Friday, March 06, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

Last year when I wrote about this group of categories, I noted that it consisted of two categories in which I didn't feel that my vote mattered much, and two in which I didn't feel knowledgeable enough to nominate well in.  That hasn't changed much this year--in the case of the Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, in fact, my vote feels even more useless than usual.  2014 was full of so many high profile, well liked genre films that the final ballot feels predictable from here (for the record: Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie, Snowpiercer, and either Mockingjay Part 1 or Edge of Tomorrow) and just as unexciting.  On the other hand, other categories in this group, like Best Graphic Story, feel as if they're coming into their own.  After several years of feeling as if the category was being voted on exclusively by a small and cliquish group while the rest of the membership looked on with indifference, there's been a growing consensus in the last few years around some fun and interesting work.  I'm still not convinced that the category is justified--we're not, I think, doing a better job rewarding genre comics than the awards specifically designed to recognize excellent in that medium--but it's also not obviously a waste of time anymore.

One word about the Best Related Work category: after Kameron Hurley's victory last year for the essay "We Have Always Fought," I've been seeing a lot of people suggesting blog posts as nominees.  I understand why that's a popular approach--especially among online fandom, a single blog post reaches a lot farther and a lot faster than a book.  But though I've personally benefited from the stance that individual blog posts are fair game in these kinds of awards categories (two blog posts of mine were nominated for the BSFA's best nonfiction award in 2011 and 2012), I have to say that as a nominator, that's not something I'm comfortable with.  I would like to see the Best Related Work category reserved for longer works of nonfiction (and other indefinables), and my own nominations are along those lines.  If you're looking for a way to recognize online writing, one way to do so would be to nominate Speculative Fiction 2013, edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James (full disclosure: I have an essay in the book, but it also has a fantastic table of contents, and Amazon is offering the ebook version free of charge today [US, UK]).

Previous posts in this series:
Best Related Work:

Having said the above, it should be noted that I haven't actually read any nonfiction books from 2014, and that my two selections in this category are there because I've already read large portions of the material in them when it was published online.  Other works that I haven't read, but which I'd be very interested in see nominated in this category, include The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, Greg Egan by Karen Burnham, Call and Response by Paul Kincaid, and Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson.
  • Sibilant Fricative by Adam Roberts - I don't think I'll surprise anyone (and I hope I won't get much disagreement) when I say that Roberts is one of the top genre reviewers working today.  Sibilant Fricative collects reviews from the blog of the same name, including his epic (and increasingly despairing) read-through of the Wheel of Time series.  Roberts's work is smart, erudite, thought-provoking, and extremely funny, and he deserves to be recognized for it.

  • Stay by John Clute - A reviewer of no lesser stature but a very different style from Roberts, Clute has practically invented his own style of writing.  It can sometimes be exhausting to make one's way through his reviews (and often requires a thesaurus), but it's never anything less than enlightening, and his way of looking at the genre has opened my eyes as a reader and a reviewer.
Best Graphic Story:
  • Saga, volumes 3 & 4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - I'm repeating my nomination from last year here, but Saga remains a thoroughly engrossing and delightful story.  Volume 4 is perhaps less successful than the previous entries in the series, with more focus on mundane settings and happenings, but even in that part of the story there are interesting things happening with the peripheral (but never less than fascinating) characters, and throughout both volumes Saga's world remains vibrant, funny, and exhilarating.  It's a truly impressive piece of genre storytelling that, even in its weaker moments, remains a brilliant accomplishment.

  • Sex Criminals, Volume 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky - I was underwhelmed by Fraction's beloved Hawkeye comic, so I wasn't expecting much from his strange-sounding non-superhero effort.  But Sex Criminals--about two people who have the power to stop time when they orgasm, and who decide to supplement their romantic relationship with some bank robbery--was an unexpected delight.  Funny, smart, full of rude but often quite witty humor, but also quite meaty in its discussion of societal attitudes towards sex and its depiction of its central relationship, it accomplishes quite a lot already in its first volume, and I can't wait to see what happens next.  I'm hardly breaking new ground in calling this one of 2014's best new comics, and I think that it should be recognized by the Hugos.

  • Steve Rogers's American Captain by Robyn E. Kenealy - I'm a little hesitant about this nomination, because this webcomic updated relatively rarely in 2014 (I wish I'd been reading it in 2013).  Nevertheless, the story is ongoing, which I think makes American Captain eligible, and as a work of fiction I think that this is exactly what the best graphic story was created to recognize--a webcomic, and a work of fanfiction, that is also a meaningful genre work.  Presented as comic strip drawn by the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Steve Rogers as a way of coping with the anxiety of being transplanted to the 21st century, the comic follows him as he tries to adjust to his new life, cope with the experiences of the old one, and work out the role he wants to play as a symbol and a superhero.  Other MCU characters show up and are as richly drawn as Steve (though the comic was begun in 2012 so doesn't take into account the events of films after The Avengers), and their and his story are a careful blend of humor and a serious examination of depression and PTSD.  You can read the story so far in chronological order starting here.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Snowpiercer (review) - The only one of my nominations that has any real chance of making it onto the ballot, I found Bong Joon-ho's anti-capitalist fable a tad overpraised when it opened in Israel last spring, after having been spared Harvey Weinstein's scissors.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that Snowpiercer is different, extremely well made, and fully committed to its bonkers genre premise.  It's precisely the sort of movie the Hugos should be recognizing.

  • The One I Love (review) - A relationship drama that uses the fantastic to explore (and then destroy) a marriage, The One I Love is impeccably made and acted, and utterly unafraid of its fantastic components.  We should see more movies like this one, that remind us that science fiction doesn't have to mean explosions and space battles.

  • Coherence (review) - An ultra-low-budget production that is nevertheless good looking and effective at depicting its strange happenings, Coherence uses the concept of alternate universes to poke at the psyches and relationships of its middle class, suburban characters.  It's a tense, smart movie that does a lot with very little.

  • Over the Garden Wall - This Cartoon Network miniseries from the makers of Adventure Time is unlike anything I've ever seen, and utterly engaging.  Two brothers, nervous Wirt and carefree Greg, find themselves lost in the forest, guided only by a talking bluebird called Beatrice and fleeing a mysterious beast.  How they ended up in the woods, and what the forces menacing them want, is something that is only slowly revealed, but in each episode the three characters have adventures that straddle the divide between horror, humor, and surrealism, the show completely unafraid to leave its viewers completely lost, presumably because it knows that they will be utterly charmed by its beautiful animation, dreamlike tone, and impeccable voice work (including such names as Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese, and Tim Curry).  Over the Garden Wall is a reminder that some of the best genre work nowadays is being done in animation, and it should be watched by more grown up fans of weird fiction.
(It's not on the list because I haven't seen it yet, but another movie that I'm hoping to watch before the tenth in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, if only because Scarlett Johansson's triumphant year of transhumanism should be represented here somewhere.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Gravity Falls, "Sock Opera" - I've said it before and I will say it again: Gravity Falls is, bar none, the best genre show on TV right now, and if you're not watching it you're depriving yourself of great characters, funny jokes, and one of the most intelligently and intricately constructed fantasy worlds out there.  "Sock Opera" is a major mythology episode, reintroducing one of the show's major antagonists, the evil triangle Bill Cipher (just go with it), who takes over the body of protagonist Dipper Pines in a turn of events that is genuinely scary even to an adult viewer who has seen this trope a million times before.  But it is also, like all the best episodes of the show, about the relationship between Dipper and his twin sister Mabel, who spends the episode trying to win over her latest crush by convincing him that she shares his passion for sockpuppet theater.  The mixture of silly humor and deadly serious horror sounds impossible to carry off, but Gravity Falls, as usual, manages it with aplomb.  (Since I have extra nominating slots, I may also give one to "Blendin's Game," which advances the show's time travel storyline and has a lot of old school genre references.)

