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Monday, October 5, 2015

Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains

I could write for pages about pretty much every single Batman villain, because they are quite simply the best. Without thinking too hard about it, I jotted down the first five villains I could think of when I thought of "favorite characters." And then, again without thinking too hard, I put them in the order least to most. It's definitely a crowded list. Certainly at least the top tier, all warrant a spot on the best-of. But these five are characters I find particularly fascinating, and in some ways I identify with. And that's not so disturbing to say when you remember that the most successful and "coolest" of Batman's villains are those that may (and often do) operate as extensions of Batman's own psyche. They represent the darkest incarnations of his own personality. Where Batman represents order and restraint, Joker represents his release and need for chaos; Riddler is Bruce's obsession with riddles and his intellect; the Penguin, and even Hush, came from families of wealth and influence, but had no grounding in reality and morality; Bane is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter, all things that Bruce prides himself on being superior in to his foes.

So, here it is. For better or worse, my Top 5 Favorite Batman Villains.

5.) Harley Quinn
Real Name: Dr. Harleen Quinzel
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Variations of Joker's clown/jester persona though she has branched off into her own aesthetic since her debut. She's a proficient combatant, and favors heavy melee weapons, like her trademark baseball bat and giant hammer. Harley's madness has mostly been expressed through her wardrobe, which has changed extensively with each progressive incarnation. Some have been viewed as overly (and needlessly) sexual but I think those are beside the point. Again, I view them solely as an expression of her madness, and some of that is wrapped up in her own sexual identity.

I love Harley, and I definitely love that she's managed to grow into her own persona apart from The Joker. That all certainly still informs her character, but it no longer defines her solely. I think in many ways they've managed to do things with the character that they may be hesitant to do with The Joker because of his status as an icon. Harley's got a bit more chameleon qualities to her. And that's true for her character too. Like I said, the external expression of herself is part of her finding an identity amidst an already very-colorful world.

The best interpretations of Harley also preserve her abilities as a doctor, as a psychologist. The concept of a character who has slipped into psychopathy despite knowing all the signs and dangers is way more interesting to me than someone who has always been crazy. Certainly, she's likely always had that potential pre-Harley, but to have that unlocked and then to watch her journey and progression into darkness while again, being someone trained to see those warning signs and red flags is beautifully tragic. Like all the best dysfunctional relationships, I feel terrible for Harley who loves a man that will never truly love her back, but I also just want Harley to be loved if that's what she wants. There's also something quietly disturbing about Harley, who is more dangerous to other people because she is not solely focused on the Batman like The Joker is.

Pictured here, I like the Harley costume from Arkham Knight. Another good one is the Injustice Regime version. And of course, you can't go wrong with the old-school, Animated Series jester version. Her recent run in Suicide Squad and her own solo books are proving the character's growing popularity.

4.) The Joker
Real Name: ???
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The Joker ostensibly has no powers, but his deep insanity and psychopathy often seems to push his system into withstanding unspeakable amounts of punishment and he has occasionally shown feats of strength and durability and has gone toe-to-toe with Batman several times. Though he seems to be all chaos and bedlam, some find him to be extremely cunning and clever. I also have a personal theory that Joker's real superpower is timing (like, impeccable comic timing).

Even if you don't love The Joker, he's like The Beatles. You have to respect him. He's Batman's most popular villain, one of his most enduring, and at various points throughout his tenure has been both the most entertaining and the most frightening.

People hate clowns, it's just a fact of life. And regardless of how ridiculous an incarnation of the Joker can be, it still manages to frighten you deep down. There's something delightfully insane about Cesar Romero not shaving his mustache underneath the white make-up. It makes the character just a hint more disturbing. I grew up on Mark Hamill's Joker which will always be the best for me, but we've been gifted with awesome interpretations many times over. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger both added menace and nuance to a role so disturbing it warrants consideration that it's best to leave this character up to the limitless expanses of comic book imagination, rather than burdening a real person to portray the embodiment of true psychopathy.

At his best, Joker is the worst. Throughout his long history it's been interpreted as mindless mayhem or extremely calculated ruthlessness hazed by a fog of idiocy. Is he so insane he's a genius, or is he masking genius intellect by feigning insanity? Either way works for me. What I love at the end of it all is the "locked in immortal combat" aspect of his and Batman's relationship. Why does one not simply kill the other? Because it completes the journey for both of them. Batman removing the Joker removes his purpose, Joker killing Batman removes his.

It's hard to un-seat some of the enduringly popular stories focusing on the Joker, like The Killing Joke, but most recently, the New 52's slow-burn of his re-introduction (at the launch, Joker escaped Arkham not before having his face cut off and left nailed to a wall) where he returned to reclaim his face (and wore the disgusting, decomposing thing strapped to his scarry, scarry facial remains) and set up the fantastic Death of the Family storyline. It was well worth the wait, and that along with Endgame, has made Joker the scariest he's been in years. And of course, you can't go wrong with the Arkham games, where he is once again voiced by Mark Hamill.

My favorite alternate Joker voices though, (Troy Baker kind of doesn't count since he's doing a straight send-up of Hamill's, although it is flawless) would be John DiMaggio's turn in Under the Red Hood, Kevin Michael Richardson's Joker from The Batman, and for a more subdued, creepy take, I like both Brent Spiner's from Young Justice, and Michael Emerson's from The Dark Knight Returns.

Art credit to: Sherwood-Art
3.) Talia Al Ghul
Alias: Leviathan
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - An incredibly accomplished assassin and hand-to-hand combatant, who is not afraid to use lethal force. She has on and off been head of the League of Assassins and has headed Leviathan for a while. Talia has also been romantically involved with Bruce Wayne/Batman over the years, to the point that she is the mother of the fourth Robin, Damian Wayne.

