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Friday, June 29, 2012

Brave (spoilers)

So, apparently a lot of people didn't like Brave. I will be honest: I don't understand where most of them are coming from, but then I have never been one to fellate Pixar the way a lot of people do (what's the point, when Studio Ghibli exists for all your absolutely fantastic animated film needs?), and it seems that a lot of the criticism is based in "this is a good Pixar film instead of a great one and we are used to Pixar making great movies."

...ok. Well then, from the perspective of someone with no bar for what Pixar films should be: I really liked Brave. As far as this summer's fairy tale movies go, Brave is one thousand times greater than Snow White and the Huntsman. The animation is beautiful--everything you have heard about Merida's hair is true--and I thought the story was very solid. But I like fairy tales! And princess movies, despite all of Disney's flaws! If you aren't into either/both of those things, YMMV with Brave. Here are a few things I specifically enjoyed:

1. Merida and Elinor. It is...hmm, pretty rare in TV and movies to see a thoughtful presentation of mother-daughter relationships with neither side unfairly demonized, and even more rare to find this in what is in many ways a quintessential fairy tale kid's movie (Disney loves its evil/absent mother figures). Elinor and Merida have a pretty realistic relationship which I imagine lots of viewers of the film can relate to--they squabble about how Merida should act, how she would wear her hair and her clothes, and what she should be when she grows up. Shockingly true to life! I was surprised and pleased to find the movie revolving largely around the mother-daughter relationship as it changed through Merida and Elinor's actions--because that is what this movie is about: the part of growing up that means you have to deal with your mom as a person, and she has to deal with you as a person. It's about realizing that your mother isn't infallible, and that your daughter isn't an extension of yourself. I found it very satisfying to see Merida and Elinor come to an understanding and compromise. And yes, I was very scared that Elinor would stay a bear! Oh man I was so nervous. TEARS EVERYWHERE.

2. Fergus and his family. Fergus, Merida's father, managed to straddle the line between goofy Scotsman archetype that we're familiar with and all-around good dad and husband. It is clear that he and Elinor are in love, and that he's a great father to both Merida and his three small sons. He's an effective ruler, he has a good sense of humor, he's brave, and he's loving. I want Fergus to be my dad!

3. The animation. Now, one of the reasons that I'm not a ginormo Pixar fan is that I vastly prefer traditional cel animation. That said, the animation in Brave is fantastic, really beautiful. Merida's hair, as mentioned, is very notable, as are the gorgeous forest and water backdrops. I found Angus, Merida's horse, particularly impressive, and the will o'the wisps that lead Merida on her quest were charmingly eerie. 

4. Holy shit, no prince?? No prince! Well, actually there's three sons of Scottish clan lords, but none of them marry Merida and none of them are important characters. This film is not about princes: it's about Merida and her personal journey. Refreshing.

Merida defending her mother, via  Pixarblog
And the princes bring me to my final point, which is both a good and a not-so-good thing: gender! Yay gender, everyone loves talking about gender, especially in Disney films. See, Merida is really good at some traditionally "manly" pursuits, including archery and serious rock-climbing, she doesn't like sitting still or wearing pretty clothes, and she eschews getting married, so some short-sighted people think she must be gay. That isn't what I'm concerned with, although if there happened to be a Brave sequel where Merida was indeed involved with a lady, well, that would be nothing short of a miracle. Still, beside the point. The major conflict in the film stems from Merida's ideas about what she wants to do with her life versus her mother's. This is not unfamiliar territory, but the way in which it is resolved I found interesting. Ultimately Merida and Elinor reach a compromise and work together to solve their problem of how to settle the clans without Merida having to marry any of the clan lords' sons. This scene is really sweet, I thought, involving Elinor (in her bear form) coaching Merida through what is really her first diplomatic speech to four reasonably het-up leader men. This is good practice for Merida's eventual queenship, and also signifies that she and her mother are reaching a place in the middle where they can work together with their separate strengths and ideas to present a unified solution. 

But there's one more problem: Elinor is still a bear, oh noes! The climactic scene combines the things that are great about both women to protect their families from the monstrous bear Mor'du and to turn Elinor back into a human. Part of this involves Merida repairing a tapestry of she and her parents which her mother had sewn and Merida had torn in anger, part of it involves bear!Elinor fighting Mor'du, and part of it involves Merida using her bow against Mor'du and defending her bear-mum from angry and terrified Fergus. A lot of people, it seems, did not like the tapestry-repair angle, as they saw it in terms of Merida capitulating to traditional femininity, but I saw it as more of that compromise between the past and the future, a blending of where Merida comes from (her mother) and where she's going (who knows? That's part of of the fun of growing up!). Elinor is never painted as a bad mother, only as one who has strong ideas about what she wants for her child, and Merida is never painted as a bad daughter, only one with her own, pretty teenage-typical, ideas about what she wants for herself. 

These are good things, by my lights. It's a good message in a good movie. Brava, Brave. Honestly, this movie hit me where I live, I think because anything that goes beyond the surface of moms and daughters gives me All The Feels. No, issues with forced marriage are not out of date in 2012--not even in the US and certainly not in many, many other countries. No, not everyone has a rosy relationship with their mother. Not everyone reconciles and not everyone even wants to reconcile, but seeing Merida and Elinor make it up and move forward together is really touching. Am I wrong in thinking that some of the dismissal of this movie stems from dismissal of women's stories and relationships?

What makes a queen?

Assuming a reading order of The King's Peace, The King's Name, and The Prize in the Game, the reader first meets Elenn ap Allel in The King's Peace, when she arrives in Tir Tanagiri as Urdo's queen. Thus for two books we see her only through the eyes of Sulien, who likes Elenn but doesn't understand her very well. They are two wildly dissimilar specimens of womanhood. It isn't until The Prize in the Game that the reader finally gets a glimpse into Elenn's head, as well as viewing her through the eyes of other characters who know her well and yet not at all. The reading order of these books doesn't really matter that much, but I imagine that reading The Prize in the Game first would be an interesting experience. Regardless, Elenn's complexities are hinted at in the Sulien duology and elaborated on in full heartbreaking spectacle in Prize.

Elenn is a queen who has been raised to be a queen. She has never thought of being anything else; indeed she admits this to her friend ap Ringabur, a lawspeaker of Tir Isarnagiri. However, that conversation is also notable for Elenn considering her options (as a warrior, a lawspeaker, or an oracle) and then deciding that yes, being a queen is actually what she does want to do. Her sister Emer is more akin to Sulien, though again very different in significant ways, in that all she's ever wanted is to be a warrior and dreads the thought of being a queen, though ultimately she is forced into it. Emer and Elenn approach queenship from vastly different perspectives. Emer is doomed to her crown, having married Lew ap Ross when she believed her beloved, Conal ap Amagien, had been killed; though she is a good queen for her people, she is at heart a warrior as well as being a woman in love (Conal isn't really dead, of course), and these traits combine to sometimes cause her to do things which confuse Sulien and enrage Elenn. On the other hand, Elenn is on the surface the quintessential fairy-tale queen: fantastically lovely, with songs and poems written to her beauty, composed at all times, capable of small talk and soothing the egos of important men, intelligent and savvy and generally good at running the day-to-day nuts and bolts of a castle. Indeed, the first we hear of her is a description of her beauty from Gwyn ap Angas, who opines that Elenn is "strictly the decorative type" of woman; in Prize Conal compares Emer to her sister, with Emer coming out on top for having "more wit than hair"; and Sulien confirms Elenn's beauty when they first meet--but in that same meeting, Elenn's first words within the text of The King's Peace are a polite, pointed speech in which she tears the Jarnish lord Alfwin a new one for refusing to meet with Sulien and Marchel, two of Urdo's war-leaders and most trusted personnel (Alfwin's words: "Women don't conclude alliances." To his credit, he becomes more used to the Tanagan way of doing things when his niece Alswith becomes a decorated warrior and king in her own right). Clearly there is more to Elenn than her nearly supernatural beauty. She is trained in fighting and chariot driving as a matter of being an Isarnagan noble, but the martial arts are not where her interests or strengths lie. When Urdo marries her he gets not only an alliance with a kingdom of Tir Isarnagiri but also a woman bearing every queenly aspect and accomplishment.

