Saturday, December 3, 2011

What the Hell is a Nerd?

I tried to think of a more poetic title to use for this post, but that one sums it up the best. I first heard the word "nerd" when I was in elementary school, applied by another girl towards me; I wasn't sure what it meant, but knew it was bad. In the years since then, I've heard any number of meanings for it (or its close cousin, "geek") but am still fairly unsure. Moreover, I've found that casual use of the label, even towards oneself, comes with a whole host of baggage and problems.

One of my professors disapproves of using the word when children are nearby- adults may know it's not a bad thing, but children won't, and will fear being called those mean names if they show an interest in their schoolwork. I've heard others argue that nerd should remain an insult; that identity is all they had when they were younger, and it's infuriating when pretty girls or cool boys try to take that identity from them, wearing retro Nintendo t-shirts without knowing what it is to be picked on and excluded.

My initial problem with the word still stands- what the hell does it mean? Does it mean virginal scientists? Married Star Trek fans? Mensa members? Straight-A students? Boys who like Halo? Girls who like Harry Potter? Social rejects? Cute kids with glasses? Do you have to complete a long checklist that includes all of the above and more, or is it just a state of mind?

Labeling shouldn't be important, but all too often it is. Humans like forming tribes, and we like having ways to distinguish ourselves from others (or the other way around.) Expanding a label risks making it meaningless, and limiting it may mean kicking out people who "deserve" it just as much as we do (and is ultimately unenforceable in a court of law.) Given the unique range of characteristics in any given person, labels are generally incomplete to describe them (that Star Trek fan may have been a star football player in high school- does he still count as a nerd?) Labels can be insults applied to people we dislike, or they can be impossible standards we try to measure up to. (Jillian Venters, Headmistress of Gothic Charm School, has written about the folly of defining "how goth you are" by how you measure up to others.)

So what the hell is a nerd? I didn't know in first grade and I don't know now. I still use the word at times, but I've become much less confident about it. And I have learned, at the least, to be mindful of the company in which I say it.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Monster Movies to Check Out

I was going to make a Halloween blog post about the scariest movies I've seen, but all my favorite blogs have already done that. Besides, I haven't seen many classic slasher movies, so I might not be the best person to list scary movies. Instead, here are what I consider personal favorite interpretations of movie monsters. Some are scary, some are funny, some are just plain bizarre- maybe you'll find something among them!


The fashions may not have aged well, but The Lost Boys is still one of my all-time favorite movies. Love the vampires (nasty and stylish,) love the slayers (tiny and nerdy,) love the music (especially the main theme.) I've seen this movie too many times for it to still scare me, but I did my share of screaming the first time around, and it's fun and witty enough to keep me coming back every time.


This movie isn't for everyone- it's more art house than proper horror, and the feminist fairy tale motif is layered on pretty thick. If that doesn't scare you off, though, track down a copy of this Red Riding Hood update, and enjoy a sensual, surreal nightmare of a movie. It's based on the work of Angela Carter (a writer I love,) and boasts the only werewolf transformation sequence to really send chills down my spine.

The Frankenstein Monster

The original Karloff movies are great, and I even like the Kenneth Branagh version, but Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks made what must be, in spirit, the truest movie to the original novel. The monster is lonely and frightened and desperate for love, and in this generation, he finally gets a Frankenstein who won't abandon him. It plays fair with monster movie tropes, and despite being a parody, it really feels like it could have been part of the Universal Studios Frankenstein series. And lest I forget, it's really, really funny.


Oh man, does this movie do a number on me. Guilliermo del Toro knows how to do beautiful, insidiously creepy ghost stories, terrifying me with nothing more than a child's laugh. The Orphanage also features surprisingly reasonable protagonists for a horror movie (my boyfriend and I cheered when the heroine actually- gasp!- called the police after finding evidence of foul play buried in the house.)


When filmmakers try to make "romantic" Dracula adaptations, what they're actually doing is remaking this. An ancient monster rises from the grave to seek his reincarnated love, but in a welcome change of pace, she objects- she has a new life now, and he has no right to take it from her. The movie is sadly lacking in actual mummy action, but the first scene still stands as one of the all-time classic monster movie moments.


