Let’s Watch All the Teenagers Get Killed, or The Hunger Games vs. The Cabin in the Woods (SPOILERS!)

•April 15, 2012 • 6 Comments

I just got back from watching The Cabin in the Woods. It’s the kind of film where while you’re watching it, you’re just having fun, but then afterwards when you start thinking about it you start to realize just how clever it really was (needless to say, I liked it). So I’m going to ramble a bit.

[you are now entering into spoiler territory]

Now, if you’ve seen the trailers you’ve probably already noticed the similarities to The Hunger Games, and having seen the film the similarities are actually even stronger. You’ve got a bunch of teens sent to an “arena” as a “tribute” to be killed off where a bunch of guys in suits manipulate their surroundings until there is only one survivor. These proceedings are captured on camera and are a source of entertainment for the viewers. Please note, I’m not saying that Cabin copied The Hunger Games, especially since the film has been completed since 2009. It’s just coincidence that the two films came out so close to one another. What I find interesting is that I think Cabin in the Woods succeeded where Hunger Games failed.

Hunger_Games_Poster_Groupvs.cd5cc280457c21e8f0aa55de52c964ebdf0bdf9e-the-cabin-in-the-woods02-1024x819

Let me just put it out there that I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon, and not a particularly big fan of Suzanne Collins, so this could all just be a personal prejudice on my part. I’m not so much trying to say that one story is better than the other as much as I’m trying to articulate why one story worked better for me.

Now, I liked The Hunger Games. I read the book and enjoyed it enough to complete the series (which is rare for me nowadays), and I thought that the film did an excellent job of adapting the book for the screen. However, I’ve never thought it was good enough to deserve all the hype. Maybe if I read it again I’ll think differently, but I just found it a very difficult story to connect to. I couldn’t really relate to the characters, I had this weird problem of never being able to tell where the characters were in space, I never got a good feel for the history, geography, or technological capabilities of the world, and I felt like the very concept of having an annual Hunger Games needed a lot more backstory to justify it, which we never got. I’ve never been able to articulate this until after seeing Cabin, but I think it also bugged me that while Hunger Games is a smart story, it isn’t a particularly clever story. So, basically, I thought The Hunger Games was a compelling story with an interesting premise that should have come through a lot more clearly than it did.

That is perhaps one advantage that Cabin in the Woods has over The Hunger Games right away: it knows exactly what it wants to be. It is a horror film about horror films. It is working with specific genre conventions, not just because it is a part of the genre, but because that’s what the story is about. Contrast that to Hunger Games which is… what? Science fiction? Futuristic fiction? Fantasy? I don’t really know how to define it, and because of that I always felt a bit lost in the story. I have no problem with stories that combine or transcend genres– in fact I rather like stories that do that—but I think that genres are necessary because the audience needs to be able to situate themselves within the story, and I don’t feel like the Hunger Games’ genre came through clearly enough.

For example, if I had known earlier on that The Hunger Games was science fiction (ish) then I wouldn’t have had my big WTF moment when the muttations showed up. That didn’t surprise me, it made me angry because I felt like Collins was changing the rules on me. I should have known earlier on that the Capitol had the technology capable of doing that (I had the same frustration through most of Mockingjay). Contrast that with Cabin in the Woods, which establishes that it’s a horror film pretty much from the title, and establishes that it’s a fantasy as early as the bird flying into the gridding. Thus when the insanity is unleashed at the end I can be surprised by it without being angered by it.

I could talk a bit about the two stories’ characters and why I thought the characters in Cabin were done better than in Hunger Games, but I almost feel as if that’s not really fair, since I don’t think anybody does characters as well as Joss Whedon (yeah, yeah, I’m a fangirl, get over it). So I’ll move on to comparing the stories’ premises, and how they function as a metaphor.

The Hunger Games, as I understand it, is a commentary on social dominance and power structures and a critique of the crassness of our entertainment. It does a pretty good job of making these points (probably even better than I realize. I haven’t looked at very much commentary), but I think it stumbles a bit in some areas. First, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that even the more wealthy and powerful districts have to provide tributes. Even if Districts 1 and 2 benefit from being part of Panem, and even if tributes from those districts almost always win, they’re still sending at least one child off to die per year. I can’t believe that they waited for Katniss to become a figurehead before rebelling. Maybe there’s a justification for this in the story that I just don’t remember, but I feel like the messages about power get muddied by it.

Cabin in the Woods makes a similar point. You have the bureaucracy controlling and oppressing the kids because they are young and because an even higher power demands it. Their morality is put on the shelf out of fear. And unlike The Hunger Games, once I got to the end of the film, it totally made sense why they would do such a thing—why they felt like they had to keep this oppressive system in place, and also why they were desensitized to its cruelty.

