Being Fan and Critic
In my post about Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, I forgot to mention an important idea her series is based on–that she is an avid fan and can simultaneously enjoy and critique the media we consume in our pop culture.
Artist Jayd “Chira” Ait-Kaci, who posted this lucid rant about the epic storytelling potential and subsequent mindnumbing shortcomings of Legend of Korra, re-iterates:
“I enjoyed Korra quite a lot and that’s why it hurt to see so much potential wasted. Heck, I dedicated the first half of the essay about everything good it had going for it and was doing right. Making a critique =/= hating! I often criticize everything I consume, especially if I love it.” ~Chira
And Film Crit Hulk, who writes in ALL CAPS AND HULK SPEAK (which I can sometimes get over and sometimes not) actually writes really nuanced critiques and explorations of what elements make some films work or not work–precisely because he has made it a point to go beyond judging whether a movie has “worth” in a black-and-white sense and instead talks in depth about storytelling, film as medium, and what our fandom says about our changing culture.
“BEING SO FOCUSED ON DESIGNATING MOVIES AS AWESOME OR SUX, PREVENTS US FROM HAVING THE BEST POSSIBLE CONVERSATIONS.” ~Film Crit Hulk
Of course, Film Crit Hulk had some help coming to this philosophy from none other than Quentin Tarantino, the most consummate fanboy ever (which Hulk details in this post).
QT: “Never, under any circumstances, hate a movie. It won’t help you and it’s a waste of time.”
HULK: [STARTING TO EXPLAIN REASONS WHY HULK HATE MOVIE].
QT: “You’re not getting me. There’s plenty of reasons to not to like a movie. But if you hate them? Meaning if let them bother you? Then they’ll do nothing but bother you. Who wants to be bothered? There’s so many better things to do with movies. It’s like my fucking Top Gun rant, okay? Bad things can be so much more interesting than just bad.
HULK: BUT WHAT ABOUT LIKE THE FREAKIN’ BOMBS, CAUSE-
QT: Even the bombs, man, heck, especially the bombs man. And I mean if you want to do this for a fucking living and you’re absolutely serious, then never hate a movie. You can learn so much about the craft from bad movies. I man you can’t like fucking look at Kurosawa and be all [PUTS ON VOICE THAT THAT SOUNDS ODDLY LIKE PETER GRAVES FOR SOME REASON] “Oooh just do what Kurosawa did. You know, it’s easy!” Fuck no! Bad movies teach you what not to do and what to correct in your process and that’s way more helpful. You know how many feet of film I burned on this thing [MEANING KILL BILL] when I was trying to be like something else that was great? Like fucking Pole Fighter, like what you said? No, all the best stuff came out of me just trying to avoid mistakes…And fuck man, hating movies closes you off to stuff that seems like whatever you hate. Or stuff by the same guy. And who knows? That other stuff could be awesome. Some of my favorite filmmakers made bad movies. It won’t help you. It just won’t. It stops your development right in its tracks, okay? I mean like everything and I ain’t trying to get you to be like fucking me or anything. I’m just saying I think it’s better for you. And it makes me way, way happier. Never hate a movie. They’re gifts. Every fucking one of em.”
Learning from everything
I can totally see how bad storytelling can be a gift — IF you have BOTH love for the creators AND the language and skills and media literacy to critique what you’ve seen. There is a lot of movies and tv and culture that doesn’t ever cross my radar and which I’ll never get a chance to critique and learn from because I’ve already dismissed it. But this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about both Pixar’s Brave (notable that I feel I have to add the Pixar in front of that title) and Avatar: The Legend of Korra.
I loved Brave so much, I’ve been afraid to delve into criticism of its storytelling because I wanted to protect it somehow. And I’ve been so critical of Korra since the beginning of the season, that it’s curtailed some of the love I could have had for the series.
Both are also tangled in the messy world of fan expectations.
