Friday, December 27, 2019

Writing, Art and Creator Burn-Out: A Tale of 2019

For anyone working in the creative arts, figuring out where to get inspiration and refill that so-called "artistic well" is among the most important of challenges they face. For myself, I have a number of strategies. Going for walks, talking about movies and books with my friends and, of course, watching musicals.

One musical I think about often when I'm in creative downturns, looking for renewed vigour, is Sondheim and Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, which tells the fictionalized story of French post-impressionist George Seurat and how he came to paint his most famous work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

In the musical, everyone pictured is singing!
Throughout the play, various characters comment on George's obsession with the painting, what it means to be an artist and what art even is. There are lots of characters offering hot takes, but one has always stood out to me. 

Work is what you do for other people. Art is what you do for yourself.

I don't particularly agree. Art, I tend to think, has more to do with the content of the piece rather than the origin or expression of the creation, and yet I've often thought this quote gets at something very real. This crosses out of the realm of visual art and also applies to the art of writing.

Writing for Yourself and Other People

When starting out, most books grow from an idea the author is passionate about. In the sense of the quote from Sunday in the Park with George, this is where art is not work. It's a thing writers do for themselves; scribbling new stories with fresh, new ideas. If this was the whole writing process, then writing never would be work, but it is, and all too often, it becomes work the moment other people enter the picture.

Almost everything that you can buy published in a bookstore found its way there by way of a major publishing company and was touched not just by the author, but also an editor and probably an agent and maybe a marketing department and definitely a cover designer. And along the way, they asked the author to make (le gasp!) changes.

I got a first hand taste of this over the past year, when an agent I queried asked me to complete a revise and resubmit. Most of the changes she asked for I agreed would make the book better, so I got to work. And work it certainly was, because that level of unpacking a book is not something I would have done "for myself."

I've gone through forms of this process before, and don't get me wrong. I enjoy my work. But maybe because I spent so much of this year revising, writing felt like less fun than it usually does. All writers have their favourite parts of the writing process and mine are early on - usually idea generation, drafting and reworking the "first draft" into it's second, slightly less messy iteration. Those are such fun stages. I do them for myself.

I'm proud of the revision I did this year. I'm grateful for the eyes of other people and for the pressure I feel to make my writing something that communicates ideas more clearly and meets the needs of my audience, not just my own. But in a tough year, where the writing felt like work, I needed something to refill my creative well more than usual.

So writing was what I did for other people. Art was what I did for myself.

Children and Art

I can say with utmost confidence, I did not come into this world with extraordinary talent for visual art. I made blobs and squiggles and stick-men of the same caliber as my peers. But did I ever love doing it. Creating something and then being able to hold it up and say "look!" was reason enough to keep at it. I think most children are like this. They love putting something into the world that didn't exist before and they rarely question if their work is "quality." It's just pure art. Something they do for themselves, not other people.

The hard part is keeping kids drawing once they're old enough to compare their work to their peers and start realizing some kids are progressing faster than others. Here, my greatest talent was not in producing great art, but in being oblivious. For years, I pressed on filling massive binders full of "masterpieces" that were nothing more than weirdly proportioned renderings of my stuffed animals. Yes, I kept these and yes, I still love them.

I only chanced upon the concept of artistic "skill" in Grade 4 when I became close friends with the girl who everyone agreed was the best artist in our class. For a split second, I felt discouraged, but she loved drawing and she was my friend, so we drew together and that was that. I got comfortable being worse at something than someone else, and that kept my artistic spirit alive. I kept drawing my stuffed animals, but increasingly, I also designed original characters based on the stories I made up. I shamelessly copied the work of my older sister and her friends, who also liked drawing, learning early Picasso's lesson of "stealing like an artist." Sorry to plagiarize you, Kate.

Sometime around my late teens, it became apparent that I actually did draw better than most of my friends (though not all. I've consistently spent my life with at least one best friend who is better at art than I am. Shout out to today's model, Lean Conrad!). But getting where I am today in art was a slow process born of years upon years of both doodling and intentional practice.

Move On

Fast-forward to January of 2019, when I was starting the year in a strange place. I was job hunting, slogging through a revision of my book that wouldn't come together and living in a new city. From the outset, 2019 had a lot of difficult things working against it, and I could feel myself struggling to keep my head afloat.

I needed a survival strategy. After reading some literature online about the use of art in therapy, I decided I need to reinvest in one of my old hobbies. Art is known for having profound mental health benefits and best of all, skill has nothing to do with effectiveness! The mere act of creating and expressing oneself artistically is helpful. With that in mind, I gave it a try.

Going into this year, I felt rusty. My artistic progress has not always been linear, and I was out of practice. Some seasons of my life, I've devoted more time to art than others and I can still look at old pieces that stack up decently next to what I create now. For example, here is a baseball card sized painting of raccoons in our family cherry tree I did 10 years ago that is STILL the best raccoon related piece I've ever done.

Progress is a lie!

Or so it felt. But I needed art this year. I needed something that I could do for myself, that would bring me joy and refill my creative well when my writing was hard and burning me out.

To start, I watched a few art YouTube videos for inspiration, including a few that talked about their *~*art journey*~* and overwhelmingly, a lot of these artists mentioned how posting their work online helped them, even when their work wasn't what many people would describe as "good" yet. Just posting it helped them be accountable, made them take stock of their own progress and prompted positive feedback from family and friends who were just pleased to see them creating.

Ever since Grade 4 introduced me to friends who drew better than I did, I've been painfully aware of how flawed my own artwork is. It took a lot of nerve to start posting my work, but I figured I could use the kick-in-the-butt accountability gave me, plus whatever positive reinforcement my circle might give. So I took the dive.

First, and more important than I might have expected, I organized my supplies. I went through a Marie Kondo phase at the end of 2018 and got rid of a LOT of stuff that was otherwise overcrowding the new space I lived in. One of the discoveries I made during this was that every single one of my art supplies sparked joy and I had no interest in getting rid of a single tube of paint, but they also weren't likely to do me much good buried in a closet. Realizing this, I moved my art supplies to their own unit in my bedroom. Everyday, I wake up and they stare at me from beneath a poster of Porgs, reminding me I should be making art.

So I got out my watercolours, the most joyful of my supplies, and I made myself paint.

I started with my comfort zone. I don't draw my stuffed animals as much any more, but fan art is kind of comparable, so I painted some faces from the Umbrella Academy.

Painted early March 2019, when I really got going

I really enjoyed working on these, but I also found painting took a LOT of time and specialized supplies. You have to really set up water and your work area, and I didn't always have the space and time to do so. During my Kon-Marie purge, I whittled down my sketchbooks to the drawings I wanted to keep, plus a sketchbook I had halfheartedly started with a drawing or two the previous year. It was portable and it was there, so good enough.

The paper in that sketchbook wasn't the best, so at first I tried to stay black and white. The one time I added paints, the pages buckled like crazy. But black and white art tends to bore me a bit, in part because I'm stronger at colour theory than I am line art. I realized I was more likely to draw if I gave myself permission to colour pieces afterwards, so even though the paper could barely handle the ink, I pulled out my old prismacolour markers. Eventually, I got some pieces I was happy with.

It was a lot of fun rediscovering my markers. They don't always feel as "classy" as my watercolours do, but I love their vibrancy and I had to admit, I was probably better at using them than I was paint. I tried harder to bounce back and forth between the two, as I learned to get different effects with the different media.

Since I was job hunting, I didn't have a lot of extra cash lying around for new supplies or classes, so I focused on using what I had and studying free, online lessons. (I have so many opinions on "Art YouTube" now and what videos/content creators might be useful for a beginner like me. Let me know if you need recommendations!) Watching them prompted me to do some basic "good practice" exercises I'd neglected over the years, like swatching all my paints and markers, filling the whole page in a sketchbook and practicing body parts from different angles. As someone who uses alcohol based markers, I also quickly ran into the cult of Copic users and learned there were markers with velvety brush nibs, that let you blend and color in a way that resembles painting. I was intrigued, but too poor to consider such treasures.

My other great resource was the aforementioned best friend and better artist, Leah Conrad. A young, busy mum, Leah was excited to see me get back into art and wanted to draw together immediately. Whether she was working on commissions or something just for fun and practice, her company was always a huge blessing. She knew things. I could hold something up to her and say, "something is wrong but what?????" and she could spout off quick, helpful advice like, "the foreground and background are too similar" or "that arm should be longer" and then I could get back to work. Check her out on Instagram and enjoy a peek of some of her awesome work below!

Shooting Stars Over Mill Hill, by Leah Conrad
Leah also introduced me to the very addiction I thought I couldn't afford. As I rambled to her about the art videos I had been watching and how badly I wanted to try brush nibbed alcohol markers she casually uttered the words, "I have Copics."

Copics. The industry standard, Rolls-Royce of alcohol markers. She had a small, carefully curated set that she rarely used, and was willing to lend them to me.