There's something so intriguing to me about Talia being one of the only women Bruce has ever loved. Selina often fills that role but there never feels like there's any pay-off with that relationship, it just feels like it goes on forever. Talia and Bruce however, are both manipulated by her father at various times (see: Arkham City for my favorite encapsulation of that relationship) and Damian adds an extra element of complexity to their relationship. Talia is what Batman could be if he adjusted his morality somewhat. If he one day decided that he knew exactly what was best for everyone, he could rule a network (like Batman Inc.) and the world with his moral code and ensure everyone's safety. But at the end of the day, Bruce has a heart, Talia does not.

Which is what fascinates me about Talia, in that she is lacking that moral compass, but still believes in her own cause. She believes more in the importance of vengeance, of control, of superiority of mind and body. It doesn't make her all that different from Bruce, but her morality is what drives them apart. Damian even says it himself: though he has his mother's upbringing and training, he now has his father as his partner, and that has made all the difference to the fourth Robin.

I love Talia, and I honestly think she was done a disservice with the movie Dark Knight Rises. From the beginning, she should have been a clear threat and not a last-minute swerve for the audience, most of whom already saw it coming anyway. It also did a disservice to Bane's character, but that's a different story. It was a complicated, thorough plan to be sure, highlighting her deception skills, but we never see her skills as a combatant, and that's where the deadly combination is: that she has her father's abilities of deception as well as the League's deadly assassin technique. I do hope a better version of the character comes along, but for now, Batman Inc. brings her story arc to completion.

2.) The Riddler
Real Name: Edward Nigma
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - The early villains tend to suffer from being extremely gimmick-heavy, and Riddler may be one of the longer-suffering. At best, he is creator of complex mind-games and puzzles leading into Jigsaw-level death traps (like in the Arkham games), at worst he is a flop-sweaty knock-off of the Joker, whose obsessive compulsive disorder drives him to leave complex riddles at scenes of the crimes that Batman solves and lead to his eventual undoing (like in the Adam West-era Batman). But Riddler is a genius-level intellect, and he mirrors Batman in a lot of ways, one being that he is constantly his own worst enemy, whether it be his crippling need for perfection or his crippling need to constantly prove himself.

I think it's become intrinsic to the character that he inevitably fails, and it is also self-inflicted. Riddler's more grounded psychopathy and descent into madness has always made him distinct for me from the Joker and I'm glad that more modern interpretations have treated them as such. Being thought of as a knock-off though has allowed for some fascinating interpretations of the character, like a handicapped arms dealer, a Gothic, more lethal version, and my favorite, the Arkham series' complicated puzzle-maker, obsessed with proving his intellectual superiority to Batman. He's also one of the villains that works as an ally, even reforming entirely from a life of crime for a period. He proves extremely helpful because of intelligence and intuition of the human mind.

Like I said, Wally Wingert's voice acting of the character is what really brought it to life. From Arkham Asylum to the end in Knight, he brought out more layered aspects of the character and made me love him. I just wanted to see him get it in the end, because he was such a pain in the ass. Riddler's struggle to rise from second best is something everyone can relate to, and that's what has made the character stand the test of time.

1.) Mr. Freeze
Real Name: Victor Fries
Powers/Abilities/M.O. - Like the Riddler, many of Freeze's early crimes revolved around "cold" and "ice" themed capers, but over the years his suit has also granted him enhanced strength and durability as well as the ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures, putting those who would challenge him on his own turf at a distinct disadvantage. Freeze, like Batman, is driven by the "death" of a loved one, in this case his wife Nora, who is preserved forever in a block of ice until a cure for her terminal disease can be found. Freeze is incapable of letting her go, and many of his crimes are driven by the injustice he has felt by a system that neglects him and her. All of Freeze's weapons remain ice-themed, but with decidedly more deadly consequences and implications than they once did.

It really speaks to the specific generation of Batman you grew up in when you analyze one's favorite villains. Talia being the exception that was used a bit more sparingly, my first 5 were all exceptionally done in the Batman animated series from WB. Freeze was an especially tragic character and given real dramatic weight by his voice portrayal by Michael Ansara.

We were also the perfect generation for the Arkham series of games, again where all five of these villains have great portrayals and great voice actors. Maurice LaMarche outdoes himself on a truly great Freeze and of course, Freeze has the best boss battle of the entire series, where Batman is forced to change his plan of attack on every single offensive strike. It's really in the upper echelon of boss battles, and I highly recommend it for video game players who've missed out on it previously.

Freeze stands as one of my most favorite villains because he has one of the more realistic downfalls. It's not so hard to believe that love drove an individual mad, because we've seen the lengths people in love go to for the one they hold most dear. As the Joker is fond of saying, everyone's just one bad day away from insanity. Freeze has taken a lifetime there.

There you have it. Who are your favorites in the Rogues Gallery? Anybody on the lower tiers you are particularly fond of? I'm a huge fan of The Ventriloquist and Calendar Man.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Christopher Reeve!

Decades later, still the most iconic performance of Superman of all time, Christopher Reeve humanized the Man of Tomorrow in a way that still often eludes comic book writers (leading them to do wildly incomprehensible things, like stripping him of his powers entirely) and has made it difficult for filmmakers to bring the original Cape into a modern context (evidenced by Man Of Steel to make a more critically positive impact, even though I, as did most pre-M.O.S. fans of Superman, loved the interpretation).

