Monday, May 21, 2012

Screw it

Cat photo stolen from Gretchen's Facebook page. Hi, Gretchen!
I’m buried neck deep in deadlines, and the voices in my head are screaming at me that I’ll shrivel up and die if I don’t produce a perfect novel, stat.

Screw it.

Every single person I know is having some kind of personal or professional crisis—moving, having a baby, too much work, not enough work, bad boyfriend, worse ex-boyfriend, no boyfriend at all, you name it—and a truly shocking number of them seem to think I can somehow solve those problems.

Screw it.

The floor needs mopping, the potted garden needs watering, the whole house needs vacuuming, and God only knows what the cat needs.

Screw it.

My stories are too commercial, too literary, too high, too low, too silly, too serious, and always, always, always too weird.

Screw it.

I don’t write for the voices in my head, or the crazy people in my life, or the garden, or the cat. I try to write for the market, but I know I’m not going to finish anything I don’t genuinely love, so I’m not writing for the anonymous authors of rejection notices. I write for me; I sing the words I can’t say, I spin stories from the truths I can’t speak, and I build castles in the air so I can fool the world into building a few castles on earth. Sometimes I write for you; I write to make you laugh, and cry, and think. I write for my heart.

The floor will get mopped. The garden will get watered. Hands will be held and psychotic inner voices will be shouted into submission. The cat will be shooed off, because it's not actually my cat, just a demented neighborhood tabby that likes to yowl at me and can usually be persuaded to yowl elsewhere. And while I do all those things, there will be a quiet, reasonable part of me saying: Screw it.

Some things matter. Some things don’t. I’m working on learning how to tell them apart. The things that need to get done are not necessarily the things you’re meant to do. Do both kinds of things and never, ever confuse the two.

And when the inner voices get too loud, and the doors are slamming, and that bloody cat’s on the roof again, the reasonable part will laugh and mutter screw it. Because some things matter.

And the other things? Screw it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

I never thought I’d like Hawkeye better than Captain America. Wtf, Joss?

Yeah, I know, a week after the rest of the country, I finally saw The Movie. I’ve been sleep-deprived, okay? And I wanted to actually enjoy seeing The Avengers.

The short review? I liked it … mostly. And I’m not sure which part of that statement surprises me more.

Joss Whedon, maker of things I like. Canceled things.
I’ve been a fan of Joss Whedon’s since the second episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (I didn’t see the pilot.) As soon as I read the words “spontaneously combusting cheerleaders” in the TV listings, I was in. I loved Buffy. I loved Angel. I loved the two minutes of Firefly I got to see while it was actually on the air (I was living in a place that banned television—yes, really) and all of it that I got to see in reruns and on DVD. I adored Serenity and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I even gave Dollhouse the old college try. I’m not what you’d call a hardcore Joss fan—I don’t read the message boards, or cosplay, or even stalk him on Twitter—but you slap his name on something and you will have my fannish attention. You slap his name on a comic-book movie the size of The Avengers …

And I will get seriously, seriously worried.

Really, Joss? You’re gonna go there? I mean sure, you write some great superhero comics—you wrote the only X-Men comics I truly enjoyed, and your run on Runaways wasn’t quite as good as Brian K. Vaughan’s, but you did include that bit where an eleven-year-old slugged the Punisher, and that was brilliant. But your stuff is very meta, and The Avengers is very … not.

So I walked into The Avengers prepared to be just a bit bored, and disappointed.

I wasn’t.

Honestly, I was surprised at how much it didn’t suck. I expected to be at least somewhat bored—by the Iron Man sequences in particular, because I’m probably the only person in America who doesn’t find Robert Downey, Jr. funny. And the Hulk? Nobody’s done the Hulk right since the Bixby/Ferrigno days. And the Black Widow in Iron Man 2 was just dull, so why should I expect more from this outing?

But Iron Man was actually kind of funny—mostly when he shared the screen with Thor, but still. I liked the very Whedonesque take on how Banner is controlling his Hulk side now. And the Black Widow got a personality transplant courtesy of her complicated relationship with Hawkeye, who is probably the last character in the movie I expected to like, but holy cow, I like him now. I’m very glad that Trevor’s going to be using a bow in an upcoming Masks story, because Hawkeye has officially made it cool again. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d buy a ticket to a Hawkeye movie. (Well, a Hawkeye/Black Widow movie.) More on Hawkeye in a minute.