Prismacolour markers are very good markers and besides which, there are far more important things than art supply quality when it comes to creating art. Still, supplies do help. Once I got used to the feel of them, I couldn't deny that they worked better than what I was used to. They blended smoother and layered gorgeously. My art took a jump up in overall quality and going back to my old markers was slightly depressing.

First Copic illustrations, from July 2019
I decided to use some coupons to buy just a small set of Copic markers of my own. I expected to spend a very long time building my Copic collection up to the same numbers as my Prismacolour markers, until salvation arrived in the form of Facebook Marketplace. Someone was selling their collection of lightly used Copics for roughly 80% off the regular retail price.

After that? I kept drawing. I took books out of the library. I practiced the exercises they suggested. I joined an art group that trades art around the world and sent in baseball card sized illustrations to new friends. As I continued to post my work online, I made more friends and saw more art that inspired me, and they were kind enough to encourage me in my art journey.

By the beginning of September, two magical things happened. First, I filled a 75 page sketch book that I'd started only six months earlier, which was far more than I'd drawn in years. Second, I had a job! The summer had been very stressful, due to the ongoing job hunt, so getting some stability was a tremendous blessing. I honestly don't know if I could have made it through the summer without art. It kept me sane and feeling like I was accomplishing something when there weren't obvious milestones to point to in my work and writing.

With that in mind, I decided I wanted to do something big and challenging in my *~*art journey*~* as a way of saying thank you to the thing that kept me going through the year. With that in mind, I geared up for my first ever Inktober.

Inktober 2019

Every year, artists around the world challenge themselves during the month of October with the task of producing more art and learning new skills. The basic form of the challenge is this:

1) To produce a new work of art each day of the month
2) Drawn in ink
3) Based on an official prompt list released each year.

There are people who fudge the rules, which is fine. Maybe they don't have time to draw every day or work digitally. Plus, there are roughly 50 billion prompt lists that pop up each year for those who don't want to use the official one. But for my first year, I played it pretty traditional. Conveniently, I wanted to practice dip pen inking, plus I'd never forced myself to generate that many drawings in a single month before. The prompt list seemed like a good source of ideas when burn-out inevitably set in, so I also committed to that.

Challenges were no stranger to me. Writers use the following month, November, as NaNoWriMo - or National Novel Writing Month. I had never successfully done NaNo, however, so I was a bit nervous going into Inktober. Still, I felt as ready as I ever could be.

I'm still processing everything I learned during the month. In an effort to try to organize some of my thoughts, here's a list.

1) It's absolutely possible! Despite some occasionally rocky days and nights that went until 3 am, I finished the challenge. My new sketchbook has one drawing for every day of October and for that alone, I am immensely proud and grateful.

2) It's absolutely possible to burn yourself out doing it! To minimize the pressure, I chose all my materials ahead of time and used the same supplies and process EVERY SINGLE DAY. I wanted to get rid of as many on-the-fly decisions as possible, so I could focus on the challenge and moving on with my life. Still, I was losing my mind a little towards the end. Consider, for instance, this image from Day 30, prompt word "Catch." It was drawn upside down and on the wrong side of the page in my sketchbook, but I did not realize it until after it was done. I also had giant, scribbly blobs by it that I hastily covered up with a digital speech bubble for my Instagram post.

What a catch.
3) It's unlikely you will get thirty-one brilliant works of art from the challenge. But you'll get something. Some days, I didn't have time or energy to throw myself at a piece for a long time. Almost everything I drew that month felt a little rushed. I couldn't return to something the next day and refine it, because it was too important that I move on to the next picture. Allowing myself to be happy with something quick and easy was an important survival strategy.

4) I generally conceptualized a piece, drew, inked and coloured all in one day. This lack of forethought meant I learned a few things about my default style. Going in, I knew I drew a lot of people and faces, but what surprised me was how often I turned to animals. These were frequently my favourite pieces and the ones I was most likely to use reference photos for.

Days 24 and 23
5) Even though I wanted to improve my inking and line art, I found my colouring with Copics probably saw the most progress. Ah well.

6) While most of the challenge passed in a flurry, there were still days when life came together and I actually made something better and stronger than my usual work. You throw enough darts, eventually one will hit the bull's eye. This stretch of drawings really sang for me.

Days 11 through 13
7) By the end, when I was finishing the challenge just so I could say that I did it, it felt like... work. And that's okay. If I was left to FOLLOW MY BLISS everywhere in life, I would never finish anything. And with that in mind, by the time I was done Inktober, I was ready to be done something else too.

Putting it Together

By the end of October, I had a very full sketchbook and no desire to draw anything for a couple of weeks while I recuperated. So what did I do instead? I finished revising my book.

I had been chipping away at that revision all year long, but going into November, I felt an extra degree of oomph pushing me. My creative well was full of fan art, Copic markers, drawing sessions with Leah, reference photos, dip pens and watercolours. Within a few weeks I was done, had notes back from Beta readers and could query my book for the first time in over a year... right on time for the holiday slowdown.

But that's okay. I might not have word back about my book, but it exists in a more refined version now, as do pages of art that helped me through it. In my own life, I do believe art can be work, and that we do it both for ourselves and for other people. Going into the new year, I don't know what project will be my main focus. I've been working on revising one book for a long time and now, it's time to find it a home with an agent or publisher. Failing that, it's probably time to write something new. I'm not certain what that will be yet. I might need to do some sketching to figure it out.

What I really learned this year was the importance of a hobby. Art might not be the thing that intervenes on your behalf, but it certainly helped me. At the Storymakers Conference this year, I heard a wonderful quote in a talk given by Josi Kilpack.

That which takes me away from writing gives me something to write about.

At the time, I thought of the things that take me away from writing against my will, like day jobs and family commitments, but now I want to advocate for the things we willingly let take us away from our artistic passions. You cannot draw water from an empty well, so find a way to fill it. Let yourself have something you "do for yourself" that doesn't feel at all like work.

As I reach a crossroads in my writing, I'm at a similar one in my art. I don't know what my next big goal will be now that Inktober is over. For Christmas, I asked for some new art supplies and am lucky enough that many of them showed up in my stocking and under the tree come Christmas morning. There's definitely some playing around and inspiration to be found there.

Still, I think the most profound gift I received was one that came from another young artist. My eight-year-old nephew spent weeks leading up to Christmas telling me how excited he was to give me the gift he picked out for me. When I opened it, I found a black, hardbound sketchbook, just like the one I used for Inktober, with one critical difference. The first page had an inscription from him.

Don't Let the muggles get you down - Ron Weasley
Isn't that what art is really all about? You can't let the muggles get you down. You fight back with colour and line and composition and the love it takes to create something. 

Looking back, I won't pretend 2019 wasn't a hard year. I knew it would be, and it was. But something good came out of it. I haven't figured out what all my illustrious goals will be for 2020, but with the right friends, attitude and hobbies, I think I'll get through it.

Happy New Year, friends! May yours be filled with beautiful art.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Flaming Hot Garbage: 10 Trash Movies I Love

One of my favorite date activities has always been going to the movies. I've heard some people decry movie nights as a poor way to get to know a potential romantic partner, due to the sitting in a theater and not talking aspect. To those who say this, I counter: you clearly have never gone to a movie with me.

Several years ago, I went to see Oz the Great and Powerful with my then-boyfriend and another mutual friend, Justin. My boyfriend knew what he was getting himself into. Justin did not. After the movie was over, someone casually asked the question "what did you think?" and boy, did they find out.

For the sake of the story, I will refresh your memory that Oz the Great and Powerful is a garbage movie that doesn't deserve to exist and that's why you've forgotten about it. It's such an insignificant fart of a film, you couldn't afford the brain space for it, so you don't remember it.

I went into exhausting detail about all the plot, characterization and design elements that fell flat. All the reasons it sucked. As Justin later put it, by the time I was wrapping up, I'd convinced him it was probably the worst movie he'd ever seen. Then I ended with, "but overall, there were at least some visually appealing scenes and it was fun to go out, so I'm glad I saw it. I liked it."

My boyfriend burst out laughing. This was clearly not the first time I'd subjected him to this. Justin, on the other hand, gave up ever understanding my opinions.

Looking back, I think I was being a bit generous with that last comment. I knew I hated the film, but I had enjoyed myself, if for no other reason than what I stated earlier. I like going to movies. But also, there was a certain tension I felt in the movie theater that I think is more common than we acknowledge. Even though the film wasn't very good, I wanted to enjoy it, because it's frankly more fun to like something than to hate it.

With Oz the Great and Powerful, I never could fool myself. But that hasn't always been the case. There are some genuinely awful movies out there that I have enjoyed. And far more common, there are movies that lots of people don't like that I will get up on a podium and give impassioned speeches about how WRONG they are. What do you mean Ishtar is one of the worst movies of all time and almost killed the careers of Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty? Have you heard them sing "Wardrobe of Love?" It's brilliant!

So today, I'm celebrating movies I love that were panned by critics. Because who doesn't love a car wreck they just can't turn away from?