But for me, there's not many others who can claim a link so strongly to a character, especially a comic book one, like Reeve did for Superman. Critics and fans alike will argue endlessly over the best live-action Batman (Keaton, West, or Bale, take your pick), while everyone is pretty unanimous on his animated counterpart (the great Kevin Conroy. Also, Joker is pretty much unanimously spoken for in Mark Hamill). Spider-Man may eventually favor Andrew Garfield overall, but it's hard to disconnect entirely from a well-acted Tobey Maguire. And we're already getting another one soon. The Incredible Hulk's had three excellent actors portray him on the big screen. We have two different generations of Professor Xavier and Magneto. Routh, Reeves, Cain, Welling, and Cavill... all pretty great in the role of the Last Son of Krypton, but Christopher Reeve was just something special.

I argue that the portrayal stands the test of time, especially if you stick to the first two films. He's the squeakiest-clean of all the heroes, but he's never grating, he's never too much. Some of his powers are a bit out there, but the thing is, you can hate that, but you can't fault Reeve; he grounds it unquestionably by bringing that same hope and passion that Superman is known for, the real qualities he should be celebrated for, instead of ridiculed for.

Last year at Comic-Con, they had the 1989 Batman costume and the 1978 Superman costume side-by-side at a display. I was heartbroken thinking about how that version of Batman/Superman would never be. Reeve was a talented actor, and got to be the first real person to bring a larger-than-life hero to the big screen, arguably the largest of them all. And the most difficult of them all.

How do you make people care about an alien who is nigh-on invincible?

You play him like Christopher Reeve.

Happy Birthday, sir. Thank you for everything.

P.S., for non-Superman film buffs, I'd recommend The Bostonians and Somewhere in Time, for some strong Reeve roles. Also, a personal favorite of mine, Noises Off. Reeve holds his own against comedic greats like John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Carol Burnett, and Michael Caine.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Congrats, Mr. Colbert!

Can something be absolutely what you expected, while also being completely, pleasantly unexpected? Anyway, that's how I felt about Stephen Colbert's very first Late Show. I'm so excited for him, and in a weird way, I'm incredibly proud of him. I was always a fan of his on the Daily Show, and watched the Colbert Report from its very beginning. It's a huge deal to come after Letterman, but Colbert did everything in stride. It was all there, and it all just felt right, from the music to the comedy to the interviews. Oh yeah, that's right! You don't realize how badly late night has been missing a good interviewer. With Letterman gone, that's also a huge void. But Colbert is the master, flawlessly moving from George Clooney to Jeb Bush in a single night.

Also, there's a unique fuzzy feels to seeing the host of Late Show and the host of Tonight briefly interact, cordially. A little bit of a historical moment there. All in all, it's wonderful to see the host whom I think will now anchor all late night, combining the class, wit, and charm in its comedy that it needs.

Congrats, Mr. Colbert!

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Theatrical Confession...

My friends tend to think of me as overly zealous about things that I love, and I tend to love a lot of things. Even if it’s a terrible horror movie, even if it’s trashy reality television, I will find a reason to love it, and love the fuck out of it. Of course even for me there are things that I absolutely detest, and things that I am sorely disappointed by, but I have always given things a chance. My favorite drama on television for years was Desperate Housewives, which always elicited the same reaction: “Really!?” Yes, really. Did you ever watch it? “Well, no, it just doesn’t look like it’s for me.” Then you my friend, are missing out. It’s some of the cheesiest cheese out there, but it also has moments of true mystery, as well as several legitimately outstanding performances (looking at you, Felicity Huffman).
So you can name pretty much any work of visual art and I’ve seen at least an episode or part of it. I also try my best to see something the way serious fans of it tell me I should (“Watch these movies in this order!” or “Sit and watch season 6 first, that’s when it’s really at its best.”) and I always do my best to watch at least part of it independently of other people. Some things I have to reserve judgment on, like a season-long mystery on a TV show, I won’t judge until I’ve gotten to its conclusion, or such as a musical, because I’ve often listened to the recording long before I see it live on stage.
Speaking of musicals! There is a musical that is almost universally beloved by musical theatre fans the world over, throughout all of Christendom. It is a masterfully written work by a master craftsman at his very best, it is clever and subversive, while also being a well-suited representation of its genre, something that I love (Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, etc.) and the basis of any good musical: it has lovely, meaningful music.
ALL THAT BEING SAID, I just simply cannot bring myself to be excited about it. And it is, like I said, something that is beloved, and dare I say sacred among groups of friends. It is quoted to me constantly, its music is sung constantly to me, I’ve seen it performed in bits and pieces many times over the years, as senior projects or directing scenes, I’ve seen productions of it both professional and amateur, and I’ve sat and analyzed it to death with critics and fans alike. It is one of those pieces that I know in my heart of hearts (and even the outer hearts) is good, is fantastic, but it just doesn’t satisfy me emotionally, creatively. I have never been able to put my finger on it, I have never been able to articulate exactly why it doesn’t appeal to me, all I can say is that for whatever reason, there is some gaping hole in my imaginary list of requirements that fails to get ticked off. I thought perhaps by analyzing what gripes me about the show, maybe I can arrive at a more solid conclusion. So to that end, the musical that everyone just loves but I cannot care less about is Into the Woods.

