Conventional Assessments

I love discussing movies and books with other critical viewers/readers. You know, the conversations that go beyond “I loved that movie, it was so cool!” There’s nothing wrong with that…I just like to know why I liked something, and to have conversations with others about those reasons.

Last night, some family members watched Beastly at Karen’s recommendation. As Karen was out of town for most of the weekend, they talked to me last night about their reactions in light of the fact that it had been loaned to them on such high recommendation by both Karen and myself.

They weren’t impressed.

Now, I would need to go back and re-watch the film to see their criticism in context, but they had really good feedback on the writing, acting, directing, and even lighting. They didn’t just not like the movie, they had very good reasons for not liking the movie. I really appreciated that, because, while there is a lot of art out there of all mediums that’s just inherently bad by any standard of quality, a lot of it comes down to one’s preferences and personality, just as the creation of the art did in the first place.

Our conversation turned to the conventions of certain genres. The big difference in my viewing of Beastly was that it had already been framed for me as a YA fairy tale adaptation. The family who watched it last night came from a completely different starting point: they hadn’t had it framed it at all, they were just watching it as they would any other film. Mind you, that doesn’t detract from or negate any of their excellent criticism, but I think that conventions are an important thing.

For example, when I watched I Am Number Four, I was far from impressed for the first quarter of the movie. Then, I recognized that it was essentially a YA novel on film, and this changed my response to it much for the better. When art is intentionally produced within a certain genre, there are conventions that it tends to follow as a result. We can argue that those conventions, or even the genre itself, can limit that art, but I think that’s a bit of a self-defeating conversation. Whatever the case, though, when a work intentionally belongs to a certain genre, we shouldn’t expect more of it than it is. Once I appreciated I Am Number Four for what it was, I was impressed with the movie, because the things that make a good YA story don’t make a good mystery, for example…and vice versa.

I think that, for that reason, I overlooked many of the things that were critiqued about Beastly last night when I watched the movie. Had I expected the movie to be a fine art film, or the equivalent of a literary novel, then I would have been disappointed. I knew, though, that fairy tales tend to follow certain conventions, and I see those elements as a strength instead of a detractor.

I’m just as likely to read Tolstoy or Salinger as I am a good science fiction novel, and I appreciate them both for what they are. Were I to expect one to be the other, I would be disappointed. Yet, there are still certain markers of quality writing that should belong to both, and the same is true of film: if something is badly acted or directed or lit, then genre doesn’t matter. The craft needed to be improved.

I think I’ll go back and re-watch Beastly soon with their recent comments in mind, because I don’t want to be blind to poor craft in the name of genre.

Do you like genre stories? Are you willing to accept certain conventions within the genre that would otherwise turn you away in a book or a film?

A Review of Batgirl, Issue 0

This month, DC Comics took a break from the recently concluded inaugural story arcs of the New 52 and finished the relaunch’s first year with an issue number 0 for each continuing title. Honestly, I had sort of disregarded these issues because they were advertised as essentially being a re-visit of the origin stories of the different characters, and, as important as this can be to new readers, I’m really over the trend of telling a hero’s origin story for the millionth time.

Out of curiosity, though, I picked up the 0 issue of Batgirl over the weekend, just because its one of the three or four titles to which I’m fiercely loyal. Ever since Gail Simone has been at the helm writing the Batgirl story arcs, the title has been nothing short of phenomenal, and I should have expected nothing less from issue 0.

I should mention that spoilers follow.

The issue picks up with Barbara Gordon as a high school student taking advantage of her father’s position as commissioner to conduct interviews around the Gotham police station, her little brother in tow. Simone does an excellent job of hinting at the early stages of development in the character of the brother, which had already been revealed at some level earlier in the year…just enough to round out the realism of this issue without over-taking Barbara as the main character. Of course, a serial killer is in the police station, and his gang of thugs attempt to break him free by bombing the station and attacking full out with big weapons. In the melee, Barbara is left to fend off the killer by herself, motivated by the desire to protect her brother. In the process, she dons a mock-up costume of Batman, and finds herself freed and unencumbered to use her self-defense skills with violent precision against their attacker…earning praise from Batman himself in the end.

What’s fascinating about this issue is Barbara’s description of her officially joining the Bat family as the best year of her life. Several panels briefly outline some of the adventures she took with Batman and Robin over that year, fighting villains and defending Gotham from those that would over-take it with evil. She describes, in flashback sequence, the darkness into which they ran, and, in a particularly moving line, describes the three of them as “twisted moths,” unable to stay away from that darkness.

Eventually, Barbara chose to leave it, but speaks of missing the adrenaline rush that she experienced during her crime-fighting adventures. Still, she chooses to devote herself to her studies in an attempt to better the world without stepping into the darkness…until, at the end of the issue, the darkness finds her again, and we are brought full-circle to the events preceding issue 1 a year ago.

This issue develops Barbara Gordon’s character thoroughly. We see her acting upon her desire to do good for others, displaying the nature of a hero in using her abilities for good rather than evil. What’s most interesting, though, is her humanity. Part of what motivated her to adopt the guise of the Batgirl was selfish…the rush of excitement. This led her to voluntarily step into darkness and evil that others would not face in order to beat it back, until she could no longer take it. When, however, she is forced to confront this evil again in the end, she rises to the challenge, again in order to protect others as much as to prove to herself that she can.

Batgirl issue 0 gives us the backstory of what makes Barbara Gordon a hero, complete with the very normal shortcomings that she must overcome in order to serve others. I love the character even more than I did before, and I’m so glad that I paused to take this one off the shelf this weekend.