First off, when talking about movies with other people, it always amazes me how often they beat up on film critics. For a lot of people, I think the opinions of critics seem arbitrary and no better an indicator of quality than the opinion of your next door neighbor. I bring this up because this is not my feeling at all. Generally speaking, I agree with critics about a lot of things and I absolutely do check reviews when selecting movies to see.

True, there are some caveats you have to keep in mind when reading reviews. They often go easier on kids movies than I would, since they aren't the intended audience and don't want to look like jerks for hating something their children love. They also as a group tend to LOVE movies that venerate Old Hollywood, on a level most average folk don't care about. For years, most film critics have been predominantly male, and so it's little surprise they tended to be hard on romantic comedies and other films that make women their primary audience. But even with these little notes I keep stacked in my brain, I find that critical acclaim is still a thing I trust and often finds aligns with my own feelings about a film.

This makes the cases where I don't agree with them all the more interesting. For example, Oz the Great and Powerful didn't do that badly. It got a modest 58% on Rotten Tomatoes. Not enough to have a Fresh rating, but barely below. Looking at that rating now seems ludicrous to me. Were we all sitting in the theater, trying to convince ourselves we liked a thing more than we did because it had a few pretty visuals? Or did it fall under my kid's movie corollary, where about 10% points are added simply because it's "for children?" I sure hope not, because man, that movie was way too violent for it to deserve to benefit from that rule.

But seriously. We're not here to talk about that movie. We're here to talk about better movies. Better movies that - not coincidentally - got lower ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. I use that site because, as an aggregate number, I think it provides a decent pulse on what a society "at large" thought of a film.

Broadly speaking, I think the movies below fall into three distinct categories, and I'll try to sort each one accordingly.

1) Panned by critics, loved by viewers/vindicated by history: These are the movies where it's pretty easy to argue that the critics were missing something. Maybe they were taking a film too seriously that really should have been judged for its spectacle, not its narrative depth. A perfect example of this would be a film like The Greatest Showman, which got a 56% rating from critics and an 86% from audiences.

2) Panned by critics, but with redeeming qualities: These movies have some genuine flaws, but also something that makes them interesting. Often, this overlaps with the other two categories, as it straddles the middle ground between them. For example, Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas is kinda weird and awful in parts, but wow, does Jim Carey commit and it's super quotable.

3) Trash/my brand of garbage: This movie is trash, but I love it. This will vary personally. For me, all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies fall here. (Except the first, which is genuinely great). I'm just always down for people in pirate costumes. Sue me.

But none of those made the list! Instead, I give you ten movies I would go to bat for. I've arranged them by descending Tomatometer score and conveniently, most of my favorites are at the very VERY bottom. Including the best of the bunch. So stick around, kids. The takes just get hotter and hotter.


10) A Knight's Tale

To Trudge

Tomatometer rating: 58%
Emily rating: Naked Chaucer

What it's about: Will Thatcher is a squire to an ailing knight, who dreams of changing his stars. When his master dies, Will fills in for him in a jousting tournament and from that, a new dream is born. Helped by plucky friends, and a down-on-his-luck writer, Will concocts a story that may just propel him to the new life he's always dreamed of.

Why did critics hate it? This loose retelling of the Canterbury Tales is, in a word... loose. Not only is the story more like a sports movie than anything truly medieval, but the soundtrack and costuming is ridiculously MTV inspired. That this is the first movie most people think of when picturing Geoffrey Chaucer no doubt gives some English majors heart palpitations. Also, let's be honest, the girl who plays Jocelyn can't act.

Verdict: Vindicated by History

If aggregate scoring is to be believed, this movie is of roughly the same quality as Oz The Great and Powerful. That thought alone boggles the mind. If the films on this list were arranged purely by enjoyment, this one would be near the top. It's one of my favorites and for years, it was a go-to when my mother and I couldn't decide on something to watch. As it stands, I think it's fair sitting it at the top of the list, because "A Knight's Tale is actually a pretty good movie!" isn't a very hot take.

This one is popular for lists of "best movies with low Rotten Tomato scores" because it's fantastic. For the first few minutes, the rock and roll music inter-cut with olden-timey dialogue might feel strange, but once your brain catches up, the mix really works. It's big, silly and odd, and unapologetic about those things. Plus, with the exception of Jocelyn, the cast is great. Alan Tudyk plays your new favorite angry ginger and Heath Ledger is at his most adorable as Will.

But the star of the show is Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is kind of a perfect historical figure to do a movie like this around. He's not a sacred cow, like Shakespeare is, so he can be a rambunctious gambler who gets into trouble, yet still is flowery and brilliant when he needs to be, and no one is going to cry foul over his portrayal. He makes Ye Olde English literature look way cool, man! So show this to your teens and get them hip to the Cantebury Tales.

9) The Swan Princess

This is my idea of fun!

Tomatometer rating: 55%
Emily rating: Celestial Glory

What it's about: Prince Derek and Princess Odette are raised in neighboring kingdoms, by parents who would love to see the pair marry and join their lands together. But just as they start to develop feelings for each other, Odette is kidnapped by a sorcerer who transforms her into a swan and will only release her from the curse if she marries him. How will she get home and what is Derek to do without her?

Why did the critics hate it? Produced by Nest Entertainment, The Swan Princess is clearly on a smaller budget than the Disney princess movies it so desperately wants to be. There are times the animation is awkward and while it's cute, the film hardly offers anything to adult audiences.

Verdict: Appropriately rated/my trash

The Swan Princess isn't what I would call a bad movie, but it is one that I love more than it likely deserves. Certain parts really work. Despite featuring three animal side-kicks, none of them annoy me! And John Cleese as Jean-Bob the frog is downright charming. The music is mostly strong too. It's also the part of the movie that leaks the most Mormon-ness over the project. For the uninformed, Nest Entertainment was a company that got it's start doing Bible and Book of Mormon animated shorts for families of The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The composer for the film was Lex de Azevedo, who was something of a big star for members of the church back in the Nineties. He really busts out the show tunes here, and the love ballad, "For Longer than Forever", is the most Mormon Princess song you will ever hear anywhere. My favorite song will always be "This is Not my Idea of Fun," which is unarguably the best sequence in the film. Little Derek and Odette punching each other while their parents plan their wedding is a mood.

ON THE OTHER HAND... the critics weren't wrong about the occasionally floopy animation. The proportions of everyone's bodies feels off, with most of the human characters sporting very long legs. But the movie's biggest problem (also my favorite thing) is Derek, who is a frickin' idiot. Sometimes the movie acknowledges this, but all too often, it doesn't. Like, guys. Go back and watch this. He nearly shoots Swan Odette multiple times. He's so bad at the hero thing, Bromley of all people needs to save his butt at the end.

I thoroughly enjoy how clueless Derek is, and get great pleasure out of quoting his more melodramatic lines. (The vow was for herrrrrrr!!!!!!) But quotability is not the same as quality, especially when the movie is going for the opposite emotion during the scene. And in the end, I always leave the movie feeling like Odette could do better. Like honestly, girl. You weren't wrong to get in that carriage at the beginning and leave.

8) Robin Hood

The face that launched a thousand furries.

Tomatometer: 54%
Emily Rating: Oo-de-lally

What it's about: Robin Hood and Little John running through the forest, jumping fences, dodging trees and trying to get away. Contemplating nothing but escaping, finally making it. Oo-de-lally, Oo-de-lally, golly, what a day.

Why did critics hate it? Produced during a downturn in the prospects of the Walt Disney Company, the film relies on an embarrassing amount of recycled animation and fails to reach the same dizzying heights of artistry and spectacle previous Disney films did. A symptom of trying to carry on Walt's legacy without anyone who possessed his vision.

Verdict: Vindicated by History

Not long ago, I polled my Facebook friends for their favorite, pre-1980s Disney animated movie. (that distinction might seem arbitrary, but there were some very important internal company shake-ups that happened to Disney in the Eighties that distinctly impacted the "eras" of Disney animation). For the most part, people were all over the map, picking favorites, but among the most interesting to me was the high popularity of Robin Hood. It did as well as any film for picks as a favorite, and even more people named it as their runner-up. This movie is very well loved now, so what changed?

Standing now from the perspective of modern Disney viewers, I think a lot of the reasons it got picked to pieces and flopped at the box office on release are exactly why it's so loved now. It is a small film. The animation is locked in the xerography days of animation, which led to the overall scratchy, cheap look. And it's no secret that several scenes use recycled animation sequences from previous films. But beyond the visual smallness, the story is small and simple too. You don't get the grand displays of emotion or villainy of previous Disney films, and certainly not the outright bombast of some more recent films. What looked like a step down in quality then now looks like a refreshing view of the past.

Remember when Disney films were about simple things? Like, a fox and hound are friends! This deer is growing up! A lady doggy falls in love with a stray boy doggy! Robin Hood and Little John running through the forest! Oo-de-lally!

