Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Creature

Shortly after three AM he came downstairs and caught his wife running away. She turned to face him, still gripping the screen door, eyes flickering from the artificial glow of the small TV. It was difficult to imagine her as the woman who would hike over a glacier with a broken forearm a mere two years from this moment. She looked frail, built of cold fingers, thin wrists, and irresponsibly wild hair except for her eyes which were glowing white hot from an eerie inner furnace or the reflection of the TV. He flipped on the kitchen light, walking to the fridge in his matching pajamas. He owned seven pairs, one for each day of the week, even though he found them itchy and restrictive. Adherence to routine had saved the lives of so many of his patients. It was easy to imagine him as the author of Psychopathological Explorers of The Delusional Mind, right down to the thoughtful pose for the book jacket. She was tall and thin, he was taller and thinner. Together they looked like two lost locusts.

"Lime sherbet?" He asked, opening the freezer. The cottage had never been as silent, the television remained muted, and the chubby June bugs halted their clumsy assault on the window. It seemed entirely possible that they were the only two people awake in Wasaga Beach. He carefully placed two scoops in a dessert bowl while his mind blazed with plots to get between her and the door. They both knew that if she ran he could catch her before she reached the main road. They both knew she had stopped taking her medication.

The children were asleep. It might work in his favour if they were awake. He pulled a chair out from the kitchen table, allowing it to drag across the floor, sitting as casually as possible under the circumstances. If he hadn't woken up, if he hadn't had a craving, the woman he loved would be gone.

“Out for a walk?” he asked.

“No,” she said, watching him. He had yet to make eye contact.

“You could have lied.”

“I'm leaving.”

“You've made up your mind?” He waited two full spoons for an answer. “If you've made up your mind why don't you go?”

“You can't watch me all the time.” He considered this. That wasn't true. She could be committed again. They could start over in the long hallways, large pictorial schedules, and padded rooms.  He didn't want that; he wanted his wife.

“Can I talk to my wife?”

“I'm your wife.” she responded. He took a slow bite, leaving the spoon in his mouth, letting the flavour melt. He should have destroyed that picture. It was optimistic to think it could be buried beneath Polaroids and VHS tapes in the basement. She was compelled to find it. How many days had she snuck away to search the corners of this cottage? He watched her take her medication -how had she deceived him? These were errors in professional judgment and they stung him to the core. He smiled. He was practically the greatest psychopathologist of the delusional mind, once the German died he would be the unequivocal leader in his field. He had an outside shot at the Nobel. And it was he who had kept a promise to a lunatic for love. He was determined to redeem his error. The proper way to show his commitment would be to destroy the picture that held so much power over her mind. Shred and burn that image to set her free.

“I'm not going to force you to take any medication.” he said. “I'm here to remind you that you chose to take the medication. It was a long process and a choice that you made several times with a clear head before we-”

“Shut the fuck up.” she said, regretting it. She knew he was weighing her words, observing, dissecting and diagnosing them, building an expert opinion that would lead to her freedom or imprisonment. In an instant she saw the horrible labyrinth of medical literature that had always been between them, a grotesque maze of twisted steel corridors, her strongest convictions marching in endless circles, stepping over emotions, starved to death for attention. She looked at her husband, a man who loved a version of her deeply. In her hand she held the drawing, a deteriorating piece of gray construction paper marked by pastel crayons almost thirty years ago. The picture of the creature.

“What about Matty and Vicky? You're going to walk out on your family?”

“I already have.” she said. He shrugged, .

“You're still here.”


“There must be something keeping you here.”

“You're not my first family.”

“You're sick. You need a safe place to rest and your medication.”

“I had a family in Oregon. A husband and two kids.”

“You've never been to Oregon.”

“I had a child in Oregon when I was seventeen.” She watched him finish his sherbet. “It's not a 
delusion. I had a family and I had to leave them and I have to leave again.” He looked at her. “You've always known that my records didn't add up. The medical-”

“What are you going to do? Say it. I'd like to hear you say it.”

