Posts Tagged ‘Joss Whedon’

I’m really bad at keeping on top of modern culture. There’s just so much of it, and so much stuff around the corner behind us that I want to peak back at. That’s no bad thing, just a reflection of how much awesomeness there is out there. But it means that as I think back on what I’ve really enjoyed this year, not all of it’s actually from this year. Still, here are the new(ish) things that really rocked my brain in 2014:

Reading

I’ve done more reading recently, as my befuddled brain has emerged from the fog of the last few years. And from that enshrouding miasma appeared a thing of spell-binding beauty – Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic. I cannot recommend this pair of books enough – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are breathtaking in their majesty, their immediacy and their beauty. They’re big, slow, weighty reads, but well worth the heavy lifting. Many thanks to Glenatron and Everwalker for pointing me towards Kay, and to Sheila for the present.

This was the year Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie returned to their old stomping ground of pop culture as magic, launching The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a beautiful looking and cleverly written comic that explores what it is to be an artist, a fan and a believer. There are clever layouts, smart references, intriguing characters and a fascinating plot. The only thing currently matching it is Chew, with its crazy world building, madcap plotting and offbeat characters. These two together show that comics can be fun, wild, entertaining and carry a serious emotional message all at the same time. They also show that the medium doesn’t have to get all dark to get beyond superheroes.

Viewing

Speaking of superheroes, did Marvel bring their A game this year or what? Agents of SHIELD turned from a limping pet only fanboys would love into a TV show that is dark, twisty and full of character. Tying its fate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier crippled it for most of its first season, but then created a moment of spectacular cross-platform awesomeness. The film and TV show spiralled around each other in ways that let them entertain as stand-alone viewing but break new ground as a cultural project. It helped that the Winter Soldier was a good film in its own right.

As if that weren’t enough, Marvel also brought out the biggest, funnest thing I watched in the cinema this year – Guardians of the Galaxy. A bunch of bickering misfits, forced to work together to save themselves and the universe? A talking raccoon and his walking tree buddy? A dance-off against a villain? Hell yes, I’m in for that. It wasn’t a smart film, or a ground-breaking one, but man was it ever entertaining.

But my favourite new film this year didn’t get a cinematic release, and that’s part of why I loved it. Joss Whedon, mastermind behind Marvel’s Avengers movies, took time out from his regularly scheduled blockbusters to help create In Your Eyes, a beautiful and unusual film about love and an inexplicable magical connection. It also took a bold approach to distribution that, for me, points towards the future I want to see. Just when we thought Whedon couldn’t get any more awesome, he upped his game again.

Aside from that, I’ve been making much more use of YouTube, and particularly recommend the PBS Idea Channel. Every week they come out with a slice of smart commentary, combing intellectual insight with popular culture. So cool.

 

Listening

Here’s where we leave science fiction and fantasy behind. I listen to some sf+f podcasts, and a bit of geeky music, but my favourites this year have been other things.

The Revolutions Podcast is an entertaining and extremely well presented show covering some of the most fascinating slices of history – political revolutions. So far it’s covered the English Civil War and the American War of Independence. Now it’s onto the French Revolution. Mike Duncan previously created the excellent History of Rome podcast, but this is even better. If you like history at all, check it out.

Musically, my favourite discoveries this year haven’t been new to this year, but they’ve been new to me. A friend pointed me toward the Wanton Bishops, a spectacular blues rock outfit from Lebanon. For pure grinding energy, they’re hard to beat.

 

Then there’s Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. I like to hear clever rapping and pop musicians getting away from tired themes of romance and and self-aggrandisement. Macklemore absolutely hits the spot, backed by Ryan Lewis’s catchy and diverse beats, from pro-equality anthem Same Love to the ridiculously exuberant Lets Dance to recycled shopping tribute Thrift Shop. Even when they’re crafting whole songs about Cadillacs, basketball or trainers, their sheer passion keeps me wanting more.

