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Thursday, March 27, 2008

 

Exercise music

Okay, I need advice. We have recently purchased a cross-trainer, which is fast becoming one of my favourite toys; however, a workout is nothing without proper music. Even those folks who do studies agree about that.

Now, my usual musical taste fails me at this point. Much though I love those mellow jazz singers who dominate my iPod, they're not usually the folks to cheer you through a demanding set. I have been onto iTunes and acquired a short collection of shamelessly bouncy stuff - It's Raining Men, Sex Bomb, Baby One More Time, Hit 'Em Up Style ... iTunes lists the latter as R&B/Soul, so I feel sort of groovy about that one, but my cool credits are immediately cancelled by having Geri Halliwell singing Scream If You Wanna Go Faster come on next. I know, I know, but that was what they kept playing last time I had a gym membership before I decided it was too expensive, and it has a good beat. It's not as musically interesting as the others, but as I generally don't listen to the radio, my invention was running a bit dry.

Unfortunately, even with Geri in there, this only gets me through about twenty minutes, and I need at least half an hour, preferably with enough surplus that I don't have to listen to the exact same set every day. So what can you recommend? Good is preferred, but my main priorities are catchy, cheerful, and with a skippy beat. Help me out.

Monday, March 24, 2008

 

A conversation


Kit: Mika, dear, we need to talk.

Mika: Noww?

Kit: Yes, now. Please get off the curtains.

Mika: Fite the curtins!

Kit: No, get down. Down. Come on, honey, if you don't get down I'm going to lift you - okay, thank you. Now Mika, we need to discuss our agreement. You remember our agreement?

Mika: You strokes Mika, Mika purr?

Kit: No, not that one.

Mika: Strokes Mika!

Kit: Okay, honey. But we did have another agreement, remember? It was about mousing?

Mika: Mika purr. What are mowze?

Kit: See, that's the point. We agreed you'd have tenure in this house, full room and board, entertainment, medical expenses paid...

Mika: Mika had sore eye.

Kit: That's right, honey, and I took you to the vet, you remember?

Mika: Nasty mean you put nasty drops in eye! Nasty! Mika trust you and you put mean drops in eye!

Kit: Honey, it made your eye better. Now, you'll agree that we've provided medical care, and food, and played with you?

Mika: Fite your leg! Bite it! Mika strong!

Kit: I'll take that as a yes. Now sweetie, there's a problem with the mice. There are scrabblings in the roof. And droppings in the kitchen. And somehow, despite our agreement, you aren't catching any mice.

Mika: Wuv?

Kit: Yes, we love you very much. But we need to talk about our contract. You did great on the aptitude tests. You've caught every ball we've thrown for you, pounced on all the toys, chased leaves like a proper little mouser. We know you've got it in you.

Mika: Mika can fit whole head under your arm, look!

Kit: Mika baby, are you ever going to catch the mice for us?

Mika: What are mize?

Kit: Are you even listening?

Mika: Mika nice. Wuv.

Kit: Oh ... well, you really are cute...

Mika: Prrr...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

 

Happy Easter!

In keeping with the holiday spirit of charity, and also because it's a very good cause, allow me to draw your attention to Match It For Pratchett, a charity drive to raise money for Alzheimer's research. The writer Terry Pratchett, tragically diagnosed with the disease himself, has donated £500,000 to research; this drive is attempting to raise enough money to match his donation.

Alzheimer's is a horrible disease. It's dreadful when a writer comes down with it, like Terry Pratchett or Iris Murdoch, because the contents of their mind have always been more open and entertaining to people than usual - but the sadness of hearing a writer diagnosed just goes to show how terrible it is when anyone's mind starts to go. Everyone's mind is more vivid to them than the best novel in the world. So let's join in this excellent cause and see if something can be done about this awful illness.

Happy holidays!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

 

Macho Sue

A disagreeable variant of Mary Sue, often found in action films, cop shows and the more battly kind of science fiction. While Mary Sue is a fictional character who bends the universe around herself with her amazing specialness, Macho Sue bends the universe around his manhood. He has a particular ability to get away with behaviour that would be considered bad in a woman - to the point of behaviour that would be considered typically female by a misogynist if displayed by a woman.

These traits usually involve poor self-control, such as outbursts, tantrums, sulks, and a refusal to take responsibility for his own behaviour towards others when he's upset. It's not uncommon for Macho Sue to be prejudiced, or at least suspicious of the unfamiliar, and he's almost always unusually disrespectful to others; he has a particular propensity for taking an unreasonable dislike to somebody on sight (only to have it validated later). When thwarted, he tends to be affronted as well as frustrated, in a way that suggests neither he nor the narrative think it right that anyone but him should ever get their way. The story tends to throw straw men at him by way of obstacles, but they're never shown as equally masculine, and thus are without any heroism of their own. Macho Sue is emotional, but with such an assumption of gendered authority that nobody questions the manliness - in the rightful sense of 'adulthood' - of his behaviour.

The concept of Gary Stu/Marty Stu/Larry Stu does exist, most sources I've read describe him as fundamentally similar to Mary Sue - a traumatised past, unusual appearance, a tendency to rebel against authority thrown in for good measure, but a basically feminine conception of specialness, predicated on the ability to suffer beautifully and a tendency to have people fall in love with you.

The Macho Sue is something different. While basically a Mary Sue, in that the story attributes to his feelings far greater importance than they would merit in a realistic narrative, Macho Sue appeals to a primordial impulse: the impulse to truckle to the alpha male.

