Stories We Tell

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Every family has at least one story to tell. Whether it’s the immigrant story or a historical legend or the adventures of that one weird uncle, there’s always some labyrinthine mixture of truth and fantasy that entrenches a family’s history. Stories We Tell is a documentary about one humble tale. Directed by critically-acclaimed filmmaker Sarah Polley, the film delves into her parents’life and her upbringing, spiraling into rumours of infidelity and her heritage. It’s a marvellously self-indulgent film, but one that is a delight to watch.

Stories We Tell starts with candid moments with each member of Sarah’s family. They all question her approach, why the movie is being made and give some pretext to the dialogue between the documentary’s creator and her subjects. Sarah then delves into her parents’ relationship, focusing on her mother’s side. Her mother is long dead and as a result, much of the movie is about her absence. The movie is constructed so that it appears as if we have almost every piece of the truth, we’re just missing her own perspective. That absence leads to the greatest mystery of the film, her mother’s trip to Montreal to act in the play, Toronto in the late 1970s.

The film goes over that trip several times, each time adding in the new facts Sarah’s uncovered. First it appears that Montreal is where her mother and father, Michael Polley, rekindled their waning relationship. Then it becomes the centre for a likely infidelity, as family members joke that Sarah looks nothing like her father. And finally, it transforms into the place where her mother found love once again. It just so happened to be in the arms of another man.

From the start a savvy viewer will be able to anticipate each new development. Real life has a way of playing into established storylines, and as such Sarah’s living family is at the crux of the film. The reveal that she is not Michael’s biological daughter is not as impressive as her sister’s tearful reaction to learning that their mother recaptured love. Nor is it as draining as her brother’s disappointment in their mother’s irresponsibility. These very human reactions transcend the documentary’s occasional banality. The intrigue comes from each family member’s reaction, not least of which is her father’s.

Michael is perhaps the most endearing subject in the film. He narrates the film with his self-depreciating memoirs. They’re well-written and his voice comes off as both mournful and yet complacent. He has a pleasant demeanour and ever present voice.  As a result, Sarah’s attempts to discuss her heritage are all the more stressful for the viewer.

The only portion of the film that is disconcertingly philosophical is the discussion about who owns the drama. Sarah’s biological father debates with her about who should be telling the story and attempts to directly address the subjective nature of truth. But the truth is that these scenes drags on. These questions are best used as themes permeating the documentary, not spoken aloud. Plus, the director has clearly embraced that reality is subjective since most of the flashbacks are recreations made to appear like Super 8 home movies. It is an indulgence too far in an already decadent film.

Stories We Tell is a well-built documentary about family legends. The film’s construction flows in and out of moments in time, like memories connected by a thematic thread.  The movie is never quite chronological, and is better for it, pulling together stories that feel emotionally relevant. Sarah Polley may not have the most unique family in the world, but the execution makes the story feel heartfelt.  It exemplifies how out of control family stories can get, even the recent ones, to the point that the film’s final punch line is a perplexing, but entirely satisfying end.

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Women and Anime: Mawaru Penguindrum

Quickly! Late, I know. Part of this is going to require knowledge of kawaisa, and I have a post on that already, just skip two thirds down. For those uninitiated with the series, I’ve limited the spoilers to about the first half of the series. Also, what the hell are you doing reading this? Watch it. Now.

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Mawaru Penguindrum, a 26 episode series, created by Kunihito Ikuhara is anime trying to make a modern myth about fate. There’s avoiding fate, finding fate, creating fate, losing to fate, and most of all, changing fate. A by-product of this fate fixation is that Penguindrum comments on the most common type of social determinism, gender roles.  Ikuhara, however, does so in a very Japanese way, reflecting the ways men and women are expected to act in his society and the overriding aesthetic. While the series is not mainly concerned with gender roles, Ikuhara remains a man who is definitely concerned about it. As a result, a lot the metaphors and a analogies for fate, work similarly for convention. Mawaru Penguindrum really argues for a more family centric society, where the roles are determined by necessity, not birth. So we see a flexible family structure, opposed by obsession and, as is often the case in anime, the bad guy is overcome by love.