See? Told you it was a silly hat.
For those who’ve read all the way through this blog post without any idea what I’m talking about, the basic plot of The Avengers is that Loki, Thor’s evil-ish half-brother from Thor, has teamed up with some generic aliens called the Chitauri (who are sort of like Skrulls, but less challenging) to use the tesseract from Thor and Captain America to take over the wooooorrrrld, all while wearing an impressively silly hat. Standing in Loki’s way is superspy Nick Fury, who has assembled a motley band of heroes to stop Loki—a group including Iron Man, Captain America, the Black Widow, and the freaking Hulk. Thor and Hawkeye come along a little bit later, because Thor’s working his own angle and Hawkeye’s busy at first being mind-controlled by Loki. Cue about an hour of infighting and various members of the team getting trashed because they can’t or won’t play nice together; then a key character gets jossed and they mostly pull together to kick the crap out of Loki and company.

[Side note for non-Whedonites: “to joss” means “to build up a beloved character and then unexpectedly kill him/her off somewhere in the last third of the story.” Yes, it’s a verb now.  Yes, you should be worried about that.]

Cap is okay in this part. Also: Hey. Thor.
99 percent of this movie is amazing. The plot, the characters, the action sequences, the snarky dialogue—all a lovely melding of good popcorn fare and vintage Joss. In fact, there was really only one part of the movie I didn’t like: its portrayal of Captain America. Because this movie picks up shortly after Cap comes out of the iceberg and happens while he’s adjusting to the modern world, it has to deal with what fans have come to call the “man out of time” element. This has been done about a billion different ways—everything from watching him visit a dead girlfriend’s grave to seeing him struggle to operate a cell phone. Joss didn’t have a huge amount of screen time to devote to it, so he mostly just had Cap suck it up and be all about the job. Joss also needed someone to call Iron Man out for being a smartass and an egomaniac, and Cap usually gets that duty in any story, so that was no surprise.

Not shown: Many, many Steve-and-Tony snits.
But I was a bit disappointed in how it was all handled. There were a few Luddite jokes at Cap’s expense, and otherwise he spent about half the story acting like a military grunt from Buffy, storming around barking at people who weren’t doing things his way. Yes, Joss, we understand that this is a guy dealing with loss by not dealing with it. Yes, Joss, we understand that you don’t get to play with a lot of Cap’s arc because that’s presumably being saved for his own sequel. But … I just wanted a little bit more. Making the military guy look stupid is part of your oeuvre. So is making a fool of the jock. But you’re at your best when you surprise us, and there was nothing surprising about this.

Mostly, though I think I’m just mildly annoyed that Joss Whedon got me to like Hawkeye—Hawkeye, for God’s sake, the lesser clone of Green Arrow—and didn’t give Cap a moment. And I think it only bothers me because the rest of the movie was so damn good. Loki was more fun in The Avengers than he was in Thor, and that’s saying a lot. The Black Widow did more than show off her butt, and yet didn’t take over the whole movie as powerful women tend to do in Joss’s work. We saw more of Bruce Banner than we did of the Hulk, and Banner was a genuinely interesting guy to watch. Iron Man made me smirk with some of his one-liners. Thor made me laugh and cheer. And the inevitable property destruction was actually entertaining, even though I usually find my mind wandering during fight scenes.

I really haven’t said enough about how much I liked this movie, and I think I can sum it up by explaining the Hawkeye thing.

Do you see a boxing glove? I don't.
Hawkeye is pretty much Marvel Comics’ version of DC’s Green Arrow—a non-superpowered guy whose superhero thing is that he’s a freakishly good shot with a bow and arrow. Don’t ask me how Movie Hawkeye developed that particular skillset—in the comics, he’s a former circus performer, but I doubt that’s the case here. Anyway, Hawkeye’s main job in the Avengers comics is to be a hothead, to mouth off to Captain America, and to unexpectedly make the perfect shot when it’s most needed and remind everyone that you don’t need powers to be a hero, blah blah blah. Not that interesting, although I don’t think he’s ever sunk to Green Arrow’s level and used an arrow with a giant boxing glove on the end. However, he tends to wear strangely designed purple costumes, which is just wrong.

