The Coupling Rant

I love my fandom, and my fandom drives me insane.

By “my fandom,” I mean the people who interact with science fiction and fantasy in a critical capacity with an eye to getting things right. They want the science to not be silly (or at least not any sillier than it has to be for the purposes of the story). They want magic systems to make sense, granted the fact of magic in the first place. They want events to unfold in ways that flow from the world and the characters.

More importantly, what sets apart “my fandom” is that they want the people to be right. They want populations to reflect the diversity of a realistic world. They want characters to reflect the personalities and experiences of the people who read science fiction and fantasy–and those who would read if they could find themselves in the stories.

All that is an excellent thing. It does, however, come with its own set of problems and biases. The biggest problem I tend to find in a group that values getting things right is a tendency to confuse things they don’t like with things that are wrong, and by wrong I don’t just mean factually inaccurate.

(Note: One of these days I’ll stick my hand in the blender that is the tendency of my fandom to apply the simplistic label of “fail” to large-scale, multiple-issue, multiple-party disagreements. Today isn’t that day, mostly because the topic deserves careful, nuanced analysis and I’m grumpy.)

The most recent thing driving me insane has to do with Doctor Who. More specifically, it has to do with people’s reactions to Steven Moffat taking over showrunning from Russell T. Davies. Even more specifically, it has to do with the fact that the relationship between Amy and Rory doesn’t appeal to a lot of people.

Frankly, it doesn’t entirely appeal to me either. As pretty as Rory is, I really like being in a grown-up relationship. I don’t want to be that young and unsure of what I want and what I’m being offered. I don’t want to treat anyone the way Amy does or the way Rory does or even the way the Doctor does. Not. for. me.

On the other hand, you’re never going to hear me say, “Have you ever seen Coupling? The problem is that Steven Moffat can’t write a strong woman who isn’t a bitch.” I don’t remember who said it in that version, but the sentiment is fairly common.

Here’s the thing about Coupling. It was developed when Friends became a big international hit. The biggest difference, aside from the size of the apartments involved and the presence of a pub instead of a coffee shop, is that the characters in Friends were dealing with their various lives at the same time they were hooking up and breaking up with each other: jobs, families, old school friends, etc. and on. Any gender and sexual politics happened in the course of one grand soap opera. Mostly, they didn’t happen.

Coupling, as the name signifies, was about sex. It was also about gender roles in relationships. As in Friends, there were three men and three women, but here they came in paired types. Sally and Patrick were the shallow, looks-obsessed traditionalists who ran their relationships by the rules. When they dated each other, some of those rules meshed and some clashed. Jane and Jeff were bound by no rules. They were impulsive, and you never knew what would come out of their mouths.

Then there were Susan and Steve, the proxies for the audience. Each was horrified by how Sally and Patrick treated their partners. Each was a little envious of Jane and Jeff in their freedoms, but neither wanted to deal with the consequences Jane and Jeff faced. They were pretty well perfect for each other, but they still had to figure out how to make things work. They started with nudity, ended with birth, and ran a lot of odd places in the middle.

Coupling was hilarious because of this awkwardness, this tension between the old rules that mostly tell people they can’t do what they want with respect to sex and the new rules that require us to negotiate everything without any training in how it’s done. Every new freedom came with the embarrassing need to, ahem, you know, talk about it. Every new opportunity came with a need to have an opinion, even if everyone, all your life, has been telling you what the one right opinion is…and it isn’t yours.

Susan got cranky about this sometimes. Exasperated. Yep. So did Steve. One of the funniest speeches in the show involves him getting fed up enough to not care about the consequences of explaining the appeal of lesbian porn. It is every bit as bitchy as anything any of the women in the show say to each other in the entire run.

But Susan is the bitch and Moffat can’t write any better. Because someone doesn’t like what being strong without being perfect in the middle of these pressures looks like. Because her journey and Steve’s are uncomfortable to see, particularly if we’ve managed our own with just a little bit more grace. Or maybe because we haven’t. I don’t know.

I do know that wanting things to be right is a very good thing, but I’m never going to understand the kind of thinking that takes my opinions and preferences and decides that anything that doesn’t match them is wrong.

The Telephone Game


If you get the opportunity to see The Telephone Game, do it. This will be more difficult if you’re not in the Twin Cities, but more worthwhile if you’ve ever done theater, particularly experimental theater, or like your movies slightly odd.

I just got back from the premier. I went without great expectations, knowing this was a local, low-budget production. Not that you can’t do great things on a budget, but that usually means attracting the cast you know rather than the cast you can afford. Ben and I were there so he could take a few pictures. It turns out he’s also taken pictures of approximately half the cast, but that’s a bit beside the point.

