Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Letting Go

I've never been terribly good at looking back in these year-end posts, not necessarily because there was nothing to look back at but because my viewpoint's been too muddled to make much sense of it.  But 2013 has been a watershed year for me personally and I can't help but look back, despite having such a clear idea of what to look forward to, at last.

In 2010 I wrote a Post-Holiday Post detailing the things I anticipated for the coming year. They were pretty safe bets, frankly, but for a while I wasn't sure I had anything that I could add to those thoughts that'd be worth the bandwidth. Thankfully, a little time helped me realize that I'm not still stuck in the same place I was almost four years ago; I'm leagues away from who I was then, just looking back at my younger self from a new vantage point. In some ways I'm closer to who I used to be than I have been in a long time but for the first time I'm realizing that that isn't really a bad thing. It turns out you can't bury the parts of yourself you don't like, or run away from them, or rip them apart; it's only in embracing them that you understand what being a whole person really means. Maybe it's a cliché but learning to let go of a lot of what I thought I had to control is one of the hardest things I've ever done. It's a process and a line I'm learning to walk, but for the first time I can see where I've come from with clarity as well as the path ahead, and experience enough to finally make the choices I have to to get there. My past failures and setbacks, the sacrifices other people have made on my behalf over the years, the hard work and perseverance it took for me to crawl out of my own emotional wreckage have all served to put me where I am right now. The present is more amazing than I could have possibly imagined and I am profoundly grateful to everyone and everything that has made it possible.  Even the hard and unpleasant ones.  Anything I managed to accomplish would not have been possible without you.

Just for my own edification, as a reminder to my future self for when I backslide, and because this is my blog and I can post what I want, here's an incomplete list of personal accomplishments and epiphanies from the past two years. Hopefully they're things I either continue to accomplish or move past in the coming years.

  • Important people have left my life and it hasn't wrecked me.  Sometimes their leaving wasn't their choice, sometimes it was.  When it was a choice, it was as much about them as it was about me.  I'm not as toxic as I'm afraid I am.
  • Learn to forgive my younger self and to see her for the angry, confused person she was; love her in spite of and because of it.  She needs it.
  • Try new things, not for the sake of doing so but because I actually want to try them. Stop telling myself I'm just not the type to do them: if I want to do them then I am the type.
  • Come to terms with the idea that I may want things I didn't used to want. Let myself be confused about it without shutting it down.
  • Be confronted by conflicts very similar to past ones that hurt me tremendously; realize that I have learned from my mistakes by proving I can make better choices now.
  • Acknowledge that the traits I've adopted as coping mechanisms have helped me but that I don't need them anymore. Learn to ask for help in figuring out how to let them go when I need it.
  • This moment is not forever.
  • Recognize when someone is a person I want in my life; take the risk to let them know and make the effort to prove it.
  • Recognize that I am worth the effort and anyone who doesn't value me as a whole person isn't someone I need to invite into my personal life.
  • Nobody is obligated to like me and if they don't it isn't a personal failing on my part. Sometimes people just don't get along.  Don't get grudgey about it.
  • Learn to recognize that my standards are very high and sometimes unfair. See and accept the imperfect reality of a person instead of the ideal I project onto them.  They are who they are and aren't obligated to be the person I want them to be.  Be as forgiving of others' faults as I hope they will be with mine.
  • Sometimes things like this do happen to people like me. It's worth the risk and the effort, even if sometimes the thing I want doesn't happen.
  • Learn to find the freedom in failure. Stop being afraid to be wrong: it means I'm learning.
  • Own that just because I've been hurt and just because I try hard now, doesn't mean the world owes me anything. Other people aren't obliged to fix me or to be my inspiration to be better: that's my job.
  • Life is too short to waste waiting around for it to happen to me. Go out and become the person I want to be.
  • I am more kind than I remembered. Embrace it, even when it hurts.
  • Remember that I am responsible for how my actions affect others, intended or not.  I won't always make the right call but remember that the harder, scarier option is usually the better one.
  • I can't control my emotions, they simply are what they are. What I control is how I respond to them and the person I choose to be because of or in spite of them. Always choose to be better.
  • You know that thing where I hate it when people lie to me because they want to spare my feelings?  Don't do it to other people.  If I want others to respect me enough to be honest with me, extend the same respect to them.
  • The things I'm afraid set me apart from other people usually only do so because I let them.  I'm not as weird as I imagine myself to be.  Life is happening, choose to be part of it.

