Sunday, May 27, 2012

Realms: "The West"

The familiar surroundings of the archetypes (Astronaut, Cowboy, or Zombie) are of course space, 'the west', and the city. Landscapes, may I remind you, have a long history. Someone put it well on wikipedia:
Combining both their physical origins and the cultural overlay of human presence, often created over millennia, landscapes reflect the living synthesis of people and place vital to local and national identity. Landscapes, their character and quality, help define the self image of a region, its sense of place that differentiates it from other regions. It is the dynamic backdrop to people’s lives.
 When people recreate landscapes, whether through gardening, painting, or even film,  they are reframing facts (plants, rocks, architecture) to reflect cultural ideals. So what does space, 'the west', and urban centers reveal about American Society?

French and English Garden Layouts from around the 18th Century
The French favored classical ideals of  balance, order, and reason,
wheras the English  followed romantic  ideals of fantasy, the sublime, and chaos. 

"The West"

I'm staring with "The West' because it's the where American landscape began. The concept of "The West" represents more than just the desert in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Physically it is any underpopulated and isolated location between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (sometimes in it): the Rocky Mountains or Appalachian Mountains, the Badlands or the bountiful plains, Anchorage or San Antonio. "The West" is the untamed horizon with unlimited potential and unknown consequences. Essentially, "The West" is  American Purgatory. 

Now let's not get too theological about this. The Catholic Church defines purgatory as "purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven, which is experienced by those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified", which we can reinterpret for a place for an individual to prove herself as worthy to become an Astronaut or unworthy and become Zombie (although we don't always see the 'final judgement' come to fruition). The judgement, of course, is not passed by people, but by God via the Eden, the unaltered landscape. The natural world unbiasedly challenges individual and provides an even battleground for all, allowing individuals to exist entirely as themselves.

True Grit (2010)
Battleground: Purgatory
True Grit revolves around three main characters: Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn, and Ranger LaBoef chasing down Tom Cheney in Indian territory. The film challenges the preconceptions of good vs bad morals for protagonists. Mattie has a tough and ernest attitude quite unbecoming an innocent young girl. We question Cogburn's judicial ethics during his trial. LaBoef's self-confidence comes across as creepy and juvenile. After the characters cross the water and enter "The West" the traits prove virtuous. They do not belong in the city, but in a landscape that tests them without societal judgment. In this land they rely on only their own instinct and own sense of morality, free from the established notions of what is good, right, or correct. 

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Two Cowboys in Eden
We all remember Brokeback Mountain with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Two cowboys, alone, only the landscape and their sheep to observe their deeds. They give in to their bodily desires for each other and fall in love surrounded (isolated) by the Wyoming Rocky Mountains. Life is dandy. Until the ranch-manager discovers them. The manager does not actually ranch among the landscape- he lives in town, where social constructs state men can't physically love each other. This attitude extends to their post-ranching lives; the characters marry women and live in towns, but travel to remote locations to relive their love for each other. No matter what your stance is on homosexuality, you must recognize how 'The West' is without consequence or judgement versus the town/society. 

Cast Away (2000)
A Man on Purgatory Island
Yes, a desert island is "The West", it's why I've been using quotation marks. Chuck Noland, Tom Hank's character, fights the elements alone struggling physically and mentally to survive. The island tests Noland's morals, innovation, and sanity in order to reveal his true character. Noland transforms from a chubby, perfunctory nobody (perhaps a zombie?) into a mentally, morally, physically self-aware individual. The climax of the film is not his return to society, but his courageous departure from the new found safety of the island to the unknown ocean- a complete transformation from island cowboy to seaworthy astronaut. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Predictably, Neville was left partnerless

Lena Dunham's character on Girls deals with a partner who expects flexibility, even when it's not practical, and perhaps not as enjoyable. A plethora of TV shows have episodes that discuss 'spicing things up', and a variety of pop-songs glorify dirty, dirty deeds. A clip from Tracy Morgan's Black and Blue stand-up show talks about gold diggers. Apparently (jokingly?) a lobster dinner is three finger minimum in the anus. At least he acknowledges that it's not everyone's idea of a good time. Setting aside any feminist statements, these messages create unrealistic expectations for men. Virility is cast as reckless, dominant, forceful, and indifferent towards a partner.  Take Don Draper's actions toward his wife Megan in season five:

We know Don Draper is not the best role model. However, pop-culture sees him as one of the most masculine characters on TV today. If guys already look to him for career advice, cocktails, and fashion, than what's to stop them from emulating his sexual endeavors. (Season 1: Cheating on His Wife, Season 2: Cheating on His Wife, Season 3: Cheating on His Wife, Season 4: Having Kinky Sex with Prostitutes and Others, Season 5: Domineering Sex with (Only) His Wife.) No, Draper was not created as a idealized model for masculinity, but the authenticity of Mad Men confuses reality with hyperbole.

