Monthly Archives: April 2016

Keeping Up with the Book World (or not)

For a brief period in 2015 (note when this blog started…), I made the decision to Stay on Top of the Book World. I would read all the books people were buzzing about from award winners to nominees to best sellers to murky basement cult classics. I made a list of Books I was Excited About. Topping it were Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things and Broken Monsters. I went to the book store and got ready to join the party…

And abandoned the party immediately because hard covers are more expensive than soft covers, and I’d conveniently forgotten that.

But the thing is, learning that there was a Book World to keep up with was kind of crushing. I’m a person who’s perpetually behind the trends, and consequently dismissive of them as stupid. Do I really hate skinny leg jeans? No, but if I keep on hating them for just a little longer, the boot cuts and flares I never managed to throw away will come back in style.

Books were supposed to be the things that didn’t let me down. They were the things that hung around, waiting for me to read them instead of begging me to keep up. I could read Newberry winners from the 1950’s or Victorian gothics or trendsetters from the 1980’s, and it didn’t matter that I missed the boat because there wasn’t a boat to miss. Trying to stay on top of New Releases and Best Sellers was participating in a popularity contest I wanted no part of. It was the antithesis of what i wanted out of reading. I wanted an intimate experience between me and the book I was reading. It wasn’t about what everybody else thought; it was about what I thought.

I read Broken Monsters and The Book of Strange New Things a year late. That year didn’t affect my reading experience at all. If anything, the build up for these two sort of made them a let down for me. I like exploring books quietly and coming to them mostly unprepared and open minded. That way, they’re the most magical. And, thanks to the Internet, all the pre-book buzz is still around to dive into. The reviews still exist. In that way, I can get excited in my own time, at my own pace, and books can still feel like a secret to be discovered, instead of a dialog to join.

Dude! I need to care to care.

While snuggled up on my couch, I hit play on the Misty Copeland documentary Netflix has been pushing for the past few weeks.

Misty Copeland, subject of “A Ballerina’s Tale,” is the first black principal desk at the ABT (American Ballet Theatre) Company. Her Under Amour commercial went viral a year or so ago. Here it is:

I’d seen the commercial when it first aired around 2013. I couldn’t quite remember the content, but I had vague memories of a triumphant underdog story, someone who had told the world, “I can!” when the world kept saying, “You can’t.”

It’s been about a month since I watched the documentary, and I can’t tell you what it covered, and I definitely don’t have the warm-fuzzies like I did after watching the commercial. Remembering the documentary leaves me pretty ambivalent about the Misty Copeland story. So what did the commercial do that the hour long documentary didn’t? Let’s break it down.

In the commercial, we’re introduced to the ballerina while tentative music plays. As a rejection letter is read, we see her slowly rise onto her toes. So while we’re being told she can’t do something, we’re seeing her do it. She’s metaphorically rising up. The rejection letter takes apart her body as we watch it. The viewer sees a graceful, powerful dancer while we hear a young girl’s voice read why this same body is wrong. The words contradict the reality we’re seeing, and then we hear this final, devastating line: “At thirteen, you are too old to be considered.” Our emotions take over. We’re righteously indignant on behalf of the child who was told she cannot. Instantly, we’re cheering for the dancer before us.

A slow pan brings us into her mind. It feels like we’re moving from the reality of the quiet, simple practice room into what she sees and dreams. We get the feeling of a stage and bright spotlights. We see her move through different ballet moves, some slowed down to accent the grace of her body. We get the feeling that this mental image is her drive, what pushes her to keep working even after she was told no. It’s inter cut with her dancing in a space reminiscent of the practice room to underscore this mental doubling–what’s really happening, and what she’s working towards. Meanwhile, the music has become more complex, less tentative. It reflects the drive of the dancer. And then, just as the music begins to still once more, we see a wide shot of the space the dancer’s been working in. It’s an actual stage. She is where she’s dreamt of being for so long. The text on the screen reveals that this is Misty Copeland, a (then) Ballerina Soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. The final text shows the product (Under Armour) and the tag, I will what I want.

This commercial gives us more than the hour plus documentary by showing us what Copeland was pushing against (the perception that her body was wrong) and fighting for (a career on the stage). By showing her in practice attire both on stage and in the studio, it accented her drive and determination. It gave the feeling that this woman was dancing everywhere she went. Every moment of her life was filled by dance.

“A Ballerina’s Tale” never gets imparts the same feeling that failure might happen, or that it would have devastating consequences for the dancer.It spends chunks of time talking about Copeland’s anxieties and that she was the wrong “type” for classical ballet. At one point, they mention that she ate a box of doughnuts a night out of stress and that she felt out of place in the ballet world. But then it moved on. We don’t see Copeland herself moving on or moving passed it. The struggle simple goes away. Where the commercial hovers around that feeling of desire and motivation, the drive to prove yourself, the documentary skims past it. It feels like the documentary is constantly searching for a story that’s just out of its reach. It discusses the history of black dancers and the importance of Copeland in the black community, but it never talks about Copeland’s own feelings about this. It does delved into them beyond a few pat sentences here or there. It never achieves that feeling of determination that the commercial achieves in seconds. As a viewer, it looks like Misty Copland has setbacks, but that, for the most part, she’s on a rocket ship pointed up. She’s going all the way. When she finally achieves her dream of being a principal, it’s with a feeling of, “Of course she did,” instead of joyous victory.

Part of this is because Misty Copeland is a cheerful person herself. I do not doubt for one second her dedication or the difficulties she’s faced in her career, but I don’t feel them. In general, her interviews seem to skirt the trials and tribulations of becoming a top dancer, and instead focus on the things that went right. The things that went right don’t make me care. The things that go wrong make me care.

