Thursday, January 18, 2018

Amber A'Lee Frost summarizes socialist feminism

"The whole point of the socialist project with regards to feminism is to create the material conditions under which women can regard male bullshit as an avoidable trifle, where every man is an option, and if they're unappealing, you can sashay away to greener pastures." —Amber A'Lee Frost

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Step It Out, Nancy vs. Step It Out, Mary —on the folk process and Holly Near's misstep with a Robin and Linda Williams' song

Back before the internet, many songs effectively had no writers. If a song seemed traditional, people shared it assuming that's what it was. Albums were sometimes released with songs miscredited as "traditional" or with no credits at all.

Two of my favorite writers ran into this problem. Charles Vess decided to do The Book of Ballads, a graphic album with adaptations of folk songs written by fantasists, and asked Emma to write one. She chose one she loved, "The Black Fox".

Charles did the art, and just as the book was about to go to press, they discovered it wasn't trad—it was written by Graham Pratt. Fortunately, there was time to get permission and add an explanatory note in the book.

The same thing happened to Pamela Dean. She wrote "Owlswater" based on Stan Rogers' cover of "The Witch of the Westmorland", thinking it was trad, and learned after it had been bought that Archie Fisher wrote it.

And when Jerry Clark heard "Step It Out, Mary", he didn't know it was written by Sean McCarthy. It has all the elements of a great trad song: a European setting, a danceable tune, and a tragic ending.

Clark decided to write an American version with Robin Williams, which Robin and Linda Williams played. I love it for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it shows how the folk process has always worked: songs from the old country are changed for the new.

In this case, the big change is the ending.

Holly Near covered it and engaged in the folk process herself: she added a final verse. Frankly, it's a mistake. She breaks a basic rule of great art: don't tell the audience what they're supposed to think. While "Step It Out, Nancy" has a feminist subtext, it's about another kind of injustice too, which Near's new verse omits.

But her version is otherwise fine, so here it is for your edification:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why The Last Jedi is a director's movie, not a writer's movie, the Spoilery AF version.

This is the very spoilery explanation of what I said elsewhere:
The Last Jedi: a director's movie, not a writer's movie. The moments are fine; the story is full of holes. I give it a B because I like Star Wars. Emma and I agree it's better than Rogue 1, not as good as The Force Awakens.
My problems:

1. The decision to turn Poe Dameron into an idiot who repeatedly disobeys orders and doesn't share information with his superior officers is less disappointing than what that decision does to the women who were his superiors. After Poe mutinied, Leia should have killed him on the spot or put him in chains or, if the rebels truly need every fighter at that moment, told him he would be facing a court martial if they survive. Instead, he is forgiven because...women are really nice or something?

And what is the price Poe pays for repeatedly disobeying his leaders? Alyssa Rosenberg put it nicely in From Canto Bight to the Resistance's plight, the worst parts of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi":
...I’m not going to get into how annoying it is that after being hugely wrong and unstrategic about everything for the entire movie, as well as acting like a massive jerk, Poe Dameron somehow gets promoted to be head of the entire Resistance, ending the long tradition of female leadership of this movement. But let me tell you, I noticed.
2. Finn is neglected. He only has two big moments, and both are undercut. The fight with Phasma is brief and not particularly memorable. His attempt to destroy a major threat to the Resistance by blowing himself up within it is thwarted by Rose because...women are really nice or something? Rose does not have another way to destroy the cannon. She just seems to think it's better for everyone to die in a couple of minutes than for Finn to sacrifice himself saving them. Perhaps we're supposed to believe she hated her sister's suicide bombing so she doesn't want anyone else to die the same way, but in times of war, we expect individuals to die for the greater good.

3. Rey is neglected. Her role in The Force Awakens was like Luke's in Star Wars (aka A New Hope): she was an inexperienced Jedi wannabe. But for the first half of this movie, she's less like Luke seeking Yoda for training in The Empire Strikes Back than like Leia seeking help for the rebellion in the first part of the original movie.

Rey never gets a great fight scene of her own. The Big Bad who is killed in this movie is killed by Kylo, not Rey. She's along for the ride.