Second, maybe I’m imagining it, but I think Collins is trying to do a meta commentary accusing the audience of being just as crass as those in the Capitol for enjoying a story about kids being murdered. She might have a point, but it doesn’t come through very clearly because I don’t like stories about kids being murdered, I like stories about oppressed people overcoming their oppressors. I was probably least entertained by the story when it was just straight up kids killing each other.

And this is where Cabin really shines. It does the same thing of pointing out how weird and sick it is for people to enjoy watching carnage, but this time the audience can’t argue with it because they’re watching a horror movie. The characters, because they are in a horror film, are being ritually sacrificed to us. Here’s two quotes from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard:

Whedon: “There’s some part of us, some deep, dark, primitive part of us that wants to sacrifice these people onscreen. I wanted to make a movie that explained why. And so it’s been a strange experience because on the one hand, we do straight up horror. We definitely love the genre and the tropes of the genre but at the same time we have a lot of questions about why and where it’s going.”

Goddard: “The horror movie is merely the jumping-off point for the inherent questions about humanity that the genre suggests. Why, as a people, do we feel the need to marginalize, objectify, and destroy youth? And this is not specific to the genre, or movies in general, or our present-day culture. We’ve been doing this to youth since we first began as a people and this question—the question of why—is very much at the heart of Cabin.”

That last comment by Drew Goddard—that this desire for a human sacrifice is a human issue, not just a horror film issue—gets at the heart of my criticism of The Hunger Games. There is so much more that could have or should have been said in the books about why we put up with and even enjoy carnage, but the books (in my reading of them at any rate) only dance around the issue. The Cabin in the Woods takes the issue head on, and I was much more satisfied with the answers it gave.

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On Shanshu

•April 6, 2012 • 2 Comments

I’ve been doing a lot of watching and thinking about Angel recently, and I though I’d weigh in on one of the most central, yet most peculiar elements of the story: the Shanshu Prophecy.

For those who don’t know, the Shanshu Prophecy is a prophecy introduced at the end of Angel Season 1 that says that “the vampire with a soul will play a pivotal role in the apocalypse, and as a reward will become human.” Angel sees the prophecy as his symbolic redemption, and a lot of his efforts after hearing the prophecy are aimed at earning that redemption. It also plays a role in Angel’s relationship with Wolfram & Hart, who want to make sure that when the apocalypse comes, he will be pivotal for their side (the side of evil).

I call the Shanshu Prophecy peculiar for several reasons. Firstly, the very idea that humanity would be a reward is really interesting to me. I can understand that Angel would want to be rid of his inner demon, but it’s not as if humans are any less screwed up or any less in need of forgiveness. That’s even a bit of a theme on Buffy and Angel: that a lot of the time, humans are just as bad if not worse than monsters. It may be that the attraction is less about humanity and more about mortality: the reward is that Angel would be able to die, which brings me to my next point.

I find it interesting that the prophecy comes after Angel has already experienced and rejected humanity. He took back his chance to be a human because he felt like his job was still unfinished, which tells me that the attraction that the prophecy holds for Angel is not the prospect of humanity, but the idea that one day he will be finished: that the higher powers will have officially decided that he’s done enough, that he’s forgiven.

Next, despite the fact that Wolfram & Hart is continually driven by their desire to corrupt Angel because of his role in the prophecy, it becomes less and less relevant to Angel himself. He begins the story searching for redemption, but he becomes more and more convinced that he has done far too much evil to earn his redemption, and that no matter how much good he does, he can never make up for it. He starts helping people just for the sake of helping people: because he can, because it’s right, and because it gives him purpose. (This is a bit of a tangent, but as a Christian, I’m really glad the story went in this direction because I believe that sin is not something that one can “make up for,” or that one can ever succeed in balancing the scales of good and evil. That’s why forgiveness is necessary.) There’s a sort of irony in that the prophecy ends up being W&H’s driving motivation more than it is Angel’s, but that Angel’s driving motivation is W&H.

