Monday, June 29, 2015

Racism is a Nationwide Problem

Some rights reserved by The All-Nite Images
If you live in the southern United States, you're probably seeing a ton of stuff about the Confederate flag. A conversation about the prominence of the Confederate flag in the South has been a long time coming. That people cling to it as a symbol so desperately is already problem enough, but that it’s so ubiquitous that even state governments have embraced it is indicative of a larger problem that we need to confront and discuss. And we're finally, FINALLY having those conversations, which is good. This is, somewhat ironically, a “come to Jesus” moment for the South, and one that’s been a long time coming.

My opinion? The flag honestly has no place in society. It’s the symbol of traitors that split away from the United States and established a new government, a cornerstone of which was that black people were inferior to white people and therefore keeping them as slaves should be legal.

One article I read states, “As the battle over civil rights raged in the ensuing decades, Confederate flags continued to fly off of store shelves and then over state capitols. [...] South Carolina hoisted the flag above its capitol in 1961, the same day that Thurmond fought in Congress to maintain federal funding for segregated schools.” So not only was the flag’s initial use racist--a country created prominently for the purpose of perpetuating slavery--its revival was also racist--it was adopted as a political symbol in the south in response to the civil rights movement. 

There is no more room for debate in that issue. You can claim the flag means for you whatever you want, you can fly it on your property, mount it in your truck bed, or wear it on a t-shirt, but the fact is the flag has always been used as a racist political symbol FROM ITS CREATION. Pretending it means anything to the contrary is being willfully ignorant at best and being outright deceptive at worst.

That said, and this is somewhat burying the lede I suppose, I want to address something I've seen several people say recently and something that I myself have expressed in the past: the idea that the South is particularly racist.

I want to clarify: the South is not racist.

The United States is racist.

Before you go wiping your brow and thinking the South is off the hook, that doesn't mean the South is absolved of all of its wrong doing. Absolutely not. We have graphic, horrifying deaths that just...aren't matched in severity, frequency, or blood-thirstiness in the North. The South has particularly colorful things we can point to as evidence of our horrible issues with race. But racism doesn't stop at the Mason-Dixon line, nor is it sprinkled sparingly throughout the North. The South’s racism was just more on the surface, more on the nose.

Some rights reserved by Gerry Dincher
In the South, we had Jim Crow laws as a reminder that white people did not consider black people equals to whites. And we had complex social rituals that black people were taught early. In the North, it was not necessarily expected that a black person should step off the sidewalk and cross the street to avoid a white person. In the North, a black person didn’t necessarily have to refer to a white person as, “sir” or “ma'am.” In the North, black people didn’t have separate train cars, or water fountains, or entrances to buildings. The North was sneakier than that.

In the North, if a business didn't want black businesses, then they would simply invent reasons to avoid that type of clientele. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Robert Pershing Foster had to drive his 2,000 mile journey from his hometown in Louisiana to the West Coast with almost no stops for rest. At one point in his journey, somewhere in New Mexico I believe, he found a stretch of motels. Each place had their vacancy signs lit, but when he inquired, he was told, “Oh we just sold out.” or “Oh, I forgot to turn the sign off, oops.” Finally, he begged the proprietors of one motel to be straight with him. They confessed that while they didn't share their peers opinions on black people, renting him a room would result in their ostracization, or worse.

Is that better or worse than the “No Blacks Allowed” signs?

Between 1890 and 1968, thousands of towns ACROSS THE NATION worked to create white only communities. The means for doing so included rioting and violently kicking the black people out, leaving the areas where black people already lived and establishing a new, all-white community and actively policing who was allowed in, actually passing town ordinances banning black people, and hanging signs on the outskirts of towns saying, “N****r, don’t let the sun set on you in this town.” The book Sundown Towns speculates that outside of the traditional south--places where slavery was prominent--the majority of incorporated communities probably kept out black people. (71% of all Illinois communities were all white in the 1970’s.) This is why there are so many poor black neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas--black people were paid less, given worse jobs, and then forced to gather in poor areas where they could afford or were allowed to live.