There are a number of ways to tackle this analysis. There are its merits as a show (against itself, in a bubble), in comparison with Sondheim’s other works (against the canon, as it were), in comparison with other similar work (against its place in pop culture), and against my own criteria and thoughts (against the subjectivity of its audience).
Starting with its own merits, Into the Woods like I already said is an absolutely solid show. Sondheim has a real talent for keeping his music upbeat and moving, even when they’re just exposition. The Prologue is one of the single longest sequences in a show of his, but it doesn’t even occur to you that it’s 10 minutes until you reach the end. There’s multiple examples like this throughout, both Midnights, A Very Nice Prince, Any Moment, Agony… All rather expositional, but nonetheless exciting. Of course there are numbers that I feel are unnecessary, as with most musicals. Although with the way the show is structured, mostly sung-through, it’s more that there are sequences of music that I don’t think are necessary to advance the story.
I love Giants in the Sky, I used it as an audition song for a couple years, Moments in the Woods is fantastic, as is I Know Things Now, and representative of the show’s central lessons about growing up. No One is Alone and Last Midnight are also great. Agony is honestly hit or miss to me, if it’s not handled well, or if it’s overblown, I’m not such a fan of No More or even The Witch’s Lament (I think Stay With Me is better characterization).
I think it’s a fun use of characters we are familiar with, characters that are one-dimensional and really just plot devices for the lessons of the fairy tale being told. The real star of it all is the Baker and the Bakers’ Wife, with the Witch being not far behind.
But on its own, there are some problems. I think the plot elements are extremely convoluted taken at face value. The Witch is dealing with a curse of her own and so has to deal with the Baker and his Wife to reverse their curse? Why are there so many steps to this? What is the purpose of the Mysterious Man? Why are we given a brief moment with a character that makes no sense only to have it revealed that he’s the father, only to have that then taken away just as quickly? One of Sondheim’s many talents is juggling multiple characters, but even with his abilities, some of the storylines fall short. Dramatically, Little Red and Jack aren’t brought to a complete arc the way Cinderella is. Cinderella is one way at the beginning of the show, is granted that life that she desired, realizes it was not what she wanted, and learns to be happy on her own. Little Red’s character development in I Know Things Now has a lot to do with sexual metaphor, and that never plays a role again. She simply becomes a harsher personality for her troubles. Jack, for lack of a better characterization, is an idiot, and remains an idiot throughout, and regardless of what everyone lands on in Your Fault, it’s Jack’s fault. Come on, guys. It’s Jack’s fault, without a doubt.
I also do have a problem with its running time. It’s a three-hour (often plus) show. And I really don’t think it has to be. There are other shows that are just as long and I’m not saying they all warrant that run-time and Into the Woods doesn’t, but I think it does work against it more than others. I think people going in not knowing what to expect and hearing it’s fairy tales, I don’t think anyone’s expecting a three hour runtime. There are several steps added to every single storyline that don’t really need to be there. Why are there two giants? Doesn’t work alright with one with some rewrite? If Rapunzel isn’t the hair as gold as corn, why is she necessary to this story? Neither her nor the Witch complete the intended arc of their relationship. Rapunzel dies in rebellion, though through no fault of her own (unlike the Baker’s Wife who dies out of karmic retribution) and the Witch doesn’t change because of the death. I don’t really need Cinderella’s (or anyone’s for that matter) fairy tale retold to me as is if nothing is added to it. The Baker being added to Jack and Red’s stories justifies their retelling, but the Prince searching for Cinderella carries no emotional weight. We’ve already seen that done, there’s nothing added to it. And the movie highlighted again the lack of need for the Narrator. I was fine without that presence in the story.
Pulling back a bit, in terms of Sondheim’s anthology in general, I think everyone generally agrees his major period is from Company (1970) until Assassins (1990). Funny Thing lies outside that, but that’s fine. Sondheim has many times over taken material not thought suitable for musicals, and turned them into some of our most iconic. Sweeney Todd and Assassins are Sondheim at his darkest. Merrily We Roll Along and Follies deal with show business at its most difficult. Company and A Little Night Music are Sondheim at his most intimate. Pacific Overtures is so different and unexpected. Sunday in the Park With George is one of the most perfect intersections of art, music, life, and theatre. All of them are rather unexpectedly good musical sources. Sweeney Todd is about a murderous barber and a cannibalistic secret. Assassins is about some of America’s most irredeemable murderers and attempted murderers. All of them include at least one difficult, complex protagonist.
Against the oeuvre of work, Into the Woods, for me, feels the least ambitious. Even as a subversion of fairy tales, it’s still using fairy tales as its base, which is relatively easy in comparison to say, a difficult marriage or the westernization of a xenophobic country. It’s neither incredibly unexpected nor original. If you want incredibly staged violence and passion behind it, watch Sweeney Todd. I find the violence and darkness in Into the Woods completely unnecessary. If you want unexpected and intimate character arcs, go for Merrily or Night Music. You want an unexpected set of stories coming from a basic source material, go with Sunday or Assassins. I think against Sondheim’s other work, it rather pales. I’m not the biggest music nerd out there so I don’t have this analyzed to a science, but for my ears there’s more interesting musical structures in his other works. Assassins is more melodic, as is Follies, as is Sunday. Sweeney Todd is far more complex.