“I'm going to find this.” She held up the picture.

“What is that?”

“You know what it is.”

“I'd like to hear you say it. I think it would be good to hear it out in the open.”

“This is the creature that I saw when I was seven,”


“You know where.” He kept his clinical silence, demanding her to continue. “In the forest. When I was in the car I looked out the window and saw it in the forest.”

“How old were you?”

“I told you.”

“Will you say it again?”

“I was seven.”

"If that's sounds normal to you then there's nothing I can do.” He said. “Did you want to leave a note for the children?"

"Tell them that I have to find it."

“Here.” He pulled out a chair. “This will take two minutes. I'll write the note, what should it say?”

“I have to find it.”

"Find what?" She gestured to the drawing in her hand. "I know," he said "but how do you want to tell them?" She paused, unable to say it aloud. He felt her hand on his leg. He put his arm around her as she started to sob.

"The creature. I have to find the creature."

“Why not sleep on it and we'll talk in the morning?" She sat up."The creature is going to be out there tomorrow." He was playing a dangerous game, reinforcing her delusions. "Come back to bed and we'll talk with clearer heads in the morning."

"I'm leaving." She walked back to the screen door. He tried to follow but he could not. He looked down. His leg had been handcuffed to the thick ornamental trim of the table. Panic ran through him. He might be able to free himself. He may be able to crack the oak table. If he could reach the bottom drawer he could get the meat cleaver to break the chain. It would take too much time. She would be out of sight. He couldn't reach the phone. He could yell for the neighbours. He prepared to yell.

"Goodbye." She turned to leave.

"Mom?" asked a voice from the stairs.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Couldn't Sleep

I couldn't sleep. The world caught up to me today. I had been submerged in schoolwork, throwing myself into crafting the ultimate center of gravity lesson plan.

For inspiration, our teachers point us to a vast online archive of mediocrity. It's frightening. We have access to special Ontario teacher resource sites where, at the press of a button, we find hundreds of lesson plans jam-packed with boring. I'm going on the record here: these bland "educational" resources are joining Betamax as anecdotes to be brought up at history's wedding so we can all laugh at how crazy she was before she settled down. In my lifetime education will move online, dominated by a few resources that do learning right.

I realized this when I was asked to write several reflection papers on my education. It's hard to quantify what I learned in school but most of the skills I am currently using in my life (from needlepoint, to cooking, to bike repair, etc.) I got online. Maybe my education prepared me to be an independent learner  but there's also a case that

I stood up for Wikipedia in my class, arguing that it was more articulate and better sourced than our textbook. Some people laughed at this which didn't surprise me since technophobic teachers have been instilling the Great Fear of Wikipedia without ever visiting the site.

Wow. I can't sleep. I have to be careful because I'm a very passionate person. I throw myself into what I do. I think what is keeping me up tonight is my internal instinct to look up and make sure that I've thrown myself in the right direction.

I'm going to read some more of Doctorow' Little Brother and get some sleep. It would be nice to start eating breakfast and lunch, put myself into a nice routine, and stay up one night thinking about death in that useful, contemplative way, bringing perspective and resolve to my life.

Friday, September 3, 2010

I Live in Thunder Bay

And now I live in Thunder Bay.

I've learned a month of information in the last five days, distorting my sense of time.

A friend of a friend picked me up at the airport. A quick driving tour of the city landed my a free bike.

Me: How much for this bike with the sale sign?
Stranger: $200.
Me: That's too much. I was looking for a beater to ride to school.
Stranger: Take that one.
Friend of friend: Put it in the truck. What a score!

The tires needed some air, that was all.

Discovery makes a life feel full.

I'm attending a one-year program at Lakehead to earn my teaching certification for Ontario. I've had a week of class from experienced instructors who can't help but treat us like children.

In Thunder Bay, the grocery store "Safeway" is said "Safeways". No reason.

I watched a friendly Pastor rock a three run home run in a close softball game.