If this sounds like it’s all in the past antiquated, consider the events surrounding the pool in McKinney. Or the pool in Ohio that was told to remove its “White Only” sign from its pool...IN 2012. Or the horribly disproportionate number of black men incarcerated for minor drug crimes. Studies have already shown that black men are stopped more frequently, arrested more frequently, and sentenced more harshly than their comparable white counterparts. Black individuals that go on to kill or hurt people are labeled as “thugs” and generally demonized--”no angel” being a popular refrain. Even peaceful protests are viewed as disruptive and disrespectful. A peaceful protest in the Mall of America lead to police filing “disorderly conduct” and “unlawful assembly” charges against protesters.

Meanwhile, white people are usually given the benefit of the doubt. Even the guy that killed NINE PEOPLE after being welcomed into their church--and specifically telling one she was being left alive to tell the world--was being reported as “a loner” who “got off track” and was “mentally ill.”

The controversy of the omnipresence of the Confederate flag in the South is an important conversation to have. Perhaps it is a sign that America is FINALLY dealing with its complicated and sordid racial history.

The flag should come down from government property. Leaving the flag up is complicit agreement that racist views are okay, in the same way studies have shown that if you don’t speak up when your friends make racist or sexist jokes, they will assume you agree with them because you didn't say anything to the contrary, and thus their behavior is reinforced.

Stores and private businesses are a different matter. They can decide for themselves whether they want to sell or feature the flag or merchandise using the flag, and we as consumers will decide for ourselves whether we will patronize those stores accordingly.

While this is important, let’s not forget the real issue: even if the flag were to vanish completely except for museums and textbooks, that doesn't mean racism is gone. And let’s not use the South as a scapegoat to ignore a nationwide problem.

The South isn't racist.

The United States is racist.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How Do Attack Raptors Go Wrong?


I saw Jurassic World over the weekend.

In short: I didn't really like it all that much.

What's strange is how I left the theater: feeling pretty pleased with the movie I'd just seen. It was one of those situations where, on the way home, the more I talked about it with my wife, less I liked it. I didn't read a bunch of reviews that changed my mind--in fact, the only review I read before I went to see it was an incredibly positive review that basically described the movie as, [I'm generalizing here] "So incredibly stupid you can't help but have a good time, but also smart enough to wink at how stupid it is."

My initially bubbly discussion started turning sour as I pointed out more and more things that bugged me on the car ride back from the theater--before I'd had the chance to read anyone else's thoughts. It was sort of weird getting home online, checking the Net, and seeing so many other people echoing my own thoughts--I don't usually share the opinions of the majority. I like Insidious 3, for example, and that movie got weirdly panned by critics.

My biggest problem with the movie was that it played much of the movie too straight to be a legitimately good Bad Movie, but it had far too many flaws to be a Good Movie. The movie was a series of strange choices that left me afterward going, "Hey...what ABOUT that???"

***MASSIVE SPOILERS ABOUND FROM HERE ON OUT***

For example, I understand Chris Pratt's desire not to be typecast. He doesn't want to be that snarky, loveable, goofball in everything forever. I'm sure he wants to demonstrate his range. But he's charismatic as hell, and like Will Smith, he's at his best when he's being outgoing and charming. Unfortunately, he was so restrained and bland in this movie, and was given so little to work with, that he was incredibly boring.

We know Chris Pratt can act. We've watched Parks and Rec and Guardians of the Galaxy. This was clearly a directorial choice, a very bad choice on Pratt's part, or a combination of one or both of the previous mixed with a flat, flat, flaaaaaat character.

He's also extremely condescending and rude to his female co-star. This would make sense if they were supposed to hate each other, but since they're supposed to have some sort of buried sexual tension, it was extremely jarring. He talks down to her, rolls his eyes, and has virtually zero chemistry with Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire.

The strange flip side to Owen Grady (Pratt) is Jake Johnson's character. He was an outgoing, flawed, humorous but not cartoonish nerd. He wears a "vintage" Jurassic Park shirt in spite of it being in bad taste, and goes on about how "legit" Hammond's vision was vs. the sanitized Disney version in Jurassic World. He's disorganized, occasionally presumptuous, but he's also charming and provides a much needed bit of humor in the movie. In spite of his occasional jokes, he clearly feels the horror of the situation as it unfolds. In fact, he was aaaaalmost acted as a stand in for Dr. Ian Malcom. Except he was barely in the movie, and was very inconsequential.

