Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thor: Grade "C", but the Destroyer is "A+"

Last weekend, while Mock’ was having a girls’ night, I called up my friend All-But-Dissertation (ABD), and we headed out to the movies to see Thor. Now, I’ve been a Thor fan for many years, particularly of the Walter Simonson years, and may actually have squealed a little back in 2007 when Marvel asked J. Michael Straczynski to head up their Thor reboot. Over the next two years, Straczynski would put the God back in the God of Thunder in a big way and thus make my Geek Guy fan-love for him eternal. (I’m kidding. He had me at “I was there, at the dawn of the Third Age of mankind…”) Furthermore, my interest in the Thor comics grew out of an even earlier interest in Norse mythology, so I walked into the theater last Saturday already primed to dislike the film, as both mythology and the comic’s narrative history would undoubtedly be “Hollywoodized.”

Nor was I wrong. In the end I gave the film a “C.” ABD, on the other hand, who is not familiar with either the comic or Norse mythology, gave it a “B” to “B-.” Judging from the box office numbers, his reaction is closer to the norm, and my letter-grade difference can no doubt be mostly chalked up to everything I brought into the theater with me. Mostly. I was both delighted and a bit appalled to see Straczynski get writing credit on the film. Delighted because it’s always great to see such a good writer getting some big-bucks, big-film exposure, and appalled, because this Thor was so NOT Straczynski’s Thor. Turns out Straczynski was involved in the writing in a very early stage, breaking and outlining the story, and only sought screen credit at the behest of the other writers on the film. This reassures me somewhat, and it was nice to see him get a bit of a cameo in the film too!

However, I have some real problems with Thor. First and foremost, there seemed to be an almost desperate haste to reassure the audience that the Asgardians were most definitely not gods, and never thought of themselves that way, but instead were just some type of humanoid, Viking-esque, technomagically advanced alien race, who had only associated with humanity in order to fight off the evil frost giants who, for reasons left unexplained (lebensraum?) were intent on turning the Earth into Hoth. So don’t worry, Jesus, they’re not Gods, just aliens, and everyone knows those don’t exist. (Please come to see the film! It’s inoffensive! We promise! Please?)

Okay, so Hollywood is running scared of declining box-office numbers and thus becomes a complete wuss when it comes to summer “blockbusters” in order to maximize audience numbers by trying to offend no one. I get that. It’s idiocy, but I get it. What I don’t get is why Natalie Portman has apparently decided to stop playing strong female characters altogether. Portman plays Jane Foster, who in this version has gone from nurse to brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and who comes completely unglued with one look into Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) blue eyes and proceeds to fulfill every trope and clichéd stereotype of the Hero’s Love Interest and Hapless Female up to and including being a woman who can’t drive well! Seriously, Foster as Woman Driver is a recurring gag throughout the film. Portman’s character is about as two dimensional as you can get, and was obviously written to be that way, with the glaring exception of a pair of false eyelashes that seem to leap off of the screen, even in the 2D version we were watching. Of course, the magically scientific Asgardians are no better. At the end of the film, when Thor has destroyed Bifrost, the magic wormhole generator that connects Asgard with Earth, the Asgardians, Odin included, have apparently thrown away the blueprints and forgotten how they built the damn thing in the first place, so they are left waiting for Foster to figure out how to recreate their connection with Earth, which she is striving to do out of her boundless love of Thor. Apparently, with tall, blonde, and blue-eyed off the planet, Foster is able to revert from dewy-eyed ingénue to dedicated genius physicist. But only to get her sweetie back, and then, I’m sure, he can take charge again.

The Marvel movies have not done well by their women characters thus far, and the trend is continuing. Which is odd since Straczynski did a phenomenal job in making both Spiderman’s Mary Jane (and a kick ass Aunt May) and Thor’s Jane Foster into strong, independent, three-dimensional characters during his run on the comics. I guess comic book readers are better able to handle strong women than move-goers in America.