 

But my heart really lies with folk rock, and for that I recommend checking out The Patient Wild. Theirs are beautifully crafted storytelling songs, the sort of thing I can’t get enough of. And a member of the band reads this blog, so everybody wave to Glenatron – hi dude!

Gaming

As Laura will testify, I’m pretty much obsessed with the card game Smash Up, in which you combine genre favourite factions to battle it out for domination. Whether I’m leading robot ninjas against time travelling pirates, or dipping into madness with the Cthulhu expansion, I would happily play this all day every day. It’s a lot of fun.

I also enjoyed the story/game combo of Device 6, which showed just what great things we can do with storytelling in the age of phone apps. Looking back, it feels like a test piece for greater things to come, but it’s a fascinating and atmospheric test piece.

And now I’m addicted to Minecraft. I’ll probably blog about this another day, but it’s kind of like having a giant Lego set on my Kindle, except a Lego set where zombies try to kill me. I don’t know why I didn’t play it years ago, but I’m glad I didn’t given how much time it’s sucking away.

Other stuff

Tiger stripe espresso beans. Manchester’s beautiful new central library. Costa Coffee’s caramel crunch cake. This year has been full of great stuff. Here’s hoping for more.

And so, in a variation on yesterday’s question, what have been your cultural highlights this year, big or small? Please share some recommendations in the comments, give me cool things to check out next year.

Magic and art are a natural match in our minds. Art taps into the parts of ourselves we understand least – our emotions, our instincts, our subconscious. And magic, from card tricks at a kids’ birthday party to vast elemental spells in an epic fantasy, is all about the unexplained.

Casting of magic in stories often involves some form of art. It can be singing and chanting to cast a spell, dancing around a campfire to communicate with the spirits, drawing symbols or stitching together creepy voodoo dolls – if there’s an artform out there then there’s a form of magic to go with it.

Joss Whedon created one of my favourite examples, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Once More, With Feeling’. For a single episode song and dance are both enforced by and and unleashed by the power of magic, as the cast show off their variable music talents. It’s an in character excuse for an out of character novelty, turning a popular fantasy show into a musical for one episode, and it’s great fun.

Sailing to SarantiumGuy Gavriel Kay often explores art and power, and though magic often plays a low key part in his works, it still fuses with art in Sailing to Sarantium. Sculptures of birds are brought to life, art capturing the human spirit in a way that becomes unsettling as the truth behind it is revealed.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionCombining art and magic is something I’ve tried to do myself in some of the stories in By Sword, Stave or Stylus. The emotional core of ‘Live by the Sword’ is about how the gladiator characters use art as an escape from the terrible brutality of their lives, and about magic making this literal. ‘The Essence of a Man’ fuses oil painting with alchemy, combining two arts that created high excitement during the European Renaissance. ‘The Magpie Dance’ is about dance as magic, while ‘One Minute of Beauty’ is about a very conscious attempt to squeeze the art and magic from life, the artist in his and her modern form.

I love to see magic and art combined in stories, one becoming an outlet for the other. So what other great examples are there? What other books, shows or films have combined magic and art in interesting ways? What have I missed?

If, like me, you’ve seen the internet, you’ve probably noticed by now that the new series of Doctor Who is pretty divisive. I’ve seen a lot of strong opinions expressed on why this episode was awful or that one was great, and even the hardcore Whovian opinions seem hugely varied.

This weekend’s episode, ‘Listen’, helped me pin down what I think’s going on. So in case you haven’t seen it already, spoilers ahead. Also, you should go watch it. Whether it fills you with hatred, admiration or a bewildering sense of ambivalence (like me) it’s still worth watching because it says something significant about where genre TV, and Doctor Who in particular, is at right now.

Steven Moffat’s a smart writer

Let’s start with the basics. Steven Moffat is a smart writer. ‘Listen’, with its exploration of fear and motivation, its closed time loop and its charming romantic scenes, was proof that the man can rub two narrative sticks together and make an admirable fire. I love smart writing, and this sort of thing is why I was so excited when he took over the show.