To me, the music of the film best sums up why it worked so well. The folksy, quiet happiness of Robin Hood is infectious. None of the emotions feel forced, because they're allowed to exist on a smaller scale, making it one of the most sincere of the early Disney movies. Decades later, that sincerity allows the film to resonate and continue to find an audience.

Some of Disney's past films do get shoved to the side and ignored, as if they're embarrassments from an age out of touch with today's sensibilities. But not, it turns out, Robin Hood. Disney still promotes this one, realizing it did grow into a beloved classic, and that's where it deserves to stay.

7) What Dreams May Come

I miss Robin Williams

Emily Rating: 365,780 gallons of paint

What it's about: Chris and Annie have endured hardship already in life, due to the loss of their children in a car crash four years previous. When Chris is also killed in a car crash, their bond is put even further to the test as he must pass on to Heaven while Annie spirals in depression on earth.

Why did critics hate it? While visually stunning, this movie bites off more than it can chew, says some potentially troubling things about life, death and atonement, and isn't as deep as it thinks it is.

Verdict: Flawed, but very, very interesting

I first saw this film in Art class in high school and that right there will tell you something about who it is for. This movie won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it is visually stunning, and I think it does a fabulous job of illustrating thoughts and emotions through art. Movies about the Afterlife are inherently tricky, since they often come into conflict with our own deeply held beliefs about death, which are understandably complicated.

It's also true that this movie doesn't have a lot that's terribly profound to say about death. It feels more like someone going, "hey, wouldn't be cool if heaven was like THIS???" rather than someone giving a thorough philosophical discussion on the nature of God and judgement and goodness and what we hope for in the world to come.

But I really can't overstate how gorgeous this movie is. In many ways, this is my version of The Greatest Showman. It's certainly not a big, peppy musical, but the joy of this film comes simply from looking at it and from Robin Williams turning in a tender, dramatic performance. Like Greatest Showman, it's easy to overthink.

Annie is an artist, and so when Chris arrives in Heaven, he discovers that all of the flowers and breathtaking vistas he sees around him are made of paint, a reflection of his love of her. When the plot later takes characters through literal Hell, this same artistic sensibility is there.

Do I think this movie is right about the afterlife? No. Do I agree with everything it says, especially about Annie's depression? Also no. But I still found this film incredibly moving, because it does say something about life as we know it here on earth; that we can sometimes glimpse Heaven through art and that our own love and imaginations build the world around us.

6) A Walk in the Clouds

The heart flutters.

Tomatometer: 44%
Emily Rating: KEANU REEVES!!!!

What it's about: Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves!!!!) is a recently returned World War II vet, looking for work and trying to escape the horrors of his recent past. On the bus to Sacramento, he befriends Victoria Aragon, a Mexican-American graduate student who is terrified to return home to her family, as she is pregnant from a brief affair with one of her professors. Empathizing with her pain, Paul offers to go with her, introduce himself as her husband, and then "abandon her" so that her family only has to console her over a bad marriage, rather than deal with the shame of an affair. But when they arrive, complications ensue...

Why did critics hate it? Too sappy, too melodramatic, and who on earth thought casting Keanu Reeves was a good idea?

Verdict: Criminally Underrated

During my teens, I was slightly obsessed with Keanu Reeves. My friends thought I was nuts. Back in the 90s and early 2000s, he was still a laughing stock and often lampooned as a terrible actor. Still, I loved him, and this movie was a big part of why. As it turns out, I had the last laugh because now the whole world is obsessed with him and I get to shout "I TOLD YOU SO!" at the universe with great frequency.

This movie is sappy, but if you ask me, it is EXACTLY sappy enough. It's got a lot of the design and costume overindulgence we all love about period pieces, plus it focuses on a cast of characters who don't get featured very often in movies about post-war America. Victoria's family make up the bulk of the cast and along with all the romance, there are some thoughtful conversations about power and privilege in American society that take place. Little touches like this helped give the movie the depth that makes it more than just an overblown romantic fantasy.

But speaking of that fantasy for a moment, one thing reviewers were always wrong about was this idea that Keanu was a bad cast. Paul is a simple, kind-hearted, good man and as the world realizes now, Keanu just exudes simple goodness.

As a romance - and not even a romantic comedy - I think this movie may have suffered from the Old Boys Club of Hollywood a bit when reviews came in. My instinct tells me that this movie's primary audience is probably women, not that I'm saying men can't love this film too! Roger Ebert adored it. In fact, as good romance films have become more scarce in recent years, the few genuinely good rom-coms and romances garner better reviews than their counterparts of earlier years, even with predominantly male reviewers. Maybe we didn't realize how good we had it in the 90s. Not when it came to romance, and not when it came to Keanu Reeves.

Of all the movies on this list, this is probably the one that is a) the least well known while, b) deserving a comeback for modern audiences. If you can, go see it! Or better yet, come over to my house and we'll watch it together and swoon.

5) Miss Congeniality

That would be harsher punishments for parole violators, Stan.

Tomatometer: 42%
Emily Rating: I really do want world peace

What it's about: Grace Hart is a tough as nails FBI agent. But when a terrorist plot targets the Miss United States pageant, she's also the one woman on the force with a swimsuit body. Can she go undercover and save a group of women she's never taken seriously?

Why did critics hate it? A bad script and by-the-numbers plot drag down the film, despite Sandra Bullock's charm.

Verdict: Flawed, but pretty great

I'm not 100% sure what critics meant by "bad script" in this case. Unoriginal? Okay. Mean-spirited? At times, yes. But I can't shake the feeling the script isn't as bad as they think it is, because Sandra isn't just funny, she's flippin' hilarious. She nails the physical comedy, the line delivery, the facial expressions. Absolutely everything. Maybe the script wasn't much, but it gave her enough to work with.

Besides, she isn't the only funny person in this movie. Michael Cain is phenomenal, as are William Shatner, Candice Bergen and all the pageant girls. Perhaps the one place I see the script truly failing is with Benjamin Bratt's character, who is supposed to be a likable love interest, but still comes off as a misogynistic pig. I don't blame Bratt though. I find his performance enjoyable, and it's more when I replay his lines in my head and picture them being said by anyone with less handsome swagger that I really notice the ick factor.

Still, overall, the cast is great and I don't care that the plot is unoriginal. To me, this movie is funny enough and quotable enough it's flaws don't really matter. And while it's core, emotional message isn't the strongest, it does still nail some key points about women learning to value other women who don't resemble them. And that's pretty cool.

4) Robin Hood: Men in Tights

My, there are a lot of Robins on this list.

Tomatometer: 40%
Emily Rating: The night is young, and you're so beautiful.

What it's about: After the success of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mel Brooks decided to lend his signature brand of satire to everyone's favorite Merry Men.

Why did critics hate it? Mel Brooks traded much of his sharp-witted satire for outright, pointless silliness. Also: too many gross jokes and bad puns.

Verdict: Cult Classic

This movie is based on another movie. How weird is that? Actually, a lot of scenes are direct parodies of segments of Prince of Thieves, a movie I have never seen and likely never will. Going over pop culture history, I've learned that the original was absurdly popular upon its initial release, but since then, the parody has completely outstripped it in recognition among younger audiences. Did Mel Brooks inadvertently destroy Prince of Thieves with this film? Because that would be amazing, considering critics didn't find the film satirical enough.

There's not doubt that Men in Tights is silly. And yes, I will concede that some of the jokes are kind of painful. But the overall product still works. All the performances are great. This is the best use of Carey Elwes post-Princess Bride. Everyone from Marion to Prince John to the Sheriff of Rottingham to Broomhilda to Little John to Ahchoo to Blinkin to Latrine gets great scenes with great lines. Everyone looks like they're having fun being in this movie.

If you haven't noticed by now, I have a soft spot for comedies, and this one has always made me laugh. I touched on it recently in my post on Greatest Pre-Dramatic Kiss Love Songs as well, so if you need a more thorough discussion of why particular scenes in this movie are so good, look no further.

As a cult classic, this isn't a film that needs me to defend it. A couple years ago, I showed it to a friend, and while he was young enough I had to explain a few VERY 90s jokes to him (clap on lights, Nike pumps, the whole idea there was a film called Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that had been popular), he still loved it. If you somehow haven't seen it, give it a try. It's very silly.

3) Ernest Saves Christmas

Never has Santa looked so much like a mall Santa
And honestly, that says it all.

Tomatometer: 36%
Emily Rating: Merry Christmas, knowhatImean?

What it's about: Everyone's favorite idiot, Ernest P. Worrell, must help Santa Claus in his quest to find a new Santa to replace him and carry on the Christmas magic. Hijinx ensue.

Why did critics hate it? Oh no... not this idiot again. The Ernest movies were boldly, purposefully dumb and this movie is no exception.

Verdict: My precious, precious, lovely garbage

Nostalgia is a great liar. Every Christmas, I watch this movie with my family. Every year, we laugh our heads off. We were blissfully unaware of how bad this movie was until my siblings got married and their spouses informed us this movie was basically our hazing ritual. Survive this, and you get to be a Paxman.