I've met seven great children and their six wonderful parents. They've opened their homes to me while I wait to move in to my place in Current River. I settled on a distant location for the beautiful forty minute bike ride to campus. Today is the first day of cold and rain and I realized I am a fool.

I know that we pronounce a hard 't' in Junot Road.

I check Google Maps using my iTouch when I'm lost. It's a lot easier to find an open network here compared to Toronto.

I delight myself by impressing the locals with my rapidly accumluating Thunder Bay knowledge.

*Quality Market moved next to the University on Golf Links and their old building is going to be a No Frills.
*There's a looming transit strike. Mid-September.
*They use kijiji here over craigslist
*I think Rogers is abandoning Thunder Bay and handing their clients over to the dreaded TBayTel.
*The ravens are like Toronto's raccoons. Some people through a blanket over their garbage bags if they don't have cans.
*I was helping friend of friend's brother-in-law move to a new house. It was a rough scene. In the end, a car caught on fire and the fire department had to put it out.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kafka in Ontario. My Police Background Check

Recently, I got my police background check.

At first glance, it costs $45. This is already ridiculous in the age of digital databases. I imagine that Canadian bureaucratic record keeping is an indoor ocean of little slips of paper. Seniors wearing old tyme bathing suits take handwritten requests and then dive for information.

Once I'm in the front of the line I give them my driver's license. The friendly person helping me returns with a forced smile.
"I have some... news."
"I like news!"
"There's a new RCMP initiative. Your birthday matches that of a known sex offender."
"You have to be fingerprinted. (beat) But we don't have to keep the records of it. (beat) It's because of Homolka."
"Karla Homolka. She tried to change her name. Now they're checking birthdays. Did you ever change your name?"
"You'll still have to be fingerprinted."
"Awesome! Let's do it!"
"Well... we can't."
"It costs an additional $25."
"I just paid $45 using interac. What's another $25?"
"You can't pay with interac."
"It has to be in the form of a certified cheque made out to the Receiver General of Canada."
"The fuck?"
"And you'll have to make an appointment to be fingerprinted."

Fortunately, my saint sister is there with her two-year old. The bureaucrat assumes we are married and bumps me to an immediate appointment. My sister heads to the bank to get a certified cheque. As I fill out two more forms with my name and address.

"There's a charge for these forms."
"It's $23."
"I just paid $45 using interac. My sister is getting a certified cheque for $25, What's another $23?"
"No... our machine only recognizes a bank card once."
"You can't pay with interac."
"Credit card?"

So I pay with my credit card. My sister returns with the cheque and I get all of my fingers slathered in ink and recorded for the government. I hope the elderly divers find the right slips of paper so that I get these back in times.

Seriously though,
I need this police records check so I wasn't about to take my freak out moment but this process seems unfair. Obviously, I'm only noticing this because I got the shit end of the shitstick. The cost of my police check doubled because of my birthday? Shouldn't such a cost be shared by all taxpayers? Also, a certified cheque to the Receiver General? What is that?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Good News

I am in need of good news.

It's an observation that has been around as long as mass media. "News" is skewed to show us a world filled with people dying from explosions and the failures of famous people. We are a tortured consumer society gawking at our human-made disasters. But sometimes, when I feel like a scarecrow losing my straw, held together by the thinnest of stitches, I look for something else. Not fluff but a joyful celebration. Someone is going to make a fortune with an online news source called "Good News", reporting stories like this:

One Year Old Child Invents Hug
A small child in Wasaga Beach (my niece) designed a new type of loving physical connection. In a spur of the moment decision young Andie turned the world of hugging upside down, taking the classic expression of love in a bold new direction. The child was walking outside, followed by the family dog who shares an undying bond with her since she's allowed to give him treats. When Andie was asked by her mother if she wanted to hug the dog the young genius responded with a gesture that still has local residents buzzing. Instead of using her arms in the traditional approach she walked to the side of the dog, bending at the waist and touching her head to the dog's back. She rested her forehead there, hands free, for a while to let the dog know that they shared a connection.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sleep Paralysis

The first time it happened I was about eighteen. I was lying on my back in bed and I couldn't move my neck. My eyes were open and I could look to my posters of batman and Jim Harbaugh. When my eyes shut I had a zoomed in image of a fat brown rat running in a metal wheel. I kept opening and closing my eyes. Unable to move. Suddenly, I was aware that I wasn't breathing. I tried to shout but I couldn't. I was frantically sending the message for my body to breathe, scream, move but nothing happened. Eventually I woke up.

