Tuesday, 24 November 2009

And now for something completely unexpected...

Short on stature as I am, and inspiration as well of late...I have sort it where any modern denizen of the internet would...on facebook.
Among all the many, varied, and at times disturbing suggestions for things I could lend my obsessive eye to, the one I found most oddly compelling was the request for finding out why I decided to teach.
I could tell the rather sad tale of awaking with a pounding headache in a pleasant enough council flat in East London and realising that at 25 I still hadn't done anything with my life - except perhaps drink a prodigious amount of real ale.
And it would be a sad but true story.
I could talk about the fact that after seven years at University I was still completely unemployable and the only thing I'd ever done that I was good at (other than be a straight A student despite appearances)was convincing other people they could pass their exams.
Appearances are a funny thing. I slept through the most academically rigourous course in the final year of my BA. I know this because all of my notes trail off after two lines and because the lecturer told me. He also told me about his vasectomy, so perhaps he was not the most objective source of information.
I had become good at sleeping in lectures. In my first year the lovely primatologist used to stop and ask for the person next to me to shake me because my snoring was disturbing peoples learning.
But you have to sleep sometime and lectures seemed a nice quiet place for that to happen.
I could point out that for the first couple of years I was teaching and definitely through that first year of training people didn't laugh when I said I was a teacher, they looked aghast and hunted about for who they could call to complain about falling standards.
I didn't like teaching when I started. It was hard work. I had to get up early. People in the staffroom didn't like it when I suggested in a most colloquial of fashions that some time spent getting sexually acquainted with themselves would indeed be well-spent.
My first HOD tried to get me fired. If I remember correctly he had been a fairly regular receipient of my advice...My second HOD also tried for to get me fired. My third HOD broke down in tears and couldn't deliver his farewell speech...so I guess things got better over time.
15 years later I get up early and go to school. Earlier than I ever did when I was attending as a student and had to be physically removed from my bed.
I could wax lyrical about the teaching profession and its value. But it would be platitudes. And perhaps not even something I believe. I work with good people, who do a good job and I'm no gooder than any of them.
I watched another class graduate tonight. And although there weren't as many tears as when I read Euripides, there may have been a moment of watery eyes.
Its not why I decided to teach that's important. Its why I keep doing it that's the real story.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Narcissists in Tight Pants

Narcissus – the figure from classical mythology and not the charming flower named after him, was a boy so beautiful he fell in love with his own image. Now I don’t know any boys that pretty these days, but it’s a feeling that isn’t too foreign…

Aren’t we all just a little attracted to those aspects of ourselves we see in others? Or am I alone in this narcissism?

The thing is, I’ve been doing those “Which Firefly character are you?” quizzes. And 100% of tests tested brought the result…drum roll please…Captain Mal!. Yes, according to the highly scientific sciency stuff that quiz-makers do – I like to wear braces, push people into spacecraft engines and wear very tight pants. Very tight.

Shiny I say. I’m big and brave and self-sacrificing. Oh and moody, crap at relationships and with a tendency to acts of extreme violence. Apparently I’m also loyal, a great leader and pretty damn smart. The flipside – I have a thing for power, have lost my faith (in what, in what!?!) and I never clean my room.

Now while some of the above may fit and I’m prepared to wear the tight pants on this one; it got me to thinking. Its no secret that if I could swap ten years of time on Old Earth for 10 minutes with the Captain; I’d be signing up for it…so surely that would mean I’d identify with his potential love-interest? Surely…?

But what I’m identifying with instead are all the things I see in myself. And though I’ve never been faced with a horde of hungry Reavers, I reckon I can make a fair guess at what I’d do…Which leads me to the conclusion that I fancy the Captain not for the tightness of his pants but rather his psychological similarity to my own self-identified character traits.

So having self-diagnosed narcissic personality disorder, I got to thinking some more. And as so often happens when I let my mind wonder, it was slash I was thinking about.

I’ve put a lot of thought into what it is about slash that makes it so…compelling (yes, that’s the word I was looking for). And surely some sort of transferred wish-fulfilment must be right up there. So when I’m enjoying a bit of Mal/Simon or maybe even a dirty little piece of Mal/Jayne am I just being a voyeur and watching two bits of hotstuff at it? Or am I identifying with one of my BDHs? And which one?