Anyway, I scratched my head for the better part of a day over the fact that Joss got me to like this guy. It helped that Movie Hawkeye wasn’t the annoying loudmouth that Comics Hawkeye is—in fact, he was so closemouthed I was tempted to nickname him Captain Laconic—but he also spent half the movie as Loki’s sock puppet, so what’s to like? How does a sock puppet come across as simultaneously sympathetic and badass?

Yes, I'm showing the loner with his bestie. Shaddap.
Well, Hawkeye’s established early on as an interesting guy—he’s supposed to be watching a group of scientists work with the tesseract, but he does so from a ridiculously high catwalk above them because he prefers being high up and “sees more” from up there. He makes an observation about the artifact that everyone else seems to have missed, too. This character is clearly a solitary kind of guy by nature, unusual in big government organizations, and yet unlike most movie loners, he still works all right with others and is fairly perceptive. He’s also the first of the people Loki fights that he doesn’t kill—apparently Loki sees something interesting in Hawkeye, too, which is why he zaps him with the mind-control whammy. It’s always nice when a charismatic villain confirms our impression of a character!

Hawkeye doesn’t come across too well for a while after that, though, because he’s basically a sock puppet. So from there, the work of making Hawkeye cool falls to the Black Widow, a kickass super-spy who breaks off a pretty funny interrogation scene (she’s tied to a chair and yet getting the bad guy to tell her everything) because she hears that Hawkeye is in trouble. After one of the most impressive fight scenes of the movie, she’s off to join the good guys and rescue her friend. And throughout the flick, even when she’s playing manipulative mind games with Loki, it’s fairly clear that she respects Hawkeye more than just about anyone else on earth. There’s a bond and a history between these two characters that isn’t discussed too much, but is clearly the engine of their relationship.

Big friendship reunion. With shooting and a third wheel.
And because this is Joss Whedon, this relationship never involves Black Widow going all melty at the sight of Hawkeye or needing him to rescue her. She does her job, she kicks butt—and she’s simply going to drop Loki out of an airplane if she doesn’t get her friend back. Do you have any idea how hard it is to balance a strong female character with her own arc against an interesting male character who can’t talk? I do; I’ve tried it. It’s incredibly hard not to succumb to rom-com clichés, or action-movie clichés. Joss pulled it off. He made me like Hawkeye, and he made me like the Hawkeye/Black Widow combo even more. By the time Hawkeye gets his personality back (after a fight with the Widow, of course), we’re all rooting for them to work out whatever it is that they’ve got going on. And they don’t get a big kissing moment or anything like that—they just go back to work, and they’re uniquely fantastic together. That’s maybe a fifth of the movie right there, and it’s completely satisfying both on its own and as a part of the whole film.

This. This is how you do superhero movies. Especially team movies. Everybody gets an arc, everyone gets a storyline, everyone gets a moment, but no one takes over. The pacing was strong, the characters were solid, and it was a great ride all the way through. I’m actually getting excited about writing Volume 2 of Masks, which has a lot of team dynamics now that the kids are really working together. I’m getting some good ideas.

Not bad, Joss. But next time give Cap a moment, okay?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Point of view, and watching Martin Freeman's butt

All right, I just put the word “butt” in the title to get your attention. But this is a serious-ish post, about a fiendish little experiment I conducted recently whose results surprised me.

I love my local public library. It has comfy chairs, wi-fi, and (most importantly) lots and lots of books I love to read. It also has a nice little auditorium with lovely acoustics and a Thursday matinee screening series. This month, they’re screening Sherlock Holmes flicks, beginning with “A Study in Pink,” the pilot episode of Sherlock. (Yes, purists, there are more traditional Sherlocks in the series, as well, including Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone.) I was quite excited when I heard about this, and rearranged my work schedule so I could attend. Not, mind you, because it was such a treat to watch “Pink”—I own the DVD and have seen it so many times I’ve accidentally memorized it—but because this was a chance to watch the episode in a room full of people who had never seen it before.

Why does this matter? One word: research! 

