Sexism in Gilbert and Sullivan

November 27, 2015 Leave a comment

‘To ev’rybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two/ I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute-and I do!/ But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can/ Yet ev’rybody says I am a disagreeable man/ And I can’t think why!’–W.S. Gilbert. King Gama’s Song in Princess Ida, Act I.

As long as we’re playing the “name the literary genius with shocking prejudices” game, let’s talk about one of my favorites, Sir William S. Gilbert.

Andrew Crowther recently wrote a great piece in The Guardian, examining the oft-leveled charge that Gilbert was quite sexist.  Crowther’s opinion is more or less mine, which is: yes, Gilbert was sexist, but his female characters weren’t just caricatures–there is more nuance to them than critics realize.

One thing to note is that I don’t get the sense Gilbert was any more sexist than the society he lived in was.  (Contrast with the subject of my previous post–H.P.Lovecraft was an extreme racist even by the standards of his time.)

That doesn’t excuse Gilbert, of course, but it makes it more understandable why he thought the way he did.  Moreover, I have never gotten the sense that Gilbert hated women.  He didn’t see them as equal to men, but that’s different than flat-out misogyny.

The best way of addressing the issue of the unpleasant old spinster characters that feature in many of the Savoy operas is to play the men as shallow cads.  This isn’t that hard to do.  Frankly, I don’t think Gilbert liked romantic tenors any more than he liked spinster ladies. Want to make Ruth in Pirates sympathetic?  It’s not too much of a stretch to play Frederic as a shallow imbecile–the entire plot hinges on him being one anyway.

Also, I’ve never thought Princess Ida was just a satire on women’s education–Gilbert pokes fun at it, sure (he was a satirist, after all) but he also mocks men as being dumb, brutish oafs.

None of this is to say  Gilbert is innocent of sexism, but just that the plays must be understood in the context of their time, and sexism unfortunately comes with the territory.

Should the plays be re-written to be less offensive?  There is precedent for that, as the “N word” was removed from both The Mikado and Princess Ida. But it was an easy re-write, as it occurred only in passing in a couple of songs.  The sexism is a harder task, since it involves whole characters.  I agree with Crowther: reinterpretation is the best solution here.

Like all great writers, Gilbert wrote about human nature, and I believe that his wit was so sharp, and his insight so keen, that he sometimes unconsciously saw through the prejudices of his day to essential truths.  Take this song from Princess Ida:

Is it mocking prototypes of the so-called “man-hating feminist”, or is it mocking  anti-feminist men–“pick-up artists”, who try to cloak their misogyny but nonetheless think of women only as sexual objects?  It’s a little of both, I think.  It works perfectly well as either.

The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft

November 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Philip Eil, writing in Salon, has a good article on “the genius and repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft”. It’s an issue that I think every Lovecraftian author has had to face at some point: how can we reconcile admiration of the “cosmic horror” genre that Lovecraft did so much to pioneer with his horrifying racial views?

It’s the old dilemma of separating art from the artist; similar to having to come to grips with the fact that Richard Wagner could on the one hand be enough of a genius to write “Ride of the Valkyries”, and on the other be an anti-Semitic bigot.  There are too many examples to count of cases where somebody is an absolute genius in their field, but a wretched person otherwise.

But there’s another, even more troubling question in the case of Lovecraft: what if the reason for his racism was also the reason for his talent for writing horror?

Racism, after all, is inherently based on fear of “The Other”.  Lovecraft was afraid of any and all non-WASPs, and it was probably that same xenophobia that made him able to concoct weird and terrifying creatures like Cthulhu.

Before anybody decides to quote me out of context: no, I’m not saying you have to be a racist to write horror.  I’m just saying Lovecraft’s racial fears and his horror often seem inseparable.  “The Horror at Red Hook” is, technically speaking, a good horror story,  but it also turns into one of Lovecraft’s most appalling racial screeds.

S.T. Joshi, the prominent Lovecraft biographer, is quoted in the Salon article as saying “There are perhaps only five stories in Lovecraft’s entire corpus of 65 original tales (‘The Street’ ‘Arthur Jermyn,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ ‘He,’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’) that have racism as their central core.”