  • Person of Interest, "Nautilus" - Person of Interest is an odd duck, a conventional and often dreadful procedural wrapped in one of the most innovative and thought-provoking SF stories on TV (or perhaps it's the other way around).  This makes it difficult to nominate in this category, since most of the show's individual episodes are terrible even as its overarching story, about emergent AIs warring with each other over the future of a largely oblivious humanity, remains brilliant.  "Nautilus" is about as close as the show comes to an exception, largely sidelining its action storytelling to focus on its best character, Michael Emerson's Finch, as he tries to persuade a young woman not to ally herself with Samaritan, an evil AI that wants to control humanity.  The exploration of how the certainty and sense of purpose that the AI offers might appeal to a certain kind of intelligent young person makes excellent use of the show's premise (and along the way suggests an origin story for the show's other best character, Amy Acker's Root, who is herself an acolyte of another AI), suggesting how the existence of such beings might change our lives and what it means to be human in the most profound ways.

  • Penny Dreadful, "Séance" - Penny Dreadful's first season never quite lived up to its promise, getting tangled up in the show's witty commingling of famous 19th century genre characters without ever quite finding a story worthy of them.  But the show's execution was often enough to make up for this aimlessness, particularly when it focused on its best character, Eva Green's haunted Vanessa Ives.  "Séance" features Vanessa's first tour-de-force scene, in which she chews the scenery, the other characters, and possibly the camera crew when she's possessed by a demon at the titular gathering.  It's the episode that makes it clear just what sort of show you're in for, and just in case you were still unclear, the twist reserved at its end for the character of Victor Frankenstein seals the deal.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

With only a week left to the nominating deadline, let's continue swiftly to the publishing and fan categories.  As I did last year, I'm going to be skipping the best editor categories, because I don't feel that I have enough of a sense of what each editor does to know which one of them deserves an award.  I also don't listen to podcasts, so I'll be leaving the best fancast category blank as well.  Unlike the short fiction categories, I have several blank spaces here, especially in the best fanzine category.  So if you have recommendations, I'll be happy to hear them.

Speaking of recommendations, a very good source is the Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom, a crowdsourced recommendation document that anyone can read and edit.  I found a lot of ideas for the artist categories there, for example.

Previous entries in this series:
Best Semiprozine:
  • Strange Horizons - This is the last year that nominating this magazine counts as voting for myself, but even leaving aside the reviews department I think that Strange Horizons has had an excellent year, with fiction, columns, articles, and roundtables (including the new Strange Horizons book club).

  • GigaNotoSaurus - I remain wowed by the accomplishment of this magazine, whose unassuming appearance and modest publishing rate belie the exceptional work that editor Rashida J. Smith does in soliciting and editing stories, creating a magazine that can hold its head up among behemoths like Tor.com and Clarkesworld.

  • Lackington's - This new arrival, edited by Ranylt Richildis, has been a revelation.  Two stories from it ended up on my Hugo ballot, which is even more impressive considering that it only publishes quarterly issues.  The emphasis on weird fiction means that I tend to have love/hate relationships with most of the stories published here, but that's impressive in itself--very little here feels like more of the same.

  • Lightspeed - Last year's winner probably doesn't need my help to get back on the ballot, but Lightspeed had a very good 2014 (and I say this without having read their much-heralded anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction).  With great stories from well-loved names like Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, and Theodora Goss, and newer writers like Sam J. Miller and Jessica Barber, the work being done by the editors deserves to be recognized.
Best Fanzine:
  • SF Mistressworks - Ian Sales's SF Mistressworks project continues to be a great example of how to use the internet to crowdsource a greater engagement with the genre that emphasizes neglected areas.  Still going strong after four years, the blog features reviews of classic SF by women by a variety of reviewers.

  • Lady Business - The group blog edited by Renay, Ana, and Jodie continues to examine pop culture and genre from a feminist perspective.

  • People of Color in European Art History - The genre connection for this project, which collects depictions of people of color from art throughout history, might initially seem tenuous.  But the purpose and ultimate usefulness of the blog (aside from being a great tool for learning about art and history) is to act as a response to people who believe that historical art shouldn't portray people of color because "they weren't around back then."  That's an argument that you see a lot coming from fans of quasi-historical fantasy, and the mountain of counter-examples is not only proof that they're wrong, but a reminder that fantasy should only wish to be as vibrant and multifaceted as reality.
Best Professional Artist:

As I did last year, I took advantage of the Hugo Eligible Art(ists) project in finding nominees in a field that I'm not very knowledgeable about.
  • Anna and Elena Balbusso - The Balbussos continued to contribute illustrations for stories in Tor.com this year, and their work continues to be playful and evocative.  They also illustrated the cover for Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor.

  • Jeffrey Alan Love - Love's cover illustration for Simon Ings's Wolves was one of the more striking images I've seen this year, and he's gone on to design covers for Ings's entire back catalog, as well as for Peter Higgins's Wolfhound Century trilogy.  He's also been illustrating stories for Tor, in his inimitable cutout style.

  • Victo Ngai - I'm wild for Ngai's illustrations, which combine elaborate inkwork with playful compositions.  He's illustrated several stories for Tor.com this year.

  • Yuku Shimizu - Another artist whose work is both elaborate and playful.  Shimizu has drawn several book covers (for The Melancholy of Mechgirl and the anthology Monstrous Affections), as well as posters, such as this promotional piece for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is surely better than the film.

  • Sam Weber - I like the idea of recognizing designers as well as painters, and Weber's book covers and story illustrations are clean and witty.
Best Fan Artist:
  • Sascha Goldberger - A little uncertain that he belongs in this list, since Goldberger is a professional artist.  But the project for which I think he should be recognized, Super Flemish, was a fan work that was made freely available.  These photographs of superheroes dressed and posed in the style of Old Masters were not only a funny idea, but beautifully and painstakingly executed.

  • Mandie Manzano - Repeating this selection from last year because I still find Manzano's pop-culture-as-stained-glass work funny and well done.

  • Autun Parser - Parser's Fantastic Travel Destinations series continues to go strong, and to be a perfect combination of fannishness and artistry.

  • Kuldar Leement - A last-minute addition to this list based on Aiden Moher's recommendation.  Leement's paintings are striking in both composition and execution, with subject matters that recall beloved SF tropes while still being strikingly original.
Best Fan Writer:
  • Nina Allan - Still one of the best book reviewers around even as her own writing career heats up, Allan is also a gifted blogger (check out her project to review all the stories in The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women) and commentator on the state of the genre.  She deserves recognition in several Hugo categories, and this one not the least.

  • Liz Bourke - Liz's reviews and her column, Sleeps With Monsters at Tor.com, continue to be smart and entertaining, with a strong feminist sensibility.

  • Natalie Luhrs - The science fiction community did not stint on scandals and slapfights in 2014, and for each one, the tireless Luhrs was there to report on it with links and commentary.  Hers is a much-needed voice and deserves to be rewarded.