Are they communists? Are they McCarthyists? Does it matter? Either way, the town of Santa Mira is being invaded by conformist aliens, and the increasingly futile struggle to escape is scary no matter what your political bent. They don't eat you or kidnap you, they just copy you and take away your personality- and sometimes, that's all aliens need to do to be frightening.


I'm technically cheating here (the violent, mindless hordes in Pontypool aren't reanimated dead,) but I wanted to be able to plug this movie. I'm not usually a fan of zombie movies in general, but Pontypool takes the concept and twists it into something terrifyingly original. The very words we speak begin to get caught in our throats and drive us mad, and only a tiny Canadian radio station is safe- but for how long?

Bonus: Grab Bag

Silly, bloody and self-aware, this anthology film depicts the monsters faced in a small town on Halloween night. We've got ghosts, werewolves, pseudo-vampires, serial killers, and an adorably creepy child who might just be the spirit of ancient Samhain. If you can't make your mind up which monster you want to see the Halloween, put on this cult comedy-slasher and get 'em all in one package.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sci-Fi with a Conscience?

What obligations does science fiction have?

This question occurred to me because of The Steampunk Bible. One of the essays contained therein was "Blowing Off Steam" by Catherynne M. Valente, and in it, she argued that a work must accurately portray the horrors of the Victorian era (unsafe factory conditions, terrifying societal change spurred on by technology) in order to be truly steampunk. "If you want Victoria in your coat pocket," she writes, "if you want the world that comes with her, all that possibility, all that terrible, arrogant, gorgeous technology, take it all, make it true, be honest and ruthless with it, or you're just gluing gears to your fingers and telling everyone you're a choo-choo train."

You can agree with her or not, but her objections to much of modern steampunk raise an important question. Steampunk might not exist without steam and children slaving away in dangerous factories, but by the same token, cyberpunk might not exist without futuristic sweatshops where people are paid pennies a day to make bionic implants. Pseudo-medieval fantasy can't exist without peasants and the feudal system. As we've known ever since Fritz Lang filmed Metropolis, Utopian societies generally require someone living in non-Utopian conditions to make them happen.

Is a writer of the fantastic under any obligation to portray this?

I've always disliked the idea that a writer "has" to write with a moral in mind- or that a writer "has" to do anything, for that matter. I don't think it's wrong to read or write escapist fiction, and to not want to be bothered by grim and dirty realities. I've also seen grittiness taken too far; one of my biggest problems with the Warhammer 40k universe is that the evils of all the factions are so exaggerated that it becomes hard for me to care about anyone winning at all. And I think we've all read enough preachy science fiction, or at least seen a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, to know how painful it can be trying to enjoy something that wants to lecture first, entertain second.

However, this doesn't mean I entirely disagree with the notion of sci-fi having a conscience. Harshly put as it was, Ms. Valente's point still stands; we can't fully appreciate the glamour of a setting unless we get a little bit of the grit. Any setting, whether historical or imaginary, can have the capacity for both horror and beauty, and the two often go hand in hand.

I don't think fiction has any obligations, but I do think that fiction is better when it is informed by the context in which it takes place. When the author knows what problems their characters will face in their day to day lives, and what problems go unseen by them on a regular basis, that provides for a much richer text. Discworld wouldn't be half as fun if the city of Ankh-Morpork wasn't a filthy mixture of medieval, Victorian, and modern urban blight, and the anachronistic blast that is Samurai Champloo wouldn't be as interesting to watch if one of the protagonists being an illiterate peasant never became an issue.

In short, I don't think you have to zero in on a society's problems in order to write a good story. But if you want to portray a rich and enveloping universe, you need to be aware that they exist.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steampunk Ramblings

Another confession: I'm the sort of girl who wears bustle skirts and corsets in her everyday life- and judging from the internet, I'm not alone. Whether your interest is in neo-Victorian attire, old-fashioned pulp magazines, or retro-futuristic architecture, looking back to the past has become a popular "nerd" source of inspiration. Think of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and put the stress on the last word; most young nerds/hipsters/goths/whatever you want to call us are often less interested in faithful recreation than in taking bygone aesthetics and incorporating them into modern contexts. Perhaps the most famous form of this is the "steampunk" genre- a style of dress, literature, music and film that imagines a world somewhere between yesteryear and the distant future.