...except one, and it's the big one: fertility. Every queen is assumed fertile until proven otherwise, and Elenn, sadly, is proven otherwise. In her years married to Urdo she produces no heirs, and only conceives once, miscarrying due to the subtle machinations of Morthu. This is the great sadness of her life,  perhaps compounded by a revelation in Prize that she was born "at the Feast of the Mother" (around the beginning of February, when the goddess Brigid was celebrated with the festival Imbolc) and felt a certain closeness to that goddess. Ultimately being infertile might have caused even more pain if Elenn felt that the Mother had forsaken her. Unlike the other Guenevers she is modeled on, she doesn't turn to any other man, whether out of grief, love, or belief that maybe Urdo is the problem. After the events of Prize, one suspects that childlessness is the final nail in the coffin of Elenn's self-esteem, given that  her mother Maga effectively whores her out to the warriors of Tir Isarnagiri in exchange for them fighting for Connat's side against Oriel, and Morthu later uses manipulations similar to Maga's to turn Elenn against herself. Worst of all, one of the warriors  used by Maga is Ferdia, the man Elenn truly loves and closest friend of Oriel's champion Darag. She is aware that he only marries her because Maga blackmails him into it; his sense of honor allows him to be shamed into the marriage and then into fighting Darag (as the text suggests, the person he truly loves). This knowledge is devastating to Elenn. The very things she has to hold onto, the things she has been raised to value--her beauty, her skillset, her position and responsibilities as a princess, her goodness and pliability--are used against her, first by her mother Maga, then by Morthu. In a horrible scene reminiscent of the events of The Prize in the Game, Morthu appears to have intentions to marry his king's wife, referring to her as "dear one" and other endearments, and attempting to kiss her as Sulien and  Ulf Gunnarsson watch helplessly. This scene, taken with an earlier one in which Morthu uses evil magic against Sulien, implies that Elenn's mind is undergoing a form of molestation stemming from Morthu; since we have no view into her imprisonment with him, it is unknown whether her body has also been violated. Morthu, like Maga, is able to exploit Elenn's upbringing and her beliefs about her status, position, and purpose, as well as her general isolation; despite the strides she has made with Urdo in terms of trust, once subjected to the brand of manipulation Morthu wields, Elenn's walls go right back up.

As Sulien, Darien, and Urdo state on various occasions, Elenn is the ultimate queen. She is everything a queen should be and everything Urdo could want in a partner, and he truly doesn't care that she has been unable to bear children, beyond his care for her heartache. But as the poem from which The Prize in the Game takes its title states, "they wear my favor but my arms are empty"; this can be taken to signify that though she has many husbands, they are never hers to keep (the warriors of Tir Isarnagiri are married to Elenn, then go to their doom at the hands of Darag, who is undefeatable--Urdo is rarely at home, being busy keeping his kingdom in order). Further, despite her many wedding nights, she has no children to fill her days and heart. Her arms are empty. In spite of this, the idea of Elenn visiting another man's bed is never brought up, either by her or by Urdo, who mentions it as an impossibility to Sulien; instead Urdo and Elenn are firmly loyal to one another, making Elenn's grief over her childlessness all the more palpable. In most Arthur stories, from the medieval romances onward, Guenever and Lancelot are--overtly or covertly--the cause of the downfall of Camelot. The Sulien books dispense with this plotline entirely (though a lesbian romance between Sulien and Elenn would certainly be an interesting interpretation, had Walton chosen to keep the Guenever/Lancelot relationship), though a subtle twist through rumors is presented: that Sulien and Urdo had an affair prior to Urdo's marriage, and Sulien's son Darien, the stand-in for Galahd--who notably is not known as "Darien ap X" but as "Darien Suliensson"--was fathered by Urdo. Elenn becomes somewhat obsessed with this rumor, her fears stroked by Morthu, though it is well known that Sulien eschews all sexual relationships. In another nod to traditional Arthurian stories, Morthu also encourages the rumor that Sulien's son is the product of incest between her and her brother (as Mordred was the product of Arthur and either Morgan or Morgause's incest). In a very moving scene, Emer and Sulien speak with Elenn and point out that if Darien isn't Urdo's son, then Urdo and Sulien were never lovers, and Elenn at last opens herself to the possibility of truth without fact.

Dispensing with the familiar story of Arthur's cuckoldry also dispenses with the crumbling of the kingdom. At the end of The King's Name, Morthu is defeated, the King's Law upheld, peace restored, and though Urdo has passed on, his crown passes to Sulien's son Darien. As Sulien relates at the beginning of The King's Peace, the Peace they created remained; this is not the story of Arthur and Camelot we are familiar with, but it is a pleasing newness, the idea of shining Camelot enduring to become a truly united land. Ultimately Elenn finds peace as well, reconciling with both her sister Emer and Sulien near the close of The King's Name and seeking solace in her relationships with them and her religion (true to legend, she enters a monastery and eventually becomes its leader). Knowing that Elenn is a woman with major trust issues, it is with hope and tenderness that Sulien suggests Elenn found "trust and healing" with the monks. As a reader, I hope she did too.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Distressing damsels

With title credit to the inimitable Carrie Fisher, all the damsels in the Sulien books are somewhat distressing. Certainly Sulien herself, who is called a demon by followers of the White God and a walkurja (valkyrie) by the Jarns, is about as distressing a warrior as one finds in fantasy literature; her tendency to laugh and scream during battle combined with her fighting prowess and great leadership make her an amazing character of strength, while her bluntness, simple desires, and social ineptitude make her an appealingly human one. Marchel, another female praefecto, is fanatically religious, a fearsome fighter and great horsewoman, and ultimately a traitor who kills surrendered enemies--there is much that is distressing about her. Emer, queen of Dun Morr, is a celebrated charioteer and warrior of Tir Isarnagiri, who drives the greatest Isarnagan fighter, Black Darag, in his fight against the warriors of Connat, and raises her daughter to become the greatest armiger of her time. And on the side of fearsome non-fighters, because well does Walton understand that "strong female characters" doesn't always mean "strong female characters," there are women like Veniva, Elenn, Morwen, and Garah: Veniva (Sulien's mother) is called "the last of the Vincans" and is devoted to keeping the fires of civilization alive in Tir Tanagiri: she insists that her children learn to read and write, and puts much stock in the great Vincan traditions and laws; Elenn, of course, is the ultimate queen and a woman of many varied and useful skills; Morwen is also a great queen and likely a good mother in her way, if also a sorceress who consumes souls to fuel her power; and Garah, loyal Garah, is talented with horses and healing, becomes a skillful queen, and it is stated that she coordinates the mail system in Urdo's kingdom, with an undercurrent of possible espionage work (this might just be my wishful reading).