  • Sarah Mesle - This is probably not a name that many of you recognize, but Mesle's reviews of Game of Thrones for the Los Angeles Review of Books are, bar none, the best writing on the show out there.  She was the only reviewer to grasp the full import of the infamous "Breaker of Chains," and her humorous takedown of the tedious "The Watchers on the Wall" was a welcome respite from the episode's lack of tension.  And check out her responses to LARB's year-in-television poll.

  • Genevieve Valentine - Most of Valentine's nonfiction work is in pro venues, where she continues to be one of the smartest critics of SF and fantasy filmmaking around.  But if you've been reading her blog, in which she comments on movies and trashy TV shows, you know that she's invaluable.  And to my mind, her essay in Strange Horizons, "A Thing That Lives on Tears: Goodness and Clarice Starling," is one of the most essential pieces of pop culture writing from 2014, even if it's only genre-adjacent.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Short Fiction Categories

With only ten days left before the Hugo nominating deadline, I'm cutting these posts a little close.  And the truth is, I could have done with another two weeks to round out my Hugo reading this year, which between the absence of free time and a two week vacation in the middle of February that didn't leave me much time for reading, has not been as comprehensive as I would have liked.  Even as I sat down to make the final lists from which I would cull the selections for this post, I kept remembering stories I'd wanted to get to, venues I'd wanted to at least skim.  But here we are on March 1st, the deadline I set myself, and it's time to admit that I've seen as much of the vast field of last year's genre short fiction as I am going to, and to get to the work of picking out my favorite reads.

As it was last year, my reading was concentrated in online venues, of which there is an ever-increasing amount that ranges in style and focus.  It was a particular delight, this year, to discover Lackington's, a new quarterly magazine whose selections hardly ever failed to elicit a strong reaction from me, and usually a positive one.  One change from last year was that my reading in novellas was concentrated more in stories published as self-contained volumes, rather than in magazines.  I'm seeing more and more authors turning to that approach, publishing longer stories with small presses, and many of those volumes are easily available as ebooks.  As magazine venues for novellas dry up (Subterranean, which used to publish novellas often, closed its magazine this year, and Tor.com is presumably collecting works for their forthcoming novella imprint, as they published only two this year), these ebooks because a rich source of material.  In fact, as much as I appreciate the wealth of new online venues for short fiction, it's worth noting that they overwhelmingly publish fiction at the shorter end of the range.  It's not just that novellas are hard to come by--novelettes are getting scarce as well.  I imagine that there are financial considerations involved for both authors and editors, but it would be good to see more magazines publishing even slightly longer works next year.

The preamble done with, here are my provisional selections for the 2015 Hugo short fiction categories, sorted by the author's surname:

Best Novella:
  • Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade (Masque Books) - The title character in Cade's story is a collector who prides herself on her careful stewardship of her family's library of recorded memories.  When what had seemed like a savvy trade arouses the ire of Rosemary's difficult daughter, she sets out to retrieve a family memory by trading her own life experiences.  The story becomes a journey through Rosemary's life (and through Cade's rich worldbuilding), but also an examination of a perhaps irreparably damaged mother-daughter relationship, with Rosemary seemingly unaware that by trading away her memories she is making it harder for her daughter to ever truly know her.

  • Sleep Donation by Karen Russell (Atavist Books) - Russell is far from the first author to play with the trope of a plague of sleeplessness (or in this case, dreamlessness), but her spin on the material is unique, focusing on aid workers who try to alleviate the plague by soliciting "donations" of sleep.  The narrator, who uses the story of her sister's death from the disease to guilt people into donating, discovers a baby who is not only a universal sleep donor, but whose utterly pure sleep can sometimes cure sufferers.  Her struggles with the baby's family, with her perhaps unscrupulous supervisors, and with her own conscience have the feel of a nightmare, as she floats from one to the other, increasingly disconnected from any part of her life but the quest for more donations.  While there are some obvious real-world parallels to the novella's events--some of the descriptions of the disease and its public perception reminded me very strongly of the AIDS crisis--Russell never fails to make her world and its troubles feel like their own, very strange entity.

  • NoFood by Sarah Tolmie (Aqueduct Press) - Told from multiple points of view, NoFood imagines a world in which people--though mostly just the rich--can eliminate the trouble, mess, and potential for disease involved in their digestive system by having it replaced with tubing, a procedure known as Total Gastric Bypass.  Tolmie's focus is first on how the relationship with food changes in the wake of this development, and NoFood is full of lush descriptions of food matched with profoundly ambivalent reactions to that food by characters who have or haven't had the procedure.  More broadly, NoFood is about the meaning of humanity, to which end it imagines something that is almost posthuman, a race of people whose biology has been scooped out and who then have to work out how to relate to the world and to each other.

  • Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine (WSFA Press) - A short way into a five-year interstellar journey, the narrator of this story wakes to discover her crewmates dead, her hypersleep pod irreparably damaged, and her supplies for the rest of the journey barely sufficient for a long, drawn-out starvation.  With only an increasingly uncooperative AI for company, she beds down for an effective piece of space horror, struggling to understand the reasons for the accident and to gain the upper hand over the AI who may have been responsible for it.  The setting is a departure for Valentine, but she inhabits it with ease, and creates a tense, creepy story.

  • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories) - I'm indebted to Nina Allan for pointing me towards this story in her own excellent recommendation post.  Without her, I probably wouldn't have discovered Whiteley's disturbing mixture of fungus-based body horror and shifting gender roles.  In the wake of a plague that has killed all the women in his settlement, the story's young narrator ventures into the wilderness and returns with something that is like, but clearly isn't, a woman.  Soon all the men in the settlement have been paired up with these "Beauties," in a relationship that is part-romantic, part-parasitic.  With reactions in the settlement ranging from rage to deep infatuation, the very meaning of what it is to be a man is soon questioned--and then altered in some deeply disquieting ways.
Best Novelette:
  • "The Bonedrake's Penance" by Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - In a story whose detailed, imaginative worldbuilding and sardonic tone reminded me very strongly of Iain M. Banks, Lee tells the story of a child raised by an alien war machine.  As the narrator grows older, she learns more about her "mother's" past and true nature, and the relationship between the two characters is as powerful and affecting as the story's elaborate and inventive setting.

  • "I Can See Right Through You" by Kelly Link (McSweeney's) - We have a whole new collection from Link to celebrate this year, but this story was an early harbinger.  A ghost story in which the ghosts are those of failed relationships, younger selves, and images on a movie screen, this story is told in inimitable (and much-missed) Link style, as she combines the mundane, the strange, and the genuinely otherwordly into her own unique mix.

  • "Saltwater Economics" by Jack Mierzwa (Strange Horizons) - A sad variant on the mermaid story, this story follows a scientist studying the Salton Sea who meets a lonely, teenaged merman who loves comic books and dreams of a girlfriend.  The quasi-parental relationship she forms with him is threatened by both her own problems and imminent ecological catastrophe, in a story that has death looming over it.

  • "We Are the Cloud" by Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed) - Set in a world in which the poor rent out portions of their brains so that the rich can have a fast network services, Miller's story focuses on a taciturn, friendless boy about to age out of the foster system.  Even knowing that it's probably a bad idea, he falls in love with a charming new resident in his group home, and the inevitable unfolding of that relationship forces him to make choices about the kind of life he wants to live.  A bleak, powerfully told story with an ending that holds out a little bit of hope.

