Thursday, June 26, 2014

Of Slayages and Squirrels

I apologize for missing "Walter White Wednesday" this week, but it was unavoidable. Ensley and I had just returned from the Sixth Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses and were dealing with jet-lag. I'm pretty sure that if I'd tried to post on Wednesday, the result would have looked like this:

"Welcome to Walueoriep jsdoibfjkl;adk fl;sdkflzzzzzzz."

And really - who wants that?  We did have a successful book signing at Beers Books in Sacramento, due in large part to supportive Slayage attendees who came out to celebrate with us (and maybe to score a little of the blue). The picture at the top of the post is from the signing - look at that enticing bowl of candy!

Many others will post about Slayage - and there will be an official report on the various papers, presentations and roundtables put out by official Whedon Studies Association ("WSA") reporters soon - so I'm taking a different tack here. Rather than attempting to summarize the various papers I was able to hear (I missed a fair number, since three sessions run concurrently and I have yet to master the use of time-traveling technology), let me explain why the WSA matters.

There are any number of professional organizations - groups devoted to particular philosophers, authors, theorists, professions, and so on. The WSA is devoted to the academic study of Joss Whedon, a prospect that has caused more than one media professional to say, "Huh-what?" I'm not here to re-plow that ground - Whedon's work often shows depth and nuance that an academic would eagerly pounce on, and the fact that humor is so tightly interwoven just makes the exploration that much - well, cooler. We're fans of the work (we spend too much time here to hate the stuff, although I went to a fantastic session defending "hated characters" at this latest gathering), which means we quote, and quip, and wear clever T-shirts. But at the core, Slayage is about scholarship. How does Dollhouse tackle themes of consent and privilege? How can theories of leadership and military tactics be applied to The Avengers? How does the law firm of Wolfram & Hart reflect actual legal principles of a "vigorous defense"? Oh, we do go on.

But even that's not the real point of this.

Perhaps you've noticed:  higher education is a mess right now. Questions of student loans, bloated administrative costs, low morale, frozen pay, a dangerously-expanding bubble of adjunct workloads, and the application of so-called "business models" to education dominate the headlines.  In short, it's not a good time to ask for funding to go to a conference devoted to a man best known for creating a show with the silly-sounding title Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no matter how elevated the work and discussion might be. But go we do, often on our own dime. And that matters.

Yes, we make valuable contacts. Publishing contacts, professional contacts, and personal contacts - we make 'em all at Slayage. We present our work - often nervously; these people are smart! - and we refine it as a result of questions and comments we receive. In such ways, scholarship - which ought to matter as much as the football field house - advances, bringing us along with it. We see the world a hair differently. We understand each other a touch better. We aren't so scared of someone who doesn't look exactly like us.

We become better.

 And that's what it's about. Now, the WSA won't work that way for everyone; that's why there are all those other societies. But for me, the WSA provides a unique opportunity to learn. Many teacher-types don't want to do that - they aren't secure enough to admit there are things they don't know about, so they remain tightly in their own box of expertise. Whedonians not only cheerfully admit that they don't know things; they revel in the idea that there's so much more out there to learn and they expect you to share. I've attended sessions in areas that are so far afield from my own areas of expertise that it would make my knees quake to consider going to a presentation in those areas if I didn't have the common thread of Whedon to wrap tightly around me. Seriously - I know very little about musicology or the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and I attended - and enjoyed - sessions centering on both.

The "bottom line" folks would ask - "Well, how are you going to use that in class?"

My answer:  I don't know. Yet. But I know I'm a better instructor for going outside what I already know.

And Slayage is also so much fun! Spending time with intelligent, lively people who are reveling in their passions usually is. Add to that the campus squirrels, who were entirely too tame, and you have the makings of a meme. So we did.  (Tumblr. The. Best.)

Passion.  Maybe Angel said it best:  "Passion is the source of our finest moments; the joy of love, the clarity of hatred, and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we'd know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank . . . without passion, we'd be truly dead."

So there's Slayage and during that time, we see each other.  We squeal, and we hug tightly, and we cement that community, knowing that it needs to carry us through another Slay-age (which has been determined to be four days followed by two years). And carry us it does. Think of it this way - since I started attending with the second Slayage in 2006, I've published my first book; gotten involved in fan communities that use Whedon's words as inspiration to raise awareness and cashy money for good causes (I even helped design a T-shirt to help with one I felt especially strongly about); met and married my husband; co-wrote a book with him; and built relationships with people that I may not see all that often, but consider family nevertheless.

I can't put a dollar amount on it, but I know it's worth something better than cash.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 107

Super quick this week - I'm traveling and am out in sunny California getting ready to attend the 6th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, which promises to be a BLAST!  That'll keep me occupied and (mostly) out of trouble through Sunday, but then on Monday afternoon, Ensley and I will be making an appearance at Beers Books to talk Breaking Bad and sign copies of Wanna Cook? so please - if you're in the area or know Breaking Bad fans who are, let them know we'll be over at Beers from 3 to 6 Monday afternoon!