The one time when it seems unclear if she’ll be able to continue, when she’s eating doughnuts and feeling out of place, external forces swoop in and provide her with a mentor to help her get back on track. In real life, this is awesome. I’m glad someone made sure this talented person didn’t burn out. But it doesn’t make for good storytelling, and it blurs Copeland’s own drive and dedication with someone else’s success. Copeland herself never addresses how she moved past this period in her life. I got the feeling she wasn’t really sure herself.

Without seeing the self-doubt and experiencing the world pushing against Copeland as she pushed back, there were no stakes. I got the feeling that, had Copeland failed, she would have gone home and opened a dance studio or, in some other way, made dance a part of her life. As a viewer, I didn’t feel like there would be devastating emotional or personal consequences. Without understanding how low she could fall, I could not appreciate how high she rose. I needed to know what was at stake. In the commercial, I knew: her entire perception of her self. Was she wrong about herself, or was she a dancer? And I wanted her to be a dancer.

That audience participation, getting me, the viewer, emotionally invested in the story being told is the difference between remembering something from two years ago, and forgetting what I saw last night.

Let’s Make Fun of Blockbusters Together

Let’s celebrate the upcoming summer blockbuster season by making fun of all things summer blockbuster. I found a short action vid on YouTube that goes through all the most common blockbuster mistakes frame by frame. I’m not entirely sure they did it on purpose, so after we make fun of this, go check out their other videos, which are well made and entertaining. These guys are wizards with special effects, which, unfortunately for this video, isn’t the same thing as being a wizard at story telling.

Go make some popcorn, then hit play. Then get your prat hat on and join me in being a jerk. This won’t take ten minutes.

(I can’t embed this vid, so click here and open it in a new tab. Then follow along with the asshattery observations.)

1) Sweeping cityscape. Always good to know where we are.

2) Cheeky dialog. Because we don’t need to know who these characters are or what they care about if the’re cheeky and young. Teenager is a character motivation.

3) I bet he’s evil because he’s talking about a device and not using it’s name. Real creators use a thing’s name. Do you think Steve Jobs called the iPhone a device? No, he called it the iPhone. And when he was alone in his Steve Jobs lair, he stroked it lovingly and called it “My Precious.”

4) Oh that person’s rich? Okay, he’s the evil one. Check. Also, he spent time doing his hair this morning, and any man that spends time on his hair is evil. Unless he’s poor. Then he’s cool.

5) Macguffins. Oh my God. All the macguffins.

6) Look the teenagers being cute and doing teenager things. Do you love them yet? They’re like puppies. How could you not love them?

7) Teleported. Who needs a story when we have special effects? But no really, why write a plot when you can just blow stuff up? Michael Bay agrees with me on this one.

8) If something’s really amazing, you don’t have to tell me that it’s amazing.

9) He got sick because he did a bad thing! This is actually a common writer thing. I can preach about this. Not now, though. Basically, he’s puking because there had to be some consequence to his actions, and the bad guys haven’t shown up yet. Don’t worry, they’re coming. See? There’s an unexplained creepy figure.

10) “I don’t think we should take it.”

“We can’t just give it back.”

“Look, I know we don’t care about taking things, but this is going to get us killed!”

“We freakin’ teleported! Okay? They can’t get us as long as we have it.”

“We don’t even know how to use it.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out. We’re taking it.”

“I know where we can go. Come on.”

Well. That explains everything.

10) But the bad guys look cool.

11) And the music is catchy. Whoa, punches!

12) Oh no, danger. This doesn’t really make sense because teenagers with no training are kicking the ass out of trained security guards, but danger, okay.

13) It’s really lucky these teenagers, like all  good All-American teenagers, took self-defense classes and learned how to use fancy-shmancy guns. And normal guns. And laser guns.

14) Oh look, poorly timed declarations of love.

15) SPECIAL EFFECTS.

16) Stunts. Special Effects.

17) The leader has a stripe. Derp-derp.

18) Ultimate baddie is rich and white and moves like a dancer. Also, punches have no effect have on him. Double check.

19) Time for our Good Techno Users to battle the Corrupt Evil Techno Users in a Techno Battle, ie: SPECIAL EFFECTS TIME WHAT. I can’t imagine who will win. The man who created it and knows everything about it, or the teenie boppers who just stole it?

20) Even though there are two of you, you’ll take turns fighting him instead of ganging up on him. Your mama taught you well, teeangers.

20) And the winner is…the teenie boppers who just stole it, of course! In the heat of battle, our intrepid teenagers discover new ways to manipulate the macguffin. Because that’s how teeangers react to stressful situations. No panic, just hardcore cleverness.

21) Where is it? You just threw it off a roof, dummy.

22) And we have room for a sequel. Brilliant.

So basically, blockbusters suck because they usually lack interesting character motivation, or motivation at all, rely heavily on overused tropes, and jerry-rig their plots together with a total disregard for storytelling. When something needs to happen, it just does. Or something explodes. But nobody cares because SPECIAL EFFECTS.

*I have the utmost respect for all creators, and especially makers of short films, which are an under explored and under appreciated medium, like the short story. That being said, once something’s out in the world, it’s fair game. And this film managed to so perfectly encapsulate all my personal issues with major blockbusters, I had to use it. The same things that are frustratingly obvious in this short exist in the bigger, weightier blockbusters. Once you know what to look for, you too can annoy your friends with your writer-whining.

To not be a complete ass, go check out this vid by the same guys, It’s pretty cool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3p2TZ5q9to