There are only two instances in which any of the women of the story can be said to be in distress: first, the opening of The King's Peace, when Sulien is set upon and molested by Jarnish raiders, and second, near the climax of The King's Name, when Elenn is under Morthu's hypnotic spell. In both cases it is by the efforts of the women themselves that they are freed (though Sulien receives some assistance from her brother Darien before he is killed by the raiders). Elenn, fulfilling all the outward steretypes of a fairy tale princess, would seem to be the damsel most likely to be in continual distress, but this is not the case. Despite what Conal and Emer think of Elenn at the outset of The Prize in the Game, both ultimately come to view her with understanding, if not exactly liking. Princesses in fairy stories are often damsels in distress, requiring rescuing from a slew of monsters, evil witches, and knights with ill intentions. They are almost without variance rescued by knights with good intentions, whom the princesses duly marry. In the Sulien books, we see a few of these tropes in the cases already mentioned, as well as when Elenn is "rescued" from Tir Isarnagiri and her horrible parents (seriously, Elenn, get rid of your parents, they are revolting) by marriage to Urdo, an honorable knight if there ever was one. Maga, Elenn and Emer's mother, certainly fits the bill of evil sorceress, as it is hinted that she intends to force Emer to do what she wants by use of magic, and uses Elenn as the ultimate pawn in her game of war with Oriel. However, Walton's books give more time and attention to why Maga and Elenn act the way they do, and the emotional as well as physical consequences of their actions, where most archetypical fairy tales show the trapped princess from far away, in the view of the prince/knight, and then her happy rescue and romantic wedding. Analysis within the text is rarely given to the princess's mental or emotional state. In the case of Elenn, although Sulien doesn't always understand her queen, she provides enough details about Elenn's behavior so that, in conjunction with what Emer and Conal feel about her and the details the reader receives firsthand through Elenn's passages in The Prize in the Game, we as the audience understand and feel for Elenn deeply (I hope. Honestly if you don't, you are probably a Borg).

In The Prize in the Game most heavily and somewhat in The King's Peace and The King's Name, much narrative time is spent in Elenn's mind, such that the foreword for Prize states that if you don't understand why Elenn does what she does by the time you've finished reading, Walton washes her hands of you (I paraphrase). Indeed that book specifically and the triptych in general seem a response to both the familiar fairy tales of old as well as more modern reworkings; the Sulien books are a skillful blend of age-old tropes and contemporary considerations. Elenn can be both the princesse lointaine, the faraway princess and the distant queen on the hill, as well as being a savvy diplomat, a frightened yet proud wife and daughter, and a beloved queen, and answerable ultimately to her own lights.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Here's the thing

I have been trying for almost four years to write something smart about The King's Peace, The King's Name, and The Prize in the Game by Jo Walton. These three books are well worth a full academic perusal, but my brain is so amazingly out of shape since I left college. My own fault, I suppose. I have always wanted to examine the role of the princess/queen figure in fantasy and fairy tales, and how that role is fulfilled and subverted by Elenn, as well as the other major female figures, in these books. And this year so far I've reread the triptych twice (I'm on the third go-round), each time with saintly intentions to read slowly and carefully, making notes, jotting page numbers, and generally being critical.

This just...doesn't work. I have consigned myself to being totally uncritical where the Sulien books are concerned. Even though by now I've read each of them probably ten times, I just can't not get caught up in the stories. Simply too good. So instead of my intended Gleaming Academic-Quality Superpost, you get a Jumble-of-Somewhat-Related-Thoughts Superpost. As ever, read or ignore at will.

First, a little background on the world of Tir Tanagiri and Tir Isarnagiri is needed for those not familiar with the Sulien books. Briefly, an alternate-mythology version of Arthur's Britain is presented and peopled with characters almost familiar from our own Arthurian myth cycles: Urdo is the glorious king, Sulien is his right hand (Lancelot, effectively), Gwyn of Angas is Gawain and Mordred becomes Gwyn's brother Morthu, and Elenn ap Allel, an Isarnagan (Irish) princess, is the queen Guenever. Two major legends, that of Arthur's Camelot and the Irish story of the cattle raid of Cooley, intersect at a few points and form the bulk of the three books. Overall it is an elegant and natural reformation of tales familiar to many.

This world has what I suppose to modern eyes looks like near-total gender equality; women fulfill the occupations of warriors, healers, keykeepers or stewards, farmers, priests, merchants, ambassadors, and every other walk of life necessary to the functioning of a kingdom. Most notably, perhaps, is that women can hold the kingship of their ancestral lands and are referred to as "kings" or "lords" without an eyeblink or discussion of whether the term is gendered. For instance, Sulien is eventually the lord of Derwen and is termed "king" by one of her fellow armigers; across the water the word king is thrown around even more casually, as both Maga of Connat (Elenn and Emer's mother) and Conary of Oriel are kings, and the major characters often discuss what it's like to be king and whether one would rather be a king, a warrior, a queen, or something else. Within the ranks of Urdo's armigers, women are as accepted as men for the fighting life and often reach high rank, Marchel and Sulien as praefectos (a title akin to general) being the most obvious examples. Rape isn't allowed even "in the usage of war" and is punishable by law in either war or peace according to Urdo's law; the Tanagan armigers are horrified to learn that the invading Jarns rape as a matter of course in their warfare. Furthermore, extra-marital and pre-marital sex are normative in Tanagan and Isarnagan culture (In The Prize in the Game, a threesome between Darag, his wife Atha, and his best friend Ferdia occurs with little to no fanfare from anyone), and if homosexuality is not found as often as heterosexuality, neither is it looked at askance. Sulien is somewhat of an outlier in that she is asexual, with the bulk of the Tanagan armigers coupling at will, apparently with few issues arising (the Pierce fanatic in me harks at this point to a conversation in Squire between Kel and Buri, wherein Buri states that, in the ranks of the Queen's Riders, male subordinates offer to "work things out in bed" with their female superiors). An interesting conversation does occur between Osvran, a (gay) man, and Sulien, in which Sulien points out that a fellow female armiger, Enid, after marrying had to request that she still ride with the ala, when it was her right to do so and not her husband's decision. However, beyond this we don't see much barring the major female characters from doing as they wish; no one doubts Sulien and Marchel's fitness to command (until Marchel's ignominious downfall, anyway), ap Rhun is accounted one of the best key-keepers in the land, and Emer is considered more significant in terms of alliance and war-making than her husband Lew, a king.

There is also a certain burgeoning flexibility as far as class in Tir Tanagiri goes. One of the most notable supporting characters, Garah, goes from being a groom in Sulien's family's stables to becoming a queen married to an armiger gifted with empty land--a king. Both Garah and her husband Glyn were "commoners" who rose to power. This isn't accepted by everyone--indeed it is part of what tips off the civil war in The King's Name--but it is part of Urdo's vision for what Tir Tanagiri should be and is regarded by both detractors and supporters as inevitable change. The admixing of disparate cultures and religions is also an inevitable change coming to the land; the old "pagan" religions of the Tanagans and Isarnagans meet with incoming pagan religions of the Jarns as well as the new religion of the White God (thinly veiled Christianity), and the ways in which each king deals with this make up significant plot points and considerable background for the story. As High King, Urdo stands between all the gods of Tir Tanagiri (we meet a few of them, including the great boar Turth and Coventina, Mother of Waters) and it is his duty to force neither the gods nor the people to any path they don't wish, despite the pressure of the White God's church.