For those who have yet to watch the show, Mawaru Penguindrum stars an idealised orphan family of the two brothers and their younger sister. In the midst of their happiness (which is so cute and sugary that witnessing it could incite diabetes), Himari gets some horrific disease which cannot be cured. Her brothers, Kanba and Shoma, attempt to live out her last days as best as they can manage. After a penguin-themed adventure, she dies, then comes back to life, possessed by a spirit demanding that the brothers acquire the penguindrum to save her.

This summary is nonsensical in the way that someone not familiar with anime would still say, “that sounds like Japan,” and that is very much the point. Cuteness and absurdity are a key part of Japanese pop culture, and Ikuhara uses that to inform the viewer of his perception of Japan. Kawaisa masks the severity of rape, cults, and mass murder, all of which are discussed in Penguindrum. Ikuhara doesn’t mean to say that cuteness is bad. He’s regularly embraced it in past work. Not to mention that the series is better for its high fructose-based reality distortion, as the story feels more like a fable, where the moral stakes are higher than physical ones. In Penguindrum, kawaisa is simply the lens through which fate and –for better or for worse– women are seen.

Read the rest of this entry

Women and Anime: A Deadly Project in Four Parts

The portrayal of women in media sucks. Let’s be straight, the vast majority of all protagonists are male, the women who make it into stories are often ineffectual or demeaned and sex still sells above all else. Now, anime is no different, and in some ways it’s worse than the 3D butts in Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the protective love men are supposed to have for Lara Croft. Yet, somehow, anime and manga have also turned out some fantastic gems that deal with gender roles in society that outclasses most American media.

My goal is to analyze four different anime, each of them showcasing a different perception of women in Japanese society. They are as follows: Mawaru Penguindrum (Spinning Penguindrum); Lupin III: The Woman Called Mine Fujiko; Ooku: The Inner Chambers; and High School of the Dead.

Now before anyone cries that I’m cherry picking certain series and skipping some others, I totally am. To be honest, I have a rather limited range when it comes to older anime. I do, however, know these series very well. For your consideration, I am skipping Miyazaki, who has fantastic female protagonists, but his movies don’t quite comment on women so much as he does a very good job at writing them.

Furthermore, I am well aware that High School of the Dead is a fetishistic mess of tits and guns. Its failure to portray women as anything except sex objects works as a great contrast to the others. In fact, I find portrayal of uncompromising masculine dominance to be as important to the discussion of women in media as the well-developed female characters featured in the other series.

Alright, we cool now? Good. Read the rest of this entry

Superman vs. The Elite Review

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A man who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound should be the most terrifying creature on Earth. He’d be unstoppable and unbeholden to our mortal morality. So, why then is Superman one of the most popular heroes on the planet? He does not kill and he never loses.

A superman does both in the new DC animated film, Superman vs. The Elite, an adaptation that both faithfully adapts its source material, while improving on its message and focus. Read the rest of this entry

China Heavyweight: A Boxing Movie About China (And No Heavyweights)

In the county of Huili, Mohammad Ali and Confucius appear to walk hand in hand. New trainees, straight from the China’s provincial farmland, get the opportunity to become like the boxing legends of yore. It’s a typical sports story, which would be entirely unremarkable, except for its cultural fusion and the exquisite cinematography.

China Heavyweight, a new documentary from Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, showcases China’s return to boxing, viewed from the eyes of young hopefuls in the earthy Sichuan province. The return comes after a thirty year ban, which disappeared with much of the old communist doctrine. As the economy flourished, suddenly a violent, highly competitive sport just seemed to fit with the new ideology. Time to refine the population from raw material down to valued product. Only now does that shift trickle down to students Miao Yunfei, He Zhongli and their coach, Qi Moxiang. Read the rest of this entry

The Revisionaries: An Amusing Tale Of Failure From Afar

Whatever the textbooks tell students today, the White House will say twenty years from now.  Every member of the Texas State Board of Education (TSBE) knows these stakes, since they determine the criteria for many textbooks across state lines. The Revisionaries is a documentary that shows how the far right are trying to question things like evolution and the division of church and state by writing their doubt in millions of students’ textbooks.