And then there is the issue that there are two vampires with souls. There is some debate, both within the story and without, about whether the prophecy refers to Angel or Spike. The debate is never resolved within the story, although I would argue that there is a lot more textual evidence tying Angel to the prophecy than Spike. The fans, of course have their own opinions. I’ve heard a lot of arguments from fans saying that Spike deserves to become human more than Angel because A) he wasn’t punished with a soul like Angel was, he fought for it, and therefore he is a better person B) he won the fight for the cup of perpetual Mountain Dew. Personally, I find those arguments to be a total load of crap. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m a big softie when it comes to Angel’s character, but the very idea that Spike deserves humanity more than Angel really ticks me off. I’ve got nothing against Spike, and I think he’s a fabulous character, but if it had turned out that he had been the subject of the prophecy I would have turned off my TV and started writing hate mail to Joss Whedon. Here’s why:

I don’t think that the fact that Spike fought for his soul says as much about him as people would like to think. Don’t get me wrong, it says a lot, but Spike never would have done so if he hadn’t been given the brain chip, which forced him into a position where he could appreciate the value of a soul. That’s not so different from what happened to Angel: both had a moral perspective forced upon them. The way that they acquired their respective souls is not, in and of itself, sufficient evidence to rank their moral characters.

You might still be able to make a decent argument that Spike is a better person than Angel at his core, but I don’t think it’s a logical leap to say that therefore Spike is more deserving or more admirable than Angel. For me, it is not a question of “Who are they” as much as “Who do they become?” (or perhaps not “how do they get their souls?” but “what do they do with them?”) The man that Angel becomes is far nobler, gives far more, and cares far more than Spike, which is all the more impressive if he doesn’t have the same quality of raw material (so to speak) that Spike does. Angel actively fights to be a better person, whereas Spike just evolves.

As for the argument that Spike deserves the Shanshu because he won the fight for the cup… umm… it wasn’t real. It didn’t actually mean anything. Maybe he wanted it more (although even Spike admits that he doesn’t really want it as much as that he just doesn’t want Angel to have it), and maybe he fought better, but are those really enough to say he deserves it? I don’t think so.

Spike fought for a soul, and was rewarded with a soul. He never fought for redemption. Angel didn’t fight for a soul, but he did fight for redemption. Why should Spike get what Angel fought for?

But even more fundamentally than all that, neither Angel nor Spike deserve to Shanshu. It’s a gift. It might be an earned gift, but it’s not something that either of them can ever be worthy of.

In a sense, this entire post is made moot by the last episode of Angel, and yet, that is the episode that makes the prophecy the most fascinating to me. Angel gives it up. It never happens. In order to trick the Circle of the Black Thorn into trusting him, he signs it away. Now, I’m not so sure that a prophecy can be undone as easily as that, but the fact that Angel was willing to take that risk in order to go on a kamikaze mission that even he admits has little chance of making a long-term difference says a lot about him. Either he’s completely given up, or he’s a far bigger hero than we ever knew.  Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but I think it’s the second option.

In which I talk about why vids are cool and give a shameless plug.

•February 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Soooo…. Hi. I’ll get the obligatory “I’m not actually dead” stuff out of the way right up front: I’m not actually dead. Okie dokie? Moving on.

I seem to find myself between jobs with an alarming amount of regularity, which means that I’ve had a lot of downtime lately. So what have I been doing, you ask? Well, job searching, doing chores, hassling my former employers about giving me the paycheck they owe me, and generally being a worthless slug.

For me, being a worthless slug involves a lot of Youtube.

Now, ever since I first found out about Youtube back in the day I’ve been fascinated with fan-made tribute music videos. You know, the things where fans take footage from a film or TV show, edit the footage, and set it to music. Partly I like them because they’re cool and fun, but they’re also fascinating from a media studies/postmodernist/artistic perspective (not to mention copyright… but I won’t go there). You’re taking two completely separate works of art – the film and the song – and mashing them together to make a completely new work of art that actually functions as commentary on both of the originals, or even uses the originals to bring a message across that the originals didn’t necessarily intend. It’s subversive, creative yet derivative, actually requires a lot of talent, is a fascinating (and new!) use of the medium of film, and I could go on and on, but the point is I really think these videos are cool. Feast your eyes on the following exhibits:

Unnatural Selection – Battlestar Gallactica/Terminator (warning for possibly disturbing content)

Dexter – Seeing Red (Dexter/Brian) (another warning for possibly disturbing content… it’s Dexter for crying out loud)

Lord of the Rings – Watchtower

Doctor Who – In the Skin of the Universe

Whedonverse – If it Gives You Joy

Firefly – Everybody’s Gone to War

River Tam – Fractured

Avatar – End of the Day

Castle – Hardest of Hearts

Harry Potter – No Bravery

That’s just a small sampling of the awesomeness.

So the next step, of course, is to start making them. Now, I tried this a while back with a crappy version of Windows Movie Maker and even crappier footage, and I ended up making a few videos that I was pretty proud of, considering my crappy resources. But the program kept crashing and wasn’t capable of much, my footage looked terrible, and it was a pain in the butt, so I stopped.