Enough navel-gazing.  Stay safe out there and be good to each other.  Here's trailers for my favorite things I've watched from the past few years. Check them out.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bevin's Guide to Being an Internet Critic

This is actually something I wrote somewhere else a while back but it seems pertinent enough to put up in here, too.  It's as much a reminder for myself as it is a statement of my personal viewpoints on responding to things critically; generally speaking, if things are easy or natural to do for everyone they don't need to be made into rules.  So in absence of a real post (which I hope to get back to but we'll see how my time off from classes goes), here's this.

The internet is an amazing thing that allows for greater contact with people than ever before in human history which, as most things are, is a double-edged sword. We can connect with the people who create the things we consume in such immediate and personal ways now but we can still forget that they're people with flaws, personal lives, work stresses, ideas, opinions, and also a lot of people scrutinizing and judging them in very public ways. It affords us the luxury of expressing our opinions on any little thing we choose to write about to the entire world; but it doesn't require that we display any knowledge, experience, or qualifications on the subject, either. It also allows for other people to judge us based on how we conduct ourselves and that can either cost you opportunities or create them. How we act on the internet affects people's lives in real ways, including our own lives, so being self-aware is important.

To that end, I have a list of things I try to keep in mind when posting on the internet.

1. Opinions Are Not Facts
That's not to say that opinions don't matter and should be disregarded, that's totally missing the point. A fact is something concrete and provable, like having one bean and getting one more bean means you have two beans. An opinion is something that's relative between individuals; one person may think beans are delicious while another person may think they taste terrible. While those opinions are true for those individuals, they are not facts in the larger sense of the term. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to forget this important distinction when we get into topics more complicated than beans, even though it still remains true. Having an opinion is fine but that doesn't make it a universal truth.

2. Having an Opinion Does Not Make You an Expert
Liking or disliking something doesn't require any knowledge or training or effort, it's something that happens as we experience things. Saying you dislike something is not the same thing as saying something is bad; one requires no knowledge of anything other than your opinion, the other requires knowledge of the subject matter beyond opinion. Labeling something as "good" or "bad" is moving into the arena of hard facts and is a separate subject from whether or not you like or dislike it. Unless you have extensive knowledge of or training or experience in the subject matter at hand, "good" and "bad" are labels you probably want to avoid. Chances are very good there are people out there who know more about this stuff than you do and chances are even better that most of the people who work to create this stuff for a living know more about how to do it than the people who don't. Critiquing something is easy, creating it is much harder and requires more knowledge, effort, time and personal investment. That doesn't always mean the end result is good, but it does bear consideration.

3. Never Assume People Are Stupid
Ugh, but some people clearly are, right? Ha ha, yeah, don't do that, seriously. The second you start thinking you're smarter than the people who created something or the people who disagree with your opinion, you've shifted the point from the work itself to you and your hangups. Let me say this right now: it doesn't matter if you are or aren't smarter than them. When you start assuming that the things you don't like are created and appreciated by stupid people you're expressing far more about yourself and your own issues than anything else. You don't want to be that person. You don't have to like the thing in question, but if people are responding to it, it's better to investigate why that might be rather than writing the whole thing off as moronic. You might actually learn something or come to appreciate it in a different way, even if you still don't like it.

4. Never Assume You Speak For Anyone Except Yourself
Unless you have been unanimously voted as the spokesperson for a specific group of people who all approved everything you are about to say, you're not speaking for everyone. Why would you even want to? Trying to be the mouthpiece for a bunch of other people is hard and a good way to lose yourself in the process. Even people who share a common experience will not all feel the same way about it and putting words in their mouths isn't going to ingratiate them to you. Stick with just expressing the opinion you're qualified to: yours.