Well, let’s not forget that in Lovecraft’s best-known story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, the evil cultists are invariably swarthy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic “good” characters.  I don’t know how you define the “central core”, but racism is certainly present in huge swaths of “Cthulhu”.

However, while Lovecraft’s general fear of everything that wasn’t born and raised white and in Providence may have sparked him to be a horror writer, I do think his best stories (“The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Music of Erich Zann”) are the ones that don’t have racism.  (“Haunter” has a little bit of condescension towards Italians, though they are ultimately proven right in their superstitious views.)

Whenever Lovecraft’s racial views crop up in his stories, it has the effect of bringing the reader “back to Earth”–sometimes literally, since it puts the focus on the transient prejudices of a 20th-century writer, rather than on the timeless, cosmic sense of alien fear Lovecraft sought to evoke.

So while it may be that Lovecraft’s xenophobic mindset put him on the road to writing horror, I take comfort in the fact that his most effective stories were the ones that he didn’t corrode with his racism, and stuck to exploring universal human fears of unimaginable and unearthly monsters.

“The Phantom Menace” is the best “Star Wars” movie. And “Empire” is the worst.

November 21, 2015 2 comments

The Originals: A Boring Swamp


The Prequels: A Gorgeous City

We are under a month away from the much-ballyhooed release of “Star Wars VII: Will This Sith Never End?”.

Ok, so that isn’t the real title. But swapping a few letters  in that title neatly summarizes my reaction to it. I’m suffering from Star Wars fatigue.

Still, in honor of the upcoming premiere, I decided to re-watch the entire six movie saga. I came away from it with one overriding conclusion–one that won’t surprise my long-time readers, but will shock all others:

The Prequels are better than the Originals.

To this I add another sub-conclusion:

The Phantom Menace is the best of all of them.

And finally, the most controversial point:

The Empire Strikes Back is the worst of all of them.

Yes, that flies in the face of every review you ever read. But reviewers are subject to fads and fashions, and it was fashionable to bash the prequels largely because critics at the time were nostalgic for the originals.

I’ve always thought the prequels were good. But now I’ve realized they are way better than the dreary original trilogy, with its dull characters and repetitive plots.

Start at the beginning, with The Phantom Menace. Yes, Jake Lloyd was weak, but no worse than Mark Hamill. Moreover, everyone else did quite a good job. Liam Neeson portrays Qui-Gon as an arrogant rebel, and Ewan McGregor is great as his put-upon, trying-to-be-respectful-but-also-follow-the-rules apprentice. I also love the constant sniping between Padme and Qui-Gon. I’m going to come back to this movie later, but for now, we’re on to Attack of the Clones.

It was not as good as I remembered. The plot is an incoherent mess, and the romance is a disaster. But, one thing that was pleasantly surprising was how well Natalie Portman did at playing the romance. She couldn’t do well enough to actually create chemistry (alchemy would have been required to get any sparks from Christensen), but her acting in the love scenes is actually quite good.

The big question, other than why Padme marries Anakin, is how did the planet Kamino apparently keep churning out clone armies without anyone noticing? The Kaminoan Prime minister tells Obi-Wan it is “one of the finest” clone armies they’ve ever made, implying there are others.  No one follows up on this.

Revenge of the Sith starts out impressively with the massive space battle, drags a bit with the tiresome General Grievous subplot, but builds to a powerful emotional climax in the scene where Padme and Obi-Wan confront Anakin on Mustafar. It’s the best scene in all of Star Wars, with Portman and McGregor both doing a magnificent job, and Christensen (for once) showing some terrifying, insane charisma.

My biggest problem with the prequels was the sexism: the treatment of Shmi, who has no dramatic purpose other than to die, was bad enough; but when Padme (who is a very strong, well-written female lead in Phantom Menace) inexplicably falls in love with the loutish Anakin, it seemed like Lucas was saying “Oh, her and her lady brain! That’s just what chicks do.”

The reason the love story in Attack of the Clones is so bad is because Anakin has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. A former Queen turned Senator and successful military strategist would not fall for somebody who was failing at being a monk and pouting about it.