Walton does virtually no feminist preaching in these books; it isn't necessary, since the very structure of the world is close to being a feminist ideal. It's a matter of reality that there are both gods and goddesses, female priests and monks and male ones, female warriors and male healers, female kings and male charioteers, female lawspeakers and male cooks. There are villainous women, such as Morwen and Maga, and villainous men, such as Morthu and Borthas, and all significant characters are given rein to grow and change. Characters make plot, and Walton's characters are no exception. The motivations and deep personalities of such complex characters as Ferdia, Elenn, and Morthu create the plot through their machinations and impulses. Even the glimpses we see of the future of Tir Tanagiri shows that despite the eventual rise of the White God's church over the island, the position of women remains steady; Sulien speaks of great female armigers and lords she knew in her old age. Urdo's peace built on and strengthened a foundation of equality which covered all people, creating a bright world which could almost be our own.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Whose body? (Prometheus spoilers)

YES IT'S STILL GOING I CAN'T HELP MYSELF. This is what happens when Ridley Scott makes Alien movies. Anyway, you know I had to talk more in-depth about the Big Damn C-Section.

So! The Big Damn C-Section! Apparently people are really squicked by this? Someone I follow on Tumblr mentioned vaguely that a scene had caused a fellow viewer with her to nearly pass out--after I saw Prometheus, I tried to decide which scene that was, since most of the Alien-typical scenes didn't strike me as that bad, comparatively. My manfriend pointed out that it was likely most viewers had a serious problem with the alien C-section bit, and I guess that's what my Tumblr friend was referring to. Incidentally this scene was also what tipped Prometheus into an R rating. Because giant tentacle monsters and oral rape are waaaay more family friendly than C-sections with abortion undertones! Please feel free to imagine how boring a PG-13 Alien film would be.

Obviously, it didn't bother me that much. Here's why: I hate the trope of monstrous pregnancy. I think it's totally overused and played out. However, in Prometheus I thought it was wielded to good effect, for the sheer reason that most people who are afflicted by monstrous pregnancy (both in the Alienverse and in other sci-fi and horror media) are forced to carry "to term" or to "give birth" in deadly fashion. But this isn't the case for Shaw; she finds out she's knocked up and takes immediate, efficient action to get the damn parasite out of her. She gets herself into a med-pod despite the objections of David, keys it to perform a C-section, and then gases the shit out of the Alien fetus. It doesn't kill the thing, but it allows her to get out of there and down to other business.

Needless to say, I found the scene satisfying. It's rare to see abortions mentioned, let alone performed, in major films and television shows, and even rarer to see the victim of a monstrous pregnancy deal with it in a way that allows him/her to come out on top. Notably Shaw refers to her operation as a Caesarean, not an abortion, and since the fetus isn't actually killed I suppose it doesn't count as an abortion, but the intent is to remove and destroy, Shaw's bodily autonomy has been taken from her, and it isn't for lack of trying on her part that the Alien manages to live. I suppose my enjoyment of this whole shebang kind of ties into my other apparently-unpopular feelings about this movie, besides actually liking it in general: I felt that the tentacle Alien near the film's end--the larger version of what was growing inside Shaw--was somewhat of a let-down. Or, if not exactly a letdown, a monster which took more time to absorb, as it were, than other Aliens. Again my manfriend didn't quite see what I was seeing--he found it quite scary enough and thought that the choice of tentacles was tapping into a universal fear of such. Me, I guess I've been on the Internet for too long, but tentacles remind me immediately of certain segments of Japanese animated porn, and so I sort of associate them with a specific portion of a specific culture (is tentacle rape a universal human fear?). However, there's also a possible call-back to Lovecraft and Cthulhu, which I appreciate. I certainly don't mind the idea of the Elder Gods being intertwined in the Alien mythos; that is effectively terrifying. But compared to the various Aliens of Alien, the tentacle Alien in Prometheus didn't quite measure up for visceral impact, for me at least. Dan O'Bannon, co-writer of Alien, noted that the monsters of the film were designed to make men cross their legs, and the overt gendering of their threats and these implications are some of the things I admire and enjoy about Alien. The tentacle alien has a bit of that, what with its penetrating, phallic tentacles and vaginal multiple mouths, but the mode of its attack  (absorption) is generalized rather than specific. Another factor might be that we only see it really attack an Engineer, rather than a human.

Yes, yes, I enjoy seeing men squirm, look at me and my man-hating. But come on--the majority of horror films employ threats that are specifically gendered masculine in order to be threatening to women. That was part of what made Alien so disturbing and so subversive. It forced men to consider what it would be like to exist in a feminine body. Prometheus is more concerned with broader themes of what it means to create and destroy life, how life is transmitted and evolves, and the compulsions to give, take away, or hoard. There is certainly a whole thing present in which images of destructive creation repeat themselves, from the mysterious opening sequence to Shaw's alien C-section to the dichotomy of David's decapitated-yet-still-speaking head. Ritual sacrifice, the killing of the king so that life continues to flourish, is an age-old tale found in legions of civilizations. So too is the warning story of sorcerers and greedy men who refuse to give up their power (what of the king stag when the young stag is grown?).

Something I found notable is that Shaw is a very clear stand-in for Mary. Established as barren, she gives birth to an extraordinary "child" between Christmas and New Year's, and that "child" ends up being a "salvation" as she uses it to attack the Engineer who is trying to attack her. It is somewhat problematic that Shaw wants desperately to rid herself of the thing inside her, yet doesn't quite manage to do so, ends up beholden to it in a way, and also beholden to the guy who slipped her boyfriend an Alien roofie, ultimately teaming up with David to carry the quest forward. It seems that bodily autonomy will never, not even in the distant future of spaceflight and aliens, be a thing which the marginalized fully possess. Too, the Christian bent of "2000 years ago, something on Earth happened to piss the Engineers off" (especially given LOST's ultimate answer and Ridley Scott affirming that yes, Space Jockey Jesus is a thing), David washing Weyland's feet and delivering the news of an impossible child to Shaw, and three men sacrificing themselves to save others is a bit much for agnostics or non-Christians to enjoy with reflection, but from the standpoint of someone who likes world mythology, there are a lot of stories across cultures which feature pale otherworldly figures. Furthermore, the idea of Space Jockey Jesus is most likely one of those things which, had it been stated baldly (or "answered"), would have enraged those viewers who are currently enraged that no answers are given. It's an answer that people don't want to hear. The eternal hubris of humanity is the belief that we are ready to meet our makers.

And honestly, all told, the various threads Prometheus weaves together display a tapestry of extreme hubris--specifically white, male hubris. The only Engineers we see are ostensibly male; all of them are very white. The med-pod Shaw uses is only calibrated for men, apparently (she has to spell out for it that she needs invasive abdominal surgery), and it is most likely that the pod is specifically for Weyland. The implicit or explicit presence of Space Jockey Jesus. The opening sequence of a male Engineer's body being the literal cradle of life. Weyland being a character so arrogant that he thinks that not only can he live forever, he should. The various white male scientists are without exception of the superiority-complexes-breed-death variety. I'm not willing to cut Scott and co. the slack of assuming they're just another crew of dudes who think the universe revolves around their penises. At the end of the film, the only characters left to carry on the search for knowledge are Shaw and David, a woman and a robot. Both are white--the two characters of color having sacrificed themselves aboard the ship--but neither is male. There is a whole 'nother conversation to be had about David's "masculinity," whether he codes as gay, whether he has functioning male genitalia, why he is invulnerable to Alien infestation/what would happen if he was infested, whether he was always acting on Weyland's commands, why the Engineer reacted so badly to him, and whether or not he classes as posthuman/superhuman or robot-approaching-human. For my part, the moral of the movie might be the never-ending journey toward knowledge, but the underlying emphasis is that the way we've been going about it for millennia--since before humans existed, if the Engineers are anything to go by--isn't working and needs to end.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

He who liveth and was slain (Prometheus spoilers)

Notes on a few of the themes in Prometheus: that of survival and that of humans becoming gods. 