4. Luke is neglected. First he's a whiny baby who isn't willing to clean up the mess he created by misjudging Kylo. When he finally acts, it's only after he has let almost every rebel be slaughtered. And then he doesn't come in person, so we don't know why he chooses to die when the rebels are at their weakest, and yet we're told he's at peace with this decision. If he had come in person, he would have died like Obi-Wan, buying time for the next generation to succeed. Instead, his death is effectively the final example of him quitting with the job undone.

5. I don't understand the Yoda cameo, so I won't discuss it, but I will note that Yoda's dialogue was not always right. Emma reminded me at the time that Yoda talks like German translated literally--the verb is always at the end.

6. R2D2 is neglected. Much as I love BB-8's design, BB-8's role in this trilogy is to be an upgraded R2D2. The writers should've simply upgraded R2D2's body in the previous movie instead of creating a new robot character.

7. C-3PO is so neglected that he needn't have appeared in this movie. Handled properly, C-3PO is a comic character who manages to be effective sometimes.

8. Chewbacca is neglected. But at least he gets a few funny moments.

9. A grumble about costume design rather than story arcs: Why does Holdo wear an unflattering outfit that looks more suitable for dinner than war?

10. A couple of points for people who say it's sexist to dislike this movie:

a. I wanted more kick-ass Rey and less overly-impetuous Poe.

b. I wanted Phasma to have more time onscreen so her defeat would matter. She easily could've shared the high minion job with the blond guy who was in charge of defeating the Resistance fleet. In a truly feminist action movie, women would be prominent among the bad guys as well as the good guys.

11. A couple of points for people who say it's racist to dislike this movie:

a. I wanted more examples of why we should love Finn.

b. Rose is a fine addition to the cast, but her job was to be just as stupid as Poe and Finn by failing to go to her superior officers, and, in her big moment, to prevent Finn from doing the right thing by blowing up the cannon when there was no suggestion that any other means of success was available.

ETA Hamill is right about his character:

ETA 2: My greatest problem with The Last Jedi: the message of the Poe/Finn/Rose subplot is "Don't question authority."

Blame Harlan Ellison for everything that's gone wrong with Star Wars?

When Emma and I lived in Los Angeles, a friend told us Harlan Ellison was the person who told George Lucas that "Darth Vader" sounded like "dark father". I don't know if that's true—Hollywood gossip is no more reliable than any other gossip.

But sometime after the first Star Wars movie was finished, and most likely after Leigh Brackett finished the first draft of the second movie, Lucas decided Vader was Luke's father.

The idea was clever.

What Lucas did with it was not.

So even if Ellison did suggest it to Lucas, it's not right to blame Ellison for how Lucas used it. But it is right to say that the greatest problems with the series come from Lucas's decision to build trilogies around the idea.

Prequels are almost always bad ideas because they tell us more about things we already know—they often function as spoilers for the movies that inspired them, so things that are surprises without the prequels become things we anticipate with the prequels. Sequels are naturally more exciting because we don't know what to expect from them.

If the Star Wars prequels had to be made, they should have been about things we knew nothing about, perhaps focusing on Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda fighting Darth Maul or an equivalent figure during and immediately after the fall of the Empire. To make that prequel trilogy interesting, the Empire should fall in the first movie so the next two could be about the rebel worlds finding ways to keep the Empire at bay.

But when Lucas committed to the idea that Vader was the "dark father", the series became the story of the corruption and redemption of Annakin Skywalker. Then when Disney bought the material, they decided the story should continue to be about the corruption of yet another Skywalker. Which led to story decisions that do not follow from the original trilogy:

1. Han and Leia were such awful parents that they produced Kylo Ren.

2. Han was so much of a failure that Kylo could easily kill him.

3. Luke was such a loser that he threw a temper tantrum and went into hiding.

A new trilogy should have sprung from the obvious idea: a son or daughter of Han and Leia must gather his own group to defeat a new Scary Baddie. But Lucas had established the idea that Star Wars is about Skywalkers gone bad, so now we have another story about another psycho Skywalker.

I didn't hate The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, but I didn't love them the way I should have. For now, I'll blame Harlan. Even if I shouldn't.