Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Social Justice Movements and Fantasy Media

There has been a thought bouncing around in my head for a while now and I've never been entirely sure how to approach it. With the opening of X-Men: First Class and the upcoming premiere of the fourth season of True Blood, maybe now is the time to explore it briefly. There won't be any spoilers for First Class since I haven't seen it yet, but I will cover the X-Men as an idea in general, and there might be some spoilers for True Blood, since I have seen that.

Spoiler line just to be safe, la la la.
All right, so Southern-fried vampire soap opera and classic comic book showcasing people with superhuman powers fighting for the good of the very people who hate and fear them. What do they have in common? Well, the X-Men book started back in the 60s when the Civil Rights movement was starting to gear up. Whether or not that was the original intention is a little beside the point since by the time Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum took over in the 70s, that was most definitely the running theme of the book. The vampires in True Blood, as in the book series the show is based on, are also used as allegories for oppressed minorities: in the beginning they have recently "come out of the coffin" and face fear and prejudice from the general population, law enforcement, politicians, and the religious right. Both series mix different obstacles faced by various groups over the course of history, like the Mutant Registration Act from X-Men being analogous to the laws in Nazi Germany requiring the "undesirables" of society to be made identifiable, and the Fellowship of the Sun in True Blood being rather like a combination of the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan. So to compare the two series on that front seems pretty fair to me.

From True Blood's opening sequence.

Now, as much as I enjoy both of these series and agree with the spirit of the message, here's the part where I run into a little bit of trouble with the actual practice of using fantasy/science fiction analogies for the real-world oppression of human minority groups: the basis of Civil Rights and of basic human rights is that no matter what the racial, ethnic, class, sexual preference, gender or religious background may be, these differences are superficial and pale in comparison to the similarities inherent to simply being human. There is nothing a person from one group can do to anyone that a person from another group, including the majority group, could not also do. Underneath, we're all fundamentally the same.

This is not the case with mutants and vampires. As soon as you introduce the possibility of a teenager being able to blow one of their classmates' face off with lasers from their eyes, we have gone from "propaganda threat" to "that registration act doesn't seem so unreasonable." A black person being pulled over for driving a car with a white woman in it cannot, in fact, magically hypnotize the police officer into handing over his gun during a very tense confrontation.

The perceived threat from real life minorities becomes a very real and potential threat as soon as the supernatural gets involved, which changes the dynamics of the entire situation. This isn't to say that I think these ideas are stupid, but I do think this fundamental flaw in the message needs to be addressed, which also means that the people writing them need to be aware of it. Otherwise you wind up comparing a gay man who has no greater physical or supernatural abilities than a straight man would have to a man who can physically pull the iron from your blood through your skin in order to escape from prison. As well-intentioned as I think X-Men is, I don't think it gets this.

I do, however, think True Blood understands and has very subtly commented on this over the past several seasons. The imagery of a young gay, black man being chained by the neck in the basement of a blond-haired, blue-eyed vampire who at one point literally rips someone in half with his bare hands speaks to this point, as does the image of a young black woman dressed in an old-fashioned nightgown trying to escape from a plantation mansion where she has been sexually assaulted by an Anglo vampire. There are things the show does that make us uncomfortable this way, and there are simply too many of them for me to believe this is a coincidence. As much as I admire this about the show-- along with its recognizing its own inherent cheesiness, its refusal to take itself too seriously, while also managing to dance along the line between funny and horrifying-- this does raise another issue: because of the very strong overt message of vampires as an allegory for oppressed minorities, what will happen as this story progresses and the subtle commentary about the unfairness of this comparison becomes more noticeable? Will it undermine the legitimate arguments from real life activists who demand equal rights by unintentionally validating the fears of the majority? I certainly hope not, and if I'm right and this commentary is deliberate on the writers' part, I have faith in them to handle this with the intelligence and delicate footwork it will require. In the meantime, it seems like a good idea to bring this subject up and mull it over as we watch our entertaining fantasy versions of the state of civil rights and public attitudes toward The Other.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Help a Friend

Hey all, dropping a note for the sake of friend and co-femme Stacy, who's hitting a big financial brick wall rather suddenly and could really use a hand. She's taking commissions, the details of which are over at Creepy Kitch. If you can't help out, maybe you know someone who can. Thanks muchly.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rambling Post On Film Criticism

Hello out there in internetland, sorry it's been so long. I'm currently in finals week of my last quarter of college (for now), and it's been one nutty ride this year. I have not, as you may have noticed, gotten to the many blog posts I have promised so far, but seeing as how I'll have a lot of free time on my hands soon, I'll probably get to them... eventually.

