Monday, July 16, 2018

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Hollywood (Still) Doesn’t Get It

Hollywood has granted quality roles to women more frequently in the new century. Many well-written characters are for a TV series such as Little Big Lies, but we have learned to not complain.

In this decade of movie remakes and gender adjustments, the reboot of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was inevitable, I suppose. Director Roar Uthang moves from developing video games to movies with this outing, so the action sequences are in place.

The race to recover her pack stolen by a wharf street gang allowed a very buff Alicia Vikander (Light Between the Oceans) as Lara to depend on her wits and using some Captain Jack Sparrow jumps with wharf equipment. I especially enjoyed the later sequence for the rotting Japanese bomber that tumbles down the waterfall in a series of responses to Lara’s weight.

Upon analysis, though, my hackles are raised for underlying gender assumption typical of Hollywood archetypes.

Lara’s father (played by Dominic West) has a Stark-like business empire but leaves Lara isolated on the family estate with no business training or martial arts training from a misguided need to protect her. Completely isolated, Lara is forced into a pattern of self-taught skills and chip-on-her-shoulder self-reliance.

Hello, Hollywood!  A son in this situation would be trained for an executive position as the heir apparent. His skills training would include Asian masters and ex-military types on daddy’s payroll.

**spoiler alert**

So Daddy has gone missing, but Lara in her pride doesn’t sign into access to his billions but hones her skills as an East London bike courier. The visual transition from born-to-the-manor supposed shrinking violet to spunky street kid is painful to watch. Lara even pawns her only jewelry, a gift from Daddy, to finance the travel to Asia and her first real adventure.

My complaint is always the same. Where are Lara’s sisters and cousins and aunts and sorority sisters and rich girlfriends who have entered the university or business or the stock market? Where is the aging mentor who happens to be the Asian ambassador’s wife? A good ol’ boy support system exists for the male comic book heroes, but not for Lara Croft.

It’s true that Batman had an aging mansion and inherited wealth. It’s true that Indiana Jones went on at least one adventure following the clues left by his dad. Except both (originally cartoon) characters had a battery of colleagues from the police, university, adventurer sidekicks, foreign traders, foreign laborers -- all old pals who came running with a single phone call.

Lara Croft doesn’t even have a girlfriend travel agent who will spot her the cost of a ticket to the vicinity of the exotic island. The girlfriends are kickboxers whose roles in the story are to find some excuse for a woman’s lack of upper body strength.

The only other woman in the whole movie is an executive secretary type who holds the keys to the vault, played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Her moves are mostly held in reserve because she’s set up as a possible internal nemesis in a sequel, maybe similar to the Jeff Bridges character in one of the Tony Stark movies.

**spoiler alert**

Finally admitting that Daddy is gone, Lara is about to sign the estate transfer papers (in ignorance of how she’s manipulated by the executives) but is distracted by a Chinese puzzle that leads her to a dusky vault. Here is Daddy’s personal legacy to Lara, boxes of unfinished projects that were either unworkable or unprofitable. Throw her a bone.

Typical. And Hollywood doesn’t feel the gender insult, not in the slightest.

It’s true that Spiderman finds his daddy’s research hidden away in a sunken streetcar, but it’s all the research of a lifetime that was prematurely sacrificed and intended for Peter Parker’s advancement in the sciences along with colleagues. Parker’s secret status as Spiderman happens AFTER his parents are gone.

Part of the confusion for who is Lara Croft is a conflicting presentation of who is Daddy, an empire-building (but over-protective) business executive, or an adventurer who is stuck for seven years with this one problem of saving the world from a pandemic. That’s what happens with writing a script on committee.

I have several gripes about the storyline once Lara is in Asia, especially the useless and drunken Asian sidekick who is pressed into a work gang as soon as they arrive on the island. No diversity insult there.

Once they open the tomb, Lara is pushed forward by Daddy and the team of bad guy diggers to lead with solving the tunnel traps, maybe as a sacrifice to them. She is allowed the mental exercise of addressing ancient puzzles from archeological evidence. When the walls begin to collapse, though, Lara can save only herself. She doesn’t save Daddy. She doesn’t save any member of the digging team. She doesn’t save the Asian workers who turn out to be good with guns once they get their hands on some.

At the end the adventure, Lara has not gained a battery of loyal followers, men or women. Her success is achieved in complete isolation.

Women action adventure heroes often operate in isolation. Who can forget Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien who must fight the monster with only the ship’s equipment as her ally? Women characters in real situations often are forced to side-step gender isolation like Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

Where are their sisters or aunts or cousins or sorority sisters or trained colleagues in a good ol’ girl network?