The Revisionaries follows the affable dentist and old Chairman of the TSBE, Don McLeory, as he asserts his creationist beliefs through education policy. His major ally is the prayer-happy professor of law Cynthia Dunbar, while his opposition comes in the form of science advocate, Kathy Miller and Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor.

Debate on the education board plays out like the “culture war” Fox News anticipated but failed to actually report on. The religious right starts every session with a prayer for victory and seems to end each one with their wish granted. Eliminate mentions of diverse peoples, add St. Thomas Aquinas to the section on Enlightenment thinkers (despite living at least 400 years too early), and make sure that the theory of evolution is criticised and debated in classrooms. Read the rest of this entry

Marvel’s Particular Piracy Situation, Or On Humanism.

Look closely at Marvel’s release schedule, as it switches out artists on their comics, and you’ll see that Marvel is feeding piracy. Okay, so maybe that needs a little explaining. Marvel has developed a habit of replacing their artists intermittently as a way for compensating for double-shipping their issues. As David Brothers is keen to tell you, this process devalues the artists and makes them seem less pivotal to their respective series. It’s a simple trick. If an artist can be switched out at will, then that sends a signal to readers that they aren’t all that integral to the comic they are currently enjoying. And this disregard is ultimately going to make Marvel poorer in the long run.

Pirates like to attack easy targets. Pirates like targets who look invulnerable, tough, ‘the man’ in all its wealth and public faculties. Every time some schlub goes to the flea market and picks up a burned copy of some movie he couldn’t be bothered to copy himself, he justifies it by saying, “This isn’t hurting anyone.” He’ll remind you that given the opportunity to help a small artist in need, he’ll pay up, gladly. See, he’s not hurting people, he’s hurting some rich landlord or a corporation, who makes millions every year anyway. And even then, this is special.  He wouldn’t watch it if it wasn’t cheap or free.  He’s only pirating because he’s bored.

That is the excuse of the everyman pirate on Bittorrent or in a flea market, for every game, movie and comic stolen. It’s not hurting anyone who counts.

By changing up its artists, Marvel kind of looks like the big corporation right now. Here’s why. Marvel clearly wants to make fans loyal not to the comic creators, but the comic series. The goal is not to have fans following Mark Waid and Paulo Rivera, they should be following Daredevil. Waid is, or at the very least Marvel would hope you believe, a Marvel man or “Architect”, much like Fraction, Bendis and Hickman. That makes him less of a writer and more of an extension of company ideal. To Marvel, Waid is a medium who can channel intellectual property into cash flow. That view is also why they don’t switch around writers as they do artists. The writers are positioned as extensions of the company. Yet, when Waid eventually leaves to focus on his own comics, or when he goes back to DC, or when he simply gets tired of Daredevil, Marvel does not want Daredevil’s fans to follow Waid away from the series.

Heck, Marvel doesn’t even want people to follow its key architects. I doubt they’ll make a big deal when Hickman takes over for Bendis on the Avengers. Perhaps a comment here, or an interview there on Bendis’ last issue. But they’ll be quick to remind people, “New Avengers out on Wednesday!” Same when Fraction eventually leaves Iron Man, because he’ll run out of stories one day and is replaced with Kieron Gillen (it will happen people).

You can’t really blame Marvel for hoping that people will look for series and not people. First of all, it’s worked fairly well for them in the past, considering how long people stuck around after Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil or Mark Millar’s run on Ultimate X-Men. There’s also the simple math element to it. Writers and artists don’t last as long as comic series do. Marvel wants to keep readers for another fifty years or so, and their characters need to survive beyond their writer’s ability to spin new stories for them. However, by building loyalties to brands and not people, Marvel is going to make it a lot easier to ‘justify’ pirating content from them.

This is entirely wrong as the human element is an easy way to make it harder for that false justification. Let me give you a personal example. I went to TCAF over the weekend for some fun and panels, and maybe a talk to a few creators. While I was meandering around, I see issue 6 of Comic Book Comics readily available. I was a pretty big fan of Ryan Dunlavey’s and Fred Van Lente’s earlier work, Action Philosophers, and was psyched to see the final issue of their new series on the desk. I picked it up and began to casually look through it.