5. Keep Yourself Open to Different Opinions
You know that opinion you have? Other people have them too, and not all of them are going to coincide with yours. If you really want to challenge yourself (and a smart critic always does), actively seek out different opinions. Read everything you can find on the topic, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, and really examine where that person is coming from. Sometimes you learn something new or find a new interpretation that makes a lot of sense and adds new dimension to the work that you didn't see before. And that is a very cool thing.

6. Don't Make Assumptions About Others' Motivations
I had a teacher who used to say, "when you point a finger at someone else you have three pointing back at yourself." Sure, other people have motivations for creating the things they do, saying the things they say, and all that but unless you have psychic powers you don't know what they are unless they say so directly. Everything else is an assumption on your part and that puts you in the dangerous waters of projecting your own issues onto them. Just don't go there, there's no need to unless your goal is to feel superior to other people you've never met, or you're really desperate for other people to stop taking your opinions seriously. If you do feel the need to make an assumption, be up front about it and don't present it as a fact or common knowledge.

7. Don't Be Afraid to Be Wrong
People screw up, it's the fastest way we learn. If you make a mistake like get a fact wrong or mis-quote someone or commit some sort of faux-pas, don't try to justify it or ignore it if someone calls you on it or try to turn it back on them. Own it, admit the mistake, correct it if you can and move on, being mindful of it in the future. Learn from your mistakes, that's where all the value is in them.

8. Back Your Opinions Up With Reasons For Having Them
Possibly the least useful thing in the world is someone stating their opinion and nothing else. All that does is illustrate that you have an opinion, which everyone else does too, so big deal. Expressing why you have your opinion is much more useful because it requires some actual thought about the product and some level of self-awareness on your part. The more examples you can list from the work itself that back up your opinion, the stronger your argument is.

9. Be As Honest As You Can Be
If you like something, don't excuse the parts of it that have problems or don't work. That's not the same thing as arguing in favor of something that you feel is misunderstood or under-appreciated, it means if you feel that an element is off or wrong, don't try to defend it for the sake of defending the thing you like. Admit you don't like that element but that it's not enough to diminish your appreciation for the work as a whole. The same works in reverse: don't universally trash something you don't like when there might be elements you like or that work well in it. Be honest about the things you like and dislike and try to be as honest about why as you can, even if this puts you at odds with popular opinion or common assumptions.

10. There Is a Difference Between Something Being Bad and Not Being What You Wanted
Try to be honest with yourself about what you're really responding to: the work itself or your own expectations of it. This is hard to do but it's really crucial to being fair to what the creator/s are trying to say. There is a difference between honest critique of things that don't work and fan entitlement.

11. Keep Your Perspective
At the end of the day, what's really important in life? Sure the TV shows, books, music and movies we love are important because they speak to us, they move us, all the stuff art is created to do. That's not trivial but it's also not more important than being a decent person about them. That doesn't mean you have to withhold your opinions about them, it means expressing your opinions in ways that aren't petty or mean-spirited or even threatening. So somewhere in the world someone created something you don't like? So somewhere in the world someone doesn't like something that you do? The sun still comes up the next morning, the earth continues to spin on its axis, life moves on. That's not to try and invalidate people's emotions; get mad, be disappointed, care about stuff by all means. Apathy is one of the worst things on the planet. But don't let it take up a disproportionate amount of your life and remember that at the end of the day it's just a book or a song or a movie or whatever it is. It's not worth forgetting how to be a decent person. Sometimes it's necessary to take a step back and appreciate that we live in a time and place that affords us the luxury of being mad about a piece of entertainment.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rev-nalysis of Iron Man 3

As of last night I was officially the last person in the world to see this movie, right?  Okay, good, 'cause I'm going to lay out some spoilers in here and this is one of those movies where not knowing some things when you go in is a good thing.  These are just the thoughts I wrote out last night and it takes me a while to process things these days so my opinions are subject to change the longer I have to go over them.  Heck, they changed during the course of my writing this so meh.