The Telephone Game tells the story of the production of a play, from auditions to opening night. It also follows the relationship of the playwright, Marco, who insists on directing and starring in his own production, and the leading actress, Zelphia, who understands the core of the play better than Marco does. Both storylines are greatly complicated by the fact that Marco is the least coherent individual on the face of the planet. Far less coherent even than a politician with the last name of Bush.

Despite that, he seems to have written a delightfully evocative play, and we’re given enough of a glimpse at it up front to be concerned when Marco’s doubts cause him to start messing his production. What actually happens to the play over the course of the movie is something I won’t spoil by describing it.

The cast of the movie was much better than I had expected going in. Haley Chamberlain was stunning as the female lead, both as the actress and in her role in the play. The movie would be worth watching for her alone. However, nobody fell to the level of “strictly local talent” that I expected in a movie this low budget.

That might have something to do with the fact that the script was improvised. There was, at most, one character in the movie underserved by her writer. The rest all stood out as individuals. And you really have to admire a movie that can work in a line like “Then I puked a projection of Peter Piper’s pickled peppers onto the poor percussionists in the pit. That’s why I don’t act,” and not have it completely derail the scene.

Beyond that, I find myself unwilling to describe the movie. I went into it without any good idea of what I was going to see, and that served me well. However, if you’re not ready to take my word that the movie is worthwhile, you can always watch the trailer below. But really, just see the movie.

District 9

Why are you reading this? Go see District 9 instead. Then come back and we can talk.

You want a review? Fine. This movie does what more science fiction should do. It educates you in science. Social science. History, politics, sociology, psychology–they’re all in here. They are aggressively, in-your-face in there.

This is the best science fiction movie since Serenity.

Like Serenity, District 9 is brutal. Unlike most films, science fiction or otherwise, District 9 uses its brutality to good effect. When violence shocks you, you know you’re not supposed to be taking it for granted. When you see a moment of casual evil, you know you’re not supposed to look away, that it’s meant to be there, that you’re watching it for a reason. Still, if you think the messages of the movie are delivered with 2x4s, you’re not catching them all. Nor is it all about its messages.

The film does have its flaws, of course. You’re supposed to be unsettled, but unless you bring Dramamine, your stomach may take the brunt of it. There are plot holes centered around the alien tech, some of them large.

Ultimately, however, the tech isn’t what the movie is about. It’s about all the different ways we generate excuses to treat each other like crap and the consequences we don’t consider when we do that. In short, it’s right up my alley. It’s bracing and thought-provoking and, frankly, all I really want to talk about right now. I want to dive into how it was constructed and compare notes on what people caught and what they didn’t. I want to see the movie reflected in the minds of the people around me.

So go on. Go see it. Then come back. I’ll be waiting.

Still waiting.

Go.

Update: Don’t go into the comments if you want to avoid spoilers.

Button Eyes

Neil Gaiman has this trick. It isn’t just his trick; plenty of people do it. But Neil makes particularly good use of it.

What does he do? He reassures you.

Only Neil reassures you about things that weren’t worrying you. He takes great pains, in fact, to reassure you, going on about how little there is to worry about and how silly you would have to be to worry. He takes more time to dismiss your nonexistent worry than you’ve ever spent considering whether there might be anything to worry about.

But now you’re considering. Now, perhaps, you’re just a tiny bit worried. Perhaps about something as innocuous as buttons.

We saw Coraline yesterday, opting not to do the 3D experience. I read the book back in 2002 when it came out, and I highly recommend doing the same–after you’ve seen the movie. The movie is good, really, but the book is better.

Coraline (for those who don’t read every word Neil writes the instant they’re available anywhere) is a charming little tale of a young girl who crawls through a tiny door in her boarding house wall to find a world where everything is better. Her parents (other mother and other father) are better. Her friends are better. The other lodgers are better. And the food…the food is much, much better.

Of course, everyone in this other world wants her to stay, and of course, there are prices to be paid: one to stay and one to leave.

Coraline is the book that parents complain about to Neil. It’s not a kids’ book, they say. It’s too creepy. Children can’t handle that much creepy. They can’t handle being scared.

Kids, for the record, love Coraline.

There certainly weren’t any creeped out kids in the theater yesterday, despite the youth of most of the moviegoers, but there weren’t as many creeped out adults as I expected either. I wasn’t as creeped out as I expected to be. I wasn’t as creeped out as I wanted to be.

I blame the animation. While it is great animation, I wish the film had been live action. So much of the creepiness of Coraline’s story is in subtle wrongnesses, in the surreal rather than the unreal. That gets much harder to convey when Coraline’s normal world is less than real.

That’s the only thing really wrong with the movie, though. There are some changes from the book, but it’s remarkably true to the heart of the story. The voice acting is quite good. French and Saunders are as much of a hoot as you’d expect. John Hodgman is wonderful and unrecognizable as Coraline’s father and other father. The art and the animation are wonderful.