  • "Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy" by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) - A slice of life story, this piece imagines how technology changes the traditions of Chinese family and communal life, and yet also leaves them fundamentally the same.  Beautifully told, and fascinating both as a glimpse of Chinese culture and an extrapolation of future technology, it's one of the more engaging stories I read this year.
Bubbling Under: (stories that might still end up on the ballot, depending on my mood on March 10th)
  • "The Husband Stitch" by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta) - A strange, energetically told portrait of a marriage that is happy (and cheerfully sexual) but haunted by the wife's secret and the husband's refusal to respect it.  Machado is channeling Kelly Link in this piece, which references pop culture, fairy tales, and urban legends.  But she does so very well, and without losing her own voice.

  • "One, Two, Three" by Patricia Russo (GigaNotoSaurus) - A bunch of aimless, drunk twentysomethings set out on an errand and end up stumbling into the numinous and the dangerous.  The premise has been done before, but what makes Russo's story work is the narrator's voice, which is funny even in the midst of his obvious distress, and the well-drawn personalities of the young, lost characters.
Best Short Story:
  • "Elephants and Omnibuses" by Julia August (Lackington's) - This delightful alternate history drily explains the history of the omnibus by taking us back to ancient Rome in the time of Julius Ceasar's rebellion, and the female engineer who comes up with this necessary invention.  The character, her relationship with her husband and children, and her voice are all instantly winning, and one finishes the story almost convinced that this is the real history.

  • "The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - A pregnant woman journeys into a war zone to find her familiar, without whom her child will be stillborn.  The rather elaborate system by which the story's world operates is introduced with very little fuss, and the emphasis is on drawing the main character and her society, and explaining why she's been separated from her familiar, leading to a powerful revelation and conclusion.

  • "Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology" by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed) - As a lark, a group of anthropology grad students decide to invent a country and its culture, and then find that it has come to life.  When one of them marries the crown princess, he finds that the customs that he and his friends invented impose strange rules on his life.  There's a lot going on in this story--elaborate worldbuilding, complex relationships, palace intrigue, psychological horror--and Goss balances it all so lightly that it's almost impossible to believe she's done it all in only the length of a short story.

  • "Death and the Girl From Pi Delta Zeta" by Helen Marshall (Lackington's) - As the title has it, the protagonist of this story meets Death at a sorority mixer and falls in love with him, but their happy marriage is threatened by jealousy and infidelity.  A strange, funny piece that doesn't outstay its welcome, it also has a sad undertone that gives it weight.

  • "Bonfires in Anacostia" by Joseph Tomaras (Clarkesworld) - The timing of this story--which touches on race, police brutality, and government surveillance, and was published last August--adds a great deal of force to it, but the work itself is quite powerful.  A series of innocent-in-themselves events, when viewed by a paranoid, authoritarian government, lead to a tragic outcome, in a world in which the haves can only hold on to what they have be refusing to see the have-nots.
Bubbling Under:
  • "Coma Kings" by Jessica Barber (Lightspeed) - Narrated by a teenager heartbroken by the loss of her sister, this story is notable both for the main character's voice and for the way it uses and describes futuristic gaming.

  • "Childfinder" by Octavia E. Butler (Unexpected Stories) - One of two rediscovered Butler stories published this year (this one was originally intended for Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions) this short but powerful piece can best be described as introducing a sharp racial awareness to the X-Men story.

  • "Brute" by Rich Larson (Apex Magazine) - A pair of grifters come across a piece of technology that enhances their abilities.  The progression of the story is predictable, but the narrator's voice, and the nasty specificity with which Larson tells this familiar tale, are what sell it.

  • "Mothers" by Carmen Maria Machado (Interfictions Online) - A sad, haunting piece about an obsessive love story that turns abusive.  This one is just barely genre--it was published in Interfictions, a magazine that aims at the very boundaries of the fantastic--but is so well told that I couldn't leave it off the list.

  • "The Innocence of a Place" by Margaret Ronald (Strange Horizons) - One of the very first stories I read in my quest for Hugo nominees this year, and one that has stuck with me in the months since.  A chilling ghost story about the disappearance of a school full of girls, and of the journalist who investigated that disappearance, this one works because of its atmosphere, and because of the vividness with which Ronald draws the women who are caught in the slipstream of this tragedy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

It's been less than a year since Tasha Robinson coined the phrase "Trinity syndrome," and yet it's already become one of the most useful terms in pop culture criticism.  Named for the female lead in Lana and Andy Wachowski's The Matrix, Trinity syndrome refers to a movie in which a female character is depicted as cool, competent, and badass, but always and inexplicably in the service of a much blander male lead (for whom she is usually the love interest).  She often loses her motivation (if she ever had one) and her ability to affect the plot in the film's final act, just in time for the lead to take center stage, and often needs to be rescued by him.  As Hollywood blockbusters become more conservative in their structures and plots, the roles they give women become more constrained, and Trinity syndrome has become a useful way of examining how the appearance of agency can obscure its absence.  Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis' most recent film and their first return to no-holds-barred SF since the second Matrix sequel, offers an interesting data point in the discussion of the phenomenon to which they gave a name.  Of all its many flaws, perhaps the most crucial is that Jupiter Ascending does not suffer from Trinity syndrome.

Perhaps the easiest way to sum up Jupiter Ascending is to describe it as a gender-swapped, space opera retelling of The Matrix.  In both films, you have a somewhat personality-free protagonist dissatisfied with their humdrum, monotonous life who discovers that they were born special, a savior figure awaited for generations.  Whisked off to a life of adventure by a sexy, uber-competent bodyguard, they discover that the truths about the world that they'd taken for granted are nothing but illusions, and that human beings are being exploited by a sinister system that sees them as nothing but fuel for a great machine--an exploitation that only our hero can bring an end to.

What's interesting about this repetition is how it reveals the ways in which telling the same story with a different-gendered protagonist affects the kind of tale you end up telling.  In The Matrix, the fact that Neo was such a blank--devoid of past, family, relationships, or even any concrete dreams or aspirations--wasn't a problem because that blankness allowed the other characters to explain the world to him and the audience to project themselves onto him (in fact one assumes that the reason the Wachowskis chose Keanu Reeves for the role was his infamous lack of affect).  That passivity, however, was counteracted by the type of special person Neo turned out to be.  His journey from no-one to The One required him to discover skills and ultimately ascend to godhood.  As passive as he was, the role in which the story placed him was an essentially active one, and his passivity was expressed by his acquiescence to this active role.  But if Neo gets to live out the fantasy of a nobody who discovers that he is actually supremely powerful, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) gets to live out the girl's version of that fantasy.  He's a warrior; she's a princess.  His specialness expresses itself in his ability to do things that no one else can; hers, in the fact that she owns a lot of stuff--as the reincarnation of the matriarch of one of the richest dynasties in the galaxy, she owns whole planets (including Earth) and their populations.  All Jupiter has to do to be special is keep breathing long enough to officially claim her inheritance--at which point the greatest danger to her (and the rest of the world) becomes that she might accidentally marry the wrong person and give them access to her property.

Jupiter spends the film that bears her name being moved from place to place--and sometimes physically tossed around like a rag doll--by the alien bounty hunter Caine (Channing Tatum), who tries to keep her safe from the various factions in her newfound family who want to control or kill her.  There's been some talk about how Caine embodies the romantic fantasies of a certain genre of bodice-rippers--endlessly loyal, his fearsome strength completely in thrall to Jupiter's needs, and constantly on display (the entire middle segment of the film, for example, finds some pretty flimsy excuses to keep him topless).  He cuts a much more subservient figure than Trinity, right down to being explicitly likened to a dog, but then that too feels like a function of his gender--Caine being a man reduces the insecurity inherent in his role, and makes it safe for him to be subservient to Jupiter. 