Details can be found here!

We're even bringing the blue, which was surprisingly easy to get through security.  Hmmm.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Old & New, Foreign & Domestic

Due to commitments for the upcoming Slayage conference, I've fallen a bit behind in posting about movie-watching.  Let me try to take care of that, but be warned - to keep this post from becoming as long as Kurosawa's Red Beard (but nowhere near as good as that film, I fear), I'm going to skim the surface here, which is a shame, since the first three in particular deserve deeper looks.  Look at the end of the post for the upshot of it all.

I'm working my way through my "good movies" list and have seen three since I last reported in on that. All three are flat-out amazing and well worth seeing. To start with, Akira Kurosawa's last collaboration with the incomparable Toshiro Mifune, the 1965 epic Red Beard. Here's what I think, in a nutshell. When you've had a lousy day and you feel unappreciated, overworked, pushed to the side and then you see that the news is full of terrible people doing terrible things, go watch Kurosawa's final film to be shot in black and white, Red Beard. We're worth saving. It's an amazing film and don't tell me that you don't like subtitles. You'll like this film and you'll feel better about life afterwards.

I know that I have some ridiculous holes in my cinematic repertoire, but I promised to be honest about those, so I can tell you with tremendous enthusiasm that I finally saw Hitchcock's Psycho. I wasn't expecting it to be so creepy, but I should have remembered that I'm dealing with Hitchcock. The violence is tame by today's standards, but the movie was still incredibly effective at making me double-check the locks that night. Anthony Perkins is magnificent at being all charming and gee-shucks and even though you know what's going to happen (Psycho is that much a part of the American culture), you're still surprised by it. Gus Van Sant re-made this movie in 1998 and I cannot imagine what he was thinking.

Another classic I'd never seen (in my defense, I've seen other films by Kurosawa, Hitchcock and this director, John Ford) was Stagecoach, which can be said to set the standard for the Western film. Few films are as acclaimed as this one, and few deserve to be. Honestly, this is THE movie to watch if you're looking for a primer in what makes a good Western. You've seen parts of Stagecoach before - the Monument Valley setting, the hooker with the heart of gold, the outlaw on the run who is determined to mete out justice . . . in lesser hands, it would be schlock, but in the hands of John Ford, it's golden. It was also released in 1939, which was just a magic year for movies (Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were all released that same year, just to name three.)

OK - now to new movies, which I enjoyed, but just don't stack up to the three I've reported on so far, so let's keep this short.  Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise science fiction extravaganza, is actually surprisingly good. There's a certain Groundhog Day element here, but it's not played for laughs. Cruise plays against type and his William Cage is a smarmy, behind-the-front-lines media consultant with oak leaf clusters. Through a most unlikely series of events (and a little too much hand-held camera for my taste), Cage becomes the bearer of a gift that might just save humanity - if he can figure out how to do it. Heavy hints at WW1 (especially the "Angel of Verdun" reference) and WW2 (the film was released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day) are completely deliberate. The movie worked very well for me, although there's a plot stumble toward the end - an occupational hazard when working with time travel and you're not entirely sure the audience will follow you.

Last - the new DreamWorks animated feature, How to Train Your Dragon 2. As sequels go, this one is first rate. I loved the first one and I thought that it had some VERY interesting things to say about disability. (There's an entire field of scholarship called "disability studies" that I'm sure went ape over the first movie, by the way.) That's carried through in this one, but at the heart of this film is a heavier question - how do you deal with loss? How do your losses, rather than your victories, shape you? The flight sequences alone are worth the price of admission - and in one breathtaking sequence, you'd swear the dragons were butterflies. However, be warned that this film deals (and deals nicely) with some heavy themes that the  very young ones might find intense to the point of being scary. It's rated PG, which is a mushy rating, but be warned - it's not a G and there's a good reason for that.

Red Beard - if you have a heartbeat and three hours, go get this NOW! Seriously.
Psycho - I still have no idea why Gus Van Sant remade this movie. Go see the Hitchcock and marvel as the sheer creepiness of Anthony Perkins.
Stagecoach - which could also be called THE Western. Everything you ever needed to know about how a Western should work in one John Ford picture. See it now.
Edge of Tomorrow - finally, Tom Cruise does a sci-fi that's worth watching, although there's one sloppy plot hole at the end. A rental, but a fun one.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 - a fine movie, but one that deals with some heavy themes for the youngest among us. Go see this, but careful about taking the very young with you.  Probably fine for ages 10 and up without hesitation.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 106

Also known as the one in which the "one who knocks" becomes the "one with the Tony Award"! Yes, on Sunday, Bryan Cranston took home the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a play for his role as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way, which also won the Tony for Best Play.  And yes, Cranston compared acting on Broadway to blue meth, so you could say Walter White is still on his mind.