Ernest Saves Christmas is a mess of bad acting, cheap costumes and Jim Varney mugging for the camera so aggressively, it's a miracle his face doesn't fall off. The plot frequently breaks for meandering skits and the Florida setting makes the whole film feel barely Christmassy.

And this movie is so darn quotable, none of that matters.

Maybe the awkward line delivery helps. Unimpressive bits like "sounds like a database problem" become recognizable because who says that??? Besides which, there's some genuine sweetness beneath all the utter insanity on display here.

If you ever have the chance to see this movie, try the first ten minutes and if you find yourself laughing, leave it on. You'll know by then it it's your cup of tea. Otherwise, it's fair to give a pass.

Unless you want to marry a Paxman in which case, congratulations. You're watching this monster every year for the rest of your life.

2) Hook

I miss Robin Williams

Emily Rating: Childhood nostalgia in a can

What it's about: After leaving Neverland, Peter Pan grows up to become Peter Banning, a boring, workaholic, middle-aged man who is out of touch with his children. But when Captain Hook kidnaps his children in a bid to draw Peter back into their feud, he must rediscover the child and hero inside himself to save his family.

Why did critics hate it? Lavish production design does not make up for a strange, uneven and uninspired take on the Peter Pan myth. Perhaps most damning, Steven Spielberg hates this movie and thought he failed it as a director.

Verdict: Vindicated by History, despite some flaws

Of all the films on this list, Hook has probably benefited the most from collective nostalgia. If you are a Millennial of a certain age (as am I) you love Hook, and there is no shortage of people across the internet jumping up to defend it. Something about it really spoke to its target audience, and I defy you to find someone who watched it as a child and didn't at some point chant Rufio's name along with the Lost Boys.

Ironically, a common thought at the time was that this movie, which was slow moving and took quite a while to get to the final battle (or any battle, for that matter), would probably appeal more to parents than children. It was too syrupy and sentimental, and weighed down by a massive cast of sub-par child actors. That sort of thing seemed more like what parents wanted their kids to enjoy, not what kids actually liked.

Looking back, they aren't entirely wrong. The child actors aren't the best (save Rufio, whom I will hear nothing against) but even as a kid, I can't remember caring about that. I was far more fixated on Peter Pan and Hook themselves. In the early 90s, Robin Williams starred in a parade of kids movies that made him THE super star of my generation. Both he and Dustin Hoffman turn in fantastic, albeit non-conventional performances. These aren't the same characters from the children's book, but with such a well-known story, there was a certain fun to that.

Another common criticism of the film is that nothing in the Neverland sequences feels real. At first, that might sound like a ridiculous criticism, since we're talking about a magic island filled with pirates, but think, for a moment, of how real Middle Earth and Hogwarts seem in their films. Or, if you want a more direct comparison, check out the 2003 remake of Peter Pan, which creates such a vivid, rich Neverland, Hook pales in comparison. Several reviews compared the Hook sets to seeming more like interactive theme park attractions than anywhere people actually lived. The pirate ship has a baseball diamond and boards that pop up when you step on them! The Lost Boys live in a jungle skate park! TOTALLY RADICAL!!!

As an adult, I see the design flaws now, but... here's the thing. As a kid, living in Disneyland WAS my ultimate Neverland. Sure, the magic feast the Lost Boys have is mostly just red and blue piles of whipping cream instead of actual, tasty food, but is that such a bad thing when you're seven years old? Maybe Hook lacked something to make it truly "great" but it was far from a train wreck either. Where Hook fails as art, it tends to succeed as fun, and for that reason, most people embrace it now as an underrated gem.

1) Oscar

What an honest looking bunch of guys.


What it's about: Gangster Angelo "Snaps" Provolone promises his dying father that he'll leave the rum running behind and finally go straight. But on the day he plans to invest in a bank and become an honest man - the first day he can't retaliate against his enemies - his accountant comes to him with a request: he wants to marry Angelo's daughter and he's stolen $50,000.00 of his boss's money to make sure that happens. Farce ensues.

Why did critics hate it? Sly Stallone is awkwardly cast in a farce that doesn't work and is too slow moving.

Verdict: Near perfect and I will die on this hill

With most of the other movies on this list, I at least "get" where reviewers were coming from. But this one just yanks my chain, because I honestly don't know where things went wrong. Unlike most of this list, this was not a film I watched in childhood and not one I have absurd amounts of untested nostalgia for. It's just a fun, goofy farce that I loved from the first time I saw it.

This movie is arguably my dad's favorite and there are few things he loves more than finding a new friend who hasn't seen it and getting them to watch it for the first time. He's done this dozens of times, which I've often been privy to, and without fail, people laugh. When I do meet people who know this film already, they love it and are absolutely stunned when I tell them how critically panned it was upon release.

Perhaps the one molecule of truth in what the critics said is that Stallone was a weird cast not because he butchers the film, but because everything he represented in audiences eyes at the time was counter what this movie is about. It's an absurd throwback to old mobster comedies and his image was more tied to gangster movies where people actually get shot up by the end.

There are also a few scenes that drag on. It often feels like they pause to let the audience laugh at their jokes periodically, which I would consider a bigger offense if not for the fact that most people I've watched this with do, in fact, laugh uproariously during the pauses. In other instances, the pauses themselves feel like part of the joke. There's something wonderful about watching Stallone bang his head on a table while Tim Curry watches on in pity.

I'm not sure what reviewers expected. Did they want something more adult? Less silly? That seems to be a reoccurring question in these reviews, and I think that's what I take away from this whole exercise. In my mind, silliness is worthwhile. Not everything needs to be sharp or satirical in order to be clever. There's value in a sight gag, whether it's Ernest P. Worrell covered in snakes or Chaucer walking naked down a road. There's joy to be had in worlds built from paint and amusement park equipment. A good non-sequitur about harsher punishments for parole violators or Nike pumps is sometimes what it takes to make a script worth quoting. There is, in my mind, an art to silliness. And if you're looking for a masterclass in silliness, Oscar is the perfect place to start.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Making Sense of the CATS trailer: A Noble Attempt

A week ago, two things brought me great joy.

First, the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of the immensely popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, CATS, dropped on the internet.

Second, I got to listen to a grown man scream his head off as he watched this trailer.

If you, like countless others, have felt a similar sense of dread at the thought of computer enhanced cat/human hybrids taking over the world, then I am here to help. I consider myself uniquely qualified to speak on the topic. CATS was the first full-scale musical I saw on stage, back when I was nine years old. Seeing the show required a full-day trip to Vancouver for our family. In addition, the critical portion of my Master's Thesis project included discussion and analysis of CATS, as well as the children's poems it was based on, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Elliot.

So lay your head on my shoulder, child. Let me tell you the story of CATS.

Adapting an Adaptation

Film adaptations are always a little tricky, but let's start with one basic premise most people can agree on. Any time you are changing mediums, expressing the same concept through a different artform leads to change. Some are inherent to the artform itself (ex: film is more visual than the novel) but some conventions are really only that: conventions of storytelling that we've grown used to and expect now. When those conventions are broken, the art itself can feel broken, even if nothing but tradition is what tells us this ought to be so.

I won't go into the whole long list of conventions film follows, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on one very important factor: Movies cost way more to produce than books, which means they need to be consumed by/appeal to far more people if they want to make a profit. This has given rise to a particular plotting style commonly referred to as Three Act Structure. I won't go into the full scale description of it here, but loosely, it goes like this:

Act 1: Establish the protagonist, where they are from, what their problem is and what tragic flaw keeps them from solving their problem
Act 2: The protagonist attempts to solve their problem (unsuccessfully), gradually learns the problem is bigger or different than they first thought, and then experiences great failure, leading to their lowest moment.
Act 3: From that low moment, the protagonist finds the fortitude to overcome their flaw, attempts to solve the problem once more and in the climax, either solves it (victory!) or fails (tragedy!). Closing image, fade to black.

Three Act Structure is so ubiquitous, it's tempting to see it in everything and assume it's the only way to tell stories. Today, most commercially viable books also follow this structure. Heck, The Hunger Games worked so well as a movie because it already read like one in book form. But go back pre-Hollywood, and the dominating power of Three Act Structure begins to collapse. It's not the defining structure of Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales. It's not what drives Alice in Wonderland.

And if we move outside of the landscape of novels, it disappears altogether. Short stories don't always have the time to bother with all that structure foofaraw. Or look at picture books. "Everybody do the Barnyard Dance!" might be your plot. Or maybe you've picked up The Book with No Pictures, which is much more about making adults say weird stuff than it is about following character growth. But both those books are stories. They're recounting of events for the purpose of social bonding. Can't get more "story" than that.

And so returning to CATS (finally, we are returning to CATS), I think it's worth asking the question: what type of story is the film adapting? If it had only ever existed as a film, had always been a film, then it would be much, much harder to explain the weirdness going on in that trailer. But CATS not only is an adaptation, it was also never a novel, the most common source of film adaptation.