What undercuts Jupiter Ascending as female wish fulfillment is the fact that, unlike the bland male protagonists who benefit from Trinity syndrome, Jupiter never develops into the central character in her own story.  Caine is, in fact, a more developed character than she is (I'm speaking in relative terms, of course), with something resembling a character arc revolving around his need to find a "pack," which Jupiter comes to embody, and to regain his honor and sense of purpose.  Jupiter, meanwhile, has little in the way of a discernible personality.  We're repeatedly told that she's cynical and distrusting, but the actual character who turns up on screen is shockingly naive, willing to be led by anyone who acts like they know what they're doing.  This is a character, after all, who allows her cousin to convince her to sell her eggs and give him the bulk of her payment.  A character who agrees to marry one of the super-rich space siblings whom she has dispossessed by claiming her inheritance, simply because he has promised to use her wealth for good, and despite the fact that Douglas Booth plays him with such slimy untrustworthiness that one almost expects him to make sneering asides to the audience that start with "little does she suspect..."

In the Matrix's final act, Trinity is taken suddenly off the board, leaving Neo without his protector, which forces him to suddenly discover his own awesome powers.  Her role immediately becomes a moral one, to inspire Neo to discover his own innate greatness, rather than being great herself--the very fact that she loves him becomes evidence of his incipient godhood.  If the Wachowskis were determined to retell their most successful story beat by beat, we'd expect Caine to be similarly sidelined in Jupiter Ascending's final scenes, but instead the film remains focused on him as its action hero and the mover of its plot--even taking a moment to have another character, Nikki Amuka-Bird's stalwart spaceship captain, compliment him on his "rare courage."  Jupiter, meanwhile, gets to land a few blows against her chief enemy Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, proving himself worthy of the Oscar he received last night for his performance in another movie by fully committing to the cheesiness of this one), but since his power is rooted in his wealth, the fact that she can knock him to the ground when all his flunkies and security guards aren't around (which is down to Caine's actions) isn't terribly impressive.  She still ends up having to be rescued, and the only way in which she is less passive at the end of the film than she was in its beginning is her willingness to express her sexual desire for Caine.  The problem here isn't so much that Jupiter can't beat people up, which after all isn't the only hallmark of a hero, but that unlike Neo, she doesn't undergo any sort of transformation or inner change--in fact her journey leads her back to the exact same life she had at the film's beginning, except with a cute alien boyfriend.  Even the two films' parallel closing scenes, in which the protagonists zip through the sky, feel deeply gendered--Neo flies on his own power; Jupiter flies because Caine has lent her his jetpack boots.

But then, maybe this all has a lot less to do with gender than it does with capitalism.  Another way to express the difference between Neo and Jupiter is that he is unsatisfied with his life because he wants to do things, whereas she is unsatisfied with her life because she wants to have things.  An illegal immigrant who works all hours of the day as a housecleaner, Jupiter spends the film's early scenes lusting after the designer dresses and expensive jewelry she finds in the homes of her rich clients.  That the wish-fulfillment fantasy that the Wachowskis spin around her involves being the richest person in the galaxy is therefore unsurprising, as is the form of the exploitation she discovers.  The reason that Earth is such a valuable resource, we learn, is that its population can be harvested and converted into a goo that elites like Jupiter and the Abrasax family use to restore their youth and health, essentially living forever.  The same imagery that, in The Matrix, was used as a metaphor for the crushing power of conformity, is here used to symbolize the predatory nature of hyper-capitalism, with culled humans floating unconscious in tanks, and referred to as cattle and crops.

There's obviously space here to tell an engaging story about privilege and wealth.  For Jupiter, a poor person from what turns out to be a poor planet, to find herself instantly elevated to unimaginable privilege, and just as quickly discover that it is founded, literally, in blood, has a lot of potential.  The film's repeated insistence that Jupiter is cynical makes more sense when you realize that she's supposed to have been hardened by poverty, and a life that seemed to offer no hope of anything better.  It could have been interesting to see her struggle with her desire for wealth and her disgust at what it means--though again, that would require the film to be a lot more interested in Jupiter as a person than it actually is.  But as the saying goes, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.  Neo can be a hero in the story of The Matrix because the system he's rebelling against represents something relatively simple, sterile modern living.  Jupiter has to rebel against something much more pernicious--even within the film's ridiculous worldbuilding it's hard to imagine how she could end the system by which billions are culled so that an elite few could live forever.  Is it any surprise, therefore, that she doesn't even try?  That her triumph is the result of relying not just on Caine, but on the very legal authorities that prop up the corrupt system that so horrifies her? 

Jupiter's one moment of moral triumph--the one moment in which she does something to actually justify being the protagonist of her own story--is when she refuses to buy her life from Balem by giving him Earth, knowing that if he kills her he still won't have title to the planet.  It's a heroic moment--though again, it's worth noting that the most heroic thing Jupiter does in her whole story is to agree to do nothing and die--but unlike killer AIs, we know that capitalism doesn't play by the rules.  The film's ending, in which Jupiter goes back to her life on Earth, secure in the belief that no power in the galaxy will touch the precious resource simply because the person who owns it has refused to exploit it, is far less believable than Neo's ability to manipulate space and time in the Matrix.  The Wachowskis clearly intended Jupiter Ascending to be the opening chapter in another series, but I think the fact that, unlike in The Matrix, they couldn't hand their heroine a genuine accomplishment with which to close the opening chapter says a lot about the differences between the two stories.  Killing Agent Smith strikes a meaningful blow against the Matrix.  Killing Balem Abrasax doesn't even ding the system that gave him his power.

There are other reasons why Jupiter Ascending isn't as successful as The Matrix--the lackluster action scenes, the near-total lack of humor, the deadening seriousness with which the film takes its baroque worldbuilding--and, at the same time, it's only fair to note that despite all these flaws, I didn't find it a torture to watch.  It certainly isn't good, but it isn't the sort of slog that, say, The Matrix Revolutions was.  And while it doesn't approach the heights of zany ridiculousness that the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas achieved, there's a certain loopy charm to its overstuffed plot and its constant shifts between ever-more elaborate locations, that makes it rather easy to get through.  But it's heartbreaking to see a Wachowski film that is so similar to The Matrix, and yet falls so far from its accomplishments.  It's even sadder to realize that at least part of the reason for that difference in quality is the Wachowskis' limits--that the sort of stories they tell about women, and poor women in particular, are so much less exciting and adventurous than the ones they tell about disaffected middle class men.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Five Comments on Birdman

It's been two days since I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman and I'm still feeling exhilarated.  On the most basic level, this film is like nothing else I've seen in a movie theater in a long time, possibly forever, and I urge you to see it simply for the experience (and ideally in a movie theater, since this is a work worth being immersed in).  It's also a hard movie to write about, with multiple layers and themes, and a frenetic approach to plot that makes the format of a straightforward review feel inappropriate.  So I'm highlighting a few points that feel interesting in a film about which I could probably say a great deal more.
  • The first coherent thought I had about Birdman, even as I was still watching it, was that its overarching goal, the one thing it wanted to accomplish more than anything else, was to replicate the experience of watching a play through the experience of watching a movie.  That's not an unusual desire, of course, but usually when directors aim for it their approach is to be super-naturalistic--to limit both the space in which the story takes place and the cinematic tools they employ so that the actors and the dialogue can come to the fore (and, or course, most of these films are adaptations of existing plays, while Birdman is an original story).