Certain cognitive traits come into play here. One is the 'halo effect', as it's colloquially understood: that is, the tendency to attribute greater virtues to more attractive people. Macho Sue tends to be attractive, insofar as he embodies certain characteristics that are traditionally seen as masculine; as author Rosalind Wiseman would put it, he 'fits in the "Act Like A Man" box'.* Representing a certain archetype of manhood, Macho Sue has to be thought well of by people who want to think well of manhood (assuming they buy his act).

Hence, if you're a man, Macho Sue's manhood is your manhood writ large, and approving him is approving yourself, or an idealised image of yourself; you can, as it were, partake of his hyper-masculinity purely by endorsing it. John Wayne famously said, 'I'm the stuff men are made of', and, taken seriously, that remark can have an almost literal truth: men can build their sense of manhood out of the image of John Wayne. Being John Wayne works, but being a John Wayne fan, who compares his hero favourably to the sappier men of today, is a statement of manhood in and of itself. As such, Macho Sue is something of a totem to men who believe in capital-M Manhood: the implication is that it takes a certain kind of manliness even to appreciate the virtues of Macho Sue, especially since all those hairy-legged feminists swarmed all over society trying to sissify our heroes. If you're a woman, Macho Sue the avatar of manhood that will supposedly protect you, and disliking him risks making yourself into a man-hater. Liking him, on the other hand, makes you feminine. Being a highly polarized portrait of gender, Macho Sue manages to bestow both manhood and womanhood, depending on the sex of his fan: accepting him is accepting that polarization, and putting yourself in the appropriate box. Hence, there's a scramble to attribute all sorts of good qualities to Macho Sue, in the name of proper gender behaviour.

Another trait is the double standards that accompany authoritarianism. Alpha-male privilege is one of the foundation stones of almost any authoritarian mindset, and along with authoritarianism comes double standards. Prominent among them is to judge the powerful more leniently than the powerless. To quote Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians yet again (chapter 3):

I have found many other instances in which authoritarian followers show a double standard in their judgements of people's behaviour ... For example they will punish a panhandler who starts a fight with an accountant more than an accountant who (in the same situation) starts a fight with a panhandler. They will punish a prisoner in jail who beats up another prisoner more than they will punish a police officer who beats up that second prisoner. (Remember when I said in Chapter 1 that high RWAs will go easy on authorities...?)

Macho Sue is nothing if not powerful. He may not always be granted full powers by circumstance (he may, for instance, have a commanding officer, at least at first) - but it's clear that the force of his personality grants to him an authority in the eyes of the audience. He is the hero, he is the one whose decisions will most influence this narrative, and consequently is intended to exercise the greatest power over the reader/viewer's imagination. Hence, to an audience member who has a tendency to value power, it's easy to fall into the trap of judging Macho Sue over-charitably, when the same behaviour, displayed by another, lesser man, or even worse, a woman, would draw condemnation.

The essential story structure of a Macho Sue tends to revolve around untouchable pride. If love means never having to say you're sorry, being Macho Sue means the whole of reality loves you. Typically, Macho Sue's storyline follows a certain trajectory: he begins by acting egregiously, picking or provoking fights and causing problems. However much the ensuing difficulties can be laid at his door, Macho Sue is not about to apologise, in any way. So the problems continue - only to be salvaged by some immense reversals that give the impression that he was right all along. The man he insulted turns out, suddenly, to be a bad guy. The woman who dislikes him falls into his strong arms when he solves a problem that is not the same problem he caused for her. People change their personalities, storylines shift and flip like a mechanical maze popping up new paths and lowering old gates in order to keep Macho Sue from ever, ever having to backtrack. As John Wayne says, 'Never say sorry - it's a sign of weakness.'

Simlarly, Macho Sue's suspicion of the unfamiliar is inherently right, because he already embodies all that is good and right: if something were good, he would already be doing it. Hence, anything new to him is some sort of corruption of the proper way of doing things. Usually it's assumed that Macho Sue has a code of honour that is at heart the right one, that if people disapprove of his behaviour it's only because they don't understand him and his righteousness, that his code of honour is never found inadequate to a situation, and that he never falls below it. It's not only apologising that's considered too emasculating for him to endure, it's learning. For his character to be improved and matured be encountering new circumstances would be a humiliating admission that he wasn't just as he should be from the beginning. Macho Sue exists to be constant: ploughing through the world like a tank, he eventually gets himself to the right destination by remaining impervious and waiting for obstacles to either be crushed or move out of his way.

As a result, from an objective viewpoint, Macho Sue doesn't have to make any effort to do the right thing; he can act on his impulses, and the right thing follows him around like a loyal little dog, herding the rest of the story into place.

This is fairly typical of most Mary Sues, but the dominant feature of Macho Sue is that his arrogance and unwillingness to listen to others often create at least half the problems of the early part of the story, and the rest of the story involves, somehow, proving that the problems he created weren't really problems at all. Which is something of a non-story: things happened! Oh, but not really. An alternative narrative is that Macho Sue behaves like a complete wanker for most of the story, then pulls off some feat that's considered so impressive that everyone conveniently forgets what an ass he is. Some Macho Sues garner sympathy by stunts rather than by actual good behaviour, and generally are given more admiration for those same stunts than other characters would be allowed. Others are surrounded by characters so wantonly foolish and frustrating in their refusal to recognise Macho Sue's importance that, the narrative implies, we can hardly blame him for not being impeccable in his behaviour. Other people are unsalvageable; that's not his fault.