Vickers is the character Charlize Theron plays in Prometheus, a cold, capitalistic, survival-oriented woman who by default of the Alienverse's hatred of corporations seems to be a villain, but isn't really. In contrast to the other major female character, Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw, who is emotional,  earthy, and directed by her heart despite being a scientist, Vickers is all the things we associate with Alien films (hard edges, sleek lines, vague and encroaching menace). Eventually we find that not only is Weyland (Weyland Corp's CEO) alive, but that he is also her father and she harbors some serious resentment issues toward his desire to be immortal. Vickers too is driven by her need for self-preservation, and she acts out this theme in various interesting ways. In a scene which is a near-replica-with-significant-differences of one from Alien, she refuses to allow an infected scientist to come aboard the ship, but what's more, the scientist in question requests to be killed. And Vickers obliges, with the help of a flamethrower. In Final Girl terms, it really seemed that Vickers was going to be the one to get out alive--I was betting against Shaw, but that's what the movie wants you to do. Ultimately, the need to know and the need to survive intertwine--in effect the need to know becomes the vehicle for survival--and since Shaw possesses the desire to ask the question, she prevails.

My gent and I spent a good amount of time last night talking about whether Vickers was supposed to be a robot, and we decided that though she is human and actually Weyland's daughter, her demeanor and attitude might in part have been carefully constructed because Weyland was so overtly fond of David, referring to the android as the son he never had. Weyland and Vickers are consumed by the need to survive and the ways in which they go about it are different from how Shaw goes about her survival; the survival of humanity has always been a theme of the Alien films, and I think Prometheus added its two cents admirably. Vickers and Yanek, the ship's captain, are at first allied in their desire to keep the ship and by extension Earth free of any alien contaminants, but in the end, it's Yanek and Shaw who understand what must be done to save Earth, while Vickers concentrates on saving herself. (As a person who adores Alien and is somewhat less of a fan of Aliens, I have to say I was kind of nastily pleased at that development, as I tend to view the themes of Alien and Aliens as being at odds. Basically I hold that Alien is about human survival on a core level which manages to be both personal [Ripley has survived! Yay!] and wide-scale [humanity is safe from the Aliens! Yay!], while Aliens is about the survival of a specific set of humanity, in that case, the white nuclear family capable of enforcing the Company's agenda). 

Michael Fassbender's performance of David, the android, was one of my favorite aspects of the film. I'd like to see Prometheus again simply to watch David and his various doings very closely. He was a difficult character to figure out and it was quite enjoyable to watch Fassbender toe the line between innocent, your-human-emotions-baffle-me robot and knowing, I'm-doing-this-to-be-an-asshole posthuman. There's a lot left open to interpretation in David and how he functions in the film as a whole, which I appreciate. I don't recall if it's canon in the Alien mythology that Weyland Corp were the first to develop androids, but if that's the case, it brings a whole 'nother level of business to how David interacts with humans generally and Weyland and Vickers specifically. If Weyland's end goal is to live indefinitely, creating a totally human-like android is the logical first step. Not only that but in doing so, he makes himself a god, yet still turns toward his own god for the power of eternal life. There is an ancient pattern at work in Prometheus, summed up by Vickers' line: "The king has his reign, and then he dies." The only problem is that the Engineers don't seem to quite agree--they, like Weyland, have the interminable need to remain on top, employing organic weapons against those they've created if necessary. In creating human life, the Engineers have created their own destruction; in creating androids, Weyland has created his. Another line from Vickers, who is apparently the Theme-Speaker of the film: "Every child wants to see their parents dead." Shaw seeing her father dead was the impetus for her life's work; the death of Vickers' father would mean the Weyland company was at last hers; and the humans' interactions with their makers (who are also coded masculine) end up being deadly and full of regret. Lots of daddy issues! It is a Ridley Scott film, after all.

These two themes are twins, sides of the destroyer-creator coin. We are never quite sure if David is truly under the control of his father-creator, and the Engineers clearly lost control of both their human creations and their Alien ones. Given that the original name of the film was Paradise, after Paradise Lost, it seems that the filmmakers intended an examination of the relationships between deities and creators, perhaps particularly calling to the sections of that text where Satan asserts that the angelic race created themselves, as well as the theme of Adam and Eve seeking forbidden knowledge, which set them on par with God.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Not minding (Prometheus spoilers)

Here are a few things that I love: Ridley Scott, Alien, movies with lots of themes, movies that are maybe too big for their britches. So let it be known I'm not really coming from a place of impartiality regarding Prometheus.


That said, apparently a very large number of people hated this movie. I am not one of those. Having seen several non-spoilery remarks of loathing beforehand, some from people whose taste I trust, I was prepared to be disappointed--and came out quite glad that I was not. Since it IS partially a horror film, most of the characters, despite being scientists, are too stupid to live (particularly the main male archaeologist, who was also a total asshole and deserved to get Alien'd), but that's how horror films function and I don't think it's a very significant complaint, especially given how many of the "too stupid to live" actions are rooted in the film's ever-quest to gain knowledge. People will do extremely idiotic things to get answers. That is the story of (cinema) history. Other complaints are that the film is too steeped in Greek and Christian mythology to be digestible to the average viewer, a complaint that I totally can't get behind because I enjoy films that make me consider what I already know, force me to bring my own interpretations and lens to the viewing, and aren't catering to the lowest common denominator. If Prometheus made someone go out and get a book of Greek myths (or better yet, a book of world mythology, since a lot of the patterns and tropes used in the film are cross-cultural), so much the better. The third and most prevalent complaint is that the film gives no answers and that this is a cop-out.

Now, as someone who utterly loathed the LOST finale, I can kind of understand where these people are coming from. Damon Lindelof co-wrote the Prometheus script and it does show. But for me, two hours of film in an established universe is a completely and significantly different medium and vehicle of storytelling than six seasons of character development on a network television show. And for me, the major overarching theme of the film was that sometimes the answer is infinitely less interesting than the question. Would all the people who disliked this film as it stands be satisfied with it if the answers to The Big Questions asked throughout had been provided? I would have found that an entirely unsatisfying film, because the Alien franchise is not and has never been a monster-of-the-week affair. There are many kinds of science fiction, and Prometheus and the other Alien films reside in a universe which wants you to think it's ours, and not in the same way that Firefly or Stargate SG1 does.  Here's where I go my usual route and turn to heavy metal lyrics. In the Kamelot song "The Edge of Paradise," the chorus states: "Undermining life itself/my will to wonder why"; in the Conception song "Cardinal Sin," there's the line "tell me that it's worthwhile/to get behind the why/where all is true." Both of these encapsulate the fundamental human search for understanding, and more than that, they really hammer in the idea that the search is what makes us human, is what's most important, far more important than concrete answers. The end of Prometheus affirms this, when Shaw makes the choice once again to go in search of knowledge, despite everything she's seen and been through. The point is that Shaw doesn't give up, kill herself or allow herself to be killed, or flee home in defeat. She keeps looking and ultimately it doesn't matter whether or not she finds that final answer (hint: it's 42). Though Prometheus leaves open the possibility of a sequel, I don't think it's necessarily inevitable. I think Scott is a good enough filmmaker to understand his own themes and aims, one of which is--you know--never quite answering the question.