Okay, AND the chance to watch these guys on a big screen.
I first saw “A Study in Pink” online, ruthlessly edited down and streamed through the PBS website. Later, I bought the DVD and inflicted it on most of my friends, but I was always sitting right there next to them, nudging them and saying things like, “Okay, watch this bit, it’s the best part ever until the next best part!” We were also able to pause the episode whenever we liked and argue about what was really going on, which cut down on a lot of the confusion when Sherlock deduced things at a million miles an hour and someone needed the Cliff’s Notes.

Now that I’m planning the Street of Bakers project, however, I’ve realized that I lack what might be called a normal person’s perspective on the story. Remember, when I was a kid reading the canon, I identified with Sherlock Holmes, even though Watson’s supposed to be the POV character. I might enjoy the living hell out of those stories, but I don’t necessarily have a firm grasp of what everyone else likes about them. It’s a bit like going to a football game and admiring the marching band instead of watching the players. Maybe you’re having just as much fun as everyone else, but you’re not going to understand what makes football appeal to people who aren’t you. That’s okay if you’re just watching football, but when you’re trying to write a book for people who aren’t you, then it’s a real drawback. 

They're looking at a marching band, I swear.
So my goal in attending the screening wasn’t to watch the episode—it was to watch the audience. I wanted to see which moments made them laugh, or gasp, or blink. And I made a rather surprising discovery.

I couldn’t exactly listen to the audience’s thoughts, so I watched their faces instead, and listened for the telltale sounds of fidgeting in the dark auditorium. (Remember those lovely acoustics? They were a big help.) Everyone seemed deeply drawn in by the first meeting between Holmes and Watson; those characters’ big plot moments were attended by total silence as everyone held still and focused on the screen, momentarily forgetting to check their phones for messages or rummage in their bags for smuggled snacks. 

But their attention wasn’t evenly split. As brilliant and charismatic as Holmes was, and as well as Benedict Cumberbatch played him, he wasn’t nearly as likely to hold their focus as Martin Freeman, the actor playing Watson. Even at the climax of the episode, when Holmes was staring down the barrel of the serial killer’s gun, there were occasional rustles as people searched their pockets or crossed and uncrossed their legs. But a five-second scene where Watson pulled up in a cab outside the building where the confrontation was taking place? I swear I heard them stop breathing. That focus remained as the episode shifted back to Holmes and he deduced the killer’s motive, but I could feel the stillness around me grow every time the camera shifted back to Watson running through the building, searching for his friend, the camera following along behind him. It didn’t matter whether they could see his face, or whether he was talking. If Watson was on screen, and moving at all, the audience was glued to him.

Look! A guy with a cab! Everyone hold your breath!
Seriously. I don’t think I’ve seen this many people staring raptly at an actor’s backside since I walked in on a couple of preteens watching an Orlando Bloom movie.

The point of all this? Once the audience identifies with a character strongly enough, they’ll watch that character do almost anything, even if it’s just getting out of a cab. Steven Moffat went to a lot of trouble to make Watson sympathetic and heroic early in the episode, before Sherlock Holmes even appeared—he showed Watson’s military service in a flashback, showed him trying to put on a brave face in a therapy session, and then used Stamford to show that Watson had once been the sort of friend you’d recognize and call to across a park even if you hadn’t seen him in years. Even in the first Holmes-Watson scene, Watson shows himself to be both tolerant (going along with Stamford’s crazy roommate suggestion) and polite (lending Holmes his phone without being asked). 

Would you trust this guy with your phone? I wouldn't.
By the time Sherlock Holmes first dazzles the audience with his deductions about Watson’s past, we already feel like we know the guy we think of as the hero—and we’ll follow him even when Holmes is acting like a jerk. I talked to a couple of audience members after the screening and discovered that several of them had hearing problems and couldn’t understand what Holmes was saying; Cumberbatch talked too fast, and his British accent was a little too hard on damaged American ears. But Martin Freeman’s voice and body language carried so much of the story that they were riveted to the sight of him getting out of a car. Now that is audience identification.

This shot is only in here because it's awesome. Carry on.
Now, most of these viewers were considerably older than the prospective readers of Street of Bakers—I think I was the youngest person in the room, except perhaps for the young librarian running the projector. I’d like to repeat the experiment with younger viewers and see whether the results hold. But all in all, it’s a very promising bit of data. I have big plans for my own Watson …