Which leads me into the next macro-point that I touched on a bit earlier, in that in terms of pop culture, it’s just not that striking of a result to me. The first of two that most quickly comes to mind in comparison of similar material is a graphic novel series called Fables, which is an intricately told, deeply layered drama told with the same basic premise: what happens after happily ever after? The series has really interesting character arcs to it, and manages to change genres seamlessly based on the breadth of its source material (characters range from Aesop’s fables to Hans Christian Andersen, to 1,001 Nights, to Mother Goose and everything in between). For the most part, my problem might be that Into the Woods plays it extremely safe with its cast. Their decisions and branching narratives are binary (this or that) and nothing pulls from that far out of left field. It’s all rather straightforward. Mind you, one of my problems with the stagings of the show is that many of its outlandish elements aren’t handled particularly well. The revival, making Milky White an actual person, is an inspired choice, but everyone handles the Giant and the Giant’s Wife just about the same, Cinderella’s mother and Rapunzel are handled the same (often out of the same tower structure), while the only major effect worth waiting for (most of the time) is the Witch’s transformation. Again, the movie helped play up the spectacle of it all. Using these larger than life characters and settings while have it all be pretty subdued on stage is disappointing. The movie opened that up. We got to see the real expanse of the forest, there felt like more urgency because of the actual presence of a giant (although that all still came up a bit short for me), we got to see “actual” birds attack the step-sisters, real horses, the transformation was spectacular. The only thing that made it a weird show was Johnny Depp’s wolf. Why wasn’t he a CGI wolf voiced by Depp? It stuck out as the most “theater-y” thing to do. Suddenly, we were in that Mary Martin Peter Pan movie where you can see the strings, and the sets are all clearly sets. Everything else though, really helped in enhancing the make believe and the magic of the fairy tales we were witnessing. But everything stays completely limited in the musical, whereas in this graphic novel series we get to see characters explored like they are real people. These are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and they are treated as such.
My other example is Wreck-It Ralph. Again, familiar characters or character types in unexpected stories. And their lives take turns for the worse before they become better. And it isn’t to say that I needed Into the Woods to end more hopefully, I think it is one of Sondheim’s happier endings, but the journeys feel more complete in Ralph. Ralph, and even Felix, along with the other main characters that the story revolves around, make journeys throughout and grow as characters. Nobody feels treated like they’re a plot device unless they are in fact a plot device. We also get to see a fully realized world unrestricted by the stage. And yes, I get all that rhetoric about the stage sometimes leaving those gaps for the audience’s imaginations to fill in. Believe me, I played video games in my childhood from throughout the late 80s and early 90s. You needed a lot of imagination to imagine you were playing Star Wars when all you saw were vector lines. But there’s a lot that Into the Woods is asking of me without showing much. There’s so much of this world that we miss out on because they simply can’t do it. Perhaps some of it, you could argue, is not necessary to the plot, but then I argue that it’s then not necessary to use these characters.
The Baker and the Baker’s Wife, again, are the most interesting part of this whole show to me. A show could be made to service them, with original characters, echoes of their inspirations perhaps, but not necessary. Why is it necessary to include Jack, or Little Red? Couldn’t we just have the beanstalk all the same, a vengeful giant come to earth all the same, a voracious wolf having taken human victims all the same, without ever seeing these characters and their worlds? The beauty of Ralph is that we get to see each of these worlds, so much so that it feels like there’s dozens more stories to tell and we might never be finished telling all the stories.

Which leads me to my own final thoughts and reactions to the piece. There just isn’t much for me to grab onto emotionally in the whole show, for whatever reason. I love the Baker and his Wife, but I’m not as invested in them as I feel I should be. I’m not made to care about them just because I’m told they have a curse placed on them. It’s why in Beauty and the Beast, Belle is the focus, and not the Beast. I’m told he is cursed at the beginning but that doesn’t make me have sympathy for that character, that character has to earn it. Belle earns it organically, because she tells us her desires at the top. The Baker and his Wife lack that sympathy for me. And the other characters who have a chance at gaining the audience’s sympathy, are simply not the main characters. Cinderella again is the closest, and I think she possesses the most complete journey. Red and Jack do not grow up, and we don’t see the lessons impact them the same way that it does Cinderella. For me, we get more sympathy from her than we do the Bakers. If someone were to tell me this is actually a story about Cinderella’s journey from neglected to wishes fulfilled, to realizing the realities of marriage, to exercising her freedom, to becoming a part of a family out of choice, then I would believe you. But it is presented as the story of a Baker and his Wife who will stop at nothing to have a child, which includes deceiving a boy, stealing from a girl, ripping hair from a stranger, and killing a cow.
I also have a huge problem with consequences in the proceedings of the story. The Witch gets everything she wants. Yes, she loses Rapunzel, but I don’t think there’s enough done to humanize her to a point where I care. She locked up this girl in a tower and forbade her from ever seeing the outside world. The first chance that girl got for freedom, she rejected her, and rightfully so. What tyrant expects sympathy for that? But she gets her beauty and magic back and disappears at the end, without really learning a lesson. The Baker’s Wife also has a tryst in the forest that goes unaddressed for the remainder of the show. She gets seduced by the Prince and sleeps with him in the forest, then dies. Like I said, there is karmic justice there, but the Baker goes on believing in a woman who never strayed from his side. It’s just a weird circumstance. It seems like Cinderella learns the identity of the “other woman” her Prince sleeps with, but in some productions I’ve seen it’s unclear if the Baker ever actually learns of it. I don’t think he does. Along with the Baker’s Wife and Rapunzel, Jack’s Mom, the Bakers’ dad, and TWO giants are dead at the end of the show. And none of their deaths are particularly emotionally difficult. Perhaps it is partly the lack of real emotional stakes, and a problem of juggling way too many stories simultaneously.

Every time I see this show, I want to like it. When I sat down to watch the movie, I admit that I liked it more than any production I’d seen. When I watch Bernadette Peters as the Witch, I want to like the show on the emotional level that she moves me. But it just doesn’t. I think it’s overly long without the emotional payoff it deserves, with characters who don’t learn as much as they should, used in ways that I think lack imagination. And now it’s time to leave the Woods.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A brief, stream-of-consciousness, political rant.

I feel like weighing in on the whole campaign so far, for simply no other reason than the fact that I am a citizen of this country, I have voting rights, and because this is still a democracy, I have my right to do so.
If something develops, if things change, I am of course open to being wrong, and to changing these opinions, but this is what I see so far. Let me start with this immutable truth: I hate Donald Trump. I hate everything he stands for, I hate who he is as a person, his opinions, his beliefs, his appearances. Whether or not he is truly this monster he appears to be on TV or he is trolling an entire nation is irrelevant. I hate him.
But I also hate pretty much the entire Republican party, and everything the GOP has ever stood for and fought for. I hate Ted Cruz, I hate Jeb Bush, I hate Mike Huckabee, I hate Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, John Kasich... I also hate Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, George W.... And here's the thing. Donald Trump is the epitome of every idiotic, misogynistic, racist, crony Republican candidate that the Republican party has produced for the past two decades. And here's the difference: Donald Trump is doing it without pretending that he isn't those things. He's not hiding behind some sort of religion to justify his beliefs, or being willfully obtuse. He's not being caught saying something inappropriate like "binders full of women" or "49% of America does not matter" he's been doing it to everyone's face, on camera, unapologetic.