This is what it feels like. Stop breathing. See how your body feels unnaturally quiet without the rhythm of breath? Then stare at your hand. Pretend you're telling yourself to make a fist but simply watch it ignore your command. That is the exact feeling.

Every six months I get one of these dreams. A few days ago I felt it coming on. I was trying to fall asleep when I found myself looking around the room -not breathing. When I try to will myself out of these situations ("scream!", "breathe!", "get up!") nothing happens. The solution is to relax. Ignore the illusion that I'm not breathing and go to sleep in the dreamworld. The rat has never come back.

*side note. I wanted a picture of a face screaming as it pressed into a sheet. What do I google image to find that?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

serendipitous Montreal

Tired now. But if I sleep I may sleep through my bus leaving.

Old and new friends. Showed up as a comedy duo needing a third to complete the show. Made the 6 o'clock news in brief clip by performing in the afternoon for a CTV reporter in an empty theater. It looks like no one finds us funny.

The other night I could not find the theater only to hear my name being called. I was rescued by a face I had not expected to see in this city and brought to a magical, sweltering theater to find more pleasant surprises. Then I went to La Banquise and ate poutine.

I climbed a mountain and ended up in a cemetery, walking through a plantation of gravestones, finding myself on the other side consulting a public map that revealed how severe I was lost. Jean Brilliant is a hilarious street with the power to vanish and reappear at a more confusing intersection. At the peak of my misdirection I found forty dollars sitting on the sidewalk. They bought the delicious bagels I am smelling. Like it was planned.

This theater where I have slept turns into party central after a good show. It usually wraps up by 4am. I watched one of the owners clean this building from top to bottom like I have watched the Zamboni clear the ice.

At tonight's party, tongues loosened as alcohol was poured and I overheard discussions on food and incest. Conversation took a turn for the better when a wonderful small world moment led to a refreshing burst of honesty and reflection from a surprise speaker.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Throw that Fight

I attended the T.O. Jam festival this weekend. They provide the space and encouragement to make a video game in three day. It was held at George Brown in three fully equipped rooms.

Before the fest

The theme of the event was missing. Although I discovered most people ignored the theme and made a game they wanted. This was in keeping with the laissez faire spirit of the festival: do whatever you want but finish it.

We thought of a boxer who tried to "miss convincingly" to throw his fights. Our concept was to build a rhythm game (like Rhythm Heaven DS) combined with a puzzler (like Henry Hatsworth DS).
The story is set in 1885, following a kindhearted bare knuckle boxer who helps people by throwing his fights.

During the fest

-We worked in a beautiful college computer lab surrounded by thirty other programmers. Our team, Andrew Gardner and teh Andrew Gardner Group of Companies, sat side-by-side at one long table, working together but separately. Three was the perfect number for a team.

-The demographic was mostly young, male, awkward social skills and weak jokes. It was easy to overlook all of these traits because of the passion, camaraderie, and skill evident in each room. The people I met were kind, humble, and friendly.

-At the end of the second day they fed us free Chinese food. There was more than enough for everyone. I was impressed by the organization of the festival.

-Our first programmer, Andrew, had experimented with pygame. He built the rhythm component and a handler for cutscenes.

-Our second programmer, my brother Andrew, was new to pygame and was crafting our puzzler component. We made the mistake, mostly to my insistence,  of picking a poorly-thought-out-overly-complex puzzle game. My brother figured out a brilliant, simple solution during the festival but there was not enough time to get it done for the final version.