So go see the movie. If you have kids, take them along. The younglings will be just fine.

Then get them to read the book to you and explain how, really, there’s nothing in there for any parent to worry about. Nothing at all.

Too Much Editing?

We went to see The Dark Knight this weekend, and it was okay. A few years ago, I might have told you it was wonderful. Even now, it beats any other comic book movie I’ve seen, and I see most of them.

Heath Ledger really was as amazing as everyone says. For the first time, the Joker almost makes sense as a character. As something of an agent of chaos myself, I almost sympathized with him. Not with his methods, of course, but with his impulses.

Neither Gary Oldman nor Maggie Gyllenhall got enough to do, but what they did, they did well, as usual. There were moments when the ease with which the Joker executed his plots stretched credulity (the funeral), but I’ll give any superhero plot one or two of those. Bruce Wayne dithered over things that should have been straightforward, but his other secret identity has always been Angst Boy, so it wasn’t out of character.

None of those things were really what bugged me though. What bugged me is what usually bugs me about a movie these days. It was a combination of feeling that the movie didn’t trust me as the audience and knowing the answers to things that were supposed to be mysteries.

As for trusting the audience, how often does one really have to be shown that the Joker is a tricksy badass before the main conflicts can come into play? How much needs to be made of Dent to show that he’s wearing a white hat before it can be knocked off? How many times must we hear about crooked cops? I get it all already.

But it’s the knowing the answers to the mysteries that really gets to me, because I don’t think it’s all the moviemakers’ fault. At least according to my husband, most people don’t say, “Well, it had to be them. They’re the only ones we’ve seen on camera in speaking roles who aren’t dead yet,” and, “But why else did you think his big ole stomach hurt?” and, “The stereotype wasn’t a huge flag to you?” In this case, it really is just me. I’ve been editing too much.

I ran into a similar problem with fiction about the time that writing really started to work for me. I couldn’t look at a book without seeing down to the bones. Every book was reduced to its structure. The problem isn’t completely fixed yet, but it’s getting better. I can read fiction for pleasure again…as long as it’s well written.

But in the meantime, I’ve been doing more editing. So now I look at a story and I see the function (preferably functions) of all the pieces. Everything has its purpose, and every story has pieces it that are needed to make it work. Fitting the two together is all too easy. Worse, it makes almost everything look predestined.

I can only hope that I’ll get over it in time. Because The Dark Knight really should have been a better movie than it was–to me. For you, if you haven’t seen it and I haven’t spoiled anything for you, it will probably be much better than okay.

And in other review news, Banana Creme Oreos taste very much like circus peanuts shoved into an Oreo, with that coolness on the tongue that artificial banana flavor gives. They’re kinda weird. Duh.

Why Spook Bugged Me

I’m reading Mary Roach’s Bonk, her new book about sex research, in between, oh, everything else. It’s quite good, and I’m relieved.

I read her first two books, Stiff (about the treatment of human cadavers) and Spook (about the search for proof of an afterlife). Stiff was wonderful, but Spook left a bit to be desired. I wasn’t sure whether it was sophomore slump, a rush to capitalize on the success of Stiff, or something else. After Bonk, I finally get it.

Roach’s trick is to take her readers inside an alien culture, strip away taboos, and expose the humanity that’s left. She acknowledges her own limited frame of reference, then uses humor, matter-of-fact reporting and sympathy to get beyond it.

This worked for Stiff, where she introduced us to people who treat the dead with respect but not fear. We got to know and understand morticians and researchers at the body farm. We saw the ups and downs of their jobs. These are scientists and technicians who are like you and me but without the squeamishness. Nice folks. Cool. Glad to meet them.

Then the same thing happened in Spook, only this time it was the ultra-credulous who got the treatment. They were still nice folks and all, but I could never shake the desire to shake them and ask why they weren’t turning their talents to something useful. What I had mistaken in Stiff for Roach’s respect for reason and rationality was really respect for her subjects.

Luckily, with Bonk, we’re back on useful territory. The history of inquiry moves from interesting but bizarre belief to understanding based on reality. We’re back in my world.

And I know now to check the subject before picking up Roach’s next book. I’ll probably still buy it, whatever the subject, but I’ll know whether to expect something enjoyable, or just something interesting.

Riddick and Reznor

My husband and I have a peculiar metric for some art we just don’t like. It isn’t that it’s bad, exactly. It’s that it’s Chronicles of Riddick bad.

Making this extra peculiar is that I haven’t seen Chronicles of Riddick. However, I did hear quite a bit about it after my husband saw it. Seriously, lots. He ranted for days, vaguely at first but zeroing in eventually on what had bothered him.

