'll look like blatant tokenism and/or an afterthought, since they've already made their priorities and key players clear. My guess? They'll go the route of The Ultimates and kill two birds with one stone by casting an Asian woman as The Wasp. (Cynicism Win.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Bechdel Test

I can't believe that I had never heard of this before:

In short, it's a quick little test to assess a) whether women are actually present in films, and b) whether they are given a purpose outside of their relationships with men. It sounds like it should be easy enough for film studios to pull this off, right? And, yet, it's amazing to see how many films - especially the stuff that's not explicitly marketed at either men or women, and so usually taken to be gender-neutral - fail it miserably. (Just check out the link.)

Now, it's super-important to add that passing the test doesn't indicate that a film is feminist and failing it doesn't make a film misogynist. Nor does a particular result make a movie good or bad. It simply does what it purports to do - measure the presence of women in our movies.

The test has three questions:
1) are there at least two female characters with names?
2) do they talk to each other, and not only men?
3) do they talk about something other than men?

It's not the most rigorous criteria, and my memory isn't perfect, so there's bound to be some room for disagreement. But let's run the test on the last 10 movies that I've either seen in a theater or rented:

The Kids are Alright
The Lovely Bones



The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
(I can't recall whether the teenage girls ever talk to one another)
The Messenger
A Serious Man (do the mom and daughter ever speak?)
A Single Man (though only Julianne Moore speaks, so it could just as easily be a 0)

Crazy Heart
Inception (imho, I don't think that Mol counts)

Fyi, if I changed the test to measure for men, every film would get a 3 out of 3.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour is decidedly not

There's a moment toward the end of the final book in the Scott Pilgrim series when Stacy asks where Scott, Ramona, and Gideon disappeared to during their battle, adding, "What was that all about?" Scott provides a rapid-fire response that sounds nonsensical (because, frankly, the battle was nonsensical), and his friends give the only appropriate response - silence, and a quick change of topic.

They might have been reading my mind - between fights on the astral plane, characters dying and then returning to life via free lives accessed in some space of purgatory, "the glow" on the subspace highway, swords being pulled from chests - twice (but in the real world, not in a psychic one), and Gideon's "cryogenic chamber", it's hard to tell whether there are any rules in the world of Scott Pilgrim. But it's a telling moment, too. Like the cliché says, when the characters seem to be complaining about the plot...

I've made it known that I haven't liked the last few issues of Scott Pilgrim. And I'll go on record in saying that this one is easily the worst - it is, as the kids (ie. me, when I'm pretending to be cool) say, a hot mess. But it didn't have to be. So, at the risk of repeating what I've already written elsewhere, I'll restrict myself to three complaints - two of which encompass the series as a whole, and one of which is the new detail that makes this book the poorest of the series. (My apologies in advance for poor spelling and wonky grammar - this entry seems to be more error-laden than most. That's what I get for not re-reading these things in their entirety.)

Complaint the first - Scott

Okay, I get it. Scott is supposed to be a cipher for the (presumably) nerdy and emotionally-stunted target-readership. He's purposely shallow because it allows us to project ourselves on to him. Because we also realize that we're our own worst enemy (Nega-Scott was a nice touch, though the set-up was awful) and we all want the mysterious hot girl. This is why people see Judd Apatow movies - the lead is usually a loser and a bit of a dick, but there are millions of young guys that find that relatable and want to believe that they can be dickish losers and still get the hot chick. But managing a good approximation of hetero-male-geek wish-fulfillment does not good writing make. And cipher or not, he's also the main character in a 1200 page story. I need something more than wish-fulfillment.

Because Scott is a dick. I was complaining about his character arc to some people yesterday, and said that he gets less likable as the series progresses - and then corrected myself because, in fact, it's more accurate to say that he gets more dislikable. He doesn't just squander the naive-lovable-loser charm of the first book, (or maybe it would be better to say that he tries to hold on to it well past the expiration date) he actually transforms into a willfully ignorant and insensitive prick. When Scott begins shouting at Knives about having casual sex, I want to reach into the comic and punch him in the face. He was a jerk to her when he dumped her in the first issue, but it was at least somewhat forgivable - or, rather, though he handled it badly, I wanted to forgive him. He was torn between his girlfriend and his dream-girl and, while he screwed it up, it seemed like he did it as well as he could have. These are, after all, the sorts of awkward break-ups that one stumbles through in their youth and is supposed to learn from.