The character of Clair only had one scene/arc that I thought worked really well. She is a business woman in charge of looking at the public perception, at the attendance numbers, and trying to keep the buzz up, the people happy, and the park in business. She's a big picture person. Therefore, it's not her job to view the dinosaurs as anything but sort-of, like, living roller-coasters. But when she meets a wounded, dying Brontosaurus (Brachiosaurus?)--in a scene that strongly calls back to the sick Triceratops from the first film--she learns to view them as actual living creatures. That is one of the best scenes of the movie. Heart-breaking, touching, and perfectly paced.

On the other hand, she spends most of the movie stopping every five minutes to gawk at mothers with their kids even though she has explicitly stated that she doesn't really like kids. The movie is very critical of this, literally bringing the movie to a halt so we can watch her sister berate her for not trying to have kids already. The movie REALLY hammers home how wrong she is.

What's weird is how tame she is compared to Sam Neill's character was in the movie. Sam Neill spun a pants-shittingly terrifying yarn about how deadly raptors were to scare a kid into respecting raptors. He complains about how they're loud, they're annoying, and they smell. And he totally brushes a kid off that read his book, tricking him into a different car and literally shutting the door in the kid's face.

But where that's meant to be viewed as curmudgeonly and humorous, we're supposed to think Claire's an ice-cold bitch for not wanting kids when the worst attitude she seems to have about kids is she's awkward around them, she can't seem to fully relate to them, and when it comes to having kids, she describes that as an "if" situation rather than a "when" situation. THE HORROR.

The movie also constantly shits on Claire in various ways because she wears skirts and dresses and wears high heels. She has a severe bob haircut that seems to have been clipped out of an "Uptight Female Characters" catalog.

This movie is extremely unpleasant with women. In addition to shitting on Claire constantly for her femininity and business-like demeanor, her assistant Zara is murdered one of the most strangely gruesome ways in the franchise. It's not that she couldn't or shouldn't have died in the movie. Good people can and do die in these movies. Samuel L. Jackson dies in the first movie in spite of being a seemingly decent human being. And the proto-Chris Pratt raptor hunter dies helping Ellie get to the breakers to get the power back on.

But this woman's sin was not paying close enough attention to the kids. (Women and kids, yet again. This movie is weirdly conservative. It's a wonder one of the female characters wasn't literally forced to hide in a kitchen from danger or something.) Zara wasn't being mean or dismissive to the kids like Sam Neill's character in the original film. She's on the phone, with her boyfriend I think, and they literally run away. She spends the rest of the movie frantically looking for them--we know because we hear her call Claire about it AND we see her reaction when she finds them later.

When good people die in these movies it's either quick deaths OR they die off screen--see Sam Jackson's character. But this woman is swooped up by a pterodactyl, tossed from flying dino to flying dino, then dropped into the water where one of them repeatedly dunks her into the water, drowning her, before she and the pterodactyl are eaten by the Mosasaurus. This was fucking horrifying. It goes on for, like, 5 minutes. It's the kind of elaborate death you save for a villain, a truly reprehensible character, like Newman from the first movie, or Hammond's nephew in the sequel. It's the kind of punishing death I expected for, say, Vincent D'Onofrio's character. But this woman did literally nothing. It was uncomfortable to say the least.

If she was being punished for being inattentive of the children, it's strange that the brother was also not similarly punished since he spends maybe half the movie shitting on his brother and being out and out mean to him.

Speaking of the kids, they were handled clumsily and weird, too.

Continuing with this movie's weird thing with women, the older brother is introduced with a long, drawn out scene where his very devoted girlfriend is saying bye to him because...I guess he'll be away all summer or something? Regardless, she's taking it hard. The parents are predictably, "C'mon! Let's go!" But the boy and his girlfriend both seem torn up about this time away.

The older brother then spends the rest of the movie gawking at every girl that passes his field of vision, literally ignoring his brother for long stretches of time because he can't hear him over the sound (I'm assuming) of his massive boner.

This brother is an outright dick to him for most of the movie, constantly pissing in the little boy's Cheerios, even though the poor kid is just excited to see dinosaurs for the first time--very similar to the little boy from the first one, only his older sister was at least mildly interested as well.

Both boy's attitudes change on a dime because the script says they need to be in a situation where they can be in danger and be left deserted in the park after everyone else has been evacuated.