Macho Sue is common in pulp heroes, though he's not confined to them. John Wayne in The Searchers and Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger are two examples I particularly hate, and they're very different in style. The former is the ultimate pulp hero who is entirely loathesome for the whole story, except for the last three minutes (thus earning narrative forgiveness for the past decade), whereas the latter is a canonical drama, where the vindication of the hero involves other people's improbable praise and a magically-engineered miscarriage followed by the emotional collapse of his wife, who comes crawling back to him, poor thing. But whether it's Wayne's swagger or Jimmy's 'burning virility', the essential quality in common is that their aggressive masculinity are considered so impressive that all other considerations fall before it.

Hence, rather than exuding a Mary Sueish Aura of Smooth, Macho Sue, in effect, exudes an Aura of Rugged. Frequently volatile, self-centred, demanding, emotionally unstable, blind to the rights of others and irresponsible, all of these traits unbecoming an adult man, Macho Sue nevertheless dominates the gender landscape to the point where these qualities, inexcusable in a lesser being, are attributed to his strength, stoicism or passion. The basic assumption is that Macho Sue's feelings are deeper, more authentic, than anyone else's; as Mrs Gummidge says in David Copperfield, 'I feel it more.' The tendency to 'feel it more' gets considered depth of character, where in a Mrs Gummidge, it is merely considered a petulant lack of self-control.

Macho Sue is a dangerous fellow. Do not fall for him.

*Queen Bees and Wannabes, published by Piatkus.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

 

John Wayne has to go

I've recently be reading the excellent The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi, and it's got me thinking about John Wayne. This, I should say in advance, is going to be an extremely long post, so I should outline it in brief: in the light of Faludi's contention that John Wayne movies, particularly The Searchers, formed a myth to which too much of America clung in the face of terrorism, something needs to be said about The Searchers. Well, two things. The first, obviously, is that its story should not be taken as applicable to entirely different security problems nowadays, but the second is this: no one of any sense should want, in any way, to be like John Wayne in The Searchers. I say this as an admirer of several of John Ford's movies, but when it comes to his supposed masterpiece, you can count me out, and I'd suggest everyone else counts themselves out as well. Because not only is John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers a complete bastard - bastards can work if you're looking for a myth of manhood; when it comes to the important virtues, he's also a big sissy.

There seems to be something about John Wayne that short-circuits the brains of even some intelligent Americans. The guy has some kind of race-memory mythical ability to stand for macho virtue, the good old ways, true spirit, and so on, to an extent that I really can't find an English equivalent for him. We have our archetypes, to which, like Americans, we revert under stress - the spirit of the Blitz was invoked a fair amount after the July 7th bombings for example. But that comparison was, at least, reasonably appropriate: the spirit of the Blitz was to continue 'business as usual' in London despite being under threat, which was a sensible course of action after the bombings. We stood outside offices for a two-minute silence, we e-mailed everyone we knew to check if they were okay, and most of us got back on the Tube as soon as we could. I recall sitting on the District Line on the evening of July 8th, a little jittery, but feeling, above all else, defiant. If other people were scared to go on the Tube, I sympathised, but I wasn't about to be scared off. To some extent, I invoked myths, but they were myths of experience. I'd grown up in a London that the IRA attacked at intervals for years; when I was five years old, I heard a bomb detonate as my school went out for our lunchtime walk. The other myth was the myth of good old British incompetence. The Tube sucks, it really does. The price goes up every year, and every day, something else malfunctions; it never works. So my main thought, sitting there and trying not to fret if the train stopped too long in a tunnel, was 'Fuck 'em. If they wanted to scare us, they should have hit something other than the Tube; we're used to that being a disaster area.' I cared about the people who'd been killed, but I didn't see how staying scared would help them; cynical English commuterdom seemed a functional archetype to get me through the journey.

But John Wayne, particularly John Wayne in The Searchers - this is Faludi's argument - was a part of the American psyche that 9/11 exhumed: the strong man rescuing the helpless woman in a hostile land beset by barbarians. Faludi's arguments are too detailed to reproduce here (and anyway, the book is worth reading in its entirety), but, among many interesting points, she relates the real historical event that The Searchers was based upon.

To recap it in brief: in 1936 (well before the 1860s, when the film was set), a homestead called Fort Parker was attacked in Texas, resulting in the killing of some inhabitants and the kidnapping of several others, including nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. The Parker men had received several warnings that an attack was likely, including a warning from a Native American as to the exact date it would happen, but the fort was unprotected nevertheless. Cynthia Ann was adopted and raised by her Comanche abductors, renamed Nautdah ('she carries herself with dignity and grace'), and eventually married and had three children with Peta Nocona, the leader of the raid. Several attempts were made to ransom her, and the Comanches were prepared to return her, but Nautda herself refused absolutely to go back and hid from any attempts at 'rescue'. By all accounts, or at least by the reliable ones, she was happy in her new life.

Her uncle, James W. Parker, the man on which John Wayne's Ethan Edwards was based, made sporadic attempts to recapture her and her cousin. While he proclaimed he had 'spared neither my purse nor my person' in the search, he in fact turned to the state to defray any money he spent - the practice of ransoming captives and then charging the state for your expenses at a marked-up price being a recognised form of profiteering, though not usually practiced upon one's own family. Parker himself was a known crook, thief and murderer, who had killed a woman and child in a robbery staged to look like an Indian attack, had been barred from two churches and had a nasty habit of claiming other people's slaves as his own; all round, a pretty spectacular bastard, whose pursuit of Nautdah served the double function of bolstering his income and his reputation.