To be less cryptic, "steampunk" is a subset of science fiction that imagines a Victorian era with futuristic technology (or sometimes a futuristic era with Victorian aesthetics and social conventions.) It was an offshoot of cyberpunk, a genre familiar to those who have read Snow Crash or watched The Matrix, but replaced the emphasis on computer power with an emphasis on steam power- a sky full of airships, coal-powered death rays, and brass goggles everywhere. The "punk" part of the name is somewhat misleading; it's a holdover from cyberpunk, rather than an indication that steampunk is about rebellion or grittiness (though it certainly can be.)

There are pitfalls of the genre, just as there are things about it I love. One of the most parodied aspects is a tendency to smother everything in gears, and it's never good when the story (or music, or gaming experience) takes second place to marveling at how cool the setting is. It has cliches and stereotypes, and outfits can be a real hassle to assemble, especially if you're no good at sewing.

Despite these problems, the steampunk genre holds a special place in my heart. I'm more glad than I can say that I live in an era of modern medicine and women's suffrage, but as an admitted romanticist, I can't help being drawn to a world of elegance and adventure, even one that never truly was. Looking to the past during visions of the future is more than understandable- it can be beautiful, creative, and lots of fun.

Interested? Try these...

Comics: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Honestly, I never liked this as much as I wanted to- I just couldn't stand what I felt it did to some of my favorite Victorian characters. But if you're more flexible regarding literature than I am, check out this much-loved spy thriller/dark adventure series, where secret agents from classic novels do battle to protect London from mad scientists, aliens, and more.

Novels: The Difference Engine pretty much started it all off, and The Diamond Age is a fun blurring of the boundaries between steampunk and cyberpunk. You can also go for romance novels with Soulless, and the other books in the Parasol Protectorate series.

Television: You can't talk about steampunk without mentioning Wild Wild West, where gentleman spies keep America safe with clever gadgets and dashing heroics. The campy film version bears almost no resemblance to the original, but is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Films: Disney's Treasure Planet goes the "future world with Victorian fashions" route, in an update of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. You can also check out Back to the Future Part III- where else will you find a flying, time traveling train that runs on steam power?

Music: Rasputina, one of my favorite bands, uses electric cellos to make nearly unclassifiable rock songs with Victorian overtones. For a list of similar music, check out the Sepiachord website.

Roleplaying Games: If you liked Wild Wild West, give Deadlands a try- the dead are rising and sleeping monsters are awakening in the old west, and you're just a bunch of cowboys and scientists armed with gatling guns powered by the souls of the damned. If you prefer a European flavor to your steam, try Castle Falkenstein or Baron Munchausen; the former casts you as a Burroughs-esq pulp hero, and the latter...well, who the hell knows what the latter will cast you as.

Fashion: Gentlemen's Emporium is one of the best places on the web to get frock coats and frilly dresses, should you so choose. Clockwork Couture is a little inconsistent with their stock, but when they have good stuff, it's always beautiful.

Got any more recommendation? Feel I've completely misrepresented the genre? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Looking for Love(craft) in all the Wrong Places

"Lovecraftian" is a common label to slap on horror games, movies, books and comics, and like many labels, it is simultaneously helpful and limiting. H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories about dark alien gods, expressing the terror he felt at the changing world and the intermixing of the foreign and the familiar. He created monsters that were at once aquatic and humanoid, masses of tentacles and mind-boggling angles, things that could drive a man mad to even contemplate. Lovecraftian horror is the fear that we are truly not alone in the universe; rather than inspiring religious devotion, Lovecraft used this feeling to suggest utter human insignificance.

Lovecraftian monsters such as Shoggoths, Deep Ones and even Great C'thlhu himself should be familiar to consumers of fantastical media. Whether in games (Call of C'thulhu, Trail of C'thulhu,) movies (The Dunwich Horror, Dagon) or in any of the many new stories set within the Lovecraft Mythos, new authors have worked to bring Lovecraft's visions to the modern age. Some of these products are quite good, but if I may offer my opinion, gamers and creators who want to truly tap into the Lovecraftian might want to venture off the path established by the man himself.

