2015: A Year Off the Beaten Path

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys, cuddly little chimps that they are, prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Well, here we are all over again.  December 31st, a little less than 6 hours left in the year, and a man’s thoughts are entirely absent from the moment at hand, instead both reflecting and looking forward.  I wouldn’t say this was the greatest year of my life – it did have more than a generous share of challenges, and it departs largely unmourned and leaving much uncertainty in its wake as 2016 rolls up to take its place.  I don’t feel it’s necessary to elaborate more than that; I always think there should be a healthy distance between the words and the body that types them out, or rather, what I have to say is of more interest to the rest of you than what I or my family might be going through.  Anyway, nobody’s dying, nobody’s getting divorced, nobody’s shaving their body hair and moving to Nepal to join a monastery.  We row onward against the current, our boat no more or less special than anyone else’s.

So let’s look at the writing year that was 2015.  Not quite up to the productivity levels of years past.  That’s largely because I poured most of my efforts into Vintage, the little short serial that metamorphosed into a novel.  I was joking with my friend Joanne that it is symptomatic of my inability to get to the point.  It really did come as something of a surprise to me.  I wrote it without an outline or any plot of any sort, just a collection of scenes that turned out to have a fairly solid narrative spine underneath.  While I didn’t get to complete it this year as I had hoped, it should wrap up very shortly after January begins.  The question then is what to do with it.  I have thought of doing what Ksenia Anske does and leaving it here as a free download.  (There is a line in Live and Let Die where the villain opines that “when entering into a crowded marketplace it is advisable to give away free samples.”  Of course, he was talking about heroin, but given the oversaturation of material out there you do have to do whatever you can to get some notice.)  Anyway, we’ll see on that one.  It needs a decent cover first.  (My graphic design skills are crap.)  I know it probably hasn’t been to everyone’s taste, and it is kind of difficult to keep up with it as chapters are published on an irregular schedule, but I just wanted to thank everyone who has been reading it for the support.  If I’m a bit lackadaisical in responding to comments sometimes please know that I do appreciate every single person who takes the time.  I hope it’s been rewarding thus far, and I hope you like how it ends.  (If you are new to it and would like to catch up, you can read the whole thing start to finish by clicking the Wattpad icon to the right.)

A couple other points of note:  I was lucky enough to get the Freshly Pressed designation for the second time this year, for a post about Justin Trudeau’s majority government victory back in October.  (Given that my first Freshly Pressing was for a post about Justin Bieber, I should clearly be writing only columns about people named Justin from now on.  Look for pieces on Justin Timberlake and Justin Smoak coming soon.)  I was also fortunate to be asked by one of my favorite singers, Emilie-Claire Barlow, to review her latest album.  She sent me a wonderful note afterwards, the details of which I won’t share except to say that it was tremendously complimentary and meant a great deal to me.  One of the things that the Internet is great for is closing the distance between ourselves and those we admire in the public sphere, and as my most recent post about Carrie Fisher illustrates, I do wish that we could make greater use of the positive aspects of our digital closeness rather than always descending into the gutter to vent unnecessary spleen.

What lies ahead?  Well, I like to visualize my goals for the coming year by imagining what my Twitter biography will read.  “Author of XXXXX, rep’d by XXXXXX” would be a good start.  And call me a materialistic jackanape, but I’d love to actually get some sort of financial compensation for some of this work that I churn out.  I do have a few avenues in mind for that, so we’ll see how it plays out.  In the long form realm, I have a non-fiction book idea that I’ve spoken to my wife about collaborating on, a memoir about our journey to our adoption and our life since.  In the last few days I’ve been mulling over a YA love story about a girl who loves baseball and a boy who most definitely doesn’t.  I’d like to do more interviews with some of my online writer friends.  And I want to establish a more regular schedule of posting here and seeing what other sites out there besides HuffPost might deign to have me.  There’s no reason why I won’t be sitting here 365 days from now have accomplished all these things; it only requires dedication and commitment, and a stubborn belief in one’s own capacity for greatness given the right amount of hard work.

In the meantime, thank you as always for reading and subscribing, and following me wherever I choose to wander.  I hope that the new year brings you the things that you wish for and work for, and that next December finds our world in general in just a much nicer, happier place.

All the best.