Basically this is the story of one man's trauma and how he ended up dealing with it.  This is both a good thing and something that bothered me.  It's good for reasons that I'll get to in a second and it's bad because every other character ended up as a prop for the main character's emotional journey instead of having their own stories.  That wasn't a huge problem until the climax of the movie when it was suddenly very noticeable and detracted from the choices Shane Black made there.  Honestly the story really only works if you look at it through the lens of "Tony dealing with his issues;" once you try to assign outside motivations to any other character, including the villains, things don't really hold together in a logical way.  Through the trauma lens, though, this movie's pretty good.

I don't have a problem with most of the actual events of the movie like the attack on the mansion, the twist with the Mandarin, destroying his suits, getting the shrapnel removed, I'm totally fine with all of that. The whole movie was hinged on Stark's emotional trauma after the events of The Avengers and I have to say, speaking as the child of a former soldier with deep psychological and physical trauma that affected him his entire life (and not inconsequentially affected the lives of those around him), this story was very welcome for me. There's this deep-set aversion in American society to acknowledge this type of problem in former military, or even just for men in general to admit to emotional problems like this, and that aversion alone can compound the issues. It can lead to feelings of inadequacy, weakness, loss of masculinity, emotional isolation, emotional repression, and can keep them from seeking help or feeling comfortable opening up about it to anyone or even admitting they have a problem. Things are probably a bit better now than they were for my dad's generation but it's still an issue. Seeing Stark not only dealing with possible PTSD but being able to take the initiative to admit that he's having a problem to someone-- Pepper, Banner in the voice over narration and the end cut scene-- without suffering a terrible loss of pride or feeling of masculinity, even gaining something from the experience, was enormously positive. A superhero, the most popular one in Marvel's current movie franchises, doing this during a time when there are so many younger veterans living in or returning to the US was honestly moving to me; I'm hopeful that with things like this there will be more people seeking help and more help available to them. But I'm starting to digress.

So back to Stark's trauma, here's the downside of this all-encompassing viewpoint: everything else in the film like the villains and Stark's supporting cast also seem to exist to serve Tony's emotional arc more than their own stories. I'm not sure that they even have their own stories here. Up until around the climax this isn't too big of a problem but then suddenly there's a villain about to execute the US President for very unspecified reasons; Rhodey is there basically as more of a plot device for the suit than much else, even if he does get some nice action hero moments (these are not substitutes for actual character development or emotional catharsis); Pepper is the damsel in distress until the moment where she is suddenly a superpowered "badass" (actually the least badass Pepper has been in all three movies) which rings emotionally false because there's no need for it-- Pepper's story gains nothing from this experience and it's so antithetical to what actually makes her strong that it robs the villain's defeat of actual catharsis; Happy seems to exist primarily as a catalyst to get Tony on the bad guy's radar-- not that he's ever been terribly crucial to anything beyond comic relief but he just felt more like a plot device than anything.

I even felt like I lost my emotional connection to Stark during this big action scene, which considering how deeply invested in his emotional arc I was until then is a pretty big disappointment. Maybe they were going for "Tony gets his groove back" here, seeing him in his element after floundering for control for the whole movie but I tend to prefer action scenes where, if a character has a close call, that might register with them for a split second instead of the stare-down-certain-death-without-breaking-a-sweat thing. I got the former from most of the movie so to have that missing from the final fight was a little jarring and helped me to lose that human connection to Tony. Also, Tony was already getting his groove back before then without the suits (one of the major points of the film) so to have that be the point of the climax feels like a false note. I totally lost him after Pepper fell to her seeming death and didn't reconnect with him at all until the end of the fight. Maybe that was just me, I dunno, but it was probably the worst point in the film to lose that connection to him since he's the only character who really has an emotional arc and that scene is basically the catharsis for everything he's been dealing with. So for me to miss out on it was disappointing.