Next week, Ensley and I will be out in California attending and presenting at the 6th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses. We're looking forward to seeing "conference friends" who we generally only get to brush shoulders with once every two years (a "slay age" has been determined to be three days followed by two years, incidentally) and the lineup for this conference looks quite impressive!  Many of the contributors to the highly-anticipated collection Reading Joss Whedon will be there - and that's a recently-released book serious Whedon scholars will want!  (You might even recognize a name or two . . .)

While we're out in Sacramento, we'll be having a signing for Wanna Cook? over at Sacramento's comprehensive independent bookstore Beers Books, so if you're in the area (or know Breaking Bad fans who might be!), spread the word and come on down!  It's scheduled for 3:00 - 6:00 pm on Monday, June 23! I'll put up a quick reminder - probably over on Twitter - but the Slayage conference is a runrunrun event, so no "Walter White Wednesday" next week, although I'll be sure to check in again before we leave for sunny Sacramento!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 105

Some fun odds and ends this week.  To start with, a very nice review from the United Kingdom review site, The Bookbag for Wanna Cook.  They agree that Wanna Cook? is a must for the Breaking Bad fan.  The book would go nicely with your new, complete Breaking Bad DVD/Blu-Ray set.  (Yes, other sets have come out before - this is the latest version.)

Second - just a favorite clip of mine.  Skinny Pete was more than just a burnout and it's nice that got a nod during the series.  It gives him a touch more depth, doesn't it?

Last - some enterprising fan has animated Badger's Star Trek script.  Enjoy the pie eating contest and beware slippery hands on the transporter controls!!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Women & Myth

This weekend, I watched two very different movies. Knowing that I needed to blog about both, I spun around, trying to find a connection between Seth MacFarland's A Million Ways to Die in the West and Disney's live-action Maleficent. Finally, I hit on it - both prominently feature women in mythic circumstances. Million Ways is trying to poke fun at the genre of the American Western and Maleficent attempts to retell the Sleeping Beauty tale, this time from the point of view of the villain. (Very reminiscent of Wicked, although plenty will point to Disney's recent smash hit Frozen as well.) Face it, both Westerns and fairy tales are tangled up in myth - the West of the great John Ford movies existed in reality about as much as the Grimm tales. Generally speaking, these are both types of stories in which women do very little, aside from get saved, get avenged, and/or get married.

So how do these two films stack up?

 Million Ways wants to be MacFarland's Blazing Saddles, but he's not quite up to the task. To be fair, he tries. Clearly, he's watched and studied a number of Westerns - all the better to caustically mock the genre - and he knows the standards. Look - there's Monument Valley! Running throughout is a Western score and even the credits look like they were taken from a 1950s Technicolor Western. His cast is solid, with Liam Neeson playing a vicious gunfighter from Eire while Sarah Silverman (whose whole schtick to me has always been a variation on "look - I'm pretty, but I can be as raunchy as any guy!") as the town hooker with a heart of gold and a loving boyfriend, Neil Patrick Harris as a dastardly shopkeeper, and Charlize Theron as Anna, the gunfighter's wife who, like MacFarland's sheep farmer, hates the West with all its dirt, filth, disease, and rampant stupidity. Far less about rugged individualism and the pioneer spirit and far more about the triumph of modern plumbing, Million Ways is raunchy and funny in places (very funny in that particular MacFarland vein that made Ted such an unlikely hit and to me, the best joke was a throwaway line about Stephen Foster) but it's a rental. The only thing gained by a big-screen viewing would be the magnificent Monument Valley vistas and for those, go see Stagecoach. Or Blazing Saddles.

Maleficent is worth watching for two scenes alone, although again - this one could easily be a rental. Told with a sympathetic bent for one of the scariest Disney villains ever, Maleficent explains just why Aurora was cursed at her christening. Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as the wicked fairy although this film makes it clear that there are reasons behind her turn to darkness, while never condoning her actions. (Oh, and the scene where Shartlo Copley's King Stefan is "having a conversation" is just chilling. He did wrong and it haunts him.) The movie is quite pretty visually, with a sharp divide between the "castle country" and the "fair folk moors," but things get kicked up a notch when Maleficent awakens to find she's been betrayed and violated by the one she loved and trusted. And the christening scene is the cartoon brought to vibrant life, even down to the spooky shadow on the wall. Alas, Elle Fanning as Aurora has very little to do aside from smile vapidly - perhaps a side effect of being given the gift of perpetual happiness is to make a person a simpering idiot - but the movie is worth seeing for Jolie. (Side note - one of the Jolie-Pitt children plays the toddler Aurora in a scene that is just marvelous. Apparently, other child actors were either stunned into silence or scared into tears by Jolie's elaborate "hey, I'm evil" getup, but her daughter knew it was just mom.) Is the film reminiscent of Wicked and of Frozen? Sure, but I'll take all the stories with strong, complex women as the headliner that I can get these days.