Nautdah remained with her Comanche family until her mid-thirties, when she was 'rescued' in a massacre of unarmed women and children; her life was spared because one attacker noticed she had blue eyes, but there were very few other survivors. Returned to her family with one of her children, a little girl called Topsannah who died of pneuomonia aged five, Nautdah fell into severe depression, self-harm and wretched homesickness, eventually starving herself to death. Her husband, Peta Nocona, never remarried; her son Pecos died of settler-inflicted smallpox, and her other son, Quanah, became the most important Comanche leader of his generation, his people dwindling to a straggling remnant on a reservation. Quanah spent years trying to find his mother and sister, forbidding his warriors ever to kill a white woman or child in case it was them, but never found Nautdah till after her death, when he had to plead with Congress for the right to bury her in Comanche ground, heartbroken at her loss.

So, that's the actual story behind The Searchers, an immensely fictionalised account of the whole sordid business, with John Wayne planing the hero. The curious thing is, if you can watch it without the Wayne-ness of Wayne disrupting your intelligence, it's actually a pretty sordid story even as it stands.

Ethan is, it's understood, a profound racist. Rather than being a crook, as the real Parker was, he's a veteran of the Civil War, where he fought on the Southern side - that is, to keep slavery legal. Meeting Martin Pawly, his adoptive nephew, he's extremely rude to him purely on the grounds that Martin is an 'eighth Cherokee', or 'half-breed', as Ethan puts it, and his hatred of Injuns in tangible. This comes out primarily in his intention to kill the kidnapped Debbie, his niece, because she's been living with 'a buck' - that is, married a Comanche man. This racism isn't entirely confined to Ethan - Martin's fiance Laurie backs him up with the appalling comment that Debbie is now 'the leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own? ... Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He'll put a bullet in her brain ... I tell you, Martha would want him to.' There's no evidence in the film to support the idea that Comanches prostituted their captives, and the historical Peta Nocona would appear to have been a devoted husband, but, down to the animalistic 'buck', the Injuns in this myth form a twilit sexual nightmare, the specifics of which are vague but full of nameless horrors. Ethan surveys two girls rescued from Comanche captors who now sit on the floor, apparently mute, brutal idiots; Debbie, having been contaminated by Comanche attentions, is expected to be no less tainted. Martin has no sympathy with Ethan's plans to shoot the girl, but Ethan, by his triumphant act of relenting at the finale, trumps Martin as the central image of the movie, carrying both the girl and the day to a grand finale.

(Whether or not she does have any 'savage brats' - if the film were following the facts, she ought to have three - is entirely overlooked. Infantilised in Wayne's strong arms, Debbie returns home like a civilised little girl. If she does have any savage brats, which, given the time passed and the lack of contraception in the era, seems extremly likely, we can only conclude that she left them behind. But that's by the by; Wayne's forgiveness for her sexual tainting effectively restores her lost maidenhead. A virgin with children would be a bit much to manage, even in as mythologising a film as this, and a woman with children would look too adult for Uncle Ethan's paternal protectiveness to be quite so effective. Debbie comes home a maiden once again; the unnameable violations she's supposedly endured, being unnamed, are all the easier to whitewash.)

Defenders of Ethan tend to point to this great revelation at the end: that, far from killing the girl, Ethan finally sweeps her up in his arms, saying 'Let's go home, Debbie,' and carries her away. Very touching, if she had done anything that needed to be forgiven. But if this is Ethan's great moral acheivement, it's hardly an outstanding one: He eventually decided not to commit a crime that should never have occurred to him in the first place is hardly the epitaph you want on your tombstone.

That much goes more or less without saying. What stands out to me, though, is something that's far less often noticed: Ethan may be played by an archetype of manly manhood, but in fact, he's wildly emotional and self-absorbed, in a way that, should such behaviour be witnessed in a woman, would be castigated as the worst kind of drama queen, feminine vice. I've complained before that self-centred male protagonists tend to be valorised for qualities that would be villified in female ones; Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a striking instance.

I realise I'm going up against the bulwark of American culture here, so let's take some examples.

Ethan is, on the whole, a forbidding person, prone to snapping at the first suggestion of a slight, slow of speech but volatile of temper. Watch, for instance, the body language of his family in this first YouTube clip of the whole movie. Perhaps, if you admire Wayne, it looks like respect and a desire not to hurt his feelings, but without that admiration, everyone simply looks intimidated. 'You asking me to clear out now?' he flares, throwing down money to 'pay my way' when his brother has done nothing more offensive than comment that Ethan hadn't wanted to stay on the homestead prior to the war. Being this irritable with family you haven't seen for years is hardly being a benign patriarch, but being a big guy with a short temper is at least aggressively masculine. But Ethan's touchiness isn't confined to matters of honour.

Consider how he takes exception, for instance, to Martin addressing him as 'Uncle Ethan'. Martin isn't related to him except by adoption, and is, in Ethan's eyes, irretrievably tainted by his Cherokee great-grandparent, but that's not the only reason he objects:

MARTIN: Somethin' mighty fishy about this trail, Uncle Ethan...
ETHAN: Stop callin' me 'uncle'. I ain't your uncle.
MARTIN: Yes, sir.
ETHAN: Don't have to call me 'sir' neither. Nor grampaw neither. Nor Methuselah neither. I can whup you to a frazzle.
MARTIN: What you want me to call you?
ETHAN: Name's Ethan. Now what's so mighty fishy about this trail?