The problems become clear the moment you realize there are multiple steps in this process, and that those steps never bowed down to Three Act Structure.

Before CATS was a film, it was a play, and before that, it was a book of children's poems.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

T.S. Eliot is considered one of the greats in poetry of the Twentieth Century, and rightly so. His work was beautiful, lyrical, thought provoking, and still gets quoted like crazy in Young Adult novels all these years later. That his work shows up in YA points to the fact that he understood something about young people, whether he was explicitly writing for them or not.

Also recommending him as a human: he liked cats. He wrote a bunch of poems about them for his godchildren. Eventually, he had enough, he was like, "hey, I think this might make a good book of poems" and so he published them, and therefor, little Andrew Lloyd Webber grew up reading them.

And despite what others might tell you, it doesn't just have a story, it has many! There's the story of Rum Tum Tugger, the cat who just wants to annoy you constantly. Or there's Mongojerrie and Rumpleteazer, the kittens who play with everything until it gets lost. One of my favorites is Skimbleshanks, who harkens to the tradition railways had of keeping cats aboard in Britain. See? So many stories! All more adorable than the last!

Importantly, those stories are also intensely relatable. As someone who owns pet cats, I can see my animals mirrored in the poems of cats more than I can in dozens of other stories that feature cats. I've lived with a Rum Tum Tugger and a Jennyanydots. Much of the success of those poems come from how well Eliot captures the lives of real domestic cats.

However, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats does not have an underlying through line other than "aren't cats great?" As a poetry book, this is just fine. Poetry is much more about evoking emotions or ideas in the reader than telling a character growth journey. Story itself is optional in poetry, so in that respect, the poems here are much more conventional "stories" than other poetry books might be. Still, if it were directly adapted into a visual medium today, the most logical would probably be YouTube meme compilation videos. I'd like to think in some alternate universe, there's a poem by an internet era Eliot that goes a little like...

Miss Melarosey rides round on a Roomba
Cleaning the house while the other cats slumber

You get the idea.

When Webber began adapting the poems, he wasn't initially trying to make a whole musical out of them. Instead, he used them as a personal challenge, to compose something where the lyrics were set and couldn't be bent to fit the needs of the music. The project eventually piqued the interest of Eliot's widow, and she passed on to him some poems that Eliot cut from the collection, including Grizabella the Glamour Cat, which Eliot had worried would be too sad for children. But that sad poem was the final spark Webber needed. To him, the bleakness of that poem helped contrast with the jovial, goofiness of the other cat characters, and he felt he now had the makings of a full musical on his hands.

But a musical about what???

Guys, I can't believe you're still asking. It's about cats.

CATS as Broadway Royalty

In CATS earliest days, there were a lot of people working on the show who were deeply confused by Webber's vision for the production. They tried to turn it into something more recognizable. Something that would work with conventional story telling structures.

"Maybe it's a satire of British politicians?"

No hun, it's about cats.

"What if we make this a chamber piece, with minimal effects and a small ensemble?"

Cats deserve better than that, Karen! We will have strobe lights and a cast of dozens because cats are worth it!

"Okay, so who is our hero? What cat are we following? What are they trying to accomplish?"


Eventually, Webber got his wish, though not without sacrifice. The production scared so many investors away, he literally bet his house and all his money on it, just to finance it. I'm sure his family and loved ones shook in fear for him. But Webber was the one left laughing because the public ate CATS up. It became the longest running and most profitable show of all-time, only to be surpassed in that title by Andrew Lloyd Webber's later work, Phantom of the Opera.

And in my opinion, Webber was right to put his foot down every time someone tried to make CATS about something other than cats. The whole reason the show works is because it's driven by poetry, music and movement. Those things leant themselves more to the subject matter than a plot did, because real cats almost never experience character development. They are what they are, and they either annoy or entertain us. Since Eliot's poems were originally about recognizable, normal cat behaviors, this was the truest way of bringing these poems onto the stage.

In addition to Eliot's poems and some of Webber's best music, CATS also has some of the best dancing on Broadway. A lot of time was spent developing how the performers would move and emote in the show, and how the more cat-like motions they performed would be mixed with ballet and modern dance choreography.

It's actually because the show has so little plot that it can revel in the things that make it strong. It's about nothing more than a gathering of cats, who have come to strut and show-off to each other. They can spontaneously break out into dance sequences without it feeling jarring. They can switch tone and focus character song to song, because, like real cats, they don't have the attention span to have a protagonist.

What little through-line there is for the play was eventually developed based on theme, rather than a plot. Trevor Nunn, the poor soul who got tasked with directing and helping develop CATS into a full show with Webber, tried his best to piece together themes of death, rebirth and the folk tale that all cats have nine lives. It wasn't a plot, but he hoped that viewers sensed a kind of progression through ideas, that would keep them engaged.

And there is another reason it worked, and that is because CATS was intended for the theatre, not film.

Writing for Film and Theatre

At first glance, theatre and film seem like very similar mediums. Some people never go to the theatre, because it's expensive, and they don't understand what it could offer them that a film can't. Aside from the thrill of a live performance, is there any real reason to see Hamlet on stage as opposed to in a film adaptation?

As something written before the advent of film, Hamlet might seem like an odd candidate for suiting film, but in many ways, it's early inception is one of the reasons it is so adaptable. In Shakespeare's time, theatre was the primary way of sharing stories with the mass market. Not everyone could read, but everyone could see plays, which were cheap. As a result, Shakespeare's plays often fall into that comforting, digestible Three Act format mentioned earlier, Hamlet included.

For hundreds of years, theatre was the primary venue for social gathering and experiencing stories. But when film came along, the balance of power shifted. Films were potentially more expensive to make but they were so much cheaper to distribute worldwide. You no longer had to go see Hamlet put on by the yokels at the local theatre. You could see Laurence Olivier in the role, without ever leaving your hometown.

In order for theatre to survive commercially, it had to identify who its real audience was and what they wanted. Two particular groups of people are still interested in theatre.

1) People who value the visceral, live aspect. The joy of seeing something staged and knowing that all the pieces have to exist and move together in real, human space is exhilarating. Dance, as a result, thrives in theatre, because it can be very hard to capture the full three-dimensional nature of movement in film, especially for large crowd numbers. Film flattens the image and even 3D technology struggles to recapture the depth of movement theatre can provide. Dance looks better on stage. I've never seen any film that successfully convinced me otherwise. By a similar token, music does often sound better, or at least more emotive, live. Again, there's that visceral component of the experience that you can't get from film. Little surprise, in the wake of the rise of film, musical theatre thrived and took over Broadway.
2) People who like experimental, weird stuff that doesn't suit commercial Hollywood film making. I'm by no means suggesting that film can't be experimental or that theatre wasn't before film put pressure on it. But that pressure still matters. Most cinemas make their money off of digestible blockbusters. Theatre isn't going to grab that crowd anymore though, so it might as well cater to people who want to see a naked boy on stage with a horse. There's a reason it's the theatre club that has the reputation for housing weirdos, not the film club.

And CATS ticks the box for both groups. For a big, flashy spectacle musical, it's surprisingly experimental with it's unconventional story structure, reliance on theme to drive forward progression and lack of protagonist. It's more committed to exploring what it's like to be a cat than it is to examining the human condition. Lest we forget, CATS started off as an experiment. Webber wanted to see what would happen if he wrote music for pre-established poetry.

In recent years, Andrew Lloyd Webber has become a figure that the musical theatre community likes to make fun of. He was such a phenomenon in the 70s and 80s with CATS cat-apulting him from respected, working composer to mega-star. That fame only grew with the release of Phantom, and soon it felt like he was everywhere. Unfortunately, that meant that when his less successful work of the late 80s and 90s came around, he was a highly public figure whose flubs were likewise highly public. It was very easy to slide into mocking him as the weird cat guy. Or the guy who made a play about dropping a chandelier onstage.

But I do think we can be a bit unfair, because often, Webber's strength was being that weird cat guy. Theatre needs weirdness if it's going to survive and thrive. He understood and recaptured the spectacle of theatre better than he told stories or understood the human condition. He needed a good lyricist, like Tim Rice, if he was going to say anything profound or develop characters convincingly. Better to leave the heartfelt, emotional musicals to the likes of Sondheim and let Webber make silly things about dancing cats and chandeliers.

But with the crazy costumes, expressive dancing and energetically scored poetry, CATS did capture something real. As a nine-year-old, seeing that play was a highlight of my brief existence. I've often wondered if one of the reasons we're so hard on CATS as a play is also because of it's intended audience. As a play based on children's poems, it still is intended for children. I've spoken with so many people who struggle with the idea that something can be beautiful or artistic or profound and still be understood by a child. It's been my experience that some of the most beautiful things are those that resonate with children. Children are deeply sensitive to beauty, because they haven't learned to be cynical about it yet.