Several years, a new computer, and an ill-advised fit of splurging on Sony Vegas later, and I finally end up with the equipment/software that I need, so I’ve been vidding again. Now, so far I’ve only been able to get footage from Angel in a workable format, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on, but I’m sure other fandoms will follow shortly. But Angel is providing pretty sufficient fodder for now, and I’m really enjoying it, and I am ridiculously proud of the videos I’ve made so far.

So I’m sharing. And I’m a total feedback glutton, so let me know what you think.

First, a remake of my first ever video from the WMM days, focused on Angel/us and Cordelia. And I’m going to hope really hard that nobody notices that I spelled Cordy’s name wrong in the intro…

Next, a trailer for the whole series

Then a video focusing on the relationship between Angel and Spike

Then a tribute/character study for Charles Gunn

And finally, a general tribute to the series

I have a few more planned, including character studies for Lorne, Connor, and Wesley, a relationship study for Angel and Cordy, and a few more general vids.

The Long-Awaited Buffy/Angel Rant

•January 6, 2012 • 1 Comment

This topic may seem to be coming somewhat out of the blue, but it has been on my mind a lot lately. I had thought that I would get to this topic with my Angel Investigations posts, but those seem to be on an extended hiatus, so when some of the comments over at Mark Watches Buffy struck the indignation chord I decided it was time to share my thoughts. And I have a lot of thoughts.

angel_and_buffy

The relationship between Buffy and Angel has an almost legendary status among sci-fi/fantasy fans such as myself. It is one of the great tragic love stories of our time, almost Shakespearean in its scope and passion and tragedy, and because of this it seems to be held among many people as a great example of true love, with people saying that Buffy and Angel “belong” together, accept no substitutes, etc.

This attitude makes me want to smack my head into the table. I hate their relationship. Is it true love? Sure. It is passionate? Totally. Is it beautiful and tragic? Heck yes. It is also unhealthy, controlling, and borderline abusive. And just so we’re totally clear on my position here, I blame Buffy for 90% of the problem.

Now, to be fair, I did not experience their story the same way most people did. I saw Angel the Series before seeing Buffy, so I knew of their relationship, but my only experience of the two of them together came from the episodes “I Will Remember You” and “Sanctuary,” which is not the most flattering portrayal of Buffy or of the two of them together. I grew to love the idea of Angel being with Cordelia before seeing him with Buffy (Angel/Cordy was the first romantic relationship that I ever really shipped), and I grew to love Angel’s more fleshed-out character on his own show so that seeing him as a more flattened character on Buffy almost seemed like a regression. So I’m not exactly primed to like them together.

But I also think that seeing who Angel is able to become and the relationships he is able to form away from Buffy before seeing him with her has enabled me to articulate why I think Buffy is bad news. These are my main complaints: vampire denial, idolization, the hot/cold factor, and the sense of entitlement.

It was probably not a good idea for Angel to kiss Buffy before telling her he was a vampire for many reasons, one of which is that she never really seems to be able to get it through her head. Oh, she understands he’s a vampire all right, but either she can’t accept it, or she just wants to forget about it. Every time Angel’s vampirism comes up, Buffy either gets uncomfortable or brushes it off or wishes aloud that things were different. She doesn’t like hearing about Angel’s past murders or his treatment of Drusilla or his relationship with Darla. She’s uncomfortable watching Angel drink blood, or even buying blood, and admits she never really thought about where he gets his food. She forgets that Angel doesn’t have mirrors in his house. She seems to have to remind herself that Angel can’t go out in the daylight, and those reminders are usually accompanied with wishes that he could. She seems weirded out by the age difference and the idea that she will eventually look older than him.

Now, to some extent this is all very understandable. I mean, who really (outside of Twilight and Anne Rice novels) wants their boyfriend to be a vampire? It’s a fairly awkward situation to be in, and one can’t really blame Buffy for wanting things to be different. Except that it means that she is never able to accept Angel for who he is, and by extension she is keeping Angel from accepting himself. Angel is largely defined by his past, his crimes, and his temptations, and so for Buffy to avoid hearing about them like the plague she is removing the possibility of knowing Angel on more than a surface level, and she is also making Angel even more ashamed of who he is (like he really needs that). Buffy is also guaranteeing that she will never be happy with Angel because she will forever be wishing that he were human (more on that later). That’s a pretty crappy relationship right there.