At the other end of the masculinity spectrum, we have the guys in Big Bang Theory. Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstadter, Howard Wolowitz, Raj Koothrappali each have a personal quirk that makes them a stereotypical nerdy and inept with women. Wolowitz is perhaps the least attractive and most offensive of the bunch: lives with his mother, hits on anything, tries to trick girls into sleeping with him, worst dressed, etc. He even gets a robot stuck on his penis one episode. Despite all this, Wolowitz is the first of his friends to marry. The most aggressive guy, not smartist, nicest, or sensitive, gets the girl.

Now, you can dismiss Draper and Wolowitz' sexual success as plot devices, but similar patterns appear throughout contemporary media. Iron Man is the only Avenger with a girl. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the forcefull love interest loses out to the hesitant. Winston Bishop, the most masculine and sport-oriented roomate is the only one with stable, happy relationship in New Girl. Han Solo gets Princess Leia and Luke, the main character, gets no one in Star Wars. Three and a Half Men - need I say more? Instances where the 'less' masculine is threatened with losing his love interest to a more dominant guy include Spiderman 3 where Harry Osborne/Green Goblin gets MJ instead of Peter Parker/Spider-Man; in the last Harry Potter movie/book Ron leaves the group because he believes Hermione thinks him inadadquet compared with Harry; and even the BBC show Merlin, where Arthur has several love interests and Merlin gets only one during a single episode.

Merlin - Knights of the Roundtable
We're so masculine and scowly with our longswords!!

It's also fair to point out that my previous post discusses women's sexual freedom, and this is just the masculine freedom. True. But wouldn't you say that most guys (people) enjoy sex? My issue is with the dominating-male 'winning' a sexual partner over his friends who have other positive skills, and what this message sends to the general populace. Not only does this portray relationships as competition (which to some extent they are), but sets a woman as a prize for being a particular type of masculine. If you (the male) don't behave aggressively, dominating, or overall cocky, even if its more virtuous path (Luke Skywalker, Thor), then you lose the girl/prize and become miserable. One of two things supposedly happens: 1) a Ron Weasley complex, where the male feels inadequet and depressed, and gives up on his woman or 2) a Harry Osborne/Green Goblin mentality, where the male abandons his real self and tries to out-masculine his counterpart through over-compensation. This, of course, results in very few guys for women to reasonably choose from, and leads to statements like 'crazy' women who hang out with douchebags. But I promised this wouldn't be about "feminist issues" (even though it is).

The point is boys, I mean men, you don't have to compare yourself to the hypermasculine because you're not competing with them. (Unless of course, you are of the hypermasculine personality. Then go for it.) As always, present yourself honestly and your sexual interests will judge you on who you are, not who you're 'suppose to be'. (And women: judge guys on who they are, not who you think they should be). Because at the end of Harry Potter who was the most awesome, lusted-after guy? Not Ron, Harry, Malfoy, Lockheart, the Weasly Twins, Bill, or even Cederic. It was this guy:

and just in case you missed it, this guy:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Avengers

The Avengers grossed $207.4 million its opening weekend, partially because of Joss Whedon's portrayal of the main characters. Let's take a closer look at why we like (love?) these characters.

Tony Stark / Iron Man
The Astronaut in Cowboy's Guise
Nick Fury did not acccept Ironman into the Avengers at first because, as Tony Stark puts it he is " volatile, self-centred, and I don't play well with others." Classic cowboy right? And it's true, Stark is quick-thinking, self-reliant, and independent. He puts on airs to create a celebrity persona, the kind of gossipy stuff people love to hate. What he doesn't brag about (directly) is his intelligence and skill. In the origin movie, he doesn't say "I built the Ironman Suit", but "I am Ironman." Let's change Ironman to Porche. "I built a Porche" vs "I own a Porche." He makes his cake and eats it too. Stark knows what people want to hear. He hides behind a 'better than you and separate from you' cowboy persona to hide his' better than you, but cares for you' astronaut self. This attitude makes Iron Man intriguing, relatable, and contemporary. He is a 21st century super-hero.