There's a lot to this movie, some of which I will ramble about in other entries. It's possible to see it as a metaphysical, sideways-religious allegory, or as a more prosaic battle for life between opposing species. Any way you look at it, it's interesting and worth the time.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Part the sixth of an untitled half-satire half-serious short story about LDS teens on Trek

After Relief Society and Priesthood had ended, they were given instructions for solo time. Lissa took her bag, which contained a lunch of oranges, trail mix, and granola bars, a folder of themed material, her scriptures and journal, and a letter from her mother. Everyone dispersed into the woods, trying to find a quiet place to read and study. Lissa chose a tall pine tree with a mound of needles cushioning its base and plopped onto the soil, her back against the tree. She spread out her skirt, feeling picturesque, and opened the folder. It held a few pamphlets and notecards, and instructions to read several scriptures and then the letter from her mother, and finally to write in her journal about the Trek experience. This could all take as long as she wanted—she was to wander back to camp when she felt ready to.

The letter made her cry, harder than she could remember crying in a long while though it seemed that these days she cried all the time. Part of it was a good cry, reading in plain black print how much her mother loved her, but a larger part of it was a horrible, weak, hopeless bawl, dredged up from her shame and guilt and the knowledge that she wasn’t actually the daughter her mother wrote about in the letter. Yes, she got good grades and yes, she attended church faithfully and yes, she fulfilled her calling as Laurel class secretary, but that didn’t make her good. She tried to keep quiet as the tears fell, knowing that someone from Eau Gallie ward was only a few yards away, perched on a log.

The warm familiar world felt like it was crumpling around her, into strange shapes she couldn’t recognize. The hum of cicadas grated on her ears.

Eventually Lissa stood, legs stiff. She gathered up her spread of materials and stuffed them into her bag. She was supposed to head back to camp when she was ready, but she turned toward the empty space of pastureland to the east, carefully skirting around bright spots in the grass which were people studying and praying and, she thought, probably napping. She ducked beneath the rim of barbed wire, lifting her skirt well clear of it, and walked along the treeline. The sun beat down and she swerved into the trees for some shade. Among the pines and oaks and loblolly she slowed, touching branches and vines of kudzu. The forest calmed her nerves, bird chatter lulled her. She walked.

And finally as her path curved back around toward the camp, she walked into Justin. Not literally into him; she saw him some feet ahead and stopped on the path. He was standing under a tree, peering up into its branches. At the sound of her feet on twigs he jumped and turned around.

“Oh, ah—hey, Lissa.” He waved, kind of lamely. Lissa pressed her lips together and lifted a hand.

“Hey.” She made herself walk toward him instead of running like a terrified deer. “Watcha looking at?”

“Oh, there’s some scrub jays up there,” he said, pointing at the tree. “I think. They’re pretty rare now, even back here where there aren’t any people.”

Lissa stopped a safe distance away and looked up into the tree. “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any.”

“Too populated, where we live. They're practically extinct.” He shuffled his feet in the leaves. “Hey, are your arms ok?”

Lissa folded her arms, tugging at her sleeves. She wished she’d left them long, but the heat had forced her to roll them up. “Oh yeah, just…some, you know, poison ivy.”

“Oh. Yeah, I got some on me too.” They stood awkwardly for a moment on the path.

“We should probably go back to the camp,” she said at last. He nodded. They began walking, perhaps more slowly than either would have walked by themselves.

“I like you a lot,” Justin said abruptly. Lissa tripped on a tree root and nearly fell; he grabbed her shoulder. Mad tears pricked behind her eyes at his touch, his words.

He continued, avoiding her eyes, “I don’t…I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

She didn’t know what to say. Somewhere inside her brain the right response lurked, but it wouldn’t come to her, she couldn’t remember how things were supposed to go. Sly, poisonous happiness was breaking over her like a wave. She thought that maybe just now she knew what Florence was singing about.

They stood like idiots in the woods. Visible ahead was the clearing where people milled about, preparing for the last bit of hiking toward their end goal, Zion. Justin reached out, grasping Lissa’s hand lightly. She looked at him full in the face for the first time since they’d met by the scrub jay tree. His jaw was tight, dark eyes worried.

She hated that he looked like that. She hated that she knew she had the same expression on her face. What were they afraid of, after all?

The fine hairline cracks in her faith widened. She felt, as she had begun to feel more and more lately, that her belief was a veneer painted over her true self, a varnish of righteousness covering up a soul that did and thought the wrong things no matter how hard it tried. No wonder God wasn’t answering her prayers. She looked at their hands together. She had remembered the proper response.

“I don’t think we did either.”

Their hands firmed around one another and they walked on toward the camp, taking their time.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Part the fifth of an untitled half-satire half-serious short story about LDS teens on Trek

The next morning Lissa woke up scratching her arms. She pushed her sleeping bag aside and peered at her skin.

“Oh, nuts.” It looked like poison ivy. She tried to remember when she would’ve been dumb enough to not notice poison ivy—and the events of the previous night came rushing back. She shook her head, trying not to cry again, and pulled her legs out of the sleeping bag.

“Ma Shannon?”

Ma Shannon came up, tying on her bonnet. “Lissa, look at your arms! Did you get into poison ivy last night? Well, go to the infirmary before breakfast.”

She went over, scraping her hair back into a ponytail. Thankfully the infirmary was busy with an assortment of war wounds garnered during the night, ranging from a black eye on a boy from Cocoa Beach to a row of stitches being sewn into Garrett Singer’s lip. Lissa looked away. Clearly Justin had won the bet over whether someone would run into the barbed wire fence.

“Lissa, what can I do for you?” Sister Walters, who worked at the hospital in Cape Canaveral and had volunteered her services for repairing broken-down Trekkers, came up.

Lissa held out her arms. “I think I ran into some poison ivy last night.”

Sister Walters tssked. “Looks like. Come over here, I’ll get you some aloe and calamine.”

Lissa sat on a bench and waited as Sister Walters rummaged in her box of first aid supplies. Alex thunked down next to her, holding out an arm with an impressive gash on it.

“Yeah dude, definitely ran into that barbed wire fence last night. Getting me a fresh Band-Aid.” He grinned, floppy ginger hair falling over his eyes. Lissa shook her head.

“How dumb are you? I knew that was gonna happen.”

“Yeah, well, at least my face is fine. Unlike G-dude over there.” Alex jerked his head at Garrett, who was managing to pout even through his stitches. Then he turned his attention back to Lissa. “So how’s it going with you and, uhh, Justin?”

Lissa’s heart stopped for a beat. Did he know? Had Justin told someone—told everyone? What if her bishop heard…or her mother? But Alex’s face was questioning, not knowing.

She brushed the question away. “You don’t want to know.”

“Oh my gosh, something happened?” His eyebrows were waggling.