That seems like a lot of complaints but honestly, so much else from the movie worked and was so well done that even biffing up the climax only rattled my enjoyment of it a bit. The stuff at the beginning is the highlight for me, when Tony is still mister banter while also an accessible, somewhat fragile but still heroic human being. The metaphor with the armor being... well his armor to the point where it's becoming his surrogate self, sent into situations he doesn't feel like he can cope with, taking its time getting to him when he's under attack, literally giving him a hand when he's drowning, then being dead weight he has to carry, then repair, then do without, and finally let go of completely because he's finally allowing himself to heal. Not just from his most recent trauma but the one that began his need for the armor in the first place, the kidnapping in Afghanistan that literally and metaphorically damaged his heart. The narration was a bit on the nose with the "a man creates his own demons" line but it's apt. Not just with Killian who's almost a dark mirror for Tony (I always forget how good Guy Pierce is until I see him in something but man do I wish he had more to work with here) as someone physically wounded but brilliant enough to grant himself power; not just with Killian's operatives who serve as lesser "demons," like little cipher splinters of Killian's dark mirror; but in a much broader, collective sense with the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley just killed that part), who ends up being an almost meta-textual case of presenting the villain everyone expects and so becomes the summation of and focal point for our anxieties and fears, only in the end for it to have been built up in our minds precisely because it's what we expected to see, not what was really there. If that makes sense. For a movie all about anxiety, that's not only clever it's downright relevant. And of course there's the "how you choose to use the power you have" stuff but it takes it a step further: in finally coping with our fear and anxiety and defeating our demons, we stop clinging so hard to our need for more power, our desire to control our surroundings and ourselves in order to feel secure.

The movie takes us full circle, from the arrogant, drunken, pre-Iron Man Stark to the man it took him four movies to become. It felt like closure and yet we know he'll be back for at least one more Avengers movie; this movie took him so much further than I expected and did so in a careful, thoughtful way that my normal hesitance about going further has taken a back seat to cautiously optimistic curiosity. Where can they take him next?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hello Internet

It's been a while.  I wish I could say I've been too busy with life to post but honestly it's kind of been the opposite.  The current state of the economy has put me in some financial trouble and I'm just not able to stay current with much of anything that I can't watch on the internet which makes doing movie reviews feel a bit pointless.  If I'm being even more honest, though, I've just been really burnt out on writing about film; I did a lot of it in school and by the time I graduated the thought of doing it on my own time made me want to scream and pull out my hair.  The last several entries I made in here were definitely phoned in.

On top of that, while I feel like I learned a lot and have a good general base of knowledge about film theory I tend to feel like there's a lot of people on the internet who know a lot more than I do, especially people who have more knowledge about how to actually make a film which is probably way more relevant to understanding it than anything I know how to do.  I find myself reading other blogs and feeling woefully inadequate to even try to compete with what they're doing, at least right now.  If I'm going to bother writing about something I feel like I need to be saying something relevant or unique or just adding a pertinent perspective to something that I feel hasn't been touched on before or often enough.  Lately I was left feeling like I didn't have much of anything to say.

And yet here I am again anyway.  Maybe I'm feeling a bit less burnt out than I was, since the thought of writing an article about a piece of media doesn't fill me with the urge to take a nap anymore.  Maybe it's the sense of impending outside influence on my life (I just got accepted into an animation program for the fall) and if there's one thing that spurs me to work on personal projects it's having something else I'm supposed to be doing instead.  Maybe I just find myself feeling like I have things to say regardless of being out of the loop in terms of current and upcoming movies and TV or my lack of knowledge about too many things.  Regardless, my updates in here probably aren't going to be terribly regular (as if they ever were) and there's probably going to be a big shift in terms of the tone.  Not so academic, a bit more personal and informal-- well as informal as I can get when writing-- and probably dealing a lot more with my opinions than analytical content.  Maybe.  We'll just see how it goes, I guess.

Basically, I'm back.  Sort of.