Ethan is displaying in this little exchange a number of notable qualities. First, he's finickety about how he's addressed, which is to say, touchy about his public appearance. Now, this might come under the heading of 'honour', but there are some other, less macho traits on show here. First, he's sensitive about his age - irrationally so, considering that the 'Uncle' was a friendly honorific rather than a slight. There's no denying that he is of an older generation than Martin, old enough to be his uncle. Ethan's blood nieces and nephew are still children or teenagers, young enough not to irritate him, while Martin is a few years older, but Ethan leaps up a generation to 'grandpaw', offended at a younger man referring to the age gap at all. Second, he wants something, but won't name it without being asked. Clearly he has a particular form of address in mind, but he isn't about to be clear about it; in effect, he's annoyed that the lad can't read his mind. Now, sensitivity about aging and wanting your mind read are qualities one would traditionally ascribe to a malign female character. Picture the scene: a young woman addresses 'Auntie Ellen', and we have a similar exchange. Wouldn't Auntie Ellen look like an aging prima donna, rather than a hero? It's worth noting, making this gender comparison, that Martin is not only younger than Ethan, but also handsome, better-looking than Wayne even in Wayne's youth. Imagine Auntie Ellen snapping at a pretty young girl for acknowledging the age gap, and you have a Dickensian harpy rather than a paragon.

And, let's not forget, that this objection to being Uncled takes place during a search party, out in hostile country, where the party are vulnerable to attack. Martin is addressing Ethan to point out that something's wrong - something, in fact, that affects the safety of the whole group and their homesteads. To an aspiring leader of men, or even to a moderately responsible person, Martin's concerns should be more important than his form of address. The one addresses the lives of the whole community, the other merely Ethan's personal feelings. Ethan doesn't care for the boy because of his mixed-race heritage and, possibly, his youth, and that swamps his priorities so thoroughly that he has to correct a petty irritation before addressing the 'mighty fishy' problem - which, for all he knows, might be a sniper sitting behind the next rock, ready to shoot them both before Ethan could finish his 'Methuselah' speech.

This small example sets the tone of a great deal of Ethan's problem as a hero. Supposedly rugged and stoical, he is in fact entirely ruled by his emotions, many of them petty and egocentric, to the outright detriment of the common good. Your traditional cowboy archetype is supposed to be square-jawed and self-sacrificing, righteously disregarding his own feelings because 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do'; Ethan isn't prepared even to let other men do what they gotta do until he's got it straight that they're not getting on his nerves.

Take, for instance, a little tantrum we see him have when the hunt begins. The Comanche have kidnapped two girls, Lucy and Debbie, and the priority is to rescue both girls before their captors can do anything to them. Ethan and Captain Clayton, the local officer, disagree about the best method for doing this. Ethan has sat brooding unhelpfully while others discuss options, until someone says something sufficiently provocative:

CLAYTON: What I had in mind was runnin' off their horse herd. A Comanche on foot is more apt to be willin' to listen.
NESBY: That makes sense to me.
MARTIN: Yeah.
ETHAN: What do you know about it? What's a quarter-breed Cherokee know about the Comanche trick of sleeping with his best pony tied right beside him? You got as much chance of stampedin' their herd as...
CLAYTON: ...as you have of findin' those girls alive by ridin' into 'em. I say we do it my way, Ethan, and that's an order!
ETHAN: Yes, sir. But if you're wrong, Captain Clayton, don't ever give me another!

Let's consider what's at stake here. Ethan isn't in charge of the party because Clayton outranks him, little though Ethan likes it; however, he would appear to have some experience of scouting, and has a strong opinion as to the best course of action. If they pursue the wrong course of action at this point, two girls could be killed. But the minute Clayton pulls rank on him - largely because he objects to Ethan's tone, it seems, rather than because he's naturally a bossy man - Ethan drops his opinion and sulks.

Now, if Ethan genuinely thinks the horse plan will get the girls killed, shouldn't he stand his ground and argue his point? After all, lives hang in the balance: if you see a fatal mistake, you should point it out. There's not enough evidence to support the defence that 'he saw Clayton wouldn't listen to him'; he makes one attempt to make his point, and drops it the instant Clayton doesn't agree to do what he wants. He doesn't argue. He follows a course of action he believes will get the girls killed. He does it with bad grace, but he does it. Ethan's primary concern, in fact, seems to be his own rank within the group: rather than trying to change Clayton's mind, he instead puts a marker on the future right to say 'I told you so.' If the girls die proving his point, so be it.

All in all, Ethan proves a sullen and temperamental rescuer, more concerned with his own pride than with any sense of greater good. This self-centredness is not confined to action: Ethan also abrogates to himself the right to regulate other people's emotions. Witness the fact that he punches Martin to the ground rather than let him look inside the burned homestead and see the body of his aunt Martha - in a way that, if one disallows the automatic assumption of heroism, is extremely presumptuous. Ethan hasn't seen Martha, his sister-in-law, for years, while Martin has been raised by her; Martin can only be more grieved at her death than Ethan, more involved in it. Considering that Martin is enough of an adult to go out on scouting parties - and, indeed, no so much younger than Ethan, as Ethan would have it - adding a bruised jaw to his sudden bereavement shows a tremendous arrogance. Even though Ethan has denied any family connection between them, he still assumes it's his right to determine what Martin sees and how he grieves. Ethan refuses to promise the grieving Mrs Jorgenson not to 'let the boys waste their lives in vengeange', and is perfectly willing to let them get killed, but when it's punchin'-time, suddenly he's Martin's mentor. Which is to say, he'll appropriate the patriarch role when it suits him - ie, when it gives him the opportunity to aggress - but rejects it entirely when it might involve either affection or responsibility.

Buried behind this lies a fundamental assumption: Ethan's emotions are simply more important than anyone else's, or indeed, anyone else's wellbeing. Witness the following dreadful scene. Lucy, Debbie's cousin, has also been kidnapped, and is subsequently murdered by the Comanches - in, it's implied, a horrible way (whether tortured, raped or both, it's never stated.) Ethan returns from finding her body, to meet with Martin, and also Brad, Lucy's fiance. Brad, frantic to know whether Lucy is safe, appears to irritate Ethan with his pestering for answers, and the following conversation ensues:

BRAD: Did they...? Was she...?
ETHAN: What do you want me to do - draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live don't ever ask me more!