So why did they get together in the first place? Were they drawn to the other’s sparkling personality? Their inner essence? No, because they barely knew one another. Angel fell in love with Buffy before he ever met her by watching her get called. He was inspired by the idea of Buffy, and that idea triggered an inward change, and I think he loved her for instigating that change, but it never really went beyond that until they officially started dating. Similarly, Buffy fell in love with the idea of Angel long before she knew anything about him. He was the mysterious, handsome, strong, information-dispensing guy with an obvious interest in her, and so she returned that interest without knowing anything more. Angel idolizes Buffy as the sweet, innocent-yet-strong Slayer and Buffy idolizes Angel as the hunky romance dude. Now there wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with this if they were able to get past it and know each other on a more personal level, but I’m not convinced that they ever do. They hardly ever talk, and when they do it is more often than not about strategies for taking down some evil-doer, not about each other.

Okay, so their relationship didn’t run very deep, but what they had was good, right? Um, no. Please consider the following from “Reptile Boy”:

Buffy:  (exhales) I-I was... just thinking, wouldn't it be funny some 
time to see each other when it wasn't a blood thing. (smiles briefly) 
Not funny ha, ha.

Angel:  What are you sayin', you wanna have a date?

Buffy:  No.

Angel:  You don't wanna have a date?

Buffy:  Who said 'date'? I-I-I never said 'date'.

Angel:  Right. You just wanna have coffee or somethin'.

Buffy:  Coffee?

Angel:  I knew this was gonna happen.

Buffy:  What? What do you think is happening?

Angel:  You're sixteen years old. I'm two hundred and forty-one.

Buffy:  I've done the math.

Angel:  You don't know what you're doing, you don't know what you 
want...

Buffy:  Oh. No, I, I think I do. I want out of this conversation. 
(starts to walk past him)

Angel:  (bumps into her) Listen, if we date you and I both know one 
thing's gonna lead to another.

Buffy:  One thing already has led to another. You think it's a little 
late to be reading me a warning label?

Angel:  I'm just tryin' to protect you. This could get outta control.

Buffy:  Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?

He grabs her by the shoulders and pulls her closer. She draws a startled 
breath.

Angel:  This isn't some fairy tale. When I kiss you, you don't wake up 
from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.

Buffy:  No. When you kiss me I wanna die.

She pulls herself free and runs off.

[Later……………..]

WILLOW: What happened with Angel?

BUFFY: Nothing. As usual. A whole lot of nothing with Angel.

XANDER: Bummer.

WILLOW: I don’t understand. He likes you. More than likes.

BUFFY: The guy hardly ever says two words to me…

XANDER: Don’t you hate that.

BUFFY: … and he treats me like a child.


[Later………..]

WILLOW :(to Angel) Why do you think she went to that party?

Because you gave her the brush off…

(to Giles)

…and you never let her do anything except work and patrol and – I know she’s the Chosen One but you’re killing her with the pressure, she’s sixteen going on forty –

(to Angel)

— and you, I mean you’re gonna live forever, you don’t have time for a cup of coffee?


[Later…..]

ANGEL: I hear this place serves coffee. Thought maybe you and I should get some…

(nothing from Buffy)

…sometime.

(nothing from Buffy)

If you want.

Buffy considers him for a long moment, then:

BUFFY: Yeah.

Angel brightens.

BUFFY (cont’d): Sometime. I’ll let you know.

And she gets up and goes. Xander, Willow, Angel stare at her departing back.

It’s possible that I’m just especially dense, but I truly do not understand Buffy’s position here. She wants some ill-defined thing to happen with Angel, but balks when he suggests going out for coffee, then she tries to run away from talking about their relationship, then she as much as professes her love for him, then she does run away, then she complains that nothing happened with Angel, causing Willow to yell at Angel for not asking her out for coffee, then when he does ask her out for coffee she brushes him off and walks away again, and somehow this is all perceived as a great step forward in their relationship. That’s ridiculous. She does have a legitimate complaint about Angel treating her like a child, but, frankly, she’s acting like one. And this is just one example. I truly cannot tell if Buffy is really that hot and cold or if she just enjoys stringing Angel along, but her treatment of him is so wildly inconsistent that I’m surprised she doesn’t drive him crazy.

Which brings me to my final complaint: their relationship is entirely Buffy-centric. Admittedly, it is her show, so it is to be expected to some degree, and this is something that is true in many areas of Buffy’s life, not merely her relationship with Angel, but it makes for an extraordinarily crappy relationship. When do they ever discuss what is happening in Angel’s life? When does Buffy ever ask what Angel wants? When does Angel ever refuse Buffy anything? Angel seems to exist to do Buffy’s bidding (seriously, does he have a job? how does he pay for his apartment?), and Buffy is perfectly willing to take advantage of that. Why? because she is the Slayer, so that makes her the all-entitled one. So, okay, Buffy does have special needs and she is the leader of the evil-fighting brigade, so it makes sense that Angel would follow her orders when it comes to monster fighting, but it truly disturbs me that she carries that sense of entitlement over into their romance. Consider this dialogue from “I Will Remember You” that takes place soon after Angel has been made human:

Angel:  "It would be smart to wait a while.  See if this mortal thing takes."