What do I mean by this? Well, C'thulhu and company were originally meant to be scary because they were strange and unfathomable. When you can buy plush toys of said monsters, that aura of the strange and unfathomable decreases significantly (not that I don't love some of those toys myself.) Lovecraft's stories were also full of rather dated (to put it kindly) anxieties that don't quite work for the modern horror afficianado; immigrants and their descendants have established that we're not going away any time soon, and tentacled monsters have become so commonplace in SF art that, far from boggling the mind, they inspire jokes about Japanese pornography.

There is still some terror and excitement to be had in traditional Lovecraftian fare, but if the above problems are too much for you, you can still enjoy media that take H.P.'s favorite concepts without using his specific creatures or stories. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that television show, demons from other dimensions once ruled the earth, and their lines (and blood) mingled with those of humans to create vampires, humanoid abominations intent on reclaiming the Earth for their dark gods. That's almost a dead ringer for the plot of Shadow over Innsmouth, except that extraordinary humans such as Buffy and her friends are capable of fighting and defeating the monsters.

In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King stated that he considered Alien to be, at heart, a supernatural Lovecraftian film. In this case, humans travel the stars and find the ancient gods rather than the other way around, but the end results are the same. Alien even shares the Freudian sexual terror at the heart of many Lovecraft stories, albiet with phallic and toothy rather than vaginal and squishy monsters. At the end of the first movie, heroine Ripley is in much the same position as the heroic boat captain of Call of C'thulhu- she has used her ship to save herself from the alien, but can there ever be a true victory over such a creature, or is she only delaying the inevitable?

Lovecraftian creatures don't even have to be malevolent to be creepy. The ghoulish humor of the film The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Addams Family television show, and the game Monsters and Other Childish Things relies on the idea of aberrant entities being merely curious about humanity, and driving people mad with what they consider harmless fun or even attempts to help. If that sounds like legends of the Fair Folk, you'd be right; remember that the word "eldritch" originally meant "elvish", and you'll see the routes of Lovecraft's aliens even in fairy tales.

Especially interesting is when you find Lovecraftian elements in stories that aren't meant to be horror-related at all. Oscar Wilde's short story The Birthday of the Infanta shares exactly the same plot twist as Lovecraft's The Outsider, only with a different pre-reveal mood. The Indiana Jones films show godly artifacts that bend and distort reality, best kept away from humanity's use for fear of the damage they could cause. Moreover, one of the quintessential American heroes has a backstory that, with only a few tweaks, could describe Dunwich's Wilbur Whateley.

The child of a dead species from a distant planet, he passes as human but is fundamentally not. His small town knew he was strange, but never guessed what he truly was. This alien boy eventually traveled to the frozen north, where, buried in the ice, he found the legacy of his parentage, and brought it back with him when he came back to the world of humanity. Human scientists can slow him down, but they will never truly be able to destroy him, or even comprehend what he is.

Superman is Earth's champion, for which we are very lucky. Like horror itself, the Lovecraftian can be found almost anywhere, and it only takes a little bit of reframing to bring it out.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Good, Evil, and the Players

Confession time- I have a hard time being evil in games. Whether in RPGs or video games, my characters tend towards the saintly, even if I'm trying to portray them as roguish and chaotic. This says things about my escapist fantasies, but not much about me as a person- it's easy to be heroic and self-sacrificing in a game, when there are no consequences that will carry over into the real world. On the other hand, it's also easy and fun for some players to act evil and dickish, knowing they aren't hurting any flesh and blood people.

Still, the question remains- why? Why is it so hard for me to hear the phrase "your alignment has shifted towards evil," whereas for other players it's not only easy but expected?

One thing to remember is that for most RPGs, it's easier to run a "good" campaign than an "evil" one. In a typical campaign (especially in Dungeons and Dragons,) the Game Master motivates the players with promises of treasure, experience points, and the chance to pull off impressive heroics. The first two things can still be offered to evil characters, but "evil" campaigns are notoriously hard to run; if players go too over the top, it's hard to take it seriously as more than a comedy game, while if they play a straight game of manipulation and coercion, some players and Game Masters will grow uncomfortable. There was even a book released to help Dungeons and Dragons games handle evil (whether or not it was the players doing it,) and the fan reaction to it was mixed, to say the very least.