Instead, Scott's come-on in the new issue takes insensitivity to new heights - knowing that Knives has never stopped loving him, that he hurt her horribly, and that everyone knows he's still hung up on Ramona, he asks her to sleep with him. That makes him an incredible douchebag, and not someone that I want to root for. At all. (Granted, this is when he has been separated from Nega-Scott, and I think we're supposed to understand that this is also responsible for his douchebaggery. But, a) that's not at all clear at this point in the story, which is a problem, and b) using a device from out of left field in order to undercut the emotion in the intimate personal exchanges that constitute the entire first act of the book is deceptive and annoying.)

I realize that, in real-life, people don't grow linearly - we change, we regress, we grow, we relapse. But books aren't beholden to these requirements, and most would be horrifically boring if they were. That Scott doesn't become a better person - and, in fact, seems even less self-aware and more malevolent - does nothing to recommend this book.

Complaint the second - magic realism/fantasy

When Scott Pilgrim's more fantastic elements are at their best, they're working with the more mundane elements of the story and not against or in-place of them. My favorite stuff is the most dream-like and ethereal magic realism - warp doors and Legend of Zelda dreams that lend atmosphere and depth, respectively. When they're at their worst, they suffocate the story and re/displace it - not magic realism at all, but magic absurdity. Magic nihilism, even. (On Geoff's blog, Dan suggests that it magic so totally overwhelms the realism that the book fully crosses over genre-lines and into fantasy. And so, rather than the magic sometimes encroaching on reality, as in the early books, the book features "realism encroaching on fantasy". I think he might be right, too.)

Take the Save Point from book 3 - faced with an unavoidable and horribly awkward meeting with his ex Envy Adams, Scott looks around desperately for an out of some kind. When Scott's supporters call him relatable, this is the kind of scene that they have in mind - one in which we've been forced into an uncomfortable situation and wish that we could have saved in advance, because a) we know it's going to go badly, and b) we wish we had a do-over. So the Save Point, while seemingly silly and random, is actually wholly appropriate to the scene - it enhances the pathos of Scott's situation and it increases our nervous anticipation, because we are keenly aware that Scott doesn't have a do-over. (And this is important, too - the Save Point 'exists' but Scott isn't able to use it. He, like us, wishes he could, but he can't - because the damned things don't exist!)

But the magic is the story in this final book: from Nega-Scott appearing seemingly out of nowhere to Gideon's cryogenic chamber to Scott's return to life from death to the psychic battle in Ramona's head... the book isn't grounded in recognizable human drama, much less remotely realistic settings. Which, I suppose, I saw coming because the series has tended increasingly toward absurdity and fantasy - so I shouldn't be surprised. Where the clever subtlety in the first book was in using the magic realism to represent what we couldn't have, that subtlety is deployed for wholly different ends, here: instead of failing to reach the Save Point, Scott uses a Free Life to return and fight Gideon again. Magic realism functions as deus ex machina with all the subtlety of a sword to the torso - Scott is killed and ends up in some Purgatory-like space (why? dunno.) where he meets up with Ramona again (how? dunno.) and uses his Free Life. (well, at least that wasn't pulled out of a hat - it was set up several books ago, as O'Malley reminds us.)

And, despite this, I actually don't mind the fight scenes being ridiculous and fantastic - because, at least in the earlier books, it works. But I would like for that ridiculousness to be somehow internally consistent, beholden to some set of self-defined limits, and contained. When it isn't contained, it threatens to turn the entire exercise into some snark-filled, self-reflexive, post-ironic joke.

Take, for instance, the narrator's increasingly explicit presence. Early in the book, Scott has a particularly awkward scene with Knives outside the Cameron House. When Knives and Scott kiss, we can tell for ourselves that it's awful and that they've made a mistake and feel terrible for it. Why the narrator has to tell us this, and tell us in as obnoxious a way as possible, I'm not sure. To undercut its emotional impact, certainly - because it's a painfully uncomfortable moment.