“No!” Lissa burst out, annoyed. “Nothing happened, nothing’s going to happen. He doesn’t like me, Alex, just get over it.” She didn’t know why she was lying, exactly. Becky had told her stories of guys she’d kissed at youth conference and EFY or on the stage at basketball games, hidden behind the curtains. She’d heard similar stories from and about other kids too. No one really got in trouble for it as long as nothing serious happened.

But she couldn’t bear to think of herself that way. She’d prayed again and again last night, begging for repentance. It wasn’t ok for her to sin. She didn’t know why, but it wasn’t. She remembered all the things she’d said the night before, and all the things Justin had said. She wondered, miserable, if her friends ever felt like this.

Alex looked uncomfortable. “Ok. Sorry. Geez.”

Lissa ignored him while Sister Walters spread calamine lotion on her arms and gave her a small tube of aloe. “Now don’t scratch! I know you’ll want to, but when you do, just spread some aloe on.”

Lissa nodded and went off toward the bonfire circle, leaving Alex behind to get his bandage. The Leaders That Be instructed the assembled Families to attend Relief Society or Priesthood, as today was apparently “the Sabbath.” Lissa tried to ignore the fact that it was actually Thursday and went off toward the Relief Society clearing with her sisters. Ma Schwartz and Ma Green gave the lesson together, talking about what everyone could do to preserve the spirit of the Trek in their everyday lives when they went home. The lesson made her feel uncomfortable; worse yet was her assurance that had it been given the day before, she would have felt wonderful.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Part the fourth of an untitled half-satire half-serious short story about LDS teens on Trek

It was her first kiss. Even in that moment she was aware of it, her vague shame that it had taken her almost eighteen years to be kissed. But the shame melted away, replaced by heat and want and was that his tongue? They weren’t supposed to be doing that, she was sure, well, they weren’t supposed to be doing any of this but nothing was going to stop her, not after that conversation, the kind of conversation she’d wanted to have for so long, not threat of damnation or haunting passages from For the Strength of Youth floating through her head in President Packer’s voice, not even—yep, they were falling out of the tree.

Thud. “Aagh,” Justin grunted. He rolled over on the leaves. “Geez, my elbow.”

Lissa pushed herself off the ground. Her butt hurt like no other. She’d landed almost squarely on her tailbone. Thankfully they’d only been about eight feet in the air. She crawled over to Justin. “You ok?”

He smiled up at her, rubbing his left elbow. “Yeah. We’ll have to compare bruises tomorrow. This one’s gonna be legendary, I think.”

Lissa briefly considered the idea of showing Justin her bruise, which she knew would appear exactly between her buttcheeks, and discarded this bad idea in favor of a slightly less bad one. She leaned down and kissed him again. They sank into the leaves and for once no thought of scorpions or fire ants or poison oak entered Lissa’s head. His mouth was soft and she could smell him, boy-sweat and shampoo from their hair-washings earlier and dusty soil, an intoxicating perfume in the heady night. His wonderful cellist’s fingers were on her back, pulling her close. She sighed and wound her fingers in his hair. She felt warm all over, a slow spread of heat from every point of contact.

Something thunked onto her head and dampness burst out over her hair. Lissa sat up abruptly. “What--?”

The A&W soda can rolled to one side. It had toppled off the tree branch where she’d left it. She rubbed her head, scowling. Next to her Justin sat up as well. He didn’t look at her. After a moment they both stood, Lissa gathering the soda can and the crumpled Starbursts wrapper. She hated people who littered.

Neither said anything as they walked back toward the camp. At the first possible moment Justin split away from her, going to join a group of guys jostling one another at the water fountain. Lissa rubbed her arms and walked back to her Family’s camp. The night had grown oddly chilly and she snuggled down into her sleeping bag, pulling the fabric over her head so that no one could see her cry.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Part the third of an untitled half-satire half-serious short story about LDS teens on Trek

The dance ended. Lissa trudged back toward her Family camp. Her friends had disappeared off to their own families. They were all supposed to have prayer together and go to sleep, but everyone knew that on this, the last night of Trek, they would stay up, play Capture the Flag or Uno or Murder in the Dark, gossip with people they hadn’t seen in a while, and eat illicit goodies. Earlier Lissa’s mom had slipped her a roll of Starbursts and some A&W root beer.

Justin hadn’t asked her to dance. She hadn’t ground up the nerve to ask him. She’d danced with Alex and Trevor, with a guy from Cocoa who was about a foot shorter than her, and she and Becky and Lizzie had danced together until the bishop from Palm Bay had sternly told them to stop. She was angry at herself for her lack of courage. What year was it, after all? She could certainly ask a guy to dance. She was angry at Alex for telling her nonsense about how Justin liked her. And she was angry at Justin for coming to find to her, then ignoring her—yanking her out of that stupid canal like he was worried, then not asking her to dance.

A few yards away was the fire of her Family’s camp. Lissa stopped in only to grab her Starbursts and soda and to tell Pa Shannon she was planning on playing Capture the Flag, though she was planning no such thing. She headed for the low-hanging oak tree she’d found earlier. This time she climbed higher, into a broad branch that stretched out over the fenced pasture. She cracked open the root beer and began unwrapping her Starbursts.

As she munched on chemical deliciousness, a rustle sounded below her. Someone was walking around. She glanced down, squinting in the dark. It looked like Justin—he’d pinned a giant sunflower to his hat earlier in the day, which made him easy to recognize from above. He stopped and looked up. Too late Lissa wondered if he could see up her skirt, then decided that bloomers left quite a lot to the imagination.

He waved. “Hey!”

Lissa swallowed hurriedly and coughed, “Hey.” He set his hands on the bark of the oak and climbed up, perching awkwardly on the branch by her feet. “What are you doing up here?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.” She drew up her feet to give him more room. “I didn’t feel like playing Capture the Flag. Seems like kind of not exactly the smart thing to do…it’s so dark out here and, hello, there’s a barbed wire fence.”

“Bet you the rest of my M&Ms that someone runs into it.” He laughed. Instinctively Lissa grinned. His laugh was so nice, almost as musical as his cello playing. He was the best musician of any age in their stake. Her horrible traitorous brain wondered for a moment if that was why his hands were so nice, then took it a step further to the memory of last Christmas at stake conference, when he’d played “Carol of the Bells” on his cello, accompanied by violin and piano, and she’d had to remind herself not to stare at his legs and the instrument between them and the picture they presented.

For a moment they were quiet. Justin looked up through the oak leaves at the sky. “It really is dark out here. There are so many more stars than you can see at home.”

“Pretty scary,” Lissa said. “I like Star Trek and all, but I don’t really want to go into space.”

“You like Star Trek?” Justin asked. Then he laughed again. “Of course you do, you like everything cool.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” Lissa joked. “My tastes are about the opposite of cool. What lies has Alex been pouring in your ear?”

“It all seems accurate so far.” Justin glanced at her, then away to the stars again. “Alex said you guys and Lizzie went to see Florence and the Machine in Orlando. That’s pretty cool. I love them, but my parents hate concerts.”

 Lissa breathed in and out very slowly. He liked Florence too! The wretched humidity of the night seemed even worse. She swore she could feel his body heat next to her. She swung her legs over the side of the branch.

“You’re not leaving, are you? We haven’t even talked about Florence yet.” He said it like he was trying to joke, but Lissa thought his voice sounded strange. She slid her eyes sideways. His profile stood out against the moonlit field. “They’re really great. My parents never let me go to concerts.”

“Mine don’t really either,” Lissa said. “I actually got in trouble for going to that one, but I paid for the ticket with my own money, so…whatever. It was worth it.”