Buffy:  "Exactly.  And even if it does, it’s still complicated."

Angel:  "You’re still the Slayer.  And I’m not sure what I am now.  I don’t know what my purpose is.  I can’t just wedge myself into your life back in Sunnydale.  It wouldn’t be good for either of us.  Not to mention the fact that you just started college.  And what about slaying?  I mean, if you had me to worry about, you might not be as focused."

Buffy:  "Are you going to pull out a pie chart on me now?  Because I get it, it’s not necessary."

Angel gets up with a sigh and moves to the chair next to her:  "I’m not saying I don’t want you.  You know how much..  I’m just saying it’s worth the wait to be sure this is right.  I need to be sure you won’t get hurt again."

Buffy gets up:  "You know it’s a good thing I didn’t fantasize about you turning human only about 10 zillion times, because today would have been a real let down.

Okay, so a vampire of 240+ years, with whom you are in love, gets made human, which is something you know he has wanted for decades. First logical reaction… complain that it isn’t living up to your expectations? Buffy, dear, let me say this as clearly as I can: THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU! It is not your dream that has just come true. It is not your desperately-sought redemption that has just been achieved. It is not your future that has been forever changed. What right do you have to be thinking about yourself at this moment? Does it affect you? Sure. But the fact that you had dreamed about Angel turning human for your own sake, rather than for his, shows that you have got some really screwy priorities. Again, unfortunately, this is just one of many examples.

People talk about Buffy and Angel’s relationship as being a “doomed romance,” but they say so primarily because of the curse. It think it would have been doomed even without the curse. I simply cannot envision a scenario in which these two maintain a long-term, healthy relationship. Now don’t get me wrong—there were good elements to their relationship, and I think they truly did love one another, but it was such a warped and unbalanced love that it was bound to fall apart.

Here endeth the rant.

So, apparently I’m a Slytherin…

•September 10, 2011 • 7 Comments

For those of you who have been living under a rock or who just don’t care about these things (in which case, why are you reading this blog? Not that I’m not glad to have you…), J.K. Rowling is in the process of unveiling her new website Pottermore. It won’t be open to the public until October, but a few people have been given early beta access, and I, being weird and obsessive, stayed up until 3 in the morning to find and levitate the magic quill (which was surprisingly hard, by the way) and *voila* I got beta access and got in a few days ago. So the idea is that you go through these “moments” form the Harry Potter books, and in each moment you can explore characters, creatures, spells, etc., you can learn to cast spells and brew potions, you can collect items for your trunk, you can buy stuff in Diagon Alley, etc. It’s actually quite fun. You also get chosen by a wand (mine is black walnut and dragon heartstring, 13 inches, hard) and get sorted into your house. Now, I have always identified most closely with Ravenclaw: I’m a total nerd, I like knowledge for its own sake, I’m obsessive, I like solving puzzles, I’m a bit of a loner. I’m basically your quintessential Ravencalw, right? So imagine my surprise when the Sorting Hat puts me in Slytherin.

Slytherincrest

Now, I’ve never been one of those people who thinks all Slytherins are evil and should be kicked out of Hogwarts, but I’ve never really liked them, either. So, my sorting has inspired a bit of soul-searching.

I could go into a little rant here about virtues and how all virtues have the potential to be abused and turned into vices, and how all the Hogwarts houses have their good side and their bad side, and thus Slytherin’s crappy reputation is not entirely fair, blah blah. But plenty of people have done that already (I present exhibit A and exhibit B). Instead I’d like to look at why Slytherins are viewed to be bad in the first place, how that affects the moral landscape, and how I might fit into the picture.

Really, it comes down to perspective. We see the story through Harry’s eyes, and Harry has had a few bad experiences with Slytherins even before coming to Hogwarts, he gets a highly biased summery of the houses from Hagrid, who exaggerates Slytherin’s bad reputation, and then he becomes a Gryffindor, Slytherin’s eternal rival. So, obviously, he’s not going to like Slytherin very much, and by extension neither are we.

