11 February 2016

A Study In Quick Characterization: The Dinner Scene From "You're Next"

While there are significant differences between print and visual media, writing is writing. Regardless of what kind of writing you're doing, you can learn by examining good (and bad!) examples of other's work.

For example, You're Next. It's a horror movie, but you don't have to watch the icky bits in order to see what I'm talking about here.

Today, I want to talk about the amazing characterization that occurs in just over five minutes of the film. (The meat of it is actually three and a half!)

There's no real setup needed - an extended family is getting together for dinner at the parental home. (The shorter 3'30" version will work, but this really is something you have to watch to get the impact. If the embed doesn't work for you in your country, head to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk8Ycxt5aNA

Once you've watched it the first time for the "story", rewind and watch it a second time. Pay close attention to how all the characters interact - their facial expressions, their body language, their tone of voice.

In this short scene we get a sense of who all these characters are - even if some of them aren't going to be with us for very much longer. They draw on expectations and stereotypes - but aren't

This clip is great, because none of these are super-famous stars - so we don't have the crutch of their prior roles and personas to fill in for actual characterization.  (You know, how Liam Neeson is the toughest middle aged guy ever.)  Further, for us print writers, being able to rewatch a clip like this gives us a great visual reference when we want to describe what's happening so that our character's heads aren't always just nodding.

This kind of quick characterization is a vital skill to learn. Think of the number of books or shows you and your friends read or watch because you're invested in the characters. With attention spans shortening, free time (and luxury spending) at a premium, getting your readers (or viewers) interested in and invested in your characters is something you cannot slack on.


10 February 2016

Too Little, Too Late: Anyone Want My #WFC2016 Membership?

I suppose I should be grateful. But I'm not.

After "Jason Sanford and his ilk" (that includes me) complained about the absolute lack of an accessibility or harassment policy for World Fantasy 2016 in Columbus, one finally got posted.

Not on the front page , but at the bottom of the registration page. Along with a more prominent notice that there's no refunds (they'll transfer it though, see below).

In contrast, WFC 2015, Penguicon, and MARCon have links on their front pages (with varying degrees of visibility) to their policies and codes of conduct.

I'm not grateful. I'm concerned. Concerned enough that I'm offering my membership to WFC2016 for the US$150 price that I paid for it.

Why am I so ungrateful?  There's a few reasons.

I don't know who is running WFC 2016

First, despite my explicit request to know who's running WFC 2016... it's not posted anywhere, and they sure as hell haven't e-mailed me. Who's the board? Who's the freaking con chair?

This is somewhat important to me, because you might remember a couple years ago when CONTEXT blew up in Columbus. It wasn't the policy that caused the problem there. It was the reaction by some of the members of the Board and lack of enforcing that policy. One of those people in particular, Dennis Palmer, is president of the board of SOLAE, which also sponsors MARCon, another Columbus convention. There's a lot of overlap in the folks who run sf/f conventions in Columbus (and Cincinnati, for that matter), so I've been a bit skittish for the last two years. Were the same people running things? I could only guess.

That mild worry got worse when I read WFC 2016's policy.


WFC2016's Policy Is Problematic

I got really concerned when I read the policy for WFC 2016, where it repeatedly makes the point "In order to take action, we need to know about any incident during the convention."

Let's get rid of the "But it's WFC, it doesn't recur!" straw man. If we're going to take that approach, then you are guaranteeing that any traveling convention is going to be a safe space for creepers and harassers. In which case, I'm not going.

Second, it puts a huge burden on the victim to be able to immediately feel safe enough to report any incidents. If you really need someone to unpack why that's a problem... well, that's another blog post itself. 

Given Columbus convention history, this repeated emphasis on immediate reporting is even more problematic. If you remember what happened at CONTEXT, such a clause would have made all the reports of harassment that spanned several years moot, and allowed the harassment to continue in future years. Another case that would have been significantly different - and allowed harassment to continue - is that of Jim Frenkel, where a pattern of behavior spanning years could have been simply ignored by convention staff because it didn't come to light during the hours of the convention.

Which is awfully convenient, don't you think?


The Emphasis Seems To Be On "Just Be Nice", Not Policy

Especially when it's not a guarantee that your report will be heard sympathetically. For example, there's plenty of people like "moritheil" who claim that harassment policies are apparently optional societal standards (full conversation at https://storify.com/uriel1998/societal-standards)
Or consider that Dennis Palmer - one of the people who were part of the problems handling sexual harassment that originally caused me to resign from CONTEXT  - was also the co-chair of Ops for that convention. Which means he would have possibly handled the harassment complaint.  The people who came to me specifically did so because they knew I would handle it with seriousness and not blow them off or take them lightly.