Cynical, like some of us might be about a certain movie trailer.

And so, that Trailer...

Look what you made her do

Like a lot of you, my initial reaction to the trailer was one of... horrified curiosity, let's say. It does look weird. Film, in it's over fascination with computer graphics, has turned the painted faces and lycra bodysuits of the original CATS world into photorealistic fur. What was expressive in the theatre is now rendered uncanny on film. Some people have suggested it would have been better animated in a more stylized way, like a traditional hand drawn musical. But I do empathize with the film makers, because that would have lost the dancing, and dance is one of the primary reasons to go see CATS.

If I'm being honest, what actually concerned me is the dialogue. CATS the musical gave up on having a plot, but the film seems to be trying to pull one out of the emotive, theme driven material that Trevor Nunn cobbled together. The proportion of singing to spoken lines in the trailer is way off of what it was in the musical and that... concerns me. Concerns me that someone involved in the film's production got confused and figured CATS was actually about Grizabella's quest to ascend to the heaviside layer.

For the last time, guys. It's about cats.

But this is a multi-million dollar film that needs multi-million dollar ticket sales and so, following the logic of Hollywood formula, some poor screenwriter seems to have been tasked with shoving Three Act Structure down CATS throat at last, like a pill from the veterinarian that your pet is just going to regurgitate in a few minutes anyway.

Maybe the transition will work better than I think. Maybe some of the experimental nature will still shine through in the film, or they'll at least capture some of the joyous spectacle and dancing that made the musical worth seeing. Or maybe it will be a ghastly, expensive train wreck, fueled only by a cash grab at our nostalgia for the musical.

Either way, I kinda want to see it. With it's giant franchises and carefully plotted Blockbusters, Hollywood takes so few risks any more. Whether it succeeds or fails, CATS was a risk. And at least there's singing. At least there's dancing. At least most of the leads are actual singers and dancers.

And I, for one, am curious how they picked a protagonist. Just which cat did the dart hit when they threw it at the board? And what character journey are they going to take us on between Taylor Swift shaking catnip over a crowd from a bejeweled canister?

I have only questions. No answers. And with that, I need to go feed my cat.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Tropes VS Tropes: Best Overprotective Dad

When I started this Tropes VS Tropes series, one of the things I wanted to emphasize was that tropes, in and of themselves, are not inherently bad. Sure, they can be repetitive or uncreative, but they don't necessarily have to be.

My personal belief is that a trope is most useful when it is used more as a starting point for a story idea, rather than the final execution of the idea. Take Steve Harrington from Stranger Things. When introduced, Steve is presented so that he resembles every meat-headed, privileged bully that was so popular in the Eighties. He looks and talks like the guy who shoves the hero into a locker. He swaggers up to Nancy like he's got a right to her. He's a jerk jock, plain and simple.

Since today's topic is Overprotective Dads, I give you 
Steve Harrington, being a Dad.

Except there are hints that he's not as shallow as he seems. His jokes are too genuine. He smiles at Nancy like she's the greatest girl in the world. Even his bullying of Jonathan stems from an ultimately understandable place - they caught Jonathan taking creepy pictures of Nancy.

Now true, there is context to Jonathan's actions that make them *less* disturbing (though let's put a pin in that topic for another day) and true, Steve escalates his poor treatment of Jonathan in a brutal way, considering the guy's little brother is missing. Eventually it comes to blows and for a brief moment, it feels like the classic bully vs underdog confrontation.

But then the show subverts that classic set up. After the fight, Steve comes to the conclusion that he has acted unfairly. When he goes to ask Nancy for forgiveness, he gets dragged into the central conflict and ends up helping the main cast fight the Demogorgon.

His arc is so successful largely because he's a much deeper exploration of a stock character than we're used to getting. From the outset, he's presented in a way that suggests we're supposed to root against him, yet gradually revealed to be a far better person than he seems. A lot of jerk jock characters incorrectly see themselves as the hero, but what makes Steve special is that he realizes that his actions don't match up with his own internal narrative. He wants to be the good guy, so he changes until he is, even though that's consistently the harder path.

Since Stranger Things is a show built on nostalgia, it unsurprisingly relies on a lot of tropes, particularly those that were popular in the Eighties. From kids going on bicycle powered adventures, to secretive government facilities, the show is loaded with fun twists on stock characters and plots. But no show is perfect, and so it's not very surprising that with all the reoccurring tropes, some of them don't land as well as Steve Harrington. Some are just tired retreads of clichés we've seen a million times.

The Overprotective Dad is Here to Ruin Your Fun


When season three picks up, the series skips to a year and a half after the Snow Ball held at the end of season two. Mike is at El's house, and the two are getting their smooch on, much to the chagrin of Jim Hopper, El's adoptive father. Since it takes until the very end of the episode for any of the show's supernatural elements to directly impact the plot, for the majority of this first episode, this is the driving source of conflict for many of our main characters.

As Hopper vented to Joyce about how much he wanted to throttle Mike, it was all I could do not to groan audibly and cry out, "not this plot again." The overprotective dad is everywhere, treated almost as requisite in comedies that feature young people dating for the first time.

H'yuk H'yuk

Kim Possible, who can literally do anything and frequently is in physical danger, gets more pushback from her dad about dating than anything else. Hotel Transylvania is a charming Halloween romp about Dracula trying to control his daughter's life, particularly when it comes to romance. Scott Pilgrim gets chased by the sword-wielding father of Knives Chau for daring to date her. Veronica Lodge's father exists to hate Archie, and not for much else.

In the unusual event that a comedy features a father and daughter where he DOESN'T threaten her male suitor with bodily harm, the show will often go to great lengths to hang a lampshade on this fact, and make that the joke.

Take, for instance, the episode of the Big Bang Theory where Leonard meets Penny's father for the first time, and is shocked to discover that the man adores him. He's over the moon his daughter is dating a physicist! Except, at this point in the show, the pair are broken up. Penny, however, wants to impress her father, and so talks Leonard into pretending to still be her boyfriend in order to make her dad happy. When the rouse runs out, her dad is angered by the lying, then insists on speaking to Leonard alone. At this point, he begs Leonard to keep pursuing his daughter. Once Leonard agrees, Penny's dad then pretends to "throw him out" with aggressive shouting, in hopes of making Leonard seem more desirable to Penny by virtue of his disapproval.

Even though this instance SEEMS like a subversion, it still plays into exactly why it is I dislike this trope so much. Whether it's Penny's dad begging Leonard to date his daughter or it's Dracula asking Johnny if he truly believes it would be safe for Mavis in the human world, the conversations are usually between Dads and their daughter's boyfriends, not the girls themselves. These girls love lives get treated as transactions between men, rather than choices they make independently. The jokes tend to depend on either a) not trusting the daughter or b) assuming that whatever the boy chooses will somehow overrule the "good" choices the daughter makes.

To make one thing perfectly clear, none of the examples I've cited have involved rape, sexual assault or any behavior from the boy that suggests a possibility of these things. These are treated like ordinary, every day, relatable responses to seeing a girl date.

At this point, some people may be saying, "but it IS relatable!" And I'll grant you that, yes, it can be relatable. You do see this behavior in real life. Barack Obama once made a joke about sending predator drones after the Jonas Brothers if they ever made a play for one of his daughters.  (Har har har…) But that doesn't mean it's a terribly healthy behavior. Plus, it isn't only art's responsibility to represent reality as it is - it's also to provide mirrors for what it COULD be.

If this trope wasn't so ubiquitous, it probably wouldn't bother me so much. I'm not - per say - against the idea of a plot line involving a dad struggling to know what to do with his daughter once she's reached an age where she can date. What bothers me is that the conversations are almost never WITH her, just about her, and that they default to the same set up, reactions and jokes again and again, without examining any potentially problematic elements. Instead, this trope is treated as a symptom of how all men must behave, because that's how they express love for their daughters. But friends! There are other ways to show you love your daughter that don't involve exerting control over her love life.

A Different Type of Dad

One of the reasons I don't like the trope is because it also is completely unfamiliar. My own father gets excited with me when I like a boy. And if something dangerous were to happen to me while dating, I'm a heck of a lot more likely to tell him about it, because he's always been supportive of my choices rather than controlling. Luckily, I'm not completely alone in the world of fiction, and so for a counter example to all the groan worthy behavior above, I present to you Dr. Covey from To All the Boys I've Loved Before.

This scene is one of the best additions the movie made to the book.

As the father of three girls, by the time our book's heroine, Lara Jean Covey, starts dating, he's been around the block once before with this thing. He makes a point of getting to know Lara Jean's new boyfriend, Peter, but there's none of the hard line theatrics of other shows. Peter is frequently invited over and included in family activities. Dr. Covey checks briefly when the pair are off to a party together to make sure there will be no drinking and driving, but never gives off an air of distrust.