I'm wondering, actually, whether O'Malley's narrator is a sort of reaction to the author's earlier stuff (including Lost At Sea) after finding it, in retrospect, a little too emo, a little too precious. How else to understand his increasingly incessant need to assert ironic distance from the material, to undermine its emotional resonance and make fun of damn near everything? When the narrator appears in book 1, it's to cheer Scott on - to say 'Way to go' when Scott and Ramona kiss the first time; when he appears in book 6, it's to depress us and poke fun - to say that Scott and Knives' kiss was horrible "for everyone" and "that includes you". The problem, here, is that O'Malley isn't just poking fun at his characters - he's also poking fun at me for wanting to be invested in the characters and their feelings. And so it just feels mean-spirited.

(That really wasn't just one point, was it? It kinda veered into a point about self-reflexivity and irony. But there's a connection there, right? Ah, well.)

Complaint the third - Ramona

In my blog on the last book, I said that Ramona had clearly supplanted Scott as the central and most interesting character in the book - and had probably done so a long time ago, too. Ramona is mysterious and seductive where Scott is superficial and obvious. (This is not with the potential for problems, too, though - as Sara suggests on Geoff's blog, Ramona represents "[p]robably exactly how 20-something hetero men (and beyond?) feel about [women]. Complex, interesting/alluring/scary etc... but... vague." She's not really a real person, but more a projection of what a hot girl should be.)

So, clearly, this inequity had to be redressed. The obvious answer would be to elevate the hero, Scott, somehow - to have him grow, make him worthy of his dream-girl. That doesn't happen, though. Instead, O'Malley takes Ramona down a notch. When Ramona is asked, near the end of the book, where she's been the past four months, she says that she's been "dicking around" by watching The X-Files and playing on the internet. Nothing mysterious, no - she's been just as aimless as Scott, doing equally banal things instead of trying to fix her life. And we know that she's been dumbed-down to Scott's level because all the other characters sigh and sarcastically ask when the wedding will be. Here, it feels like the readers are being flipped off, again: "Oh, you guys! You thought that Ramona was all mysterious and deep, but she's not - she likes the internet and X-Files and dicking around and SHE IS JUST LIKE A DUDE."

The thing is, we didn't need Ramona to be reduced to a joke in order to understand that she's flawed. We already know that she's frightened of commitment, that she has a pathological need to drop her entire life when it grows too comfortable and start a new one elsewhere, and that she doesn't particularly like herself very much. This is the stuff of a tragic heroine, and the above reservations aside, Ramona is easily the deepest character the series has (though maybe this says more about the dearth of deep characters in the series...) - why squander that so needlessly?

And lastly

Despite these complaints, I actually have some hope for the movie. Because part of my problem is that Scott has something like 1300 pages within which to stagnate, and O'Malley had 6 years over which his dreamlike magic and precious optimism slowly turns into fantasy-overload and cynical irony. The shorter run-time of a film should make Scott more bearable, even if he similarly learns nothing, and the briefer turnaround of the movie project should at least bring some thematic and stylistic consistency, even if it is consistently absurd and cynical. But that's a worst-case scenario.

Sorry for ranting so long, and probably sounding so grumpy. Was it clear that I was disappointed? Because that's the short version of this review/critique/essay: I was disappointed.

Friday, July 09, 2010

World Cup rules and fitting the penalty to the infraction

Unless you've been deliberately avoiding the World Cup, you've probably heard that Ghana was eliminated from the World Cup a week ago when they should have advanced to the semi-finals. With minutes left, the presumptive game-winning goal failed to count because Suarez, a Uruguayan player who is not the goalkeeper, jumped and batted it out of the air with his hands just before it crossed the goal-line.

Unlike in the NHL, where a non-goaltender's illegal stop of a near-certain goal results in the awarding of an automatic goal, FIFA awards a penalty kick - which Ghana missed. Suarez was tossed out of the game and earned an automatic suspension, but the move was a no-brainer. If he doesn't stop the ball, his team is ejected from the tournament - sportsmanship aside, (and it seems like there's very little value placed in sportsmanship during the World Cup) there was no reason that he shouldn't have had it in his mind to stop the ball by any means necessary.

