A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ode to an Under-Appreciated Monster

Halloween is a time for horror.  A time to have fun being chilled by everything that would in reality bring us to tears.  Monsters are the most popular attraction when it comes to Halloween scares (though certainly creepy human antagonists have given us their share of fright with films like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Misery).  Monsters are inherently queer.  They are strange creatures that threaten the normal order of things.  So we jump and shudder at ghosts, demons, Frankenstein's monster, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and Lovecraftian horrors, but it seems like one monster really gets the short end of the stick: Skeletons.

People never seem to give the skeleton its due.  In video games, books, and movies it's often a minor monster.  Rather than being the big baddy or even a mid-boss, it's more like cannon fodder.  Alternatively, skeletons will be the extension of the villainous being rather than the villainous being itself.  In The Mummy (remake) the monster begins as a skeleton, but in order to gain power has to give up his creepy skeleton ways to become more human.  In Psycho the mother is a skeleton, but the "monster" is her demented son.

"The easiest opponent in Puyo Puyo is far from being scary or even spooky… until you start to think about where all that tea he drinks could possibly go. WOOOOOoooooooooOOOOOO" - Ashley Davis
Poor skeletons.  It seems like nobody wants to recognize their spookiness.  If you really think about it, skeletons are pretty disturbing.  You can explain away why most other creepy crawlies exist.  Zombies, werewolves, vampires.  They all have skin and muscle moving them about.  Skeletons?  How does a skeleton walk around?!  It has no flesh, no tissue holding it together.  That's not supposed to move around.

How do you kill a skeleton?  Chop it's head off?  Nothing's technically holding it's head on!  It has no physical brain, eyes, or tongue.  Somehow removing the head from it's inexplicably capable body only causes new problems.  Now that you've removed the head you have to deal with both the head and body trying to kill you at the same time.

"But Aaron," you say determined to ruin my day.  "A skeleton may be a frightful foe in theory, but in practice they're just plain silly."  Oh no reader, I have a wonderful example of a movie that uses skeletons beautifully. Remember how some people say Die Hard is one of their favorite Christmas movies?  It's often over looked because its tone is drastically different from How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street.  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is similarly a strong contender for a Halloween film.  It's a fun adventure movie, but when that moment pops up when we realize all the pirates on the Black Pearl are undead (pardon the parlance) shit gets reals.

Some of the skeleton pirates are silly, but the main villain, Captain Barbossa, plays a powerful nemesis for our heroes.  Most good horror monsters are complex beyond "wanting to kill."  Barbossa and the rest of the skeleton pirates long to regain their humanity.  During the day they appear human, but that's not the same as being human.  They still thirst to enjoy all the pleasures of being alive as Barbossa illustrates by desiring nothing more from humanity than to taste an apple again.  The skeletons lack that aspect of humanity.  They lack the ability to feel like humans feel.  Barbossa's final words are "I feel...cold." This is both a terrible realization and a moment of closure for the character.  Skeletons, when given the chance, can be just as interesting as any other movie monster.

But rarely are skeletons given their moment to shine.  We're all too happy to let aliens and vampires bask in our hard earned attention, leaving skeletons trailing behind, broom in hand, cleaning up the aftermath of our holiday thrills.  This Halloween I want all of you to keep in mind how important skeletons are as part the season.  They're our decorations, our candy containers, and candle holders.  Putting one up gets the point across, loud and clear, that it's time once again for Halloween.  This October 31st I think all you should thank your own skeletons by not being hit by a truck.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nostalgia

It's my birthday, something I almost entirely forgot about.  But since I didn't, I'm going to "sort of" discuss it.  I'm going to write about two distinct kinds of nostalgia.  One form I deem "healthy nostalgia," the other is an obviously pathetic and pleading nostalgia.  But I'll open with something that is seemingly unrelated to the topic.

I think Farmville, and Cityville, and Pioneerville, and every video game like them are a complete waste of time.  That may be because my experience playing video games has lead me so far away from some of the most popular casual games I don't understand them.  They're strange to me, and I find the Farmville formula virtually unplayable. And yet...



...I find the above footage of a Farmvillian Peanuts game completely irresistible.  Peanuts is something I hold sacred.  It's a beloved childhood memory I have only grown to love more over time.