The obvious irony is, of course, that Harry very nearly became a Slytherin. The less obvious irony is that Harry’s hatred of Slytherin becomes the very thing he hates them for: prejudice. Harry assumes that Slytherins are pureblood elitists, and he allows that assumption to turn himself into a bit of an elitist: “You’re worth twelve of Malfoy…. The Sorting Hat chose you for Gryffindor, didn’t it? And where’s Malfoy? In stinking Slytherin” (SS p. 218). So, not only is Harry’s criticism of Slytherin inaccurate, it is also hypocritical: Harry made Slytherin into the prejudicial scapegoat, and accused them of scapegoating (which was at least partially true, but still…).

I think that this is deliberate on Rowling’s part. It is a bit of a theme with her that nobody is exempt from prejudice, even if they are fighting against it (Sirius and Kreacher, Dumbledore’s past, Hermione’s misguided assumptions about house-elves, etc.). It also fits in very nicely with her whole postmodern vibe about how perspective skews our relationship to the Other, and the need to understand your enemies. Harry needed to hate Slytherin for thematic purposes, and he also needed to be wrong about that hatred. Harry’s eventual acceptance of Slytherin is the biggest sign of his maturity.

The thing is, although most readers seem to get that Harry was wrong to hate Slytherin, they don’t seem to get that we were wrong, too. We made the same mistake that Harry made, but we don’t seem to have recovered from it the way he did (I include myself in that “we” by the way). Some prejudices are a result of fear, or of misunderstanding, but the prejudices born out of “righteous” anger may be the hardest to purge because we think ourselves moral for holding those prejudices, and they may be based in a genuine moral concern. Harry’s hatred of Slytherin wasn’t completely without justification: Slytherins had done some pretty nasty things to him, but his mistake was attributing that nastiness to the whole house.

So what am I, as a brand spankin’ new member of the proud Slytherin house, supposed to do with all of this? Well, I suppose that I should be sure to watch myself to see if my cunning, my ambition, or my resourcefulness are getting out of control or are being directed towards the wrong things, since that seems to be the Slytherins’ weakness. I don’t really see this as a problem, since I don’t see myself as particularly cunning or ambitious (really, why aren’t I in Ravenclaw?), but keeping an eye out for red flags in this area can’t hurt.

Secondly, and more interestingly, being a Slytherin puts me in the position of a disliked and occasionally oppressed minority. This is a new experience for me. I am a middle-class, well-educated, white girl with very little experience of being in the minority or of being oppressed. Being a white person in southwest Houston and being a Christian at UPS might have qualified me as a minority, but neither of those times was I a disliked minority. I suppose that I should take being a Slytherin with a grain of humility, but also that I should refuse to allow the majority to define for me what it means to be a Slytherin.

Now, I am aware that this is all a little bit silly. I know that nobody is actually going to judge me based on Pottermore’s sorting, and that the website doesn’t really define anything about me. But the thing is, that’s what fiction is for, isn’t it? It allows us to put ourselves in a foreign situation, and to use that situation to draw conclusions about the “real” world. So God bless Pottermore, and God bless Slytherin.

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On a related note, I thought I would share an incomplete but very well-done fanfic showing what the harry Potter series could have been like if Harry had been a Slytherin.

Deathly Hallows Part 2: a review

•July 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I’ve gotten tired of apologizing for my long absences on here, so I’m not even going to bother this time, K? Life happened/is happening, and this got left behind. However, an event so momentous has just occurred, and its immensity and relevance have propelled me to come out of hiding to comment on it.

I am talking, of course, about the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

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Much has been said elsewhere about this film marking the end of an era, and to an extent that is true, but the theme park (parks?), Pottermore, and of course, being able to return to the books will I am sure keep the Potter love strong for a long time. Harry Potter is, without a doubt, the work of fiction that means the most to me, but it is perhaps because of that and not in spite of it that I don’t feel any particular sense of loss now that the final film has come out: Harry isn’t going anywhere for me. The momentousness of HP7.2 for me is that it is the adaptation of my all-time favorite book, and that it deals with some of the most iconic and significant scenes of the Potter series.

I saw the film at a midnight showing (after 6 1/2 hours of waiting in line) and just saw it again today, so I think I’ve digested it well enough to comment on it. While I wasn’t as blown out of the water by it as most reviewers seem to have been, I did like it a lot, and I think it is a fitting conclusion to the film franchise.