-We had a vision that the graphics of the game should be raw, black and white sketches so the whole game would look like storyboards. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any of my talented artist friends. For me, the turning point of the festival was when I turned to my team and apologized for not being able to find a real talent to do graphics. My brother shrugged and said "you're our graphics guy." Then I really set to work.

-Deadline was 8pm. We ate free pizza, a raffle was held (two of us won headphones... what?), and we got to see everyone else's game. I wrote down the titles of my favourites. I'll do a follow-up post when they put them all online. There will also be an arcade where they play the games at a bar, showcasing each on on the big screen.

After the fest

Our work schedule:
-Day 1: 6pm - 4am
-Day 2: 10am - 4am
-Day 3: 10am - 8pm. We worked until the last minute.

-I laughed at my brother because his eyes erupted after the second day but mine also went extreme bloodshotty last night. I think I need a break from pixels.

-I arrived home around 11:30pm. Andrew came and we showcased the game to Liz. She beat it in four tries. It was exactly what we were hoping for.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


This is an interview I gave via email for an upcoming comedy festival that I'm performing in. Can you guess which chosen few of my many words ran in the article? Her questions, my answers.

How and why did you get into comedy?

It starts at the dinner table. The family laughs and a little attention monster is born, always feeding, never satisfied. I've always had supportive friends and family so I have had plenty of opportunity to develop my comedy barometer. In university, it was my sketch comedy and improv director, Mike "Nug" Nahrgang, who showed us how easy it was to craft a show, book a venue, and perform. Now I perform at the Comedy Bar with my sketch group Elephant Empire once a month.

How would you describe what you do on stage? 
We like imagination. Our sketches take place in outer space or quicksand traps often poking fun at people being petty. Between the slice-of-life appeal of Corner Gas and the silliness of Monty Python, we're closer to the latter. Although, I think I care more about my audience "getting it". There's a small part of me that always wants my parents to enjoy the show. 

Who do you think will like your routine? 
Our target demographic is the female, self-employed, small pet owners between the ages of 80-85. Seriously, everyone likes the lifeguard sketch. And milk. You will all laugh at milk. And the Benson family remix. I think you're all going to like it.

What kind of thing makes you laugh?
I find myself laughing at reality then I remember it's real and I get scared. Like what Justin Bieber sings about. Sometimes I think tweenagers singing about love is a sketch I dreamed up. I still can't believe the Iraq War was sold on the punchline of weapons of mass destruction. Did that really happen? I guess laugh a lot at injustice. 

Have you been to Guelph before?
I've been to Guelph a few times. Jeff Bersche, one of the festival organizers, was my high school improv coach. Occasionally, I do improv workshops with his team.

It appears you’re connected with some of the other groups that are also coming to Guelph. Explain those connections. Will it feel like old home week, seeing some old buddies?

Many of the people in this festival are some of my favourite performers in the comedy scene. I see most of them on a semi-regular basis. I've done shows with half of them. Three of them I play floor hockey with. Two of them I asked to open for me. One I saw earlier today to discuss her new improv project. 

Do you think people laugh as much as they need to? Has the recession made us all a bunch of grumps?
I don't get to see the grumps. I get to see people who come to a comedy show, they want to laugh. I think the recession made people stay in, watching an extra video of a cat sneezing on YouTube instead of going out to a live show. But we can only stay in our caves for so long. I'm a firm believer that if you see us once you'll be hooked. I think any performer worth seeing thinks the same thing. We'll turn you into an addict, recession or not, you'll sell your child's bike to see us.

I guess Peter is your real name. Where did Nemo Dally come from?
Don't you have an imaginary name that you feel an unexplainable attachment to? It started because stage names are fun. I force everyone in Elephant Empire (my sketch group) to choose one. That way I get to work with people like Mort Swindle and Claxico Anfrostellar and not with my boring friends. Also, it has advantageous in the Age of Google, search for my real name and you'll find a really popular car designer guy.

The article.

