Part One of Mockingjay is better than the book – a minimal-spoilers (p)review

I went into Mockingjay today with managed expectations. The new Hunger Games film is the first in a two-part adaptation of the trilogy’s final book, which by now raises concerns of faddishness, and the book itself – I read it a couple of years ago – is not the series’ best. (That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did, but both as a finale and a novel, it felt just-okay. Fans tend to agree.) The main strength of Catching Fire, last year’s film, was that it lived up to its source material, widely and wisely viewed as the best book. For Mockingjay, part one at least, to maintain the standard, filmmakers would need to improve on the text.

I shouldn’t have worried, because the the film isn’t just better than the book – it actually enhances it, accentuating elements I hadn’t noticed or appreciated.

The Hunger Games franchise has always been a textbook example of how to film a bestselling book series. (Harry Potter‘s mutilators, take note.) Consistently, it’s employed sensitive direction, pitch-perfect casting and an intently faithful scripting (Potter butchers, take further note) – but most importantly, those at work behind the camera have always taken advantage of film’s distinct storytelling powers. Whereas Suzanne Collins’ novels are told entirely through first-person narrative, restricting readers to the viewpoint of Jennifer Lawrence’s lead character, the first two films – instead of trying in vain create the same effect – show us unseen events only mentioned or guessed at in the books, fleshing out Collins’ story and wider world. Mockingjay does this somewhat less, perhaps because Katniss knows more of the plot this time round, but uses its status as a film in totally new ways. [Read more…]

Finally, lesbian and gay Christians get called out

Occasionally I like something I read by a believer. Shannon TL Kearns at the Anarchist Reverend blog: ‘LGBT Christian Respectability Politics Have Got To Go‘.

The lesbian and gay Christian conversation (with occasional comments about bisexual and transgender folks) seems to finally be hitting its peak. Everywhere you turn these days there are new books and conferences and denominational statements. I’m observing some troubling trends within this LG(BT) Christian movement.

If you begin to follow the conversations online you notice a couple of things: The gay and lesbian people who are held up as the ones to listen to are polite, soft-spoken, center the feelings of allies, and rarely (if ever) get angry. They focus on the ‘clobber passages’ and don’t talk about liberation in broader terms. They are content to stay in their evangelical churches. They don’t unpack how other theology is harmful, not just to queer people but to straight and cis folks as well. Their entire conversation can be boiled down to ‘I’m just like you, only gay.’

Here’s the thing about respectability politics; they don’t work. They are based on a false notion that says if only you behave, if only you play by the rules, if only you are good enough, then the church will love and accept you. But it’s not true. Because even when you tell them you are celibate they still think you are having sex. And even when you quote the Bible at them they still distrust your reading of it. Even when you dress like them and talk like them and marry like them they are still waiting for you to mess up so they can discredit you.

And as you play into respectability politics you are not actually working for liberation. You are saying, ‘I’m not like those other queers. I’m one of the good ones.’ And by saying that you allow straight and cisgender people to say it as well and suddenly the ‘bad queers’ are pushed to the side, or worse, pushed out entirely.

When the people who hate us come for us (and they will) they won’t care that you are celibate. Or that you are married with a picket fence and 2.5 kids. They won’t care that you are white and dress nice and toe the line. They will look at you as if you are just like all of the other queer and trans people, the ones that you have said you aren’t like. They won’t see the differences between us. They will lump us all together. In that moment your respectability will not save you.

I don’t agree with every word, of course, but the whole thing’s worth a read – it’s nice to see the gay and lesbian Christian lobby get the slap in the face it deserves.

More coming soon, in my own words.

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To the fan of The Atheist Experience who asked them to ‘take me on': 62 reasons you suck

I published a post yesterday called ‘I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?‘ In it, I accept ideas linked to my worldview have motivated people to act badly and ask believers – instead of being defensive and dismissive when shown harm caused by religion – to do the same.

I’d been wondering where the angry mob were till Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience forwarded me this email from a fan.