Playing an evil character in a "good" campaign is even harder, though I've played in a game where two players pulled it off (their characters were greedy and callous but not interested in screwing over the rest of the party.) It also can come down to the Game Master; some go in with no expectations, some portray the world as full of puppies and babies to be protected, and some can get downright sadistic about beating the idealism out of more traditionally heroic characters. Experience on the part of the players also comes into it- if you've played a knight in shining armor a hundred times before, it can be fun to throw aside morality for a game or two.

I know some of what motivates me to play heroes is my love of old movies and my desire to emulate them. I want to be a traditional hero, the kind they'd write epics about. Maybe my character can get a little cynical or jaded, but I want them to always do the right thing in the end. What the right thing is may differ from character to character, but I want them to leave a positive change on their world.

I'd like to hear other opinions on this, though. If you like playing evil characters, what aspects do you like? If you like being a hero, are your reasons different than mine? I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

High Noon and What Came After

I find it interesting that so many movies feel the need to ‘respond’ to High Noon. Well, maybe interesting is the wrong word- more like baffling. I read about the attacks when it came out, calling the hero unmanly for showing fear and appearing to almost cry, and my reaction is a stunned cry of "But it’s High Noon! How can anyone hate High Noon?"

Apparently, some people did- or even if they liked it, felt the need to make a movie showing what should have happened. Rio Bravo and High Plains Drifter are both in some ways responses to the movie, though the responses are not quite the same. Rio Bravo is the response of a swaggering father saying "Son, you should be ashamed of yourself- you don’t need to rely on the townsfolk! And don’t show no fear, neither!" High Plains Drifteris the response of a troubled younger brother going "No man, what you oughtta do is go back there and kill every last one of those ungrateful sons of bitches!"

Funnily enough, I love all three of these movies. Rio Bravo is a delightful ensemble adventure, and the romance between John Wayne and Angie Dickinson is appealing (even if it is cribbed almost line for line from the director’s earlier movie, To Have and Have Not.) High Plains Drifter is a banquet of the bizarre, an epic, nihilistic horror movie masquerading as a western. I don’t even mind the rape scene- it certainly isn’t the most evil thing Clint Eastwood does over the course of the movie, which acknowledges that all those mysterious men with no names are scary for a damn good reason.

In the middle sits little old High Noon, an allegory for the Red Scare or Korea or urbanization or whatever us modern viewers like to attribute to it. It would be irritated by Rio Bravo’s response and horrified by High Plains Drifter, and would generally try to stay out of the conversation.

Why is it this movie provokes such strong reactions? There are many controversial movies and many ideas to be rebelled against, but why does the simple story of a man abandoned who sticks to his principles simply because it’s something he has to do (while being broken up inside that no one else seems to see it that way) upset people?

I don’t know. All I know is, while John Wayne looks on disgusted and Clint Eastwood paints the town red, tired and scared old Gary Cooper must stand by himself.

For High Noon, it’s a rather fitting position.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Gentleman Vampire

First, a disclaimer- this is not a Twilight review. Whether you love the books or hate them, you can already find a hundred online reviews that bear out your opinion. I would, however, like to talk about some cultural notions about vampires its criticism has brought up.

Some say that vampires should never be romantic or attractive, that they're monsters and should be portrayed as such. Others say that vampirism has always been about sex, and that it makes perfect sense to use them in romance novels. The former often argue that romantic vampires aren't "real" vampires, if such a thing exists. Beast or lover, predator or protector- which is it?

As you've probably guessed, the answer is complicated. The idea of the gentleman vampire has always been a strange one, but its roots go back far beyond Twilight. Let's take a look, shall we?

Picture a year without a summer, a young doctor cooped up with a bunch of temperamental poets and their female companions, all of them thinking up ghost stories to relieve their boredom. One of the female companions writes a story about a tragic monster, which she titles Frankenstein. The doctor looks across the room at Lord Byron, then writes a story about a Byronic monster, which he titles The Vampyre. It's not a very good story, and rumors will persist that he plagiarized it from Byron, but it becomes quite popular, and the image it presents of a handsome, seductive vampire will forever change how people think of the creature.