But when you've got a culture around your convention that seems to think that just saying "be nice" should be sufficient (examples: this screengrab from the closed FB group for WFC2016, or this rambling post by Shell Franklin1 in MARCon's FB group2), that doesn't make me feel safe.

Volunteer-Run or Not, You Have to Reach Out To Con-Goers

And don't give me that "it's just volunteers" crap. Penguicon has an exemplary policy, and it showed in both the number of attendees and the amount of fun people had.  Over the last few years, as more and more conventions have dealt with these issues, there are plenty of examples floating around - including examples of what not to do.  Hell, Jim Hines even put together a "Starter Kit" in case you had to build it from the ground up.

There isn't an excuse any longer. Having a policy, enforcing it, and doing both clearly enough that people trust you to do it is a minimum standard for any convention at this point.

My tolerance for this kind of shenanigans is just...gone. I don't have the luxury of whipsawing around and waiting to see if WFC2016 - or any other convention - can get its act together sufficiently that I and my friends feel safe there.

It isn't the congoer's jobs to investigate policy, enforcement, and see whether or not they'll be accepted and feel safe. It's the conrunner's jobs to reach out to congoers.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope that every last one of my fears is unfounded, that everything goes wonderfully, and in the awful event that there is an issue, that it's dealt with quickly and fairly.

But I'm sick of having to push and scream and yell for something so basic as ensuring that I and my friends are safe.

If you would like for me to transfer my WFC 2016 membership to you at the $150 price, please contact me via e-mail.

I don't want it anymore.

1According to SOLAE's page, Shell Franklin is associated with MARCon, but once again, no list of organizers on MARCon's actual page. There's a nice legal notice on MARCon's website, though. Priorities.

2Please note in that screengrab that I was asking (a second time) if that post was a policy, vaguebooking, or just an opinion. No clarification was given.

09 February 2016

Bands of Brothers: Comparing "The Watch" and "The World's End"

It is difficult to avoid comparing The Watch (2012) without thinking about Edgar Wright's The World's End (2013). There is a similarity between these two films, much in the same way that Zombieland (2009) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) are similar but very dissimilar films (I previously compared those films in 2009). With their very close release dates, both films seem to have a almost symbiotic relationship with the zeitgeist of society.

There are spoilers ahead; these posts should be avoided for those who have not seen either film.

Let's get this out of the way - while both films start with "normal" reality, both actually reveal that there's a covert alien invasion that has largely already taken place before the films begin.

This is really where the two films diverge

Of course, you do have the expected differences between British and American comedies.  The American comedy is far more reliant upon gross out humor, a bit of awkwardness around gender identity and sexual orientation, and the like.

But that is not the most fundamental difference between these two films.

Ultimately, The World's End is about a band of brothers - once inseparable, then diverged by life, and briefly brought back together again by sheer force of will. But as the film unfolds, the friends slowly become parted again. Their ways of life have taken them in different directions, no matter how much you may wish to recapture that initial camaraderie. By the end of the film all of the main characters are very different places, both emotionally, physically, and sometimes whether or not they're living or not.

In contrast, The Watch starts with off with a bunch of hapless losers who we are invited to make fun of. They're held up as losers, misfits, bad fathers, and incompetent husbands. Over the course of the film we see these individuals become a team, face their individual fears and weaknesses and to come together. There is a happy ending of fusion, where society has been literally formed under adversity, inspiring everyone into an amalgam of rapport and common understanding.  The father reconciles with his daughter (though with a very sex-negative message), the husband comes clean with his wife and saves his marriage, an alien realizes what's important (er...interspecies sex?), and the misfit rejected cop is recognized as better than the (er....incompetent) existent police force.

This is so starkly different than the end of The World's End, that I think it highlights the differences between both the sensibilities of American and English filmmakers and filmgoers.

That is not to say that either of these films is bad. Both films are enjoyable in their own right. If you do not mind the gross-out humor (and a few "I'll do gay things if I have to" so-called jokes) or off-color jokes that pepper The Watch, I'd recommend watching both movies to see firsthand the differences in approach to humor. For writers especially, seeing how different people handle similar material is a great way to really learn about the craft.

What these films say about our sensibilities as filmgoers, as Englishman, as Americans I leave as an exercise to the reader.