And in one of the best scenes in the film, he takes Lara Jean out to the diner so they can talk alone after she breaks up with Peter. They don't talk about Peter directly, since she doesn't want to hear about that, but instead her dad makes it clear to her that he's proud of her for trying new things and stepping out of her comfort zone, something she'd struggled with in the past. He's just the best, guys. May we all aspire to being as kind and helpful as Dr. Covey!

But Actually...

While Dr. Covey might be one of my favorite fictional dads, he is NOT my favorite Overprotective Dad, by virtue of the fact that this is not his character flaw. He's another type of character entirely, and one I'd like to see more of. Still, he's not the trope, so he cannot win this contest.

When I was watching Stranger Things and saw Hopper veering hard into this trope, I found myself wondering if I could think of good examples of the trope, because here's the thing: I like Hopper. His behavior annoyed me a little in season three, but overall, I like him. So does that make him a "good" example of this trope?

In fact, it made me realize that I don't often address tropes that I dislike. All of the others I've covered for this series have been things that, on some level, I enjoy. Yes, self-defeating villains and big freaking kiss songs can be done poorly, but while I spent a little bit of time making fun of those tropes, they're ones I generally like and get excited to see.

As I said earlier, I'm not opposed to the existence of this conflict, just seeing it done lazily or treated like some sort of primal response all father's share. After all, even if this father/daughter dynamic wasn't my experience, I CAN sympathize. It is hard watching kids grow up and make choices about their lives and bodies that a parent would not personally make for them!

In making this list, I decided to consider the following criteria:
1) He is the father of a daughter
2) He freaks out when she starts dating someone
3) His overprotective streak is triggered SPECIFICALLY by his daughter's romance. So no Liam Neeson intimidating kidnappers in Taken. That's too justifiable.

4) He learns a lesson about trusting his daughter's judgement
5) The bulk of the conflict is focused between father and daughter coming to see eye to eye, not father and daughter's love interest reaching an agreement about her.
6) There's some additional element that makes it so that the audience is getting more than the same old recycled jokes about waiting up with a shot gun or baseball bat
7) He's just a cool character, okay?

So after some soul searching, I present to you a short list of men who might go a little crazy when their daughters start dating, but ultimately learn and grow through the experience, making me love them. They are...

Runner-Up: Best Villainous Overprotective Dad

Ben Linus from LOST

One easy way of fixing the Overprotective Dad trope is by giving the role to a villain. Suddenly, the controlling undertones of the behavior are not problematic, but instead a symptom of being a bad dude. This is on full display with Ben who first kidnaps Alex from her birth mother, then raises her in extremely limiting conditions. Imprisoning and torturing her boyfriend is one of just several creepy, controlling things this guy does!

Ben is just a rad villain, and his treatment of Alex is a fascinating part of his character. You could even argue that towards the end of the series, he learns *something* about letting Alex go. That is, if you count the flash side-ways timeline.

WINNER: Best Villainous Overprotective Dad

Adrian Toombs (The Vulture) from Spiderman: Homecoming

I would have peed myself if I was Peter.

The moment when Peter Parker shows up at his date's house for the Homecoming dance is perfect. As Liz's dad drives them to the dance together, there's an amazing verbal game of cat and mouse Peter is playing with him as it gradually dawns on Toombs that he knows Peter from somewhere. Bit by bit, he realizes that Peter is Spider-Man, and this previously accepting father takes a dark turn.

One of the things that's so fun about this example is that Toombs himself is consciously playing with the trope. Once they arrive at the dance, he tells Liz he needs to give Peter "the dad talk" and she leaves, expecting it to be the usual cajoling about "getting her home on time." That's in there but let's just say his threatenings are way more terrifying than anything she dreamed up.

This all plays super well into his villainous motivation and character arc. His whole illegal arms dealership is driven by a desire to provide for his family. He wants nothing more than to protect Liz and give her a normal childhood, and he expects Peter to play by that script exactly, or face the consequences.

In this instance, the Overprotective Dad trope is invoked for interesting reasons and other levels of conflict are layered on top. It might not be an instance where the conflict is focused on the girl, rather than the boy, but that also seems justifiable, since this is Peter's story. Plus, it has a more interesting resolution to that arc than usual. Instead of them coming eye to eye or agreeing how to "broker" Liz's choices, Peter instead has to make choices that are independent of what he wants with Liz, and that he knows will ultimately ruin his chances with her. It's heartbreaking and awesome.

Runner-Up: Best Overprotective Dad

Jim Hopper from Stranger Things

He reappears!

So first off, I am not a fan of how all of this arc was treated on Stranger Things, mostly because there's some squandered potential here. As mentioned before, tropes are at their best when they are used only as a starting point for something, not the final execution. One of the things that frustrated me about the use of this trope was how they failed to notice that of all men, Hopper had exceptional circumstances for his feelings going into this scenario.

Three things make Hopper and El a unique version of this father/daughter dynamic. One, that El is adopted, and this at least the show touches on. He isn't prepared for this challenge, largely because he's only been her father for a couple of years, and it was a relationship that grew organically, rather than one that either entered into knowingly. But there are two other factors the show forgets to touch on and AAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! It would have been so much better if they did!

So factor number two, Hopper might be new to doing things with El, but she is not his first child. He had a daughter die young, which destroyed his life and relationship with his ex-wife. There are a couple nods to this in season three, but most of that is unexplored potential. I really wish there was more acknowledgement of him as a man still learning how to put away the trauma he suffered years ago, because it would help contextualize his actions when he is a total jerk to Mike in the first episode of season three.

Also, there's the question of El herself. Hopper is more justified in worrying about El's dating habits, because El has only been experiencing a "normal" life for a couple of years. Lest we forget, she had to be taught the concept of "friend" by Mike in season one. To see this same boy then initiate a romance with her could be understandably troubling. If "friend" and "boyfriend" are synonymous, that's a problem. El's world is painfully small and she's naïve in a way most girls her own age aren't. I would have loved to see Hopper articulate some of this in some way - just a worry that childhood was already leaving for a girl who never got to have a childhood. There's more loss there than in the regular scenario.

In fairness, the show does address some of El's inexperience and need for other friends, but it's not directly tied to her arc with Hopper. And so that saddens me. It was right there, Duffer Bros! RIGHT THERE!

So why is this ranked so highly? Partially because, as mentioned above, I love Hopper. But also because that even though it follows the strictures of this trope a bit too much, there's some nice depth to what Hopper experiences and expresses over the course of the season.

In the first episode, he knows he needs to have a conversation with El and Mike about boundaries, but struggles to find the words to say. Eventually, he writes them down and rehearses them. But when he goes to talk to the kids, Mike is kind of obnoxious, and all his preparation goes out the window. He ends up threatening the boy instead and the audience groans along.

Then, towards the end of the season, El finds the letter and sees what he really wanted to say. And instead of being about controlling Mike's behavior, the letter is all about her. How much he loves her and values his time with her, and how he's nervous about this new stage in her life, but doesn't want to hold her back. The scene is ridiculously touching. It does a lot of heavy lifting of redeeming his earlier behavior and that makes a huge amount of difference.

Also, side note: Mike really was annoying in that first episode. It's not ALL Hopper's fault.

WINNER: Best Overprotective Dad

Costas Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Look how sweet he is! He really is the best.

Did you know that this movie is not a romantic comedy? It's really not. The romance is not the center of the story. Her relationship with Ian is rather conflict free. As they say in writing class, if there's no conflict, there's no story, so where is the conflict coming from?

The heart of this fun and fabulous film is in the relationship between Toula and her heritage, and symbolizing that heritage more than anyone is her father. Costas is immensely proud of his Greek background and wants to see Toula feel the same way. He's bossy and controlling at times, and desperately wants her to marry a Greek boy, so when she comes home with "white toast" Ian, he is devastated. And so goes our plot!

Returning to the list of BONUS POINTS, Costas ticks every box. He gradually learns to accept Ian and see his family as part of theirs. He stops questioning Toula's decisions so much, and tries to show her his support the way he knows how (giving a kind speech at her wedding and giving her a very generous gift) and through that, Toula reconciles with him. She's able to see herself as Greek, without focusing on how it makes her weird. She feels loved by her father and valued, instead of seen as the ugly duckling or rebellious child.

The jokes also don't feel as stale, because they're not the usual one dimensional posturing. His disdain for Ian is rooted in cultural differences, a gap which is harder to breach than simply not threatening the boyfriend. Even when he's trying to be accepting, there's still moments where his cultural baggage gets in the way, like when he orders wedding invitations that misspell and misgender Ian's parent's unfamiliar, English names.

Most importantly, he's just really, really funny. Despite his character largely being built out of the Overprotective Dad trope, he's charming, entertaining and a fresh take on the concept. Overall, this movie is great and Costas remains one of my favorite fictional dads. He ain't perfect, but he sure is fun to watch.

So there you have it. Even tropes we personally dislike don't necessarily have to be done poorly. If there's a fresh enough take, tired material can become new again. All you need is a little Greek culture or a Demogorgon and you're on your way.