The plot of Clones makes no sense–the Padme/Anakin romance is about as unromantic as it gets, even if you believe that opposites attract. The mystery of why Count Dooku hired a bounty hunter to sub-contract out the task of assassinating a Senator who was going to vote against the creation of an army to oppose forces Count Dooku himself was leading makes no sense either. Hell, I got confused just writing that.

Revenge of the Sith is better at making some sort of sense, but at the end we are still left wondering what Padme, or the Jedi, or even the Emperor himself, ever saw in Anakin. He is basically worthless to everyone; even the Sith.

But as weak as that is, it was still a more compelling story arc than: idiot blows up a space station–>idiot meets talking frog in swamp–>idiot’s friends blow up second, larger space station. Also, sword fights.

A New Hope looks downright silly. None of what Obi-Wan says to Luke is remotely accurate, and the special effects are horrible. The only likable character in it is Han Solo, and he is only likable because he wants to get out of this mess as fast as possible.

The story of A New Hope makes about as much sense as that of Clones; which is to say, very little. What is the use of a space station that blows up planets? It is perhaps the most worthless weapon imaginable–something the simply exterminated all life, leaving the other stuff intact, would be way more valuable. Moreover, why it had to orbit the planet before firing made no sense, nor did the rebels’ elaborate ceremony at the end.

Then comes The Empire Strikes Back, which is nothing less than a total drag. After a hilariously bad battle on Hoth, we are treated to a half hour of Luke sitting in a dark, dreary swamp, intercut with another half hour of Han and Leia sitting in a dark, dreary ship. It’s the dullest hour in the series. Jar Jar Binks addressing the Senate was more interesting.

So, then eventually there is a lightsaber duel in which Luke’s expression never changes until the end, at which point he sobs like a baby at the revelation that Vader is his father. (Note: great heroes do not break down crying like babies. Though I suppose Vader is to blame for that, too.)

In all the gushing over how great Empire allegedly is, critics lose sight of the fact that it goes absolutely nowhere.  It reminds me of Mark Twain’s “rules governing literary art”, stating “that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” Like Twain said of Fenimore Cooper’s work, Empire “accomplishes nothing and arrives in air”.

The only developments in Empire are these:

  1. The Rebel Alliance loses Han Solo, who had been trying to leave ever since he got there.
  2. Luke finds out that Vader is his father, which raises more questions than it answers, and sets us up for the big payoff in Return of the Jedi, when…

…the alliance has to waste time getting Han Solo back, for no apparent reason. The Jedi may preach letting go of attachment, but in practice, their motto is clearly “no man left behind”. (And I do mean “man”, since the misogynist pigs were all too glad to leave Padme in the sand on Geonosis.).

Anyway, the whole Jabba’s palace / rescue Solo sequence had nothing to do with the rest of the story. It served no dramatic or thematic purpose for Han to ever be put in carbonite.

Just remember that: the first third of that movie is dedicated to an irrelevant subplot.

Meanwhile, the Empire has inexplicably tried to replicate their biggest failure: another giant, useless battle station that does nothing except destroy the planets that probably belong to the Empire anyway. Then we have the obligatory lightsaber duel and space battle–a sequence completely upstaged by the similar one in The Phantom Menace.

It all gets blown up, at no cost to anyone, except one Ewok, a couple rebel pilots, and Anakin, who frankly deserved to die ever since he sexually harassed the Senator he was supposedly guarding.

What struck me about the original trilogy was how damn dull it was. Next to the sophistication of the prequels, it was like watching a movie a ten year old might make.

Overall, the prequels were decent, but not as good as I remembered. The originals were almost unwatchable. The people who tell you the original trilogy is better are just wrong. It’s horrible.

Most of the Star Wars movies make no sense. Clones is incoherent, Sith introduces new elements that weren’t foreshadowed in Clones, A New Hope doesn’t match up with anything that comes before or after, Empire is boring and pointless, and Jedi is spent resolving plot problems that Empire caused.

But remember: there is one more movie in the saga, and it actually has a *gasp* coherent plot!