“Are they awesome live?” he asked. She nodded. “Man. I can’t wait to go to college in a real city where I can go to whatever concerts I want.”

“Me too,” Lissa said. “I’ll see Corinne Bailey Rae and Damien Rice and—I don’t know, everyone I’ve always wanted to see. I…” Her voice trailed away. She was afraid to say what she wanted to say. She swallowed, mouth dry. “It’s weird but I feel like—like I can feel the Spirit at concerts. Like how it’s supposed to feel.”

She had never said anything like that before, not out loud, hardly even to herself at night when she listened to “The Curse” on her headphones and felt like her chest was going to burst. And now Justin would know that she wasn’t the best choice of girl to hang out with. And he definitely wouldn’t like her.

The night was heavy and still, no hint of breeze. A ways off the sounds of the camp were audible. In the pasture kids darted around, yelling and laughing.

Justin touched her hand gingerly. After a moment, after she hadn’t moved her hand away, he said, “I know what you mean, Lissa.”

“But…” she whispered. “Your testimony, during the meeting before we left…”

She felt him shrug. “Sometimes I don’t feel anything. A lot of times. And a lot of times I feel things I’m not supposed to or I feel the right thing at the wrong time. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not what’s supposed to happen. You know?”

Lissa nodded. She was afraid to look at him, afraid it would break the spell. She had never heard anyone say things like this—things that she felt but knew were wrong—not even Becky, who skipped Sunday school and had kissed a boy in every ward in the stake and occasionally smoked cigarettes.

She turned her head and looked at Justin. He looked back and by some mutually-felt and unspoken agreement they leaned toward each other.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Part the second of an untitled half-satire half-serious short story about LDS teens on Trek

That night they gathered at Winter Quarters, which was a pine hammock bordering a stretch of fenced-in pasture. After a lunch of chicken stew cooked in their Dutch ovens, Lissa and her sisters went over to the hairwashing station. Her mother was there among the other women volunteers from various wards, and for some reason she felt shy as they hugged. Her mother was a reminder of the world outside, the world they would have to go back to once the Trek was over. For a little while longer she wanted to remain in the cocoon of unbearable heat, no deodorant, lukewarm Gatorade, and aching muscles. She felt closer to God and to the kids from all over the stake with whom she’d never spent much time or felt much in common with. Even the popular girls, like Sara and Ellen and beautiful, perfect Josie, seemed friendlier as they all ducked their heads under the spigots and washed out three days’ worth of sweat and dust.

And Justin was here, instead of across the stake in Palm Bay. Close enough to touch.

At the thought Lissa jerked her head upright and clocked her skull against the spigot. “Ouch.”

“Honey.” Lissa’s mom steadied her. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Lissa shrugged away. “I think I’m going to go learn how to shoot guns.”

She wandered over to the gun range, set up a safe distance away from the center of the camp, but it couldn’t hold her interest. The stick-pulling competition was no competition at all, with her height and arm strength. “Pioneer Idol” was an assault on her ears as Ma Atkins, who considered herself to have quite a voice, caterwauled a terrible rendition of some song off the Sons of Provo soundtrack. Lissa felt restless as she walked through the camp. Inside her warred two sets of feelings: the part of her that wanted more, that didn’t understand, that thought a lot of what Sister Staples said in Sunday school didn’t make sense at all, that liked boys and wanted to kiss boys—and the part that loved the closeness of her ward and the security of the scriptures, magnified by being out here on the ranch with only other people who believed the way she did.

She didn’t know what she felt, or wanted to feel. Her prayers weren’t being answered anymore…or maybe they never had been. Lissa stopped beneath an oak and climbed onto a thick branch that dragged close to the ground. She knew that when the week ended and she returned to the real world, the world waiting for her at Trek’s end, this would vanish. Her Family would disperse. She would no longer be close with the cool people from her ward and the rest of the stake. And Justin would never talk to her again.

“Hey Lissa.”

Her head snapped up. Speak of the devil and he would appear…Justin stood in front of her with one of his brothers, a lanky guy named Alex who was a friend from her ward. They slouched with hands shoved in their pockets, hats pushed back.

“Hey, uh, we’re all supposed to go over to the bonfire pit for the fireside,” Justin said.

Lissa stood up, brushing ants off her skirt. “There’s a dance afterward, right?”

“I believe you mean a hoedown,” Alex drawled. He made a little jigging movement as they walked. Lissa giggled.

“Right, of course, a hoedown. If only I’d brought my prettiest hoopskirt.” Hoopskirts were an old-timey thing, right?

“I like that pioneer style,” Justin joined in. They all laughed together. Lissa’s heart ached. They came to the bonfire pit and Justin swerved off to sit with his Family. Alex ignored Trek protocol and dropped down next to Lissa onto the blanket with the rest of the Shannon tribe. He nudged her in the ribs.

“Justin’s totally into you, dude.” Alex called everyone dude, regardless of sex.

Lissa just managed to keep her jaw from falling open. “What? What are you talking about?”

“Totally,” Alex repeated. “We were over at the blacksmith station making those “prairie diamond” things—“ He made air quotes. “—and I asked him who he was going to give his to and instead of, like, making a joke out of it he didn’t say anything.” Alex grinned and waggled his pale gingery eyebrows. Lissa craned her neck to see what Justin was doing, trying to be casual about it. He was talking to Sara and one of their brothers.

“Dude, you’re off,” Lissa muttered. “He’s always talking to Sara. Alison told me they went out a couple of times.”

“I call ‘em like I see ‘em, yo,” Alex said.

“Well, thanks for the analysis, Dr. Love.” Lissa rolled her eyes. Ma Shannon shushed them as President Lesley stepped up to the front.

She couldn’t concentrate on the fireside. By some miracle she kept herself from glancing over at Justin every ten seconds. She wanted the fireside to be over so that the dance could start—the hoedown, her brain sassed. Hoedown. Hoeing a garden. Garden hose. Pantyhose. Panties. Girls at school with jeans so low you could see their panties. Hos. That was what other girls and some guys called them. Hos.

Ho, like whore. Was that where the word came from? She wondered vaguely if there were any real whores in her hometown. It seemed too small to support a community of prostitutes. She winced at the bad words filling her head just then. Was she a ho? For wanting Justin’s hands to slip down her shoulders that morning in the canal? For not caring that he could see her boobs through her soaked shirt? For hoping he asked her to dance in a few minutes once the closing prayer had been said? For thinking about all the dark corners and hollows this camp had, behind giant old oak trees and across the pasture in the patch of thicker woods?

She was breathing too hard. Alex looked at her out of the corner of his eye, one eyebrow cocked. It was his specialty; he thought it made him look like a Bond villain. Lissa swallowed and shifted her weight on the blanket, folded her arms for the prayer. After Pa Lancaster had finished, everyone surged up and bolted toward the clearing where the dance was supposed to take place.

Lissa could already hear an R.E.M. song booming out of the speakers. She rolled her eyes—it was everyone’s least favorite amateur DJ, Danny from Melbourne who thought that being into music released when he was eight years old made him cool and retro. “Everybody Hurts” wasn’t even a love song, and who started off a dance with a slow song? Lissa followed her family at a leisurely pace. Along the way some friends from her ward, Becky, Lizzie, and Trevor, caught up to her. For the time being she allowed herself to be tumbled along in their wake of laughter, goofy dancing, and shouts of “More Ke$ha!” to DJ Danny.
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