Here’s an insight for Hollywood.  Women mostly look to each other for how to solve today’s problem. Movies that allow the display of this minion are often revenge-on-husbands storylines like Rosanne Barr’s She Devil or Goldie Hawn’s First Wives Club. At least these adventures got it right for who women call first to get it done.

But I’m in danger of sounding like a problematic woman here with my ideas for improving the Lara Croft story. Next outing will be my complaints for women acting how men think women act in Oceans 8.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Life of Ideas

With the Summer 2018 need for a second Supreme Court justice nominated by Pres. Trump, I’m surprised at the shouting of old rhetoric from the far left. No prisons, no ICE, no school tuition. Like any of those could happen.

One leftist news segment guest (I knew she was leftist from the angry tone of a defeated person) claimed that university students will rise up and achieve what congress cannot with impeaching Trump. 

I remembered my days as a returning adult to art school in Chicago. We were required to take certain gen-ed courses, so I signed up for ten-weeks of post WWII Marxist thought, the latter-day thinkers who came out of the European Marxist dialogue.

I often went horns-to-horns with this teacher who was wholly committed to the idea that Marxism was a better path than decadent capitalism. I asked in class, “Isn’t Marxism disproved by history? What do you expect these art students to take away from these readings?”

The students sat in the back and doodled witch cartoons on their notepads, sometimes a pair of them.

So this teacher played a video of Michel Foucault. You remember him; the guy who thought up the prison round with a center tower that Cuba actually tried.

In the video a young sycophant interviewer lobs softball questions to Foucault in the hotel suite with a bed in it. Foucault in a thin turtleneck and slacks, and wearing slippers I think, languished on the bed and rubbed his bald head before he tolerantly answered.

I remember thinking then that when I get rich and famous, I will never allow anybody to film me in a room with a bed in it.

And that’s what I learned from Michel Foucault.

These days when a student of mine starts with the polished derivative rhetoric about school-to-prison pipeline, I ask if he has read Foucault. His mouth puckers and his eyes go blank.

I’m not too worried that free-and-fair market principles, used as a bludgeon by Pres. Trump to humble trading partners, will risk much exposure of structural flaws from the inquiring minds of college freshmen.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Chicago Tribune article

Author Stella Atrium: An academic inspired by science fiction

Authors of science fiction and fantasy often ground their writing in real-life history and social issues. Star Hall, a Chicago author who writes under the pen name Stella Atrium, became so immersed in her research for a science-fiction novel about six years ago, she created a DePaul University class out of it.

"It grew out of a novel about displaced persons and going into a culture you don't understand," says Hall, whose pseudonym is a Latin translation of her real name. Hall is an adjunct professor at DePaul, where she has been teaching in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse since 2005. At the time, she was researching for "HeartStone," the second book in her Dolvia Saga fantasy series. "In it, people are pushed off their land and received onto the savanna."

Hall has since taught her Global Perspectives on Undocumented Workers in America class every spring. "It changes every time I teach it," she says. "The topic itself changes — it's not like accounting."

The novels Hall has written as Atrium are also richly varied, populated by characters, heritages and embattled environments derived from all corners of the globe. Reviewer Bob Brinkman from Goodreads aptly calls her work, "anthropological fiction set against a sci-fi backdrop." The Dolvia Saga, which includes "SufferStone," "HeartStone" and "StrikeStone," will eventually total six novels ("ClearStone" is coming out next year). And she has a new stand-alone fantasy novel out now called "Seven Beyond."

Always a fan of science fiction, Hall says she started writing in part to shake one dominant trend in the genre. "I would read these books and realize that the heroes were (always) boys," she says. "And that didn't make sense to me. Why write in a genre with such wide open space in cultures but still use an orphan boy as the protagonist?"

Providing the science-fiction genre with female protagonists was Hall's first reason to write, but she didn't just populate her books with stock-character heroes who now happened to be women. She approaches all her plots with the intent to show her readers problems women face in the real world and how they uniquely solve them.

Hall, whose favorite authors include Margaret Atwood, Robin Hobb and Elizabeth Moon, says she always puzzled over the solitude of female characters in typical fantasy or sci-fi books. "In the fantasy genre, women are a member of the team," she says. "She is (often) an unusual foreign woman. We know nothing about her." Looking to upend this trend, Hall makes sure her strong female characters aren't singular. "They know aunts, cousins and sisters and other women in community," she says. "I am very interested in women in groups."

"What impresses me most about Stella's writing is her use of rigorous academic research to inform fantasy," says Peter Vandenberg, professor and chair of Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse at DePaul University. "She has a keen sense of the inseparable relationship between inquiry and good storytelling." He says that Hall's love for research is apparent in her novels — and inspiring in the classroom. "Stella's expertise as a fantasy writer, rhetorician and researcher allows her to help students break through some tired old ideas about the 'creative writer.'"