    Birdman's approach is the exact opposite.  It's trying to make you feel as if you're watching a play by constantly reminding you that you're watching a movie, and using the most blatant cinematic tools and gimmicks to recreate the experience of being in a theater.  You see this in the by-now famous long takes that make up the movie.  An eye-catching and, some would say, self-indulgent device, they never allow you to forget that you are watching something that was crafted, where a less present directorial choice might have let you believe that you are merely peering through a window that shows the film's events.  But what these long takes do is force the audience to feel the physical space in which the film takes place as almost its own character, rather than a backdrop that is simply there to lend verisimilitude.  They also force the actors to stay in character far longer than they would in a conventionally-shot movie, closer to what they'd have to do on stage.  Most interesting to me was the film's use of sound.  Birdman has a stunning, percussion-heavy score (by Antonio Sanchez) that does a lot to establish the film's frenetic tone and the increasing deterioration of its hero's grasp on reality, but the way it uses diegetic sound--doors opening and closing, dialogue that comes from off-screen--is particularly wrongfooting.  These sounds are all much too loud, and they come from one side of the movie theater only, in a way that initially makes us wonder whether what we're hearing is part of the movie or happening next to us in reality (I don't think it's an accident that the first instance of this device is a cellphone ringing).

    This is, of course, how plays establish their world, and particularly events that happen off-stage, with over-emphasis compensating for the fact that the audience is being asked to build an entire setting from a stage, a few props, and some sound effects.  But when layered onto the real-world setting of a movie the result is hyper-realistic, almost an assault.  Most movies try to distract us from their artifice.  They use location shooting and a lot of clever sound editing to make us think that we're seeing something effortless, so that we can ignore the setting and focus on the story.  Birdman wants us to notice the artifice, to do the work that we would have had to do if we were watching a play.  It's putting us in the headspace of a theater audience even though we're watching a movie.

  • This all feels particularly important because the underlying theme of Birdman is authenticity.  The hero, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood star best-known for playing a superhero in the 90s, who is making a desperate bid for respectability by directing and starring in a Broadway play.  He's insistent that he is trying to create something "real," and haunted by the fear that he is actually a fake--a celebrity pretending to be a serious actor.  At the same time, he keeps seeing and hearing his titular alter-ego, who insists that it's actually the world of the theater that's a fake--why scramble for the approval of a few hundred theater-goers and the insular world they represent when you can be beloved by millions for playing something as primal as a hero?

    Whatever he chooses, Riggan is dismissed a poseur, a hack who is after prestige and fame rather than art, and so it's perhaps not surprising that he becomes obsessed with realism as a means of elevating his performance.  In this, he's joined by his co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a blowhard who, by his own admission, is only honest when he's on stage.  Mike is a brilliant actor, but he takes his commitment to realism to irrational extremes, bringing real gin onstage for his character to drink (and then bringing a preview to a halt when he realizes that Riggan switched the drink with water, insisting that doing so undercuts his performance), and trying to have sex on stage with his co-star and girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) when he becomes aroused mid-scene.  Riggan is frustrated by Mike's antics, but also clearly starstruck by his commitment.  As his grip on reality slackens, and as he becomes convinced that the play will fail and make him a laughingstock, he buys further and further into the notion that creating something real on stage means being something real on stage.  This culminates with Riggan bringing a real gun on stage with which to shoot himself in the play's final scene.  The audience's response to Riggan pulling the trigger is ecstatic, even when it's revealed that he really shot himself.  The New York Times's sour-faced theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) writes a glowing review titled "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" (also the film's subtitle) in which she praises Riggan for discovering a new mode of acting.

    There are a lot of reasons to question these final scenes, in which Riggan survives his suicide attempt, which I'll get to shortly.  But I think that Birdman itself is teaching us, through its style, to doubt what we're being told.  If making art was as simple as putting real pain, real joy, real horror on a stage and pointing a camera at them, then our culture would begin and end with reality TV.  Art is the process of saying something real by doing something fake; it achieves authenticity through artifice, not in spite of it.  In the film's earlier scenes, Riggan seems to realize this--he breaks through Mike's self-satisfaction by telling him a heartbreaking story about his abusive father, and then reveals that he was just acting--but he loses that understanding by its end, convinced that killing himself on stage is a meaningful artistic statement.  But in a movie that constantly calls attention to its fakeness, to the work that went into creating it, it's impossible to take that conclusion at face value.  What Iñárritu's hard work in making Birdman such a consciously artificial object tells us is that ignorance is not a virtue.  Art isn't something that just happens; you have to work to make it, even if all that work is to make the audience think that you did nothing at all.

  • It's not surprising that Riggan buys into the notion of realism as art, because as much as he claims to be devoted to his play, it's clear that what interests him isn't the work, but himself.  As much as Birdman is a meditation on authenticity and art, it's also a portrait of a profoundly self-absorbed man, who, as his ex-wife points out, consistently mistakes admiration for love, and is desperately scrambling to earn more of the former.  Riggan may claim that he's trying to create something real, but what he's actually trying to do is make himself real by winning plaudits and applause.  Genevieve Valentine has written an excellent essay about reading Birdman as an indictment of toxic masculinity, with Riggan's downfall stemming from his desperate need to be the big man, the star, the alpha male, and from his inability to accept that in his real life, he isn't a superhero.  But it's an observation that inevitably leads us to wonder what Birdman does with its female characters, and there the film is a mixture of success and rather bizarre failure.

    Through the three most important women in Riggan's life--his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough)--Birdman does an excellent job of conveying the frustrations of loving someone who is so completely narcissistic.  Despite being locked into Riggan's point of view for most of its run, the film shows us enough of these women to make them real, sometimes through only a single line delivery.  "I want a baby but my body won't cooperate," Sylvia says, quite simply and almost with a shrug, in one of the film's later scenes.  The contrast between her plain, undemonstrative acknowledgment of this heartbreaking fact and Riggan's movie-long tantrum over the far smaller tragedy of his failing career speaks volumes about the balance of their relationship, about who gets to be operatic and to act as if the world has ended, and who has to just keep going without giving in to self-pity.  In another scene, Sylvia, who clearly still cares deeply for Riggan, has to remind him that their marriage fell apart because he was violent and unfaithful, something that Riggan has clearly not given much thought to.  Sam, meanwhile, is the only person who manages to engage Riggan as a human being, not as an actor, and thus the only person who can come close to puncturing his belief that his play is a grand and meaningful endeavor, rather than just one more shout into the darkness among millions.

    When the film's camera leaves Riggan, however, and follows these women on their own stories, a strange flattening seems to occur.  We can see their humanity when Riggan is ignoring it, but it seems to escape Iñárritu (and his co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo), who locks them into simplistic roles and dead-end relationships.  Laura and Lesley have a romantic encounter that comes out of nowhere and isn't referenced again after it happens.  Sam falls into a romantic relationship with Mike despite witnessing the death throes of his relationship with Lesley, in which he is at his most immature and self-absorbed, and despite Mike making it clear that her main appeal to him is her youth and the reflected vitality he hopes to gain from her.  It's not unrealistic for a young woman to enter into a relationship that is clearly a bad idea (especially as Sam is just recently out of rehab and very vulnerable) but the fact that, in her scenes with Mike, the film isn't interested in Sam as a person is a problem.  She's human in her scenes with Riggan, where she's allowed to express frustration and anger in ways that aren't cute or flattering to him.  But in her scenes with Mike she becomes the muse he sees her as, batting away his bad behavior in a way that only invites more of it, and skewering his faults without ever seeming to consider that maybe they make him an unsuitable romantic partner.

