Sunday, 14 July 2013

Warm Bodies AKA Tropes Are Not Bad : The Movie

I've just watched the movie Warm Bodies, I've seen it before, caught it the last week it was in the cinema, but it's out on DVD now and I liked it enough to want to see it again. In fact... is there a DVD version of desert island discs? because Warm Bodies might well make my list; but much as I like the film I was having a hard time putting my finger on why. It's well paced, well acted, well shot and the dialogue is laugh out loud hilarious, but there are plenty of films that fulfil those criteria that wouldn't make my hypothetical desert island list. I do have personal reasons for particularly liking this movie's take on zombies (more of that later), but that didn't seem to be enough either.
Then as I was mentally scrolling through the list of stuff in this movie that would normally be major red flags for me, tropes that normally send me running for the hills, it hit me: I like this movie so much, not in spite of it being filled with stuff I normally dislike, but because it has those things but does them in ways that I can't help but be entertained by. For me at least, Warm Bodies is essentially Tropes Are Not Bad : The Movie.

Brief Spoiler Warning: I'm going to be talking about a movie, so it should go without saying that there may be spoilers ahead, I've tried to keep them small and/or referred to in the DVD blurb, but I can't swear to my success so if you haven't already seen Warm Bodies you may want to go and do that first (honestly, it's worth your time). Also if the phrase 'tropes are not bad' means nothing to you, then tvtropes is your friend (but a very needy friend, the kind that having met you will want to tell you not only their own life story but that of their parents, siblings, cousins and every pet they've ever owned. You have been warned).

All right then, so far I've been basically assuming that you have some idea of what I'm talking about, some vague awareness of what the movie is about, I should probably cut that out. Warm Bodies is basically Romeo and Juliet if the Montagues were zombies. No really, the romantic leads are R (he can't remember the rest of his name) and Julie, there's even a homage to the balcony scene. If at this point you're thinking something along the lines of 'oh no, not another retelling of Romeo and Juliet, not another teenage girl meets monster boy, not more zombies' then, well exactly, lets start there.

I have nothing in particular against Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, I think it's a little overrated, in that he wrote other plays I like more, but yeah, it's a good play. On the other hand it's a pet peeve of mine that people describe it as a romance, it's really not, or at least it's not only a romance. Let me use the bard's own words to explain:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
 That's (most of) the prologue and if you know the play at all, you probably recognised it because it's one of the really memorable bits, the emphasis is (obviously) mine. So often I see love stories being described as being like Romeo and Juliet if they merely feature a couple born to two mutually antagonistic groups regardless of whether their actions do anything to heal the rift. That bit's important folks, in fact I'd go as far as saying it's the whole damn point of the story (there are also people who describe any romance featuring teenage or apparently teenage protagonists as being like Romeo and Juliet, but those people are fools and we shall not speak of them). Ahem, like I said, pet peeve, so Warm Bodies earns major points from me for actually remembering this, R and Julie's relationship, in the words of the DVD blurb '... begins to transform the other zombies and maybe the whole lifeless world'. This alone makes me do a happy dance, but there's so much more.

I'm not going to go into the teenage girl meets monster boy thing too deeply, because Warm Bodies actually mostly avoids this by having the protagonists just a little older (late teens/early twenties), which, especially with the added maturity boost from living/unliving in a post-apocalyptic setting gives their relationship a very welcome seasoning of, well, common sense really: R knows he's being weird and creepy, Julie makes repeated, earnest attempts to get away from the monster before she gets to know him better, and so on. On a similar note, yes R is yet another romantic hero who struggles to express his emotions, but he has a damn good excuse, he's a zombie, he can't physically form the words, plus you can see that he's really, honestly trying to communicate, this makes a difference. Plus his inner monologue (as voice-over) is both hysterically funny and poignant.

Finally then, there's those zombies, two lots of them in fact, the more skeletal 'boneys' don't interest me that much, other than I do kind of like that as the movie's 'faceless oncoming hordes' interpretation of zombies they are shown as being literally faceless... well all right if you want to get picky they kind of have features that are recognisably the remains of eyes, a nose, a mouth etc, but they don't have faces in the sense of that which identifies one person from another, that individuality has been stripped away from them along with their outer flesh. I thought that was kind of neat, moving on.