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer.
"Seven Beyond"
By Stella Atrium, self-published, 295 pages, 99 cents

Copyright © 2014, Chicago Tribune

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Blog Archive: Uses for Magic Similar to Playing Chess

When I was a kid, my Daddy taught my brothers and me how to play chess. Only one brother excelled after the first lessons, but the introduction to the game was exhilarating, like the opportunity to make fancy moves (oh, that space is open, so I can move my knight!) and to take the opponent’s queen. What fun!

Later we learned that chess is a game of strategy and the player doesn’t move pieces without a plan. Some strategies are used many times and have names such as a fianchetto bishop or back rank checkmate.  To maneuver into these board structures takes several accepted moves that your opponent will recognize with the very first move.

Magic drives the story:

Some writers are still in the learning stage (from which I never emerged as a chess player) where the intrigue rests with executing exotic moves. The purpose of writing is to explore the uses of magic.

The (often charming) development of magic systems in these stories overwhelms the plot and serves to engage the reader on its own level – sometimes a cloying banquet of magic where the love story or the need for a final battlefield are tertiary.
I place The Last Airbender and Percy Jackson in this category.

Magic enlivens the story:

Some writers have stepped past the stage of fun with magic and use the presence of characters with magic to drive the plot. These writers are similar to chess players who have studied some famous chess strategies and want to employ them in a match. One rule of thumb to recognize this type of writer is that the magic is similar from one series to the next – because the strategies are similar.

I place Eragon and How to Train Your Dragon in this category; formula writing using well-established plot points that delight audience expectation. But we know the outcome by page 60 because we know the strategy with the opening move.

Magic inserted just because we can:

In Theft of Swords by Sullivan, an entire early sequence was about rescuing a wizard from a prison that nobody had succeeded at opening for two centuries. The descriptions were fun and the logical problems intriguing. But when the wizard is free, he says thanks and leaves. I suppose he returns later to return the favor, but I didn’t get that far.

I read (part of) Throne of the Crescent Moon due to a recommendation from Kirkus Reviews. I suppose the readers at Kirkus are jaded and liked the story because the setting, and therefore the magic, was oriental. But the magic was everywhere, in every scene used by every character. I couldn’t follow the story – but I also couldn’t follow Battlestar Galactica, so go figure.

Magic provides a strong ending:

The duel with the basilisk in one of the Harry Potter books is an example of overcoming the raging opponent, after which all questions are settled and Harry can return to Hogwarts or the next term with a fresh slate. And the final duel with Lord Voldemort that winds up the series is a great example of using magic to bring all influences to a conclusion.

Magic is often tamped down in this type of story by the limitations of the user, but serves as deus ex machina in the story climax or end of a trilogy.  I enjoyed The Daughter of the Forest trilogy by Juliet Marillier and cried for the last 60 pages of the first story – something about swans and sacrifice to end a curse.

Marillier’s novels included elements of formula, though, just like with chess moves. A ingénue who is touch by magic but ignorant of its uses, guided by a would-be lover with unwavering devotion, an unrelenting female opponent, along with benign spirits and druids with little to do. Sound familiar?

The third story titled Child of Prophecy repeats these elements for a third generation while the milieu remains static. The climax is a battlefield, of course, where our ingénue enters without a plan, without her magic, and without a weapon, encouraged by spirits to “fake it”. Of course, the gods have a place for her that is not hinted at earlier in the trilogy (that I won’t reveal here), and the gods make all the combatants awestruck while our heroine performs her final farewells to family.

Magic is used sparingly or when necessary:

Some writers use magic to change the story rather than to bolster the story, a subtle difference. I enjoyed reading The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling, especially the first story that sets up the curse – much like Snow White except the agent of the curse is helpful rather than mean. The reversal of the curse came (close to) the middle of the trilogy and included gender questions for girls-with-swords, so I was intrigued.

The final story Hidden Warrior has an inserted holy man from a different culture who happens along the road at an opportune moment to serve the hero, but he wanders off before the final battle. Once the initial curse was alleviated, the presence of magic was not essential, so the inserted holy man was a maneuver (like in chess) where the reader can see the rationale.

Magic as a developed system:

Brandon Sanderson: ‘nuff said.

The only issue I have with the entire story depending on uses of magic by good guys and bad guys, that Sanderson calls “hard magic”, is that the story becomes predictable, even repetitive. The characters are dependent on skills or discipline to save them and have few other interests.

The Fantastic Four fits this category. Even the bad guy has a power, but must use it in certain ways with specific limitations. The plot revolves around how to trip him up on his own special power.