But as ‘Listen’ also reminded us, Moffat feels a constant need to show how smart he is. It’s as if some high school maths teacher tattooed the words ‘show your workings’ across the inside of his brain, and he’s been trying to live up to that ever since. Seriously, if we got in the Tardis and hopped back along his timeline we’d find some adult who gave Steven the need to prove his smarts over and over and over again. And I would have very stern words with that adult, because they’ve become the subconscious voice that’s ruining one of my favourite TV writers.

Moffat has other ticks whose charm/annoyance depends on your personal taste. Charlie Jane Anders has dissected a bunch of them over on io9. But the one that really troubles me is his attitudes towards sex and gender. Steve’s dinner party porn speech from Coupling, while a sharp and hilarious piece of writing, also reflects an assumption that men are one way and women are another. It’s essentialist and heteronormative and a bunch of other troubling and long-titled concepts, and I laugh every time but I shudder too.

(I tried to find a clip of it to include here but apparently YouTube doesn’t like it. If you have the chance, go watch ‘Inferno’, season 1 episode 4 of British sitcom Coupling to see what I mean. Content warning – the bit I’m directing you towards is a two minute diatribe about why pornography is good, and that reflects the tone of the show.)

Smarts in service to the story

If I like smart writing, why does a smartly written episode like ‘Listen’ not excite me?

In short, because I like a compelling story too.

I like smart writing to exist in service to the story, but ‘Listen’ seemed like a story in service to smart ideas. There was no compelling narrative to draw me along, no forward moving tension to engage with, no sense that the characters really had something at stake in the main arc of the plot.

And before anyone says ‘the art of storytelling can be about character, dude’, or something along those lines, I also watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford this weekend, and that film proves that you can focus on art and character while still having a compelling narrative.

In fact Joss Whedon does this all the time. He’s another incredibly clever writing, working in similar genres and industries to Moffat, yet he uses his smarts to craft exciting stories every time. Because those stories aren’t about Whedon being smart – Whedon is being smart about the stories.

Show runner as auteur

What I this reflects is that some TV show runners are now seen as auteurs, the creative geniuses behind their shows who should be left to express their distinctive voice.

I’m OK with that. It over-simplifies our understanding of creativity, but it also gives creators like Moffat and Whedon a lot of freedom. It creates television that is distinctive and individual and fascinating, rich with new ideas and of course flaws.

This means that I’m not getting the Doctor Who I want, or the Steven Moffat TV that I want, both of which would need a restraining hand pulling Moffat back in line. But I’ll pay that price for a genre TV landscape that’s richer and more interesting.

Because ‘Listen’ might be self-indulgent, but it’s also fascinating. And a TV industry that can create this will leave room for some other smart, story driven shows.

A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue Archer of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre where girls could save the world.

When I was ten years old, I played with She-Ra: Princess of Power dolls, because other dolls were downright boring next to ones who could use swords and magic. I watched the various incarnations of the Justice League and Marvel characters on television and pretended that I was a superhero like Wonder Woman.

When I was twelve years old, a movie came out that I wasn’t old enough to see yet. In this movie, an ordinary woman fought against the odds to save humanity from aliens. The movie went on to spawn several sequels, and the female lead became a hugely popular character.

Her name was Ellen Ripley. And the year Aliens came out? 1986.

Ripley

Fast forward twenty-eight years later. Count ’em: Twenty-eight. We are in 2014, and since Ellen Ripley, I have not seen another adult female character leading a movie franchise in the speculative fiction genre. (The closest thing so far is The Hunger Games, but it’s aimed at more of a teenage audience.) Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for another one. What happened?