More vampire stories are written as the years go by. An Irishman writes a breathtakingly beautiful novella about a vampire named Carmilla and her romantic obsession with an innocent young girl. The amusingly titled Varney the Vampire: Or the Feast of Blood will also be published, showing a vampire who hates his condition and commits suicide by volcano. And then, the same year that a German doctor coins the term psychoanalysis, another Irishman writes Dracula and changes everything.

The title character is not a romantic, but he is a gentleman in the truest sense of the word- a man with wealth and a title. He enjoys beautiful women, but doesn't much care about their consent (his attack on Mina is written almost explicitly as a rape scene); he feeds on his peasants and their helpless children, literally sucking the lifeblood of the working class. He is everything evil and corrupt about the old world, and it takes enlightened science, American cowboys, and the "new woman" to destroy him.

When the movies came, Dracula came with them. When Max Shreck played him, he was a dried up corpse, his fingernails still growing, who spread plague and could barely pass for human. When Bela Lugosi played him, he was an off-putting but strangely fascinating foreigner whose eyes and voice hypnotized the unsuspecting. When Christopher Lee played him, it was the sixties, and Dracula was a suave British creature out to lower everyone's necklines and break up respectable relationships. When Gary Oldman played him, his relationship with Mina had gone from one of rapist and survivor to one of true love.

Somewhere along the line, the meaning of the word "gentleman" changed- it became something anyone could be, so long as they held the door for ladies and drank expensive wine. What once meant you trained as a soldier and were better than the lower classes now meant you were polite and good looking. Being pursued by a gentleman vampire didn't seem like such a bad thing after all.

Anne Rice popularized the conception of vampires as brooding and misunderstood, and while not every vampire author has followed suite, they have all had to respond to her. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had vampire love interests, but separated the times when they were romantic from the times when they were vampiric. Now we have Twilight, with a pro-abstinence gentleman vampire; many teenage girls swooned, and many nasty things were said on the internet about the intelligence of females.

With all that said and done, where does that leave us? Is the gentleman vampire the only way to go, and has the vampire in general been thoroughly domesticated?

Of course not. If you want bestial and ugly vampires, there are writers and directors who agree with you (Guillermo del Toro wrote a book with that in mind, and from what I hear it's quite good.) I don't think we should give up on the gentleman vampire, though; after all, the Victorians sanitizing stories about fairies hasn't stopped the Fair Folk from being used to chilling effect in modern fiction.

Maybe we need to go back to Dracula and Carmilla to understand it. Think of someone wealthier and more powerful than you, who still wants what little you have- your loved ones, your body, your blood. Think of a relic of the past that refuses to die, dragging bloody tradition into the civilized world. Think of something devouring you while dressed in fine clothes, all because they hunger and will never be sated- and as a lord or lady, they have every right to do so.

I don't know about you, but I think that sounds pretty damn scary.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

But Why Would You Play That?

Many people have their own personal definitions of what a roleplaying game should be. To some it's improv theater, to other's it's an exercise in storytelling; some say it's art, and some say it's just a chance to bash a goblin in the face and take his stuff. Whatever desires and expectations you have of games, though, one thing is for sure: you want to have fun.


This would seem a simple question, until you take into account the sort of experiences some games produce. Gamers can decide to imagine themselves as Polish child soldiers during World War Two, or as helpless innocents battling the personifications of child abuse, or as chain-smoking teenage runaways. It's not just the indie games that offer these opportunities; look no farther than Vampire: The Requiem for characters often full of self-loathing and misery, or Call of Cthulhu for sessions that nearly always end in death and madness.

At this point, many non-gamers (and some actual gamers) are tempted to ask "But why would you play that?"

Aren't roleplaying games supposed to be about escapism? Why would you want to spend your free time indulging in someone else's misery? Above all, why wouldn't you want to have fun?