My feelings about Korra are much more straightforward than my feelings about Brave. Basically, I loved its predecessor The Last Airbender on so many levels (story, writing, art, strong characters, character development, humor, spiritual issues and conflict resolution done well, emotional resonance, et al.). And then Korra failed on the very foundational levels of story, writing, and character development. The whole series felt rushed, Korra never grew or learned from her challenges, and I didn’t buy a lot of the twists that the authors threw at us — mostly because I didn’t empathize with any of the main characters enough to go along for their rides. Though I did stick around for the whole season. The end of the finale frustrated me. If they had stopped 10 minutes earlier than they had, I could look forward to Korra’s journey and growth in the second season, but it was just so rushedly wrapped up so implausibly…arg, Chira explains in detail the potential and shortfalls so much better than I can, with spoiler alerts in place.) I do love these characters enough to feel indignant on their behalf when they aren’t given the chance to grow.
Brave (new stories, evolving expectations)
Now, Brave. Korra only had the expectations of one predecessor: The Last Airbender. Brave had the whole Pixar empire on her shoulders. Pixar has set us up to believe that each of their films will upend our expectations of storytelling in the best possible ways. Films like Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story prove that Pixar never had to create conventional films that fit into any existing modes or genres. Furthermore, films like The Incredibles showed that the company could take existing tropes and throw them for a loop in a fulfilling way. When we go to a Pixar movie, we expect something completely new, something mindblowing, something revolutionary. Brave was the company’s first take on the traditional Disney “princess/fairytale” stories that we’ve seen. We expected fireworks.
We got neither completely revolutionary twist on the princess genre, nor did we get a blatant satire (think Shrek), nor did we get a traditional fairytale story. What we got instead was something in-between, which didn’t meet our expectations in any direction. Humans are pattern-seekers, and I think we had trouble grokking this film.
- The main conflict was between two strong protagonists with good intentions and human flaws (Elinor and Merida), which I found rather refreshing. But we didn’t get a traditional fairytale with good guy and bad guy, although we sort of had a bad guy (Mordu) that didn’t really get any character development. And even my critique tended toward the under-development of Mordu because we want a bad guy we can love to hate.
- There was background and set-up for something more epic to happen with the legend of the 4 clans, but the present-day clans were set up as foils and comic relief. We didn’t get an epic story with larger consequences. Instead we got a family story set among epic backdrops.
- The tone was neither completely dark and grand (as writer/creator Brenda Chapman had intended) nor completely broad and light (as I think second director Mark Andrews tried to push it). A clear and extreme POV makes for stronger storytelling that’s easier for audiences to grasp than something half-way. The switchover in directors is something I’m curious about that I can’t really find answers to. It would be a different film if either director had a firm hand on it from start to finish.
- Finally, IMHO, I don’t think we don’t know archetypically quite what to do with Merida or her mother Elinor precisely because they are fully-fleshed-out female characters with a range of strengths, weaknesses, and emotions. They don’t fit any of the archetypes we’re used to seeing in film, such as: helpless princess, ’empowered’ princess who still wants a prince, femme fatale, cold-hearted stepmother, wicked witch, or female-version of the macho archetype–a female lead who embodies many of the stoic emotional traits of the macho archetype and who resolves conflicts with force or violence in stereotypically male ways. (See FemFreq’s video about Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen for a fuller discussion about what it means to be a feminist character whose emotions actually contribute to her character’s strength instead of weakening her position.)
- Merida and Elinor further have to resolve their conflict through emotional means, which makes them stronger and braver*. This also requires a different kind of climax & resolution scene than we are used to seeing in fairytale or other kids’ movies: usually fight or chase scene. Of course, Brave still staged Merida and Elinor’s conflict resolution during the middle of a fight scene. New story trying to fit old molds. (*One of the comments that most pissed me off was some guy’s Facebook post along the lines of: “I don’t know why they called the movie Brave.” Obviously, he has not yet been challenged with strong conflicting emotions in his life, or had to stick up for anyone in a difficult situation, or had to own up to any of his mistakes, or, or, or!)