 Answer key: 
"Between the slice-of-life appeal of Corner Gas and the silliness of Monty Python, we're closer to the latter. Although, I think I care more about my audience "getting it"." (paraphrased)

"I find myself laughing at reality then I remember it's real and I get scared. Like what Justin Bieber sings about. Sometimes I think tweenagers singing about love is a sketch I dreamed up. I still can't believe the Iraq War was sold on the punchline of weapons of mass destruction. Did that really happen? I guess laugh a lot at injustice. "

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Text Search

The ability to run a search for words (try ctrl+f in your browser) has changed our relationship with the written word.

OCR (Optical Character Recognition -thank you Liz) has made it possible to text search books. That, more than anything else, will cause the death of the page and the rise of the ebook.

It's funny, my great great grand, to live in this technological time. Will you hold and read a paper book?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why Not Lie on Facebook?

I don't know what it is about me. Maybe I'm just an asshole looking to make life difficult for others. Market researchers want to get inside my head so they can show me relevant ads. Cut through the crap and target me with commercials for things I might by for reasons I care about. I can see they want to help me, so why do I insist on throwing wrenches in Helpbot's gears?

Switching gears.
The "social networking site" Facebook is collecting information about its members. In return, we get a personal internet, filled with friends. What's the big deal? It's free! Shouldn't they be allowed to collect anonymous information? Doesn't hurt me if they know how many people have birthdays in December. Or how many people listed Night as their favourite books.

Think of all the text on there. Facebeast can step back, run a search, and look at the buzz. They know what words are most often used, what ads people most often click on, what products are most often mentioned. Information that market researchers will pay for, assuming it's reliable.

Facebook has the delicate job of informing its users that they want more access to our behviours without scaring us away. Everyone's worried that Facebook is going to "own their photos" or "own their blog posts". Facebook doesn't give a shit about owning those things. They're not going to publish your stuff and claim it as their own -that would cause a massive exodus. What they do want (and have) is access to what we click on and what we write about.

We're all worried that people are reading our facebook messages and laughing at our grammar. Truth is, they don't give a shit about individuals, the money is in the group. They want your gender, age, occupation, location, and they want to know where that fits into consumer patterns. There is no TV without commercials. There is no Facebook without access to your information.

Bring me to my point -took me long enough.

Why not lie on Facebook?
I firmly believe that Facebook's power (over social network sites like MySpace) was pressuring people to use their real names. No one's going to pay for ad info about all the 101 year old 5cm tall MySpace profiles. Facebook is much more reliable. Funny. Why don't we lie? What psychological power keeps people in check, using their real names when they sign up for things online? Our friends already know our birthday and gender what keeps us from switching them?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Worst Sleep of My Life

We were camping, chatting around the campfire at night. I was telling one of my fabulously entertaining stories, laughing at my own jokes, really getting into it. Suddenly, a rock the size of a double hamburger (ad size not actual size) rolled toward me. In mid-sentence I picked it up, carefully placing it back in the ring around the fire to do it's job, containing the flames.

The others seemed shocked. That's when I realized that I must be a very good storyteller because I could elicit a variety of emotional responses from surprise to my hand is burning my hand is burning. I plunged my hand into a bucket of ice water. Afterward there was some degree of argument over if this was the proper treatment for the degree of burn.

Now that pointer, middle and thumb had immense, throbbing blisters it was time for sleep. I took action to avoid being awoken by the constant pain, dipping into the cooler and filling a bag with ice. As I nodded off to sleep I would let go of the ice and wake up in agony. My right hand still felt on fire.

Being a genius, I decided to tie the bag to my hand. Imagine my surprise when I awoke, about ninety minutes later, discovering my bag of ice had been replaced with cold water. It is true that if you put someone's hand in liquid when they're sleeping they will feel an urgent need to urinate. I woke up with my bladder screaming. Never watch a desperate man trying to open a tent without his glasses, in the dark, unable to use his burning right hand. I can only imagine what a sad, frustrating spectacle I was. Unfortunately, I was unable to directly experience the ordeal. In order to cope with my twinging bladder my personality split, creating an alternate universe in which I was a master thief breaking out of prison. I vaguely remember getting free, stumbling to my equally difficult first heist, barely able to liberate the jewels before the alarms went off.