The Wonder Woman That Wasn’t

There certainly hasn’t been a lack of trying by those who understand that this genre is for women as well as men. Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame was slated to helm a Wonder Woman film. Joss Whedon and Wonder Woman! Alas, that movie never got off the ground. And now we’re left with DC introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character to Superman and Batman in their next superhero film. Apparently the studio thinks my favourite Amazon is just not strong enough to have her own movie. Which is ridiculous.

Superheroes Without Superpowers

I love the Marvel movies, but I’m disappointed that they aren’t making definite moves towards a female-led superhero film. Instead, we’ve had female characters who are part of a team: Black Widow, a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers; and Gamora—wait for it—a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers. Black Widow was done well, while Gamora had an underused backstory and was upstaged by a sarcastic raccoon and a talking tree. Neither of these women were leads. I’m tired of looking for small victories. When will we get a movie about Captain Marvel? Or another Marvel female character who is just as powerful as the men?

Men as Women

And I don’t mean a female character who is based off of a powerful male one. Marvel’s announcement of a female Thor being introduced in their comics annoyed me. I would have no issue with Sif taking up the hammer of Thor and wielding its powers as herself. But for the woman taking the hammer to be called Thor? This is insulting. Other characters have taken up Mjolnir in the past and gained the powers of Thor, but they kept their names. Why does the woman have to lose hers and be called Thor? It reminds me of Batgirl, Supergirl, and all of those other characters that were derived from male ones. Is Marvel afraid of developing a new standalone female character? That’s just sad.

Superwomen vs. Hollywood

I’ve heard all of the arguments about why a female-led movie franchise is not being made. And none of them make any sense.

Well, look what happened when we made Elektra and Catwoman. No one turned out, so clearly the appetite is not there for female-led movies. (It couldn’t possibly be because they were terrible movies.)

Women don’t go to see these kinds of movies, so we wouldn’t make any money. (Too bad that according to the MPAA, 42% of the domestic audience who came to see Iron Man 3 were women. Superhero movies in general are coming in at around 40% women in the audience. Not to mention you’re assuming men don’t want to see women superheroes. Not true of the men I know.)

We’ve already made plans for other movies, so you’ll need to wait a few years. (So change your plans. You could if you really wanted to.)

And this is the crux of it. The movie industry is made up largely of men who don’t really want to produce movies about female superheroes. So, unfortunately, I think I’ll be waiting for a few more years before I see what I want. (Some possible light at the end of the tunnel: There have been some recent rumours about an unnamed female-led movie in the Spiderman universe for 2017. I’ll believe it when I see it.)

What I’d pay money to see: Ellen Ripley facing down the leaders of The Company, also known as Hollywood movie execs. I can only imagine what she would say.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch my copy of Aliens.

Which female-led shows have you enjoyed? Who would you like to see on the big screen?

*

Thank you to Sue for the post. If you enjoyed it then please go read more of her views on the Doorway Between Worlds.

Like it or not, people want to put a price on your art. As a freelance writer it’s something I have to consider every day – how much is a hundred words of Andrew Knighton worth? What do I charge for an hour of writing? It’s an inescapable part of keeping creativity alive – writers need to eat, or they’ll stop being writers and become skeletons, or hungry cannibals desperately hunting their neighbours.

I tell you, that’s how the zombie apocalypse will begin.

But there are deeper consequences to considering this question.

Saving up for the Avengers boxed set

Saving up for the Avengers box set

With all the recent discussion of self-publishing, and Joss Whedon challenging business as usual in releasing his new film, the market for arts and culture is clearly changing. That has consequences for us as writers, as readers, and as a society. Because putting a price on something changes it and changes us.

So how does the market for the arts affect us?

Supporting artists

Lets start with the obvious. Paying for creativity gives that creativity an opportunity to flourish. The fact that many creators are paid for their work allows a huge range of creativity to burst forth. Look at the variety of art, music, literature and film currently available to you. Sure, the same bland stuff might be shoved down your throat by marketers and mainstream media channels, but there’s a rich range out there to be found, from Chap-hop to Afrobeat Joy Division covers, dark fantasy epics to silly pirate stories. And the market can reward good work. Sure it’s to blame for the ubiquity of Robin Thicke, but it also feeds Damon Albarn and 2CELLOS.