The other type of zombie, called 'corpses' are quite possibly my favourite interpretation of zombies ever, they remind me somewhat of Shaun of the Dead's shambling metaphor for modern apathy / 'going through the motions' but here the metaphor is for a deeper emotional distress, these zombies are not switched off emotionally, but locked in, each isolated in his or her own mind, unable to communicate. More than that, they're slowly fading away as they forget how to dream and how to feel, as if they're shutting down their emotions to avoid overload and pain or have done that and now can't find the way back. There's something about that that resonates for me. That and about the way the human survivors dismiss the corpses as unthinking monsters that can be killed without consequence (the same as most zombie movies / games etc do) when we as an audience get to see that they're not so different. I think my boyfriend summed that one up walking out of the cinema back when we watched it on the big screen "What if all movie zombies are like the ones in Warm Bodies?" It was, we agreed a pretty horrifying thought.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Should The Next Doctor Be A Woman?

So it's that time again, the latest incarnation of The Doctor is retiring (that's as in the TV show Doctor Who, in case that wasn't obvious) and people are asking who's going to play the role next, and again people (particularly, I can't help noticing, people who admit that they don't actually watch the show) are asking if this time it should be a woman. Trouble is, that's the wrong damn question, the question should be, would the show be be better with a woman in the role? because if not, why do it? Why walk into that mine field if the show doesn't end up better for it?

First of all, could it happen? In setting I mean, is it possible without breaking canon? Answer, kind of yes, in that it's known that at least one time lord has changed sex upon regeneration, although it seems to be an occurrence with a likelihood somewhere between hit by a bus and lottery winner. However 'is possible' does not necessarily make for good storytelling, it's possible to have a character that has been in dire need of money for many chapters suddenly win the lottery, but it'd have to be really well written not to come off as a horrible deus ex machina. Not that The Doctor has a desperate need to suddenly be female (certainly not within story) but it's still a change that, at the very least, has that same potential to be narrative poison. Don't get me wrong, it could work, given care and good writing, but I think it would need care and good writing.

So, the equality thing, after all that's what all the pressure to have The Doctor regenerate into a woman is about. I already said there's no in setting need for the change, and it's hard to see how there could be, short of some kind of squicky need to populate New Gallifrey or something. Granted, 'no need for change' does not equal 'must not change', but my point is that the impetus behind the debate is external and basically seems to boil down to either 'it's not fair that only blokes get to play The Doctor' or 'it's sexist that The Doctor is always male'. Of these two arguments I find the former more compelling, The Doctor is a fascinating and more or less unique character and I can totally see how, if I were an actress, it would nice to have the opportunity of landing that part. Always assuming that the part remained fascinating and unique when made female, not to mention continuing to exist (neither of which are certain). Also a single part, no matter how interesting, is still a single part and a single opportunity, so a bit of a drop in the ocean equality wise (though it's possible to make the argument that every drop counts). In conclusion, valid argument, perhaps not an overwhelming reason to make a potentially poisonous (see above) change to a popular show. It's the other argument that bugs the hell out of me.

Is it sexist that The Doctor is always male? Some people would say yes without reservation, me, I think it's more complicated than that. The sexism argument seems to be largely predicated on the assumption that The Doctor is the most important role, which is not quite as cut and dried as it first appears. It's the title role, certainly, that much is undeniable, and without him there would be no show, but equally there would be no show without his various companions, so 'the companion' is also an important role, as important? less important? more important? I think the answer is probably that it depends on the episode and that 'lacking titular recognition' is about as much as can be authoritatively said. Ah, talking of authority, there's that argument, that it's sexist because The Doctor is an authority figure... well, maybe, in theory, sort of, I mean he does tell his companions to stay in the TARDIS / not do stuff / etc pretty often... on the other hand no companion in the history of ever has actually done as they were told (unless you count 'don't bother with the accent' I suppose), so if he's an authority figure he's a pretty ineffectual one. And yes, sometimes it turns out that they really should have listened, but equally sometimes not listening is what saves the day, so again it depends on the episode. Furthermore The Doctor frequently lets his companions walk all over him (in theory he could have told Donna that no, he wasn't going to take her anywhere, for example, in practice he didn't) or does things just to please / impress them (any episode that starts with some variant of 'what would you like to see?' / 'let me show you this cool place'). One thing you can say is that The Doctor tends to know practically everything about everything, this is not actually because he's male, it's because he's nine hundred and whatever years old, but if you want to get picky about it you can honestly claim that he's a male character that (usually) knows more than his (usually) female companion and I suppose you could make a case for a female Doctor based on that. Again, I'm not convinced it's an overwhelming argument, but there is something there. There's also an argument about providing girls with role models, but honestly, a genocidal lunatic drifter is your idea of a good role model? No? Well then.