For the time being, however, I have added massive quantities of links to the right side of this page, which should help fill your time until I can muster the brainpower to write a coherent article.

I also want to comment on something that seems to be a topic of interest amongst certain circles at the moment, and that is the nature and public perception of film criticism. Some very smart people have written some very interesting things in the past several days and I thought I'd pass some of them along. Feel more than free to offer opinions and comments, I love hearing from people, even if they disagree with me as long as it's civil and in the spirit of debate-- something that gets touched on in some of these.

There are more out there but these are the three I came across that I found the most thought-provoking. Honestly, I have my own ideas on the topic, and this is something that surfaces now and again as I navigate both the practice of studying film and the social ramifications of being a "movie snob" to people who don't. Let me give you an overview of why I really hate that term, and it isn't just because I hear it in application to myself or to people I happen to agree with, or even to people I may not agree with but whose viewpoint I find interesting. It's because it's a cheap way to invalidate someone else's opinion without having to engage with their actual argument.

Let me tell you a secret that a lot of people don't seem to understand about film: there are very few "right" answers. There seems to be this idea that there's some kernel of absolute "Truth" at the center of anything and that if you whittle it down far enough you'll eventually discover the definitive answer. The problem with this is film is art, and like all art, its meaning and value are totally subjective to the one viewing it. Likewise, are the opinions of those reviewing/critiquing it. For me personally, a good film reviewer is not the person with whom I agree the most often, it's the one who actually thinks about the film and then writes about it in such a way that makes me think about it. There have been numerous films I have watched for a class or on my own that I initially disliked or was confused by, but after reading a thoughtful review or an academic article or even just discussing it with someone else, I learned to appreciate certain aspects of it that I never would have otherwise. They may be things I ultimately disagree with, or they may not be enough to get me to enjoy the film, but I absolutely appreciate having insight into it. That's basically what studying criticism allows you to do: not to arrive at the "right" answer as to whether a movie is objectively good or bad, but to aid in the ability to understand why someone enjoys a film or doesn't.

Another secret: my taste in movies has stayed exactly the same since I started learning about film. There have been a few here and there that I now see in a new light, but by and large, I enjoy the same things I did before and dislike the same things. The only significant change in my discussion of the topic is my ability to articulate why I feel the way I do about a given film. That's it. Well, that and the confidence to actually express my opinion instead of trying to convince myself I like a film when I don't just because I can't figure out why, or I feel obligated to because everyone else likes it. I used to waste a lot of energy trying to justify things in films that I didn't like because I felt I should, for some bizarre reason, and let me tell you, it is such a relief to quit doing that. No, if anything has changed in regards to my movie collection, it's simply the scope. Learning the mechanics of how movies work hasn't "taken the magic out of it," as I hear some people argue, it's actually increased my appreciation for it. The movies I loved before, I enjoy watching even more now than I did when I first saw them because I understand them on a deeper level. I love watching movies. I really love watching good movies, but in all honesty there are so few films out there that I consider worthless; there's usually something I find worthwhile in almost any of them, even if I dislike the end result overall.

But at the end of the day, it's all just opinion. That's all a critic has to offer: the same thing everyone else has, only with better articulated reasons and hopefully some interesting insights. Studying film doesn't teach anyone how to figure out the "right" answer, it helps inform the understanding of why a given person feels the way they do about it. That's it. It doesn't mean you have to agree with it, but hopefully it might make you think a little deeper about why you feel the way you do. Who knows, it might even make you appreciate it more than you might have otherwise, or even interest you in a film you might not have given a chance before. I think one of the greatest things I'm taking away from my film education is the really great movies I've been exposed to that I would never have heard of otherwise. Ultimately, what this blog is doing isn't just providing a platform for my opinions and ideas, but it's a space for me to share these movies with other people.