The downside is that the market doesn’t just reward artists for their creative merits. Factors such as having the right marketing connections can make a huge difference. Rewards drive behaviour, as any psychologist or manager can tell you, and if the rewards support negative behaviour – like self-aggrandisement and sexism – then we’ll get shallow self-publicity along with the real worth.

Shifting values

Market values – looking at an object in terms of its financial worth – are not neutral, nor do they leave other values unharmed. As Michael Sandel has convincingly argued in What Money Can’t Buy, market values displace other values. The worth we assign to paintings, films and books is affected by how much people pay for them.

If you’ve ever played the board game Modern Art you’ll know what I mean. That game has a deck of cards, all with pictures, but those pictures make absolutely no difference to the worth of the art in the game. It’s all about the cash value.

Putting a price on creativity does not just quantify the perceived value of a work, it changes it, and not always for the better.

The roar of the crowd

We can see this shift in the debate over best selling books and films. The very fact that they see such high sales and make their writers rich polarises and disrupts debate over their content and meaning. Would J K Rowling‘s most scathing critics be so harsh if she only sold a few thousand books a year? Would I get angry about Braveheart if it hadn’t made millions?

The noise, both of over-enthusiastic praise and over-compensating criticism, can drown out the signal of intelligent discussion in the mass market, and that’s a shame.

On the other hand, this noise also has a democratic element. The fact that a hugely popular book can provoke such widespread debate has the potential to create wider intellectual and emotional engagement with the arts, to enrich us as a society and as individuals. In this sense, all that noise adds some value back to the arts, for all the disruption it causes.

Think how you pay

Markets in the arts can be disruptive, but they can also be empowering. We should all think not just about what we consume but how we do it. Could you buy more books from indie authors or from charity shops, giving money to artists and good causes instead of big companies? Given a choice of two films maybe you could choose the one that directly rewards creativity and innovation, rather than big business and big marketing. Maybe you could join Goodreads and review the books you read, helping create a better signal and a healthy, creative debate.

Art as a market affects you. Affect it back.

 

 

Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons

‘I want to know what you feel like.’

It might sound like a simple, twee sentiment, but that sentence lies at the emotional heart of In Your Eyes, and stands for so much that is beautiful about the film. Written by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill, In Your Eyes is a simple story built around a single central idea – two people who have never met but who find themselves seeing the world through each other’s eyes. It uses this one strand of magical realism* to up-end normal human experiences of intimacy, creating a powerful exploration of what love means.

Zoe Kazan as Rebecca

Zoe Kazan as Rebecca

In another’s eyes

The film’s fantastical element – the connection that lets Rebecca and Dylan experience the world through each other’s senses – is the most obvious way in which the film shows the experience of love. It’s an unambiguous metaphor for love as a shocking, transformative experience, one that makes us see the world in new and wonderful ways. It leads us to see everything from the point of view of another person, to whose perspective we find ourselves intimately bound.

Think of that moment when you started singing along to a terrible pop song because your date loved it; or your boyfriend made you realise how cute pug dogs are; or you noticed just how exciting horses were to your children. The film evokes this experience many times, most obviously when Rebecca builds a snowman for Dylan and he in return shows her a New Mexico sunset. They see the world through the eyes of love, and its wonders are revealed.

The confidence to continue

Seeing themselves through each other’s eyes brings out another aspect of love that the film explores – love as a bringer of confidence.

When someone else tells you that they love you, when they not only say but show that they think you’re special, it’s an incredible confidence boost. It puts that extra skip in your step, knowing that you are worthy of being valued, worthy of love. The little voices putting you down in your head don’t have to win.