I’d love to see you guys take on this brand of college educated hipster atheist.  His particular bent is becoming quite loud amongst us and is doing the work of the religious while speaking in our voice.  He get’s a lot of things wrong but it seems he just lumps a whole bunch of human failings on to atheism.  He’s part of the “lets hate Dawkins/Harris at all costs” camp and at times I feel like he’s as dishonest as S.E. Cupp.

He starts this thing with 5 bullet points, all of which misrepresent the involvement of Atheism or the the responsibility of atheist ideas for the failings sited.
http://freethoughtblogs.com/godlessness/2014/11/17/im-sorry-todays-atheist-movement-has-inspired-abuse-are-you-sorry-your-religion-has/

Drew

‘Hipster atheist’. Was it the glasses? It was the glasses, wasn’t it?

They’re reading glasses. [Read more…]

Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

A reader writes in:

I’d be grateful if you could clear some things up for me.

By all means.

What is ‘queer’? I’ve only ever been aware of it for the most part as a slur.

Queer‘ is a complex term with a complex set of related ideas – that’s what makes it a useful and powerful term – but suffice to say it refers to everything non-heteronormative: everyone not cisgender-and-heterosexual, everyone excluded from straight society and everything that belongs to our communities and culture. Queer people are bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, agender, a rainbow of other things – and, yes, gay.

Some of us also identify purely as queer, whether on political grounds, because we aren’t sure how else to identify or because we feel the details of what we are matter less than the fact of what we aren’t (that is, straight). That ‘queer’ a negative term allows it to be all-inclusive in this way: the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ is somewhat analogous to the difference between ‘African American’ (a specific identity) and ‘person of colour‘ (anyone non-white). [Read more…]

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?

I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse.

Specifically, I’m sorry some of its ideas inspire abuse. To name a few things:

I don’t feel personally responsible for these things – I’m not sorry in the same way as when I step on someone’s foot or guess a Canadian’s from the US – but I’m sorry it’s the case today’s atheist movement has inspired them. Simply being atheists isn’t these people’s motivation – atheism by itself prompts no more action than theism by itself – but the particular atheist school of thought we share, which came to prominence roughly in the last ten years, produced the ideas that inspire this abuse just as particular religions produce their own. [Read more…]

‘Grow up and stop spouting such utter crap': when I told my ‘supportive’ mum she wasn’t a queer ally

Someone I know via social media posted the following update three days ago.

A friend and I went to the gym tonight. After our workout we tried to relax in the hot tub, when a random lady in an American flag bikini approached me.

The lady: ‘What does your tattoo mean?’

Me: ‘Oh, that’s my angry-feminist-bi-pride tattoo.’

‘What?’

‘Angry, feminist, bisexual pride. This is a feminist symbol, and it’s on top of the bisexual pride flag.’

The lady compliments my friend’s nails. An awkward silence.

‘Why are you bisexual?’

‘I don’t know how to answer that. I just am.’

‘But why?’

‘Because I’m attracted to more than one gender.’

‘She’s attracted to all the genders’, my friend adds. We high five.

‘When I was little I was molested. Then I was told I was a lesbian.’

‘Well, that has nothing to do with me. I’m just bisexual.’

Banter ensues between me and my friend about how shitty men are and how glad I am that I never have to date one. The lady says something about how I should learn to tolerate men’s crap, then: ‘Have you heard about your personal lord and saviour, Jesus Christ?’

‘I don’t want to talk about Jesus at the gym.’

The lady continues talking about Jesus.

‘This makes me really uncomfortable. Please stop.’

The lady continues talking about Jesus, mentioning something about hellfire.

‘I don’t appreciate being told I’m going to hell for who I love.’

‘I didn’t say that. I didn’t say you’re going to hell. You’re the one who said that.’ (She tells me this in a ‘Gotcha now, queer! You know you’re gross’ tone.)

‘Don’t lie. You literally just quoted scripture to me about hellfire. Go away now.’

‘I didn’t say that. I’m not your judge. I don’t judge.’