And why, given I’m not a gay man, am I reading about acts I don’t even have the equipment to carry out?

I think the narcissism finally answers some of these age-old questions. If I identify as Mal but also want to get freaky with myMalself then it makes some sense to find him some sort of object to carry that lust out on. Because lets face it pages of the Captain self-“loving” just wouldn’t be that fun to read…though I’d be prepared to give it a go…for research purposes…

One way or another, I think the narcissic self wishes to have the experience of intimate relations with the beloved – the self as other - and one way of doing that is reading about the self/beloved getting it away in an enthusiastic manner.

And having established that, I’ll be accepting donations for the several years of therapy I clearly need.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Malcolm and Meursault – Existentialism in Space

Some might argue that the reason to watch Firefly is the substantial amount of eye-candy that Joss has kindly put in tightpants on screen for us. Others would assert that it is not so much the tight pants as the tight dialogue which is the real attraction. Or the pretty spaceship, or the great plotting.

I’d like to suggest that it is in fact two other p’s - the politics and the philosophy.

Back in the late 1970’s Terry Nation – the genius behind the best bits of Dr Who - pitched a new idea to the BBC – the Dirty Dozen in space. Bad (or at least morally ambiguous) men (and a few women, mainly in high-heeled boots), predominantly in black leather, on a mission. Blake’s 7 was born. The world’s most beautiful spaceship – the tri-hulled Liberator glided across our screens and our heroes – pretty big damn heroes if you ask me – set forth to free the universe from the tyranny of the totalitarian, mind-controlling Federation.

The eponymous Blake was no socialist revolutionary – more of a radical left democrat – but he was prepared to use whatever means necessary to unite the rebel planets and destroy the powers of evil. Hooray! Oh and he was brutal, potentially self-destructive and willing to sacrifice everything and everyone for his aims.

And like all great heroes – he had a side-kick, alter-ego, anti-hero along for the ride. Avon has an enduring appeal – from geeky tech-nerd in the second episode of the series, to gun-toting sex symbol in thigh high leather boots by the end of the four season run. It’s a Cinderella story of bad guy turned badder.

But what, you ask, has all this sci-fi nostalgia got to do with Captain Mal?

Well may you ask.

Because the first thing I thought as I watched my very first Firefly episode – was “OMG Joss is a B7 fan.” Now I cannot confirm this rumour – but I think the evidence is piling up.

There’s the real pretty boat, the real pretty girls – who range from competent to expert in the ability to kick your ass category, and the real pretty guys in tight pants. Ahhh, the tight pants.

But perhaps less superficially – there’s the bitter but committed bloke against the forces of evil in the ‘verse; the conspiracy theories; the constant running from totalitarian forces and the bleak humour.

Mal’s also no revolutionary socialist – he’s a freedom fighter, a rebel – he ends up taking the Alliance on not because of huge principles but because it becomes totally personal. Not so different from any number of contemporary national liberation struggles. And not so different from Blake.

So that’s the politics and the truly obscure references to 1980s pop culture dealt with – at least for now - but what about the philosophy? You were promised existentialism – where is the existentialism?

Never fear, the myth of Sisyphus is here.

Now I’m not going to argue that Malcolm is Meursault – that would be silly. Were Joss really channelling Camus, Mal would have been at it with Inara before the contract was even signed on the shuttle lease – Meursault was never a man for delayed gratification.

But if we consider the first line of The Outsider for a moment and imagine it in Joss’s world…and we consider the first episode of Firefly – the real first episode – Serenity – in a sense, a metaphorical one – it begins “The Browncoats died today.” Or maybe “His faith died today.” Too sentimental? Perhaps…

But there’s more. Meursault spends his last months in a tiny cell, waiting each morning for the executioner to arrive. His main pleasure, the tiny square of blue he can see through the high window. Can’t you hear him? “You can’t take the sky from me.”

Then there’s his final realisation that he was indeed happy – and what’s happiness if its not finding Serenity?

But this is pulling at straws. We all know where I’m really headed. The purposelessness of life, its lack of meaning, meaning achieved only temporarily and through the act of living and accepting the meaninglessness. Not just that, but the fact that we are indeed all islands, untouched by others except in the most superficial of ways, that we all do die alone.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Fillies, feminists and fierce women!