The little boy--out of NOWHERE--starts crying that their parents are going to get a divorce (which is very briefly hinted at the beginning of the movie after the boy's leave, but not when the boys are around to see it). The older brother then immediately goes into Nuture mode for the remainder of the movie, doing STUPID shit JUST because he wants to make his little brother smile--including going through a broken fence (broken by something clearly massive and dangerous, by the way) into a restricted area to look at some dinos up close. Mind you...they were already literally driving beside other dinos, but these dinos were special because....they were behind a fence I guess.

The little boy's freak out was so out of nowhere, both my wife and I turned and said, "Where the hell did that come from?"

Another strange thing: the Indominous Rex (the genetically modified dinosaur that will be the new attraction at the park soon). The movie constantly lays clues that there's something special about this dinosaur. It's genetically modified--but with WHAT???

Some things are explained throughout the movie: it's ability to hide its thermal signature, it's ability to see thermal signatures, its ability to camoflauage its skin--these are all explained similar to how the dinosaurs are able to procreate in the first film. In JP, the dinosaurs can spontaneously switch sexes just like a frog that was used to plug the DNA gaps. In this one, certain abilities from other frogs and lizards bleed into the I-Rex as well.

But it's also extremely smart. Like, weirdly, weirdly smart. It scratches the doors of its pen to make everyone think it climbed its way out, and then hid until the doors were opened so it could actually escape for real.

It also kills for fun. The aformentioned dying big dino scene where Claire learns to see these creatures as living things, is also the scene the reveals that the I-Rex is killing for fun rather than to eat as it's been wiping out the long necks in a mass slaughter.

Now, what creature was mixed into this slurry that would be dramatic enough for the big reveal.

Raptors.


Did you think humans? I thought humans. Lots of other people thought humans. But no, the big reveal is raptors. As Lindsey Ellis put it on Twitter, "It's like revealing that a dog hybrid is part pitbull." It was incredibly underwhelming because...didn't everyone already assume that? The raptors are one of the most popular dinosaurs in franchise, mashing up the T-Rex and the raptors was a no-brainer.

It feels like the original draft was leaning "crossed with humans" and then changed at the last minute for whatever reason. (And this may not be wrong, based on this very old article from Ain't It Cool News, which has some surprising similarities to the final version we saw.)


Other issues: too much CG. I know it's become almost cliche to complain about CG in this day and age, but given how devoted the originals (or, at least, the first two) were to practical effects and robots, this one is reeeaaaally oooooobviously CG almost all the time, except for a few moments--such as the raptor heads when they're in the petting helmet things, and a very few shots of the I-Rex when its stalking them as they hide behind things.

By the way, there's another annoying thing: they reuse the same moment--hiding behind something and the I-Rex's head slowly drifting into the frame...then slowly leaving...then POPPING BACK IN RAAAAWR! I guess to get as much use out of that one puppet as they could.

The end of the movie was legitimately awesome: the tyrannosaurus and a raptor team up to fight the Imperious Rex (the genetically modified dinosaur). It was literally so bananas, so ridiculous, was I cackling in the theater as it happened. But it's also tonally NOTHING like the rest of the movie--more out of something like Sharknado than Jurassic Park. And a cool ending doesn't make up for the uncomfortable/boring rest of the film.

It was weird. For a movie that I enjoyed so much at the time, the more I think about it, the less I like this movie, and the more I just would rather have watched the first one again. And that wasn't helped by the constant call backs to the original.

Also this movie had no Dr. Ian Malcom, and that means it's garbage. Gaze at his perfection and weep at its absence.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Improvement and Grit

Something that I've been working very hard on is improving my craft. I haven't had any stories published as of yet, which means, as far as I'm concerned, I'm not good enough yet. I think I've reached the level of writing where, with enough polishing, I am competent as a writer. But since there are plenty of "good" and "pretty good" writers in the world, I need to be better. And so, I keep working on it.

I've identified a lot of issues with my writing. Issues that frustrate me. I use a lot of filler words in early drafts. And I tend to rewrite my stories at least twice before I'm happy with them. A story that I sent to Emma Maree to beta read a while back, I have since decided I need to (partially) rewrite. The whole beginning gotsa go.

I've been reading a lot about grit lately. About how it's necessary to succeed. And I follow incredibly motivated people on Twitter: Myke Cole, Kameron Hurley, Matt Wallace, Chuck Wendig. These are all hard working writers. Myke's whole internet persona is about being a no-fun-until-work-is-done boss. Kameron Hurley writes thousands of words a week in hours-long marathon sessions. Matt Wallace's writing philosophy is writing is as much a job as a plumber or electrician. And Chuck Wendig is actual a living golem made of books--he just occasionally breaks one off and sends it to a publisher while another regrows--like picking apples from a tree, really.