‘Well, I judge – and you’re gross. Go away.’

‘Have you heard’, my friend asks me loudly, ‘about your lord and personal saviour, Satan?!’ We proceed to discuss the the black altar and orgasms. The lady walks away.

We reported her to the front desk for harassing us. They seemed to take the matter very seriously.

When I shared it with my followers, the exchange below happened between me and my Christian mum. (Her comments are in regular text, mine in bold.) It makes me want to write about a multitude of things – ally culture, the realities of queerness and Christianity, the fact I’ve lost offline relationships as a result – but for now I haven’t much left in me to say. [Read more…]

What NBC’s Constantine got wrong on Romanies and religion

Legend has it that before Christ was crucified, his executioners found a blacksmith to forge the nails. There are two accounts of what happened next, the first telling how God cursed the blacksmith and his kin the Romanies to wander the earth, forever denied shelter. The second – the one I was told as a child – says that the blacksmith forged four nails but only gave the Romans three, absconding with the one meant for the heart. For sparing his son that pain, the story goes, God blessed the Romanies, permitting them to steal from those who persecuted them trying to reclaim the lost nail.

Which version you tell reveals your views about people known to their enemies as gypsies. Which one is a revision of the other I don’t know, but the two competing myths offer a clue about my ancestors’ relationship with Christianity – in some ways a historical yardstick of their status in Europe.

A couple of weeks ago – on Hallowe’en, no less – Constantine‘s second episode aired. The series, despite its comic book source, feels like a far less inspired crossbreed of Doctor Who and Apparitions (Google it), and its race issues are doing it no favours: this episode in particular featured (spoilers ahead) a greedy, dishonest, sexually aggressive Romany woman as its villain, whose husband’s violence toward her seemed not to make her killing him by supernatural means any more morally complex. At one point the series lead, a white exorcist fighting demons through Catholic prayer, even remarked disgustedly: ‘There’s nothing blacker than gypsy magic.’

Pale skinned Christianity, virtuous and pure, versus Romany witchcraft’s exotic evil – this is an opposition I know well. [Read more…]

Designing Greta Christina’s new book cover

Greta Christina has a new book. (Doesn’t she always?) Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God is a guide for atheists, agnostics and believers whose faith isn’t helping them deal with mortality. In place of wishful thinking it offers… well, the clue is in the name.

Since her regular collaborator Casimir Fornalski was unavailable, Greta asked me to design the cover art. I bit her hand off said I’d be delighted.

ComfortingThoughtsAboutDeathThatHaveNothingToDoWithGod

Certainly I had reservations. Fornalski and I have never interacted, but I’ve admired his work with her for two and a half years: the angry woman who looks suspiciously like Greta on the covers of her prior atheist books has become an unmistakeable part of her brand. Ending such an effective partnership is risky even when you have no choice, and I worried I’d be unable to create something as memorable or iconic.

The project became about creating something unlike Fornalski’s covers – in particular, I decided it should look illustrated more than designed, have a coloured background instead of a white one and be uncartoonish. (A further design constraint when Audible required square covers for audiobooks. So the image could be broadened just by adding a strip each side, the background had to be one flat, replicable colour.)

Greta and I discussed ideas. ‘A stylised tree with roots as well as branches, but with the roots being made of DNA double helix coils’ got vetoed: ‘As a many-times-over designer for atheists,’ I told her, ‘no more effing double helixes. They’ve been done so many times the concept’s over.’ (Movement: take note.) The tree motif I did like, so the next suggestion – ‘a person sitting or standing at a gravestone’ – became someone under its boughs.

I started doodling.

000Negative space designs are my weakness, and initially the figure beneath the tree was to be the same colour as the background, appearing as a ‘gap’ in the tree’s trunk. (I wanted a cypress tree – symbol of mourning in the classical era – but gave up on it when the shape was wrong.) Given the book’s sombre theme to differentiate it further from Greta’s other covers, pastel tones drew my eye and the soft grey-green I chose – softer than the final one – survived till late in the design process.