AND he is the frontrunner. And it's not even close. If he pulls out of the race, then fine all this is moot, but at this point in time, this isn't some farce. This shouldn't be relegated to "entertainment" by the Huff Post. This is real. This is what the Republican party is putting forward right now. And newsflash: this is what has ALWAYS been put forward. This kind of filth, this kind of idiocy, and this kind of ass-backwards defense of "values" and big business to defend the rich, white, and powerful. Why are we acting shocked or disgusted that Trump, who has always represented these values, who is the epitome of these values, is now the Republican frontrunner?

On the other side, Sanders is a true independent, but he's running with the side he felt better represented him, and it's proving true. WHY is this old man capturing the attention of young voters and under-represented groups? He's an underdog story at the moment. Hillary's got the same money and political sway influencing her campaign that is influencing all the Republican party's candidates. Sanders is basically doing this through sheer force of will alone. And this is scaring everyone. And it should be. It's rocking the entire foundation of the bi-partisan, two-party system that has persisted to keep the same ineffectual, power-hungry, easily bought government foundation that is also powering the media machine has two legitimate threats to their stability and standing.
And they are scared. They're smearing Sanders as much as they can, and they're distancing themselves from Trump, even though numbers cannot lie. This election is incredibly important. It's important that everyone go and vote, if only to prevent Trump from actually winning, but also, because this is an important crossroads between getting the same old bullshit we've been fed year after year, or politics that could actually be refreshingly honest and returned to the people that it governs. I guarantee that if anyone on the Republican side wins, they will spend the next eight years undoing what little progress Obama made (which is actually quite a lot). I'm not gonna tell you who to vote for, but I am gonna tell you to vote, because it's more necessary than ever. With the changing climate of society and politics and culture, there really isn't a more important election in recent memory in our country.

And it's why I can't completely discount Trump for the time being.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Everything On My Mind.

Obligatory apologies that it has been a while. I've been taking some time to write more for myself, and recollect my thoughts. It's safe to say my life's been pretty chaotic, internally and externally, since getting to New York, but I've been told two years is about the time it takes to adjust, and I'm rounding that corner. I have started to feel more at home, more settled, and I'm starting to think more about the future. We'll see where that takes me, adulting is hard to do.

I'm in the middle of the final session of camp this summer, which I always look forward to every year. I also face it with some dread, rather like the first day of school. There's anxiety to how the kids and I will get along, and how much adaptation I'm going to have to do to accommodate the chemistry of the given session. It's always fun and interesting, and I have a good team I'm working alongside. This session in particular has a really good mix of talent and personality. They were a little slow out the gate, perhaps because there was so many of them (20) but they've really come into their own, and tomorrow I have the huge task of blocking their show, which goes up Friday.

In this calm before the storm, I've gotten to thinking about the world around me. My Facebook, along with my News Feed, is littered with so much turmoil about so many different things.
What's really disheartening is how little it feels we are progressing. I think that's a matter of perspective and it's the circumstances of being down here on the ground, having to experience it every day.
Periodically, I've changed my feed preferences or taken hiatuses from Facebook, I've had to occasionally unsubscribe from news subReddits because it's just too much to read about everyday.
There's a lot wrong with the world, and it too often feels like there's just not enough to be hopeful for. I have this endless stream of dark, infuriating thoughts and it does't feel like there's any light at the end of the tunnel for a long, long way.