Steve Rogers / Captain America
Classic All-American Astronaut
Capt. America's uprightness speaks of the good ole days, where the underdog succeeded and the America saved the day. Rogers follows orders, values wholesomeness, and puts others before himself. He does not quite fit in today's world, in the movie or in life. He's a throwback to better times. Audiences acknowledge their own past, where their current mentality comes from. Despite the negative changes to the world, Roger still acts with the duty and honor of World War II. Capt. America's origin story may be our own. Have we been snoozing through the past few decades, forgetting out essential values letting other, lesser people run the world around us? And now that we're awake how are we going to work within a world filled with other superheros?

The Demi-God Cowboy-Alien
It's hard to place Thor. The only 'divinely' blessed super human in the bunch comes from another world. Despite having the ability to travel to Earth, Asgard is a pretty brutish place. Asgardians rely on a patriarchal monarchy and fight for territory rights within their realm. Pretty Middle-Age. Also, Nick Fury designates him as an alien, an entity that lives outside popular convention.  This designation also shifts Thor into the 21st century; before he was from some other realm. Subtle shifts like these mark changes in our culture. This becomes more important in the case of Loki (the threat). For Thor being an alien allows his character to develop into something more human. In his origin movie, Thor must become human (physically and emotionally) to regain his super powers. Because of this, the audience can easily judge his character, instead of accepting him as 'godly'. In The Avengers, Thor's coarse demeanor and entitled mindset define him as a cowboy.

The Hulk / Bruce Banner
The Scientist who fears the Zombie inside
Why is a genius scientist so unbelievably terrified of hulk in side of him? Banner isn't afraid of hurting people. The destruction resulting from his rages add to Banner's trepidation, but it's not the source. It's the loss of control, of his mind. Others envy the Hulk, its abilities and powers. Banner, however, already has above par powers- he's pretty darn smart. He had/has the ability to become a hero of Astronautical quality if not for the uncontrollable urge to smash. The Hulk is pure instinctual reaction, without consideration for anything: other people, surroundings, or himself: a zombie.

Natasha Romonoff / Black Widow
Playing with your Expectations
First and foremost, WHAT!? A female character in a superhero movie that doesn't need any more saving besides when she puts herself in danger! She doesn't have any 'super' powers but still holder her own against Russian Mafia, the Hulk, and a alien horde! Excellent.

Black Widow is a leftover from the Cold War era comics, so I wasn't sure how she was going to translate into today. The movie alludes to a mind washed, bloody past. But she's reformed now. And works for the USA. America for the win.

Black Widow defnitely isn't as known to the general populace as Wonder Woman (DC) or XMen's Storm, and without a previous origins movie, we really don't know much about her. Romonoff plays the vulnerable, sexy girl in a skin tight suit so that her targets see her as weak and stupid. Her (so far) male targets jump to conclusions and by doing so reveal their secrets to Romonoff. All the while she remains in complete control of the situation. Then she busts out her awesome ass-kicking skills.

Clint Barton / Hawkeye
Astronaut (ish)
Kay, Hawkeye plays a minor role in the movie so it's hard to dissect him. He has some mad skills of observation and timing. The bow & arrow seems like a pretty weak weapon when compared to repulsar rays or a magical hammer, but Barton's weapon utilizes some pretty amazing innovation. Barton controls what type of tip each arrow has, giving him a range of weapons within one skill set. He also looks to be the calmest of the bunch, not letting nerves affect his mission. He also separates himself from the group, not because he wants to set himself apart but because that's where he works best. We don't really know his background, other than some sort of relationship with Romonoff..... ho hum.

Nick Fury
We'll call him a Cowboy
Nick Fury - It's no accident Nick Fury has a patch over an eye. The blind eye refers to not being able to see the whole truth. Fury believes he can predict what exactly will happen, and may take extreme measures. Luckily, he can also turn a blind eye (to the Avenger's misgivings)- forgiving illeagal actions or ignoring authority in order to accomplish his task. The one seeing eye aligns him to the Moirai (the Fates), marking him as the holder of privlidged information and the entity who assigns/reveals the fate of the superhuman, but only in half-truths. His surname, Fury, also links him to the Erinyes (the Furies) which literally translates to the avengers.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Not yet a Woman

I recently listened to Fresh Air's interview of Lena Dunham, creator/writer/actress of the HBO series Girls.

I have not seen the show, or even heard of it, but the interview brought up a whirlwind of contemporary pop-culture issues. If you want to hear about Girls, listen to the story. It's good. I'm going  to take some tidbits from the interview, and run with them. Far and fast.

You'll make it.... eventually.