“I can’t wait to see this in a trade,” I mumbled to myself, as I usually do when wandering around booths, trying to grow enough backbone to talk to a writer or an artist.

“Oh really?” A voice said from behind the desk. I turn up, and see, Ryan Dunlavey sitting with a child on his lap. It’s not like I expected to see someone else, but I was a little surprised that he talked to me first. Although I suppose he could have assumed I was talking to him when I blurted out my impatience to see six issues become a book.  Anyway.

“Oh, yeah, I really loved Action Philosophers. I’ve read through every issue. I’ve seen a few samples of this new one floating around the internet and I guess I’ve been waiting for it to be collected.” Of course, I should have added, “Oh by the way, I read all of Action Philosophers on my computer because a friend of mine sent me pirated copies to me over Skype.”

“Good to hear. You can take that issue you’re holding.”

I kind of glared at him in disbelief. “But, I-Are you sure?” I said and without realizing it, reached into my back pocket for my wallet.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I believe you when you say you’re a fan,” he said calmly, before turning his attention back to this kid who was now bouncing on his knee. I mumbled a thank you and then ran to the other side of the room.

I feel  guilty for stealing from Dunlavey and Van Lente, just because it took me an embarrassing conversation for me to realize that I was taking from two (or at least one) extremely decent human beings. I don’t deserve that issue. I just feel too guilty. Though, I am very glad to have it for reasons I will get to in a moment.

You can see my point, creating empathy between the creators and the public is how you make them want to purchase a comic, or feel bad about stealing. No one is going to care or feel guilt about pirating a comic if they think they’re stealing from the brand of a faceless corporation. I don’t care about Marvel. Marvel isn’t my friend. Marvel is a creature that for over fifty years has treated its creators as disposable parts of the comic creating process. If anything, I’m prone to make Marvel the guy I avoid at the annual corporo-humanoid dance party.

Let me eliminate some misconceptions for a second. I’m not trying to validate pirating in any form against Marvel, DC or any corporation. Just that it will be far more likely if the perpetrators think they are stealing from of a million dollar corporate hierarchy instead of individuals. Nor am I saying that building a connection, like the one I accidentally formed with Dunlavey, is the catch-all solution to solving piracy. Louis CK released his comedy album for only five dollars online with a personal pledge that he hoped people would be honest and not pirate his work. They still did. But the connection between a creator and consumer still earned him a million bucks. Course, there’s a further caveat to that. Louis CK was a well-established comedian with his own TV show. People knew who he was before he released his album. As for someone unknown using the same technique, there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many sales and more people would pirate it. So the system ain’t all hunky-dory as I’d like to propose.

Yet, Marvel does make enough that instead of trying to hide its artists and trying to absorb its writers, it could bring them to the forefront. Don’t show them as ‘Marvel Architects.’ Marvel should try to showcase their unique abilities, personalities and interests. Treat them like you would treat any author, not some medium through which the corporate IP flows.  Connecting the audience to actual people will bring greater respect for creators, and bring a greater respect to comics as a whole. It is only through mature dealings with the creators, will the rest of society then see that comics, as a medium, have matured.

Fred Van Lente says it best at the end of Comic Book Comics issue 6, as he explains how he believes the comics industry in the US has to move forward in the coming years:

“Discarding the “Pennies Business” demands more respect of the medium and creators. It robs pirates of one of their most potent weapons—The self-serving delusion they’re “Sticking it to the man” and hurting only evil faceless corporations and not middle-class folks just like them. There will always be a market for free stuff with no consequences. But as corny as it sounds, putting a human face on those who produce what the Torrent Generation consumers will be a more effective curb than trying to sue them into submission.”

Summarized into fewer than ninety words, that is exactly what I am trying to say. Marvel and DC by hiding creators, or trying to mask them under a corporate brand, is only encouraging piracy. I only really talked about Marvel’s actions, but DC’s Before Watchmen is just as disingenuous if not more so. They both need to get their acts together and start celebrating their real employees as much as their fictional characters. It’s the only way they’re going to get fans to feel actual guilt for stealing.