Right, after all that what do I conclude? That there is no convincing reason that The Doctor has to be male, some tentative reasons why a female Doctor might be a good thing and a feeling that it could be done well (even if I have a large portion of dread about what the actual results might be) that's a tick in the go ahead and do it column, right? Well... lets think about this, suppose that the next Doctor is female, further, lets suppose that she then gets a male companion (quite likely, given that one major reason that the companion role is usually female is to maintain a degree of gender parity), thirdly lets assume that the general dynamic of the Doctor/companion relationship remains more or less the same (a lot of that relationship is based on relative age and knowledge / alien experiences / ownership of TARDIS / etc) then what you would have is a experienced, knowledgeable woman who goes out of her way to impress a much younger man, allows him to dictate her morals and generally boss her around and is frequently (though not always) shown to be wrong / in need of rescue despite her greater experience... You know, there's a reason you should be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Serendipity of Research

I am a great lover of words, while I can seldom pick a favourite film or book or song I can tell you what my favourite word is. Currently it's tmesis and has been for a few years, not I grant you an especially useful word, but I like that it begins with 'tm' which not a lot of words do and I like that it's a word about words. When I was about fourteen or so my favourite word was elope, which I discovered by flicking through a dictionary looking for interesting words (please tell me I'm not the only person to have done that) and for some of the time in between my favourite word was serendipity, which finally brings me to today's topic because although serendipity has fallen out of my personal favour as a word, the concept it represents is still highly important to me.

So then, serendipity in research. I'm a great believer in research as a way of solving plot problems or brainstorming whole new sub-plots (or even the main plot, depending at what stage of the planning process I get stuck and go and do some research), sometimes I research something obviously connected to my plot issue, if the problem I'm having is that I don't know enough about the subject the plot relates to, for example when I wanted to know about the kind of archaeological evidence you could get from bones I read a bunch of academic papers on the subject (having to learn a whole new vocabulary in the process incidentally, which was tough going but interesting and now I know my distal from my proximal and my anterior from my posterior and the technobabble in shows like Bones actually makes sense to me). As useful as that kind of directed research undoubtedly is, it's not serendipitous research. Serendipitous research, as I think of it, comes in two forms.

Type one is entirely accidental, a side-effect of regular research whereby in looking up something you want to know now you discover something that will be useful later on for something else, I had an example of this happen to me yesterday, I was looking into the possibility of using obsidian as a building material (which I'm still unclear on, but some monks made a temple out of beer bottles and obsidian is a kind of glass, so maybe?) and discovered something called obsidian hydration dating, which is another archaeological thing that is basically about dating the age of obsidian tools and stuff by how much the surface has reacted to water (kind of the volcanic glass equivalent of going rusty I guess) and my plot point radar went bing and I ended up with half a page of notes of the 'when you get as far as editing that bit' variety. This kind of serendipitous research isn't something you can force or predict, although it helps to keep your eyes open for the kind of unrelated but useful stuff that might be floating past at any moment.

Type two is about going looking for serendipity (which is kind of against the spirit of the concept, but whatever), it's what I also call 'research at random' and it works like this, I'm stuck with something plot related, I don't know what should be happening at a certain point, or I have to get the plot from point A to point C but have no clue what the the intervening plot point B should be, or I have to fill in the details of the question mark question mark question mark bit that comes before profit in the villains' plan, something like that, and for whatever reason I don't think direct research is going to help (maybe I've already done some and it didn't, or possibly I'm aware that my problem is more creative than factual) what I do then is research something random. Picking something random to research is harder than it sounds, the temptation is to pick something that obviously could be useful, but that's not the point of the exercise, so the trick is to research something interesting, I pull something non fiction out of my to be read pile (which is full of interesting but of no immediate use stuff) or I go on a wiki-walk until I find something that looks cool and intriguing or I just go and find out what someone else is researching right now and see if that's of any use. I know this sounds like a complete waste of time (and sometimes it is) but it's amazing how often this approach actually works and if not, well that's a whole new bunch of interesting factoids that just might help out with the next problem down the line.