I had made it to 1am.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What is a story?

I think a lot about storytelling because I perform improv and I like to write stories. I've memorized Vonnegut's advice about writing "make your characters want something" which is such bullsh*t because his characters are shoddy puppets tossed about to express his ideas. So here is my own bullsh*t wisdom from what I see in good stories and try to emulate in my own work. It's shameful but I feel compelled to watch the ending of bad movies if they simply employ these two storytelling tricks.

1. Have a clear ending point.
Heist movies, mysteries, and sports films (I'm sure there are more genres) all have the advantage of a clear finale. The inevitable last job/game/confrontation. This promise to the audience is made early and gives us a sense that we're going somewhere. I just watched Where the Wild Things Are. While I love Spike Jonze and the visual style of this film it was sorely lacking in this area. I found myself quite bored watching the film which was simply a montage of interesting monsters standing around, bitching about their lives. You might say the structure was: boy goes to island, has adventure, boy leaves island. But I really felt he left the island because he checked his watch and the movie was about over. They weren't moving toward any final action and it bored me.

2. Give me a chance to guess.
Reward attentive viewers. We should be able to foresee how the main character will solve their problems by what we have learned about their character and environment. This is such a key skill in improv that I realized with the help of Keith Johnstone's work.

I land my spaceship on the moon. I drive my moon rover around. Then I'm attacked by an alien. If I shoot it with a gun, it's bad storytelling. Where the f*ck did I get a gun? Bad storytellers solve problems by pulling things out of their asses. Good storytelling goes back to what we already know. I could hit the alien with the moon rover or, better yet, I could drive back to the ship, letting it chase me, only to fry it with my spaceship's engine. That incorporates the things that the audience knew. I love this feature of storytelling. It's a very artistic dance that storytellers do. If you call something back in a way that's too obvious or too obscure then you lose them. It's a careful, interesting balance. When it's done right everyone has a sense of how the movie will end, leaves saying "I saw that coming", but wasn't sure enough to speak up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Was Avatar racist?

 WARNING  I spoil Avatar in this post. 

I watched Avatar in a surprisingly filled IMAX theater on a Monday afternoon over a month after it opened. I didn't find it very memorable but I did like the villain and the final fight. There's been a lot of talk about the offensive storyline in Avatar and I wanted to attack and defend it.


Typical Whitey Saves the Day
Undeniably, the story contains a heavy dose of colonial mentality. Basically: the savages need a white male savior. The message here is that foreigners are waiting for a Westerner to save them. This mentality is also very prevalent in our various "save Africa" charity campaigns. From (Red)'s "spend money until we save Africans from AIDS" to the classic "only your money can buy African children food, water, and to learn to read the Bible". In the film the natives are pretty cool but absolutely useless when it comes to fighting the humans. The protagonist saves the day by throwing grenades in the attacking aircraft engines. All of his training to become a native warrior did fuck all. Good thing he was also a trained soldier.

The Alien Natives
The way the aliens all sit cross-legged and chant to their tree-god made me uncomfortable. Hollywood storytellers always portray natives with the same connection to nature. They are "purer", living with a spiritual (and in Avatar literal) bond with plants and animals. Savages love nature and civilized people hate it. Savages live in balance and civilized people live in greed. This is the classic dichotomy. For once I'd like to see a tribe that hates nature as much as everyone else and focuses on the constant struggle to tame it with technology. Although I was excited to see that the forest creatures came to the aid of the natives -that choice also made me uncomfortable. So did the film's use of the words 'shaman' and 'race'.

I also felt like I could overhear meetings that included comments like "make sure the warpaint looks tribal and cool" and "the aliens should have dreadlocks and if anyone asks tell them that they're organic internet cables" and "I told you not too African but this other one isn't African enough."


