Thursday, October 6, 2016

YA drive-by

I'm teaching a course on Harry Potter this term, and gave a recent lecture on the roots and themes of YA literature. One of the articles I wound up not using was by a scholar named Mike Cadden. For the most part, Cadden gave a fairly interesting breakdown of YA literature--I particularly liked his discussion of YA as transitional literature and how the notion of length becomes intertwined with quality, but I was much less impressed by this passage:

For girls, then, our fake realism of today comes largely
from Alloy Entertainment. These are the folks who bring
the tweeners the wildly popular series about Gossip Girls,
The Clique, The A-List, and It Girls—and what seems to
be the whole YA gossip-oh-my-gawd-he’s-so-cute-butcan-
you-believe-what-that-bitch-said industry. It’s clearly
an entertainment company and would be a target for those
concerned with representations of adult behavior and what
is/should be important to adolescent girls. I guess you
could say that they’re the guilty beach-reads for adolescents,
though we could argue that it’s without the guilt.
But hey, at least those kids are reading, right? These are
novels that, unlike more clearly comic and contemporary
realism like The Princess Diaries, haven’t a tongue within

miles of the cheek—at least not one’s own."

I'll confess, I haven't actually read any of these books, which is a definite limitation to my counterargument, but I have seen nearly every episode of Gossip Girl, which I feel gives me some ground to push back here. The accusation that Cadden implicitly levels at teenage "chick lit" is basically the same that was once leveled at the early gothic novel or the 19th century romance, genres which are now arguably read more by academics than anyone else. These books, critics complained, corrupt our girls, filling their minds with trashy drivel and sexual misconduct. You can deal with them at that level if you want, but they're also reflective of the society they're written from, and in that sense, they're almost across the board a deconstruction of how women are empowered and disempowered by societal norms.

The "tongue within miles of the cheek" line is a good line, but that's all it is. For someone who has watched Gossip Girl and read critiques of Gossip Girl (Jacob Clifton's old Television Without Pity articles were brilliant, and what got me into the show in the first place), I can say he must not have been paying attention, because the series was all about the ridiculousness of teenage extremities. Maybe the books were different, but given that the series includes Psycho Killer, a slasher parody that recasts the series' leads as serial killers, I'm thinking not. Yes, they're of a very different kind from young adult  novels exploring realism and engaging directly with social issues,  but to dismiss them so firmly is to perpetuate the same sort of literary snobbery that has long been YA's lot.

Later Days.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Make Room, Make Room

Empty Shelves

Pardon the self-indulgence (honestly, what else is one going to do with a blog?), but I'm going to wallow for a moment and pour one out for my old graduate office space, which I finally locked up for the last time today. Not a moment too soon, and probably slightly late--ten minutes AFTER the next tenant comes in is cutting things officially too short. I know the room is property of the university and department, and not meant to be thought of as belonging to any individual students (or groups of students, or post-students). And I know it was selfish of me to continue squatting in the space when other graduate students were fighting for space. And I know that the space, and my attachment to it, are somewhat symptomatic of a degree it took me Too Long to complete. 

And yet... I feel a twinge of real loss at giving up access to it. It's silly to call it a home, but it was a space, a place, that was mine for a very long time. I spent eight years, give or take, in that office; I've dwelt there longer than any other place since moving to Kitchener-Waterloo. In fact, I've dwelt there longer than any place since moving out of my parents' house sixteen years ago. It was a bit of continuity in a changing life, and I'll miss it.

So it goes, and time marches on. Onwards, upwards, and so forth to whatever comes next.

(And yes, I see the resonance between a graduate space that I've clinged to for too long and this blog. So don't think pointing it out is clever or something.)

Later Days.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Book, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou--and no offense, but the Bread and the Thou are optional

I just had one of the most relaxing Sunday afternoons of my life. It was very simple; I walked around for a bit, I stopped, and I read for a while. Once at a coffee shop while I had lunch, once on campus, once in the park, and once in another coffee shop while sipping on a frappaccino. And each time, I'd rotate between reading a chapter in one of four books: Brian Staveley's The Providence of Fire (high fantasy fare--also, incidentally, a great title); Darowski's The Ages of the X-Men (an edited essay collection discussing the X-Men chronologically); Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (my first foray into classic literature in a LONG time); and Enevold and MacCallum-Stewart's Game Love (an edited essay collection on play and affection in games).

All of the books were satisfying. The Providence of Fire had various maneuverings and fights, and The Brothers Karamazov had the first but not the second; in general, BK has proven to be a book that's not really about anything but a very close look at the lives of the title characters. The bit I read today covered a long monologue from Ivan about an imaginary confrontation with God to Alyosha returning to the monastery. Ages of the X-Men had four essays about various aspects of the X-Men early years--the cultural understanding of mutants in America leading up to the X-Men's debut, the way the 60s comics depicted Cold War negotiiations and promoted the commune (two separate essays there), and the way the 70s Claremont-relaunch was driven initially by market concerns. I read an essay from each of Game Love's sections, which meant one from Waern on how players express love for NPCs in Dragon Age: Origins, one from Brown on interviews from erotic role-players in World of Warcraft, one from Lenio taking an exceptionally ontological view of what it means to love an NPC, and finally, a rather lengthy essay criticizing the way sustained videogame play is framed in terms of addiction, whether that's in terms of cognitive science, psychology, or holistically as compensation for a lack in the player's lives.