In spite of all of this, Thor has some good stuff. Asgard is beautifully rendered as the ultimate science-fantasy city, the power of Thor is well done, and the story of a vain, powerful, o’erweeningly prideful prince learning humility and responsibility (Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V anyone? Now you know why Branagh.) is well done, if somewhat predictable, and the Destroyer is absolutely perfect. In fact, the Destroyer is the best part of the film, and was the one point that got my heart beating in sheer joy at seeing a piece of my childhood really come to life on the big screen. I mean that thing was AWSOME!!! Even the sound effects of its blasts were exactly right, a sense-blotting KRAK! that obliterated every other sound in the scene. This was by far the best job of bringing a Marvel bad-guy to the screen that I've yet seen.

Perhaps because the Destroyer device/creature steps onto the screen straight off the comic-page without adulteration, updating, or re-imagining. Hummm...

There’s a lesson in that Hollywood. Pay attention.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Old Seed, New Breed

I am a feminist. This means that I recognize the fact that women are 100% complete, real-live human beings in and of themselves, and need no type of male validation, permission, etc to enable them to achieve this status. Furthermore, this means that any and all social, cultural, religious, political, economic, and military structures which fail to recognize this simple fact, and continue to treat women as inferior based solely upon their gender, are deeply flawed and must be reexamined and reformed for the betterment of human society as a whole.

Recently, I’ve been following the debate surrounding a form of feminist activism called a SlutWalk. My purpose here isn’t to join in this debate directly (the best overview of which can be found here), but to address the core issue involved, which is violence against women, and particularly sexual violence against women. Currently it is estimated that 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, and that 80% of those assaults will be committed by someone the women knows. I browsed about the interwebs checking this statistic, and found it to be accepted by multiple sources. (For a quick, well documented breakdown of this and other stats, check out this PDF from the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence). This, Readers Mine, is unacceptable. Note that these statistics apply to the United States alone, not the world, and not an undeveloped, violence-wracked nation teetering on anarchy, and the numbers become an abomination.

The people committing these crimes are overwhelmingly men, so it follows that the problem must be addressed in the way men are raised and educated in our culture. Radical feminists often argue for the total abolition of patriarchal social structures, but I believe that a few very specific elements of that socialization are worth retaining. For the case in point, the traditional injunction to males from earliest childhood on that a man must never hit a woman and that such an act is unconscionable by any decent male. (I will insert a caveat here that any woman who is intent on causing grievous bodily harm to another person leaves herself open to preventative and defensive violence as defined under the social and legal codes of self-defense and defense of others, as does any other human being.) This injunction against violence towards women is deeply rooted in the patriarchal system, and in ideas of women as the lesser, weaker sex. However, it seems to me that it can be divorced from these roots and retained as a valuable tool of socialization.

This code of non-violence towards women was a part of my upbringing and was given to me largely by my father, the core being that good men, decent men, don’t hit women, and furthermore, they do not sit idly by while bad, indecent men do so. Indeed, a good man is almost always obligated to intervene in such cases. I’m not saying that women can’t take care of themselves in a physical conflict. I know better. What I am saying is that it is up to men to create a culture in which violence against women is taboo, and punished by severe sanctions, particularly cultural, extra-legal sanctions administered by the larger male culture itself. The instillation of non-violence towards women can begin at an extremely early age, and I believe, lays the groundwork for a later enlargement of the principle as the adolescent male develops sexually which defines unwanted sexual acts against women as violent and therefore taboo as well.

Note that there are two vital elements in this process: instilling the belief that physical violence directed against women is wrong, and that unwanted sexual acts of any type towards women are a form of physical violence, and therefore just as wrong.

Will teaching male children not to hit girls/women eliminate sexual violence against women? Sadly, no. In addition, there are other, non-physical forms of violence used by men against women, which can be equally as devastating as physical/sexual violence, and which are beyond the reach of this particular process of socialization. Nonetheless, will it help? Hell yes. Our social and cultural ethics are created early on. We must begin to teach male children that violence against women in all forms is just plain wrong, wholly unacceptable, and is only practiced by degenerates who may be male but will never be men. Further, we must teach them that it is the duty of all good men to stop and punish the perpetrators of violence against women and so begin to create a new masculine culture in which such violence is properly viewed as the abomination that it is.