Finally, he said, “It didn’t bother me so much that it wasn’t good. I could have just sat back and enjoyed the badness if that were the case. But every time I started to think, ‘Okay, this is just going to suck,’ they’d introduce something promising and get my hopes up. Then they wouldn’t do anything with it.”

We all know that kind of bad. It’s when you, as an amateur sitting in the audience, have to shout, “No, no no! Turn left, you idiot!” You can see the rails and watch the plot go right off them. It’s Stargate Atlantis bad. It’s Lost bad. It’s Star Wars Episode 3 bad. In my case, it’s Nine Inch Nails bad.

I want to like Nine Inch Nails, especially since my husband’s a fan. Failing that, I want to ignore it. But it won’t let me do either.

I’m big on lyrics, and Reznor’s just aren’t up to my standards. They’re pedestrian where they should be insightful or at least clever. Except for that occasional phrase that catches my attention against my will. Then he goes right back to substituting profanity for provocation. Blah, blah.

The same thing happens with the arrangements, except this time they start out interesting. Good musicians, good hooks, well executed. But rather than stringing the good hooks together or exploring variations on them, they give me repetition. Sometimes, I get repetition with noise. Sometimes, the hook goes away, and I’m left with just the noise. Not that noise is bad. It just isn’t music unless you do something with it.

Even more frustrating, I know that they can put it all together and make it work. The one song I like is “Piggy.” There’s noise. There’s interesting musicianship with variations to keep it interesting. There’s not a lot in the way of lyrics. But it all works together. It’s good.

Then the next song comes on and squanders all the potential again. “Ha, ha,” it says, “Made you look. Made you hope.”

That kind of bad.

Foreign Contamination 100%

Pixar can stop now. They’ve done everything they needed to do.

Twenty-two years ago, they released Luxo Jr. and set the standard for animating the inanimate. Luxo Jr. is the desk lamp in Pixar’s logo. It’s a great logo, but in the original animation, he’s even more playful, squirmier and demonstrably young. Sure, he’s beautifully rendered, but that’s almost beside the point. It’s all about his personality.

Wall-E is the culmination of what Pixar started with Luxo. The robots in this movie, almost entirely without speech and using just their own inflexible mechanical parts (no bumper mouths and headlight eyes), are so personable that even Greg might be enchanted by them. (Or terrified. I’m not making bets either way.) There are humans here, but they’re almost reduced to a running joke.

It isn’t just the animation that makes this a great film, either. The voicework is impressive, especially considering limitations of vocabulary. There’s none of the all-too-typical basing characters on the stars who voice them. One of the voices is even provided by Macintalk, which I didn’t realize until the credits.

There are a couple of Macintosh moments that made me giggle but could annoy others. The story is going to have some people screaming that it’s too political, but it’s well within the normal bounds of science fiction extrapolation. For a film about robots, it’s very human positive. The script is far more mature than those for the Toy Story movies or for Finding Nemo. It gets harder to rely on pop culture and throwaway lines when you have so little dialog. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a very good thing. I haven’t a clue whether kids are going to like the film, but it’s perfect for adults.

And for us old Pixar fans. I’ll be getting this one on BluRay. While I’m at it, I think I’ll pick up that disk of Pixar shorts I saw recently. Now I remember why I loved them so much.

Steven Moffat

…is a god among writers.

“Nine and a Half Minutes” is the single most brilliant script ever. It’s from Coupling. No, the good one, the British one (same scripts, better acting and directing). It is the exact same sequence of events involving six people seen from three different viewpoints. It’s the only time I’ve seen the same joke mean two different things, with both being hysterically funny. And while it adds a bit to know the characters, it’s still brilliant without that knowledge.

Go watch it. Go watch the whole series. You can finish reading this when you’re done.

Moffat also wrote the best Doctor Who episodes ever. All six of them. “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances, ” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink, ” “Silence in the Library,” and “Forest of the Dead.” They will creep you out. They will break your heart. They will end in a place you didn’t expect but that is exactly where they must end. And you will never forget the characters they introduce.

Next season, Moffat takes over the whole show. I already knew that, of course. Cheers went up at WisCon when it was announced that it was now official. But having just seen the last two episodes he wrote makes it more immediate, so now I’m twitching for it to happen now, now, NOW. It won’t, though. Not for another two years.

I’m so going to wear out my DVDs before that gets here.

Really, Mr. Davies?

Who in their right minds invites the writer of “Daleks in Manhattan” back to write another two-part episode of Doctor Who? Who films a cliffhanger that involves The Doctor suddenly being too dense to break glass? Who brings back a favorite action heroine character only to have her spend most of two episodes in a coma? And who doesn’t recognize when an ending is so constrained by the law of conservation of characters as to be completely predictable?

Just askin’.