Graham

Shame on the body shamers

leia

I guess the goodwill couldn’t last too long.  Just as Star Wars:  The Force Awakens is being greeted by critical acclaim, record box-office earnings and praise for its compelling lead character, the dark side of fandom has arisen – very much like the movie’s First Order from the ashes of the Empire – and is blasting Carrie Fisher for her appearance, so much so that the actress/writer herself felt the need to respond through social media.  As you’ll see in the linked article, the troglodytes in question have then doubled down, suggesting a variation of “you were asking for it” by her agreeing to appear in the movie in the first place.

It is a morbidly fascinating phenomenon to witness the claiming of ownership of an entertainment franchise by certain segments of fans who blow collective gaskets when the newest installment does not meet every single one of their impossible expectations, or worse, dares to shake up the status quo.  Author Chuck Wendig received a taste of this when he met a backlash over including gay characters in his Star Wars novel Aftermath.  But even with that, Wendig wasn’t attacked for his looks, or, you know, succumbing to that virulent, merciless and entirely natural human process known as aging.

When it comes to women, all bets are apparently off.

Carrie Fisher is incredibly smart, razor-edge funny, breathtakingly courageous with her openness about her battles with depression, and has probably written more of the lines you quote to your buddies at the pub in her largely unheralded career as a script doctor than any other scribe alive today.  But Hollywood is notorious and has always been notorious for giving its women a limited shelf life depending on – and you’ll forgive the lewd expression – how fuckable they are perceived to be.  I think of a lot of actresses of her generation who inspired heavy panting back in the 80’s and 90’s – Daryl Hannah, Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone to name but a few – and wonder where they are now.  They’ve lost none of their talent, but the parts aren’t coming, despite male contemporaries continuing to land interesting and challenging roles.  Michael Douglas in his 70’s still appears in blockbusters in 2015 while his younger, but apparently not young enough wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is nowhere to be seen.  One of the most egregious examples I can think of is when Kathleen Turner, the voice of Jessica Rabbit, the famous femme fatale of Body Heat, was hired to play “Chandler’s father in drag” in an episode of Friends.  When you don’t sell posters or copies of Playboy anymore, this is what you are left with.  On the rare occasion you do get a chance for a plum part – usually as someone’s mother or a cackling villain – the response is, as we are seeing with Carrie Fisher here, clucked tongues questioning how you could let yourself go like that.

What is it about seeing an older Leia that struck such a disgruntled nerve?  We all know the infamous gold bikini from Return of the Jedi – for many young men of that era it was a sexually formative experience, but frankly there were plenty of other scantily-clad princesses in sci-fi and fantasy at the time, and you don’t often hear lingering reminisces of longing for Princess Ardala from Buck Rogers or Princess Karina from The Ice Pirates.   With Leia, perhaps it was the notion of a powerful female character being enslaved, literally chained up, that was the most appealing to those fertile young imaginations (he wrote, choking down his vomit).  Regardless, I’m not entirely sure, and Carrie Fisher has mused about this in her one-woman shows, why “Slave Leia” had to then create an implicit contract between her performer and millions of fanboys, that the person in the outfit was somehow obligated to look like that for the rest of her life, that her sexuality became the property of legions of strange men.  How she looks is really her business and no one else’s.  It may very well be the failing of male-driven Hollywood as it creates these images of lust-inducing goddesses without acknowledging the human reality beneath the makeup and the barely-there costumes and the pixels.  But these hopped-up keyboard warriors who have the gall to act as if they have been wronged, and then go and insult an accomplished woman from a safe perch behind proxy servers, are spectacularly nauseating.  Because, to put it bluntly:

CARRIE FISHER DOES NOT OWE YOU AN ERECTION.

Neither she, nor any other person who puts themselves in the public eye bears any responsibility to fulfill the sexual fantasies of every single person who happens to look at them.  When you buy a ticket to The Force Awakens, all Carrie Fisher owes you is a good performance, and in that, she delivers, bringing a quiet note of tragedy to what had once been an irrepressible character.  Perhaps that itself factors into disappointment with TFA Leia, that she is more subdued and less the forceful “your worshipfulness” than she is in the original trilogy.  Well, in character terms, 30 years of a life spent fighting a war you had hoped was over will do that.  More to the point though, Carrie Fisher was not under any compulsion to return to the front of the camera, and that she did it (and subjected herself to a rigorous diet and exercise regime first) speaks to her ultimate love of the character and the franchise and a level of caring for the fans that perhaps doesn’t always come across in her occasionally blunt interviews (remarks that, were she male, would pass unnoticed, like, I don’t know, EVERY SINGLE QUOTE Harrison Ford ever gave about Han Solo being boring).  And forget the comeback about whatever she was paid for her participation – do you have any idea what script doctors make?  She does not need the money that badly.  She could easily have sat this one out.