I won’t lie – this design intimidated me. The moment I knew how the tree should look, I knew I had to ‘paint’ it with digital sponges, creating foliage and paint blots from shapes in two different colours, green defining white – over eighty layers and over four hundred individual ‘spongeprints’ went into the end product above. For a while I was unsure I should attempt something so different from my previous work and toyed with the idea of a cover consisting solely of the title in narrowly-spaced Georgia, perhaps referencing Faber’s minimalist poetry collections.

It didn’t take – I suspect because I knew my first thought was my best and that I ought to persevere. When I did, I ended up with the following halfway house.

000Since I’m terrible at drawing representational forms – I studied graphic art, alright? – creating the sitting figure was tough. I tried suggesting someone crosslegged with the abstract shaped I’d used in that first doodle, which turned out to be easier to draw by hand than with a mouse – then at the other extreme, with jagged polygons whose proportions were tricky to get right. Neither worked harmoniously with the tree, and in the end it occurred to me the only way to make the sitting person work would be to use an actual human outline.

This terrified me. I’ve always hidden behind symbols and logo-ish abstractions, and human bodies are some of the hardest things to draw convincingly. (Nonetheless, easier than horses. Try it if you doubt me.) In the end I based the figure on a man’s outline in a stock photo, adjusting the shoulders, midsection and hair to make them appear gender-nonspecific.

It’s obvious to me the background colour to the left was wrong, but making it an apple green was Greta’s suggestion. She also mentioned the typeface – Bebas Neue, also present in my blog banner – may be too stark, asking whether a handwriting-style font could be used instead. It couldn’t, I said, because only chunky all-caps sans serif had the impact not to get lost. (Chinese Rocks was briefly a contender, but Hemant Mehta had shotgunned it with his own book.)

The actual problem, I realised, was the black. Changing the background and making it a soft grey fixed that problem, though it created more. The final alterations were the addition of Greta’s name, deciding whether or not to centre it and experimenting with text in different colour schemes.

000

Since we both liked the second image from the right best, that one became the cover.

Want to buy Greta’s book? Head over to her blog for details.

Want to hire me? That also works.

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Some more of Aslan’s greatest mistakes

After last week’s post, a friend of a friend commented on the bit in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when supposedly beneficent Aslan intimidates a twelve year old girl.

Adding in a child’s perspective here (as told to me by my own child): Aslan is a lion. Not a cute, cuddly kitty. A full-grown, giant lion. And he doesn’t just frown. He growls. My daughter was more frightened of Aslan than she was of Jadis. I don’t think she’s the only child who would have felt that way.

It raises one problem I have with Aslan’s behaviour that isn’t directly to do with him being allegorical. Of all the ways he could stop the Witch (with or without being killed by her), why does he choose the plan that rests on putting four children in mortal danger whose ages range between 8 and 13 – one of whom, aged 10, is intimidated, imprisoned, starved, physically abused, threatened with execution twice and later stabbed to almost-death?

Come to that: why does Aslan continuously threaten prepubescent children’s lives throughout the series, summoning them from a parallel dimension specifically to place them in mortal danger? Why does this, too, go totally unremarked upon? Either his followers are as recklessly dim as he is or they’re too frightened of him to bring it up, and there’s textual support for both.

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“Death in Heaven”: when Steven Moffat listened to his critics

Spoilers follow.

About a week ago I said Doctor Who‘s Missy was another Moffat clone: a femme fatale adventuress totally indistinct on paper from River Song, Irene Adler and many of his other women. That post’s done well – embarrassingly well in fact, because this is the one where I eat my words.

Alright, not where I eat my words: my criticisms of her past appearances stand, as do my general comments on Steven Moffat, but having now seen ‘Death in Heaven’, Saturday’s follow-up to ‘Dark Water’, I’m won over. As of two days ago, Missy is in every way the Master… on top of which, this was NuWho’s best finale yet, one of Moffat’s best episodes and – just possibly – the one where he listened to viewers like me. [Read more…]