Lucas pretty obviously spent those 15 years between Jedi and Menace writing one story, and it was Menace. After that, he realized he needed two more movies and just made it up as he went along.

In Phantom Menace, for once the plot makes sense: Federation blockades a planet; Queen escapes from planet, Queen returns with plan to liberate planet. This concept of a ruler returning to claim their throne is actually somewhat plausible, and sounds vaguely like something that might possibly happen in a universe that makes sense. (Queen Amidala’s appeal to the Gungans is pretty much a “Napoleon at Grenoble” moment.)

The twist with Padme the handmaiden being the Queen is the subtlest, cleverest piece of writing in the Star Wars movies. And it’s right in front of our eyes the whole time, but cleverly disguised by the Queen’s elaborate costumes. This is better than the “I am your father” twist, because that was only a twist due to Obi-Wan blatantly lying to Luke for absolutely no reason. That’s a cheat on the storyteller’s part. The twist in Menace has foreshadowing, buildup and payoff.

The other standout thing about Menace is how Padme completely outwits both the Jedi–especially the condescending, arrogant Qui-Gon–and the Sith. It’s the only time in all the movies someone actually tricks Palpatine. (Granted, Palpatine also maneuvered Amidala into voting for him, so he still got what he wanted out of it.)

It’s the only time in the movies when a character triumphs not due to ham-handed luck in order to further the plot, but rather due to a character actually crafting and executing a sensible plan.  It’s infinitely more satisfying than Luke destroying the Death Star by “trusting his instincts”

Menace is a good movie, hamstrung by bad acting from Jake Lloyd, and an overabundance of Jar Jar Binks antics. And even these aren’t as bad as the subsequent comic relief with C-3PO and R2-D2 in later installments.

I think the only Star Wars movies that work as standalone movies are New Hope and Menace. They have complete story arcs, whereas the others really don’t. Empire doesn’t even have any plot development at all.

My final verdict: The last hour of Menace and the last hour of Sith are the best parts of the entire saga. Ironically, while these are the highlights of the series, there is no logical way to get from one to the other. You would never guess they were from the same series if you watched them in isolation. That’s why a bunch of ridiculous stuff had to happen in Clones as Lucas tried to mash it all together.

Given that, which film is more satisfying?  Sith gets a more emotional response, but it also needed more clumsy writer manipulation to do it.  So the edge goes to Menace, whose upbeat tone feels more true to the old serials Star Wars allegedly imitates. (Very few old serials ended with the heroine dying in childbirth after being choked by the hero.)

In spite of what old-timers viewing the originals through rose-colored glasses will tell you, The Phantom Menace is the best Star Wars movie. We can only hope and pray that the new movies imitate Menace, and discard the baggage of The Empire Strikes Back and the dated, boring original trilogy.

My review of the movie “The Mothman Prophecies”

November 7, 2015 2 comments

A couple years ago, I blogged about “The Mothman”–the mysterious creature seen in West Virginia in the 1960s and associated with the collapse of the Silver Bridge.  I also featured the Mothman as a minor element in my book The Start of the Majestic World.  And so I decided I should watch the movie The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere, as this year’s Halloween horror movie.

“The Mothman Prophecies” poster, via Wikipedia, used under Fair Use.

Gere plays a reporter named John Klein, whose wife gets injured in a car accident. Right before the accident, she sees a vision of a winged creature.  At the hospital, it’s revealed she has a preexisting brain problem that will ultimately lead to her death. Before she dies, she makes sketches of winged creatures that orderlies at first call “angels”, but which Gere sees are far more sinister.

Klein goes for a long drive one night as he despairs over his late wife, and finds himself in West Viriginia, with no memory of getting there.  He goes to a nearby house for help, where he is held at gunpoint by the residents, who insist he has been there at the same time on the past several nights.  He is rescued from the situation by a police officer. (Laura Linney) She tells him that strange things have been happening in the town of Point Pleasant lately, and slowly they begin to get drawn into the mysterious events.

People in the town have been seeing visions similar to those of his late wife.  Soon, people start to get phone calls from a strange buzzing voice, (more shades of Lovecraft’s “Whisperer in Darkness”) identifying itself as “Indred Cold” and foretelling impending disasters.