To soil yourself and fire demeaning remarks off into the Internet because the 2015 movie didn’t feature the 1983 actress is to betray a terrible sense of male privilege, as though the entire purpose of Princess Leia and by extension Carrie Fisher’s existence is to satisfy your desperate need for arousal by any means necessary.  It isn’t.   But apparently it’s okay to reduce her to that.  (I write this without expectation that my readers fall into this category, so kindly forgive the use of the figurative “you.”)  The success of The Force Awakens should have been celebrated as an unreserved triumph for Carrie Fisher and yet, the movie not yet three weeks in theaters, it is instead dragging out old issues that she’s struggled with her entire life.  She didn’t need this crap.  Where we should be talking about the movie’s story, style, message and impact, instead the discussion is being driven to its most trite level by the most juvenile of entitled voices, to the extent that Fisher herself felt the need to say something about it.  That’s disgraceful, and Star Wars fans everywhere owe her a collective apology – and a thank you for reminding us that even our imaginary heroes grow up.

It’s past time that we did too.

A Rey of Sunshine

rey

Be forewarned.  Star Wars spoilers ahead.

Again, in all caps, just so you’re clear.  MAJOR STAR WARS SPOILERS INSIDE.  ABANDON ALL HOPE OF REMAINING UNSPOILT, YE WHO VENTURE PAST THIS POINT.

One more time for those just joining us.  THIS POST WILL CONTAIN STAR WARS SPOILERS.

*hold music hums while you decide*

We all good?  Okay.  By reading on, you hereby agree to hold the author of this site harmless for any potential Star Wars-ruining experience that may occur, in perpetuity until the heat death of the universe.

I saw The Force Awakens yesterday afternoon.  When you hit your fifth decade of life, and you’ve seen so many movies in those forty years that the tropes and cliches of cinematic storytelling have embedded themselves in your neural pathways to the point where your response to them becomes almost Pavlovian, you tend to approach any new theatrical venture, particularly one that has been so excessively hyped, with an unavoidable sense of cynicism.  Here we are now, you say warily, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, entertain us.  And how often do you walk away feeling satisfied, or surprised?  Rather infrequently, I have to admit.  I enjoy the movies for what they are, but I always see the seams at the edges.  And I went into The Force Awakens with a healthy distrust of its director, J.J. Abrams, a man whose storytelling style relies primarily on frustratingly circular references to the movies he grew up watching, rather than any particular unique vision.

J.J., you sly, sly dog you.

Granted, one does not walk into the seventh installment of a 40-year-old movie franchise expecting mind-blowing originality (I certainly don’t expect it from Bond, my other great cinema love).  I did receive the anticipated reprises of old favorite characters and the homages and tributes to everything that has made the world love Star Wars all these years.  But what I also got, and what made me walk out of the theater with a broad, dumb smile on my face, was something that I’d been longing to see realized on screen for ages, and finding it in a Star Wars movie of all places was like the surprise toy inside the chocolate egg.  I knew too, that as happy as I was to discover this, there were millions of girls and women to whom it would mean so much more.  I’m happy for them most of all.

To wit:  the absolutely compelling character of Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, is the center of the movie.  The “awakening” referred to in the title is hers.  She is brave, skilled, resourceful, determined, and over the course of the story, as her connection to the Force deepens, grows immensely powerful.  She has a past that is not spelled out for us but rather left as a tantalizing mystery.  She is no one’s love interest, and is not defined by her relationships with or unrequited longings for any particular man.  And she kicks tremendous ass, whether it’s outrunning TIE Fighters in a rusty old Millennium Falcon or confronting and defeating Dark Side villain Kylo Ren and saving Finn, the male character whom the movie’s poster and trailers would have you presume is the new Jedi of this trilogy.  (Abrams’ controversial “mystery box” promotion style has worked very well here, which is why again, I hope you’ve already seen the movie as you’re reading this.)  And Rey achieves all of these things without descending into sassy or sexualized caricature, or a neon sign flashing above her head reading “LOOK AT THIS AUDACIOUS, ENLIGHTENED STATEMENT OF FEMINISM WE MALE FILMMAKERS ARE MAKING.”