As someone who is normally very critical of changes made to the story, I was surprised at how not upset I was with the changes. I think David Yates and/or Steve Kloves is very good at making up for changes in ways that actually help tell the story. For example, cutting out Dumbledore’s explanation to Harry about what the remaining Horcruxes were in HBP could have been disastrous, but they made up for it by having Harry “sense” the Horcruxes, which was not only economical, it was also effective foreshadowing, and it didn’t contradict anything fundamental to the story. I liked that. Another example would be how they combined the “Sacking of Severus Snape” with the scene in the Great Hall. Combining those two scenes meant that they didn’t have to waste time getting students out of bed and explaining the situation to them, it meant Harry got to have a confrontation scene with Snape, and it meant that the battle lines were drawn a little sooner and more cinematically. It worked with the story and it helped the film. Most of the changes fell into this category.

The changes I was not happy with were the ones that I felt somehow diminished the story’s message or its thematic impact. The three biggest changes in this category were the King’s Cross scene, Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort, and Harry’s conversation with Ron and Hermione before going into the forest.

King’s Cross in the book is a very long scene, and I totally get why they cut it down so much for the film, but there are several key pieces of information that I think have to come through in that scene that just didn’t. The first is why Harry didn’t die (or hasn’t quite yet). Lily’s sacrifice is the lynchpin of the whole series, and its role in keeping Harry alive here is, I think, crucial, both for plot and thematic reasons. The second is their discussion of Voldemort’s weaknesses. Specifically, I missed this quote: “That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing” (DH 709). Maybe I just like that quote so much that I was just sad not to her it in the film, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that Harry wins not because of luck or skill, but because he is simply a better person and that in the end, Voldemort killed himself, and I’m not just talking about a rebounding death curse.

In regards to Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort, I didn’t mind the bigger build up, the change in location, or the fact that they didn’t have an audience. I minded that they made this moment the climax. In the book, the climax is Harry’s self-sacrifice, and after he comes back from that he has already won—Voldemort just doesn’t know it yet. I understand that the way they did it in the film works better cinematically, and I actually did enjoy the scene, but I think that it lessened the impact and the power of Harry’s sacrifice.

Harry’s conversation with Ron and Hermione (it was mostly Hermione, though, wasn’t it?) was a great little scene, and very moving, but frankly I can’t see them letting him go. Not that easily, anyways.

But all these criticisms are coming from the book fan in me. As a film fan, I really have very little to complain about. There are a few things that I might have been confused about had I not read the books, but nothing too crucial. The acting was great (Dan sure has come a long way, hasn’t he?), the special effects were stellar, the pacing was perfect, and the cinematography was breathtaking. It was also a great combination of action and character (Neville FTW!). I truly think that David Yates is the best director to have come to the Harry Potter films, and he really proved it here. Despite my quibbles, this was a great film and a great way to end the series. I still prefer the book, but Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2 combined have come the closest of all the films to doing justice to the book, and considering how much I adore the book, that’s pretty darn high praise from me.

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Why I Love Joss

•March 5, 2011 • 2 Comments

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As should be obvious by now, I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon. He has written or created my favorite television show (Angel), my favorite individual television episodes (Out of Gas, Restless, Epitaph One, Sleep Tight, etc.) my favorite film (Serenity), my favorite musical (Dr. Horrible), and I suppose what you would call my favorite comic book, seeing as it is the only one I have ever bought (Angel: After the Fall, and ok, I lied, I also bought one of the Serenity comics). Why? What is it about this guy’s work that I like so much?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m sure it’s a combination of things, not the least of which is that I just have a tendency to latch on to things and obsess over them. If I were to choose one single reason, though, I think it would be his characters. I am hard-pressed to name a character that he has created that is not 3-dimensional, well-developed, with an interesting and compelling character arc, a distinctive speech pattern, and perfectly cast. His characters are the heart and soul of his work, and they have a lot of heart and a lot of soul… even the soulless ones. Just think about Firefly: the concept of a space western could easily have fallen into a campy silly mess, but it didn’t. Why? Because the show wasn’t about outer space, it was about 9 distinctive people living together on a spaceship. It was about Mal being made whole via the people around him. It was about River and Mal being two sides of the same coin. It was about family. And all of this was done with such beautiful characterization that the silly idea of a western in space actually becomes quite powerful, because the setting is what has allowed these 9 people to interact. And, seriously, where but in a Joss Whedon show would you get Inara, Jayne, and Shepherd Book all in the same room?

There are a lot of things I don’t like about the guy (his sexual ethics make me squeamish, and I’m not too fond of Buffy the character– largely because of her questionable sexual ethics), but I do think his work is brilliant in a way that few others’ are.

Pop Matters is asking themselves the same question, as their spotlight feature is on Joss Whedon right now. They have an intro and one essay up about him, with more to come. I thought the essay was well-written, well-argued, and a good insight into Joss’ appeal. Check it out here.