Eventually,  Klein tracks down a mysterious Professor named Alexander Leek (the late, great Alan Bates) who has encountered these strange events in the past.  He gives Klein some info, implying that they are caused by preternatural creatures whose motivations are completely beyond his comprehension, but he ultimately advises Klein to stay out of it, for the sake of his life and his reason.

I won’t spoil the plot–to the extent that there is one–but I bet you can guess whether Klein follows his advice or not.

This was pretty much the very model of a Lovecraftian, weird tale/cosmic horror/mystery movie.  To quote Lovecraft’s definition:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Yep.  That is this movie.  I’ve complained before about movies over-explaining things, and Mothman Prophecies could never be accused of that.  Everything is weird and mysterious and unexplained.

Also, the atmosphere in the movie is just pitch-perfect.  It was filmed in Pennsylvania, but they captured very well the tired, depressing look of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  It is a grim, eerie place, and the movie conveys that vibe wonderfully.

This was the film I’ve been asking for all these years: Scary, without being excessively violent.  Spooky and creepy, and never giving away too much about the threat.

So, given that, my verdict must be 5 out of 5, must-see, awesome, A+ movie, right?

Nah, not really.  It was good.  Better than I expected.  But not great.  There was something missing from it that prevented it from being truly great.  And I don’t know what it was.  It actually makes me feel bad, because it is almost as if they made a movie exactly to my specifications, and then I said, “meh, it’s all right.”  I feel like it’s more my fault for not knowing what I wanted.

I think the problem might have been that the weirdness wasn’t tied together adequately.  But that’s very tough to do, especially when you consider that doing so runs the risk of making it all seem too neat, and thus not weird.

It’s a good movie, lacking one unknown element that prevents it from being great.  My recommendation: watch it, figure out what that element is, and then you will know how to make a truly great weird horror movie.

Description in Fiction: How Much is Too Much?

November 1, 2015 6 comments

One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to.  It was not an accident that there is so little description.  I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.

I think my aversion to description goes back to when I read the following in Paul Graham’s essay “Taste for Makers”:

Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.

That sounded good to me.  And hell, I thought,  it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners.  Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it.  So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.

Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake.  Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks.  But all  I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.

Fair enough.  So, how is it best to describe stuff?  Should I say:

The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery.  A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness.  A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.


It was a dark cemetery.  The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.

The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene.  The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.

“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say.  Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night.  And it’s creepy.  But what’s the best way of doing that?  Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best.  And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?

Categories: on writing, writing Tags: ,

The Halloween Party

All of us dressed in our Witch-Sabbath best
To celebrate Halloween’s coming.
There was the Countess Villette and her one-eyed pet
Hosting that mad night of mumming.
There was the fiery hell-cat, in her black pointed hat,
And a lumbering mountainous man.
There was the old gypsy crone, and a creature unknown
Who looked like a doll from Japan.
O! Not even the Devil could imagine that revel;
That cosmic costume soirée of the weird.
Its ghoulish appeal was so very surreal
And nothing was what it appeared.
We laughed and we danced, and all were entranced
As if by some powerful hex.
The fiendish fell spell could be felt down to Hell;
A cocktail of madness and laughter and sex.
Then the clock struck thirteen, and with that, Halloween
Had ended as fast as it came.
And everyone vanished–the occult magic was banished,
And once more, all was quiet and tame.

“Fleeting Autumn Ghost”–A Poem

In the warm October e’en, the young man sits

And dreams of her he set his heart upon.

By the fading light of the fire pits,

In the gentle wind, all low and wan–

He fancies she is here with him

As his companion and his lover.

And though the light grows ever dim,

And the blue and gloomy clouds roll over–

For a moment, it’s as if they are together

Cuddling close beside the pulsing embers;

Braving all the world’s forbidding weather.

But then–alas! The lad remembers–

Remembers ev’rything that went before.

And dwells upon what he regretteth most.

And then he is alone again once more;

And she is gone, like a fleeting Autumn ghost.

Categories: poems, Poetry Tags: , ,

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