I want innocent, unarmed minorities to stop dying by police.
That statistic should be zero. It shouldn't be happening at all.
I hate that people defend the cops. Of course the cops have a hard job, and that's why they should be held to more rigorous standards. If they kill an innocent person, they need much more severe consequences than a suspension and "desk work for a while."
I hate that #AllLivesMatter persists in obfuscating the underlying problems of a society, in particular the fact that it's built on a foundation of 300+ years of slavery.
There is literally no history to the Confederate Flag other than slavery and racism. People who believe otherwise are flat out wrong.
I think we've become a society too entitled to their opinions and right to free speech that no one has to understand facts or discount things proven untrue. I mean, I guess people are free to believe what they want, but it'd be really cool if they weren't so defensive about learning they were wrong.
When people are surprised that we are terrible at treating racial minorities, or fellow people of the LGBTQ+ community, I'm surprised at that, because we can't even treat women properly, and that's half the population of the world. Also, we came from them. Even if you're Jesus, you had a mother.
I wish women weren't objectified, I wish they weren't raped, I wish they didn't constantly live in fear of being raped. I hate the fact that I can't ever fully sympathize with that fear, because I'll never know what that's like. I worry for all the women in my life every day, because no one deserves that, but more importantly, no one should have to constantly feel like this is a possibility in their lives. It's disgusting.
Women's health shouldn't be something debated over. Health shouldn't be debated over.
Planned Parenthood shouldn't be under attack, even if they did only provide abortions.
Abortions are dangerous. They shouldn't take place in anything under than a medical-grade environment.
I hate that people exist (and there is certainly an almost indistinguishable overlap) who want Planned Parenthoods to close, and think women aren't entitled to healthcare or maternity leave, or a say in motherhood or sexual assault, and also believe we are entitled to guns.
I think the Second Amendment is complete and utter bullshit.
But if it must persist, I want someone to go shut down the stupid NRA and the stupid gun lobby, and start federally regulating background checks and psych evaluations for people who want to buy a gun. Also, they shouldn't have access to high-powered rifles and anything above a handgun. Why are we militarizing a civilian population? I wish that would stop, along with the militarization of the police. There's no reason for that.
And if you believe there is a reason for you to have a gun or that you somehow need it and are entitled to it, you have been brainwashed by the paranoid bullshit that was fed to you so that gun manufacturers can make money off of you. It's no different from any other commercial product that creates artificial necessity.
I want the U.S. citizenry to start actually caring about policy and government and law-makers. If YouTube comments and Reddit comments, and news article comments are any indication, a lot of people care, and a lot of people care A LOT. Then the election rolls in and the same shit keeps happening. It's like we managed to rally for actual change once when we got Obama elected (and then re-elected) and it feels like we're gonna slip back. It feels like I hear too many people saying they won't vote in the next election because it doesn't feel like they'll make a difference and that's what those in power want you to feel! That's what the rich want you to believe, so that they can continue to keep minimum wage down, so they can keep healthcare in debate, so that they can keep evading taxes, so that the rest of us turn on each other, and blame each other.
It feels like anti-feminists have only gotten angrier and more vocal, it feels like the gun lobby has become even more powerful, it feels like the rich, the "1%", are more adamant than ever at holding their place and are actually scared that they might lose it all.
And that's the problem. They might rally. They might get one of their people into office who will change everything.
Did anyone listen to the Republican debate? Does anyone actually listen to the b.s. these guy spew? Defunding Planned Parenthood, ignoring gun reform, denying plausibility of global warming, making marijuana illegal again? Come on, guys.
Did anyone read the dissenting opinion of Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas?
You know what really infuriates me about Thomas is how he can be so conservative when he, more than anyone else on that dais should understand the weight and burden of oppression and the need for progression past traditional values even if he himself has no experience with prejudice and racism. Yes, I'm saying that as a black man, he needs to better acknowledge how this is another relegation of second class citizenship.
What is amazing about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, among so many other things, is that she has experienced much of America's coming of age. She has literally lived through America's civil rights growing pains and acknowledges the struggle by being a liberal and understanding the need of progression and tolerance and even more than tolerance, acceptance. Ginsberg gets it. And it's unfathomable to me that Thomas doesn't. That he clings to traditional, outdated values is really unfathomable to me. Scalia I can understand because he's a scary monster-type person who doesn't want anyone to have nice things and he pretends he's doing it for justice.
I want justice for rape victims and sexual victims.
I want us as a society to stop victim-blaming.
I think we do it because our hope is that we react and prevent a situation from happening to us. But we can't prepare for everything. We can't prevent the monsters of this world from getting the better of us. And we need to be more vigilant about it. I hear too often about sexual assault cases and how the media coverage and the trial has ruined the boys' lives, and how the victim did so much wrong, essentially "asking for it." I don't know where this mentality came from. I don't know why society is so quick to protect its men and blame its women.
Men, stop feeling like you're entitled to women. Get over it.
They're just as entitled to do whatever the fuck they want as you are.
If they say no, get over it.
Women have enough to deal with.
Society wants them to be sluts and prudes and also wants them to not be too much of either, otherwise they're really gonna piss everyone off. And that shouldn't be true.
Why is hate and selfishness and greed and power instilled in us so negatively? Why did we allow that? Why is there racism, and sexism, and violence for religious reasons, and why are there people who don't see problems in those things existing?

How have we fallen so far short of our potential to be amazing?
When you step back and think about it, humans have accomplished so much. Compared to any other species on earth, we have developed systems and machines and contraptions and substances that have effectively negated every deficiency we have when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. We have altered and lengthened our lifespans, we have increased the likelihood of successful breeding, we have reduced recovery time from injury and trauma, we have produced our own food sources, we have harnessed the power of wind and heat and light, we've learned to fly and traverse the oceans and see at night and our entire population can communicate with each other at any given moment.
We have overcome so much and developed so much in such a relatively short amount of time when compared to everything else on Earth.
Why, at our pinnacle, do we turn on each other, and discriminate, and allow so much bullshit? We're better than this. We rose above our primitive stations and created civilization, and philosophy, and television, and double bacon cheeseburgers.
What are we afraid of? The people who have created the illusion that if we share, there won't be enough to go around are bullshitting you. They want it all for themselves. But if we woke up and realized there's more than enough for everyone, we will all be okay.
Why are we pointing out our differences? Why are these important? We're all humans and we should be helping each other, because that benefits everyone.
Can we end all bad things happening? Probably not. Not everything.
But we can be so much better.
And it's gonna be slow and it's gonna suck. But isn't it always better to try?

Locked in a small theater with a bunch of kids over the past few weeks has helped. Because I see that it's not all bad. They are thinking for themselves. They are trying to make this world work for them, instead of just accepting as it is. They couldn't have been a more diverse group of personalities, social situations, and orientations, and they have made it all work. And if that can happen in one room, there's no reason I have to stop believing it can't happen in every room.
But it does take a moment of everyone stopping, taking a moment, learning to let go of their own ego and preconceptions, and deciding from this moment forward, to do things for the good of the population for the future, and not just themselves, in this one moment.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Peter and Alice

When I was younger, I was obsessed with the story of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. It is one of the stories that persists though, so I know I am not the only one.

But a land full of adventure, fun, friends, and no responsibility except to play all day. Peter to me represented everything good and even important about childhood. It was important to pretend, to take advantage of seeming immortality, to never shy away from an adventure.