There’s a wonderful moment in the film when Dylan sees Rebecca in a mirror for the first time and tells her how beautiful he thinks she is. You can see that confidence growing in her face, overcoming the belittling she has suffered at the hands of her husband. Each of these two lovers gives the other confidence, and they get it back in return. It’s wonderful.

Connecting to another, connecting to you

This shocking, unexpected connection that Dylan and Rebecca make, this magical, wonderful thing helps each of them to connect more deeply with themselves as well as each other. It gives each of them the confidence to explore their own feelings and failings, their own past and their potential future. In stark contrast with the husband who throws out Rebecca’s photos, or the old friends forcing Dylan down a path he does not want, Dylan and Rebecca support each other in becoming more self-aware, more connected with their emotions. It’s a connection that makes each of them less reliant on others while building an intimacy that they’ve never shared with anyone else.

It’s the beauty and the paradox of love as explained by Joss Whedon.

A film worth loving

It would by easy to dismiss In Your Eyes as just another love story, but it’s so much more than that. In Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon explored horror conventions in a way that was both affectionate and challenging. Here he does the same for love stories. What he says about love may not contain anything completely new, but he brings it together with a beauty and a freshness that left me grinning as I fell asleep last night.

It helps that the script is alternately funny and touching, as with so much of Whedon’s work, that the cast give great performances, and that it is often beautifully shot.

You can see the first few minutes for free and instantly hire the whole thing on Vimeo, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a beautiful film, it’s still a relatively daring approach to distribution, and it’s well worth your time and money.

Go, watch, and reflect anew on love.

And once you’ve watched it leave a comment below, let me know what you think.

 

 

 

* When I see the  phrase ‘magical realism’ I read the word ‘fantasy’. It’s a phrase that seems to have been invented by the literary establishment to avoid admitting that they’re reading, writing and enjoying stories that share a genre connection with The Dresden Files and all those shelves full of paranormal romances. But it’s also a useful phrase, as it’s now come to imply a particular type of fantasy, usually with a modern, realistic setting and only one or two fantastical leaps of imagination.

I admit, I didn’t think I could admire Joss Whedon any more than I already do. Kick-ass script-writer, eloquent feminist, architect of the intricately impressive Marvel movie universe, and bearer of a stylish beard. How could he get any more awesome?

Answer: by creating a charming-looking indie genre film and releasing it straight onto the internet.

Leaping joyfully forward

We all know that the internet is undermining established cultural distribution channels. Record stores are dying in the face of iTunes and file sharing. Amazon is gutting the big chain bookstores, leaving the quirky and the unique to re-emerge from the rubble. Illegal streaming services are the bane of the film and TV industries.

Creative businesses have basically two options when faced with this.

Firstly, they can dig their heels in and get defensive. This is the approach that involves lobbying for harsher copyright prosecutions, that tries to limit internet access to stop file sharing. It’s putting a huge effort not into giving customers what they want – easier access to the products they enjoy – but into preventing it.

The other option is to go with the flow, to recognise that people don’t just file share because it’s free, they also do it because it’s easy and convenient. Give them that ease and convenience, the opportunity to watch the latest films and shows in their own home at a time that suits them and without the interruption of adverts, and most will pay for it.

In Your Eyes

This is what Joss has done, releasing his latest film, In Your Eyes, straight onto a paid streaming service at the same time as its premier yesterday. Rather than digging in his heels he’s leaping joyfully forward into the new era, setting an awesome precedent for others. Sure he still works for the big conservative studios too, but that gives him the money, trust and publicity to achieve things like this.

Plus it gives us the interconnected joy of the Marvel movie universe, so yay for that.

I haven’t had time to watch In Your Eyes yet, but you can be sure that I will, and that I’ll come back here to enthuse about it at great length. Unless it’s bad of course, but this is Joss Whedon so I can’t see that happening.

In the meantime, lets take a moment to appreciate the wonder that is the man Whedon.

Mm, beard.