But to be honest, very little of the above had any impact on why I found the day so relaxing. The content of the books didn't matter. The exact locations didn't matter. The rigidity of the formula--four readings, four locations, repeat--didn't matter. What matters is that I sat in a public space for a while and read a book. And that act, in whatever variation it might unfold, is like a cup of tea straight to my soul.

Reading alone at home doesn't put me in that state; neither does reading on the bus, or playing videogames, in public or private. Neither does walking through a place, or talking with someone else on a park bench or hanging out at a coffee shop. Don't get me wrong; I like all of those things, quite a bit. But none of those are relaxing in the same way that today was. If I had to put it into words, I enjoy being in one place while the world flows around me, and the world and I are content to let each other be. I have a hunch that this would be my ideal vacation too--go to somewhere exotic and, instead of seeing the sights or doing adventurous stuff, simply sitting in a corner and watch a different part of the world unfold without worrying about a deadline or whether I should be doing something else.

I've known this about myself for quite some time, and in the spring especially, I like to stop in the park on a bench on the way home from work and indulge for a half hour or so; spending basically a full day at it like today is nice but not necessary. And it always puts me in a good mood for the evening.

I'm curious, though, if it extends the other way. If I get up in the morning and spend a half hour on a park bench before I reach work, will that tranquility be instilled into the whole day? Will it give me at least a morning boost? Or would morning crankiness and work grind chip away at my zen?

Might be worth finding out.

What's your secret to tranquility?

Later Days.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of The Final Girls

The Final Girls is a film with a good hook, but bad follow-through. (Does that work? I guess the metaphor is that the film is a boxer.) The elevator pitch is decent--a group of five modern teenagers find themselves trapped in a 1980s horror film, complete with stalker monster and a camp full of horny counselors. And it's got a great cast, suited for its tongue-in-cheek approach to the material--Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Tom Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and Taissa  Farmiga (American Horror Story). And the 80s counselors include Adam DeVine (Modern Family, Work Aholics, Pitch Perfect; it's a similar asshole performance as Pitch Perfect, but he's really good at it) and Malin Akerman (Children's Hospital). The problem isn't in the premise, or the actors, but the details.

If you're going to have a film that mocks the plot of horror movies, even 1980s horror movies, you need to have a reasonably rock-solid plot yourself. And there are some gaps here. I spent the first half of the movie assuming Gertie, Alia Shawkat's character, was Max (Farmiga)'s aunt, because while Shawkat is great in this and I want to see her in more movies in general, she is playing high school age, or freshman college--ditto with Tom Middleditch. You can kind of squint and make the case that this doesn't matter for DeVine, Akerman, and the rest of the 80s crew, since they don't have to be believable as teenagers so much as it needs to believable that someone in the 80s would cast them as such, but for the modern group, it doesn't work. The actors are, again, great, but the roles they're playing could use some re-definition.

The other problem is the emotional core at the center of the movie. In the movie within the movie, Akerman plays a scream queen, whose role is to lose her virginity and die horribly for it; in the movie at large, she's also Max's mother, who gets killed in the first scene. A lot of the film is devoted to the daughter working through the mom's death through interactions with a fictional character that looks like her mom. It's kind of a clumsy set-up: Nancy, the in-film character, has to be elastic/shallow enough to bond with someone she just met, but real enough for Max's emotional struggle to matter, AND fit in as a stock horror trope for the film within the film. It takes a lot of hoop jumping to make it happen, and I'm not sure it works. A better way to go about it, I think, would have been for Akerman as Max's mom not die in that first scene, go with them into the film, and be forced to replace Nancy after she accidentally dies too soon, to keep the plot going.

There's a lot of little logic jumps too, where the plot's compromised to make a joke of questionable quality--that's the peril of trying to be a meta-horror film and a comedy. But there's also some really coo bits, both meta and otherwise. The moment where the modern group realise that they're about to meet Max's deceased mom is wonderfully creepy (and would admittedly be a loss if they changed it to my suggestion), and the first half of the fight against the slasher is really cool as it threatens to go against and in their favour. On the meta level, finding out that the entire film universe loops every 92 minutes, being caught up in a flashback, and I can see the humour in trying to restrain the ditsy oversexualized character (Angela Trimbur does a real fun job with the role, putting a lot more into it than it really deserves), even if it doesn't quite get there. 

It's not a bad movie, and it does the aforementioned meta-horror/comedy mix better than, say, the entirety of the Scary Movie franchise. It's not as good as Cabin in the Woods, though it fits light popcorn film a lot better. It has some strong performances from really great comedic actors. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping for more. There's room for more play, and more critical play, than what's here.

Later Days.