I often like to believe myself immune to the worst kind of nostalgia: consumerist nostalgia.  Gobbling up anything based on an intellectual property or products from one's childhood.  That's completely false.There are things I grew up with, like the Peanuts, that I will unfailingly devour.  But as I began to figure out what exactly I wanted to write I began thinking of the warm memories of my childhood and my picturesque home in the country.  I was reminded of the video my parents still have of me creating a beanie baby parade, complete with a band of frog musicians I had acquired from Kincaid's gradually with my allowance.  Warm feelings of a loving home, wonderful memories, seeped into my being, whitewashing the negative moments of my life, leaving me with a feeling of...nostalgia.

That is exactly what nostalgia is supposed to feel like.  Momentary longing for home.  Momentary longing for a simple, simply magical place in time when one was clearly happy and at peace.  No struggle.  No cynicism.  There were many things I loved during my childhood: Rugrats, Beanie Babies, Lego's, Littlest Pet Shop, tiny, plastic cowboys and Indians toys and the large, plastic rock they would battle over.  But I don't have an internal desire to relive those things through mediums outside their original format.  Actually, I don't have a longing to relive them at all.  I'm not going to play with Littlest Pet Shop toys in order to revive some lost childhood...that seems unhealthy...

A couple properties seemed to improve as I grew older.  The Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes jokes I didn't quite understand as a child became increasingly hilarious.  I still absolutely love reading those strips (in the numerous collections I own) today.  Looking at Calvin & Hobbes, the strip's creator largely avoided exploiting mediums outside of the original comic strip.  As an adult it seems almost sacrilegious for a studio to even consider adapting that wonderful comic into a format that could not do it equal justice (film, for example).  It would lack Bill Watterson's wit and his ability to tell sophisticated tales about philosophy and childhood.  Many, many modern, cynical recreations of Calvin & Hobbes depict the character of Calvin going mad or as a stunted adult.  There are many ways it could be corrupted.  Perhaps Calvin & Hobbes is best left a remnant of the past.  A wonderful comic strip I can read to laugh and think.


I have a right to question the quality of potential, future adaptations of Calvin & Hobbes because we have seen it done with soooooooo many other properties from my generation's childhood alone.  Transformers stands as the magnum opus of bad examples.  The original premise for the series was to be a thirty minute commercial for a toy line, and as the audience grew up it turned into a series of horrible action films, "darker" and "more mature" to keep the product popular among aging consumers.  It's garbage and you should be ashamed of yourself for encouraging the creation of such pathetic, escapist nostalgia.

And yet, how dissimilar is Peanuts or Winnie the Pooh?  Two things I adore from my youth.  Certainly they were born from drastically different roots, but most modern recreations of the Peanuts universe are arguably as soulless as the Transformers films.  A Farmville clone is a Farmville clone, despite the quality and whatever skin is slapped on top of it.  It's a gimmick.  Maybe there are people who genuinely love the franchise working on the new material, but if they really cared about preserving the spirit of Schulz's works then maybe they would let it end with Schulz.

For my participation in Peanuts consumerist nostalgia I am just another part of the problem, greedily sucking down whatever slop might be thrown my way because of brand recognition.  How can I possibly condemn others for the speck of sawdust in their eye when there is a plank jutting out of mine?  I can't.  At some point I hope all of us learn to leave our warm childhoods in a state of preservation, rather than reusing their remains until they are completely unrecognizable.  One day we might have to face the present, or worse yet, the future, where there are no warm childhood memories to be found.

(Note: The date on this post reads October 28th, I guess I posted this a minute too early...)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Should the Villain Receive Her Come-Upins?

Last night I went to see Hairspray performed at my Alma mater, and I loved it.  If you've never heard of (or watched) Hairspray it's a lighthearted musical about racial segregation in the 1960s revolving around an overweight, white, teenage girl and a local Baltimore, dance-themed TV show that's based on a film by John Waters.  It addresses discrimination in multiple less than subtle ways.  But it's a campy musical that takes place in the 1960s, so subtlety is certainly not going to be a priority.


After the show a friend mentioned to me that the villain, Velma Von Tussle, doesn't really get punished for being a conniving and cruel bigot.  She is promoted to vice-president of a line of hair products.  The irony is it's a line for "women of color."  That's still not a bad deal for Velma, and her reaction to the reward is equivalent to saying "Awww phooey!"  For that I can see why my friend would find her "ironic punishment" less than appealing.

I could argue that at the end of the play, during a dance number, she is harassed into dancing with everyone else, black and white, so maybe she learned something.  Maybe she'll change her ways and become a manipulative, backstabbing good-guy for a change.  Certainly having her flesh melted off or bursting into flames a la Medea would be tonally inappropriate.  I could see her getting the boot, but even that would leave the audience with one unhappy character at the end.