Cheering when White People Die
We're meant to enjoy the death of regular white soldiers who are killed in the line of duty. This is an unusual choice for mainstream action. During the climactic air battle sequence the tough alien warrior jumps on the ship and begins tossing humans to their doom. It's clear that we're meant to be on his side emotionally and feel sadness only after he is shot and falls to his own slow motion doom. Usually, when white people die in cinema, especially at the hands of natives, it's important to show them doing something cruel beforehand.

Woman Saves Day
Why aren't more people pointing this out? I was most impressed by the choice to have the female hero save the protagonist's life twice at the end of the movie. This is a big deal. Action movies do not end this way. In Avatar it seemed very natural. First, she has to kill the villain because he can't. Then she has to save his ass again because he fails to put on an oxygen mask. Also, she's not overtly sexualized in the film. I know all of the Aliens have intergalactic runway model body types but I'm talking about bending over, taking her top off, or coming out of the waterfall shower. I feel that they consciously avoided the sex object route. Also, she's a ten foot tall blue-animal-woman. I would argue that Avatar is a good feminist film because it expands our expectations of women in cinema. She trains the protagonist, she saves his life three times in the film, and she isn't overtly sexualized.

If Frantz Fanon wrote Avatar:
One of the interesting aspects of Avatar is language (it's a constant struggle in sci-fi movies to explain why everyone can understand each other). The aliens speak english because a school had been set up but later kicked out. The film stays pretty superficial on this topic. The teacher of the school learned to speak the alien's language. And we're meant to like her because she shows respect for foreign culture and she like children. Even our hero trains for three months and speak their language as often as a mainstream audience can stomach subtitles. For the sake of Fanon, I was really hoping they were going to show more of a disillusioned generation that had been trained to speak English and then discovered that humans didn't give a shit about their opinions. Then they would have been outcasts from both sides. Shunned by the aliens for acting "too-human" and never taken seriously by those who taught them.

The epiphany
The aliens don't need us. They have a thriving, independent culture with a long history. This is an interesting linchpin of the plot. Our protagonist reveals that there is nothing humans can offer the aliens. At which point the corporation decides to kill them. Interesting note, the military villain mentions he had done three tours of duty in Nigeria which I feel is an intentional reference to Shell Oil's dirty business.

Avatar is a film that reinforces the idea that white people are here to save the world while working very hard to show a respect for other cultures. Obviously these contradict and, in the end, white people rule!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Furthest Fall 3 - King Tutankhamen

How's this for cruel:

King "Tut" died and was buried in the Valley of the Kings over 3000 years ago. He was buried in a very expensive and particular way. He was mummified so that he could make a successful transition into the afterlife. His vital organs were placed in canopic jars. His body was wrapped with a few scarabs to ensure everything would work when he woke up. His ba was raring to go. And everything was hidden so that it would not be disturbed.

He was a relatively unimportant Pharaoh -except for one thing. We found his tomb intact. Other tombs had been completely robbed but his was full of ornate, crafted, golden goods.

Now, his body is sitting in a glass case inside his tomb and visited daily by hundreds of tourists. He is covered by a blanket that does not cover his toes so that everyone can comment on how disgusting they look. THERE IS A SECURITY CAMERA PERPETUALLY POINTED AT HIS BODY while his sacred artifacts tour the world for more people to see.

For all of the careful preparations to keep his body safe and hidden he may be one of the most looked at corpses in the history of the world.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sci Fi Summaries. Best Gifts.

For a long time the best gift I ever gave was an obscure book about draining Kirkland Lake for mining that my dad vaguely remembered. Thanks to the internet for finding that one. I had never got my mom a 'next level' gift until, one Christmas, I realized that she was an insomniac who read Grisham all night. Well now, thanks to me, she's also read everything James Patterson wrote.

I can understand how gifts in a relationship can become very symbolic. Will early handmade presents give way to hastily bought chocolates? Liz and I have set our bar frighteningly high. We make shirts for each other with obscure stencils of Nagi Noda or Song Kang-ho. Now, since I spend my days writing, she created this blog, of sci fi novel summaries, to inspire me. Check it out: 365daysofscifi.tumblr.com