Apparently the racing type people who run important "nation stopping" events like that big horse race in Melbourne...are setting up some rules of ettiquette - so that women can behave "like ladies" and in a "feminine manner". It seems that stumbling drunkenly around Flemington, wearing one's shoes as bracelets and vomitting into gutters is not exactly the height of good manners - who knew?

Now, while I too would rather not see over-dressed young fillies showing too much thigh and too much stomach contents, I'm a little concerned about this lady-like thing.

In fact big alarm bells are going off in my head right now. Because as soon as people start talking about femininity and being a lady; the lectures about morality and a woman's place are not far behind.

Maybe this is just particularly in my head right now having spent Friday evening watching a modern operatic treatment of Medea. Medea - the original scorned woman - is a fierce, frightening portrayal of the female. And she's no lady!

Dusapin's opera, with its libretto in German, reconstructs Medea as a very modern woman, trying to re-find her own idenitity after her failed marriage. Her repetition that she was Jason's bitch and whore must echoe with many women's experience of marriage.

What might be a little new is her response to Jason's betrayal. When he trades up for the King's younger and presumably more nubile daughter, Medea refuses to take this lying down. Instead she decides that its payback time. Quite literally in fact.

Having killed her own brother to help Jason escape from Colchis in the first place, she decides he owes her at least one life - she decides to take two - those of her own children.

At a time when the chap who tossed one of his kids off the West Gate Bridge is going to court, the idea of child murder as revenge, must have special resonance. But in our modern age, its seldom the mums doing the killing. In fact in any age Medea stands out as a woman of such ferocious self-possession that she is able to make the calculations and restore a certain balance in the Universe - with some good old-fashioned stabby stabby.

By the end of Dusapin's opera, Medea cries out - I am Medea! She has re-gained her identity through the horrific and on-stage graphic murder of her children. Jason, who she no longer chooses to recognise, has had to pay the price for her brother's life, for her life and for his betrayal.

The Medea of Euripides is an extraordinary character - a child murderer made sympathetic by her dual plight as abandoned wife and despised refugee. Dusapin's Medea is a self-liberating feminist in a post- or perhaps pre-feminist world.

Far be it for me to advocate the murder of children as a means to self-liberation for women - after all there is a strong allegorical element here - but planning the demise of the new wife (in both versions Jason's new wife burns alive and collapses in a pool of her own blood and dissolving flesh); the punishment of the wayward man and most importantly the re-gaining of self achieved through these acts, seem an awful lot closer to the experience I want than ensuring I have low enough heels for the races that I don't need to remove them if I get "a little tipsy".

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Space Junk

There are things in the Big Black scarier than Reavers.

Three words. Real. Person. Slash.

One day, not so long ago, I’m floating through the space junk of the big ol’ fanfic ‘verse, looking, as always, for the elusive grail – a decent Mal/Simon where I’ll still believe its them even once the pants come off and I find this…

“Finally he half-heartedly asks Nathan to please stop, we're at work, dammit, but Nathan just smirks and pushes Sean against a wall.”

“Hmmm…” I think, “…new characters in the Whedonverse…?” So I read on. More fool I. By the time I’ve got to the end of the scenario I need to go and have a shower. Not because I’m all hot under the collar but because I want to scrub with a wirebrush in the hope that the last five minutes might wash away down the drain.

It’s true. I could have just flicked off the page as soon as I realised what was really going on, but these things are like watching a train wreck or picking a scab. It hurts, you want to turn away, but no, too late she cried.

This is a FUBAR little subculture. Not satisfied with having the Captain hump whatever’s standing/lying/kneeling still long enough on board ship; they’ve got the nice bloke that plays him at it too.

Sure, an actor’s public identity is as fictional as the characters they play – and the shipping that’s going on here is with these fictional personas – the Nathan or Sean or Alan as entity in someone’s head. So why am I so disturbed?

Because it does feel like I’m in someone’s head. Slashers, shippers and fanficers generally, listen up – I have my own grubby little fantasies – I got no business sharing yours.

Slash, the conventional kind, is about a shared universe and a shared canon. It’s the big what if? It’s the resolution of sexual tension, real or imagined or just slightly hinted at. It’s taking our heroes where no man has gone before.