  • A lot of the negative reactions I've seen to Birdman have concentrated on the character of Tabitha and the film's apparent disdain for critics.  It's true that Birdman seems to have been written from the perspective that critics are merely frustrated artists, and it's always depressing to see otherwise intelligent, creative people reveal such a bizarre inability to grasp that most people who write criticism do it because they genuinely love it.  But though Birdman doesn't offer the pro-critic perspective, I don't think it comes down as hard on Tabitha as I'd been led to expect.  Yes, she's painted as a villain, informing Riggan that she's going to destroy his play before she's even seen it.  But she also gets to explain why, and her reasons are largely persuasive--she's sick of celebrities like Riggan taking up oxygen in an industry that is already struggling, and doing so merely to gratify their own vanity--and in fact supported by what we see of Riggan in the rest of the film.  Of all the characters in the movie, Tabitha is the one who most accurately diagnoses Riggan's faults and failings, and unlike the other women in his life she is someone he has no power over (a fact that clearly frustrates him enormously).  In a movie that is ultimately so critical of its star and his delusions, it's hard to see how the person who most clearly expresses that criticism is meant to be a pure villain, even if she's hit with some easy and familiar (not to mention misogynistic) accusations.

  • One of the reasons that I'm less down on the depiction of Tabitha is that I don't think we're meant to take the about-face in her review of Riggan's play at face value.  My reading of the film's ending is that its final scene, in which Riggan wakes up to discover that he survived his suicide attempt and that his play is being lauded as a triumph, is a fantasy--that Riggan in fact died on stage.  This is perhaps a bleaker conclusion than Birdman can shoulder--aside from the fact that Riggan, narcissist that he is, doesn't actually deserve to die, it leaves most of the other characters in a lurch, from the fragile Sam who clearly still needs her father, to Lesley, whose dreams of a Broadway debut have just been shattered.  So I can't blame the film for ending more ambiguously, even if to me the true conclusion feels obvious--and to its credit, there's room to read the ending as something much stranger and wilder.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Coherence

The second stop in my short trip through 2014's lesser-known genre filmmaking is James Ward Byrkit's Coherence.  Which turned out to be fortuitous, as the comparison between Coherence and The One I Love revealed some interesting similarities, as well as telling differences.  On the surface level, the two films feel very different--The One I Love is intimate and tightly focused, while Coherence is chaotic and occasionally rambling.  Coherence has a more overtly SFnal subject matter, which it expresses through the more obvious tropes of horror filmmaking, such as jump scares and dark shadows, a stark contrast to how The One I Love conceals its horror story under a sunny, comedic tone.  And perhaps most importantly, Coherence is a micro-budget production (IMDb claims it was made for $50K, which if accurate is very impressive indeed) next to which even the small-budget, independent The One I Love looks polished and well-funded.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the two films feel like different glosses on very similar stories.  Both have a mumblecore aesthetic--Coherence's dialogue was even ad-libbed by the actors to create a greater sense of verisimilitude.  Both focus on troubled middle class white couples whose attempts at socializing are interrupted by the supernatural.  And both have doubling, and specifically alternate versions of their characters, at the core of their SFnal premise.  Of the two films, genre fans might gravitate to Coherence because of its focus on investigating and working out its central McGuffin, but though that element of the film works very well, the marriage between it and the film's character-based elements is less successful than in The One I Love.

Set almost entirely in a single house and on a single evening, Coherence begins with eight friends getting together for a dinner party.  The roster includes two established couples: Mike and Lee, the hosts, and their close, older friends Hugh and Beth; a newer couple, Em and Kevin, who are struggling with Em's reluctance to join Kevin on a four-month work assignment; and perennial single guy Amir, whose date, Laurie, is Kevin's ex.  The improvised dialogue does a good job of establishing that these people have long histories together, but is a little more awkward at introducing the fact that a comet is passing near Earth that evening, and that strange events were recorded on its previous appearance.  Halfway into dinner, the power fails, as do the phones and internet.  Venturing outside, the friends see that the entire neighborhood is dark except for one house.  When Hugh and Amir walk over to ask if they can use the phone, they return visibly shaken, carrying a box containing pictures of the eight party guests.  Deducing that they may have scared the inhabitants of the other house, Hugh decides to leave an apologetic note, but when he opens the front door to leave, he finds an identical note there.

The bulk of the rest of the film is taken up with these strange occurrences--some of the characters decide to make another journey to the other house and meet subtly-different versions of themselves, the ones left behind see and hear strangers outside, and the house is eventually invaded by the characters' doubles.  There's a lot of Primer-style fun to be had trying to work out what's happening from a limited perspective and with little information, mapping the trajectories and movements of the characters and their duplicates.  And it's particularly rewarding that the person who exhibits the most analytical approach to the situation, and eventually figures out the full contours of her predicament and how to work within them, is Em (Emily Foxler)--though it must be said that the other female characters are less well-drawn, and that Laurie (Lauren Maher) in particular is a caricature of the crazy ex who is gunning for the heroine's man.  The solution to the mystery doesn't entirely work--and our understanding of it relies on the fact that Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) just happens to have a physicist brother who just happens to have left with him some notes about Schrodinger's cat and quantum decoherence that just happen to have been written in such a way as to explain what the characters are experiencing--but it hangs together well enough for the duration of the film, and is sold by the characters' frightened reactions and the spooky direction.

But while the SFnal aspect of the film works very well, it doesn't, in itself, earn the film's character beats.  It's clear that Byrkit wants to use the existence of parallel versions of the characters to muse about regrets and missed opportunities, and as these alternates begin visiting the house, in some cases trying to get back to their own reality and in others trying to take over this one, the question of which versions of themselves are "good" or "bad" begins to haunt the film's heroes.  Em, for example, is a dancer who passed up on an understudy role that eventually led the woman who accepted it to stardom; "that woman is living your life!" Laurie exclaims, but it soon becomes clear that she is also trying to usurp Em's role by seducing Kevin.  Aside from Em, the most prominent character in the film is Mike (Nicholas Brendon) an out-of-work actor and alcoholic who is haunted by the possibility that one of the alternate versions of himself might be violent, but who turns out to be sufficiently reckless and destructive in his own right.  (In one of the film's funniest and most meta-textual moments, our first hint that we are dealing with alternate realities comes when Mike explains to Laurie that he used to be a regular on a genre series, and then names it as Roswell.)  But, just like the coincidence of Hugh having information that relates to the film's strange occurrences, the fact that those occurrences just happen to reflect on the characters' deepest anxieties is unearned, and its obviousness means that the film's climax feels over-determined rather than cathartic.  It is never, for example, explained just why the characters keep leaving the house even when it becomes clear that doing so is scary and dangerous (a fact that the film itself seems to recognize when it reveals that the "best," happiest versions of the characters are the ones who ignored the chaos outside the house and stayed in to play party games).  They have to do so, because otherwise there would be no story and no way to work out the film's central puzzle, but Byrkit never successfully explains why the characters, as people, made that choice.