It seems like the goal was to get everyone together.  By having Velma fired she would not have learned anything.  She would be just as bigoted if not more so.  She could blame fat people and black people for her losing her job.  Instead she joins everybody else in a dance and maybe (maybe) has a change of heart.  At her core the character shouldn't really be defined by her racism.  She was part of a older, white generation.  One which valued a traditionally white and skinny concept of beauty.  In a happy, campy, and transparent tale about discrimination I'm not so sure a five second conversion at the end of the musical is unfitting.  After all, in the logic of the play, the best way to defeat racism is through dancing on national television.

In this situation I find that the villain receiving her come-upins is largely unnecessary.  I'm well aware my argument is built on some fairly shaky soil, but the musical was already extremely heavy-handed.  Rejecting the racist instead of converting her would have felt like a rather mean move for such a happy and fun story.  Realistic?  No, and I don't think it was supposed to be.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is Christianity a Cult?


I've been hearing a large amount of criticism towards Mitt Romney and Mormonism lately, the first of which was presented by Pastor Robert Jeffress condemning Mormonism as a cult while celebrating the superiority of his own Christian religious views.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume out of the seven billion definitions for cult given in Merriam-Webster the one Pastor Jeffress was referencing was "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious."

That's the thing about the word cult.  It doesn't have a great, clear, singular definition.  It can mean a lot of things.  Films and television programs known as "cult classics" can have "cult followings."  The word can be used to describe less threatening religious bodies.  The earlier uses of this word are largely different than how the American imagination has redefined it over time.  That's not particularly unusual.  We do that with a lot of words.  The contemporary American has a Mansonian understanding of what a cult is: A small body of extremely devoted followers to a supreme leader isolating themselves from family and friends, fasting (or malnourished), and celebrating potentially dangerous rituals and practices.  Probably the most picture perfect fictional embodiment of the brainwashing cult is in The Simpsons' episode "The Joy of Sect."

So what exactly makes Mormonism a cult?  Slate Magazine's Christopher Hitchens points out a few of the similarities Mormonism has with the popular American cult:
The Mormons have a supreme leader, known as the prophet or the president, whose word is allegedly supreme. They can be ordered to turn upon and shun any members who show any signs of backsliding. They have distinctive little practices, such as the famous underwear, to mark them off from other mortals, and they are said to be highly disciplined and continent when it comes to sex, booze, nicotine, and coffee. Word is that the church can be harder to leave than it was to join. Hefty donations and tithes are apparently appreciated from the membership.
I'll use that paragraph in that article as a good example of cult behavior.  Let's make a list:
  1. Supreme Leader
  2. Shun Deviants
  3. Quirky or Distinctive Rituals and Vestiges
  4. Abstinence
  5. Controlled Community
  6. Member Supported through Personal Donations
Now, that Slate article is not arguing that Mormonism is a cult - still, it does take pains to make sure the readers are aware of cult-like similarities.  It also gently touches on the point I intend to make; so I'll get on with that:

An ancient Jewish journalist for Israel Today might discuss the Christian movement in much the same way we'd address contemporary cult behaviors as a devoted following guided by a single questionable authority. This superior leader might not necessarily be Jesus, but the self-proclaimed Apostle Paul (often credited as the first pope) who had a religious experience striking him blind and being told by a vision of Jesus, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do" (Acts  9:5b-6).  Paul is of course the only one on record who accounts for these events as no personal records of anyone else involved exist.  This allowed him to justify his arduous journey as the new leader of the early Christian movement.

If we are to ask if Christian communities often shun deviants or have controlled communities I would guide you to a statement by Jesus himself, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29, similar verses can be found in both Mark and Luke).  Jesus tells followers that it is not entirely wrong to abandoned their families to go with him promising greater gifts in the next life.  This is not dissimilar to cult-like behavior where followers often abandon their material lives for an isolated, spiritual one among a new "family."

Contemporary Christian language is also very familiar with exclusive, centralized thought.  Christianity is the focus of the American Protestant's vernacular.  Words like fallen, struggling, non-Christian, and stray may be used to define those outside their religion or those who have left their church by their own terms.  A former Christian atheist might not necessarily be an atheist but a stray sheep or a non-Christian.  This potentially keeps their mindset safely within the confines of the flock.

Christians have not had a great history of accepting outsiders.  Those who do "fall from grace" even today may be shunned.  Christians might speak to them differently or encourage their return.  To use a fairly radical example, the Westboro Baptist Church has become well known for their complete rejection of former members.  While the majority of devout Christians do not resemble that one sect, they might show their lack of comfort for deviants in small, subtler ways.  The word "disappointed" comes to mind when I think of my own upbringing.