Poor Ethan is very upset, you see. Now, if you accept that Ethan is the centre of the universe, this looks like high drama, but step back a moment. Brad is engaged to Lucy; Ethan, having been away for years, couldn't even recognise her when he returns home. Yet Ethan spares none of Brad's feelings, lashing out at him as if no one but he, Ethan, could possibly be suffering at the terrible news. Brad, in fact, is so upset that he races off to confront the Injuns; Martin, recognising this as suicidal, tries to stop him, while Ethan sits by, making no effort at all to do anything until Brad goes off on his horse. At this point, Ethan actually holds Martin back, letting Brad race off to his death. By the time Brad mounts up, we're supposed to realise, it would be too dangerous to follow him - but if Ethan can chin Martin for trying to look inside a burned homestead when his auntie dies, what's to stop him chinning Brad for trying something genuinely dangerous when Lucy dies? Martin on his own can't stop Brad, but two men against one might have stood some chance - except Ethan isn't about to bother. He sits on his hind parts, offering no help until it's too late. Picture a woman doing all that and getting away with it.

The thing is, the whole debacle is Ethan's fault. He's remarked previously that 'I thought it best to keep it from you - long as I could,' so he clearly grasps that he has some responsibility for how he breaks bad news. But a gentler explanation, or even a tactful lie, is something his all-important emotions forbid. Consider, for example, the following scene in a hypothetical different movie, where Ethan actually is a responsible man:

BRAD: Did they...? Was she...?
ETHAN (slowly): No. They just cut her throat. (Pause.) Guess they were in a hurry.

... followed, some time later when the still-alive Brad isn't listening, by:

MARTIN: Ethan?
ETHAN: Yeah?
MARTIN: ...They didn't just cut Lucy's throat, did they.
(Long pause.)
ETHAN (heavily): No.
(Long pause.)
ETHAN: I thought it best to keep it from Brad.
MARTIN: ...Yeah.

If you're fond of stoical cowboys, the character of Ethan should really be showing emotional stoicism as well as physical fortitude: that is, controlling his own emotions so as not to distress others. To break down and blurt out something that drives a boy to his death is simply having the vapours; hardly the act of a grim-jawed hero.

These are just a few examples, but this post is already quite long enough. They all serve to illustrate the basic point. Ethan is an emotional, irrational character, presumptuously telling others what to feel and do when they get on his nerves, but unprepared to take any responsibility, unaware that he even has a responsibility to anything but his own amour propre. The 'let's go home, Debbie' finale as an expiation for him reminds me of nothing so much as Bob Altemeyer's comment on authoritarian logic:


In both studies high R[ight] W[ing] A[uthoritarians] went down in flames more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:

All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea.
Therefore, sharks are fish.

The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, 'Because sharks are fish.' In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right.



By this kind of reasoning, if you show a movie with a bad man who rescues a girl at the end, we have to assume that he was a good man throughout. But, especially in fictions, this kind of reasoning doesn't hold good.

What stands out, watching the movie from a female, English perspective, is the strange performance of Debbie. Barely a word does she say throughout; she simply sits, and watches. Near the end, she garbles out a confused story about how 'all white men lie and kill' and that 'white men' killed her family, which we know is false (though considering the real Parker's character, one has to wonder), declares that the Comanche are 'my people', and simply havers on the sidelines, caught between one cultural narrative and another, until Wayne strides in, his Macho Sueness* sweeping aside her entire life and restoring it to its rightful place among the whites. As in many an old-fashioned story, from Doris Day pictures to Much Ado About Nothing's romantic 'Peace! I will stop your mouth!' from Benedick to Beatrice, the happy ending involves the woman dropping whatever she thought she wanted and letting men decide for her. But the character of Debbie remains haunting: sitting still while the men square off, her big blue eyes staring silently at the conflict, her face unreadable, her thoughts unknown.

There's a lie at the heart of this fiction, and if you watch it straight, you can see, even from the movie, that there's something funny going on.

John Wayne has to go. And the horse he rode in on.


*Unbelievably, when I Googled for the phrase, nobody seems to be using 'Macho Sue'. So, dear readers, you heard it here first - or possibly not, who knows? In any event, I think it merits a special classification. Let's work on a definition; I'll post one shortly, but right now, it's really time to stop typing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

 

Acrobats doing Swan Lake

Okay, this is possibly the coolest thing I've ever seen: the acrobats of the Great Chinese State Circus doing an unbelievable performance of Swan Lake.

Here you can watch the frogs, and also the Swan.

Here you can watch some highlights.

I say again: coolest thing I've ever seen; you have got to check it out.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

 

Why do we get ideas in the shower?

Because we do; I know from reading that I'm not alone in this. The book I've just finished and the book I'm currently working on both owe some of their inception to moments of soapy inspiration. We speculated about this yesterday; here are my thoughts.

The likeliest reason, I suspect, is, as Margaret says, because we have our best ideas when we relax. Creativity is playful and innovative; it has to be able to try things without worrying whether or not they'll work. Showers are relaxing, assuming the water's warm. We're not sitting at a desk with a blank page staring at us accusingly; we're not doing the laundry, guiltily aware that we probably should be sitting at a desk staring at an accusing page. We're a long way away from the usual cares of the day. Distance can put problems in their proper perspective.