I'm terribly sorry to make this pun, but Coherence ends up unable to make something coherent out of its genre and mimetic elements.  This is far from a fatal flaw, especially when you consider how rare it is to find films that do what it does well--investigate an otherworldly occurrence in a methodical but also compelling manner.  And though Byrkit fudges the process of getting his characters to their crisis point, Em and Mike's desperation once they realize how lost they are, and their choices of how to deal with that situation, are very well done.  The One I Love may be a better example of how to marry mimetic character drama with genre elements, but Coherence is a bolder work, and earns my admiration for its boldness even if it isn't entirely successful.  Both are good films, and both are worth watching as example of what genre filmmaking is capable of.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The One I Love

I wrote some half dozen full-length film reviews in 2014, and looking back, almost every one of them revolves around the theme of how difficult it is to find genuinely intelligent, thoughtful SF movies.  "Intelligent," in this context, means a willingness to engage with the SFnal tropes that drive a story, to explore their implications on the film's characters or even its world, instead of plumping for the familiar story beats of a superhero movie or a family drama without asking what the existence of the SFnal does to change them.  As I get to catching up with the 2014 culture that I wanted to get to (and in preparation for Hugo nominating, open until March 10th), I've been exploring the year's smaller-budget genre efforts, and finding a much greater willingness to explore the limits of the genre than in the studio fare.

The first of these forays, The One I Love, is not precisely the elusive beast I've been looking for.  Rather, it takes a fantastic element and grafts it onto a mumblecore relationship drama, the sort of movie that, as Noel Murray wrote just yesterday in a wonderfully peeved essay at the AV Club, revolves around the non-problems of privileged white people (the film is the debut feature effort of director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader, but it was produced by the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, two of the most dominant figures of this stream of filmmaking).  What makes the film work is the deftness with which it achieves that graft, and how it uses it to both elicit comedy and change the contours of the over-familiar story it's telling.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are a young couple whose marriage is on the rocks.  As Sophie explains to their therapist (Ted Danson), she feels as if their life used to be full of love and happiness, but that now they have to work to achieve just a fraction of what used to come so easily.  Shortly afterwards, it's revealed that the reason for this rupture is that Ethan was unfaithful, and that Sophie, though outwardly willing to work on the marriage, has been retreating from him.  Within the film's first scene, it establishes personalities for both its main characters--he's selfish and immature, she's passive and judgmental--that are so familiar as to be stock types, especially within the sub-genre suggested by the film's naturalistic, mumbly dialogue and its delivery.  The brilliance of The One I Love is in taking this over-familiar premise and adding a genre twist to it, when Sophie and Ethan's therapist suggests that they go on a weekend retreat to a beautiful house in Southern California.  "I've sent lots of couples there," he says, "and they all came back... renewed."

Though the audience is primed to expect something strange, Ethan and Sophie treat their trip as just another weekend getaway, cooing over the beauty of the house and the grounds with an over-obvious determination that seems designed to conceal their doubts about the endeavor.  On their first night there, however, the supernatural rears its head.  Sophie, investigating the guest house on the estate, meets Ethan there and has a moment of connection, getting drunk and having sex for the first time in months.  When she returns to the main house, however, she finds Ethan there, acting as if he has no memory of their encounter.  After a fight, Ethan retreats to the guest house himself, and when he wakes up in the morning, a sunny Sophie is making him breakfast--which makes it a surprise when he finds her in the main house with no memory of doing so.  The couple realize that whichever one of them enters the guest house will meet an alternate version of the other there.  Though Ethan is freaked out and wants to leave, Sophie is intrigued, suggesting that they "explore" what they've discovered.

I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film, but it should be noted that on paper, its opening beats seem far more reminiscent of a horror movie.  Many horror stories begin with a family that has been broken--by infidelity, death, or financial troubles--traveling to a home that represents a new hope for the future but whose secrets actually tear it apart, either to come back stronger or to reveal that the rifts within it were irreparable.  But though The One I Love hews closely to the beats of a horror story, all the way to its end, that genre never felt like the right fit for it.  The film's comedic tone (and its sunny look, with director McDowell taking full advantage of the lush Ojai scenery and the beautiful estate on which it's set, shooting the film, at points, almost like a tourist commercial) defuses the scariness of its premise even as its events veer farther and farther from normalcy.  The very fact that Sophie's suggestion to go back to the house seems reasonable--and perhaps even therapeutic--suggests that science fiction is what you get when you replace the danger and menace of a horror story with humor and a gloss of rationality.

Though Sophie and Ethan lay down ground rules that give them each equal access to the guest house (and reinforce the film's treatment of the numinous as a form of therapy--the couple agrees, for example, that the guest house is a safe space and that neither one is allowed to spy on the other), their enthusiasm for it is quickly shown to be unequal--as are the versions of each other they find there.  Sophie's "Ethan" is a better version of her husband, funny, interesting, and most importantly, emotionally open.  He's able to apologize for his infidelity and thank her for sticking by him in a way that the defensive, self-absorbed Ethan has clearly never done.  "Sophie," meanwhile, is a nondescript male fantasy, swanning around in slinky negligee and pretty dresses and cooking forbidden bacon for breakfast.  To his credit, Ethan doesn't seem interested in spending time with her, insisting to Sophie that "there is no version of you that I'd rather be with."  But this is might be because he senses that just under the surface of "Sophie"'s Stepfordian perfection lies an icy disdain for the kind of man who might desire it, which takes very little prodding to reveal itself (it shouldn't come as a shock, at this stage, that Moss is an exceptional actress, but she's fantastic at conveying the layers of both Sophies--the anxiety that underpins the real Sophie's breeziness and good humor, and the bitchiness that occasionally erupts from under "Sophie"'s placid surface).  As the weekend draws on, Sophie becomes more entangled with "Ethan" while Ethan goes to ever-greater and more unethical extremes (unsurprisingly, the couple's ground rules are quickly abandoned) to try to save a marriage that may be beyond repair.

The film's final act turns the screw even further, with both couples sharing space, pretending to have a normal, "fun" evening together even as the absurdity of the situation and the tensions between them rise to a fevered pitch.  (This isn't quite an Orphan Black level of complexity, but there are several scenes in which Moss and Duplass play against themselves and at least one that has all four characters on screen at once, all of which are accomplished with a smoothness that is impressive from a newbie director working with what can't have been a huge budget.)  When Lader's script shows its hand and reveals the true purpose of the retreat and just how Ethan and Sophie are going to be "renewed" by it, it's almost a relief to be able to abandon the couples' pretense of normalcy and congeniality, and if the film can't quite make a coherent SFnal concept out of its mysterious premise, it certainly comes close.

In the end, The One I Love does turn out to be a horror story, of a sort.  None of its four characters end up getting what they want, and its happy ending only lightly conceals a rather nasty judgment on all of the couples that are formed and reformed within its story.  It's not an ending that I can imagine getting from a mimetic mumblecore film, a genre that in my (admittedly not huge) experience tends to avoid strong negative emotions.  In the film's climax, Ethan makes the requisite big romantic speech to Sophie, telling her that while he may not be as good a partner as "Ethan," he is real and he believes in their relationship.  The fantastic premise of the film leaves space for a version of this story in which this kind of grand gesture doesn't work--and in a way whose consequences are far stranger and more tragic than a simple divorce.  If I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film despite its horror story shape, it is because of this--because it uses the meeting of the fantastic and the mundane to add a new twist to a familiar story, to suggest a new consequence to the shopworn circumstances of its characters.