I think these points show a lot of growing pains as we try to evolve storytelling tropes that conform to more conventional gender roles and character arcs. My greater frustration with Brave wasn’t with the movie itself because I loved the film wholeheartedly — but with the popular and critical reception to the movie. The reviews seem rather harsh to me (and others), since the film is still very strong. But a lot of the reviews I’ve seen are along the lines of: Really good but not exceptional, not up to the level of Pixar. And I’ve been most upset by comments from men such as:
- It’s not as emotionally resonant for me because it’s about a mother-daughter relationship.
- What I learned from the movie is that little girls can do anything they want and don’t have to conform to society’s expectations of them.
I seethe because these reactions are so gender-limited. Why can’t men identify with a female lead? Why can’t little boys learn as much from this film as little girls? I’ve learned plenty from leads who happen to be male, and I’ve emotionally resonated with plenty of father-daughter relationships and mentor-mentee relationships between two males in movies because oh, wait…that’s all there is to see — we’re surrounded by male relationships portrayed on film, so of course I’ve learned how to take human lessons from them without having to stop and think, “oh wait, that was about a boy and his grandfather…not applicable to me…”
This is the point where my friends start to role their eyes, when I start talking about how maybe men are less able to empathize with female characters because they don’t have as much practice. Which is an overgeneralization, and I probably am foaming at the mouth a little at this point…
…but NO, this IS the point. It’s a number’s game! Merida is the first and only primary female lead in all 15 Pixar films (nearly 25 year history of filmmaking). Naturally, all my feminist expectations of her to be a strong character who has a strong enough story to carry her and hold her own among all the other male leads are also on her shoulders. And my expectations of the audience and the reviews of her are tangled in my hope that she does well for the sake of all future female leads. Which is of course, unfair to Brave, Merida, Pixar, and every single artist on the film. But that doesn’t reprieve the creators, artists, producers, and execs from creating the change that needs to happen in the industry.
There won’t be as much weight on a single movie to explode all our assumptions and expectations about “princesses” when we reach a point where there are as many diverse female leads, and as many diverse female-centered films as there are diverse male leads, and as many diverse male-centered films. If half of Pixar’s repertoire were predicatably and naturally female-centered, I wouldn’t have to worry about the reception of one film. There’s plenty of room for great or even mediocre films among their exceptional films, without the reason for not-exceptionalness mired in gender in my brain (if not the larger cultural mind) just because we struggle to fit new stories into old patterns our culture is accustomed to.
My greatest hopes were (and still are) on Pixar because, as mentioned earlier, they’ve established a reputation of creating new stories by breaking old patterns that our culture can adopt. Let’s hope they keep making female-centered stories with female leads as part of their repertoire. (See how silly that there is even doubt here? That we may have to see another 7–10 male-driven films before another female lead? And that most people would think nothing of it?)
Adapting to New Stories
Speaking of patterns…I was re-listening to the “Musical Language” episode of RadioLab yesterday, and the section called “Sound As Touch” talks about how our neurons react positively or negatively to consonant vs. dissonant sounds. People actually rioted during the premier of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” because their neurons failed to find patterns for the completely newly dissonant sounds that were so relentless in the music; their neurons released excessive dopamine and caused craziness in the listeners. But a year later, new audiences had adapted, grown used to, and evolved to learn how to listen to these new kinds of sounds. Stravinsky was carried out on the shoulders of the audience, “Rite of Spring” was used in a Disney film (dinosaurs and evolution scene of Fantasia).
Maybe it’s the same for finding patterns and places for new types of female characters. Our storytelling will evolve as we have more female presence in the film industry (both on and behind the scenes) and place more importance on telling female-centered stories as part of the wide and diverse range of stories we are able to tell. And audiences will evolve in their ability to empathize from a wide range of viewpoints and in their ability to relate to more nuanced and more deeply developed characters that don’t quite fit any archetypes or molds.
(I can’t even find a happy picture of Merida and Elinor together, and half of the images that come up in GoogleImages search are of dolls. Sigh.)
Why? Because stories.
Actually, I should end on this note. To those who think “what’s the big deal, it’s just a show, or just a movie, or just entertainment”…
“The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ~Muriel Rukeyser
Stories are important, they’re how we make sense of the world, and they do affect our culture.