It's also entirely guilt-free. Showering is one of those things you simply have to do. You can't put it off like housework; you can't go on a showering diet like you can with food: if you don't shower, you become anti-social, and also can't get on with the rest of your day. But at the same time, while you're soaking wet and covered in shampoo, there's no way you could sit down and write. You'd get the page all damp. No, you have to wash the soap off, and then you have to dry yourself, and then you have to get dressed: there's a protective padding of chores between you and the evil moment. And, cushioned thus from writing anxiety, you can idly consider any number of ideas, knowing there's no pressure. (Of course, if something really brilliant strikes you, you may just have to jump out, wrap yourself in a towel and find some scrap paper and a biro, but there's no obligation to be that extreme.)

There's also something about a shower that allows us to turn our conscious minds down. It's not a stimulating environment, unless you have exceptionally interesting bathroom tiles, but at the same time, the water and noise create enough background stimulation that you start to feel nervous and isolated. You can drift, thinking about nothing in particular. This can have the advantages of a dreamlike state - your subconscious can start sending out scouts - with the added advantage that you're awake, so your ideas are less likely to a) Be forgotten by the time you get to a pen, and b) Be complete gibberish.

Showering is mildly boring, which also helps. Not so boring that you get tense and start casting around wildly for something, anything, that might keep you interested. Not uncomfortably boring, like waiting for a train, either; discomfort is very distracting. But it's not a particularly complicated activity. You stand under the water, you move the soap around: it's hardly a challenge. Under those conditions, your brain may start fooling around just for something to do. It has some time to kill, so it can get creative just to keep itself amused.

Writing is an anxious business, and very hard to do unless you feel safe. Being somewhere warm, mildly stimulating, with a locked door and no obligations, is a very safe-feeling environment. I doubt that a deliberate shower would have the same effect on writer's block as a routine shower: that would create pressure again. But a nice, casual shower is a pretty optimum place for ideas, if you're in the right mood.

Does anyone else have creative hotspots?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

 

Amalgamating work

Sheila asks:

I just finished fusing my past two NaNoWriMo efforts into a unified manuscript. I still feel it needs some (okay, a lot of) reworking before it's fit for public consumption. Any words of wisdom you could provide as I dive into this process?

Rewrites are an interesting one.

Like revenge, redrafts are best done cold. By the time you finish a first draft, you're likely to be suffering from a severe case of Overhead Projector syndrome - the device that sits on top of your skull and projects onto the page or screen what you meant to say, rather than what you actually wrote. When I finish something, it's usually months before I feel ready to edit it an any but the roughest way. I can just about manage to cut a scene that I know is no longer relevant, or go back and lay the foundations for a later revelation, but beyond that, forget it. My eyes cross trying to look at the words; I literally cannot see them. All I get is a general impression of how I intended the scene to go.

The solution to this is to leave the whole thing for a while. Do something else; start writing a new project, and leave the old one be. After a couple of months, I begin to forget enough that I can look over the draft with a slightly clearer eye.

Fusing two ideas together is another interesting thought. I have to say, I've never actually tried it. Some of my ideas do come from fusings, but they happen before I start writing. The story I'm writing at the moment, for instance, had two separate inceptions. The first was an idea that occurred to me about a year before I started writing; I thought it was a good idea for a setting, but there was no story to go with it, so I dropped it in the cauldron and let it simmer there, and for a while, more or less forgot about it. Then, a year or so later, another idea occurred to me, this one for a character situation; as far as I can recall, it occurred to me in the shower. (Why do so many people get ideas in the shower? That's a post for another day.) I said to myself, 'Well, supposing I take the character in this situation and put her into that setting; what would she do?' And, lo and behold, there was the beginning of an idea for a plot. The situations mirrored, the thematic elements were a match for each other, and there was a lot of potential for interesting conflicts. So, off I went.

But, of course, I did that synthesis before I started writing. Meshing two books together which are complete in themselves seems like an entirely different challenge. As I haven't done it, I can only speculate, but if I were planning on doing it, the biggest issue I'd expect would be a fundamental one: making the two parts mesh thematically.

Most books have a theme of some sort, a unifying idea that makes everything relevant to everything else and forestalls the reader question, 'So why are you telling me all this?' Many books get a theme subconsciously from something that's preoccupying the author at the time of writing. Two books written at different times are at risk of jarring with each other: if one book's underlying theme is sibling rivalry, and the other's theme is the difficulty of making an living in a competitive world, then they may, without sufficient dovetailing, simply jostle each other and feel like two books under one cover.

The necessity would be to work the themes so that they complemented each other. To take my example, if Book One is about sibling rivalry and Book Two is about making a difficult living, then you could rewrite so that the heroine is trying to make a difficult living to prove to herself that she's better than the sister she was always jealous of. Or you could have two siblings trying to make a living together and falling out because of sibling rivalry. Or two siblings each trying to make their own livings and complicating matters by competing with each other for personal rather than professional reasons.

Things can be made relevant to one another, but I would suspect that what may eventually emerge is a dominant theme. Some themes are simply more universal, more strong, than others. I've talked previously about Royal Storylines, stories that are so strong that they have to go centre-stage if the story isn't going to look ill-proportioned, and the same seems likely to apply to themes. You need a unifying theme; two themes makes for an odd book, and while it's possible that a third theme might emerge with the synthesis, it seems more likely that one will trump the other. I noticed as I typed that all the examples I came up with off the top of my head, for instance, placed sibling rivalry above making a living: the rivalry is the central story, and the job market becomes the pitch on which the battle is to be fought.

Given a strong central theme, the presence of other plotlines, properly dovetailed, should make for a dense and interesting book.