There was something enamoring about being a child forever. Youth, childlike wonder, curiosity, imagination, never taking things too seriously, everything being a big deal, these are all desirable qualities to an extent. Adulthood was scary. It was big, it was unknown, in it we faced things like death, growing old, heartbreak, stress, unhappiness, forgetting. Adults were pirates. They were unhappy, out-of-touch, and found us annoying because they were jealous.

I compared myself a lot to Peter Pan, as did my friends, and my context in the world informed that, certainly. Why would Peter Pan ever want to leave a situation where he is only encouraged and enabled. Peter Pan never had to mature because he was never in a situation where he was forced to change and adapt. Even his demons were familiar ones: Captain Hook was a predictable foe. A great rival in physical prowess and mature cunning, but he, like all of Neverland, was part of something that Peter had a hand in creating. Neverland is Peter's own domain, and everything is as challenging, as exciting, but also as comforting as it needs to be for him to be happy.

There in Neverland, Peter is adored for how he is, he looks after everyone, and he can seemingly do no wrong, even when he acts less than inspiring. Peter is that ideal state before the Fall of Man, before the Wilderness. Peter is that blinking moment just before we realize we have to move on.

As a kid, I hated Alice. Persistent, proper, argumentative, contrary... Alice was every know-it-all in school I knew. But Alice represented that moment just after the blink, just after we've realized childhood has passed us by. Alice was a woman's mind in a child's body, and she was slowly coming to terms with the fact that while she, like all maturing children still had lingering desires to shirk adulthood, her maturity was showing through, and she was looking to the skies for more than stars.

Still, she fled. The moment after that blink is very much a denial. No one is immediately accepting of the inevitable. Our defiance comes from our childhood as well. We're told 'no' so often that it eventually becomes a challenge. Suddenly, the hot stove is not something to be feared, but something to be overcome. Alice fled, and her repeated attempts to overcome the childlike world she wished to remain in were meeting headlong with her increasing sense of responsibility and much more importantly, her burgeoning sense of self.

Peter already has his self-worth, he knows what a valuable commodity he is, albeit in a very limited circle. What happens when the circle crumbles? What happens when the status quo changes?

For Alice, she herself shattered the status quo. She was the one who rejected Wonderland. It was a place of frightening illogicality and impertinence. It was children flustered by an adult unable to play by the rules. Alice was the adult. Wonderland was the childhood she was leaving behind. For all his bravery and happy thoughts, Alice is a hero, Peter has yet to come to terms with his place in the world.

It's Alice realizing she has power within herself to alter the world around her and that she is a being of her own agency. She creates herself. She returns to the world, stepping back through the looking glass, to control her own destiny.

For Peter, at least within the context of the play or the main story itself, he ends the story much the same as he started. He starts a brand new cycle with a new girl he whisks away to Neverland. He might be doomed to repeat it indefinitely,
But I like to believe the continuity of the movie, Hook.
Because Peter finds the opposite journey to Alice, and it makes sense with his character too.
Where Alice has to find it within herself to leave Wonderland, Peter has to find it outside of himself because Neverland is also a part of him and his own psyche.
Some people may be confused or balk at the idea that Peter's happiness is not within, but what I mean to say is that in terms of the story, Peter's self-worth is already realized; he is admired, respected, loved, but his only responsibility is to himself. His capabilities are needed elsewhere.

All those things that were scary about adulthood suddenly don't seem so bad. Peter falls in love and realizes he wants to be a father. He experiences the real versions of all the feelings he once had. He earns respect rather than creates it, he begins to care for others instead of desiring to lead them. He realizes responsibility is important. He recognizes what happens when these childlike qualities are taken to dangerous extremes.

People see hope and love as forces for good, but they can become negative in extreme. So too are Peter's qualities. Qualities he shares with Captain Hook, the embodiment of an out-of-touch overseer surrounded by people he believes love him but only fear him. Peter is what Captain Hook was before that blink. Captain Hook after all is the adult who refuses responsibility and it glares because he aged.

The qualities of Alice that bothered me so much as a kid I now realize were shared with the Queen of Hearts. Stubbornness, bluntness, argumentativeness. The Queen is Alice of a darker timeline. I think Alice can see this too. If her own sense of ability and determination were not awakened, she becomes Queen, a figure alone, in charge, feared rather than loved.

But both Alice and Peter confront their demons. They may parallel our villains, but they are not them. Our heroes are always better than our villains, because that's how we need our stories to be. And because it is not too late. Peter at the brink of the blink, and Alice moments after, can arrive on the path to avoiding being victims of circumstance. They acknowledge their own victimization. That's the problem actually with refusing adulthood: children are taken advantage of, because they don't know better. You can corrupt youth, you can leak into their formative brains. They may spend years undoing the damage if they even realize there is any.
It takes a change of scene to illuminate these perspectives. It takes flying back to the real world, or climbing out of the rabbit hole. It takes a real kiss, not a thimble, or blowing those cards away instead of submitting to playing the croquet game, to understand how the real world operates and how the real world respects you and loves you in a way that is different than what you cultivated on your own or what you insisted on holding onto past its expiration.

Some of those childlike qualities we have to maintain. Don't lose your curiosity. Don't stop insisting that things should be just because they should be. But adulthood isn't so bad either. We become part of something bigger, we pass on our knowledge and wisdom down the line. It's understanding that balance of both, because we have the villains of our stories to remind us what happens when we fall short of that balance. We insist on the fantasy and exist in denial like Hook, or we alienate those around us isolating ourselves in authority, like the Queen.

Both Peter and Alice journey to find themselves in better places. Alice by a journey within. Peter, perhaps like the title character in the Truman Show, journeys out of Neverland once and for all and after some adjustment probably nervously at first, finds himself as well.

The game is over, but there are greater adventures ahead. Real ones.
The mirror is shattered. The fairy dust has settled.

Peter and Alice grew up.