These people are my inspiration, and they scare the shit out of me because they are all talented, productive, and have more grit than an ocean floor. Their follow through inspires me, but also makes me want to throw my hands in the air and shout, "Oh fuck it, I can't compete with THAT!"

I worry that I don't have enough grit. I get easily frustrated with a lot of things in my life. I'm so good at procrastinating, I'd win gold if it were an Olympic event--except for the fact that I probably wouldn't show up because I'd be stuck traffic after leaving my house late because I wanted to watch just ONE MORE YouTube video.

And yet, I still write. Not every single day. Sometimes I quit. I've quit for weeks at a time. But I always end up itching to create SOMETHING. I can't help it. I don't know how not to.

I also care very deeply about getting better. I pore over blogs, articles, and books about how writers improve their craft. I find new ways of approaching plots, characters, story-structures, outlining, brainstorming, etc. I've yet to find a process that I feel fits me, but I'm learning.

I'm trying to let myself be imperfect. This is very hard for me because when the words on the page don't match the vision in my head, I want to chuck the computer in the street and take up something more productive like basket weaving. Maybe it's because I care so much about writing that I struggle so much. But I care too much about it to stop, and if I'm not going to stop, then I have to be better.

Lately I feel like I've plateaued, like I'm spinning my wheels and going nowhere. And because of that, I'm trying to push myself, to try new approaches and tricks. The big thing that I need to keep in mind, that I fail so often to keep in mind, is that it's okay to try and fail. Failure is how you learn. It's how you get better.

And if I do fail? I need to learn from it and keep moving forward. Because I never learned how to sit still.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Writing Wednesday: I'd Love to Wear a Rainbow Every Day

IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE THE NEXT LUCKY PARTICIPANT OF WRIIIIIITING WEDNESDAAAAAAAY!

No cheeky graphics or anything like that this time. I'm too busy.

You know the drill. Let's get to it.

What I'm Reading

I love learning things. It's funny that I hated school so much because post-school, I've been obsessed with learning as much as I can about as many things as I can. After a graduated college, it was almost like somebody ripped off my blinders and said, "Hey! Look at all this stuff you didn't know was here!"

I've been researching the southern US because, in spite of living here, I don't actually know that much about the history beyond, "Jim Crow, and then all the black people were equal! Yay!"

Which...is obviously not the case.

I stumbled on a movement in the punk/hardcore/rock community called "Afropunk." It can encompass a number of genres besides just punk rock. I watched the fantastic documentary Afropunk, which is available (seemingly legally--like, the official Afropunk YouTube Channel?), and you should watch it.

And then, as is my wont when I discover a new topic, I went on Amazon and fell deep into its wells, adding tons of books on the subject to my wishlist. And bought one (for now). It's called, What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. It's by Canadian journalist Laina Dawes, and it provides a look into a movement I didn't even know existed until recently. I'm really enjoying it, and I recommend it along with the linked documentary above if you're interested in learning more about the topic.

What I'm Writing

Not much presently. I'm working on some work stuff and trying to get a few affairs in order, so most of my time of late hasn't been spent writing. I've been able to squeeze in an episode of Tales from the Crypt before bed sometimes, or grab an episode or two of Sense8 (which I am LOVING), but then it's been back to work.

I'd rather be writing, but hopefully everything will pan out like I want it to.

BEFORE I got swept up in the mess of stuff, I was working hardcore on plotting my novel, codenamed Werewolf Bar Mitzvah: SPOOKY! SCARY!

I was also working on trying to pare down a short story for submission. But, again, back burner stuff for now. Hopefully not for too much longer.

What Works for Me

I've been reading a bunch on plotting and one thing that has REALLY worked for me is asking questions. Every time I get stuck on something and I'm not sure where to go, I write question at the top of the page and freewrite/brainstorm for 15 minutes or so, then try to take all those notes and compile them into something useful.

It hasn't been perfect, but it's been pretty solidly useful.

What Else I've Been Up To

Not much, honestly. Existing? I tried to start another book on top of What Are You Doing Here?, but I just don't have my head in reading anything much at all presently. I've got an Audible credit ready to use and I just cannot for the life of me decide what I want to use it on.