Rey just is who she is, and frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve always found the term “empowered women” a bit troubling, as it suggests that women on their own are somehow without power.  Rather, it is better to say that a woman is powerful by her very nature as a woman.  Goes with the territory, folks.  And yet in science fiction and fantasy this is too often the exception and not the rule.  Looking back, there has never really been a good reason why in genre movies, women have not been able to take the forefront of the story, other than the increasingly outdated notion that the young boys who make up the presumed primary target demographic for this genre somehow won’t be interested in seeing girls buckle their swash, or that somehow casting a female lead means you have to turn the story into a pedestrian rom-com with true love as the object of the quest.

Instead, women are usually relegated to the secondary roles of eye candy, love interests or over-the-top man-hating villainesses, their characterizations as sketchy as the anatomically impossible poses in which they are often rendered in comic books.  Why have we had eighteen Marvel movies without a female lead?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem largely from writers, producers and directors (and executives) unable to arrive at what feels like, in the light of The Force Awakens, should be a very obvious conclusion:  that women with power and agency won’t, in fact, scare men away from fantasy and science fiction movies.  They belong there, as much as the boys do, and audiences will thank you for it.  And yes, the dudes will love these characters too.

Thankfully, there have been huge exceptions of late that may be at last, softening this attitude.  Frozen was a story in the fantasy genre about the bond between two sisters (one with tremendous magical powers), with male characters shunted to the background, and it only became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.  As I write this The Force Awakens has already become the fastest movie to hit $300 million at the box office, and I’ll wager here and now that it will eventually blast past Avatar and take its place on top of the all-time list.  Because audiences love Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, but it’s Rey’s story they are going to want to see again and again.

There has been some criticism of her, centering largely on the speed with which she acquires her Force abilities in the movie without any training, and suggesting that this pushes her into Mary Sue territory.  I would suggest that there are two responses to this, one “in-universe” and another examining the broader question.  The in-universe explanation is found in a line from the very first movie, where Luke and Ben are discussing the Force and noting that while it obeys your commands, it also controls your actions.  The Force is sentient and has an awareness of when people’s greed and lust for power has pushed it out of balance, so it creates what it needs to set the universe right again.  Rey’s awakening is in response to the rising threat represented by dark-sider Kylo Ren and his mysterious master Snoke, and the speed at which it happens is perhaps a reflection of the urgency with which it is needed.  (And it also makes for the movie’s best scene in which Rey tries the Jedi Mind Trick on a Stormtrooper played by a very famous actor in disguise…)

You could also suggest that Rey is just that damn gifted, which is where the Mary Sue question comes in, and my answer to that is, so effing what?  In how many movies across how many genres have we seen preternaturally skilled guys?  How many times have we seen a young male screw-up transformed into an unstoppable fighting machine in the space of a five-minute training montage?  Why is this somehow more valid storytelling technique than seeing it happen to a woman?  Yes, Rey may be in some ways an expression of wish fulfillment for fangirls, but thanks to some great writing (by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) and Daisy Ridley’s magnetic performance she doesn’t come off like that, and even if she does, I fail to see why this is a bad thing.  We gents have plenty of examples on our side to choose from.  I’d love to see more women like Rey in genre films, treated with all the maturity and complexity that those characters deserve, and I’m glad that the gauntlet has been thrown down.  All those involved with her creation deserve accolades.  (It should also be noted that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel Test too.)

I’ve come to know a fair number of women through social media who are big genre fans, and I’m excited to read what they thought of Rey.  I imagine they’ll be able to articulate what Rey means to girls and women far better than I possibly could, so I’ll sign off for the time being and let them take the stage and enjoy their well-deserved moment.  And I will wait with bated breath for Episode VIII and the joy of discovering where Rey’s story takes her next, my faith in the ability of the movies, and genre movies in particular, to surprise me renewed, and hungry for more.

On a Clear Day, you can hear forever

clearday

Jazz has never been the taste of the timid.  It’s a gauntlet thrown down for the bold.  More than any other form of music, jazz demands a degree of commitment, an implicit contract between song and listener.  Jazz extends you an invitation to wander through its complex depths, brain fully engaged, to discover the notes that will move your heart.  The most learned fans of jazz will always emphasize this idea of the journey.  They’ll name-check greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, but they’ll tell you with a gleam in their eye that the greatest jazz they ever heard was played by an unknown 75-year-old trumpeter they stumbled upon in a dive bar in Kansas City in 1978.  So too is jazz a journey for the performers who recognize this drive at the soul of it to go, to seek the best of it out in remote corners.  Emilie-Claire Barlow, an award-winning Canadian singer with ten albums under her belt, knew her newest release Clear Day needed to embrace the quest beckoning at the core of jazz.  On the opening instrumental track “Amundsen,” she whispers enticingly in French, “all things are possible” – and sets about taking us on a journey that proves it.