Magic from a master:

I’m currently reading The Blade Itself (Book I of a trilogy), which is long. Joe Abercrombie uses magic to build the plot and keep the reader engaged. His scenes are episodic (irritating), and too involved with the details of torture (revolting), but the reader feels the cold rain and sword cuts (shows good choices).

Magic is used at surprising moments and differently than a rehash for training dragons. A campfire has a spirit that he can tamp under his tongue to light the next campfire: he, he, he. I’m not but 48% through the book (did I mention that it’s long?), but I have hope that this chess match begins a new strategy that has yet to be named.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Thursday, June 19, 2014

That Certain Feeling of Uncertainty

I sat at dinner with my good friend Lisa who writes non-fiction and bragged that I was well into Book Five of a six book series. “How does it turn out?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know yet?”
“But how does Book Five turn out?”
“I’m not certain yet.”
“Well, surely you have an outline.”
“Um, I have a genealogy to keep the ages of the young characters straight. And I have a map. Well, a partial map,” I said.

“No wonder you’re stuck.”
“I’m not stuck. I just have to be patient and allow events to unfold organically.”
“How do you tolerate the uncertainty?”
“You know that myth about how all writers are alcoholics…”
“That’s not funny.”

How do I tolerate the uncertainty? How can I explain the process to you, dear reader, or to a fellow writer? I have known long periods of no writing and no creative impulses. It’s like being deaf. Some days I’m paralyzed with fear. Some days I want to throw the whole project out the window, except that’s the same a suicide – identity suicide. Some days I’m so racked with feelings of failure that I, well, let’s just say that I cry in my beer.

Will I ever finish? Will my characters ever reach a wider public? I have come to realize that these are the wrong questions.

One time I had several weeks to myself and a section I wanted to write, so I set an outline and a schedule and kept to them. I used the time productively, I felt, and wrote several pages a day. I placed characters who I knew into situations that were plausible and allowed the dialogue to unfold. I counted words at the end of the day and didn’t allow walks on the beach or long periods of daydreaming to “ruin” my writing time.

At the end of that delicious month I threw out the work, about 80 pages worth. It was forced and too linear. The desire to finish; the desire to make the time pay – these rode roughshod over the willingness to allow the characters to grow organically while I – that’s right; me, the writer – watched the story unfold. I am only the agent of the story with two hands and a keyboard. The characters drive the plot.

I have learned to live with that certain feeling of uncertainty, not knowing where the scene is going. During infrequent moments of pure illumination, I realize how the moving parts fit together. During a walk on the beach, whole scenes unfold in my head where characters get into shouting matches. Over the next days or weeks, I often track back into completed scenes for adjustments. It’s a reiterative process.

I can hear Lisa’s voice in my head. “Is it worth it? Is there ever a moment when you’re glad you squandered the time waiting for the characters to talk to you?”

It’s like a siren’s song. The vocabulary calls to me. The characters whisper in my ear. I can taste the air and hear the seabirds crying, like reaching the port of my homeland after a distant adventure. The other world becomes more real than my daily circumstance.

When the plot folds into itself for a scene where characters who were developed separately come into conflict, when the reader knows more about next events than the characters, when outcomes are balanced on the edge of a knife, when dialogue resolves tensions for several characters at once;  aaahh, moments to live for.

Like the moments at the end of Moonstruck when the family is gathered at the breakfast table and all plot twists are resolved.

My suspicion is that the level of sophistication for a story’s outcome is directly related to the writer’s willingness to be patient with characters and realize them fully for how each responds to new information.

An example from Game of Thrones, since all of America is watching the series and episodes are aired several times a week.  Season Four just wrapped up with a patricide of Tyrion’s father, and the arrival of Stannis Baratheon at the head of an army north of the wall, thus saving the fighters in Castle Black.

The patricide scene is surprising and satisfying with many twists and character resolutions, but linear. Once set into motion, a single character drives the action.

When Stannis confronts the King of the North in the presence of Jon Snow, a conversation ensues that has more potential for driving the remainder of the series. The viewer knows these three main characters more than they know each other. The viewer knows the bodies of the dead must be burned before dark. The viewer is uncertain of the fate of the King of the North, or Jon Snow, or how Stannis will manage the influx of wildings into Westeros. The dialogue of each man comes from his motivations, resolving long-standing tensions and setting the next season into motion. The plot folds in on itself.

If a writer tolerates the uncertainty and exercises patience for bringing the characters into conflict that serves the plot, then on occasion with perseverance, the writer can ‘witness’ such a resolution within a book series. 

That’s worth a lifetime of uncertainty. 

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Uses for Magic and Chess