The Christian religion is certainly not free of quirky and strange ceremonies and vestiges.  Priestly collars and robes, advent candles, speaking in tongues, snake handling, foot washing, and communion are a few examples.  Our local Amish population takes part in an extremely unique form of dress, but most any devout Protestant would not condemn them as unfaithful Christians.  It is the religiously Amish perspective that has them adorned in such unusual garments.

Abstinence is a major factor in Christian circles.  Avoiding alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex (as well as homosexual relationships and many other deviant sexualities and gendered behaviors) are important to maintain the body as the Temple of God among many of the more devoted believers.  There are groups with less rigid views (Methodists for example), but orthodox Christian sects have been integral into politically minded abstinence movements, like prohibition.

Finally... tithing.  I don't think there's any reason to delve too deeply into that one.  It's fairly self-explanatory.  Christian doctrine demands donation.

Christianity does show marked similarities to many cults, not the least of which is being an off-shoot of another, more established religion or being a movement within another, more established religion. Mormonism is a break away group from mainstream Christianity much in the same way early Christianity was a break away group from Judaism.  And as Hitchens says, "The fact is that what we have here is a clash between two discrepant forms of Christianity, in which the good Pastor Jeffress holds no especially high ground and in which the Latter-day Saints, unless they lie, are among the fastest-growing churches in the United States."

The discussion over Romney's religion is not about whether or not he's in a cult, it's about discrediting the opposition.  The word "cult" is a great way to do so because it evokes specific images in the American imagination that appear to be dangerous and deviant.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Strange and Wonderful Animals of the American Midwest

Whenever people travel to another part of the world one of the first things they notice are the strange and exotic creatures.  They might think to themselves, "Aw, I wish we had interesting creatures living in my home," but the people who say that are silly.  You see, there are strange and wonderful creatures living in every part of the world.  The only problem is that you don't think they're strange because you're used to them.  Living in the Midwest is especially problematic since most of our crazy critters become so media exposed through television, film, and literature.  But let's look at some amazingly bizarre beasts living in the Midwest (complete with deviantart interpretations!):

The Opossum

The opossum is the Midwestern marsupial.  A creature known for carrying its young on its back and hanging from its tail (two things I have never seen one do).  Its other claim to fame is a tactic called "play dead" where the opossum drops to the ground and pretends to be a corpse so predators won't devour its delicious body.  This has proven ineffective against moving vehicles.  The opossum looks notably like a massive, disease-ridden rat.

A opossum performing pantomime (by Orangehusky)

The Skunk

The skunk is a supposedly adorable cat-like creature that is entirely black, but with a big, white stripe down its back.  The truth is skunks are more like fat weasels with puffy tails.  They can unleash a spray from their backside which leaves a horrible odor upon their assailants, which has resulted in every living thing trying to avoid as much contact as possible with the skunk.  This, again, has proven ineffective against moving vehicles.  Skunks are hilarious as they don't walk so much as waddle.

A skunk dressed as a PS1-era Final Fantasy character (by hibbary)

The Praying Mantis

The praying mantis is a beautiful and elegant insect that slowly stalks through gardens crushing captive bug-life between its large, nutcracker-like pincers.  Primarily the mantis is known for biting the head off its spouse mid-orgasm, but they are also masters at horrifying children.  A classroom at a local elementary school my mother works at once welcomed in a butterfly chrysalis in hopes to see the nature's splendor first hand.  Days later it burst forth with hundreds of tiny, white praying mantis babies swarming the school and probably forever scarring the neighborhood kids.

A "steampunk" praying mantis that is clearly not steam powered (by CatherinetteRings)

The Alpaca

The alpaca are clearly not native to the Midwest, but there are a few alpaca ranches near my home so they certainly seem part of the ecosystem.  Essentially miniature giraffes, the alpaca has a long neck, is covered in woolly hair, and has a pension for spitting on me.  This probably has nothing to do with the alpacas themselves but I believe my dog wants to be one.  Whenever it escapes it can be found irritating or "playing with" the closest group of alpacas in the area.