Finally, thank you Ryan Dunlavey, and I’m sorry. Just give me a second to pre-order Comic Book Comics from Amazon. I’ll pay this time, I promise.

End of the World: Time to Get Started

Image by Michal Dziekan

I made a New Years resolution last year, and boy oh boy did I fail to follow it. So here’s the deal, I’m not going to make a New Year’s resolution. I’m making an end of the world decision. This is 2012. The last year on the Mayan Calender. Not that I actually believe in that tripe, but the end of the world is a good motivation. Some might say that an incoming meteor or earthquake or invading aliens provides incentive.

I am going to devote a minimum of two hours every weekday to creative flow. Everyday I am going to try to develop and execute  new ideas. For some people that means programming,  or playing music, or drawing. For me that means being a aware of my surroundings and writing whenever I get a spare chance. The results will inevitably revealed through five avenues of output: Read the rest of this entry

Sounds to Occupy Toronto

On Monday October 16, I was walking towards Ryerson when I encountered a bunch of protestors sitting at Yonge and Dundas. Actually, I first noticed the buzz of a police helicopter flying above me, followed by the whistles from the policemen. What I found were Occupy Toronto members protesting the cancellation of wheel transit (buses carrying people in wheelchairs or other mobile disabilities) to 120 King Street, a church which also happens to be their headquarters. And along the way back to the church they protested anything else they could along the way.

My intention at the start was to write an article on them. But, it turned out I simply have too much sound and not enough time to write it. So instead, I’m going to give you more or less the raw footage. This work has been edited to get rid of dead air, and set it up in a chapter by chapter basis. I’ve removed parts of interviews that are too meandering to use or where I make an intrusion that doesn’t help the interview. It takes an hour and thirty minutes to listen to all of this. All of this being, protest movements, personal ramblings, interviews, and exploration. You even get to hear my horrible biases, such as when I mumble that there are less homeless people here than I expect, or my surprise that the place didn’t smell like pot.

I should note, I have no affiliation with Occupy Toronto. I do think it’s impressive, but I am doing this because I found it fascinating to witness. Furthermore, if I say anything during an interview, that is likely just to get the interviewee to talk more.

Speaking of interviews, the second one that shows up is not mine. Not mine in the sense that I didn’t conduct it. A freelance journalist (for the Star, I think) ran up to someone in charge and started talking to them. I was nearby and had a recorder. This is why you’ll here the man talking, but no one asking the questions.

As for everyone else I talk to, their names are, in order of appearance:
M. Rossi, Policeman (I read this from his jacket)
Antonin GovernmentName, Occupier and Free food organizer
Wally Williams, Homeless Worker
Celeste Bouviour (If this name sounds outrageous that’s because it’s super fake.), climate analyst
Mark Harwood-Jones, volunteer
Micheal Pinto, volunteer

If you want more information about each clip, it’ll be in the description and comments on the audio.

Comic Book Industry Hopes to Rebound Through Digital Distribution

Thousands of fans and collectors rushed into a comic book store to witness the death of an icon. They had seen it on the news, heard it on the radio, been told by their friends. Superman was dead. The cover of Superman 75 showed Superman’s torn cape blowing in the wind like a flag, while his family and friends wept in the background.

On this day in 1992, a single store in Detriot sold nearly 200 000 copies of a comic, as consumers raced to pick up that issue. The store began to see that they were running out of issues, so they marked the prices up higher and higher. By the end of the day, the issue that had started off at a $1.50 was going for twenty times its original price. This was a common sight in comic book stores across North America.

DC Comics, publisher of Superman, and comic book retailers made around $30 million in one day. This was the third time an American comic book publisher had hit the jackpot. It was also the last.

It was clear by the end of that same year that the comic market was shrinking. Sales dropped, the collectors cashed out and sent the whole system into what Grant Morrison, a writer at DC Comics, called “a death spiral.”

However, comic book creators see a way out of this tail spin through a new distribution system: the internet. Read the rest of this entry