I've asked these questions before, both of other people and myself. And I suppose the answer must be that the word "fun" is something very hard to pin down. Sometimes people enjoy having bad things happen to their characters in and of itself (Call of Cthulhu is infamous for the fatalistic glee it inspires, with players taking bets as to whose character will hold out the longest.) Some people feel that rare happy endings are even more precious because of how hard they are to earn, and that it means more for a frightened child to conquer the darkness than a six foot armor-clad warrior. Some people find painful experiences cathartic, and some enjoy exploring characters in situations good or bad.

If these things sound strange to you, think of another medium that's supposed to be fun: movies.

Why should people watch gritty dramas or tragedies when there are escapist popcorn flicks aplenty? It could be for any of the reasons I've already mentioned, or it could be because art doesn't have to be warm and fuzzy to make us feel satisfied. The Manchurian Candidate, one of my favorite movies of all time, is nothing if not bleak, but I'm always so wrapped up in its world that it took my boyfriend to point out to me how depressing it was.

Are roleplaying games art? I'd say they can be, but that's a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say that they can provide moving experiences in the hands of good players and a good DM no matter what system you use. And to some, moving experiences aren't always bright and sunny ones.

Let me make one thing clear: just because more 'serious' art can provide deep experiences doesn't mean that other art is inferior. I hate movies where people die of slow, lingering diseases, and I'll probably never play Grey Ranks. I love a good action movie, and I love an escapist dragon-bashing dungeon crawl. Ideally, I like my games to have the best of both worlds; escapist fun and a deep story. That isn't always achievable, but it's a nice goal to set.

If my rambling has any sort of a point, it's this: every group has it's own desired light-to-dark ratio for maximum fun (if fun is even the desired product- some have said it's not.) If other people's ratios are different than ours, it may confuse us. But it shouldn't surprise us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Field Guide to the Femme Fatale

Have you ever been trapped in a film noir? Of course you have. If you're a boy, you've probably thought to yourself, "There's a girl I like, but how do I know she's not out to screw me over?" If you're a girl, you may have thought, "Gee, I'd like to take a guy for all he's worth, but how do I know I have it in me?"

Wonder no more. For your education and safety, I now present the subcategories of femme fatale.

The Instigator
So there you are, minding your own business, when out of the blue some dame comes up and asks you to rob a bank with her. Normally you'd tell her to jump in a lake, but you've just never seen a girl with eyes so green or legs so long. What's a poor fellow to do?

I'd like to quote a first lady here and tell you to just say no, but I'm only human. I know how hard it is to say no to someone you love. And hey, you're actually relatively lucky if this is the femme fatale you're matched with; it's not in her best interests to screw you over, since you're in on the same scheme, and she may even really love you. What she says is something that's always manipulative, but which non-criminals have said since time immemorial: if you love me, you'll do it.

Related to the Black Widow (see below), but not always interchangeable. Lucky for you. Also related to the Damsel in Disguise (ditto,) but where that one pretends to be innocent, this one lets you know up front what you're in for. And you go for her anyway.

How to Spot: You know that woman in front of you, asking you to commit a crime? It's her.
How to Be One: If you must, target guys low on the intelligence scale. But really, think twice about being this variety; your boy toy's likely to kill you when he's had enough of your games.
As Seen In: Gun Crazy, Carmen Jones, Out of the Past

The Catalyst
I've tried to refrain from saying "It's your own fault" too much in this essay, but that's the case by definition with this lady. See, she may be a little promiscuous, a bit of a lush, prone to smoky eyeshadow, and maybe even have a mean streak, but you don't have to worry about her killing anyone. What you do have to worry about is how you act when you're around her. You get violently jealous, insanely posessive, and start scaring her with the depth of your "love." Problem is, so is ever other guy around her. And of course, you're sure it's all her fault.

Sometimes confused with Just Drawn That Way (see below,) but much less independent and much less happy.

How to Spot: If she's sleeping around and doesn't care if you know, this one is a good bet. Incidentally, ease up on the Othello impressions- if she's turned on by that, she's probably not the kind it's safe to be around.
How to Be One: Are you crazy? I know you want men around you paralyzed with love and lust, but you don't want Dennis Hopper or Glenn Ford stalking you. Trust me on this.
As Seen In: Gilda, Blue Velvet, The Blue Angel, Anatomy of a Murder

The Black Widow
This is probably what you think of when you hear the term 'femme fatale.' She's sexy as hell but stuck with a creep, and wants you to take said creep out. I can't say for sure she's screwing you over- sometimes the guy really is a creep and she really is in love with you. But remember, that creep she's with probably thought she was in love with him at one point. Some day that creep could be you.