Slash pushes the boundaries of character and let’s writers and readers identify with, control, contort these characters. And it’s all about voice. It has to sound like Mal, or Simon or Avon or Blake or Harry for that matter and gorramit if real person slash just can’t do that. Doesn’t want to do that. Is doing something altogether different.

Now there ain’t nothing wrong with folks having their fun…even if that fun is gay sex scenarios between the imagined avatars of real people…but why in the name of all that’s good and clean and right would anyone else want to read it?

Terentius once said “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” I know this because I now have it printed on a t-shirt. Even Reavers were human once…but none of this makes it any more right.

Out here in space, I often feel like no one can hear me scream, but I’ve found my place to stand. Real Person Slash is my line in the sand and damned if I’ll step over it.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Hack and Slash

It takes a couple of things to make good slash: people you might want to see naked; sex scenes that don't sound like mediocre porn; a pre-existing relationship generally of a non-sexual nature and realism. I want realism in my slash. I want to believe that these two characters could actually have been harbouring secret desires to investigate the insides of one another’s pants and I want to believe in them while I'm reading the resulting fun.

But it can only happen if there's a hint, just the tiniest hint of it there in the cannon.

And that's why I'm not buying all the Firefly slash I've had a mind to read. And I'm all kinds of raw about it.

Now like any normal person, I want to get Captain Mal's suspenders off him. I just don't believe that Simon, or Jayne or (god-forbid!!) Wash, does. I don't believe the great big mercenary with a penchant for seedy whores is actually hiding a secret desire for some tight little Captain ass. I don't believe that Simon is actually a simpering queen who clearly couldn't get it together with Kaylee only because he was actually warming Mal's bunk most nights. And I don't believe, not anywhere in the gorram 'verse, that Wash would rather be banging the Captain than Zoe.

And this is a very great pity, because I certainly don't want to be reading any of that Hetfic that pretends to be slash either.

The delight of slash is the fact that it’s inside the cannon and outside it at the same time. So why wasn’t Joss Whedon, one of the few people out there making TV who actually acknowledges the slashiness of some of his scenarios, able to inject that into Firefly?

It should work; there's even a bit of set-up - Mal looks distinctly uncomfortable when in Heart of Gold, Nandi asks him if he's "sly" and would maybe prefer one of her boy-whores - I'm happy to read this as coming-out angst - but not when its immediately followed by prolonged heterosexual activity of a very unslashy (and frankly out of character) nature. Joss, I love the Captain, but what were you thinking?

Maybe I’m being unfair blaming Joss for this problem. He’s made a good job of the set-up. Mal only “leans towards womenfolk.” Simon, with his girl-pretty face and long-lashes is a classic bottom and let’s face it brawny and bad-facial hair Jayne could have walked straight out of nasty 70’s porn.

So why can’t any of the many slashers I’ve been trying get it right? The characters often sound right and while they still have their clothes on, they respond right or at least up till the point when their eyes mist with passion and they start fumbling with one another’s gun belts. Leave the belt on Mal, leave the gorram gun on.

To illustrate, “Shuddering with desire, certain he must be dreaming without knowing it, Simon whispers, "Yesss." The word is barely out of his mouth when Mal lunges in for a vicious kiss. As he plunders Simon's pliant lips, he slides a leg between Simon's and grinds it against…” …you get the idea…

And it’s not just the adjectives I’ve got a problem with here…I just don’t believe it. And I don’t believe it because over and over again it’s the same scenario with only the tiniest of character set-up to justify a couple of pages of gay humping where the banging bodies could be anyone’s.

To all the Firefly slash writers out there guilty of these crimes against character – bloody stop it now! Dong ma?

I want a scenario I can believe. I want Mal heart sore and truthsome finding some comfort in a buddies arms, or just a little too drunk on U-Day to make it back to his own bunk. And I’m sorry, but Joss, you didn’t give us that buddy and so far my researches have found no re-working of Jayne or Simon or Wash by any well-meaning Firefly slasher that’s been able to make that happen.

And slash generally only works if our lovers are buddies or well-matched rivals. So in other fandoms – Blake/Avon, or Harry/Malfoy or for something a little more vanilla, Kirk/Spock.

I’m petulant. I’m upset. I want my slash and I want it now.