There are other kinds of consistency as well; one, for instance, would be making the writing styles consistent - or, if not, finding some reason why they aren't. Writers have their own style, but it still varies from book to book. This needs to be smoothed over. But the main problem I'd expect would be the necessity to become ruthless, to let go and move on. To work, an amalgam novel has to be clearly one novel rather than two; this means, in effect, that by writing it, you're killing Books One and Two and feeding them to Book Three. The original intentions of each become entirely subordinated to the needs of the final product. This seems likely to involve a lot of changing stuff you really liked because it no longer fits, one of the more painful tasks in a writer's life. One and Two are dead, long live Three.

To which end, I think I myself would more or less view Three, not as a quick job of tacking together two halves - which would be a tremendous temptation, because darn it, the first two halves are there, making it look like it really shouldn't take that much more work - but as an entirely new project, that could take longer than either Book One or Book Two to complete. I'd start over, maybe even rewrite from the beginning, perhaps cutting and pasting where appropriate, but mostly considering One and Two as plants that have to be shredded and fermented into the compost out of which Three will grow.

It can be done. George Eliot originally conceived the stories of Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate as two separate novels, but she put them together, identified a unifying theme - idealists looking for a purpose in a thwarting environment - and, adding in a whole host of other new things as well, made a single story. The result was Middlemarch.

So I'd put two signs up above my desk, or at least, put them up in my mind. The first would read, 'Be Patient'. A quick-stitch job runs the risk of reading as just that, two different stories patched up to make a respectable word count. The other would read 'Middlemarch'. Because with patience, great things can be achieved.


(...Sheila, if this doesn't answer your question, feel free to ask another one...)

Monday, March 10, 2008

 

Patience is a virtue


I'm spacing out blog posts a bit at the moment, for a number of reasons. First off, I'm tired. I finished my last book in a mad dash a couple of months ago, and have been writing a new one ever since. I'm 65,000 words into it, which is all to the good, but it's all taken it out of me a bit. My brain is a bit slow. As per my usual habit when I'm a bit weary, if anybody has a subject they'd like discussed, all suggestions are welcome, but in the meantime, I'm a bit sleepy.

The other reason is that I'm currently in a holding pattern, waiting for my poor overworked editors to all finish reading Book Two and tell me where we go from here. There's an element of suspense, but being an author with publishers is like being a traditional Mormon wife: there's only one husband/publisher, with a lot of wives/authors to divide the time between, and sometimes you just have to wait your turn.

This, however, might be a kind of encouragement to any brave souls out there who are currently shipping their beloved manuscript from agent to agent, and waiting out the long weeks with no reply. It really isn't personal, or a reflection of your ultimate chances: it can happen to published authors as well.

I shall let you know the news as soon as I'm able as soon as I'm able to. In the meantime, here's one of my better photographs to amuse you, taken in my neighbourhood on a particularly pretty day...

Friday, March 07, 2008

 

Psychoanalyse toys!

My boyfriend sent me this: an extremely unusual online game in which you treat cuddly toys with nervous collapses, involving Gestalt therapy, dream analysis, ECT and all sorts of odd things. Their owners mistreated them, you see. To quote: 'These creatures cannot defend themselves. They cannot run away. Insanity is their only way of escape.'

Not a fast-moving game, more like a little interactive movie, with some really elegant dream sequences. (The 'professional assistance' option is always worth checking, as it tells the story of the patient, and doesn't dock points or anything like that.) Surprisingly involving, after a while.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

 

Snow clones

I went to see There Will Be Blood last night, and it got me to broodin'.

Somebody told me, and I wish they hadn't, that an Internet snow clone was building up about the final scene. (A snow clone, for those you who don't know, is a template phrase in which certain words can be changed for effect. 'X is the new Y' would work as a snow clone; so would the LOLcat 'I'm in your X, Ying your Z.') Now, I like the LOLcats, but the There Will Be Blood snow clone bothered me.

The phrase that's been picked up is 'I drink your milkshake, I drink it up.' Out of context, it seems a curious line, so I can see why it's getting cloned ... but I really wish I didn't know that. The line occurs in the final scene of the film, a point of high drama, where, while the acting is certainly grandiose, there's been more than two hours of build-up. It works fine. I'd been watching the film quite happily, and could have watched that line happily, but suddenly, Daniel Day-Lewis said it, and the Internet clanged in my ear.

I wasn't the only one, either. As we left the cinema, my friend turned to me and said in a regretful tone, 'Am I the only one who forgot all about that "I drink your milkshake" joke until it actually came along?' No, she wasn't. We'd all forgotten. What the snow clone did was disrupt the scene; it's as if you were watching a scene of high drama and some bugger in the audience kept sounding a clown horn when a particular word was spoken.

Grr. Free expression and all that, and if I'd gone to the movie sooner, probably the joke would have passed me by, but it was very tiresome to suddenly be distracted in the middle of a climactic scene.

This isn't an objection to snow clones per se. The 'I'm in your X, Ying your Z', for example, is perfectly nice - but there's a difference. That joke, as far as I'm aware, was always just a joke. It can happen in conversations; somebody makes a joke that can be played around with, everybody runs with it and tosses it around as long as it's funny, and that's all fine. But snow clones work either as sayings or as jokes, and personally, I don't think they mix with drama very well. They smack of wilful misinterpretation of the 'Huh huh he said crack' variety, and since those beggars already wound up making me change one book title, I look at them askance over the top of my auntie glasses.*

Curmudgeonly of me, perhaps, but never mind.

*I actually am an auntie, which makes my glasses auntie glasses, though they are rimless and lightweight and attempt to be fashionable.

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