“Remember Johnny, you must never hit a girl. Ever. Good boys never hit girls.” Small seeds, big frellin' trees.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

PCAS/San Antonio Wrap Up

Okay, Readers Mine, with exams knocked out it’s time to finish up my San Antonio Tales. Saturday, our final full day, was not so much about the conference as it was about getting out and playing tourist in San Antonio. To which end we linked up with a couple of friends who’d driven out from Huston and set out to do the town, starting in the logical place:

The Alamo. Which is right downtown among a lovely series of public spaces and parks, where San Antonio was hosting a celebration of Turkish food and culture all day, complete with kebabs, dancers, music, and fezzes. Unfortunately we just didn’t have time to dive into that, but it was an interesting admixture to the day. For months before the trip every time I would say that we were going to San Antonio, I’d be asked if we were going to see the Alamo, and when I replied in the affirmative I’d get some variation on “Well, don’t be disappointed. It’s really small.” Actually, it’s not. First there’s this huge neo-socialist realistic monument in the middle of the street across from the mission that is anything but small. The surviving building, the mission church itself, is no Notre Dame de Paris, but it’s not exactly an outhouse either. Near this are the surviving Long Barracks were the Texians and their fellows made their last, hand to hand, stand, and between is a beautiful, cool, and shady park dominated by an ancient live oak that spreads its twisting limbs over something like half a city block. Now, maybe people are referring to the fact that the structures which have survived since 1836 comprise only a small portion of the original structures within the Alamo’s walls, but I have to say that overall the Alamo is one of the most beautiful, well maintained, pleasantly informative historic sites I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. Plus, you get a deep cut from Phil Collins, who turns out to be the world’s #1 collector of Alamo relics and a long time supporter of the historic site (pictured above in his Geneva home with some of his Alamo memorabilia). He even narrates the voice-over for the diorama re-enactment in the History Store which sits atop the active archaeological dig, and provides visitors with a look at the actual dig and the artifacts found there. One note I will make is that, when you go buy the audio guide for the mission church and gardens, but don’t bother with it once you get into the Long Barracks, the historians and Daughters of the Republic of Texas who have overseen the site since the early 1900s, have provided comprehensive historical displays and readings that far outstrip the audio-tour’s narration (NOT done by Phil Collins), and you get to the point where you can read faster than the guy on the audio tour talks. All in all it was a really fun day for a total of $11/person.

The Original Mexican Restaurant was next on the agenda, since walking about the Alamo for several hours can bring on an appetite. The Original Mexican Restaurant solved this dilemma with some fantastic Tex-Mex cuisine. I recommend the Chiles Rellenos, and if you don’t try the fresh guacamole, particularly on a hot San Antonio day, you have made a grave error, and missed something special. The restaurant is right on the river-walk, and for those looking for a bit of a break from the heat is nicely air-conditioned inside.

The Mercado. After being revived with great food, we hopped one of San Antonio’s trolleys and headed out to the Market Square, or Mercado, a several block square collection of shops and restaurants, where is stocked a truly astounding quantity of Mexican imports, up to and including Mexican Wrestling masks! Much fun was had tracking down souvenir gifts to take back to family, friends, and dog sitters, while Mock’ managed to find one or two things for us as well.

Clash of the Titans (1981). Finally, after returning to the hotel for a nap we rejoined our friends and set out for the PCAS/ACA Science Fiction Area’s annual Saturday night movie and raffle, where Mock and I sat in the back and snarked through the film a la MST3K, much to the delight of our seat-mates, fortunately. Still, how can you resist poking fun of a film that includes Laurence Oliver as Zeus, Burgess Meredith as the plucky theater owner, and Harry frakkin’ Hamlin as the hero Perseus? Release the Kraken!!!

Afterwards we bid our friends goodbye all prepared to return to their various homes and schools across the country and in Canada, and, truth to tell, I think everyone was ready. The conference was a huge success, and massive fun, but it takes a little out of you, for sure. Still, I’d go again in a heartbeat, and I can unreservedly recommend San Antonio to anyone as an absolutely lovely, fun city to play around in.