An androgynous anime character riding an alpaca (by grkoch)

The Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are probably the most exotic Midwestern animal in appearance.  The tiny, jittering bodies, their rapidly spinning wings, and their long, thin beaks make them a sporadic joy to behold.  These birds drink nectar from plants like butterflies and other garden variety (used...literally) insects.  A myth exists saying that if a hummingbird ever stops flapping its wings its heart explodes.  But they sleep and nest and raise their young.  They clearly can stop flying and be just fine.
A hummingbird going through the rebellious teen years (by ursulav)

So those are just a few of the wacky and fun animals living in the Midwest.  I probably gave incredibly misinformed accounts of all of them, but that's because I'm not a zoologist or park ranger.  But observing what people find to be strange and exotic when visiting other parts of the world always gives me that "grass is always greener" feeling, like they haven't taken the time to observe their native bizarre qualities before looking at how odd something else can be.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Slogan Sexuality

The other day I noticed a couple friends throwing about this slogan card on the old interweb:


This makes a fair point, but is also a tad silly.  There should be absolutely no reason to make the nature argument for or against homosexuality.  Those that would call it unnatural certainly could be easily dismissed by the above, but that argument is rarely grounded in the beliefs of the people making it.  Maybe early on when many psychologists were claiming homosexuality to be a mental disorder, but very few of those people exist today (or would be called relevant).

Alternatively, the claim could come from the religious right, but their own beliefs are based in the unnatural.  The whole point of religion (especially Christianity) is to separate oneself from worldly desires, setting the self above natural urges, aiming their sights on unearthly promises.  If a Christian really took the time to ponder his/her values they wouldn't come to the conclusion that homosexuality was unnatural, but the goal of their faith is to be unnatural.  Christians would disregard anything distracting from their faith.  That's probably why cloistered sects of Christians always made the most sense to me (Amish, Monasteries, etc).  Those groups are fairly self-sufficient and aren't worried about science, nature, or politics.  The Amish might worry about nature during a drought when the crops aren't growing, but only because nature is cruel and evil.

The only real argument Christians can use against homosexuality is that it's a sin.  And it is a sin according to their scriptures, so there's no getting around that.  If something's sinful that doesn't make it unnatural.  It makes it naughty (i.e. sexy).  But if the book says homosexuality is wrong I'm not going to argue with brother Christian; I'm not a Christian and old Judeo-Christian laws don't apply to me, and they shouldn't be forced upon non-Christian groups.  That's why we have secular law.

Secular law doesn't really care about nature either.  It cares about order.  Nature is chaotic, which has been a problem for humans since we started inventing societies.  Humans don't like chaos...it hurts!  Tornadoes, famines, earthquakes, jellyfish, all dangerous threats to humans during any time period (provided they were living in areas where they would encounter these things).  Carnivorous creatures will stalk and devour the weak in order to survive against the harsh elements.  Throw a naked human in the wilderness for a night then come back and tell me we're the strongest thing out there.  Humans don't function well without using unnatural means to protect themselves.  Houses, spears, covered wagons, saddles, pants, and sunglasses were all made to give mankind the one-up against nature.

Because we were able to create societies and civilizations humans gained the ability to be "above" nature.  The more modern we became the less important it was to keep many wives and many children.  Suddenly love was an important factor in relationships.  The MOST important factor.  We could also shrug off violent behaviors.  We typically use words like "humane" to describe acts of admirable kindness or pity while we use words like "animalistic," "beastial," and "subhuman" to describe the most vile human actions and behaviors.

I would be really surprised if many of those 450 animals actually had consensual homosexual sex.  Usually it's rape-like.  Animals aren't the best examples of love and commitment.  They can be extremely violent and dominating when it comes to receiving sexual gratification.  Should we really be using the chrysanthemum longicorn beetle as an example of homosexuality in nature?  Is that part of the 450?  I don't think mistaken identity makes one homosexual.  Most critters don't really have sexualities.  They run on some very base, hard-wired mechanics in order to survive and reproduce.  I wouldn't count many animals as being "heterosexual" for that reason.

Sexuality is usually something deeper than having sex.  It's a part of someone.  It helps determine what we love, who we love, and how we express that love.  I think the human aspect of sexuality is what we should be arguing for the most.  Being able to find someone special who can share your interests, your fetishes, your beliefs, and your intimate moments is beautiful and can be done with people of any gender.  That expands beyond sex.  Homophobia tends to only think in terms of sex, like those who believe it is "gross" to have sex "with another dude."  Pointing out random animals also have sex "with other dudes" doesn't fight that argument.  It potentially fuels it.  Proving that love is more than sex, and that sex is only one aspect of a relationship, is the best step toward combating homophobia and those who would police our sexuality.  That can be done without even mentioning words like "natural."