Barlow has always been an artist with the ability to reach into songs across different genres and with affectionate fingers, draw out the jazz you never knew was hiding inside.  Clear Day offers a broad canvas on which she can play – a map of the world, if you will – from classic Tin Pan Alley numbers to Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Beatles and Queen and even a French interpretation of a traditional song from Mexican folklore for good measure.  Far from settling for a release of glorified karaoke cuts, however, Barlow deconstructs each song down to its basic elements and rebuilds it into a brand new confection, offering a teasing taste of the familiar to settle you into your seat before the inventive arrangements blast you out of it.  The title track opens with a movie-esque swell of strings and brass, like an eager, applauding audience waiting for the curtain to rise and the star to assume her place.  What follows are songs you know but yet don’t:  the early eighties groove of “Under Pressure” is here, but without the bass riff later made infamous by Vanilla Ice.  So is “Fix You,” retaining the comforting core of the lyrics but shedding the histrionic treacle that unbalanced Coldplay’s original.

Tossing the script like that might be a concern if entrusted to a vocalist of lesser chops, but Barlow, backed this time by both her regular supporting combo players and the 52-member Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, is more than up to the challenge.  She takes a spotlit center stage with her often dizzying, always compelling aural acrobatics.  Her voice can be by turns searing, sweet, aching, dreamy or white-hot sexy, while never succumbing to the nasty American Idol habit of cranking things past 11 on every single track to transfix wandering attentions.  Her vocal runs are remarkable not only for their range but their restraint.  A great performer never shows you her top, because then the audience will realize she has nowhere else to go.  Emilie-Claire Barlow knows this, and as a result her work is one of constant surprise.  Accordingly, Clear Day is not an album to throw on in the background to score empty dinner conversation, lest you miss something special.  It makes you comb through its reaches for the treasure awaiting the diligent.  And there’s a lot of treasure lurking here.

Barlow has the ability, on every song, to welcome you along as a passenger on the intimate journey that is jazz, beginning with her wistful echoes of the Arctic circle in “Amundsen,” as if you were an old friend from the trenches.  When she takes on the persona of the lonely, longing songstress whispering her pain to the deaf ears of the closing-time crowd in “Unrequited,” you can immediately imagine yourself nursing a scotch in the front row.  When she kicks down the cobblestones on a sunny Sunday morning in “Feelin’ Groovy,” you’re smiling and tipping your cap as you watch this vivacious bubble of energy saunter by.  When she transforms into the widow in flowing black silks by the river weeping for her lost children in the haunting, rending “La Llorona,” you’re reaching out to console her.  But never one to bid her audience goodbye on a downhearted note, Barlow instead dances you out with a sprightly spring in her step in the lively, conga-driven “Mineiro de Coração.”  You feel, as the final notes spiral into the dark and you part ways, that you’ve walked the world together to a jazz-flavored beat, and you’re more than eager to rewind to track 1 and make the voyage again.  This is Barlow’s most accomplished and most mature album, and while one would never suggest she wasn’t terrific before, Clear Day is a confident climb up to the next level.  She writes on the album’s liner notes that Clear Day was inspired by her personal journey over the last four years, and we are reminded that the best art is that which dares to dig deep and to embrace any scars accumulated on the way.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Emilie-Claire Barlow perform live a couple of times, and I’m often left perplexed as to why someone with such formidable talent isn’t selling out stadiums instead of the Auto-Tuned pop princess du jour.  Perhaps it goes back to the notion that jazz is something that you have to search out, rather than have it served to you passively with ad nauseum airplay on mainstream radio.  Clear Day is that glittering jewel of an example where you don’t have to journey too far to find it.  Rather, the journey is in the experience of the album itself, a vast menu of worldly delights that makes its asks of you but, for your trouble, supplies sumptuous rewards.  Pick it up, listen well, and share it with the next person who asks about the last time you heard some great jazz.

Clear Day is available online and in music stores now.