Over at The Book blog, which is largely a baseball analysis blog but it occasionally covers other sports too, a commenter named Greg Rybarczyk wrote that,

the game has rules, and with respect to those rules, there are violations, and for those violations there are prescribed consequences/penalties/sanctions. [...] If one is outraged at the fact that the Uruguayan player used his hands to stop a goal (which is agianst the rules, and has a prescribed consequence), where is the outrage when a player intentionally kicks the ball out of bounds (which is also against the rules, and also has a prescribed consequence)?

I wrote in response to Greg, and wanted to write here, too, that Greg is wrong because he doesn't account for the degree of the infraction - is it likely to directly affect the score/result? - and whether the penalty to the guilty player/team is of a similar degree - if it is likely to affect the score, does the penalty/reward adequately redress that affect?

Giving possession of the ball to the opposing team when it’s kicked out of bounds in soccer seems like a totally appropriate response - the team awarded the throw, by virtue of gaining possession, has almost certainly improved their chances of scoring. A quick look at the World Cup stats tells me that teams typically turn the ball over about 150 times per game - and if they're averaging about 1.5 goals per game, that means they only score on about 1% of their possessions - so we're talking about an improvement in scoring likelihood, in most cases, that's under 1%. Conversely, the team that committed the infraction has taken a small penalty - not a significant one, given how easily and often the ball is turned-over in soccer, (and even only 70% of throw-ins are successfully corralled by the team throwing the ball in) but it wasn't a significant infraction in the first place.

But the 'penalty' against Suarez, and the kick awarded to Ghana, doesn't make sense when we apply the exact same logic. While the illegal stop was made against a ball that was 100% likely to score, the 'penalty' given to Paraguay was a penalty kick for Ghana that’s only about 80% likely to score. That's a huge difference - clearly, since it led to Ghana's eventual elimination - and should be an obvious indication that the penalty is not appropriate to the infraction. To say that Ghana was 'awarded' a penalty kick or that Paraguay was 'penalized' is euphemistic, at best - in taking a 20% hit to their chance of scoring, Ghana was effectively penalized for Paraguay's cheat. That's just twisted.

Quick update: FIFA has apparently said that they won't review this rule, which is asinine. But they will review goal-line technology of the sort that would have awarded a goal to England when they were eliminated by Germany. One has to wonder whether the rule would be reviewed if Ghana and England were each in the other's position, and England had lost certain victory due to a handball...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Gandhi and 'Terrorism and Espionage'

I wrote just a short while ago about how media coverage in the lead-up to the G20 had likened protesters to animals, non-Torontonians, and, just generally, the Other. I didn't write about it on my blog, but I also noted on Facebook that CTV news used the descriptor "known activist" in a clearly pejorative way, as if it meant the same thing as "terrorist".

But this isn't exactly new or unique and news media is just reflecting wider-held attitudes. Case in point: my friend Sue was at a bookstore - Chapters, at Richmond and John in Toronto - and was looking at their 'Terrorism and Espionage' section. She found Che there, which is unsurprising given his violent opposition to American-backed dictatorships - he fits, and is maybe even a model for, Western images of what a terrorist looks and acts like.

A bit more surprising was Frantz Fanon, who is implicated, I guess, because of his writing on decolonization and his association with the revolution in Algeria. (But Fanon is still primarily a theorist, a thinker and writer - not a revolutionary leader or guerilla-figher like Che. One wonders why Marx doesn't somehow make it into this section, too.) Clearly, though, there's evidence here of a major slippage between a particular sort of revolutionary and terrorism. And to the extent that a difference exists at all, then these guys end up in this section because they're not white and their interests are opposed to those of capitalism.

Because, certainly, the grounds for making it into this section had nothing to do with the advocacy and/or exercise of violence - how else to explain why and how Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were included in the 'Terrorism and Espionage' section? Seriously. Are there any more famous activists than these two? And they're catalogued under the heading of 'terrorism'? And do we need any further evidence that activism - especially non-white activists - and terrorism are being effectively collapsed into a single entity?

It's no wonder that the casual public has so little sympathy for activists who take their cause to the streets, and for the hundreds of activists who were beat up and jailed by police during G20, only to be released without charge. They were terrorists, after all, weren't they?