Don't think you're safe if you're female, either. This type is known for ensnaring women just as easily as men. Particularly if said femme fatale is French.

How to Spot: You'll usually see her stuck in a small town diner or a huge and empty mansion, on the arm of a guy twice her age. Think real hard about how much you value your life before taking her up on anything.
How to Be One: Always have a backup plan. If things go wrong with your scheme or your sucker, be ready to bail and have a prepared way of doing so. Also, platinum blonde wigs seem to help.
As Seen In: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Body Heat, Les Diaboliques, Niagara- this is probably the most common subtype.

Just Drawn That Way
She's not a bad girl, not really. Is it a crime to wear slinky dresses and banter with private eyes? Of course not. She's just having some fun, and if she likes a guy and he gets in trouble, you can bet she'll be there to help bail him out.

You might call her the decoy femme fatale, but she's close enough that I consider her a subtype. She has all the trappings of trouble, but there isn't a predatory bone in her body. Some women can be sexy and fun loving without being evil- imagine that!

How to Spot: Banter is a good way to spot this one. If you're teasing her and she gives as good as she gets, you're in luck.
How to Be One: I know you've got a heart of gold, but try not to play too many games. The sooner you and the private eye start working together, the better for all concerned. Also, don't be afraid of slinky dresses.
As Seen In: The Big Sleep, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pulp Fiction.

The Damsel in Disguise
While most femmes fatale tend to be rather blatant, this one isn't. At least, not to you. She's in trouble. She needs help. Some of it is her fault, but everyone makes mistakes. Those stories she tells you about how bad men have hurt her break your heart, and she's awfully keep on helping you solve that murder mystery. Well, you knew it was too good to be true...

This subtype can overlap with the Black Widow and can be mistaken for the Catalyst. She doesn't have to be the former and certainly isn't the latter; odds are she's a criminal mastermind, and you're a small pawn on a big chessboard.

How to Spot: Helping out girls in danger is perfectly admirable, but here's a tip- the more crimes she needs you to commit to save her, the more likely she's this.
How to Be One: You've got to be a good actress, and you've got to pick your targets. You want them loyal and not too curious- private eyes are tempting, but they ultimately ask too many questions.
As Seen In: The Maltese Falcon, Brick, The Killing (in one scene, anyway.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This is less of a review than a brief analysis of the movie's "moral" (stop reading now if you don't want spoilers!) Upon re-watching this old favorite of mine, I was struck by the detail put into scenes about prospecting, particularly one that shows the details of panning for gold. Such details contribute nothing to the plot but are still a nice touch, letting us learn along with the characters about the realities of their new work.

Moreover, whether or not it was intended (and with such a prestige production it may well have been), it serves as a metaphor for how the gold itself reveals the true nature of the protagonists. Just as the water reveals which identical nuggets of rocks are valuable, so too does the entire ordeal of prospecting, as Tim Holt nearly buckles under his greed but manages to keep himself mostly morally pure- unlike Bogart, his foil.

Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs is not a monster; he is just a man who does a worse job resisting temptation than he imagined he would. Before prospecting, he was a loveable rogue, his main flaw seeming to be a lack of ambition, who will fight a man for what he is owed but take no more than his due. By the end he is a paranoid would-be-murderer and chronic betrayer, seeing the treachery in his own heart reflected in the eyes of his former friends.

The novel upon which the film was based is said to have been written as an anti-capitalist tract about how money destroys men's souls. As the film holds up today, the message appears to be a bit different. After all, Walter Huston and Tim Holt come out basically decent; only Bogart could be said to be "destroyed" by it, and even that couldn't have happened if he didn't have the hidden potential to be destroyed.

In Treasure of the Sierra Madre, gold serves not as a device to corrupt men, but a means of revealing their true nature. Those who are pure will stay pure. Those who never had the opportunity to be corrupt before will be presented with a chance- and may, like Bogart, discover a nastiness they didn't know they had.