What’s In A Name?

There are weeks in which your to-do list gets the better of you. Then there are weeks in which you don’t deal with your to-do list because you’re actually too busy with everything else. This week has been the latter. I started classes on Monday and a new position on Wednesday evening, and things have been a bit of whirlwind since.

Last weekend though, Karen and I were out of town with family, and I managed to steal some excellent and uninterrupted writing time. The end result was that I finished writing the middle section of Part II of my novel-in-progress. That means that I have the final section to outline, and then only about 100 pages or so should be standing between me and a finished rough draft. I’m pretty happy about that. It feels quite nice to write that, actually, and I think I’m going to post more frequent updates here to mark my progress.

All that said, as I reviewed my writing to-do list for the week (none of which had gotten accomplished, of course…it seems to come in waves and leave just as quickly, this progress thing), one of the items was to re-evaluate the name of my protagonist.

That’s sort of a big deal.

Sometimes, us writerly types choose names for our characters carefully and methodically. Other times, the character sort of comes into existence in our heads complete with name and all. This particular character was just that way, and I’ve never even considered giving her a different name. The issue is that, apparently, it’s taken. I discovered a few months ago that a certain extremely popular novel that was recently made into an extremely popular film stars a major character with this same name. I had never read the book nor seen the film, as they aren’t really my style, so I was quite surprised. The name, you see, isn’t at all a common one.

So, my concern is this: will someone reading my novel after publication encounter this character literally on page 1, and think that I’ve copied her from a book I’ve never read, or a movie I’ve never seen? Or will they think that I’ve copied the name simply to gain a readership? Will they think that I’ve copied the name at all, or will they just roll with it? A name, after all, is never really original.

I’ve looked through some alternate names, but nothing has really connected with me, because, as I’ve gotten to know the character, naming her something else just seems to be forced. Not naming her something else, though, seems logistically problematic.

So, what would you do? Leave your character with the name with which she appeared, or arbitrarily change her name to something that may at least be close? I’m really stuck on this one. Any thoughts are appreciated.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

I had design professor in college for several different theatre courses. I have no idea what happened to him, as attempts to re-establish contact in recent years has been unsuccessful for me. What I will always remember him for, though, is a phrase that he used to toss around the scene shop: “You have to have the right tool for the right job!”

It’s a phrase that I’ve found myself repeating many times since then.

I think that we’ve always been fascinated with our tools. My father’s “man cave” was a wood shop that he kept in a separate, detached building from our home. He would retreat there to work on his various projects. I actually never understood why he didn’t sell them on a larger scale, because he could certainly have made some income with his talent. His shop, though, was loaded: saws, drills, hammers…all of the fun tools that you would expect in a shop, and not at all dissimilar from when I would be constructing sets in the scene shop. It goes without saying, I think, that when my dad had disposable income laying around for his hobby, it went to tools.

While I’m not in any way gifted at sculpting things out of wood as my father did, I need various tools with which to craft words, or write code. Whenever Karen and I have a disagreement over disposable income (including whether or not such a category exists for us on a given month), it frequently arises over my desire for a new tool: a new iPad, the most recent operating system, a new piece of software, etc. These tools consistently make my work easier and more productive, but my tastes frequently are bigger than our bank account.

The issue with tools is that, if I’m to generalize any sort of example from myself, we can often become caught up in the shiny news toys to the point of distracting ourselves from the project that we might be using them to accomplish.

Don’t tell her I said this, but I think that Karen’s reluctance to try new tools because the learning curve for them actually distracts from her productivity more than staying with an older system that she already knows, may be wise.

When I remember my dad’s wood shop, I can remember at least two or three items knocking around out there that received minimal use. I’m sure my bag of technological toys has a couple of those as well. Certainly, I’ve even loaded up our kitchen in the past with gifts for Karen’s culinary genius that have gone largely un-used.

Perhaps there’s a lot to be said for creatively finding ways to accomplish the task at hand, rather than over-equipping our arsenal of tricks with which to accomplish them. Perhaps we can accelerate our productivity to the point of being unproductive.

What do you think?

Capturing…and Editing…the Moments

Photography is one of those things that I’ve always wished that I had an eye for, but just don’t. When Karen and I visit art galleries, I tend to be drawn to the photography exhibits more than many others. There’s something about capturing real life as it transpires: the hope and pain in people’s faces, the tragedy and comedy of the play of life immortalized in picture. I love seeing the composition that my photographer friends place in their gorgeous images. I love how they transform certain moments by rendering them in black and white. The humanity captured through photography is so evocative.

I guess that’s why I don’t understand the trends I see in my Google + stream, or on Flickr, or on various other social media, in altering digital photographs in such a way that the colors are far too vibrant, far too “touched up” to be real. I see many photographs, and I feel as though I’m watching a classic film suddenly rendered in technicolor.

I’m not against editing photographs. I love the ability that technology has given us to improve our photos. I have forgotten what it was like to not be able to take three shots and choose the one that I want to keep on the spot, or to not be able to deal with red-eye later and save what would otherwise have been a glaring blemish in a photo of a family member or loved one. And all I use is iPhoto.

It’s when a landscape of an exotic location, for example, appears to have been suspiciously optimized for a retina display in a way that real life simply cannot appear, that I have a problem. Are we culturally so given to altering the aesthetics of our natural environment so as to “improve” it that we no longer want to view our landscapes as they really are?

I’m walking in slightly risky territory here, as I’m discussing medium in which I have no ability at all. I just think that there’s a difference between placing a creative lens on immanent beauty, and altering that beauty to something that we perceive as more beautiful.